Sexuality and Spirituality


The Issue

Issues of sexuality are of prime importance to most college students today. Whether we engage in or abstain from sexual intercourse, sexual decision making is more than likely a part of our college life, from hand holding to kissing and from slow dancing to sexual intercourse. Sexuality is an integral part of who we are as persons and is inextricably bound together with our spirituality. Yet, for too long the Church has ignored the importance of accepting sexuality as a large part of who we are. This packet piece is designed to help college students reflect on the relationship between sexuality and spirituality and to begin to think about incorporating responsible and healthy sexual decision-making into our lives.

What is Sexuality?

For many young people raised in the church sexuality has been "taboo." But the taboo is not about our sexuality. Instead, it is about sex, the actual physical act of sexual intercourse, and our sexuality has much more to do with who we are than merely engaging in sexual intercourse. In his book, Between Two Gardens, James Nelson defines sexuality as "our way of being in the world as male and female persons," (p.5). Sexuality is about behavior and attitudes about our selves, our bodies and those of others. Our sexuality encompasses those we are primarily attracted to and the ways we interact with others.

Sexuality also encompasses but should not be confused with sensuality. Sensuality is that part of our being that is physically and sexually attracted to another person, that part of our sexuality that responds to the senses-to touch, taste, smell, sight and sound. Some people refer to sensuality as desire. Sensuality is a healthy and important part of sexuality, as long as we remember that it is only part of who we are as sexual beings.

Above all else, it is important to remember that our sexuality is part of God's gift to us. Most other species experience their sexuality in procreative cycles. Yet, to humanity was given the ability to experience our sexuality as life-affirming and life-building, and as procreative as well. Our sexuality is part of how we interact with other people in our lives, particularly when we are in relationship with one other special person. As a gift from God we must learn how to respect and honor ourselves and each other as sexual beings. Something that is not always easy in a sex-saturated world such as our own.

What is Spirituality?

Many things that we do help to define our spirituality: our prayer life, our community of faith and how we interact with them, our relationship with God. These are just a few of the obvious, concrete pieces of our spirituality. But our spirituality is also about who we are as beings in this world and how we relate to both the people and the creation that surrounds us. Our spirituality is about the relationships that we create and the life that flows through them and how we live our lives as children of faith. In the book, "The Feminine Face of God," Anderson and Hopkins write, "Relationship that does not separate and divide but connects and brings together spirit and flesh, human beings and other forms of life, God and matter, is precisely what women described to us as the heart of the spiritual in their lives," (p. 17).

Sexuality and Spirituality?

The connections between our spirituality and our sexuality are numerous. They are both primarily about our way of being in the world and in the relationships that we create and the lives that we lead. James Nelson states the connection between the two in this way, "The intimate relation ... is evident if one believes, as I do, that sexuality is both a symbol and a means of communication and communion. The mystery of sexuality is the mystery of the human need to reach out for the physical and spiritual embrace of others. Sexuality thus expresses God's intention that people find authentic humanness not in isolation but in relationship. In sum, sexuality always involves much more than what we do with our genitals. More fundamentally, it is who we are as body-selves who experience the emotional, cognitive, physical and spiritual need for intimate communion, both creaturely and divine." (Between Two Gardens, p.6)

A Brief History of Sexuality and Spirituality

For many people who grow up in the church, sexuality is not a topic that is easily discussed. That makes it even more difficult for single young adults to talk about responsible sexual decision-making. For many years the church has had a "just say no" policy or a "let's ignore it" policy. But most college students know that decisions about issues concerning our sexuality are not that easy and they don't go away. To be able to discuss our sexuality responsibly and its connection to our spirituality, it is important to understand some of the history that surrounds this topic.

The Christian tradition has a long history of separating sexuality from spirituality. The historic roots of this phenomenon date back to the formative days of Christian history. In the Greco-Roman world in which Christianity was born, there was a prevailing spiritualistic dualism that created a body-spirit split. This combined with a Jewish patriarchal dualism that separated men and women. The resultant dualistic understanding of humanity assumed the superior part (men, spirit) was destined to lead and discipline the inferior part (women, body). These prevailing beliefs influenced the first five centuries of Christian history as the Church "fathers" wrote negatively with regard to issues that dealt with the body, including sexuality, and with women. The spirit was considered part of God's good creation and our body and sexuality were considered as part of humanity's fallen nature.

The Reformation brought about a few advances in the church's prevailing dualistic tendencies. Prior to the Reformation, celibacy and virginity were upheld as the ideal lifestyle models. It was recognized that not all people could maintain a celibate life, and therefore marriage was an acceptable outlet for sexual expression, but it was not seen as quite as "holy" a state as celibacy. With a new emphasis on "justification by grace rather than by virtue or works of law" both Luther and Calvin were able to uphold the institution of marriage as equal to the status of celibacy and virginity (Embodiment, James Nelson p.54-55). Yet Luther still saw every sexual act as sinful and part of humanity's fallen nature. Calvin was more progressive in his belief that sex "could have constructive effects," but felt that it was not really to be enjoyed by the spouses (Embodiment, James Nelson p. 55-56). Each still held firmly to patriarchal dualisms that saw the woman as the man's helper, bearer of his children and provider of sexual relief (Embodiment, James Nelson p. 55).

It was not until the nineteenth century that the church began to look toward sexual intercourse as a bond of intimacy and relationship that was not primarily rooted in reproduction. As women and men began to have access to more reliable forms of birth control, the pleasure and intimacy of sexual relationships could be explored without the added dimension of accidental pregnancy.

