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Guess What's Coming to the

American Academy of Religion This Year,

Courtesy of the Gay Men's Group?

by Robert A. J. Gagnon

Associate Professor of New Testament, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Sept. 30, 2004


The Gay Men's Issues in Religion Group has come up with an interesting theme for one of their sessions at the American Academy of Religion's (AAR) 2004 Annual Meeting (Nov. 20-23, San Antonio, TX). (For the uninitiated, the American Academy of Religion is the U.S. national umbrella organization for professors of religion--church historians, theologians, ethicists, scholars in world religions. Biblical scholars have their own national organization: the Society of Biblical Literature.) The theme is: "Power and Submission, Pain and Pleasure: The Religious Dynamics of Sadomasochism." If you, bless your heart, do not know what sadomasochism is, here's a definition: "the combination of sadism and masochism, in particular the deriving of pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from inflicting or submitting to physical or emotional abuse" (The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., 2000). Or, more succinctly, "the derivation or pleasure from the infliction of physical or mental pain either on others or on oneself" (Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary, 2002).

Not that the Gay Men's group is one-dimensional. They also have another session, half of which is devoted to transgenderism, which includes both transvestism (crossdressing) and transsexualism (intense psychological identification with the other sex, often combined today with a sex change operation).

This theme is a nice complement to a theme adopted for one of their sessions at the 2003 Annual Meeting: "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing: Varied Views on Polyamory." Polyamory is "participation in multiple and simultaneous . . . sexual relationships," that is, having more than sex partner at the same time (Webster's New Millennium Dictionary, 2003). This includes "traditional" forms of polygamy (specifically, "polygyny," multiple wives) as well as "threesomes" and other sexual unions in which each partner has sex with all other persons in the partnership.

Why do people think that bringing male homosexual behavior into the mainstream is going to tame male homosexuality rather than destroy basic societal norms?


Sadomasochism and Transvestism Chic

In early 2004 the Gay Men's group issued a "Call for Papers" on topics such as "transgenderism" and "S/M," among others ( Here are the results (click here or go to and type in the key words "gay men's"):


Gay Men's Issues in Religion Group
Saturday - 1:00 pm-3:30 pm
Session Abstract

Donald L. Boisvert, Concordia University, Presiding

Theme: Power and Submission, Pain and Pleasure: The Religious Dynamics of Sadomasochism

"Sadomasochistic or bondage/dominance practice (sometimes also referred to as 'leather sexuality') . . . offers a particularly potent location for reflecting on gay men's issues in religion."

[Comment: Of what other group seeking validation in the church today can it be said that "sadomasochistic practice offers a particularly potent location for reflecting on their religious experience"? Is this not a searing indictment of male homosexuality?]

Justin Tanis, Metropolitan Community Church
Ecstatic Communion: The Spiritual Dimensions of Leathersexuality

"This paper will . . . . look briefly at the ways in which leather is a foundation for personal and spiritual identify formation, creating a lens through which the rest of life is viewed. . . . All of this based within the framework of a belief in the rights of individuals to erotic self determination with other consenting adults, rather than apologetics for those practices and lives."

[Comment: Apparently the most important consideration for the sexual ethics of the presenter is that the sadomasochistic behavior expresses "erotic self determination" between "consenting adults." While not offering an apologetic for the behavior, he wants to establish a framework of "belief in the rights of the individual," apparently to participate in mutually self-degrading behavior.]

Thomas V. Peterson, Alfred University
S/M Rituals in Gay Men's Leather Communities: Initiation, Power Exchange, and Subversion

"This paper uses S/M rituals within the gay men’s leather community to explore how ritual may subvert cultural icons of violence by eroticizing power. . . . Those who exercise power and acquiesce to it in leather rituals meet as respected equals and negotiate the limitations of power according to mutual desires."

[Comment: The presenter actually claims that violence is subverted when we eroticize it in a relationship of "respected equals" where each partner can take turns doing ritual harm to the other. Enough said.]

Ken Stone, Chicago Theological Seminary
“You Seduced Me, You Overpowered Me, and You Prevailed”: Religious Experience and Homoerotic Sadomasochism in Jeremiah

"[Jeremiah 20:7-18] can be construed more usefully as a kind of ritual S/M encounter between the male deity Yahweh and his male devotee. This possibility provides a lens with which to interpret both other passages in the book of Jeremiah and the dynamics of power and submission in religious experience."

[Comment: The presenter thinks that he has found a wonderful new "lens" to interpret the relationship of Yahweh to his people: sadomasochism. Just when you thought the Bible had already been explored from every angle, along comes this innovative approach.]

