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A theology of sexual pleasure.

What is a Baptist minister doing in the field of human sexuality?" is a question I am often asked.

What a sad commentary on the perceived relationship between religion (especially that of Baptists) and sexuality! The most common perception that individuals have of a Baptist minister is that of a Jerry Falwell- or Pat Robertson-type denouncing homosexuality.

The truth is that my ministry led me to sexuality education and sex therapy. My story is based upon my belief that we are born both spiritual and sexual. I firmly believe that one of the tasks of life is integrating into wholeness these two aspects of our being.


While I was serving the First Baptist Church of Gloucester, MA, in 1965, my high school youth group asked if I would develop some sessions on sexuality issues. My feelings were mixed. I felt excited, challenged, scared, and perplexed.

I was excited because they were asking for something I didn't have the courage to ask for when I was their age; challenged because sexuality is an ethical and moral issue appropriate for the church to discuss; scared because I had no idea how the congregation would view such a venture; and perplexed about what I should tell them.

What do they need to know? Where would I get my information? Could I be honest, truthful and open with them? What if there was conflict over my answers to their questions? Could I lose my job?

I turned to two other clergy in the community, and together we decided we would support each other and join together to offer a four-session course. Among our congregations, we had approximately 60 young people. We asked them to bring signed notes from their parents saying they could take our course.

The night the sessions started, several hundred young people showed up--all with signed notes from their parents. We had to go to the sanctuary of the largest of the three congregations. There we were--in a sanctuary, under the cross, talking about sex. I must admit it threw me at first.

The kids were great. I learned more from them during those four weeks than they learned from me. How eager they were to learn. How incredibly incisive their questions were. How sensitive they were to my discomfort.

The sessions were very successful. In fact, within six weeks, Gloucester's Board of Education asked us if we would adapt the sessions into a course for junior high students. For that course, we recruited all of the local clergy who would participate and offered a concurrent course for parents. Again, we had a large turnout and another success.

Other churches and councils of churches heard about our program and asked me to conduct similar programs for them. Soon I was traveling throughout New England setting up sexuality education programs. It became apparent to me how eager people were to know about their sexuality and how closely our sexuality is bound to our spirituality. Eventually I became a fill-time sexuality educator and sex therapist.


Contrary to the belief of many Christians, the writers of the Bible were not as concerned about the acts of sexual intercourse as they were about human relationships and the motives and consequences of sexual acts.

It is tragic that so many within the Christian faith have dwelt on a few scriptural references and force-fit them into their own concepts of sexual morality. It is hard to understand that Christian minds that can be so flexible and non-literal regarding some parts of the Bible are so inflexible and literal on others.

For example, most Christians take a flexible view when reading Bible verses about: semen and menstruation (Leviticus, 15:16-30); the treatment of a disobedient son (Deuteronomy, 21:18-21); women in church (First Corinthians, 14:34-35); submission of wives (Ephesians, 5:6); slavery (Ephesians, 6:5); and the proper dress and behavior of women (First Timothy, 2:9-15).

But many assume a rigid inflexibility and a claim of absolute literal interpretation when reading Bible verses on masturbation (Genesis, 38:6-10); same-sex practices (Genesis, 19:1-28; Leviticus, 18:22; Leviticus, 20:13; Romans, 1:26-27; First Corinthians, 6:9-10; First Timothy, 1:9-10); and transsexualism and transvestitism (Deuteronomy, 22:5).

In reality, Jesus himself made love the central core of his message and ministry. Nowhere does he, even in his teaching of self denial, condemn sexual pleasure. His concern is always the wholeness, the spiritual well-being, and the loving relationships of people.


There are three major scientific contributions which I feel are the foundation for understanding the natural functions of sexual pleasure and its theological significance.

William Masters and Virginia Johnson. As a result of their work, we have discovered that males and females are born sexual and that sexual responses occur from before birth until death. This has important implications for our understanding of our creation as sexual beings with the potential for sexual pleasure as a natural part of our life. (1)

The fact that sexual response is pleasurable has theological significance: the Creator intended sexual pleasure for humans. For example, females have an organ--the clitoris--that has no other function than sexual pleasure. It has an analog in the male's penis. Pleasure is intricately woven into human sexual response.

