This is a transcript of the podcast Distraction, your survival guide to our crazy-busy, ever-connected modern world hosted by Dr. Edward Hallowell, ADHD expert.
Episode 12: A Conversation About Sex & Religion Over Coffee
David: Then I started wondering, is all sexuality, has it always been defined by power?
DR. HALLOWELL: Hello and welcome to Distraction. I’m Dr. Ned Hallowell, your host of the show that explores our super busy, also super distracted modern world. On today’s show I’m going to take you to one of my favorite little places, the East Rock Coffee Shop in New Haven Connecticut where I went to drink up not only the coffee, but the power of the human connection. That’s the voice you heard at the top of the show, David Reed. He sat down and we jumped right into a fascinating conversation about his field of study, the roots of sexual mores dating back to before Christ. He’s a fascinating man. Join me as we meet Dave. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
David: Sure. What specifically?
DR. HALLOWELL: What comes to mind? Who are you?
David: I’m a Post Doc at Yale in Religious Studies. I’m an instructor over at Albertus Magnus in philosophy and religion.
DR. HALLOWELL: Is that a religious institution Albertus Magnus?
David: Yeah, it’s a Catholic institution, it’s in the Order of Preachers, the Dominican Order. I just recently finished my first book so I’m doing a lot of editing right now.
DR. HALLOWELL: What did you write it about?
David: I wrote it about sex during the Christianity, so when anybody asks me that. Now I’m afraid because you’re a psychiatrist that you’re going to want…
DR. HALLOWELL: No, no, no, no. Believe me, no, no, no, no, no, no. I’m not going to read anything into it.
DR. HALLOWELL: Sex in early Christianity?
David: Early Rome and in early Christianity. I went from the Augustan period on through the early Monastic period.
DR. HALLOWELL: Tell me about it, what was the sex like in early…
David: Messed up. It’s something I became intrigued in when I was doing doctoral work I started reading Michel Foucault.
The History of Sex and Religion
DR. HALLOWELL: For those of you like me who have forgotten who Foucault was, I looked it up a little bit. It turns out he’s a French philosopher. His theories address the relationship between power and knowledge. Among other things he wrote The History of Sexuality. A three volume study of sexuality in the western world.
David: I started wondering where our sexual ethics came from in the modern world. I was confused by all these things we hear in modern society about the Judeo Christian sexual ethic is this, this or that. I started researching it and started discovering that I’m not really sure where we got our sexual ethics from and why we keep saying they go back to this particular point in Christianity. My entire book concludes by saying, actually we didn’t get any of our sexual ethics from early Christianity. We might have got them from Greco-Roman philosophy or from the Augustan moral programs and Roman religious laws.
DR. HALLOWELL: It wasn’t because Saint Paul was effed up about sex that we …
David: He was effed up about sex. He was very effed up about sex, but not in the way we think he was effed up about sex. This whole idea that you’re supposed to just get married and have two point five kids is not coming out of early Christianity. The early Christians including Paul were actually saying don’t procreate at all.
DR. HALLOWELL: Really?
David: Yeah. Don’t have a family.
DR. HALLOWELL: Why, because that’s too much flesh?
David: Too much flesh. Too much the world was supposed to end. There was also this idea that the way you stopped original sin is stop procreating. I was curious, why do we never talk about this any more in the modern world? You would think that the idea is two people get married, they have kids, et cetera. It’s very hard to find that in early Christianity. You can find it in Roman marriage laws, you can find it in Greek and Roman philosophy.
DR. HALLOWELL: Before Christ.
DR. HALLOWELL: What were their laws about?
David: Their laws were get married, procreate, have a bunch of kids but the reason they wanted that, for instance with the marriage laws in Rome, was they wanted, the emperor Augustus wanted people to fight his wars.
DR. HALLOWELL: Do they put a premium on fidelity?
David: Yeah, but it’s propaganda like anything. Even Augustus would sit around and say, “Look at my wife and my children.” Everybody in the Senate knew he was running around committing adultery and all sorts of things. They knew it was a joke which told me that politics hasn’t changed.