Timothy R. Koch, New Life Metropolitan Community Church
Choice, Shame, and Power in the Construction of Sadomasochistic Theologies

"One of the constitutive elements of sado-masochistic interactions is the removal of the masochist’s choices, making it possible for both masochist and sadist to proceed in a spiritually powerful state of relative shamelessness. These axes of choice, shame, and spiritual power are especially relevant to the experiences of gay men."

[Comment: The presenter thinks that "sadomasochistic interactions" enable gay men to transcend "shamelessness"? What is backwards here?]

Julianne Buenting, Chicago Theological Seminary
Oh, Daddy! God, Dominance/Submission, and Christian Sacramentality and Spirituality

"This paper explores BDSM (bondage/dominance, sadomasochism) as potentially transformative encounter in relation to themes of trust and surrender, suffering and pleasure, self-shattering and self-donation found in Christian sacramentality and mystical spirituality. . . . Queer understandings of BDSM offer relational conceptualizations that may be helpful for Christian understandings of our relationship with the divine (and vice versa). Special attention will be given to the characteristics and role of the dominant (top/master/daddy) as these relate to Christianity’s use of dominant imagery for God."

[Comment: That will really preach to the kids, won't it? In the past I've read a book to my children that introduces a series of comparisons with the words "God is like . . . ." There is a page at the end to add one's own analogy. Apparently the presenter believes "God is like a sadomasochistic daddy" would be a creative use of that page. That will really help the child's conceptualization of God.]

Kent Brintnall, Emory University
Rend(er)ing God's Flesh: The Body of Christ, Spectacles of Pain, and Trajectories of Desire

"This paper substantiates the claim . . . that sado-masochistic homoerotic desire is part of what makes the spectacle of the crucifixion attractive and desirable."

[Comment: So it's the "sadomasochistic homoerotic" dimension of the cross that makes it such an "attractive and desirable" symbol of the Christian life. Who knew? All along I've been laboring under the mistaken notion that it was a symbol of the need for radical self-renunciation and discipleship, of death to self that we might live for God.]



Gay Men's Issues in Religion Group
Sunday - 4:00 pm-6:30 pm
Session Abstract

Jay Emerson Johnson, Pacific School of Religion, Presiding

Theme: Differing Accents: Queering White, Gay, Male Religious Discourse

Jakob Hero, Zagreb, Croatia
Do We Really Need That T? Trans-Inclusion in Queer Communities of Faith

"A deeper look into the mutually beneficial impact of trans-inclusion on queer communities of faith and on transgendered people makes clear that there is not only room for transgendered people, but also that transpeople are an essential element in queer theology."

Katharine Baker, Vanderbilt University
The Transvestite Christ: Hedwig and the Angry Inch Perform Queer Theology

"In the rock musical Hedwig & The Angry Inch, Hedwig, the protagonist, re-signifies his identity through gender-bending transvestism and doctrine-deconstructing re-appropriation of Christian theology. This essay documents his evolution in the terms of Bourdieu, Butler and Queer Theology."

Burkhard Scherer, Canterbury Christ Church University College
Transgenderism, Homosexuality, and the Pandakas: Gender Identity and "Queer" Sexual Conduct in Early Buddhism and Beyond

Plus three other papers.


Polyamory Chic

As noted above, last year's Gay Men's group at AAR explored the wonders of "polyamory" (click here or go to and type in the key words "gay men's"). The abstracts make quite clear that this was an advocacy session. Given the nature of male sexuality and the excesses that typically occur when men have only other men for sex partners, advocacy of polyamory by male homosexuals (but also by an occasional lesbian) is hardly surprising.

    A217     Abstract

Gay Men's Issues in Religion Group
Monday - 1:00 pm-3:30 pm

Donald L. Boisvert, Concordia University, Montreal, Presiding

Theme: Love Is a Many Splendored Thing: Varied Views on Polyamory

Julianne Buenting, Chicago Theological Seminary
(Marriage) Queered: Proposing Polyfidelity As Christian Theo-Praxis

"Lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) political advocacy . . . have reflected the unexamined assumption that monogamy is the sole and ideal pattern for Christian sexual relationships. This paper troubles that assumption. . . . I conclude by proposing polyfidelity as a queer Christian sexual theo-praxis of marriage."

[Comment: Well, at least the presenter, a woman,  is honest: a "queer" theology and praxis leads to a view of "polyfidelity" over monogamy as a new Christian model for marriage. Since the notion of monogamy, one partner, is predicated on the notion of the two sexes, the eradication of any significance to sexual differentiation obliterates the model of marriage as a covenant restricted to two persons. Evidently for the presenter, fidelity has nothing to do with sexual exclusiveness.]

