“Not a very nice story”: Susie Bright Interviews Me for “X: The Erotic Treasury”

Please note: This piece discusses my sex life — specifically, my sexual fantasies and my tastes in porn — in a certain amount of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that, please don’t read this piece. Thanks.

Sex, religious cults, atheism, spanking, pen-names, astrology, being made an example of, and the process of writing porn… what do all these have to do with each other?

X the erotic treasury
Susie Bright (of Best American Erotica fame, and of Susie Bright’s Journal fame) has put together a new erotica anthology, X: The Erotic Treasury. It’s a beautifully- edited book, as Susie’s books always are… and for once, the production values are worthy of the content: a cloth-bound hardcover book, gorgeously printed on non- crappy paper, all in a sensuous- to- the- touch die-cut slipcover.

I have a story in the collection… a rather disturbing erotic story that I thought I’d have a hard time ever getting published, so I’m thrilled that it’s not only seeing the light of day, but is being showcased in this beautiful format. The story, “Deprogramming,” centers on physical and sexual abuse in a religious cult… and a couple who escaped from the cult and are now consensually re-enacting it.

Susie interviewed me recently about my story, and we talked about — you guessed it — sex, religious cults, atheism, spanking, pen-names, astrology, being made an example of, and the process of writing porn. Here’s that interview. Enjoy!

SB: You were raised as an atheist, but when do you remember being fascinated with the “cult” experience?

GC: I wouldn’t describe myself as fascinated by cults, although I do find religion in general to be a compelling subject.

But it sounds like what you want to know is what inspired me to write this piece. It’s not a very nice story, but it is a true one, so I’ll tell it.

Jonestown
I was watching a documentary about Jim Jones (of Jonestown fame) and his People’s Temple. At the point in the story where things were starting to go wrong in the church, it said that members of the church who disobeyed the rules were punished by being spanked.

It’s a terrible story. They described the incidents, and what they called “spanked,” I would call “badly beaten.” But there’s a deeply ingrained part of my mind and my libido that almost inevitably gets turned on when I hear the word “spank,” and that starts to conjure erotic images and stories. So I found myself having sexual fantasies about this scenario… while at the same time being horrified by it, and feeling ashamed for being turned on by it.

That’s where “Deprogramming” came from. I was trying to capture that feeling of being simultaneously horrified and turned on. I decided to have the survivors of the abuse in my story re-enact it in an erotic way: for the characters, this was a way for them to reclaim the experience and move past it… and for me, it was a way to give myself, and my readers, permission to be turned on by it.

My story isn’t specifically about the People’s Temple. It’s about a fictional religious cult that I made up. But it’s definitely influenced by real cults that I’ve read about…

Does your family know about your erotic writing? Have they read it?

Window
I’ve asked my family not to, actually. My porn is like a window into my libido, and
it crosses a boundary for me to have my family looking through that window. I don’t want my family to know what I think about when I jerk off. Call me old-fashioned.

Have you written any manifestos?

Definitely. Many times. In my blog. Probably the best known and widest read is Atheists and Anger — an attempt to answer, in detail, the question, “Why are you atheists so angry?”

PenHave you ever used a pen name for your erotic work?

No.

This was a conscious decision I made very early on. It’s very important to me to keep my identity integrated; to resist the tendency to present one face to some people and a completely different face to others. Writing under my own name is an important part of that.

I totally understand why other writers use pen names, I’m certainly not critical or judgmental about it. But it would be wrong for me. I want to stand behind what I write 100%.

Has your work ever been “made an example of”?

Oh, yes.

Skeptical inquirer
The best example: I wrote a piece a few years back for the Skeptical Inquirer, called Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do With God.

The piece talks about how, although it might seem that an atheist philosophy has no comfort to offer in the face of death, in fact this is not the case. And it offers, as examples, some of my own atheist thoughts about death that I find comforting and hopeful.

I started ego-Googling my name and the title of the piece… and found that several Christian ministers were quoting from the piece out of context, as an example of how even atheists admit that life without the promise of life after death is bleak and hopeless.

No, really. Here’s how they did it.

They would quote the part at the beginning, where I talk about how atheism seems to offer no comfort in the face of death. And they would completely ignore the entire point of the piece… which is that, while that might seem on the surface to be the case, it most emphatically is not.