DR. HALLOWELL: How about gay, how did that fit in?
David: You just kept quiet about it.
DR. HALLOWELL: That wasn’t …
David: Nobody would have thought about it. I mean the problem is it was very normal for certain Roman boys that were going to go through the upper echelons of Roman society and rise up the ranks, a rite of passage was what we would consider gay sex.
DR. HALLOWELL: With each other?
David: With each other, yeah. You would have a higher ranking Roman official who would have a young boy who is his protégé or whatever and they would have sex. It was not thought of that was homosexual. It was just simply that’s what you do. It’s a rite of passage. This whole idea that we talk about today, is it biological, are you gay, are you straight? Nobody’s thinking in those categories. The early Christians aren’t thinking in those categories, either.
DR. HALLOWELL: It was just normal.
Position of Power
David: It was just normal. What they were more concerned about is the act of passive partner. If you were the passive partner, like the young boy, you weren’t in the position of power. The key was to always be in the position of power when you were involved in sexual activity. Even if you’re straight and you’re sleeping with your wife, you don’t want her on top because she’s in a position of power. That’s a bigger “sin”.
DR. HALLOWELL: Dominance was a key part of …
DR. HALLOWELL: … their … Really?
David: Yeah, it’s like you’re always told it’s always about power.
DR. HALLOWELL: Those roots do go back to Greco-Romans.
David: Right, it goes back to Greece, it goes back to Rome. You even see it in early Christianity. It’s all about power.
DR. HALLOWELL: It’s all about power.
David: That’s what I got interested in because then I started wondering is all sexuality, has it always been defined by power?
DR. HALLOWELL: What do you think?
David: I think it is.
DR. HALLOWELL: Being attracted to someone, how does eros mix with power?
David: I think that we would like to think it doesn’t, but I think if we were honest with ourselves and maybe this sounds too Freudian, but I think if we were honest with ourselves then we would realize that a lot of what we do isn’t eros, it isn’t for love it isn’t for … A lot of it is really motivated by deeper concerns that are really about power.
DR. HALLOWELL: To dominate.
David: To dominate, yeah.
DR. HALLOWELL: What’s in it for, let’s say the man is dominating the woman. What’s in it for the woman?
David: Good question.
DR. HALLOWELL: Why does she participate?
David: It’s a part of society because you’ve been socialized into a structure that tells you this is what you do. I think sometimes we don’t realize that, but most of what we think and believe about anything, particularly sexuality comes out of the socialization process of a culture. That’s also power. It tells you how to be, it tells you how to act. I think often times we don’t realize we’re playing a part in that script.
DR. HALLOWELL: What about pleasure, what about libido? Why would a woman masturbate? That’s not about power.
David: No, that’s not about power. That could be a way of actually subverting the power structure because you can create pleasure for yourself. Then you bring Paul into that who just says, no, no, no, no, pleasure, that’s a problem, that’s a problem.
DR. HALLOWELL: That’s bad.
David: Some of the philosophers said that too.
DR. HALLOWELL: Pleasure itself becomes …
David: Pleasure could become a problem, especially excessive pleasure.
DR. HALLOWELL: What’s excessive? Any?
David: Whatever is not moderation. They never defined it. I wished they did. It’s that all things in moderation, idea.
DR. HALLOWELL: Right. The Puritans, did they come from that?
David: I think most of our sexual hang-ups and things come out of the Puritans, but I’m not sure if they’re getting it from the bible as much as they think they are. They would want you to believe that, but the reality is something keeps happening to sexuality in every single culture, it gets redefined. It gets defined by politics, it gets defined by philosophy, it gets defined by whatever, by society. They had their own society defining sexuality, then we became inheritors of that.
DR. HALLOWELL: What is your sexuality?
David: As in?
DR. HALLOWELL: Are you active, are you heterosexual are you …
David: Yeah, I’m heterosexual, married. I’ve been married for, gosh, going on thirteen years.