Robert E. Goss, Webster University
Proleptic Sexual Love: God's Promiscuity Reflected in Christian Polyamory

"I will argue that Christian religious communities, with their erotic and polyamorous relationships, symbolize the breadth of God’s inclusive and promiscuous love."

[Comment: Aren't you comforted by the notion of God's "inclusive and promiscuous love"? What a model for us to live by. I suppose the implication is that we should be having inclusive sex with everyone in our local church.]

Jay E. Johnson, Richmond, CA
Trinitarian Tango: Divine Perichoretic Fecundity in Polyamorous Relations

"Christian traditions abruptly stop short of applying this Trinitarian logic to human sexuality. It is well worth asking whether polyamorous sexual relations reflect the “imago Dei” -- indeed, the “imago Trinitate” -- better than the dyadic model of romantic love, commonly constructed as the Christian ideal."

[Comment: You knew this was going to happen at some time or other: The Trinity used as a model for threesomes. The presenter argues that polyamorous relationships reflect the "image of God" "better" than twosomes. How absurd to regard the Trinity as a model for erotic attraction. Taken to its logical ends, the presenter should next be promoting incest and pedophilia--using "Father" and "Son" metaphors.]

Mark D. Jordan, Emory University
"One Wife": The Problem with the Patriarchs and the Promiscuity of Agape

"Traditional Christian arguments for restricting marriage to two, and only two, . . . leave a gap through which we can construct a theology of polyamory. So does the Christian ideal of the agapic community, which may be the main source and encouragement for this new theology."

[Comment: The presenter, unlike Jesus, is not warning us against polyamory but rather setting out to "construct a theology of polyamory." Obviously, fidelity to Jesus' teachings is not a hallmark of the presenter's view of discipleship.]

Ronald E. Long, Hunter College
Heavenly Sex: The Moral Authority of a Seemingly Impossible Dream

I would suggest that all sex be thought of as a form of meeting, so that sexual “introductions” might be seen as ends in themselves, and sex within a relationship as meeting in depth. We might also think of a man’s erection as his wearing his heart on his sleeve, distortions taking place when he forgets.

[Comment: For the presenter sexual intercourse is just a greater step toward more intimacy: meeting someone "in depth," a particularly warm self-"introduction." A man's erection? Nothing more than "wearing his heart on his sleeve"! Think of the ramifications of this thinking for being "introduced" to new members of the faith. It's mind-boggling.]

For a response to the "polyamorists" who argue that multiple-partner sexuality is endorsed by Scripture, see the note below.

What's Left?

One wonders what is next for the Gay Men's group at AAR: the promotion of incest, "pedosexuality," and bestiality? There is certainly little or nothing in the presenters' theology that would lead away from such ultimate absurdities. There is no understanding anywhere here of the notion of structural prerequisites to sexual relationships. Eroticism and sexual intercourse is nothing more than greater intimacy. The conclusion following from the premise is inevitable: then intimacy with one's parents and children should be ever open to the "logical" progression of sexual intimacy. For sexual intimacy is for the presenters merely more love. Spread it around.

Jesus' view of the relationship of love and sexual intercourse was obviously very different. For while Jesus expanded the definition of love to embrace everyone he narrowed the definition of acceptable sexual intimacy to embrace only one person of the other sex for life. Who is missing something here? Jesus or the Gay Men's group at AAR?

Churchgoing Christian proponents of committed homosexual practice often get hysterical when those opposed to homosexual practice make comparisons between homosexual practice and incest, polyamory, or other forms of aberrant sexual behavior. They scoff at the "slippery slope" theory. They claim that eliminating the most basic structural prerequisite in Christian thought for acceptable sexual relationships (i.e., the two-sex prerequisite) will have no bearing on structural prerequisites regarding number (monogamy), degree of blood unrelatedness (no incest), and age. It also won't promote transvestism and other forms of transgenderism, they say. And yet it is the Gay Men's group at AAR (and an occasional lesbian) that is promulgating exactly such a vision. They provide both the slope and the grease.

Like most things, the bizarre stuff that makes its way through the religious academy of scholars eventually filters down to church leaders. It represents the coming wave. Look out. The embrace of homosexual practice logically and experientially demands it.


