I have a confession to offer my religiously progressive peers. I don’t think sexual purity is a dirty phrase. I enjoy thinking about, reflecting upon, and writing about cultivating the discipline and virtue of sexual purity in my life. As a spiritual practice, this is a deeply nourishing one for me. I’ve encountered too many moderate and progressive congregations where our communal sexual ethic amounts to “Don’t ask/Don’t Tell!” The general sensibility is that if you stay out of my bedroom then I will stay out of yours. Or the other ideology is one where sexual libertinism is offered as a means of gaining broad appeal or cache. I don’t find particular solace and comfort in either of these approaches to the intersection of sexuality and spirit. I think we as people of faith have a more beautiful and compelling vision to offer people.
I have another confession but this one is for my religiously conservative peers. I do not define sexual purity in the same way that many of you would define it. My definition of sexual purity is about cultivating sensitivity to spirit that lends itself to one another’s flourishing rather than to a performative system of behaviors around any specific set of rules. My definition of sexual purity makes space for many diverse ways to structure family arrangements and live out our interpersonal sexual relationships including many ways that may seem foreign to our pre-conceived western societal mindset such as non-monogamy, multi-family, and complex relational structures. The rigid and unyielding boundaries, the superficial rules, the one-size-fits-all prescriptive behaviors—these things CAN and DO hurt people. They often reduce the beautiful complexity of what it means to be human. They encourage surface level in-group/out-group sorting behaviors. They infantilize spiritual seekers instead of calling them to the deeper task of spiritual formation and physical/emotional/sexual/spiritual growth.
When I was 16, various abstinence movements had taken hold of Evangelical Churches and Moderate Mainline Churches in my region. The “True Love Waits” movement was the most notable of these. I remember the clarion call in my youth group to make a public profession of virginity and sign an abstinence pledge. I remember our youth group being told that these pledges were going to be taken to Washington D.C. and placed on the National Mall. This was my first taste of being caught in the cross-hairs of politicized Christian sexuality, and it felt awful. It felt exploitative. For lack of a better word—it felt unholy.
I was a virgin at the time. My teenage definition of virginity was someone who had not engaged in penis-vagina sex. It should be noted that I no longer find this narrow definition of sex imaginative or even particularly useful in my day-to-day life. Likewise, the social construct of virginity is also not something I find useful because of its long history of being used to malign women (but that’s a different post for a different day.)
My teenage sexual practice (or lack thereof) was not something I wanted to publicly trumpet in my High School Cafeteria. Feeling public pressure to sign a “sex contract” seemed like the domain of Hollywood actors eager to enjoy sexual liaisons while protecting their financial assets and tightly controlling any public discourse around their exploits. It did not seem a fitting or appropriate request from the church as a means of proving my allegiance to Jesus. I did not want my sexuality weaponized in the halls of congress by theocratic politicians who were seeking public funding for abstinence education. I wanted the church to be a safe place for virgin teenagers like me. I also wanted church to be a safe place for my sexually active peers. At the time, I stood on principle and refused to sign this youth group abstinence pledge and this caused a bit of scandal.
That particular episode aside, as an introspective and thoughtful teenager, I thought about sexual purity a lot. I was interested in the lives of nuns and monks and missionaries and saints, of people who had a genuine sense of vocation to celibacy and who devoted themselves in service to God. I did not perceive myself as one with a calling to celibacy, yet, in a sex saturated culture, their lives seemed really beautiful and brave, and dare I say it, queer. Their behavior was non-conforming and non-normative. Their behavior was a mark of queer virtue and I admired them for it.
I had a spiritual gift. Without trying, I saw bodies as beautiful. All kinds of bodies. Thin and lanky bodies. Voluptuous and curvaceous bodies. Muscled bodies. Tall bodies. Short bodies. Caucasian bodies. Bodies with diverse shades of melanin. Men’s bodies. Women’s bodies. I had a keen eye for beauty. I saw beauty in all manner of diversity. I still do. As a teenager, I really had not yet separated sacred love as spiritual vs sacred love embodied in sex and human sexuality, and I really hadn’t integrated the latter into my own life yet. All I knew was that I had a deep reverence for the diversity of human bodies.
