Despite my best efforts, I have never been able to shield my sex drive from my
conscience. It was bad enough that I was shy around girls in high school, where I
lagged behind my friends' experiences. By the time I got to college, the
combination of my shyness with my growing spiritual practice effectively walled me
off from the realm of dating and sex. I belonged to a radical evangelical
fellowship, one that preached a very strict gospel of social justice and abstinence
from drugs, alcohol, and premarital sex. From the others in my fellowship I hid the
only relationship of my college years: three weeks during my sophomore summer with
a woman who made love to me while saying "Jeff!" Other than that I had no dates, no
relationships, no sex.
From my secular friends I hid the strict personal regimen my fellowship
prescribed for its members. I also concealed the emotional and spiritual anguish
that plagued me as I compared myself to others in the fellowship. I did not speak
in tongues; I came from a privileged background; and I played the drums and wanted
to be a rock star, an ambition that ran afoul of the fellowship's dim view of pop
While my nonreligious friends enjoyed relationships and traipsed through flings
and one-night stands, I stood back, wrestling with the rightness or wrongness of
acting on my desires. My friends were amazed when I failed to exploit a smile and
friendly conversation from an attractive woman. "Jake, what are you waiting for?" I
couldn't tell them that I wasn't sure if God would approve. Besides that, bringing
a woman to my apartment was out of the question: one of my roommates was the leader
of my fellowship. (For several months our other roommate was a homeless man we had
taken in during a blizzard, another secret I kept from my secular friends.)
To speak openly about my inner turmoil, I thought, would be to
My anxieties sent me into a tailspin. I feared I might blaspheme the Holy
Spirit, commit suicide, or do something else that would result in my eternal
damnation. Visions of hell, a silent white void from which there would be no
escape, soon spawned acute insomnia. I walked the streets of Cambridge and Boston
at three and four in the morning, trying to exhaust myself to the point of sleep.
After three sleepless months I had a nervous breakdown, and one of the college
chaplains walked me over to the campus infirmary as tears streamed down my face.
When my secular friends came to see me in my hospital bed or my family called on
the phone, I couldn't tell them why I had lost my mind. "I'm OK. I just needed some
rest." When the psychiatrists came by to talk to me, I kept my fear of hell under
wraps. I knew such thoughts would be written off as crazy, one more reason for a
nonbeliever to dismiss religion. I could imagine those psychiatrists and my friends
saying "Poor guy, if only he didn't believe in all that religious mumbo jumbo." To
speak openly about my inner turmoil, I thought, would be to slander God.
As I emerged from my breakdown, I reexamined my fear of hell and began to
dismantle it. This spiritual reassessment continued after college, when I moved to
San Francisco and joined St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. I felt a growing
sense of God's affirmation, which allowed me to examine the irrationality of my
fears. "If I'm supposed to go around all day thinking about how to avoid hell, how
will I ever do anything?"
Still, I felt that God had standards, and that some of those standards addressed
sex. Could I allow myself to have sex with someone I might not marry? After
fumbling in shyness for another three years, I found someone. Unsure if my interest
in her would someday lead to the altar, I decided that I was sufficiently serious
about her to have a relationship that included sex. Lots of mad, wild-eyed sex.
"OK, God, I know this isn't exactly kosher," I thought, "but I can't wait any
longer." Alas, the pleasure of sex mingled with guilt. For instance, one Saturday
night while my girlfriend and I were having sex, the phone rang. For some reason,
perhaps the late hour, I panicked and jumped out bed to answer, and suddenly I
found myself talking to one of the evangelical preachers connected with my old
college fellowship. He was calling just to say hello, but I felt as if God had
placed this late-night call to say, "I see what you're doing!"
My girlfriend was already perplexed about my church life and irritated by how
much time it absorbed. (The one time she came to church, for an Easter vigil, she
walked out in tears, feeling terribly out of place.) So I kept my deliberations
about sex and God secret. That I thought our sex life might be open to God's moral
examination would have enraged her. After a few months we broke up. Church seemed
to figure in our break-up, prompting me to wonder if I should date only Christian
women, or religious women, or at least spiritually inclined women.