FYI, when I find that happening, I write to these ministers; point out that they’re quoting me as saying the exact opposite of what I’m actually saying; and remind them about the commandment against bearing false witness against your neighbor.

What is your astrological sign? Any other signs and symbols regarding the occasion of your birth?

What’s the astrological sign that thinks astrology is bunk? That’s the one I am.

Seriously. Of all the religious/ spiritual/ metaphysical beliefs out there, astrology is one of the few that actually makes testable claims (namely, that people’s personality and behavior are affected by the time of their birth). These claims have been tested. Extensively. And they’ve been conclusively found to have absolutely no basis whatsoever.

Happy new year
The only thing special about the occasion of my birth — apart from my being born, of course — is that it was on New Year’s Eve. Which meant (a) my parents got to take me as a tax deduction for the entire year, and (b) I got a great excuse for throwing a big birthday party every year.

When you think of your recent writing, for “X,” and then consider your recent sex life in reality, what comes to mind?

I think, “I really hope people understand the difference between fantasy and reality. Otherwise, they’re going to think I’m a total nutjob.”

“X: The Erotic Treasury” is available at Powell’s, Amazon, Last Gasp, and fine bookstores everywhere. If you’ve enjoyed this interview, a PDF of other interviews with “X: The Erotic Treasury” writers (most shorter than this one — I took the liberty of posting the longer version of mine here) is available online.

The Sorrowful Mystery of Preacher Jenkins Part 1

My brother is (a) wildly talented, and (b) a strange, strange person. Which is good, since otherwise he wouldn’t fit in very well at family gatherings. (On both counts.)

He’s lately taken up filmmaking as a serious hobby, and has put a series of his short films onto YouTube. I like all of them… but this, I think, is his masterwork so far. Unsettling, beautiful, irreverent about religion and yet fascinated by it… you can see why I like it. (And it has his Blasphemy Challenge shoehorned into it, which Blasphemy Challenge fans should find interesting.) He films under the name PreacherJenkins, but he’s not a preacher — that’s just a nom de camera.

It’s The Sorrowful Mystery of Preacher Jenkins, Part 1. Video below the fold (since putting videos above the fold mucks up my archives). Or you can watch it directly on YouTube.

[Read more...]

The Human Animal: An Atheist’s View of People and Nature

In an atheist’s worldview, what is our relationship with nature?

Let me rephrase that. In this atheist’s worldview, what is our relationship with nature?

Earth in hand
In many religions — traditional Judeo- Christian- Islam in particular — the answer to that question is clear. Our relationship with nature is that nature was made for us. Animals, plants, even the sun and the moon and the planet itself… all were made for people to use. To subdue, to have dominion over, as Genesis 1:28 so charmingly puts it. Every single living thing on the planet — they’re all just one big all- you- can- eat buffet, laid out specially for the human race. (Except for the poisonous living things, and the living things that are trying to eat us, and the living things that are just plain useless. But that’s not important right now.)

But if you don’t believe in a creation made with humans in mind, then how do we fit into nature? What’s our connection with it?

Botany of Desire
A few years ago, I read a book by Michael Pollan (of The Omnivore’s Dilemma fame), called The Botany of Desire. It’s a history of four different cultivated plants — apples, tulips, potatoes, and marijuana — written to examine and explore people’s relationships with plants. Fascinating book. Highly recommended. But it’s not what I want to talk about today.

In The Botany of Desire, Pollan talks about the co-evolution of flowers and bees. Specifically, he talks about how certain flowers evolved, and continue to evolve, in response to bees’ very specific preferences. Flowers with characteristics that bees like — certain bright colors and patterns, for instance — will get chosen by the bees for pollination, and will get to win the Darwinian Reproduction Lottery. Flowers that don’t, won’t. (Unless they find some other way to get pollinated.)

And it suddenly struck me:

How is that so different from human cultivation?

Firetulips
Flowers with characteristics that humans like — certain bright colors and patterns, for instance — will get chosen by the humans for pollination (or grafting, or cloning, or whatever agricultural methods we’re using to breed more of the flowers we like), and will get to win the Reproduction Lottery. Flowers that don’t, won’t. (Unless they find some other way to get pollinated.)

