Breaking the Silence on Sexuality within the Orthodox Church

Promiscuity: Some Personal Reflections

These are some very personal reflections on one of the topics that came up on the article Charli posted about prostitution (my apologies if this gets into the realm of Too Much Information).

It was observed in the thread that resulted from Charli’s post that men are generally more prone to sexual sins than women. The industries of prostitution and pornography are obviously supported by men rather than women, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to recognize that this holds even truer for gay men in comparison to gay women as well. There are likely complicated reasons for the extremes of gay male promiscuity related to the fact that sex seems to be more of a temptation for men in general, to the fact that homosexuality has traditionally been pushed into the invisible “shadow” side of life, and possibly to the fact that gays are usually forced out of the spiritual traditions that might confront them with the value of ascesis in the realm of sexuality. But whatever the reasons for it, there remains a large gay subculture of open and easy promiscuity, and a gay man can hardly help but be identified with it in general, whether it applies to him or not.

It’s one of several difficult identities to bear for any of us gay men who aren’t promiscuous (or who find it embarrassing to be identified in terms of sexual desire to begin with). It’s made no easier by the fact that so many people seem determined to slap the promiscuous identity on us without concern for its accuracy in any particular case. Many churchmen seem almost eager to make sure we’re identified as either unspeakably degraded or else pitifully struggling against that pathetic degradation, with no other identity permitted. They find comfort in assigning us that identity. If we’re kept in the category of evil and incorrigible “other,” then their perceptions of homosexuality can go unchallenged. I remember the first priest to whom I brought up my awareness of my homosexuality told me quite calmly that he’d do his best to keep me out of the company of little boys. So, I was taken to be a potential child molester by him in the face of everything he’d experienced of me otherwise. Many gay men have had similar experiences or worse. It’s no wonder we most often flee the Church, either abandoning the spiritual life altogether or seeking it in some place where we don’t have to bear the projection of evil when we become convinced it’s untrue.

It’s probably a rare gay man these days who’s never given promiscuity a try at some point. My own experiments with it were limited, and inhibited by time, place, my own shyness, by my late-blooming re sexuality in general, and by, yes, the Church’s perceived teaching and the understanding that such behavior sets one in a non-saving direction. My few experiences were unsatisfying and embarrassing, and mostly regretted, even though I was in some ways glad for them, and for being confronted by the fact that it really didn’t feel right. Though I’m pretty sexually inexperienced for a gay man of my generation, I can nonetheless identify with men who get into the promiscuous “lifestyle” to the point of wallowing in it. If I’d grown up in a different time and place, if I’d been uninhibited by religion, and if in that time and place I’d have been sufficiently young and attractive, I’m pretty sure I’d have been really good at it (and I’d probably not be alive to write these words). I consider the inhibitions that kept me from a life focused on sex to have been providential, and I can be grateful to God for those inhibitions. I can also see how a gay man who for whatever reason wasn’t granted the Grace of such inhibitions would find it easy and natural to be promiscuous.

Given that the difference between me and such a man seems to be an accident of circumstances or a gift of Grace, and that I recognize myself to be at heart just as sexual as the next guy, I’m unable to see any essential difference between the promiscuous guy and me. The fact is, I can’t take there to be an essential difference between any of us sinners. The very idea seems to contradict what our Lord taught by his words and actions in the Gospels. When he said, “I have come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32), his point was, of course, that there was no one righteous to begin with–that he came to call everyone to God. And the Pharisees, who were offended by his association with sinners, didn’t get the joke. I take Christ’s breaking of bread with well-known sinners to be a teaching that there’s no essential difference between any of us.

It may be possible to say in truth that one person is deeper in sin than another or that one person is holier than another, but then, when you encounter that infinite space between God and us, the idea of considering one or the other of us as inferior or superior to another is revealed to be laughably absurd. I think the saints understand this deeply, which is why they’re able to identify themselves as the greatest of sinners when to everyone around them it’s obviously otherwise. The intimacy they experience with God reveals to them in the profoundest way that we’re all in the same boat.

This understanding is what’s missing from the rant of the fundamentalist Orthodox churchmen and bloggers who are furious that anyone is suggesting dialogue on sexuality and who spare no hateful language in speaking about gay people in particular—one of whom finds it acceptable to preach that gay behavior makes him want to vomit and that it should make other Christians want to vomit too. How much different than the attitude of the saints could this possibly be? For the presbyter in question and the others like him, I doubt that it would make any difference whether a homosexual person were in a monogamous relationship or were given over to unbridled lust. Either–or anything in between–would be a source of the same outrage for them, the same righteous vomiting.

Let me imagine these folks’ worst nightmare: a gay man utterly given over to promiscuity, whose behavior justifies all the projection of evil they place on homosexuals in general. And I’ll imagine this guy involved in a series of the most degrading acts imaginable (you can use your imagination). And I’ll imagine that at some point, in the midst of all this, the guy has a glimmer of a notion that this way of life is a dead end, a source of nothing but suffering for him and the men he’s objectifying. And he thinks that there might be another way of life that leads in a direction more like Truth, even if he hasn’t yet articulated that truth, and he gets a glimmer of desire to move out of his promiscuity and in that holy direction. Even if that aspiration doesn’t get very far, I feel like that guy is already morally superior to our vomiting brothers who, like the Pharisees and unlike the saints, waste precious time identifying and reacting to the sins of others, however real those sins may be.

Some Christians are fond of talking about “hating the sin but loving the sinner.” This statement is mostly true only when applied to oneself. Apply it to someone else, and you almost always end up drawing a line between yourself and the sinner, and that line represents one of the most insidious of all lies. I take the “sinner,” like the Wise Thief, like the Publican in the parable, to be capable of greater holiness than the one who “loves him but hates his sin.”

For those of us who end up labeled “promiscuous” by our brothers and sisters—it doesn’t matter so much whether that label bears any relation to reality or not—the thing to do is to pray for those who’ve labeled us that way. Partly because dialogue with them is just too difficult for a lot of us to bear, but also to soften our hearts toward them, and with the real hope that God will answer that prayer and enable us all to understand how little difference there is between any of us.