In this age when the majority of our peers are sexually active and the media floods our sensibilities with sexual drama and intrigue, it is often hard to know how to make the "right" decision when it comes to our own sexual activity. In keeping with the Reformed tradition these decisions are yours alone to make remembering that "God alone is Lord of the conscious." But, that doesn't mean that these decisions should be made alone. When we use the phrase "God alone is Lord of the conscious," we mean that ultimately you are responsible solely to God for your actions and activities in this world. This does not mean that you need to resolve important moral dilemmas and make life affecting decisions in isolation. Particularly in relation to decisions regarding sexual activity, it is important to involve your partner in your decision making process. It is also important for each partner to respect the other's feelings and decisions regarding sexual expression and to realize that pressuring someone into making a decision is not a mutual or a healthy decision. Other people who might be helpful include a pastor or counselor, a parent or mentor and also close friends with whom you feel comfortable. When and if the choice is made to become sexually active it is essential that people educate themselves about various birth control methods and about the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, particulary (sic) the HIV virus.

The Song of Songs

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!

For your love is better than wine,

your annointing oils are fragrant,

your name is perfume poured out;

therefore the maidens love you.

Song of Songs 1: 1-3

One of. the least known books of the Bible, the Song of Songs, is a book that offers us an interesting and very different vision of sexuality than most other parts of scripture. The Song of Songs is a collection of love poems and songs that are exchanged between two lovers. As the nature of their relationship is revealed in the book, it seems probable that they we re not married and that there were prevailing cultural reasons that they should not even be together.

Yet, in reading the words they share with one another we are given a glimpse of relationship and desire that is utterly sensuous and mutual. Each partner delights not only in the physical presence of their lover, but also in the taste, smell, sound and touch of the lover's being. The tenderness and caring of their lovemaking is described in detail as each lover sings praise to their partner. These words of love, affection and passion can serve as a guide for what it means to live in right

relation. As an example for us, this couple does not view their sexuality as sinful or disgraceful but instead as joyous and life-giving. Neither do they compartmentalize their sexuality into one corner of their being, but they feel how each of their senses and different parts of their being are incorporated into the whole love that they share.

For Discussion

Read the book Song of Songs aloud (or a portion of it) and discuss the following questions:

1. Were you aware that this book was part of the Bible? If yes, in what context had you previously read or studied Song of Songs? If no, why do think you have been unaware of this book?

2. Does it surprise you that this is in the Bible? Why or why not?

3. How does this compare to other messages you have gotten from the church or the Bible about sexuality?

4. How would you describe the voice or character of the female in Song of Songs?

5. How would you describe the voice or character of the male in Song of Songs?

6. How would you describe their relationship?

7. What about their experience is relevant to your own experience of sexuality? (If the group does not feel comfortable talking about this openly you may have them journal their answers privately - you may then want to share the anonymous written reactions or go on to another topic)

Exploring Sexuality

A lot of sexual behavior during college is about exploration. Of course dating is about socializing, relaxing and having fun, but dating is also a mutual process of trying to build relationships and seeing how compatible we are with different people. It's about finding out who excites us - emotionally, intellectually and physically. Friendships function in a similar way. We get to know others by building relationships with people we are attracted to. Exploration is also a part of learning how to be a good friend and learning how to choose friends wisely. Part of the exploration process is about finding out just what our spiritual needs are and how we can fulfill them and who we are attracted to sexually. The story that follows is one woman's story of her exploration.

I had not been in a relationship for quite some time and was becoming very discouraged and lonely. I have always had this void, or hole inside of me that I can only describe as emptiness. I dream of finding someone that I can share my life with. The little everyday things, but the big things too, like how confusing God is to me and how I can't figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Someone who knows me well enough to know when I'm depressed and cares enough to try to cheer me up. I thought I would never find anyone, but now that has changed.

I met a truly wonderful woman this past year and felt very connected with her on an emotional and spiritual level. She was smart and seemed so together and I felt a deep intensity toward her. One of the most difficult things I've ever had to deal with was my sexuality and the love I felt for this woman. How was I to discern just what I was feeling? Can a woman fill my void, meet my needs and make me feel like a whole person again? In her presence I just felt electric, there was a spark of life in me that I had never experienced and I didn't know what it meant. Was it a sexual response I was having or was this a spiritual friendship that touched us both in our souls? I realized I had a crush on her and (oh, my God) I had to decide, "Do I tell her how I feel toward her? Do I allow myself to become completely vulnerable?"

Somehow I found the courage deep inside of my soul to share my feelings with her. It didn't freak her out or anything. She was so supportive and told me that my feelings were OK! We talked for hours and I told her about many of my fears and insecurities, she even held me when I was in my most vulnerable state.

Well, my void has disappeared and I actually feel whole! The support and love I felt around her filled my soul with peace and understanding. That, I believe, is grace in its purest form. I've always heard that God works in mysterious ways, but now I've come to experience it! God is letting me know that it doesn't matter whether I have a relationship with a man or a woman, just as long as I remember that God is the center of the love. God is love. It seems that when a person is at their lowest, something incredible happens to shine light upon the situation. I'm trusting it is God who is lighting the way for us.

For discussion

1. Encourage anyone who is willing to share their own stories. If people prefer anonymity, consider spending a few minutes with everyone writing a story, mix them up and take turns reading them.

2. How do you feel about this young woman's struggle? Why?

3. Has anything similar happened to you? Would you like to share it?

4. During the exploration stages of our lives it is often common for both heterosexual and homosexual people to be attracted to or have crush on someone of their same gender. Have you ever felt attracted to a member of the same gender? How did it make you feel? Why?