Is that really so different? Is there really that much difference between human intervention in tulips’ evolution, and beevine intervention in tulips’ evolution?

(Before you jump all over me: Yes, I think there is some difference. I’ll get to that in a minute. For now, stay with me.)

This is the point I want to make. It’s a point that most of us know and understand consciously… and yet it’s a point that we have a striking tendency to forget.

We are animals.

I’ll say that again:

We. Are. Animals.

Ape_skeletons
We are an animal species: in the primate order, in the mammalian class, in the vertebrate sub-phylum. We are a product of evolution; a product of nature.

Yes, we’re animals with an unusual ability to shape our environment. But it’s an unusual ability — not a unique one. Other living things have made dramatic physical impacts on the planet as well. Coral, for instance. Earthworms. And, of course, plants. Plants breathing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen made a huge, radical change to the atmosphere of the planet. (A change that, so I’ve read, was a serious ecological threat to plant life, until animals came along and re-balanced the ecosystem.)

Trilobite
And yes, humans are the dominant life form on the planet right now. But even that doesn’t make us special. Other life forms have been dominant in the past: trilobites, for instance, and dinosaurs. They were around for tens of millions of years. We’ve been the dominant species for what — ten thousand years? Less? In geological terms, we’re not even a blip.

It’s so easy to think of human beings as somehow apart from nature. It’s deeply woven into our language and our way of thinking. Nature versus nurture. Nature versus culture. Natural versus man-made. Is such- and- such plant a native, or was it brought to this region by people? Is X (global warming, homosexuality, the tendency of twenty- something human males to get into stupid accidents) caused by human beings and human culture, or is it natural? It’s a way of thinking that’s very pervasive. Even among people who aren’t talking about religion. Even among atheists.

Origin_of_species
When people talk about evolution, for instance, they — we — often do it as if human beings were evolution’s pinnacle, the goal it’s been inexorably moving towards… as opposed to just one tiny, short-lived twig on an enormously huge, four- billion- year- old tree. Ditto when we talk about the food chain. There’s a decided tendency to talk about the food chain as if it all headed straight into our mouths.

And it’s a way of thinking that shows up a lot when science collides with politics or morality. When the question comes up of whether human gender roles are born or learned or both, we tend to forget that we are animals — and that most animals have some sort of innate gender- differentiated behavior when it comes to sex and reproduction. When the question comes up of whether human homosexuality is born or learned or both, we tend to forget that we are animals — and that homosexual behavior has been observed in hundreds upon hundreds of other animal species. We don’t think of zoology as applying to us. We think of ourselves as different.

Honey_bee
Now. I’m not saying there’s no difference at all. When it comes to the tulips’ evolution, for instance, I think there is a difference between human intervention and bee intervention. The difference is consciousness. Humans intervene with the tulips consciously: making observations about what sort of interventions create what sorts of changes in the tulips, making plans for the direction we want those changes to go in, making calculations about how to make those changes happen. Bees, as far as we know, don’t.

And that does confer a moral responsibility on humans that we probably wouldn’t apply to other living things. Nobody would say that algae were immoral or short-sighted for overbreeding and choking a pond to death. We would say that human beings are immoral and short-sighted — not to say stupid verging on criminally insane — for continuing to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when we know it’s potentially choking our planet to death. I’d say that, anyway.

Thinking
But I’m reluctant to draw a bright line between humans and other animals on that basis alone. Not yet, anyway. We just don’t know that much about consciousness yet: what exactly it is, how it works, how the brain produces it. And until we do, I’m reluctant to say that consciousness is unique to human animals. We have a long, stupid, wrongheaded history of assuming that other animals don’t have certain kinds of experiences — they don’t feel pain, they don’t feel attachment, they have no innate morality, etc. — simply because they don’t have language, and can’t tell us about it.

Besides, even if consciousness does turn out to be unique to the human species… isn’t that part of our nature as well? Spiders have the unique ability to spin webs; bats have the unique ability to navigate with sonar. Having an ability that’s unique among all other living things… that doesn’t make us unique. If that makes sense.

