Commentary Religion

The Secret History of Sex, Choice and Catholics

The story told by “The Secret History” isn’t just for Catholics. It gets to the heart of how we all make moral decisions and seek compassionate answers. Ultimately, the film is not just about history, but about how we live our faith today and where we want our church to go. More than that, it’s a vibrant declaration that we are not afraid.

When people ask me why Catholics for Choice decided to make a movie, my answer usually starts with a story about a long train ride in the company of a prominent theologian a few years ago.

I knew that this gentleman felt uncomfortable with many of the positions taken by Catholics for Choice, and so we both decided to make cordial conversation rather than address the elephant in the room. It was such a long journey, however, that we eventually got to the elephant: “Why do you do the work that you do?” he asked me.

I told him that my work in support of reproductive rights was not despite my Catholic faith, but because of it. Our social justice tradition wouldn’t let me turn my back on people in need; nor would it allow me to ignore the importance of conscience in moral decision-making. Both issues relate directly to reproductive health: women are in the best place to make the decisions that affect their health, and deserve all the support necessary when life’s challenges threaten their well-being, their health, or even their very lives. Those who are rich will always have the means to bypass the obstacles in their way, legal or otherwise, whereas the poor and needy are always the ones who suffer.

Not one to miss an opportunity, I asked my traveling companion something I had always wondered about: “Why do you deny the truth about all the affirming messages in Catholic theology about women, choice, and sexuality in general?”

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Interestingly, his response took no issue with my theological argument, but merely its temperature. “Those issues are too hot to handle.”

When pressed, his understanding and interpretation of core Catholic teachings was little different from that of the many other theologians I know. So why are these other wonderful Catholic thinkers banished from of the circle of trust in the institutional church? Why are they slighted and attacked for raising legitimate points of view about church teaching?

My traveling partner told me that he, too, would have been denied mainstream acceptance and positions if he’d tackled issues like reproductive rights. Rather than pick that fight, he had chosen, as many others do, to keep his head down. There is a reason why people like Bishop Kevin Dowling, who tells the truth about Catholics and condoms in the shanty towns of South Africa, do not attain the trappings of power, position, and influence that have been lavished upon so many ultra-conservative American clergymen of late.

I thought then, as I do now, that telling the truth about Catholic theology really matters. It matters for reasons of self-respect, and it matters for so many who think they have to choose between their faith and how they live their lives. For me, working with theologians and so many marvelous thinkers in the church who are not afraid to stand up and speak out has been an amazing experience. It is truly liberating when you see that it is possible to be both true to yourself and authentically Catholic at the same time. 

So, more than a year ago, I sat down with a filmmaker friend and asked him, “How can I get the voices of the unsung visionaries within the church to be heard by a wider audience?” “The Secret History of Sex, Choice and Catholics” was born.

Politicians often come to CFC when they are being pressured by their local bishop. They want to know if they’re getting the full story in the one supplied by the institutional church. As can be seen in the movie, the answer is a resounding “No.” The “secret” is that there is more than one magisterium—in addition to the hierarchy, there is also the magisterium of the theologians and that of the people. This means that any of us can be called to teach, and for many this can mean doing what the theologians and thinkers in the film—Rosemary Radford Ruether, Dan Maguire, Mary Hunt, Anthony Padovano, Sheila Briggs, Daniel Dombrowski and Kate Ott—have done: bravely speak out.

They, like the prophets in the Old Testament, do not always take the easy road. Their paths often lead straight into confrontation with established authority. Nevertheless, I consider them to be the real traditionalists in the church—in the same vein that I consider Catholics for Choice to be a traditionalist organization. We do pay attention to what church teachings say and are not swayed by the relatively recent conservative interpretations of Catholic tradition and teaching. 

The first day we released the movie, thousands of people worldwide—from the Philippines to South Africa, from the US to Eastern Europe—watched the film online. There is clearly a genuine hunger for this message. So many Catholics have told us that instinctively, they knew they were doing the right thing, and that it was so invigorating to learn from the movie that their actions are within a tradition of being good Catholics who follow their consciences.