DR. HALLOWELL: Do you have children?
David: No, we’re trying right now. That often is all I can say.
DR. HALLOWELL: What does your wife say when you say it’s all about power?
David: Anybody that knows us knows I don’t wear the pants in the family, which is why everybody thinks it’s weird that I study this.
DR. HALLOWELL: She would laugh if you …
David: She would laugh, yeah. I think we have a very balanced equal relationship. I think we have a relationship that a lot of people are envious of.
DR. HALLOWELL: By your model, your interest in her is simply to dominate her, and you say you don’t.
David: No, I try not to.
DR. HALLOWELL: Do you think her interest in you is to dominate you?
David: I hope not.
DR. HALLOWELL: This is where the rubber meets the road.
David: Yeah, then my excuse is I say, “No, I’m just here to raise questions. I’m not here to answer those questions.” You’d have to talk to her, too, and then see what she would say. It’s only going to be my perspective on things. Then sometimes I think the awareness of what is actually going on in different societies and throughout history hopefully makes you start, the awareness makes you start rethinking it and not doing those things.
DR. HALLOWELL: Could it be that the power dynamic becomes isometric? In other words, you’re both, what’s sexually exciting is an embrace is a power thing.
David: Maybe you can share power at some point.
DR. HALLOWELL: Yeah, or the struggle, neither wins, but it’s exciting to contest.
David: Right, maybe. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I think I’m going to start… I’ll try that and see if she…
DR. HALLOWELL: Let’s contest tonight, sweet heart.
Studying to Be a Teacher
DR. HALLOWELL: Are you studying to be a teacher?
David: Yeah, I finished my PhD two years ago at the University of Toronto.
DR. HALLOWELL: Are you Canadian?
David: No, but thank you, though. No, I’m not. Then I went and came here to do a Post Doc to work with a specific individual here because I didn’t like the dissertation I wrote. I wanted to rewrite it, so I came here and started working here. I’m back out on the job market as of this fall.
DR. HALLOWELL: With a PhD in Religious Studies?
DR. HALLOWELL: You don’t want to be a preacher?
David: God, no. No. I would be very bad at that.
DR. HALLOWELL: You would teach religion at a college?
David: Yeah, you teach it as theory of religion using Freudian theories, or you teach it as history, or even teaching in a divinity school or a seminary like Yale Divinity School or something like that.
DR. HALLOWELL: Are you religious yourself?
David: Yeah. I don’t know if everybody would say I am, given some of the things I write on, no, I’m a practicing Catholic. You want to go down that road, don’t you?
DR. HALLOWELL: I’m a practicing Episcopalian.
David: Okay, so it’s like kissing … You have less guilt than we do.
DR. HALLOWELL: We don’t have a Pope.
David: Yeah, we have sometimes.
DR. HALLOWELL: We have gay priests and we have female priests.
David: Yeah, you have all the good stuff.
DR. HALLOWELL: Do you know where celibacy came from? As a student of religion, you probably do.
David: It depends on …
DR. HALLOWELL: What I’ve heard …
David: Okay, you tell me.
DR. HALLOWELL: …it’s real estate. The Pope…
DR. HALLOWELL: It has nothing to do with theology.
David: Right. They needed to keep the property in the right… You don’t want that passing on to… See, it’s all about power.
DR. HALLOWELL: Power, exactly.
DR. HALLOWELL: In that case, yeah. The Pope said, “God just told me last night priests should not have sex anymore.” Then, bingo.
David: Right, exactly.
DR. HALLOWELL: How do you maintain being a practicing Catholic in the face of all the obvious reasons not to be?
David: It’s hard. It’s a struggle. It’s something my wife and I talk about a lot.
DR. HALLOWELL: If you have kids, will you raise them Catholic?
David: Yeah, because I think there’s something important, I think you’d understand as an Episcopalian, I think there’s something important to ritual. I think there’s something important to a tradition.