5. How do you feel about her statement, "God is letting me know that it doesn't matter whether I have a relationship with a man or a woman, just as long as I remember that God is the center of the love."?

6. Do you think that this experience makes the young woman a lesbian? Why or why not?

7. Have you ever experienced God working through another person in your life? Describe the experience.

Separating sexuality from spirituality

When we choose to share our sexuality with another person in the context of a loving and caring relationship of commitment and integrity the experience can deepen the relationship in profound ways. The intimate exchange of a sexual embrace and the love that is shared between two people can bring us to new understandings of our spirituality and how it is connected with our sexuality. Some people choose to wait and share this with the person they will marry; some people choose to become sexually active within the context of a relationship; some people never make a conscious choice, but become sexually active without giving it much thought; and some are not, given the option to choose.

Often for those who do not make conscious decisions about sexual activity, their sexuality becomes separated from their spirituality, and they may feel a sense of alienation and separation from the Divine. They may have a hard time building and maintaining friendships because their capacity to care deeply about another is in conflict with their desire for physical gratification. The following is Monica's story of sexual alienation:

I recently ended a relationship in which my boyfriend, Jason, kept me in a constant state of uncertainty. With his teasing and joking he made me feel unworthy and unloved. Before this relationship I had a pretty good self-esteem and a good idea about what a healthy relationship should be. I had experienced sex as an enjoyable, unique and moving experience when I was in a relationship where there was mutual respect, intimacy and love. I knew that making love can deepen a relationship. But in the aftermath of my relationship with Jason, I found that having sex can also be disappointing, awkward and damaging. The emotional abuse that I sustained in that relationship was so subtle and gradual that when I finally ended the relationship and realized how much damage was inflicted on my self-esteem in some ways it was already too late.

After the break-up I had a series of one-nightstands. I saw them as harmless fun and they suspended the pain. It didn't really matter to me who I was with as long as someone was there. The more often that it happened the easier it got to keep my spirituality apart from my sexuality. Sex was something I experienced as a physical activity and I tried to convince myself that I was liberated and free to explore my sexual self. I soon realized that I was trying to distance myself from my feelings for Jason and prove to myself that I was still in control of my emotions. But I wasn't really. I would wake up in the mornings and wonder why I felt nothing for this guy who was in my bed and I would realize that I still felt empty inside. I was looking for reassurance that I was special and desirable, but after most of my sexual encounters I just felt empty inside. In the end I still had to deal with the feelings of insecurity and self-worth. I also had to deal with the fact that I hadn't respected myself and my body, and I had treated others that way too.

I can't say that I regret that relationship or the period of time after it, because I learned such important lessons and I have gained a much greater understanding of myself, my sexuality, and my spirituality. Every day is a struggle though, and I still have feelings that I need to work through. I think that it is important for us not to condemn ourselves or others who separate themselves from their sexual activity. If we explore and try to understand the feelings that drive our behavior we can start to deal with our insecurities and fears. just as a relationship to God involves our whole self, our heart, our mind, and our body, so should our sexuality. This is where we will experience to the fullest, one of God's greatest gifts to us.

For discussion

1. Why do you think Monica began "sleeping around"?

2. How did her relationship with Jason affect that change in her behavior?

3. Have you or any of your friends ever regretted having sex with someone? Why? What made you or them agree to have sex with that person?

4. What do you think sexuality is like for people who just let it happen and don't make conscious decisions about becoming sexually active?

5. What are healthier ways in which Monica could have faced her problems?

6. Have you ever been in a relationship in which someone devalued or lowered your own sense of self-esteem?

7. Has low self-esteem ever caused you to abuse your own body? In what ways?

8. Knowing that we are all created in God's image and that we are all loved by the Creator, what are ways we as Christians can help people build self-esteem? How can we reach out to friends and others who are physically self-abusive?

Sexual Alienation and Abuse

There is another type of alienation over which we have no control and that is alienation that is imposed as a result of sexual abuse. Abusive sexual relationships include date rape, incest and battery. Wife and girlfriend battery can happen anywhere and the college campus is no exception, nor is it solely a heterosexual problem. Physical abuse of this nature is often hard for victims to acknowledge. Victims often feel it is easier to write it off as an isolated incident or to convince themselves it will not happen again rather than to admit that their partner has a pattern of physically abusing them. It is also important to acknowledge that any time there is an incident of physical violence abuse has occurred, even if it is an isolated incident. If you think someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, try to help them acknowledge their reality so they can seek help. If you are a victim of domestic violence, look for help from your chaplain or campus minister, dean of students, a good friend or a domestic violence center. The abuse will not stop on its own.

Incest is another reality that many victims find difficult to acknowledge. In fact it is not uncommon for victims to repress their memories of the abuse for years. Regardless of whether the experience is remembered or repressed, research shows that the victim's way of understanding and living her/his sexuality will be affected. Incest often brings with it the inability to trust or to form genuine lasting relationships. This alienation from self, family and others can also extend to alienation from God and from the victim's own sexuality. The healing journey to becoming a survivor of incest can help victims begin to put their lives back together. If you are a victim of incest, seeking out counseling can help you begin to put the pieces of your sexuality back together along with your spirituality.

Date or acquaintance rape is a leading problem for many college women. This deep violation of one's personhood and sexuality can often lead to alienation from and anger toward God. For many young women their spirituality is wounded because of a sexual attack and they often have a hard time learning to trust others and God again. The story that follows shares one young woman's experience of having her sexuality and spirituality ripped apart.

I was 19 years old and he was 25. He was my "Prince Charming". . . "a real gentleman," my friends told me. He was just what I needed after the end of a long relationship. Someone I could talk to, someone I could dance, laugh, and have fun with. He was someone I thought would be a great date. He was also someone who took away a sacred part of me.