And even if our consciousness does turn out to be unique… it is still, as far as all the evidence currently points, a product of our brains. Which are products, yet again, of evolution. Of nature.

So what is humanity’s relationship with nature?

Humanity’s relationship with nature is that we are part of it.

Phylogenetic tree of life
We are an animal species: in the primate order, in the mammalian class, in the vertebrate sub-phylum. We are a product of evolution; a product of nature. Even the things we do that seem most unnatural — building museums, building strip malls, belching greenhouse gas into the air, sending rockets to the moon, buying bras on the Internet — are no more unnatural than coral building a reef, or earthworms turning rocks into soil, or algae blooming in a pond, or plants belching that toxic oxygen crap into the atmosphere.

I’m not saying that everything we do is part of nature, and therefore everything we do is okay. I’m not saying that everything we do is part of nature, and therefore it’s fine for us to be self-serving hedonists. Far from it. Plenty of things are part of nature that we’d consider immoral: rape, torturous cruelty, biting the heads off one’s mates. And if for no other reason, self- preservation alone should inspire us to not act like immoral, short-sighted dolts.

If anything, I’m saying the opposite. We have the capacity for consciousness — and we therefore have the capacity for foresightedness and choice, and the moral responsibility that comes along with it. And that, too, is part of our nature, a fundamental part of how our minds and our social functions evolved. A part that has generally served us well, I might add. It’s a part of our nature that we should embrace. Given the power we have to radically fuck up the world… our capacity for consciousness and foresightedness and moral responsibity is a part of our nature that we really, really should embrace. Hard.

Tree
And I propose that seeing ourselves as a part of nature — not separate from it, not above it or isolated from it, but deeply woven into it, as deeply woven as coral and bats and tulips and algae — is a crucial part of that embrace.

The Best Non-Monogamy Advice I Ever Got: The Blowfish Blog

I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s about the best piece of advice I ever heard about managing non-monogamy in a long-term relationship. It’s titled, strangely enough, The Best Non-Monogamy Advice I Ever Got, and here’s the teaser:

I wish I could remember who told me this, so I could thank them. If it was you, consider yourself thanked.

It’s the best piece of advice I ever got about non-monogamy. And I want to share it with the rest of the class.

It’s this:

If you’re a couple who’s considering opening up your relationship, but you have anxieties and apprehensions and feelings of jealousy, and they’re stopping you from going forward?

Think — carefully — about what exactly it is you’re afraid of.

And then make your non-monogamy arrangements to address those particular feelings and fears.

Don’t just say, “I feel jealous,” or, “I’m afraid this will destroy our relationship.” Get specific. What — exactly — is it that you fear will happen? Think carefully. Search your souls.

And then set up your agreement so the things you’re afraid of don’t happen. (Or are less likely to happen. Or don’t happen very intensely, or very often.)

Here are some examples.

To hear some specific examples of how you can arrange your non-monogamy to address your fears about it — and to hear more about this principle in general — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

The Obligatory Sarah Palin Column, or, Why I Don’t Care About A Pregnant 17 Year Old

This piece was originally published a couple of months ago on the Blowfish Blog. I wouldn’t have thought that my Sarah Palin piece would have much shelf life after the election. But the woman just keeps coming back like a bad penny. Or like the Terminator. So I thought it would be appropriate to remind everybody of why — exactly — she would be such a disaster in any sort of national public office.

Sarah palin 1
I just don’t care that much.

About the pregnant seventeen year old, I mean.

I suppose this is an abdication of my responsibility as a lefty sex writer. But I just don’t care that much that the 2008 Republican nominee for vice-president has a 17-year-old daughter who’s unmarried and pregnant.

I don’t even care all that much about the hypocritical double standard: how Sarah Palin and the Republicans want us to respect Bristol Palin’s personal and sexual privacy but don’t want to respect anyone else’s. That sort of double standard isn’t the most charming trait in the world, especially in an elected official… but it’s also very human. We all cut slack, and make excuses, and act protectively, for the people we’re close to. It’s probably not morally perfect, but I’m not sure I’d want to live in a world where it wasn’t true.

When it comes to Sarah Palin, here’s what I do care about.

Iraqi teenager killed by U.S. Soldiers, Buhriz, Iraq
I care that Sarah Palin thinks that the war in Iraq is part of God’s plan.