*                         *                         *

A Note on Old Testament Polygamy. The "polyamorists" in the Gay Men's group at AAR doubtless justify polyamory, in part, on the basis of Old Testament polygamy practices (more specifically, polygyny practices [from Greek poly "many" and gyne "wife," "many wives"). How should a Christian respond? As regards divorce and remarriage, Jesus recognized that the law of Moses permitted a man to divorce his wife and remarry (Deut. 24:1-4; cf. Lev. 21:7, 14; Deut. 21:14; Jer. 3:1). Yet Jesus interpreted this as a concession to human (chiefly male) hardness of heart, a loophole in the law that Jesus was now revoking in light of a higher precedent established “from the beginning of creation” (Mark 10:6 par. Matt. 19:8). In so doing, he also implicitly revoked the Mosaic permission (not mandate) of polygamy for men. How do we know this?

     First, Jesus emphasized in his remarks about divorce and remarriage the importance of the number two and did so on the basis of the binary pattern of the sexes in Gen. 1:27 (“male and female”) and the declaration “and the two shall become one flesh” in Gen. 2:24. He concluded: “so they are no longer two but one flesh” (Mark 10:8 par. Matt. 19:5-6). The existence of only two sexes, obviously designed for complementary sexual pairing, is the basis for prohibiting not only same-sex intercourse but also remarriage after divorce and polygamy. The union of the two sexes is not only necessary for integrating a sexual whole but also sufficient for doing so. The addition of other sex partners is superfluous and, indeed, adulterous. If, in Jesus’ view, this principle of two applied in the case of divorce and remarriage, where the husband thinks that he has dissolved the prior union, then it certainly applied for him in the case of polygyny, where the husband acknowledges that the union with his first wife is still intact.

     Second, Jesus declared that a man who “divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her” because the first marriage is treated as still intact (Mark 10:11; cf. Luke 16:18). Under the law of Moses, a man only committed adultery when he had intercourse with another man’s wife. The offense was against the other man, not his own wife. By making the man’s acquisition of a second wife, whether in remarriage after divorce or in polygyny, an offense against the first wife, Jesus declares that the wife has as much claim to her husband’s monogamy as the husband has to his wife’s.

     We might add that Paul’s discussions of marriage presume this same principle of monogamy, including 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul picks up Jesus’ divorce saying (vv. 10-11). Even the Old Testament foreshadowed a broader case against polygamy, not only in Gen. 2:20-24, but also in the implicit prohibition of polyandry (multiple husbands), the usual practice of one wife in Israelite society, and stories of internal disputes in households with additional wives or concubines (e.g., Gen. 16:4-9; 21:8-14; 30:1-2, 15; 1 Sam. 1:6).


*                              *                            *

A letter protesting that I didn't stress that polyamory refers to "loving" relationships. On Oct. 15, 2004 I received the following e-mail correspondence. I have withheld the name of the writer.



Dear Mr. Gagnon,

I find your convenient editing of the definition of polyamory in the article below to be ethically and intellectually indefensible.

I quote:

This theme is a nice complement to a theme adopted for one of their sessions at the 2003 Annual Meeting: "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing: Varied Views on Polyamory." Polyamory is "participation in multiple and simultaneous . . . sexual relationships," that is, having more than sex partner at the same time (Webster's New Millennium Dictionary, 2003). This includes "traditional" forms of polygamy (specifically, "polygyny," multiple wives) as well as "threesomes" and other sexual unions in which each partner has sex with all other persons in the partnership.

As I'm sure you're well aware, the "full" and unedited definition of polyamory in that publication, as per a lookup on just a few minutes ago, is as follows:

Definition: participation in multiple and simultaneous loving or sexual relationships.

Source: Webster's New MillenniumT Dictionary of English, © 2003

Note the source. The same one you quote.

The unquestionably deliberate omission of "loving or" from the definition used in your article has a clearly pejorative and distorting effect on the meaning of the term, reducing it to a definition that is purely sexual in nature, and omitting the elements association with emotional feelings and relationships, and the clear implication that the former can take priority over the latter.

Further, I'm sure that you are aware that in actual usage and practice, polyamory means multiple *relationships*, involving emotional and personal commitment on the part of each part, as well as full disclosure and honesty, NOT having multiple sexual partners with no strings attached and none of them the wiser.

If one of your students pulled a stunt like this in a paper, I'm sure you'd grade them accordingly. I'm giving you an "F" for cheating on this essay.




Here is my response:


Dear Mr. [Name],

I do not know you but you do not come across in your email as a careful reader of texts.

Nobody has any problems with multiple, nonerotic friendships. It is when eroticism and intercourse are introduced into the equation that people get concerned. You seem to think that it would make a big difference to readers that sexual unions involving three or more persons would be "loving."