We went to different colleges and had been introduced through mutual friends. I was so honored and flattered when he asked me to his college formal because we had only been dating three weeks. As I think back on it, the dance itself is a blur now. I remember hearing the music and laughing and drinking with my friends. My date swirled me around among a flash of colors and noises. Then the scene changes to a hotel room. All of my friends were there but just as quickly as they came, they were gone. My date and I were alone. I remember falling into an uneasy, exhausted sleep.

Suddenly I awoke to my date on top of me and inside of me. What is going on, I thought? This isn't happening to me. I was frozen with terror and couldn't move. The word NO burned on my lips, but I was paralyzed and couldn't speak. I wanted to die. I was full of questions and emotions. Confusion, bitterness, sadness, hatred. How could I have so many thoughts in my head yet be so empty inside at the same time? The questions did not stop there. I began questioning God. Was God not supposed to watch over me and protect me? Why was this allowed to happen?

For discussion

1. What are your initial reactions to the story?

2. Do you know women who have been date raped?

3. What do you think about the way she questions God? Where was God during this attack?

4. How is date rape different from consensual sex? Is it different for both people or only the person being raped? In what way?

5. How do you think that sexuality and spirituality fit together?

6. Do you think there are parallels between the example of alienation in this story and the previous example of alienation caused by not making conscious choices about sexuality?

7. The Bible is full of stories of about rape. Read 2 Samuel 13: 1-14. Although this is a situation of incest, what are parallels with date rape? Why do you think this story is in the Bible? What does it have to teach us today about sexual violence?

8. Because this is a problem that will not stop until men are also educated on the subject, it is important to include men in discussions surrounding this topic. Consider studying this issue in a mixed gender group.

Acceptance of self

Part of the process of exploration, maturing and coming into adulthood is to begin to accept ourselves for who we are and to stop trying to change to meet external expectations. This process can be painful as we begin to accept things about ourselves that aren't always easy. As women, one of the biggest things we must come to terms with accepting to be comfortable with who we are is our own body. As members of a culture that does more to exploit women's bodies than to celebrate them, this is often very difficult, but it is an acceptance that can help us grow into much richer and more abundant lives.

Another issue that some women begin to accept as they mature is the fact that they are lesbian or bisexual. This too can be a painful process, unfortunately, more particularly if they are Christian. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), along with many other mainline denominations, still refuses to ordain homosexuals, and while they have denounced homophobia (the fear and hatred of gays and lesbians) and have called for the Church to study the issue of homosexuality many gay and lesbian people experience some of their most profound alienation and abuse within the church from people who call themselves Christian. In keeping with the General Assembly's directive to study the issue of homosexuality, the following story tells one young woman's struggle to accept herself as a lesbian in the context of a Church that refuses to accept her ministry because she is lesbian.

When we're really young, we have crushes on girls, but then we're supposed to grow out of it. We read books about how girl meets boy and boy meets girl, except I could never finish those books. When I was young I always wanted to grow up and live with my best girlfriend, and that feeling never changed as I grew older. I didn't think it was weird until my church began to say that it's sick and perverted. Well, it seems normal to me and I think it's normal and healthy to be yourself, whether you're gay or straight. What's really important is that we learn to like ourselves. Isn't that what we learned in Sunday school: "Jesus Loves You, this we know, for the Bible tells us so" and "love your neighbor as yourself"? They forgot to add, "unless you are gay or lesbian."

Now that I am older I have watched my spirituality/sexuality become a battlefield within the Presbyterian Church (USA). Since coming out as a lesbian, my personal spirituality, relationship with God, and my sense of calling have only grown stronger. As I come to know and love myself better, I come to know and love the One who created me better. By finding out/embracing who I am, I had a conversion experience that has enabled me to do more in ministry because I understand myself better. I accepted all of me, therefore I have more to bring to my ministry. My life is dedicated to the God that helps me live my life that way. It makes sense, right?

Not to my Church, it doesn't. I think on the whole subject of sexuality, none of us deserve the misinformation, lack of support, and silence we get from our church. I think it's something to think about as we grow to claim different types of voices is the Church. What kind of a place do we want? One where we are safe to be honest about a variety of things... safe to bring our WHOLE selves to God... and to bring our WHOLE gifts to the Church?, or one where we're supposed to hide parts of ourselves.... The church cannot be happy and spiritually fulfilled until it opens itself up and can embrace people it has excluded solely on the basis of sexual orientation. I am tired of being excluded by my own church. I cannot separate the political from the personal. I am a battlefield.

For discussion

1. What do you think about her statement, "I think it's normal and healthy to be yourself, whether you're gay or straight."?

2. How do you think Jesus' mandate to "love your neighbor as yourself" applies to gays and lesbians?

3. What do you think Jesus would have to say about this issue if he were here today? Do you think the Church is being faithful to Jesus' practice of radically inclusive ministry with the oppressed and outcast of society? Why or why not?

4. Reread the paragraph about how she comes to love and accept herself. Does this have any significance for your life? What are things that you would like to be able to accept about yourself in order to become more whole?

5. What do you think about her question, "What kind of a place do we want?" What kind of a church do you want?

6. Have you ever felt like a battlefield, caught between the church and who you are? In what way?

Responsible decision-making

It's a sin for the Church to remain silent about responsible sexual decision-making when it is obvious that young people are sexually active. Part of the desire of this resource is to provide a context within which issues of sexuality, spirituality and responsible decision making can take place. We have already talked previously about sharing our sexuality with another person in the context of a loving and caring relationship of commitment and integrity. When we are in relation with someone and that bond is based on mutual respect and love it is called right relation. Being in right relation is something that can only be determined by those people in the relationship. When you are in right relation, no one is harm6d by your relationship.

