The Slippery Slope

As people learn about our vocation as a celibate couple, another of the many questions we receive on a regular basis is, “How do you deal with temptation?” The people asking this question are interested in learning how we avoid crossing over “the line” into sex. Some people have been counseled by their own spiritual directors to avoid certain forms of physical intimacy lest these forms of intimacy increase the temptation to have sex. Indeed, it seems that many people view sexual intimacy as a giant cliff, where sharing any degree of physical closeness has the potential to push people towards sex. But as we see it, the idea that physical affection is a slippery slope that will push people towards violating their celibate vocations is highly problematic for many reasons.

Not all people experience touch in the same way, and touch is not necessarily sexual. The slippery slope argument depends on the idea that specific forms of touch have an exceptionally high likelihood of activating a person’s desire for sexual intimacy. When spiritual directors say things like, “No frontal hugs” to young LGB Christians who want to cultivate a celibate vocation, what these spiritual directors are saying is that there’s something about a frontal hug that causes the people sharing that hug to start automatically undressing one another, or that there’s something about a frontal hug that causes the body to yearn for more skin-to-skin contact. While we can acknowledge that some people do experience frontal hugs in this sort of way, we personally think that a majority of celibate and sexually abstinent people are able to share healthy hugs that have not spurred a desire for sexual intimacy. Some people, like Lindsey, experience hugs as a language where it is exceptionally comfortable to speak “hug” in many different situations. When spiritual directors use the slippery slope argument, they can intentionally or unintentionally pathologize a person’s natural predisposition for using touch to communicate nonsexual love.

People using the slippery slope argument tend to have a common list of “don’t”s used to establish clear boundaries in relationships and consider these to be common sense. However, these people often forget that standards for appropriate touch are set within communities and cultures and are not necessarily universal. For example, many Muslims and Orthodox Jews would be uncomfortable shaking hands with a person of the opposite sex. Most western Christians would not perceive that sort of touch as inappropriate. What’s taken as “common sense” regarding boundaries in relationships isn’t so common at all. Moreover, the boundaries seem to reflect the spiritual director’s sensibilities about what sorts of affection between two people of the same sex he or she can handle witnessing. The spiritual director asks the LGB person to conform to patterns of affection that he or she has no problem “signing off” on as appropriate. The different comfort levels might explain why some draw “the line” at frontal hugs while others place the boundary at kissing on the lips.

Many people offering advice on this topic filter questions of intimacy in celibate relationship through their own experiences of trying to maintain sexual purity standards before they were married. They will say things like, “When I was younger and unmarried, I had trouble keeping myself chaste.” They tend to compare the LGB person desiring celibacy with their own experiences of trying to remain sexually abstinent through their teen years (or maybe their 20s as well). We think it’s worth pointing out that most teenagers tend to be raging balls of hormones as they are getting a handle on their developing young adult bodies, but that different people come to grips with their hormones in different ways. The experience of a 17-year-old trying to remain sexually abstinent often differs significantly from that of a 38-year-old who has spent 20 years cultivating a celibate vocation. When spiritual directors forget that people experience sexuality differently throughout their lives, they often come down hard, saying that it’s impossible to pursue lifelong celibacy within the context of a relationship. After all, these people profoundly struggled to maintain their own senses of chastity before they married in their early or mid-20s. Sometimes, this can also be true for spiritual directors living their own celibate vocations who may have struggled with remaining chaste as young people. In this case, a spiritual director might also assume that the boundaries associated with his or her particular celibate vocation are the appropriate boundaries for all people pursuing celibate vocations.

More profoundly, the slippery slope argument misrepresents how we cultivate chastity. Often, chastity is understood in terms of purity, virginity, and untouched landscapes. When this term is framed as being only about touch and purity, it is easy to forget that chastity begins with learning to control one’s tongue. On how abstaining from certain kinds of acts can help people cultivate virtue, Tikhon of Zadonsk offered this wisdom: “Let thy mind fast from vain thoughts; let thy memory fast from remembering evil; let thy will fast from evil desire; let thine eyes fast from bad sights: turn away thine eyes that thou mayest not see vanity; let thine ears fast from vile songs and slanderous whispers; let thy tongue fast from slander, condemnation, blasphemy, falsehood, deception, foul language and every idle and rotten word; let thy hands fast from killing and from stealing another’s goods; let thy legs fast from going to evil deeds: Turn away from evil, and do good.” The Roman Catholic Catechism opens with its discussion of chastity with this exhortation (para 2348): “All the baptized are called to chastity. The Christian has ‘put on Christ,’ the model for all chastity. All Christ’s faithful are called to lead a chaste life in keeping with their particular states of life. At the moment of his Baptism, the Christian is pledged to lead his affective life in chastity.” It seems to us that chastity, rightly understood, involves cultivating virtues that allow people to reflect the image and likeness of Christ more fully.

The slippery slope argument falls short of sound spiritual direction for many reasons. It begins by pathologizing natural expressions of physical intimacy. Often, spiritual directors use it to draw the line according to their own boundaries rather than help people discern what kinds of actions promote developing a celibate vocation.  When spiritual directors rely on their own experience of maintaining a state of sexual abstinence, they are usually reflecting on their experiences of being teenagers or young adults and “waiting until marriage.” This focus overlooks that celibate people develop vocations throughout their entire lives. Lastly, the slippery slope argument frames the celibacy question almost exclusively in terms of physical touch. Instead of using the slippery slope argument, we encourage spiritual directors to present celibacy as a vocation that allows people to cultivate virtues associated with imagining Christ-likeness to the world.