Some of the most interesting reactions have come from non-Catholics—people from other faith traditions and from no faith tradition. They learned not only what the majority of Catholics actually believe, but also why we stay in a church whose leaders have so often slapped us in the face.

The story told by “The Secret History” isn’t just for Catholics. It gets to the heart of how we all make moral decisions and seek compassionate answers. Ultimately, the film is not just about history, but about how we live our faith today and where we want our church to go. More than that, it’s a vibrant declaration that we are not afraid.

Watch clips or the entire film here.

Commentary Sexuality

Auntie Conversations: Black Women Talk Sex, Self-Care, and Illness

Charmaine Lang

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

“You’re just being nosy,” one of my aunts said, after I asked her if she enjoyed having sex with her husband. I assured her this was all part of a research project on the intimate lives of Black women. She relented a bit, but still gave me the side-eye.

I’ve been engaged in archival research for the last year. While the personal letters of Black women writer-activists and the newspapers of the Third World Women’s Alliance are remarkable and informative, they provide little insight into the intimate lives and sexual desires of Black women. After all, sex improves our mood and alleviates stress: That immediate gratification of pleasure and release is a way to practice self-care.

So on a recent trip home to Los Angeles, I asked my aunties to share their stories with me at a little gathering they threw in my honor.

And they did.

I asked them: “What’s your sex life like?” “Do you want to have sex?” “Are you and your husband intimate?” “You know … does he kiss you and hold your hand?” And I learned that contrary to tropes that present us as either asexual mammies or hypersexual jezebels, the Black women in my life are vulnerable and wanting love and loving partners, at all stages of life.

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Between 1952 and 1969, my maternal grandmother had six daughters and one son. All of them grew up in South Central Los Angeles, witnessing white flight, the Watts riot of 1965, and the crack epidemic. At the same time, the women have kept the family intact. They are the ones who always plan big dinners for the holidays and organize food drives for their churches. And they arranged care of their mother toward the end of her life. I’ve always wondered how they were able to prioritize family and their own desires for intimacy.

So I asked.

My 57-year-old aunt who is a retired customer service representative living in Pomona, California, told me: “My lifetime of sex consisted of first starting off with getting to know the person, communicating, establishing companionship. Once that was done, the sex and intimacy followed. When you’re younger, you have no frets. You experiment all the time.”

I wanted to know more.

“You’re not just trying to get in our business? You’re actually going to write something, right?” was my mother’s response.

When asked about the state of her sex life, my 59-year-old aunt, a social worker, said: “I am a married woman without a physical sex life with my husband. His illness has a lot to do with this, along with the aging process.”

My Pomona aunt went into more detail about how as we get older our ability and desire changes.

“You try to keep pace with pleasing your partner, and he tries to please you. But it is hard when you are a full-time worker, wife, and mother, and you commute to work. You’re tired. Hear me: You’re tired; they are not. You grow older, gain weight, and get sicker. You start to take medicine, and all that affects your ability and desire to perform.”

“For me, in a nutshell, [sexual activity] feels like work: I don’t feel excited. When it happens, it happens,” she said.

I learned the combination of energy spent on wage work, domestic labor, and mothering is draining, dissipating the mood for sex or intimacy. A husband who does not have the same domestic responsibilities has more energy for sex. The unbalanced load equates to differences in desire.

I wondered: Did my aunts talk to their partners about this?

Illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer, can cause anxiety, depression, and fatigue, which interrupt lovemaking. Talking to a partner can help to create a new normal in the relationship.

However, as my social worker aunt made clear, “It takes two to talk openly and honestly, which I find very difficult most of the time.”

“To be vulnerable is hard because I do not want to get hurt emotionally, so I protect my heart from harm,” she explained. “[My husband and I] can be harsh and curt to each other at times, which leads to me shutting down and not expressing my true feelings. My husband can be prideful and unwilling to admit there are issues within the relationship.”