Establishing right relation takes time and effort and a lot of communication. If you are in right relationship and are thinking about becoming sexually active, you will discuss the situation with your partner before making a decision. If you are too embarrassed to discuss sexual intimacy, then it is probably a sign that your relationship is not ready to foster and nourish that kind of sharing.

Guilt can be a powerful motivator in relation to our sexuality. Guilt is not a healthy part of right relation and mutuality. If you are feeling guilty about having sex, chances are you are not ready or not comfortable with becoming sexually active. Spend some time reflecting on what it is you really want and need and see if you can come up with more healthy ways to fill your needs.

There are many ways to answer the question of whether or not to become sexually active. Don't let yourself be pressured into it before you are ready and never pressure someone else to have sex with you. Celibacy, abstinence, waiting until marriage, masturbation, sexual intimacy - these can all be responsible sexual choices if they are made in the right context with prayerful consideration. The following are two young women's stories of their decision-making:

Story #1: Beth

Tim and I began dating during high school. We talked for hours on end about everything - our interests, our families, our personal goals. We shared things with each other that we had never told anyone else. Neither Tim nor I had ever been in love until we met one another and we each knew that our relationship was special.

It came time for us to face a very important decision, how did we feel about sexual intercourse? I was raised in the Presbyterian Church and had always shared a special relationship with the Lord. I had never made love with anyone and I promised myself that I would wait until I met someone I truly loved, someone I could envision a future life with. Tim was not particularly religious, but when we talked about intercourse, he made it clear he was willing to wait until I was ready, even if that meant until after we were married.

I knew that Tim was ready and that it was time for me to make a decision. I knew I was responsible for my actions and I wanted to make a conscious decision instead of letting a situation get out of hand and allowing the decision to be made based on physical desire. I knew that I was in love with Tim and that I was capable of both being strong in my faith and expressing my love and affection to Tim. My religious convictions are important to Me, I believe in the grace of God's love and that God alone is "Lord of the conscience." I thought and prayed a whole lot about my options and I asked myself why I wanted to become sexually intimate with Tim. I believed that by sharing intimately with Tim, I was not intentionally committing a sin or that Tim and I were bad people. I believed in my judgment and that as a responsible adult, I was making an informed decision.

In making love to Tim, I understood that in many eyes, I would be going against the Christian teachings and what is written in the Bible. This was a difficult position to defend. Not to mention that I also struggled with other passages in the Bible concerning homosexuality, the conduct of woman, and divorce. It was particularly difficult for me, because I believe that the Bible is the word of God and I believe in following the example of Jesus. However, when I read scripture, I always try to note what the author was trying to convey and to appreciate what the message was according to the context and time the piece was written. I view the messages of the Bible to be very helpful and relevant to my society. However, I also understood that there are issues of both long ago and today that are uniquely distinct to the particular period of time.

Overall, I knew that I loved Tim, and that I wanted to share intimately this love with the one person in the world that I truly loved. Moreover, I knew I held high morals and had come to this decision by careful evaluation. I did not feel that by making love to Tim, it would change my spirituality or that my relationship with the Lord would be affected. I felt a sense of control over my own sexuality and felt that I had a voice in making the decision. I knew that in making love with Tim I wanted to expand our relationship so that we would be sharing a new intimate part of our lives with one another. I didn't think that God would disapprove, even if members of my congregation would.

For Discussion

1. Do you think sex before marriage is okay? How do you support your position biblically or theologically?

2. In what ways do you agree or disagree with the method presented here for making responsible sexual decisions?

3. Discuss what you think "right relation" is? Does that concept makes sense to you?

4. How do you feel about the way Beth interpreted the scriptures?

5. Are there any scripture passages that you find difficult? Which ones? Why?

6. What do you think about Tim's involvement with the decision?

7. What kind of decision-making process do you think Tim went through?

8. What do you think the Bible means by the term "promiscuity"? Would you define Beth and Tim's relationship as promiscuous? Why or why not?

Story #2: Nicole

After we had been dating for a while, Jack and I started to discuss our relationship: how it could grow stronger and where did we see it going? We agreed that we loved and cared deeply about each other and might eventually get married. We also found aspects of our relationship that needed help and issues that needed further discussion. We worked on handling arguments better, he tried to be more conscientious of my needs, and I tried to curb my stubbornness.

We also had many talks about making love and what it would mean for our relationship. Some of these talks were uncomfortable for both of us and weren't by any means easy. Other times we enjoyed a laughing banter. The discussions went around several topics: our families, our faith, and ourselves. My mother had always told me that both she and my father had been virgins on their wedding night, but I knew that she would be understanding if I made a different choice. Jack's family seemed to be unwilling or uncomfortable about discussing these things with him. Neither one of us was sure how our faith fit into our relationship, and we were at very different places in our spiritual growth. As for ourselves, we both believed that making love would be a very intimate, powerful step. Each of us wanted the experience to be with a very special person and had not had sex in other relationships because of that.

The conclusion we reached was that we did not have a strong reason not to have sex, but that didn't mean we were ready either. The conversations helped us to better understand each other's needs, struggles and desires and they will be ongoing. Maybe we just need a little more time.

For Discussion

1. What do you think about the relationship that Jack and Nicole share?

2. How do you feel about the decision-making process they went through?

3. Have you talked with your parents about issues like these? What happened? If you haven't, why not?

4. Have you ever had conversations with a partner about becoming sexually active? What were theylike?

5. Do you feel it is important to have conversations like Jack and Nicole? Why or why not?

6. What do you think Jesus would have to say to us today about sexuality and spirituality?

How has the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. responded?