Must not our theology take into account the fact that we have the capacity to experience sexual pleasure at birth and that sexual pleasure can be experienced until death?

Helen Singer Kaplan. She proposed an important fifth stage to the sexual response cycle in the late 1970s that she called desire. She wrote about this in a very helpful book titled Disorders of Sexual Desire. (2)

It is amazing how many people I see suffering from a lack of sexual desire who blame their dysfunction on their religious upbringing. I feel this is an indictment of Christian theologies that have failed to take into account the theory of sexual pleasure or even a theological affirmation of sexual expression other than for procreative purposes.

David M. Reed. He has made a major contribution to our understanding of the psychological nature of sexual response. (10) In my judgment, his ESP theory (Erotic Stimulus Pathway) is crucial to understanding the importance of sexual pleasure. It includes four phases.

The first phase is called seduction. This has two components: seducing yourself into becoming interested in another person and learning how to seduce another person into becoming interested in you. For young people, this stage is pleasurable enough in itself.

The second phase is called sensations. Our senses are nature's aphrodisiacs. They are all we need to achieve and maintain sexual arousal and pleasure. I cannot overstate the importance of touch, vision, hearing, smell, and taste.

The third phase is called surrender. For an individual to have a pleasurable orgasm, he or she must learn to let go and relinquish control to the experience.

The fourth and final phase is called reflection. It is most important. How a person feels immediately after a sexual experience will serve as feedback for future experiences. (3)

Even though sexual pleasure is an important part of human relationships and sexual function, we rarely educate our children or help adults within the context of the church to experience the fullness of God's intention for sexual pleasure. Where is a theology for this important aspect of life?


Our culture has developed several barriers that hinder the development of a creative theology for sexual pleasure.

Our culture is sexually traumatized. We are bombarded daily by a type of unnatural sexuality that is highly commercialized and exploitative and that presents women as sex objects. This view is found in the visual, spoken, and written media.

We are led to believe that the only highly sexual person is the person with the perfect body who is also young and not religious. Rather than presenting another, healthier view, the church is seen as anti-sexual, except for pro-creational sexual intercourse within marriage.

Many people in our society grow up with a model of a celibate marriage because they cannot imagine their parents having a meaningful, highly eroticized sexual relationship.

If children grow up to believe that, at best, they should be suspicious of their sexuality and, at worst, hate their sexuality, they will not have a foundation upon which to build a healthy attitude about sexual pleasure.

Our culture values sexual ignorance. While generally valuing knowledge and education, our culture reverses this premise when it comes to sexual self-knowledge. We believe it is better not to know.

Most parents dread the day their child becomes inquisitive about sexuality-related subjects. The most common scenario is that the child asks some questions about sex; the mother refers the child to the father (if the boy asks), and the father evasively stammers through some incoherent jumble of words. If the daughter asks, the mother gives her a booklet.

If we teach our children anything, it is usually basic information about sexual plumbing and anatomy. We usually tell them nothing about being a good lover. For some reason, we fear they will "get into trouble" if we give them information about sexual response and pleasure. As a result, most childhood and early adolescent acting out is a form of experimentation based on sexual ignorance.

Our culture is sexually secretive. We present sex as the great mystery. The more mysterious, the healthier and more pleasurable it will be when marriage occurs. Sex is seen as so personal and so intimate that it is inappropriate for a person to share thoughts about it with anyone.

We often make judgments about people who have erotic fantasies that do not coincide with "normal" heterosexual, monogamous, and married sexual intercourse. Christians are not supposed to admit to lustful thoughts and sexual passion. They, therefore, keep these thoughts in the recesses of their most secret place.

The church does not value sexual pleasure. As a result, it has not included it in Christian sexuality education curricula.

Basically, there are two opposing sexual value systems within the Christian church. (4) Each is as ancient as the other, and both have had prominent spokespersons throughout history.