I care that Sarah Palin thinks religious creationism should be taught as science in public schools.

I care that Sarah Palin thinks dinosaurs and people may have lived at the same time.

I care that Sarah Palin doesn’t know enough about foreign policy to know what the Bush Doctrine is… and that she seems to think she has foreign policy experience because “you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska.” (Or, as Tina Fey put it, “I can see Russia from my house!”)

I care that Sarah Palin thinks that Jesus Christ will — not that he may, but that he will — come back to Earth in her lifetime.

Robert_F._Kennedy_1964
I could go on. And on. And on. I care that she approvingly quoted a racist, anti-Semitic nutbag who called for Robert Kennedy’s assassination. I care that she lies, repeatedly, about whether she sought and accepted pork barrel money from Congress for her town and her state. I care that her only government experience is as a city councilmember of a town of less than 10,000, as mayor of said town, and as governor of Alaska for less than two years. I care that, as Matt Damon put it (yes, you heard me, Matt Damon — it’s an amazing video and you’ve got to watch it), the prospect of a Palin presidency is “like a really bad Disney movie.” I care… oh, you get the picture.

And I care that the McCain campaign and the Republican party were so sloppy in vetting her that they keep getting ambushed with new outrages and inanities about her, every day of the campaign. I care that their thought process in picking her was apparently not, “Who might be qualified to be President if the 72- year-old McCain dies?” but, “How can we get evangelicals and disaffected female Hillary supporters to vote for McCain?” I care that Palin was nominated, in large part, because the GOP (a) wanted to get women voters, and (b) thinks women voters are idiots. I care that they view their Vice- Presidential nominee as, essentially, Dan Quayle in a dress.

Oh, and since this is a sex column:

Coat hanger
I care that Sarah Palin is so rabidly opposed to abortion that she even opposes it in cases of rape or incest.

I care that Sarah Palin opposes birth control being made available to teenagers.

I care that Sarah Palin supports the grossly failed, grotesquely inaccurate “abstinence only” sex education policy — which flat-out lies to children and teenagers about sex, and which completely fails to reduce teenage sex, STIs, and unwanted pregnancy.

Pastor i am gay
I care that Sarah Palin reportedly tried to get a pro-gay book — not even an erotic gay book or a gay sex information book, but a book by a pastor arguing that homosexuality and Christianity are not mutually exclusive — banned from her town’s public library.

I care that, as mayor of Wasilla, Sarah Palin was responsible for a policy in which rape victims had to pay for their own rape kits. (No, I’m not kidding. A policy that not only further victimizes the victims, but ensures that rapists of poor women will get away with it. And a policy, btw, that McCain also supports, with multiple votes in Congress.)

In other words, I care that, on issues of sex, sexual freedom, and sexual information, Sarah Palin is not only a right winger — she is on the far, far right end of that right wing.

You know, there’s something people often forget about the Presidential elections and the Vice President. And that is this: The Vice President’s most important job isn’t to “balance the ticket.” Or to deliver their home state. Or to do a lot of stump speeches in the campaign. Or, when elected, to go to a lot of state dinners that the President doesn’t have time for.

Their most important job is to be President if the President dies.

(Especially if the President has a 1 in 3 chance, statistically speaking, of dying in office.)

And this is a job that Sarah Palin is grotesquely unqualified to do.

But she’s not unqualified because she has a pregnant teenage daughter.

Dear diary i'm pregnant
That can happen to anyone. Liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, person of integrity or total hypocrite, sane member of the reality- based community or deluded religious extremist. I was about Bristol Palin’s age when I started having sex, and I wasn’t always careful about birth control, and it could very easily have happened to me, with my leftie, beatnik, agnostic parents. And I don’t think it would have proven very much about them at all. It would have proven that (a) teenagers are often horny, and (b) teenagers are often careless and stupid.

You can argue, as Dan Savage and others have, that Sarah Palin has no right to expect privacy for her own family when she has such callous disregard for the privacy of anybody else. You can argue that, given her policies on birth control for teenagers and abstinence only sex education and such, her daughter’s pregnancy is fair game. You can even argue that her mulish refusal to reconsider her positions on things like teen birth control and abstinence-only sex ed in the face of her daughter’s pregnancy (in contrast to, say, the way Barry Goldwater reconsidered his position on gay rights when his granddaughter came out) shows a stubborn denial in the face of reality that makes her unfit for high office.