In 1987 a General Assembly Special Committee was formed to study the issue of human sexuality. This special committee reported to the 203rd General Assembly in 1991 with a report, "Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality and Social justice. There was also a minority report submitted by six members of the seventeen member committee. While neither report of the special committee was adopted by the General Assembly as official church policy, both documents were recommended to churches for study of the issue of human sexuality.

At the 1993 General Assembly the issue of the ordination of homosexual clergy prompted the GA to declare a three year period from 1993 - 1996 in which to prayerfully study and dialogue about the issue of homosexuality and the church.

Suggestions for Action

1 Hold a symposium on sexuality and spirituality. Invite speakers and discussion leaders to provide opportunities for members of your campus community to explore issues of sexuality in the context of their faith.

2. Have a six-week study group to talk about sexuality and religion. Use this packet piece and the resources listed below to facilitate discussion. Try to integrate the sharing of personal experience with perspectives on faith and sexual issues. Include prayer and worship experiences

in your sessions.

3. Meet with your pastor or college chaplain to discuss the church's understanding of sexuality and spirituality. If you attend a local church, offer to assist the pastor in providing an educational forum for the congregation on sexual issues.

4. Initiate conversation on campus between a gay/ lesbian /bisexual group and a Christian group. Provide the leadership to facilitate opportunities for gay, straight, and bisexual persons to discuss issues of faith and sexuality. Read some books on gay, lesbian and bisexual spirituality and discuss them in a group.

5. Create a worship experience that integrates our bodies and our senses in ways that express the wholeness of sexuality and spirituality through words, music and movement.

(This packet piece was written by Rebecca Todd Peters, the individual stories were submitted by college women.)

Resources

"Body and Soul: Human Sexuality and the Church," Church & Society, November/ December 1989, bimonthly magazine published by the Social Justice Program Area, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 100 Witherspoon St., Louisville, KY 40202-1396.

Eugene, Toinette. "While Love is Unfashionable: An Exploration of Black Spirituality and Sexuality," in Women's Consciousness, Women's Conscience, Barbara Hilkert Andolsen, et al, eds. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985.

Harrison, Beverly Wildung. Making the Connections: Essays in Feminist Social Ethics. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985.

Heyward, Carter. Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

Nelson, James B. and Sandra P. Longfellow, ed. Sexuality and the Sacred. Louisville: Westminster /John Knox Press, 1994.

Nelson, James B. Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology. Minneapolis: Augsberg, 1978.

Nelson, James B. Between Two Gardens: Reflections on Sexuality and Religious Experience. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1983.

Pagels, Elaine. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Thorson-Smith, Sylvia. Reconciling the Broken Silence: The Church in Dialogue on Gay and Lesbian Issues. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1993. 800/524-2612 to order, DMS 293-93-751.

Trible, Phyllis. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978.

 


HIV/AIDS


The best way to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS is sexual abstinence and no sharing of IV needles. The purpose of this article is to provide some information about HIV/AIDS for consideration and discussion. What follows is by no means an exhaustive report on HIV/AIDS. HIV/AIDS is something that as Christians, as a church, as citizens, as students, as women and men, we should be thinking about and discussing, because it effects us, because it effects our brothers and sisters who sit next to us in class, and our brothers and sisters who are halfway around the world. As is mentioned below, knowledge and information about HIV/AIDS is constantly changing, and different people, organizations, sources... often have varying opinions, understandings, and experiences with the topic. Please keep this in mind as you read the following. You are encouraged to go to other sources (some of which are listed at the end), and talk to other people, to see and learn for yourself where disagreement and uncertainty lies, in order to make responsible choices about how you will act and respond.

The Issue

Much of what follows has been excerpted from The New Our Bodies, Ourselves. "AIDS, HIV Infection and Women" Edited by Mary Ide, with Wendy Sanford and Amy Alpern.

As college students, HIV/AIDS is probably a topic we have all been confronted with in one form or another. Some of us might have experienced the loss of a loved one due to AIDS, we might know someone who is HIV positive (HIV+ ) or be HIV+ ourselves, we might have considered or chosen to be tested for the HIV antibody. Maybe we have modified our behavior in order to reduce risk of HIV infection. All of us have probably learned about AIDS in a classroom, from a health care provider, through reading or television, or by talking with people we trust. The AIDS epidemic has caused concern and fear in many of us.

It is probably also the case that, since 1981 when AIDS was first officially recognized, we have heard some conflicting information about HIV/AIDS. Information about HIV/AIDS seems to change all of the time. Definitive answers to questions about how HIV/AIDS is acquired, and about the progression of AIDS and the necessary relationships between HIV infection, AIDS, and death, are hard to come by. Different people at different times say different things. Also, good information about women and HIV/AIDS has been hard to come by. While at the onset of the epidemic, HIV/AIDS disproportionately affected men, gay men and HIV drug users in particular, this is no longer the case.

Today, women are the fastest growing HIV+ population. HIV/AIDS is also disproportionately affecting poor women, and women of color. While a large percentage of women who are infected with HIV/AIDS contract the virus by sharing HIV infected needles in intravenous drug use, transmission of the virus through heterosexual and bisexual sex is increasing at an alarming rate. Women are more than 18 times more likely to contract the virus from an infected male partner than men are to be infected by women during sex. Additionally, women who are HIV+ tend to die twice as quickly as HIV+ men, and over half of those women will die of HIV complications without ever having been diagnosed as having AIDS.