The first is the one most identified with the church. It is based on a procreational ethic that sees male sperm as the bottom line because the sperm is the "seed of new life." Women are seen as nurturers and supporters. Consider the scenario about the child who asked his/her parent where he/she came from and the reply was "Well, Daddy planted his seed in Mommy and that seed grew up and became you!" In this unscientific explanation, there is no concept of the female egg carrying life.

This view says that procreation requires intercourse with another person of the opposite sex, within marriage, and in a manner which promotes pregnancy The focus of this value system is entirely on the "acts" of sex carrying the moral value. For the purist, birth control, abortion, masturbation, homosexuality, premarital sex, alternative sexual lifestyles, and erotic sexual behaviors other than intercourse are prohibited.

The second is based on the nature of relationships, rather than various "acts." This view holds that the Bible and Christianity are about human relationships. The bottom line is Jesus' statement on loving God, one's neighbor, and one's self. Sexual "acts" and lifestyles are measured against the motives and consequences of the "acts" and how they enhance relationships with self, others, and God.

This view says that there is nothing inherently sinful about the "acts" of sex that are consummated mutually, without coercion, without harm to any of the participants, and out of sight and sound of unwilling observers.

These two sexual value systems are not compatible. If we are to develop a theology for sexual pleasure, it will have to come from a value system that emphasizes the dimensions of a person's relationship--with self, others, the "its" in life, and the Thou.


It is my thesis that love, spirituality, and sexuality are inextricably bound together. I believe that it is nature's (and God's) intention to create people who are sexual in the fullest sense of the word. "And God saw that the Creation was Good." (Genesis, 1:31).

How then do we develop a theology of sexual pleasure that is relevant for daily living? Thc New Britannica- Webster Dictionary and Reference Guide defines theology as "the study and interpretation of religious faith, practice, and experience, especially thought about God and his relation to the world."

If we take the last part of this definition--God and God's relation to the world--then we must ask, "What was in the mind of God regarding our creation?" There are several ways people can explore this.

For some, it is through the Bible. A powerful description of God in the New Testament is that God is Love (John, 4:8-9). Jesus certainly presented a God of love in his ministry, and he affirmed this when he responded to the Pharisees with "the great commandment" to love God, oneself, and others. John affirmed love as central when he stated that "...God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son." (John, 3:16) Love seems to be a central reality in the mind of God and is not abstract or static but dynamic and active. This love also defines God's relationship to the world and how God wants humans to relate to each other.

For others, it is through the findings of scientific research. If all of creation is from God, then the more we learn about creation the more in touch we will be with the mind of God. I am in awe at our creation as sexual beings. Our capacity for love as well as our ability to respond to intimate relationships with such deep and meaningful sexual pleasure is a humbling experience.

For others, it is by seeking wholeness through the integration of mind, body, and spirit. The quest for wholeness and spiritual oneness with God or with each other has been experienced in every period of history and among all people.

When people experience the integration of love, sexuality, and spirituality, I feel that God's intention is born anew in the world. Sexual pleasure does not hinder either spiritual growth or service to humanity.


The current focus on finding sexual meaning in our time is a reaction of humans striving to understand the nature of their sexuality. Many are fearful of implications. Maybe one of those implications is that they will discover that they can find sexual pleasure in all the dimensions of their lives. That will happen when they join their sexual selves with their spiritual selves and seek appropriate ways of expressing that pleasure in all their relationships.


(1.) W. Masters and V. Johnson, Human Sexual Response (Boston: Little, Brown, 1966) and W. Masters and V. Johnson, Human Sexual Inadequacy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970).

(2.) H. S. Kaplan, Disorders of Sexual Desire (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979).

(3.) FNTK...David Reed.

(4.) W. R. Stayton, "Alternative Lifestyles: Marital Options," Contemporary Marriage: Special Issues in Couples Therapy in D. C. Goldberg, editor (Homewood, IL: Dorsey, 1985).
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Author:Stayton, William R.
Publication:SIECUS Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2002
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