Book Review: Linking Sexuality and Gender

This paper was initially written for my course “History and Theology of the United Church of Canada” in Winter 2012.

Linking Sexuality and Gender: Naming Violence against Women in The United Church of Canada by Tracy Trothen goes through a variety of issues of sexuality and gender within the history of The United Church of Canada. While the subtitle suggests an emphasis on violence against women, this plays a relatively minor role in any direct sense, instead focusing on various other attitudes which could easily manifest violently.

The specific issues are discussed briefly in chapters 2 and 3. Later chapters, 4-6, offer Case Studies from three of the major documents in the United Church of Canada’s history with regards to sexuality and gender. Generally speaking, these Case Studies provide specific primary source analysis of some of the broader discussion found in the earlier chapters. Although there are some other brief mentions of other topics such as the Redemption Homes, the four main topics are discussed more below: contraception, the marriage relationship, pornography, and gender roles. Trothen then provides a conclusive chapter which effectively brings together the themes of the book.

Contraception

There is a clear natural law argument against contraception which is one of the main reasons why some Christians still oppose it today. It is obvious from the simple natural order that sex is at least in part for reproduction. The reasoning goes: if sex is for reproduction and reproduction is denied, then the gift of sex is being misused. During the early years of the church, sex for the sake of pleasure or even for spiritual union was unheard of; pleasure particularly was distrusted as inherently irrational and wrong. Contraception was one of the major issues that began to change this assumption as it was pitted against the variety of practical advantages which could be gained through more effective family planning.

I found here particularly interesting the honesty with which Trothen, an unashamed feminist, spoke of the The Report of the Commission on Voluntary Parenthood and Sterilization. Those writing the report argued from Jewish and Roman Catholic religious tradition that birth control methods were ethical far before they were generally accepted by society. The argument was an interesting and not-entirely-coherent one. Jewish rabbis allowed birth control once the family already had two children – in other words, only after still having fulfilled the purpose of sex as being procreation. The Roman Catholic Church allowed family planning but only by abstaining during fertile periods; if a woman (or less likely, a man) didn’t want any more children, they had to sacrifice sex, and again the meaning of sex as for procreation was, and is, maintained for Roman Catholics. Putting these two together, the report authors argued that therefore there was theological precedent for birth control. Depending on your point of view, this could be seen as either a positive or a negative thing, but I really appreciated Trothen’s honesty that the:

choice and interpretation of sources indicates that the authors of the report probably had decided on their ethical position before they investigated other sources of authority. The intent does not seem to have been to open debate through an examination of related religious traditions, but rather to substantiate an ethical position that had been arrived at on the basis of consequentialist reasoning.[1]

This may be a contentious statement for some, but it seems to be a general trend in United Church of Canada history: ethical judgements are weighted more in terms of cultural considerations than on church tradition or biblical interpretation.

Marriage

The next issue examined in depth throughout the book by Trothen is that of marriage, its meaning and its ethical requirements. At the heart of many of the questions is the quality of the sexual relationship within marriage. Prior to this time was the assumption that marriage was inherently good as was any sexual act within marriage. The opposite was also true: any sexual relationship outside of marriage was inherently sinful. As would be a general trend, the ethical issues that began to be answered in acts-centred ways would shift to be more relationship-centred. As early as 1936, the United Church claimed that women have the right not to be exploited, including sexually by their husbands.

This developed more fully in the 1960’s. Mutual sexual consent, including within marriage, is argued for in the 1960 report Toward a Christian Understanding of Sex, Love, Marriage. It is not hard to see how this extends in the opposite direction: if sex inside of marriage is not always good but is measured by the quality of the relationship, then sex outside of marriage is not always bad and should be measured by the same qualities. The relationship-centric ethic, protecting each individual and not just the social construct of marriage, would quickly begin to replace the acts-centred ethic which had dominated both the church and the world in general.

Divorce also began to be more accepted “as necessary in some marital relationships if, for example, the relationship had reached a point where it was destructive to all family members as well as the neighbourhood.”[2] Marriage was, and is, still highly valued, but not as highly as the well-being of the individual people involved in it. This is unsurprising in many ways because it came not only alongside women’s rights movements, but also alongside the extreme individualism that has come to so strongly characterize our culture. As with many of the other issues discussed in the book, a critical question that can be asked, then, is whether the United Church was at the forefront in evoking positive progressive changes or whether it was only following its cultural influences for good or for ill. This is not strictly a United Church challenge; it is a question that all churches must ask themselves.

Trothen also discusses the dualisms often applied to women, one that is even still (less-frequently) applied today. A woman is often categorized as one of two extremes: pure (virgin) or impure (whore). There was no middle ground, and a single sexual misstep – any sexual activity outside of marriage – would completely devalue a woman’s worth. While some churches right up to contemporary times have responded to the realization of this sexism by attempting to enforce the same black-and-white categories upon men,[3] others such as the United Church have responded with relaxing the dichotomy for women as well. This approach would be another common characteristic across many of the ethical issues discussed throughout the book: if it was liberating and felt good, it was usually considered good, at least in the early years of the respective discussions, by those in the United Church of Canada and other liberal Protestant denominations. Over time, many of these inclinations toward liberation for the sake of liberation as always good would be tempered, largely through the aforementioned relationship-quality ethic.