Women who are infected with HIV/AIDS have been largely ignored due to continuing inequalities of sex, race, and class in our country, even though women, from the very beginning of the epidemic have been the most frequent caregivers for all people living with HIV/AIDS. Women who are HIV+ seem to be largely viewed as infectors of men and children rather than as people who are in need of care and support themselves.

Further discrimination is apparent when women do chose to approach a health care provider with fear of, or questions about HIV/AIDS. Their questions and their symptoms are often quickly dismissed or attributed to other causes, and their concern minimized. This is not surprising since studies of people with HIV/AIDS have so largely been focused on men.

Until very recently the Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) definition of AIDS left out women's first AIDS related symptoms, which often manifest themselves as gynecological problems, such as recurrent vaginal yeast infections. Women's opportunistic infections (infections that attack people whose immune system has been weakened), are also often likely to be gynecologically related, such as PID, HPV, genital herpes and chronic vaginitis. However, women are likely to die from the same infections as men such as Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia, and Kaposi's Sarcoma.

What is AIDS?

AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency syndrome) is a viral infection that destroys the body's immune system allowing other infections to develop. AIDS is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) which attacks certain white blood cells that help protect the body from infections.

Persons who are HIV positive do not necessarily have AIDS, but are capable of infecting others with the virus. The term AIDS describes a syndrome, a collection of serious illness in an individual who has suffered immune system suppression. Thus HIV is the infectious agent, with AIDS describing the final stage of illness caused by HIV. Some people who are HIV+ remain healthy and free of symptoms for many years. It may even be the case that it is possible for someone to be HIV+ but never actually acquire AIDS (although it must be emphasized again that anyone who is HIV+ can transmit the virus, regardless of how healthy they are), but most evidence seems to indicate that people who are HIV+ will eventually contract AIDS and die from complications therein.

HIV Transmission:

HIV is not transmitted by casual contact such as hugging, sneezing, shaking hands, or sharing towels. HIV is transmitted only through intimate contact with specific body fluids of an infected person. These body fluids are: blood, semen and vaginal fluid. Contact with these fluids can occur through:

Symptoms

In women, some gynecological symptoms can be indicative of HIV infection such as recurrent vaginal yeast infections, chronic pelvic inflammatory disease, and severe, extensive genital herpes. Other symptoms that can appear in both men and women include weight loss, fatigue, swollen glands, diarrhea, pink or purple blotches on or under the skin.

Please remember: Each of these symptoms can appear in illnesses that are not associated with HIV/AIDS. Many people who are HIV positive do not have these or any symptoms, but they can still transmit the virus!

AIDS Prevention

Sexual abstinence and no sharing of IV needles are the only sure ways to prevent the transmission of HIV. If you are sexually active: Use your imagination, remember there are lots of ways to please you partner and yourself without actual intercourse. And if you are having sex, use a condom with nonoxynol-9. If you are having oral sex, use an unlubricated latex condom on a man, and plastic wrap or a dental dam on a woman. In this age of serial monogamy (where people tend to have several sexual partners in their lifetime in succession even if they are monogamous with one person during that relationship) it is essential to practice safe sex even if you are in a monogamous relationship.

Getting tested

If you are sexually active or have ever shared a needle with anyone, you should consider being tested for HIV. While getting tested can be a very scary experience in itself, it is important to know that you are not alone. It might be a good idea to talk to a friend, a health professional or someone you trust about your thoughts and fears. If you decide to be tested you might feel better if someone goes with you when you are tested and/or when you get the results back.

Remember: Antibodies may not show up in the blood stream for 2 to 6 months from the time you are infected. This means it is possible to test negatively even after you have been infected with HIV. Many cities and states offer free and anonymous counseling and testing. Most states require that you be counseled when you blood is drawn and again when you get the results back.

Unfortunately, sometimes it can take longer than you would like to make an appointment to get tested, or to get the results back. You can often get an appointment more quickly with a doctor or a clinic (such as Planned Parenthood), but it is not usually free. Today some clinics even offer same day or next day results.

How has the Presbyterian Church (USA) responded?

The 200th General Assembly (1988) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has committed itself "To Meet AIDS with Grace and Truth: We confess that our own church's response to AIDS has been tardy, despite our 1986 General Assembly's warning that "the rate of infection is predicted to double every nine to twelve months" and its declaration that "AIDS and ARC are illnesses, not punishment, for behavior deemed immoral. We affirm that the church must caution against making moral pronouncement about AIDS and ARC. We further affirm that all people are precious to God and urge congregations, governing bodies, and agencies of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to renounce the popular notions of God's wrath towards AIDS sufferers."

The statement goes on-the resolve that the Church at all levels should be a community of openness and caring for persons with AIDS and their loved ones, working to overcome attitudinal and behavioral barriers of race, social class, and sexual orientations that hamper acceptance of and positive ministry with sufferers of this disease. It also calls for ministries, education, worship and resource material to be developed.

The churches statement, then, though slow in coming, is an affirmative one. Now it is up to us to implement it. To take action, and to educate ourselves and others.

Justice for Women has recently produced a packet call "Women and AIDS" which is a fine resource for all women. Also, the Presbyterian AIDS Network (PAN), part of the Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association, welcomes those who advocate and care for persons with AIDS and HIV infection. PAN seeks to heal, educate, advocate, reconcile, and serve.

