In rereading this morning's post, and thinking more about feminism and the body, I went hunting about for more resources on Christianity and feminist views of sexuality. I found this very nice resource: The Feminist Sexual Ethics Project hosted by Brandeis University. A project of the Near Eastern Studies department, the FSEP explores the intersection of Western (Jewish, Christian, Islamic) theology with feminism and sexuality. What a pleasant surprise to come across it, and what a colossal embarrassment not to have found it earlier! I especially liked their bibliography resources.
They have a mission statement, and it concludes with this:
We envision an ethic of sexuality rooted in freedom, mutuality, consent, responsibility, and female (as well as male) pleasure, and we are working to make that vision reality.
Freedom, mutuality, consent, responsibility, and pleasure. Five well-chosen words that perfectly describe a spiritual feminist ethic of sex. Pleasure is a vital good, but only in the context established by the four preceding requirements. What I like about these five words is that they capture the essential middle ground between selfishness and self-sacrifice. Too much of what is now generally called the "theology of the body" (started by John Paul II and now popular with many evangelicals) emphasizes the central role of sacrificial giving in sexuality. In conservative theology, one's own pleasure is at best a secondary good; freely offering oneself to one's spouse and concerning oneself with his or her pleasure first is considered a higher good.
One of the best insights of most feminist theological writing about sex is that it refuses to see pleasure as "secondary" to anything. For feminist theologians, pleasure is not a mere byproduct, a nice bonus one receives for having shared with one's mate or having done one's procreative duty! Pleasure -- even removed from procreative purpose or from connection with another human being -- is a good of the first order, a gift of Creation. This is where I break with my many dear pro-life friends and my fellow fans of the "theology of the body". I don't think entirely separating pleasure from procreation frustrates the divine intent for of our bodies; as I've pointed out (and a hell of a lot of feminists have pointed out), the very existence of the clitoris outside of the vagina raises all sorts of questions about "design"!
For feminist theology as I understand it, the requirement of "mutuality" is not the same as insisting that pleasure always take place in community. Conservative theology emphasizes that the only sexual pleasure a husband should feel should be given by his wife, and vice versa -- this emphasizes our interdependence and our mutual trust in marriage. Similarly, many folks today bemoan the habit of "eating alone", and suggest that if we're really going to do food the godly way, all of our meals ought to be prepared and eaten communally. In this worldview, food and sex are two great sources of pleasure that ought never, ever, be indulged in entirely alone.
That's a seductive way of seeing the body and pleasure, and for about six months in late 2002-early 2003, it's a view I held. It seemed a nice corrective to consumerist messages about food and sexuality, messages that seem to disregard the joys of making love and eating in community. But though I'm still working through lots of my own beliefs about this, I'm at a point now where I'm ready to say that food and sex are gifts of God meant to be enjoyed in a wide variety of ways. The greatest and most sublime moment we Christians have with food may be when we take communion together around the altar, sharing the experience of eating with our community; the greatest and most sublime moment we may have with sex is with a life partner. But the fact that these are the "peak experiences" of food and sex that we have as Christians does not mean that enjoying these gifts in other contexts is outside of God's plan.
Freedom, mutuality, consent, responsibility, and pleasure. With all respect to my Muslim friends, I'll start calling 'em the "five pillars" of feminist theology. Perhaps I ought to try blogging each one of them independently.