It would not. A group of ten people (or 3 or 20 or more) involved in "loving" sexual relationships with one another is going to meet with as much public shock as a group in "non-loving" sexual relationships. It's the erotic or sexual character of a multiple-partner relationship that people will have trouble with, irrespective of whether the sexual relationships are loving--just as it is shocking to introduce an erotic component into a man-mother, brother-sister, or adult-child relationship. Whether or not such relationships are "loving," in addition to being sexual, is beside the point.

And let there be no confusion about whether the Gay Men's Group has in view asexual, nonerotic relationships. Look at the following papers:

Julianne Buenting's paper criticizes "the unexamined assumption that monogamy is the sole and ideal pattern for Christian sexual relationships." That's right: "sexual relationships."

Robert Goss's paper refers to "erotic and polyamorous relationships" that "symbolize the breadth of God's inclusive and promiscuous love." That's right: "erotic" and "promiscuous." And I guess "inclusive" means that we should have sex with the maximum number of people possible. Gee, I guess if someone marries a person of his or own race, or another race, but leaves out other races, he or she is not being "inclusive" enough. Maybe we should just be having sex with everyone in our local church and, indeed, every "neighbor" with whom we come into contact with.

Jay Johnson's paper asks "whether polyamorous sexual relations reflect the “imago Dei” -- indeed, the “imago Trinitate” -- better than the dyadic model of romantic love." Catch that? "Polyamorous sexual relationships," "romantic love."

Mark Jordan's paper states: "Traditional Christian arguments for restricting marriage to two, and only two, . . . leave a gap through which we can construct a theology of polyamory." Note: we're not talking about friendship here but marriages consisting of more than two persons (with no apparent limit).

And Ronald Long's paper suggests "that all sex be thought of as a form of meeting, so that sexual “introductions” might be seen as ends in themselves, and sex within a relationship as meeting in depth. We might also think of a man’s erection as his wearing his heart on his sleeve, distortions taking place when he forgets." Clearly, too, he is talking about relationships involving sexual intercourse, where "a man's erection" is little more than a particularly "warm" "meeting in depth." So perhaps we should now add to our greetings: "Hi, I'm so-and-so, and to make you feel really welcome how about having sex with me? Allow me to really introduce myself!"

So the important point from each of these papers is that they are all promoting polyamorous, i.e., multiple-partner "sexual" relationships. And the "theology" implicit in each suggests "the more, the merrier" so far as sexual relationships are concerned. Does that sound like Jesus' teaching to you?

The very fact that I used the term "partnership" indicates that I am acknowledging the commitment aspect of these sexual relationships. You reproduced the text of my words but apparently this did not compute for you.

You should also note that the dictionary definition says "loving or sexual" not "loving and sexual." The definition gives the impression that nonsexual, nonerotic multiple-partner relationships may be in view when one uses the term "polyamory," when in fact the common usage is to refer to sexual relationships (which may or may not be loving). It's poorly worded. The key adjective of the two, what separates polyamorous relationships from friendships, is "sexual." And certainly the AAR papers had in view only sexual relationships. I did not include the phrase "loving or" because it was both badly worded and not applicable to the AAR papers. The non-applicability had to do not with the fact that I was discounting that "polyfidelity" might be involved in these papers (indeed, Buenting's paper uses the very term in the title of her presentation, and readers can clearly see this when they go to the article on my website) but with the fact that only sexual relationships were in view in these papers.

That you apparently think that it would make a difference to people that the AAR Gay Men's Group was promoting "faithful" sexual relationships that could include half a dozen persons or more (the sky's the limit), rather than mere promiscuity (though, again, note Goss's positive reference to a "promiscuous God") is sad commentary on how much you are out of touch with what the vast majority of people in the United States think. You might as well complain that criticism of man-mother incest or adult-child sexual unions would be off-target if it failed to note that committed relationships were in view.

You close by saying, rather condescendingly, "If one of your students pulled a stunt like this in a paper, I'm sure you'd grade them accordingly. I'm giving you an 'F' for cheating on this essay." This complements the pejorative remark at the beginning of your email that you find my "editing" to be "ethically and intellectually indefensible."

Let me say, Mr. [name], that as regards the moral and intellectual content of your email, you are in no position to be my teacher, to say nothing of giving me a failing grade. I hope--really, I do--that you will come to your moral senses in the future, in accordance with Jesus. I am sure that there is much to like about you and, even if that were not so, you have inherent worth as a human being to be reclaimed for the kingdom of God.


Robert Gagnon, Ph.D.




© 2004 Robert A. J. Gagnon