THE BLOG

Consecrated Sexual Attraction (Part 1)

12/10/2013 05:52 pm ET | Updated Feb 09, 2014

I took a deep breath when Samantha came into my office (identity changed to protect confidentiality). Twenty years old, brown hair all the way down her back, and every bit of 5 feet 10 inches, she truly had "model good-looks." She was wearing a ribbed, white tank top that was nearly see-through. The shape of her small breasts was evident, and you could trace the outline of her bra right up to the straps around her tanned shoulders. Her jean cut-offs were so short that when she sat down on my couch, I had to remind myself not to look down incidentally throughout session because of what was plainly visible. Every time she threw her hair over her shoulder, I caught a wave of honeysuckle and patchouli.

Actually, she was quite intoxicating.

Samantha was court-referred to my counseling practice for a substance use evaluation. Though the task was straight-forward and able to be accomplished in just a few hours, I know about a hundred counselors and pastors that would never have met with her once they got a look at her.

And at some level, I completely understand.

She was beautiful and exciting, but it wasn't a holiday to have my senses aroused against my will, and certainly, against my better judgment. I felt drawn into what feminists call gaze -- the notion that Samantha was there for me to watch, and as more object than person. Even in hindsight I'm unable to describe her fully without employing it -- this was truly how I experienced her that day, a fact of which I'm not proud. I also felt legitimate concern for her welfare as a client and human. And I felt a strong degree of caution if she was aware of her impact upon me, and perhaps even more if she was not.

For many males in Christian leadership, all of these conflicted responses just aren't worth the hassle.

But Jesus would never have turned her away.

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Recently, Amy Thedinga wrote a brilliant piece on The Seduction Myth, an insightful exposition of what so many women experience in church:

"The pastor who refuses eye contact sends a clear message...'You are seductive. You are a sexual vortex that I may get sucked in to.' The slippery slope of my lust is your problem. And my ministry is too valuable to allow the likes of you to trip me up."

Consequently, women's attempts to solicit guidance from pastors are far too often met with aloofness, suggestions for an alternate plan like a "female mentor," or just plain, old rejection. When male leadership in the church is the coveted resource, yet women aren't allowed to take advantage, they must eventually feel as though they're playing for the B team. Not because they lack the talent, but the anatomy.

Of course, this isn't to say that women are never seductive, or never mean for themselves to be experienced as such. It became increasingly clear during my time with Samantha that she was flirtatious in a way that would have been hard to pass off as benign. But, even when a woman is seductive, I can't figure out why that would dictate that I automatically refuse to meet with her, let alone all women, as if it was inevitable that I end up inappropriately entangled with every woman who seeks my help. If that's true, as Thedinga points out, it's clearly my problem, not theirs.

I suspect this perceived inevitability factor is one reason we cling rigidly to single-sex small groups, single-sex mentoring, single-sex counseling, and single-sex pastoral relationships in Western Christianity at large. The inevitability factor is tragic really, and men, certainly Christian ones, ought to be insulted by it.  In a culture that promotes rape and sexual violence, we need to distance ourselves from a way of thinking that presupposes men's inability to respond to our impulses in a holy, creative way.

***

I often remark to my graduate counseling students how weird Christians can be about sexuality and gender. I say this playfully, but I believe it to the extent that some of my largest influences in approach come from sources far outside Christianity.

Irvin Yalom is Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University, and the author of more than 13 books, including texts used as the gold standard in graduate counselor education. In 2001, the American Psychiatric Association awarded him the Oskar Pfister Award for important contributions to religion and psychiatry.

I had the distinct privilege of being present during Yalom's keynote address at the 2012 Conference of the American Counseling Association in San Francisco. One of the things I like most about him is that he rarely says the right thing. And in so doing, he frequently just seems so right.  You know, like Jesus. Anyhow, I suppose Yalom's chutzpah has naturally developed from counseling people for an astounding 60 years.

In what is arguably his most synthesized work, The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists, he discusses the delicate interplay in counseling relationships between men and women with characteristic ease and obviousness.

Yalom considers a female client who asks,

"Am I appealing to men? To you? If you weren't my therapist would you respond sexually to me?"

Most men in Christian ministry shudder at the thought of being asked these kinds of questions. Like the rest of the world around it, Christian ministry has become about mitigating risk.

These kinds of questions naturally call for vulnerable disclosures on the part of the counselor or minister, and therefore we assume that there is a large risk in answering them honestly. Again, the inevitability factor, assuming that all women are seductive, and that all discourse with them will seduce, and that all honest responses to that seduction inevitably result in Thedinga's vortex.

Somehow, Yalom puts all of this nonsense to rest:

If you deem it in the patient's best interests, why not simply say... 'If everything were different, we met in another world, I were single, I weren't your therapist, then yes, I would find you very attractive and sure would make an effort to know you better.' What's the risk? In my view such candor simply increases the patient's trust in you and in the process of therapy. Of course, this does not preclude other types of inquiry about the question -- about, for example, the patient's motivation or timing (the standard "Why now?" question) or inordinate preoccupation with physicality or seduction, which may be obscuring even more significant questions. (bold emphasis mine)

These more significant questions are generally the kind we hope to address in Christian conversation, but they only come at the end of a process involving mutual vulnerability -- the kind of mutual vulnerability where we give more of ourselves than is comfortable, not because we're flirting with the danger of implicitly seductive women, but because women are people, and ministry to them naturally requires giving of ourselves.  You know, like Jesus.

How does Yalom, an atheist existential psychiatrist, get this so right, but men in Christian leadership get it so wrong?

***

This post is part of an ongoing series called, A Therapist Goes to Church.

It is post 1 of 3 entitled Consecrated Sexual Attraction. Here is "Consecrated Sexual Attraction (Part 2)."