DR. HALLOWELL: This gets back to my thing about connection. I think it’s a rich source of connection that a lot of intelligent people have excluded it because we live in such a scientific age, they scoff at it. What they’re passing up is the connection. I call it the connection to what is beyond knowledge. It’s by definition you can’t prove it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about it, or celebrate love and forgiveness and goodness and come together on Sunday morning or Saturday evening or whenever you want to and feel a part of a community that values those things.
David: I guess that’s part of why when you ask how do you hold this all together with Catholicism that I find something important in that community that is actually kind of anti-American society in a way. When I go there it reminds me I’m not an individual, that I’m connected to something larger.
DR. HALLOWELL: Right.
David: That’s very hard because most of my life, your life and everyone’s life in this country is spent in a very individualistic manner. I like realizing that there is something larger out there than me.
DR. HALLOWELL: Literally, thank God. I mean, I couldn’t do it alone.
David: No. I think too many of us think we can. That has been the most important thing to me is learning community in those types of situations. My big fear about American Catholicism is it’s becoming very, very American. Becoming very individualistic.
DR. HALLOWELL: Yes.
David: It’s not what I’ve read about. It’s not about the community coming together.
DR. HALLOWELL: I love going to church, not so much to stoke my belief in God, but to get the vitamin C, I call it, vitamin Connect. This sense that I’m a part of something larger than myself.
David: Right, because it’s the antidote to everything else.
DR. HALLOWELL: Exactly.
David: I think that’s where I realized that for all the junk that’s there in any religion, that’s the good part of it when it actually works and those connections are made. I think half the time the experience of God is found in a community anyway.
DR. HALLOWELL: Absolutely. Don’t you think? I mean it’s where two or three are gathered together. Where there is connection there is God.
David: Right, exactly. It’s not me walking around having my own little …
DR. HALLOWELL: Exactly. Are you going to write about that?
David: I don’t know. I do know what I’m going to do the next book on.
DR. HALLOWELL: What’s …
David: I’m looking at this term that comes out of one of Paul’s letters, porneia because everybody’s confused on how to define the term. There’s an article I’m co-authoring with Dale Martin and Jenny Knust. One’s at Yale, one’s at Boston University. I asked them since they’re more famous and more important than I am, “Can I, since I did all the research on this, can I steal this as the template for my second book?” They said, “Yeah, you can do that.” I’ve given up trying to project down the road of what I’m going to write on or do. People ask about it all the time.
DR. HALLOWELL: What does porneia mean?
David: I think it means anything from lust to masturbation to adultery.
DR. HALLOWELL: Pornography comes from the word?
David: Pornography, yeah, comes from it. One of the things that we were very curious and working on was can a heterosexual married couple in the ancient world commit porneia because most people want to say it’s only adultery, prostitution and same sex relations. We’ve discovered a bunch of text where, no, a normal married heterosexual couple can commit it too. Porneia can come out of a married couple in the ancient world wanting to have sex just for pleasure. That can become porneia.
DR. HALLOWELL: A man saying to his wife, “Man, you look really hot, I want to jump your bones.” That’s porneia?
David: Yeah, you’re going down the porneia path at that point. It could lead to all kinds of …
DR. HALLOWELL: Why is that bad?
David: There was this idea in the ancient world that pleasure isn’t why you have sex. You have sex to procreate. I mean, it’s a very practical thing. People die, people don’t live that long, we need to repopulate.
DR. HALLOWELL: Why was pleasure deemed bad?
David: People can’t deal with pleasure in moderation. The fear was if you get a taste of it, you’ll want more, more, more.
DR. HALLOWELL: Every time you have sex you do get a taste of it.
David: You do. I don’t get how it works. I think it’s totally impossible, myself but there were not just early Christian writers but Roman philosophers like Misonius Rufus thought you should be able to totally do this act, but not for pleasure.
DR. HALLOWELL: Not feel any pleasure.
David: Right, which I’m confused on that.