This foundational facet of my personhood would resurface in my later 20s after intimate partnerships and sexual relationships with men had consistently been a fully integrated part of my adult life for some time. In my later twenties, I would recognize for the first time that this reverence for diverse bodies also gave me the gift of malleability around sexual attraction. I would realize that I was probably capable of holding space and forging emotional and sexual connections with people of diverse genders. This identity marker would be one revelation in a long line of other significant revelations ultimately nudging me in the direction of a queer identity.
When I was a teenager, I had a favorite quote hanging above my bed.
“There is but one temple in the universe, the human body. Nothing is holier than that high form. We touch heaven when we touch the human body.” -Thomas Carlyle
Thomas Carlyle is an enlightenment era Scottish philosopher. However others would internalize his wisdom, I actually equated this quote with sexual purity. The good kind of sexual purity. The kind of purity that holds up the body as a well-spring of grace. Body as gift. Body as source of abundance. Body as a place that deserves reverence. Purity that encourages reverence for self and reverence for others. Body as sacred. Body as Eden. Body as a place of play. As a place of rest. As a place of joyful discovery. As a place of imagination and creativity. As a place of pleasure. As a place inviting us into the vulnerable realm of being naked and unashamed. Body as a conduit for liberating love.
At one point in my life, I had actually contemplated studying massage therapy because I was so fascinated by a career in which you create a cultural safe haven for safe touch. I’ve always been fascinated by healers and mystics and people who understand the deep intersection between body/soul/spirit. I’ve always been an idealist. I’ve always been tender hearted. Massage therapy is one of the few places in society where people arrive naked and unashamed. Where they vulnerably submit themselves to a healers touch. I ultimately convinced myself this wasn’t a practical enough career choice, so I’ve been content to be an amateur masseuse to friends and family and peers. I love it. I come alive by sharing a generosity of touch. People are so beautiful after they first get a massage. The warm glow of their skin. Their state of relaxation and wellness. Their feelings of connection and safety. I’ve never met anyone who isn’t beautiful after they receive a massage. I’ve always had a reverence for human touch.
I had my fair share of awkward first dates and lackluster short-term relationships with men, but I really feel fortunate that during the timeframe that I identified as a straight woman, all of my long-term male partners had been men that I genuinely loved and cared about and most of them really valued my particular combination of old soul, progressive sexual ethic, and mystic sensibilities. They were good and generous partners to me. They were game to learn and grow with me. They were game to listen to me wax poetic about matters of the spirit or offer a diatribe on how I thought internet dating sites were ruining the world (even though I met some of them on the internet.) The capitalistic enterprise of picking people by hobbies and hair color and eye color bothers me. We now treat others humans as commodities for which we can swipe right or swipe left. We now regard other humans with the same care with which we buy shoes online. Think about that. All of this hurts my tender romantic idealized self. I recognize the powerful potential for connection of the internet. I met my own partner online. But it also has the potential to “de-humanize” us and often that’s how I see it utilized, but this is a different soap box for a different post.
Most of these previous male partners are still beloved to me and are still in my life. In fact, looking backwards, though they identified as straight men most of them had what I would deem mystic or queer sensibilities. They had non-normative ideas about men’s/women’s roles, division of labor. They were progressive and more comfortable with blurring the boundaries of male roles and female roles during sex. They were men who were comfortable with “queering sex” long before I knew that I was Queer woman. They were creative and imaginative and open to exploration with me. They had been good partners to me, but with this piece of me, this sexual identity piece bubbling under the surface unreconciled, I was really not able to give the totality of myself to anyone in a life long covenant or commitment. There was a wall preventing complete connection. Most of my relationships didn’t result in life long covenants for other additional reasons besides my unreconciled sexual identity but I know that I would have married 2 or 3 of those men if I had fully reconciled my own sexuality by the time I had met them.
When I finally initiated the coming out process for a bisexual identity in my 30s, the stuff that I really wanted to talk about was this movement toward and articulation of abundance in my life. As a side effect, I would be dating people of diverse genders. But I mostly wanted to talk about this rich and complex and somewhat mystic vision I held for people and for love and for relationships. My announcement of a new identity label was as much about Marcy the mystic and Marcy the poet and Marcy the idealist as it was an announcement of who I might be dating on Friday night.