Resolved that I wasn't going to wait to be married to have more sex, I looked
for a new relationship, while continuing to search for the ever-elusive set of
guiding principles. Voices from my college fellowship echoed in my mind. Their
theology of sex was strict: there's column A, missionary-approved sexual
intercourse between married couples, and column B, everything else. I understood
that I had already crossed the line by having premarital sex, but it seemed
unreasonable to me that even husbands and wives were forbidden from exploring some
of the sexual acts listed in column B. Surely the first few items in column B could
be cut and pasted over to column A. I thought about what my two columns might look
like. But in spite of my tinkering, column A always seemed too short while column B
held my fascination.
The Annunciation, 2002.
(From the "Water Goddesses" series.) Collage on paper, 4 1/4" x
Interestingly, I learned that members of my old college fellowship were not as
offended by my premarital relationship as I had feared. "As long as it's with a
woman," one of them told me. (Evidently I was OK in columns A and B as long as I
didn't hop over to column C.) The more I thought about the project of classifying
various sexual practices as good, bad, and really bad, the more medieval it
seemed-like snipping out pictures from The Joy of Sex and rearranging them to form
a sexual version of Dante's circles of hell.
As I went on to new relationships, I kept my ruminations on the morality of sex
to myself. I didn't want to say to my church friends, "I'd love to have sex with
_____, but I don't know if I could ever marry her. What should I do?"
On the other hand, when I moved to Minneapolis to pursue my rock-music career,
talking with my secular friends wasn't much easier. If I said, "_____ is really
sexy, but I don't think I want to have a relationship with her," those friends
would look at me with amazement. "So sleep with her! She's an adult." I didn't want
to pry open the awkward subject of my faith and say that I thought the commandment
to love one's neighbor might demand that I abstain from a purely sexual
relationship, even if both parties signed off on the idea.
As much as I tinkered with my moral criteria for sex-far more liberal than those
of my evangelical friends from college, far more conservative than those of my
secular friends-I remained snared in the same old legalistic game: "What am I
allowed to do?" As I continued my cautious course of dating and infrequent sex, my
libido and my conscience continued their agonizing tug of war, neither side ever
achieving a complete victory.
One Saturday night while my girlfriend and I were having sex,
the phone rang. For some reason, perhaps the late hour, I panicked and jumped
out bed to answer, and suddenly I found myself talking to one of the
evangelical preachers connected with my old college fellowship. He was
calling just to say hello, but I felt as if God had placed this late-night
call to say, "I see what you're doing!"
My engagement (to a nonbeliever, as it turns out) brought all of that to an end.
Once committed to my fiancée, I felt "legal" (and somewhat cowardly for needing to
feel that way). I set aside the question, What am I allowed to do? I saw a new
question in its place: What if God is there not to restrain my desire but to
Since transgression, column B, is always more tantalizing than obedience, column
A, perhaps I should examine exactly what I'm choosing to obey or transgress. What
idols have enslaved me? Have I allowed those idols to imprint their false authority
so deeply into my conscience that liberating myself from them would feel wrong? In
that case, maybe the thrill of transgression is something to embrace.
Offering Wisdom, 2001.
(From the "Altar Boys" series.) Collage on paper, 5 3/4" x 3
For example, I know that, every day, I put on the false authority of being male.
It's as if I'm wearing a cloak with stitching that reads, "Just a friendly reminder
that you should take me more seriously than you take her." That cloak confers upon
me inestimable benefits. As I think of stripping it off and surrendering myself to
a new order of things, I feel the erotic charge that accompanies any dive into a
threatening but exhilarating unknown. To know that I would be defying a false
authority only deepens the thrill.
Though I have not so much dived as dipped my toe into those waters, at least now
I can see that hiding my sex life from my religious friends and hiding my faith
from my secular friends were two responses to the same assumption. The statements
"God is there to rein in your desire" and "All this belief in God is keeping you
from having a good time" are like a photograph and its negative. They present the
image of a god who seeks to confine us rather than to set us free. To say "I see
God differently" is to defy a deeply rooted and frightening authority within me.
Some older part of me shouts out a warning: "Wait! What if you're wrong?" I could
be wrong, but the thrill of shaking off that voice tells me otherwise.