DR. HALLOWELL: If you’re wondering who Misonius Rufus was, he was a Roman stoic philosopher. Stoics were basically people who said by using reason you can control your passions.
David: I hope this is okay to say. It reminds me of when I was growing up in the church of youth group of some stupid youth minister saying, “It’s okay if you masturbate, just think about your math work while you’re doing it so that it’s not lust or something.” You start critically thinking, going, that’s not possible.
DR. HALLOWELL: That’s how these minds get twisted.
David: That’s how they get very twisted.
DR. HALLOWELL: They feel tremendous guilt.
DR. HALLOWELL: It goes right back to porneia and Paul.
David: Yeah, if you read Paul closely like in his first epistle to the Corinthians, he tells you … You never hear Christians talk about this today. He tells you what he thinks the purpose of marriage is. It’s just to prevent porneia.
DR. HALLOWELL: To prevent porneia.
David: Yeah, and as a friend of mine says Paul thinks marriage is a prophylactic against porneia.
DR. HALLOWELL: Did Paul have sex?
David: No idea. I mean, there’s a theory that he was a widower.
DR. HALLOWELL: Before he got converted.
David: Before he got converted and maybe that caused all of his weird psychological, whatever.
DR. HALLOWELL: He, much more than Christ, is responsible for the messed up feelings we have about sex, isn’t he?
David: Yeah. I don’t know…
DR. HALLOWELL: Christ never said don’t enjoy sex.
David: He didn’t say much about it one way or the other. I think the problem is it’s not just what Paul said, it’s interpretations of what he said. Half the time when you deal with religious subjects, you’re not dealing with what they actually said, you’re dealing with hundreds and thousands of years of somebody interpreting something. I mean, if we’re going to blame Paul we should move onto Augustine and all these other individuals. I mean, you must encounter this in psychiatry, right, of people that have messed up.
DR. HALLOWELL: All the time. It all seems to stem from these people being told that their natural feelings are unacceptable or sinful or disgusting or perverse or twisted.
David: Yeah. It takes a long time getting over that, I think, for people.
DR. HALLOWELL: My thing about connection is it poisons connections. When people feel an attraction and then they say, “That’s a sin.”
David: Yeah. That’s not a good thing.
DR. HALLOWELL: It’s a really bad thing. It’s a really bad thing.
David: Right, because it alienates us from one another.
DR. HALLOWELL: Yeah, and from ourselves.
David: Yeah, which I think what’s going on is that there’s a whole conversation, the church and I’m not saying the Catholic church but a whole conversation that we haven’t had on sexuality that needs to happen.
DR. HALLOWELL: What would that be?
David: I don’t entirely know. I just think when you look at society’s changed. People are living longer. I mean, people that go to grad school put off marriage. There’s just things we haven’t talked about and I think most of it is that people are afraid to talk about it because they don’t want to see change. They want to go back to some myth that doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever existed.
DR. HALLOWELL: Medically speaking sex is good for you.
David: Yeah, which is hilarious. I was just reading this today. Galen, one of the Roman medical doctors, he talks about that. You kind of, at some point have to do this because it’s therapeutic and it’s good for you medically.
DR. HALLOWELL: Yes. You are wonderful. You’re such an original thinker.
DR. HALLOWELL: Thank you for talking to me, good luck with what you’re doing.
DR. HALLOWELL: Can we stay in touch? Can we get your…
My thanks to East Rock Coffee, and to David Reed for sharing his story with us. David’s book about sex in early Christianity is called Sex in the Empire: Strategies of power from Augustus to the early Monastics. We’ll put a link on our site. That’s it for today, thanks for listening. This won’t be our only foray into the subject of sexuality. Check back for more shows on sex. In fact, tell us your ideas for these shows at DistractionPodcast.com. Distraction is produced by Collisions, the podcast division of CRN International. Collisions, podcasts for curious people.
This is a transcript of the podcast Distraction, “A Conversation About Sex & Religion Over Coffee.” Distraction is available on iTunes.