The Global Perspective

The situation of women and HIV/AIDS worldwide is a bleak one:

"Worldwide, 3 million women are infected with HIV, and during the 1990's, according to WHO (World Health Organization), AIDS will kill about 2 million women, the majority in sub-Saharan Africa. In Africa, where, according to one estimate, 1 in 20 people will be infected with AIDS by the year 2000, the male-to-female ratio of HIV infection is about equal. In Latin America, one in 500 women is already infected with HIV, while in Asia, over the last three years alone, up to 200,000 women may have been infected."1

For many women in the developing world health care and education about issues such as HIV/AIDS are difficult to come by. One key to slowing down the spread of HIV/AIDS in the developing world, is working to obtain equal rights and status for women.

-Amanda Smith

Theological Reflection

Unfortunately, some Christain (sic) voices have been the most outspoken in proclaiming that AIDS is an epidemic that has been sent by God to purge our world of "undesirables," meaning the gay male community. As followers of Jesus we know he preached a much different message to his disciples and that much of his life was dedicated to a healing ministry that was aimed at outcasts.

Remember the words of Jesus in John as he instructed the community in the way of love. "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." (Jn. 15:12-17) In this passage Jesus calls all of us to an incredible degree of accountability as we realize that our task is to love others as Jesus has loved us. When we live our lives in such a manner, there can be no condemnation of others and there can be no turning away from those in need.

Some of the most needy people in our society today are people with AIDS. Many are in need of our love and our friendship, particularly those who are not able to confide in parents or family that they are living with AIDS. The emotional and spiritual support that we might offer them as sisters and brothers in Christ is exactly the kind of friendship that Jesus refers to in this passage.

Jesus was a preacher and a teacher, but he was also an incredible healer. He didn't minister to the rich and comfortable, but spent his days and nights with the outcasts of society-the lepers, the blind, the lame, the unclean. These were the people who came to Jesus for healing, and he never turned any of them away. Instead he embraced their faith, and they left his presence healed and renewed. If Jesus were here today he would most assuredly be walking in the HIV wards of our hospitals and hospices and ministering with the people who are in many ways some of the most outcast in our society.

"All of us-individually, the church, and, by God's grace, as one world-need to come to understand that, as the family of God, we have HIV/AIDS. Some of us are infected by it, so all of us are affected by it. The brokenness of our human condition is represented by HIV/AIDS. Our ministry in this crisis provides us with the opportunity to be reconciled to one another. We need to recommit ourselves as Christians to the vision of a unified and renewed faith community and human society." (HIV/AIDS Awareness Resources, p.31)

For Discussion

1. Read Psalm 22 and reflect on it from the perspective of someone with HIV/AIDS. How does this speak to the issue?

2. Read Luke 10:25-37, the story of the Good Samaritan, and tell the story in a contemporary voice with the the person who was beaten instead being someone with HIV. Who do the other characters in the story become? How do you feel about this story when viewed in a different context?

3. What do you feel is the church's respnsibility (sic) in the HIV crisis? Knowing that many people do not feel comfortable disclosing their own HIV infection or their children's HIV infection to their church communities, what could help make congregations more suportive (sic) to people during their struggle?

4. Do you know people who are HIV positive? In what context do you know them? How has your interaction with them affected the way you understand HIV/AIDS?

5. Do you know anyone who has died of AIDS? What was that experience like?

6. How would you react if your best friend, sibling, partner ... told you they were HIV positive?

7. What do you think might be some of the reasons that women were left out of the AIDS equation for so long, and what do you think are some of the reasons that women are now the fastest growing group of people with HIV/AIDS?

8. Do you think that many college women see themselves as being at risk for contracting HIV? Why or why not? Do you think college students in general are adequately protecting themselves from HIV transmission? Why or why not?

9. What are some of the myths you have heard about AIDS? Consider making a list of all the things that you know to be true and untrue about HIV/AIDS. If you find amongst your group there is some disagreement, think about calling a local AIDS hot line, or asking a health professional, or both.

Suggestions for action:

1. Find out what HIV/AIDS resources and information are available on your campus or in your community and use them.

2. Find out about organizations that work with people with HIV/AIDS in your community. Think about volunteering some of your time or money. Ask someone from the organization to come talk with your group.

3. Organize an HIV/AIDS awareness workshop on your campus using this study piece and one of the videos listed; display HIV/AIDS materials at appropriate functions during the school year.

4. Find out what your local church is doing in response to HIV/AIDS. Consider showing a video like Longtime Companion or Philadelphia at school or church and leading a discussion afterward.

5. Get in touch with the Presbyterian AIDS Network if you are interested in getting more involved in the issue through PC(U.S.A.) or if you are looking for resources or speakers (c/o Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association, 100 Witherspoon Street, Louisville, KY 40202-1396.)

6. Find out if condoms are readily available on your campus. Do people have access to them? If they don't, consider discussing the topic on a campus-wide basis and figuring out ways to ensure students have access to condoms.

Resources:

The New Our Bodies, Ourselves, Updated and Expanded for the 90's. The Boston Women's Health Book Collective. Simon and Schuster Inc., NY, 1992.

Talking With Your Family About AIDS. Presbyterian Church (USA). 800/524-2612, DMS #257-89-412

Acts of Kindness: HIV/AIDS Stones of Mutual Ministry. Video. Presbyterian Church (USA) 800/5242612, DMS #257-91-021.

The Congregation: A Community of Care and Healing (AIDS Awareness). Presbyterian Church (USA). 800/524-2612, DMS #257-91-006.

Women and AIDS Packet. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 800/524-2612, DMS #282-92-003.

Visit your local book store or library. There are numerous books out about HIV/AIDS. These book deal with every aspect of HIV/AIDS, from the technical scientific side of it, to how to care for a person with AIDS.

  1. Women: Challenges to the Year 2000. United Nations Department of Public Information, December 1991. p. 22.



Hesed Home Page