A new semester is underway and I get to teach my new, favorite class, Religion and Sexuality. And the timing couldn't be better! Twerking Miley, bouncing Beyonce, and tantalizing Thicke are providing excellent source material for our upcoming discussions. Many would argue our sex-obsessed culture is prominently on display in these musical examples of young libido unleashed and unabashed for children and senior citizens alike to see on old and new media. A sign of the times, the end times to be exact, they might say.
We take a different track in this course. Like my old favorite course, Death and Dying, Religion and Sexuality asks students to explore and analyze the topic at hand (sex, or death) first comparatively, across different cultures; then historically, specifically in Western and primarily Christian cultural settings; then, finally, here in North America so we end the course in the present.
Talk about blurring lines. After this kind of semester-long exercise, the sexuality associated with Miley, Beyonce, and Thicke today, as well as with other examples from the past like Valentino and Elvis, Marilyn and Madonna, can be seen as having more to do with religion than simply serving as a focal point for the outrage of believers. There surely is more to the rampant sexuality permeating every crack and crevice of popular culture than what, on the one side, the religious fanatics are saying about cultural degradation and the apocalypse to come; and on the other side, the idols' fanatic and rabid fans who are numerous and seriously entertained by suggestive hip movements, protruding and active tongues, and outrageous and lasciviously choreographed spectacles.
Sexuality, obviously, is essential and fundamental and elemental in terms of biology and in terms of society. Hard to get around it, can't live without it (like death, in a way). I'm not talking about sex, but sexuality. Important distinction we address right away, first day of the class. That helps (I hope) when the 100 or so students explain to friends, and parents, what the class is about. It's about that too, but there's so much more to sexuality -- reproduction, gender, desire, love, intimacy, power, celibacy, identity, and so on.
Those were only some of the concepts that came up in class when I asked them how they understood the term, "sexuality." As usual, my students impressed me with their knowledge and insights, a characterization of young college students at odds with more popular perceptions about declining education and generations dumbing down. At least when it comes to sexuality, and death, I think these students know a great deal but have not had the right setting to get their views out. They all also immediately recognized how all those concepts mentioned about sexuality also bears on religion and religious life. Sexuality and religion are on intimate terms.
The stakes are quite high in public debates around sexuality, and the flashpoints in contemporary culture are obvious: same sex marriage and family values; sex slaves and pornography; lgbtq identities and gender equality; abortion and pedophilia in the Catholic Church. The stakes have always been high throughout human history, and the regulation of sexuality as well as its celebration, its moral meanings and the boundaries separating norms from transgressions, are religious matters through and through.
How have people learned about boundaries and meanings, celebrations and regulations, when it comes to sexuality? Why do some people see sexuality as an obstacle to spiritual fulfillment and some see it as vehicle for true spiritual liberation? Who are the authorities on sexuality and who has the power to enforce rules about it? These are all urgent, highly relevant questions in 21st century America, but they are not new questions; they are as familiar in the history of religions as questions about belief or the existence of God.
When I asked students a question about their lives -- where did they get their education about sexuality? -- I told them before they answered my assumption about the truth: that most of what they know about sexuality and what has been most influential in shaping their moral views, was popular culture more than family, more than church, more than sacred doctrines. They agreed about its importance, but most corrected me on a key point -- that many elements, such as family dynamics, religious communities, peers, and what they learn about in schools, also contribute. In other words, that influences are multiple and varied.
We still have a long way to go this semester but even at this early point I would note at least three takeaways from our first class conversation:
1. The sexification of popular culture as exhibited by such performers as Miley, Beyonce and Robin Thicke does not necessarily mean complete moral decay and the victory of degenerate youth. Fans of popular culture are more sophisticated and discriminating than we think when it comes to creating and living out their moral views.
2. The religious questions about sexuality in America today go far beyond the simplistic division between "believers" who decry moral corruption and disgrace, and those who believe in free speech and freedom of expression. And they are questions relevant to understanding religion in the present, and religion in the past.
3. Sexuality is a revealing and encompassing topic for those of us interested in religious cultures and sensibilities, and gets to the heart -- like death (for the last time) -- of religion in human history.