Honored and blessed that therapist Ryan Thomas Neace joins therapists Ellen Haroutunian and Jean Holthaus in writing a guest post on my blog this month. The evangelical sub-culture has encouraged men to fear non-romantic closeness with women. Ryan wrote an incredible post last year that caught the attention of many Christian men: Consecrated Sexual Attraction. It later became a HuffPost article.
Ryan Thomas Neace holds degrees in Religion and Marriage & Family Therapy, and identifies as a post-evangelical Christian with heavy leanings toward contemplative practice. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Virginia and Missouri, and board certified as a Clinical Mental Health Counselor. He founded Change, Inc., where he is currently in private counseling practice, helping folks with anxiety, depression, addictions, relationships, difficulties related to teen years, co-dependence, sexuality/gender, and sexual orientation. He also frequently works at the intersection of spirituality/religion with all of these things. Among his spiritual heroes are Henri Nouwen, Brother Roger of Taize, Richard Rohr, Thomas a Kempis, Thomas Merton, St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux, Wendell Berry, Jim Wallis, and Brian McLaren. Ryan is delighted to live in the city of St. Louis, Missouri, with his wife, two children, and three cats. Read his personal blog here.
Recently, I attended an evangelical Christian Men’s Conference that, for the most part, I enjoyed. It’s just that the parts I didn’t enjoy were about what it means to be a Christian man.
I knew I was in for a rough ride when one of the workshop speakers, the head of a ministry called, “Man Up God’s Way,” asked from the stage how many of the men “had to get [their] testicles back from [their] wives” just to get some time away to attend the conference. Of course, he was obvious and a relative outlier. Few in the large group seemed to appreciate the coarse and misogynistic inference.
But the less obvious parts of the conference were more insidious. They centered around the implicit seductiveness of women, the implicit danger of being in relationship to them as Christian men, and the suggestions of speakers toward external boundaries men ought to create if they wish to remain on the straight and narrow path.
The most egregious example of all three was one of the keynote speakers’ commentary based on the “12 Steps to an Affair” from Christian author Tom Eisenman’s book,
Temptations Men Face. Eisenman asserts that some men are primed for an affair because of cultural norms, unresolved marital strife, and/or interpersonal and psychological issues. Soon, such a man will become increasingly “aware” of woman from his social circle, and his thoughts of her will occasionally turn to “fantasy,” eventually culminating in sexual dreams about her and masturbation. The notion that fantasy is a part of the human experience is said to be a pathological rationalization.
Over the course of time, they spend time together by chance, then intentionally, then on purpose while deceiving themselves and others into thinking it was really by chance (this is where the “real danger zone” begins). There is “flirtation…prolonged eye contact, interchange of harmless-sounding sexual innuendo, enticing body language,” with a denial of “real interest.” This eventually gives way to deep sharing and real touching during time spent together alone simply because they enjoy each other rather than some “legitimate purpose.”
You see where this is going, right?
Next they “give in” to sexual intercourse and it’s all over.
And there you have it.
To each of Eisenman’s steps, the men’s conference speaker had one clear message:
“Don’t spend time with women!!!”
There was no talk of investigating the items that apparently comprise a man’s readiness for an affair, no talk of understanding sexual impulses or consecrated sexual attraction, no recollection of Christ’s admonition that adultery begins in the heart.
The entire keynote was staggering to me. I felt shell-shocked at the apparent level of agreement and identification from many of the men in attendance.
To dismiss Eisenman’s steps as total hogwash is in error, I think. It isn’t a large stretch to conceive that some affairs take a similar path. But the most dangerous teachings about men and women, marriage, and indeed, about life, often have much truth to them. So much, in fact, that by the time someone suggests there is equally as much untruth in them, it’s practically offensive. If you refuse to back down from such an offense, you’re very likely to reap damning attacks on character and groupthink ostracizing.
At the risk of all of that, before you swear off cross-sex friendships, there are some themes that discerning Christian men and women should consider dutifully.
From the jump, Eisenman’s steps and the commentary of this speaker insist an “us vs. them” mentality as it relates to understanding both our internal worlds and external worlds.
Regarding extra-marital affairs in our culture, the truth is that there is apparently very little reliable data prior to 1988. But academic research powerhouse, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, “has spent years steeped in the academic and popular polls on the subject” according to a 2009 Forbes Magazine piece. NORC General Social Survey director Tom Smith says that, “The best estimates are that about 3% to 4% of currently married people have a sexual partner besides their spouse in a given year and about 15% to 18% of ever-married people have had a sexual partner other than their spouse while married.” What’s more, “slightly more than 80% of Americans say that extramarital sexual relations are always wrong.”
This hardly seems like affairs are out to get us. It hardly seems like our culture would support it if they were.
With the devastation that affairs cause, I’m not saying fear is an unreasonable response. But I am saying it’s usually not helpful, and that when we’re made to fear the boogeyman, we lack the ability to respond creatively to the challenges in our lives. The irony is that this is the exact opposite of what I heard that day at the Christian men’s conference.
To the speaker, you don’t need to be creative, you don’t need to think – you need to run away from women — not affairs.