I was really taken aback and unprepared for how frequently I would be hyper sexualized because of this bisexual identity label. My long-term male partner at the time of my coming out misunderstood my declaration of a new bisexual sexual identity label as a desire to start incorporating women into our relationship as a means of casual sexual experimentation. I was not interested in that. When I explained that I was talking about my capacity for sexual and romantic connection and the intensity of connection possible with diverse genders, he suddenly became uncomfortable. He came face to face with this source of abundance in my life. He was uncertain how to navigate it. He was uncertain if I could love him exclusively and monogamously in light of this revelation even though I assured him that I could. He became jealous of my interactions with other women. He became guarded and possessive as I interacted with men. Ultimately, we decided we couldn’t take this journey together. That wasn’t the only reason, but it existed as a primary factor in the breakup.
After that particular relationship ended, I had a newfound sense of personal agency, and I began pursuing relationships with both men and women for the first time in my life. That decision was at once a very empowering decision for me, and at the same time an emotionally exhausting decision. I knew what I wanted. I wanted to meet someone and settle down. I wasn’t exploring. I wasn’t sexually curious. I just didn’t care about the package in which a lifemate found me. I was drawn to hearts more than parts.
But I began to run up against frequent instances of biphobia in the dating world. I was overwhelmed by the number of men who saw my new bisexual label as a tacit invitation to group sex and three-way sexual encounters without any attempt to get to know me as a human being or check in and see if these activities were of interest to me. I was overwhelmed by the number of queer women who only engaged me when seeking out non-committal sexual relationships, or who assumed that my stated sexual identity was unstable, or who assumed that I wouldn’t be able to sustain a long-term partnership with another woman, or who assumed that I was really just exploring sexual relationships with other women for fun while I waited for a man to marry and settle down. You know what they say about assumptions. When we assume we make an “ass” out of “u” and “me.”
These encounters were a constant and relentless assault on my self-esteem. I can honestly say that I have never felt more objectified and more dehumanized in my life than I did in the first nine month stretch of dating as a newly identified bisexual woman. It was unequivocally the worst nine months of my life. My foray into the realm of queer dating was not fun and exciting. It was mostly horrible.
There’s no wrong way for any one person to embody bisexuality. Including polyamory and sexual libertinism or any conceivable familial or social family structure. But it became very clear to me that there was a monolithic caricature of what bisexuality is and this stereotype was ingrained in many people’s minds. And I happen not to fit that stereotype. I was consistently running up against stereotypes. There was a single story about bisexuals and it was harmful to me. We needed representation. We needed diverse representation. We need polyamorous bisexuals. We need monogamous bisexuals. We needed teachers and doctors and pastors and truck drivers. We needed people to have a more holistic view of the diversity of bisexual individuals and our bisexual lives.
Shortly after this low point, I went out to a bar with one of my friends and her partner. One of them remarked that I looked like the very definition of “weltschmerz” which is a German word that means “world-weary.” And I was. I was world-weary. I proceeded to tell them both my pitiful dating horror stories with men and women alike. I proceeded to confess that I frequently felt objectified. That I was really struggling with poor self esteem.
As a straight identified woman, I had participated in online dating my entire adult life. This wasn’t my first rodeo into the jungles of internet dating, but I really was not prepared for the shift in treatment that came my way when I donned the bisexual identity label. And I had sort of expected it from men but I was not prepared for the reactions I would get from other queer women. I had idealized that population of people because most of them had been hypersexualized at some point in their own coming out process. They knew how that felt.
My friend nodded and confessed that she didn’t have a close Bisexual friend before me. My friend asked me a powerful and profound question. She asked me to recall the last time in my life that anyone in my life had hugged me or held me or touched me without sexual intentions or without wanting something from me. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t recall the last time.
She and her partner grabbed me by the hand and yanked me up out of the booth where we were sitting, and suggested that we go for a walk. Walking a ways from the bar area, my friend hugged me, and then her partner piled in–making a Marcy sandwich. Three seconds passed. Then five seconds passed. This was moving past a perfunctory social exchange, and I could feel my body begin to tense up and wince at the level of vulnerability that was beginning to bubble up to the surface in me. Pain. I felt pain. My friend whispered into my ear, “Relax. We’re holding you. You’re safe. Let go. Let yourself be held.” At the assurance of safety, tears began streaming down my cheeks, and the steady stream of tears eventually gave way to a full on sob.