You can argue that. You could probably make a good case for it. But I’m not going to. There are lots of reasons why Sarah Palin is grossly unqualified to be Vice-President (as well as lots of reasons why John McCain is grossly unqualified to be President). But in my opinion, her daughter’s pregnancy is not one of them.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about it, ever. I wouldn’t say that, what with the hypocrisy and the abstinence-only sex education and all. Heck, here I am, talking about it right this minute. I’m saying that, in the scheme of things, it’s just not that big a deal. I’m saying that we have much, much better reasons not to vote for this person. I’m saying that we have bigger, and better, fish to fry.

Brief Blog Semi-Break

Hi, all. Sorry for the unscheduled interruption in service. Ingrid and I had an insanely busy weekend with no time for blogging, and I am now battling a nasty cold that’s left me physically unable to do anything but sleep and watch “Law and Order.” I’ll be back on the blog when I’m feeling better. See you soon!

National No on Prop 8 Protests, Saturday Nov. 15

Fight the h8
In case you haven’t heard, there are going to be demonstrations tomorrow (Saturday, November 15), all over the country, to protest the banning of same-sex marriage in California and other states. The protests are happening in all 50 states, so if you live in the U.S., there should be one not that far from you. (There are even some protests happening in other countries.)

To find out when and where a demonstration near you will be happening, check out the Join the Impact website. Show up if you can! If you’re ticked off about the banning of same-sex marriage and the idea that civil rights can be taken away from a particular group by popular vote, then make your voice heard. Hope to see you there!

A Safe Place to Land: Making Atheism Friendly for The Deconverting

Scarlet letter
How can we make people who are questioning their faith feel that atheism is okay?

In one of those coincidences that would have made me think the universe was trying to tell me something (back in the days when I thought the universe was trying to tell me things), this question has come up a couple different times in the last few days. PZ at Pharyngula has a conversation going about what an atheist community is; at Daylight Atheism, Jeremy commented about a theist friend who ended a conversation about whether religion was intelligible by asking what his life would be worth if he didn’t have his faith.

And it’s occurring to me: We spend a lot of time putting cracks in the foundation of religion: arguing why it’s mistaken, arguing why it’s harmful, arguing why the arguments and ideas supporting it are unsupportable.

Helping_hands
But we don’t spend as much time — some, but not as much — letting believers know that, if and when their faith does finally crumble, atheism is a safe place to land.

And we don’t spend nearly as much time as we should actually making atheism a safe place to land.

A question keeps getting raised in the atheosphere. It’s not the only question I want to gas on about in this post, but it’s one of them: Do we need to create some sort of atheist equivalent of church?

For those of us who don’t find the appeal of church all that appealing, it’s easy to dismiss this. I’m not much of a joiner — I’m a loner, I’m a rebel, don’t try to change me, baby — and I’m really not interested in any sort of church substitute. I’m happy to get my need for community satisfied in the secular world: folk dancing, hot chocolate parties, political demonstrations, orgies. I mean, I wasn’t a churchgoer even when I had spiritual beliefs. I’m not going to start now.

Sad_silhouette
But I also remember what it was like when my belief in the afterlife was crumbling. It was kind of terrifying. And a big part of what made it so terrifying was that I felt like I was on my own. I had to find my own way to my own safe place to land. And it was therefore a longer and more traumatic journey than it really needed to be.

I’m not sure an atheist church would have helped, though. Again, I’m not much of a joiner, and even though I knew of a church that didn’t see belief in God as important or necessary — namely, the Unitarians — it never grabbed my imagination. Not enough to get me out of bed on a Sunday morning, anyway.

But the atheosphere definitely might have helped. The atheosphere is clearly helpful to a lot of new atheists (and a lot of old ones, too), as well as to believers who are questioning their faith. It offers support, new ideas, coping strategies, places to vent, a general feeling of not being alone, etc. I think if I’d had the atheosphere when I was losing my religion, I wouldn’t have had to re-invent the “life is still valuable even though it’s not permanent” wheel. And I’d have had some helping hands to guide me through my dark night of the soulless.