It’s hard to believe that this makes sense to some people, but it actually does from a physiological standpoint. When we’re afraid, our sympathetic nervous system is engaged, and we’re left with our baser “fight-flight” responses. This is no doubt why so many frightened Christian men’s ministries support “flight.”
But particularly as Christians, we must step back and re-evaluate if the impetus for our decisions is fear. After all, perfect love casts it out.
But the casting out of fear means we must first understand its genesis, and perhaps nowhere in Western Christianity is fear more firmly rooted than in relationships and sexuality.
The great irony is that while implicitly mistrusting “culture,” so many Western Christians engage in discussions of relationship and sexuality in such a culturally self-referential way. We omit any reflective function that would examine whether our presumptions are in line with our experiences.
Eisenman does this in particular by labeling fantasy as the primary culprit in affairs, rather than the realities it points to and our response to it.
The truth is, men and women alike are daily prone to all kinds of fantasy. Our boss treats us unfairly and we fantasize about giving him what for. We look at our friends’ vacation pictures on Facebook and fantasize about having gone to the Swiss Alps ourselves. We notice an attractive person walking down the street and wonder what they’d be like to get to know. We may even <gasp> wonder what they’d look like naked.
Even if Eisenman finds this reality troublesome, fantasy is a part of the human experience. The arising of fantasy within us is not the problem, though this is not to say that we may not experience it as problematic, since we desire that our thought lives be in accordance with our understanding of Christian holiness.
When Eisenman asserts that this concession is somehow a pathological rationalization, I can only assume he means to say that many people somehow pass off their fantasies as unimportant because they are common unto humanity. In that sense, I would object as well.
Fantasy is important.
This is so true to it has been a bedrock for the appraisal of the human condition for as long as modern psychology has existed. And since the 1930’s, psychologists have used the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) to those ends. Test-takers are shown a series of ambiguous images and then asked to make up a story that explains what they see. Former Harvard Psychological Clinic Director and creator Henry A. Murray believed that the way we interpret ambiguous imagery and scenarios is revealing of our experiences and motivations.
But when trying to understand fantasy, there are two mistakes most people make: a) the implicit tendency to interpret everything sexually, and b) allowing the definition of sex to be so woefully limited to the exchange of bodily fluids.
In most Christian discussions of sexuality, no sooner does fantasy come up then we sexualize it. For example, Eisenman pairs fantasy with overt, romantic sexuality both in the form of erotic dreams and masturbation. But most of the fantasies we experience on a day to day basis that might be organized under the umbrella of “sexual” are anything but.
In my clinical practice, the single largest mistake men and women struggling with compulsive sexual behavior make is the catastrophic mislabeling of so many of their experiences as sexual, and thus, leading naturally to sexual acting out.
For example, men addicted to masturbation seem to interpret nearly every emotional state as a manifestation of sexual desire. Happy? Time to masturbate. Sad? Time to masturbate. Hungry, angry, lonely, tired? Time to masturbate.
The truth is, for these men, and indeed, many people, a propensity toward sexual behavior is a conditioned response that has been trained over and over throughout the years, not a direct one to one outgrowth of a person in their small group they are attracted to.
For American men in particular, one of the few acceptable ways we are socialized to express our emotional, cognitive, and spiritual needs is through our libido. And so even men who aren’t compulsive still often conflate sexuality with all of their other needs. Tragically, Eisenman himself says repeatedly throughout his steps that business and chance are the only “legitimate” purposes about which men and women who aren’t married to one another should spend time together.
Ironically, the very fantasies Eisenman wants to avoid are often manifestations of other, very real needs, and testaments to their legitimacy. Even when our fantasies are seemingly overtly sexual, we should bear in mind that our sexuality is not simply comprised of some unthinking, animalistic impulse to connect our genitals with someone else’s, but of a confluence of emotional, cognitive, and spiritual realities.
Running from our fantasies or the relationships in which they arise won’t help.
Instead, a person who experiences fantasy in the context of cross-sex relationships is normal, but should look at it closely to understand what emotional, cognitive, or spiritual needs it reveals, and remember that even if it produces a sexual response, there is often much more to learn.
But we have an entire generation of Christian ministries that are vested in fear, vested in running, and avoiding all there is to learn. This is why so many Christian men’s ministries end up thinking we shouldn’t spend time around women at all, let alone be friends. And this is why some facets of Christian culture end up making all of our sexual struggle the fault of women as a whole.
As long as we continue run from ourselves, to wage culture war, to perpetuate fear around false presumptions, and to fail to provide a safe place for men and women to experience themselves and one another within the church, we will have created the perfect storm for sexual impropriety to grow and fester within our ranks.
Instead, we must openly and honestly face ourselves, acknowledging that more often than not, no two (married) humans could possibly meet one another’s needs in totality, and that no one gender could affirm God’s beautiful creative relational diversity by limiting its non-marital relationships within itself.
On the contrary, precisely what many men and women within Christianity need is the benefit of non-genital, healthy, intimate cross-sex friendships. They allow us both disconfirm the impulse to romanticize and sexualize our experiences, and afford us a healthy, God-honoring way to meet one another’s needs.