If you’re in the Sioux Falls area, come to Coffea downtown for my book release party/book signing at 7PM on Friday the 20th. It’s open house style, so come whenever. And if you feel like, bring cake because it is my birthday on Saturday.
When you write about sex, you get a lot of interesting emails and questions. For better or worse, I’ve become an authority on the church’s approach to sexual ethics and it’s a role I’m pretty content to fill. Whenever I give a talk, the question and answer session is the most interesting part, as stories of vulnerability and moments of connections happen, with people finally feeling free to unburden themselves of things they’ve carried for a long time.
It is this precious vulnerability that I treasure as a person speaking on these topics – I know I’m entering into touchy territory, with an audience vast and wide and diverse. Nothing I say will please everyone, but at the very least, I can commit to creating a space that is safe for the “least of these,” a place for those who have felt unworthy and ungracious.
This position has allowed me the unique responsibility of both deconstruction and construction. I critique, but I also try to address the ways in which we can rebuild and return to grace and glory. This critical eye and my commitment to inclusion breeds within me a righteous anger toward those who assume their audience is all people like them, toward those who are ignorant of the people in their pews on Sundays.
I reserve my anger for those who are in positions of power and influence, for those who parrot oppressive theologies and dehumanize people in their discussions. One such example presented itself recently when the anti-porn XXXChurch posted a Q&A style video with the organization’s founder Craig Gross and his wife. The question, poorly phrased, was a simple one that begged for a simple answer: “Can overweight people have great sex?”
The answer, of course, is yes. The quality of sex is not dependent on weight or physique or some societally determined attractiveness. Fat people can have great sex and skinny people can have terrible sex. Sex doesn’t exist on some objective standard where you hit all the right points and suddenly it goes from “meh” to “OH WOW AWESOME.”
But the answer that came from Mr. Gross was unfortunately obtuse and evident of a shallow understanding of sexual experience and sexual activity. He proceeded to ramble about how overweight people have low self-esteem and that kind of thinking about oneself can affect how sexual activity goes. He also brought up the fact that obesity is a health issue, lamenting the fact that his father did not care about his weight and had since passed on – presumably due to issues related to weight.
I got angry, not only as the daughter of a woman whose diagnosis was delayed because doctors insisted her weight was the problem, but as a person who likes and enjoys sex and does not fit into the cultural beauty ideals which say larger women are unlovable except by those who fetishize weight.
This is an ongoing stigma that fat people face – that they are unlovable, automatically unsexy, and that weight is a barrier to great sex. These assumptions are not purported by fat people themselves but instead by thin folk who have no idea what it is like to have sex as a fat person.
On Facebook, XXXChurch eventually clarified that the response was really about what to do in a relationship when one partner gains weight and the other person does not – which is a completely different and more complex question. But instead of answering that question, Gross and his wife went on about the need to lose weight, the health problems fat people face, and seemed to be working from the base assumption that fat people are incapable of good sex on their own and that fat is naturally unattractive.
Our culture has developed all kinds of weird, supposedly evolutionary justifications for why our current beauty ideals can be justified. Skinniness has become associated with good health, and the white beauty industry rejects women of color who do not match the skinny white woman, androgynous form. We look for symmetry, for size 2 bodies, and we’re told this is the image of healthy beauty. Despite this cultural pressure, weight has little to do with health for the vast majority of people. Indeed, many larger people experience health problems solely due to doctors’ unwillingness to see beyond the weight to any problems of which weight may, in fact, be a symptom.
There’s this concept in feminism that the male gaze is internalized in women to the point where we imagine it forever judging us, even if no men are present. In Christian culture, this male gaze is intensified sevenfold, as we are instructed to keep our brothers’ spiritual lives at the forefront of how we dress and how we behave. It is virtually impossible, then, to leave such views at the bedroom door, bringing every insecurity and foible into the bed with our partners. Even as we experience the approval that is a person wanting to have sex with us in that moment, we women are wondering how our fat looks as it jiggles in the motions of sex.
And Craig Gross’ commentary – and, indeed, “concerned” commentary from other Christians on the same subject – do nothing to assuage that fear the male gaze instills. If anything, such concern about it being “unsexy” and fat as a health problem only increases the anxiety that the male gaze gives women, confirming our deepest fears about their bodies and their attractiveness. It helps no one for representatives of the church to buy into rhetoric that shames the bodies God has created and the perfectly wonderful lives people live simply because they don’t fit some made-up ideal.
Indeed, even in the purity culture centered world in which Gross lives, his response is weird and off-kilter. Sex that happens within marriage is, by definition, sex that happens between two people who are committed for life, through thick and thin. The weight gain of one partner is small beans in terms of a lifetime of marital commitment and love. The only way such a thing could even be a concern is if marriage, in the Christian world, is solely about sexual satisfaction – which I think anyone can agree is a shoddy basis for a lifelong commitment.
This, ultimately, is the problem with Craig Gross’ response. He is unable to move past the initial prejudice about fat bodies into a position that honors God’s creation, honors the commitment of the married people to whom he is speaking, and acknowledges that people who are different from him have different experiences.