Interconnected
For me, the online atheist community is plenty. But some people do have this freakish need for a community that involves the physical presence of other people. (I know. Weird, huh?)

For about the billionth time, I’m going to make a comparison to the queer community. Especially to the earlier days of the queer community, when coming out was scarier and harder even than it is now, and when our community wasn’t nearly as large or as visible, and when people who came out stood to lose a whole lot more than they generally do now.

Just like new atheists and people who are beginning to lose their faith, newly out queers and people who were beginning to struggle with their sexual identity needed to know that — when they left their old world behind, when in some cases lost their families and jobs and homes — they’d have a safe place to land, a community and a chosen family to land into.

Stonewall_Inn_1969
And providing those safe places — bookstores, bars, cafes, clinics, support groups, sex clubs, dances, diners — was one of the most important things that the queer community did to make itself strong and powerful and happy. It still is. (An online world would have helped immensely in those earlier days… but I doubt that by itself it would have been enough.)

And yet — hammering the analogy into the ground — building queer and queer-friendly churches was only one part of that effort. And by far not the largest part.

So here is my question.

Hands
We do have communities that we can offer to new atheists and people who are questioning their faith. We can offer them a vast, lively, and rapidly- growing online community of the godless, in a wide range of styles and snark levels. We have some in- the- flesh groups — political activist organizations, social groups — for people who want that. We can also point people at the insanely varied options for secular community in the world, communities that offer companionship and meaning and a sense of pulling together towards a higher purpose: political organizations to bowling leagues, swingers’ groups to book clubs, charities to historical re-enactment societies. And people who have left religion but still miss its ritual and community can be always be pointed at the Unitarian Universalists. (It’s kind of what they’re there for — non-denominational religion without the need for all that pesky God stuff.)

So is there, in fact, a need for all of these things in one place?

Upraised hands
Do we need atheist organizations that are in the flesh (as opposed to online), and that have some of the comforting ritual offered by religious organizations and services, and that are specifically about atheism instead of just being non-antithetical to it? Ones that focus, not just on what’s wrong with religion, but on what’s right with atheism/ humanism/ secularism? Would that help new atheists, and proto- new- atheists, to feel that atheism was safe — emotionally, morally, psychologically, socially? When people are leaving their old home — their emotional home, their social home, indeed their familiar physical home — would something like an atheist church make some of them feel that they had a good new home to go to?

I don’t know that I needed it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not needed.

Let me put it this way: Would that have helped you?

And if not: What would have helped you?

Fosbury high jump
If you’re an atheist or some other non-believer… what did help you? I don’t mean what helped you lose your faith; we talked about that already. I mean, What made your transition to atheism go easier? When you were making your leap of non-faith, what helped you feel that godlessness would be a safe place to land?

Was it ideas about a godless philosophy of death? A godless meaning of life? An understanding of godless morality? Exposure to the things that get lots of atheists all excited, like scientific discovery? The awareness of a thriving atheist community? The simple example of other atheists obviously living their lives, obviously being happy and good people? Something else entirely?

And was there help that you didn’t get, that you now wish you had gotten? What would have made your coming-out easier?

And if you’re a believer who’s seriously questioning your faith… is there anything about becoming an atheist that’s making you hold back? Are there any fears you have about what life would be like as an atheist that you think atheists could do a better job addressing?

Coming out day haring
I think that if we look at what we did and didn’t get when we were coming out — at what made our transition into godlessness easier and what made it harder — we could do a better job of making atheism a safer place to land. And that would make our community stronger and better for all of us.

Thoughts?

Caution: Contains Nudity and Sex

Please note: This post contains a couple of passing references to my own personal sexuality. Not a ton, and not in any great detail; but family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff might decide to skip this one. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.

I want to talk about nudity.

I want to talk about sex.

And I want to talk about how the two get confused and conflated.

Hot_tub
Some years ago, I read a letter to Dear Abby from a concerned mother. She had recently discovered that her children — her full-grown, adult, married children — were having hot tub parties with other adults… parties at which these adults sat together in hot tubs without their clothing.