Pornography and Fantasy

Pornography would become another major issue facing the church, particularly beginning in the 1970’s. This would be a case of being faced with the idea of liberation as always positive and ultimately deciding that this was not true. It was still a significant shift however, from being condemned because it was sexual to being condemned because it objectified people as only sexual objects and often included violence against women. Thus, pornography became understood as dangerous because of the problems caused for relationships.

Masturbation similarly moved away from being condemned simply because it was sexual (without procreation). Generally speaking it became accepted as a way to release sexual tension and, even more importantly, to become more aware of one’s own body. This could actually be seen as a positive for later (and even current) relationships as someone who is more aware of their own body would be more prepared to intimately love others. There were cautions, however, particularly around the idea of fantasy. Many conservative Christians today see this as still the primary caution against masturbation, although with a different citation for why it was a concern. As was often the case, conservatives relied and rely primarily on the texts of the Bible – in this case usually Jesus’ warning against lust in the Sermon on the Mount – while liberals rely heavily on social sciences to reach consequentialist conclusions. For example, Trothen quotes from Lebacqz and Barton in saying:

Even if fantasy is not turned into action, it may yet be harmful…. Fantasy can become all-consuming. It can distract from necessary choices. It can distort judgment… While a good fantasy can make me alive, energetic, creative, and ready to deal with reality, a warped one does exactly the opposite. It drains energy, turns me inward, and ultimately makes me less able to deal with reality…. Fantasies can even become addictive.[4]

Gender Roles

Throughout all of these issues has been the underlying question of gender roles. In the early years of the United Church of Canada, men were understood to be the head of the household and of the church. A woman’s ultimate calling was to take care of her children and her husband. While early in the United Church’s history women were permitted to become ordained and to hold other leadership positions, it was understood that this would only happen so long as the woman was single. If a woman were to marry while in church leadership, she would be expected to step down to be able to carry out her higher calling as a wife and mother. Disrupting this family order was a major fear, especially as there existed a theological connotation I had never heard of: the Kingdom of God was believed to have required a certain family structure. It was not simply expressed as a fear of change; it was an eschatological concern that they were working against the Kingdom.

Another fear was that “women would ‘sink’ to the male moral standard.”[5] This is an interesting seeming-contradiction which was prevalent in the earlier years of the United Church: women were understood to be simultaneously the morally-superior sex and the more gullible sex. This reinforced keeping women’s roles restricted to the calling of wives and mothers. This would protect them from much of the outside world which could easily corrupt their otherwise-innocent lives. In a sense, women were viewed as more important than men as they were the moral guardians of society, which makes it even harder to bring about change. The family, and therefore the nation and the world, depended on women remaining in their God-honouring roles of wife and mother while men did the “dirty work” outside of the home.

Concluding Themes

Throughout this book, it is clear to see many themes that are still prominent for The United Church of Canada’s understanding of sexuality and gender today. The obvious starting point is the emphasis on sexuality and gender in the first place. For many today, this is the first thing they think of when they hear the United Church of Canada mentioned: it is affirming of same-sex marriage, heavily emphasize women in leadership and other women’s rights, and generally has more liberal views of almost all sexual-ethic questions than most other churches. Many within the United Church are proud of this self-definition.

One of the more specific themes still prominent is that of the well-being of the individual over the continuance of what seemed at the time to be the best structures for society. This is most striking in the discussion of gender roles, allowing women to decide for themselves whether they will work outside of the house, which inevitably means leaving or at least reducing the amount of time available for caring for the family. It is also clear in discussions of rights within marriage and the right to divorce if it was no longer good for those within the family. This relates to another major theme: the understanding of sex shifting away from being for the purposes of procreation to include pleasure and the desire for union with one’s partner. Bearing children is primarily a service to the community but pleasure and spiritual union with one’s partner is primarily for the benefit of the individual. This manifested itself within the contraception debates most powerfully, but also in the areas of pornography and the necessity for mutual consent.

Lastly, as mentioned explicitly multiple times in the book, the decision-making metric for sexual ethics moved from a list of good acts and a list of bad acts to a consequentialist relationship-driven ethic. This drove all of the questions mentioned above. On the one hand, it rejected the strictly yes-or-no ethics of prior teachings. On the other hand, it held in check the urge from some to see liberating and pleasurable activity as inherently good by providing some cautions as to the potential dangers. This shift ties closely to the sources of ethics: while many conservative Christians relied (and still rely) primarily on top-down rules to make clear what should and should not be done, many liberal Christians arrive at their ethical positions through consequentialist arguments derived from social sciences.

Regardless of one’s own understanding of these sexual arguments – personally, on some issues I side with the United Church and on others I don’t – this is a very well-written book. The history is examined faithfully and critically, not exalting the motives of those who reached those progressive conclusions nor overly criticizing those of a different era with different fundamental assumptions about sexuality and gender. It is concise and few words seem to be redundant in establishing the idea of why the United Church of Canada has ended up with many of the positions on sexuality and gender that it now is so well known for. For better or for worse, the topics discussed in Linking Sexuality & Gender are central for much of the United Church’s definition, and this book does a spectacular job of explaining why that is so.

Bibliography

Trothen, Tracy J. Linking Sexuality & Gender: Naming Violence against Women in the United Church of Canada. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2003.


[1] Tracy J. Trothen. Linking Sexuality & Gender: Naming Violence against Women in the United Church of Canada. (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2003), p. 15

[2] Ibid., 19

[3] This is very common in conservative evangelical circles which heavily emphasize the sinful impurity of men who have committed what are seen as sexual transgressions, often even much more than they do for women

[4] Ibid., 45

[5] Ibid., 33

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.