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6 thoughts on “The Slippery Slope

  1. Thanks for this post!

    I love hugs, touching someone’s arm in conversation, holding hands, etc. It’s not sexual, I’m just a very tactile person. However, ever since I have come out as gay, I have trouble giving/asking for hugs or engaging in almost any physical contact because I don’t want my actions to be misconstrued.

    I’ve had the “slippery slope” argument with my friends as well… most of them think I should avoid all temptation whatsoever by not even knowing/hanging out with other gay people. When I bring up the fact that I crave emotional intimacy with another person, they always bring it back to gay sex being biblically wrong. Relationships are so much more than just sex. I can go without sex, I don’t really think that’s a huge struggle for me. But for someone to tell me that love or other deep emotional bonds with another person is wrong? And that I should do everything possible to avoid it? I just don’t get it.

    I think Christians should be known by what they are for, rather than what they are against. That’s why I so appreciate this blog and others like it. Instead of focusing on “no sex,” you really focus on what you are doing: committing to each other, being hospitable, etc.

    • Hi Charleigh, thanks for your comment here. I think you raise some great points in how acknowledging one’s sexual orientation can lead to some new questions about natural and organic expressions of affection. On one hand, these questions are part of coming into an adult understanding of oneself. On the other hand, these questions can throw a person some pretty significant curveballs. I always encourage people to be gentle with themselves, emphasizing how every person needs to develop an adult understanding of himself or herself.

      For me, I was able to push past the slippery slope argument when I accepted that human beings have meaningful relationships with other human beings and that God wanted every person in my life to play a role in my understanding love more fully. I began seeing the meaningful relationships I had in my life, and I found myself empowered to cultivate new meaningful relationships. A foundation of meaningful relationships prepared me to be the kind of friend I wanted to be when I met Sarah. I’ll likely be saying more soon about actively cultivating a celibate vocation. -Lindsey

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  3. Hi Sarah and Lindsay, first of all thanks for this blog and offering to share your experiences with a wider audience. I’m sure yall get a lot of uncharitable/hostile comments on here, and its brave of you to soldier on nonetheless.

    I’m a young, non-Christian lesbian who is having trouble wrapping my head around your experience with celibacy. I apologize if my questions are not cool/already covered somewhere else on your blog, and of course I’ll understand if you choose not to answer. I am simply rather curious.

    Why exactly do you feel the need to be celibate? Is it that you find the practice of gay sex to be against the wishes of God? If so, why do you think that is?

    I consider sex to be a very important and sacred part of life, and perhaps we would agree that many people take the decision to share themselves with someone in that way far too lightly. However, I find that many of the concepts which yall and other gay Christian celibates I’ve come
    across discuss (vocation, dedication) are expressed through sex. Not all sex, of course; I’m speaking specifically of thoughtful, mutually supportive sex with someone whom you love. And I’m sure that yall agree that this kind of love-based, healthy sex can occur in heterosexual relationships, such as your married friends. The idea that anybody thinks such sex is available for straight people but not gay ones threatens to short-circuit the rational part of my brain and lead me to the kinds of reactions/judgments I’m sure yall are justifiably sick of: pity, accusations of internalized self-hatred, etc. I realize that those judgments are unfair, but hard to totally expel from my mind. I’ll try to pinpoint the question in a more specific way: if straight people can have a loving, mutually supportive sex lives sanctioned by God, why can’t you?

    Again, sorry for the novel’s worth of question, and thanks in advance if you choose to answer.

    • Hi Claire, thanks for your question. We’re glad to see you in the comment box. We discussed why why have chosen celibacy much earlier on our blog. You can read that post at http://aqueercalling.com/2014/01/16/why-celibacy/

      We regard the vocations of marriage and celibacy as distinct vocations that are necessarily informed by each individual’s sensibilities. If you were to look at our posts on Defining Celibacy (http://aqueercalling.com/2014/01/18/defining-celibacy) and Defining Marriage (http://aqueercalling.com/2014/03/07/defining-marriage/), you would see that some people have definitions of marriage that are expansive enough to include our definition of celibacy. We respect that individuals can define marriage in that way, but we also ask that individuals respect our definition of our relationship as a celibate partnership.

      We also want to be forthright in saying that yes, our particular Christian tradition and its more conservative sexual ethic do have an impact on our chosen vocation, but that does not mean we feel forced into this vocation by the Church, or that we are intentionally keeping ourselves away from potentially “love-based, healthy sex.” The purpose of our blog is not to make judgments about other people or couples, or to offer an apologetic for a particular sexual ethic. We’re more concerned with dialoguing on what it looks like (or could look like for others) to live a celibate vocation. The major question you raise in your comment is a good one, but it’s not the one we feel that we are here to answer because we didn’t start the blog with the intention of justifying a particular answer to questions about the morality of sexually active gay relationships.

      Please feel free to read around the blog and ask us questions wherever in the comments. If we’ve already addressed them in another post, then we can point you towards those posts. Our FAQ page might also be helpful as you try to get to know us a bit better: http://aqueercalling.com/frequently-asked-questions/. We look forward to hearing from you more.

  4. Lindsay and Sarah, as always, an enlightening post. Thank you! Even as a Catholic married woman, the dialogue surrounding physical touch and say, the time to avoid in our marriage, is challenging. Some couples cannot be in the same room or kiss and I hear a lot of that kind of avoidance. But you’re spot on: not all touch is sexual. If I could not hug my husband when I am struggling, I would struggle more. I am not hugging him to have sex with him; moreover, every kiss is not sexual – more often than not, it is affectionate. Please keep writing!

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