I confessed to my friend that I thought it might just be so much easier to change all of my dating profiles to say that I was a lesbian, and then to have a separate set of profiles listed as a straight woman so that I could meet men too. I didn’t know if I was really up for this or up for enduring other people’s attitudes toward bisexuality. I was too tender hearted to endure it. And they asked me if either of these other labels were really true? Did either really reflect the truth of who I was? A truth that I had fought so hard to embrace and to claim. I said that neither of those did.
They reminded me that in the 1970s and in the 1980s, there had been no community LGBT center in my region of the Midwest, there had been no internet groups and forums, and it was difficult for Queer folks of all stripes to connect. One of them reminded me that she came out “BE”(Before Ellen.) And she spoke of the profound and intense loneliness she felt in the first decade after her coming out. She spoke of how there had been a single story around gay/lesbian folks too and there hadn’t been diverse representation. And she told me all of the progress that she had seen for gay and lesbian folks in her lifetime. She reminded me that among my generational cohort (people in their thirties and older) I might actually be the first real bisexual person that many in the Midwestern LGBT community have encountered. I might be bearing the wounds of first generation leaders connecting with people and bringing visibility to a previously unfamiliar category.
Intellectually, I knew of different realities. On college campuses and among millennials I was already seeing a proliferation of new labels and a diversity of labels as I had opportunities to interact with college groups. But these things weren’t daily part of my world. In more cosmopolitan settings and in larger cities I was more than aware that “other Marcy’s” and “other bisexuals” weren’t so uncommon, but I didn’t live in one of these places. In my immediate context bisexuals were isolated from each other and largely isolated from the larger LGBT community.
They reassured me that living into the fullness of my identity was a gift to me and to those around me and that it would be instrumental in finding my right person. They reassured me that bisexual folks were just starting to see and increase representation in many places across the country and that we could anticipate the same progress as other identity categories. That was a very helpful framework for me to adopt. It felt so very good to hear all of this, but I confess that at the time, I did not believe them when they said that I’d meet someone.
Out of the kindness of their hearts, my two wise friends offered me a very compelling vision of liberating love by holding space for me and literally by holding me at a moment when I really needed to be held.
I persisted. Less than twelve months after that bar room conversation, I had met my current partner who as a bisexual woman loved me for my bisexual identity. She too had stories of being fetishized and also at times being desexualized as a disabled woman. She “saw” me for who I was and for all that I brought to the table. And I “saw” her. She is everything I never knew that I needed, longed for, aspired to have in a partner.
I share all this because so many LGBT narratives move aggressively and quickly to hope without meeting people at a place of vulnerability and spending time talking about wilderness space or the exile space. And for so many bisexual individuals this quick move to hope doesn’t ring true. A sense of isolation is pervasive among bisexual folks. This is so pervasive that there are constantly articles being written about it such as the article below.
The move to create larger community, to find peers and colleagues, and to create a thriving social support system has been a really slow one for me punctuated by fits and starts. In my case it hasn’t quite been as simple as going to the nearest community LGBT group. It hasn’t been as simple as reaching out to connect in any of the ways I knew to reach out and in any of the places I knew to look for other queer folks. But it goes. Day by day it gets a little better. So for those of you who are bi folks and who do not live in huge metropolitan areas, there may not be a good safety net or established support group already in place. You may be the person putting the ad on an internet meet up group to gather a group of bisexuals. You may be the person starting the youtube site or the secret website and offering community. You may have step into the role of trailblazer for your area and make your own support groups. And if that’s the case, I will encourage you the whole way.
So for those of you who are in the midst of a wilderness place, for those of you who are in exile, and wrestling with isolation or loneliness, I’ll hold space for a while, and if need be, I’ll literally hold you for a while. Warrior on. Hope is hard won. Hope is so very real. And if you are at a moment where you are doubting this, I will have hope and faith for you. You may be the first person in your immediate sphere of friends, family, and community telling the story of a bisexual Love that Liberates you in your life and telling people what that means to you. And though you might feel lonely at times, you’re not alone.