She was appalled. She was deeply concerned about where this was heading. And Dear Abby fanned the flames of this concern into near-panic. She essentially said (I’ll have to paraphrase here, since I can’t find the original column), “Your children are headed for trouble. This can lead to no good.”

Danger
Ms. Abby obviously believed, either that these naked hot tub parties would inevitably lead to swinging and infidelity and other disasters, or that they already had done so. It wasn’t quite clear which. But the equation in her mind was very clear indeed: Being naked around other naked people either implies an already existing sexual relationship, or will inevitably lead to one.

An equation that not only pissed me off, but completely baffled me.

So. Now I have a confession to make.

I regularly attend parties and gatherings at which there is naked hot tubbing… with people I have never in my life had sex with, and probably never will.

And it’s really no big deal.

Occasionally, at some of these parties, people attend who haven’t attended before. And when hot tub time rolls around, some of them will oh- so- casually stroll out to the deck, to oh- so- casually engage in conversation with the naked people. They try to be polite and not obvious about their gawking, but it’s still clear that gawking is what they’re doing. And those of us who are hot-tub veterans are a bit puzzled by this. My own reaction is fairly typical: “Woo hoo. Middle-aged naked people, sitting in a tub of water. And this is interesting because… ?”

So this is the thing I have noticed:

Among people who are comfortable with sex, and knowledgeable about it, and fairly experienced with it, nudity is just not that big a deal.

And it’s just not that sexual a deal.

Among people who are comfortable with sex, the mere fact of nudity isn’t automatically erotic, and doesn’t automatically get associated with sexuality and sexual excitement. The context of the nudity is what matters. A naked person sprawled enticingly on a bed (or some other piece of furniture) in your favorite position? You betcha. A naked person getting spanked, or getting buttfucked, or getting their toes licked, or doing whatever your own personal erotic hot buttons might be? Damn straight.

Rubber_duck
But a naked person in a hot tub playing with a rubber duck and singing about boar hunting? Probably not so much. (Unless that happens to be your personal erotic hot button. In which case, more power to you.) In my experience, people who are more comfortable with sex are able to look at naked people, and even be naked themselves in the presence of naked people, without being driven into an uncontrollable sexual frenzy. Or indeed, a sexual frenzy of any kind.

Dr. Marty Klein was just writing about this on his Sexual Intelligence blog. He talks about a visit to a topless beach in Europe. He talks about his initial surprise and entertainment at the naked breasts all around him. And he talks about how, “after roughly three minutes, none were as entertaining as the conversation with Marina and Roberto about the 16th-century competition between the Hapsburg and Venetian Empires.”

Marty’s point was that the repression of nudity contributes to the repression of sex: that being comfortable and familiar with nudity helps create a relaxed attitude about sexuality. And it’s a point I’d agree with. But I think the reverse is true as well. Being comfortable and familiar with sex helps create a relaxed attitude about nudity.

And it helps create a distinction between the two.

Playboyfeb73
There’s a part of me that misses how easily excited I used to be. There’s a part of me that misses getting wildly turned on by the naked women in the Playboys I swiped from my
dad, or by any image of nudity that I acquired or stumbled upon. And there’s a part of me that worries that my desire for pretty darned explicit, pretty darned kinky porn is a sign that I’m getting jaded. (A topic for another day.)

But another, larger, more grown-up part of me welcomes this separation between nudity and sexual excitement. The more grown-up part of me understands that bodies have lots of functions, of which sex is only one. The more grown-up part of me understands that other people’s bodies exist for their own pleasure and their own purposes, not necessarily for mine. The more grown-up part of me understands that being comfortable with my body doesn’t just mean being comfortable with my sexuality — it means being comfortable with my body when I’m not feeling sexual.

And that part of me is completely baffled by the hysterical moral guardians who run panicked and screaming through the streets at the sight of a naked breast or butt on television. I’m completely baffled by the idea that the sight of a naked breast or butt will lead to the corruption of our youth and the moral decay of our society. Partly because I don’t think sex equals corruption and moral decay… but also because I don’t think nudity equals sex.

And I can’t help thinking what dirty minds these people must have… to have sex automatically be the first thing that leaps to mind, at the mere sight of a naked body part that happens to be more commonly covered.