Aunt April, a 47-year-old Los Angeles teacher, had some things to share too. “My love life is complicated. After suffering an overwhelming and devastating loss in 2011 of my husband and mate of nearly 20 years, I’m very hesitant to fully try again.”

She hasn’t dated since 1991. After much counseling, grieving, and encouragement from her 12-year-old daughter, she decided to give it a try.

“I have been seeing someone, but I have a lot of fear that if I relinquish my heart to him, he will die. So, I think about sabotaging the relationship so that I don’t have to get to know him and start worrying about his well-being and wondering if he feels the same way I do. In my mind, it’s easier to be casual and not give too much of my heart,” she said.

Intimacy, then, is also about being vulnerable in communicating how one feels—and open to all possibilities, even hurt.

As a 34-year-old queer Black woman figuring out my dating life, my aunt’s words about communication struck me. At times I can be guarded, too, fearful of letting someone get close. I started to ask myself: “What’s my sex life like?” and “What role does intimacy play in my life as I juggle a job and doctoral studies?”

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

“I enjoy sex more now then I did before,” my mama, Jackie, said. Now 55, she remarried in 2013. She lives in Gilbert, Arizona, and works in the accounting and human resource field. “My husband loves me unconditionally; with him, I’m more comfortable. It’s more relaxing.”

My mama expressed her ability to enjoy herself with her husband because of the work she put into loving herself and prioritizing her needs.

I always talk to my mama about my dating life: heartbreaks and goals. She always says, “Learn to love yourself first.” It really isn’t what I want to hear, but it’s the truth. Self-love is important and central to the success of any relationship, especially the one with ourselves. My social worker aunt often takes trips to the spa and movies, and my aunt April is an avid concertgoer. They have found ways to have intimacy in their lives that is not informed by their relationship status.

The journey to self-love can be arduous at times as we discover parts of ourselves that we don’t like and want to transform. But with much compassion and patience, we can learn to be generous with the deepest parts of ourselves and each other. And isn’t that a necessary part of intimacy and sex?

The stories shared by my womenfolk reveal a side of Black women not often seen in pop culture. That is, Black women older than 45 learning how to date after the loss of a partner, and finding love and being intimate after 50. Neither mammies nor jezebels, these Black women, much like the Black women activists of the 1960s and 1970s I study, desire full lives, tenderness, and love. My aunts’ stories reassure me that Black women activists from decades past and present have intimate relationships, even if not explicit in the body of literature about them.

The stories of everyday Black women are essential in disrupting dehumanizing stereotypes so that we can begin to see representations of Black women that truly reflect our experiences and dynamic being.

Commentary Violence

This is Not The Story I Wanted—But It’s My Story of Rape

Dani Kelley

Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.

A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.

There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.

When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”

Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.

This isn’t the story I wanted.

Unlearning My Training

I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.

If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendency to demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.

The heart of those teachings isn’t only present in this admittedly small sect of Christianity. Rather, right-wing Western Christianity as a whole has a consent problem. It explicitly teaches its adherents they don’t belong to themselves at all. They belong to God (and if they’re not men, they belong to their fathers or husbands as well). This instilled lack of agency effectively erases bodily autonomy while preventing the development of healthy emotional and physical boundaries.

On top of that, the biblical literalism frequently required by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.

Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”

Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.

But Some Habits Die Hard

Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.

When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.

He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.

When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.

So…I brought him home.

This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.

That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.

Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.

As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?

When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.

I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!

Right?

If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.

That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.

He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.

Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.

Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”

With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.

I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”

“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”

Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.

It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?

Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.

I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!

All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.

The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are

Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.

Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.

On top of that, my conservative background whispered accusations of being a Jezebel, failing to safeguard my purity, and getting exactly what I deserve for forsaking the faith.

It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.

Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.

So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?

Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.

Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.

We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.” Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.

So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.

I was raped.