Charting the sex wars, Pt. II

"Monogamy" isn't such a scary word, once people get the hang of redefining it to fit the realities of modern life, according to gay provocateur Dan Savage.

"The sexual model that straight people have created really doesn't work," said the nationally syndicated columnist, in a New York Times Magazine piece on post-modern sex. "All it does is force people to lie. ... In this society, we view monogamy like we view virginity, one incident and it's over, the relationship is over."

Heterosexual couples, he said, should relax and learn from homosexuals. Relationships must grow and evolve. "I know gay couples who have been together for 35 years. They have separate bedrooms. Sometimes they sleep together and sometimes they sleep with other people, but they're a great couple," he said.

Is this "monogamy"? That depends on how the word is defined.

Many homosexuals agree with Savage. But some gays and many lesbians embrace a more traditional definition. Then again, many self-proclaimed "queer theologians" reject "monogamy" and "fidelity" altogether and insist that any hint at limiting sex to one partner is taboo, a lingering symptom of Judeo-Christian heterosexism.

"These debates rage on, but they haven't received much attention outside the gay community," said Larry Holben, author of "What Christians Think about Homosexuality." He is a gay Christian who is best known for writing "The Hiding Place," a classic evangelical film.

"But I think that's changing," he added. "It's getting harder to deny that internal conflicts exist, among homosexuals as well as among conservatives."

Mere word games? Last week, the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops acknowledged that many believers live in "life-long committed relationships," outside of Holy Matrimony. The vote was 119 to 19, with four abstentions. The bishops denounced "promiscuity," and said they expected such relationships to be characterized by "fidelity, monogamy" and "holy love." They pledged to provide "prayerful support" and "pastoral care" for these relationships, but stopped just short of calling for rites to bless same-sex unions or extramarital heterosexual unions.

"Once again, you have to ask what all these words mean," said Stanton Jones, co-author of the upcoming "Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research in the Church's Moral Debate." He is provost of Wheaton College near Chicago.

"Some people simply define 'promiscuity' as sex that is careless, abusive or dishonest, with no other questions asked. ... Or 'monogamy' merely means a sense of emotional fidelity to one person, not an exclusive sexual fidelity. It means that you have one stable, ongoing relationship, but that doesn't have to be your only sexual relationship."

In his book, Holben meticulously draws lines between three liberal Christian stances.

* One group argues for "pastoral accommodation" that views homosexual acts "not so much as intrinsically evil as essential imperfect," writes Holben. But in a fallen world, homosexuals may justify some sexual activity, just as other Christians now justify divorce and remarriage. This stance emphasizes monogamy.

* An "affirmation" camp goes beyond tolerating gay and lesbian relationships, saying they hold the same "potential for a self-transcending exchange of love as heterosexual unions." These Christians believe that the morality of "homosexual acts are to be evaluated exactly as are heterosexual acts," writes Holben. Monogamous, committed, homosexual relationships are truly sacred unions. But what does "monogamy" mean?

* Finally, there is "liberation." As the Rev. Canon Elizabeth Kaeton of Newark once told the Episcopal Church's homosexual caucus, the task for gays and lesbians, "our specific charism, is to help ourselves and the church reclaim the erotic as a central part of our lives." A one-night stand may be a holy act, if the sex is honest, loving and not abusive. This camp argues that monogamy may, in fact, be a mask for jealousy and spiritually destructive forms of idolatry.

The big question: Are sexual acts sacramental, in and of themselves, or is marriage, alone, a sacrament?

"For many on the left the Holy Spirit is equated, quite literally, with the erotic," said Jones. "Sex is a vehicle for touching the divine. ... Sex becomes a spiritual discipline and it's wrong -- a sin even -- to put any limits on the work of the Holy Spirit."