I confess my disappointment with Elle’s article featuring Glennon Doyle Melton.
I don’t intend this to be an anti-progressive post. Many evangelicals would label me as progressive. I cherish many dear progressive friends. Other progressives don't know what to do with me.
I'm not going to defend heterosexual marriage as the be all, end all in this post. Although I’m sure I still retain heteronormative blindspots, my unending curiosity in cross-sex friendship, ironically, has helped me move past many heteronormative assumptions.
I believe there is a need in twenty-first century Christian sexuality for a valuable, sensitive, compassionate, caring, tender discerning process for LGBT individuals who are currently married to heterosexuals to determine what is the wisest and healthiest course for their marital future. That joint decision-making is a sensitive, difficult journey all couples in mixed sexual orientation marriages must walk through.
For many in these marriages the discernment process is often hard, painful, strenuous, and demanding. Many LGBT individuals are leaving their heterosexual marriage. Some, are opting to stay married to their heterosexual partners. So, when I read last year that Melton's relationship with Wambach was the cause of her divorce I looked at it through a pastoral lens so to speak, from a distance. I didn’t know the details.
I’m fully invested in the hetero cross-gender friendship conversation. That means I am not only interested in the connection between heterosexuality and friendship, but I'm open to befriending all women—straight, lesbian, queer, trans, bi—no matter what their sexual orientation.
My passion in the cross-gender friendship has been to nurture a peaceful attunement and shalom between sexuality and friendship. That passion to nurture social trust and closeness has required considerable time reflecting on the full spectrum of sexual attraction as a married individual toward a member of the opposite sex acquaintance, friend, or stranger. I myself, have experienced sexual attraction in a close friendship and I have also listened to many, many diverse stories of sexual attraction in friendship.
I was unaware of Melton’s instant attraction toward Wambach until I read the article in Elle magazine this week. That caught my attention because Melton makes it perfectly clear that the deal breaker for her marriage was this instant sexual attraction/romantic attraction we recognize as “love at first sight.”
Please understand this: I don't have any qualms with the fact that this attraction immediately opened Melton's sexual awareness toward another woman. It seems quite clear that this attraction also awakened in Melton a sexual autonomy and desire toward another woman for the first time.
I was surprised, and disappointed, though, to discover Melton enthusiastically endorsing instant attraction as an immediate deal breaker for marital fidelity. It’s one thing to hear love at first sight stories from people who are single. But for married individuals?
Let’s take an informal, unscientific poll. Raise your hand if you feel this calm, relaxing assurance when you hear stories about love at first sight happening to already married individuals? Does the experience of instant romantic attraction in a married individual toward a total stranger lead you to a more grounded, relaxed social trust, or does it evoke an uneasiness? Does instant sexual attraction toward a total stranger provoke a greater sexual uncertainty?
While I have no quibble to Melton’s love at first sight attraction toward a woman who was a total stranger to her, I cannot jump on the progressive sexual purity bandwagon with those who are all giddy over a married individual claiming love at first sight as a deal breaker for her marriage, whether lesbian or straight.
Think about it. Does the love at first sight dogma occurring in married individuals nurture a non-defensive, non-anxious, peaceful, open posture in you knowing that your spouse at any moment (or future spouse if you are not married) may suddenly experience an instant attraction to a stranger that would compel her to send you an urgent text? During a grocery shopping trip? A business trip? A literary conference? A church gathering? Does it fill your heart and mind at ease with a peaceful attunement toward your spouse or does that stir up an anxious uneasiness in you?
The Elle article vividly depicts this attraction Melton experienced when she saw Wambach at a conference. As writer Ruth S. Barrett, portrays it, Melton knew immediately knew she had met the love of her life. She quotes Melton, “There was just an absolute recognition of the person I was supposed to be with forever.” Her husband remembers receiving an urgent text message from Glennon indicating they had to talk. Apparently, he had initial resistance. But he too, was swayed, “Isn’t this what life is all about? Finding true love?”
I must confess I am not too impressed with progressive sexual purity on steroids.
I'm kind of stunned that so many progressive friends who are strong vocal opponents of conservative sexual purity (which includes objectification) have looked the other way or don't even have an awareness of their own version of sexual purity within their culture.
Of course, their brand of sexual purity looks entirely different from the conservative kind. But with many Christians giving unbridled support of Melton's love at first sight attraction as a deal breaker we get a fascinating picture of progressive sexual purity.
Have progressive Christians become so enamored with their brand of purity, they're now on auto-pilot with no language of discernment, wisdom, processing, or temptation? Are we just all invited to look the other way and use Jesus-only language? Are they inviting us all into repentance from a conservative sexual purity culture into a culture of unrestrained sexual chaos, unchecked sexual openness? Is this the message progressives want us all to celebrate? Jesus is just into having one big, highflying, freewheeling party where the progressive version of sexual purity is uncurbed?
Authors Ben-Ze've and Ruhama Goussinsky in their scholarly book, In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and Its Victims help us understand the purity embedded in romantic ideology. They remind us that this kind of ideology can take a posture of psychological profoundity and moral purity that is uncompromising and unflinching. We don't have turn to a geeky book to know this.
We can turn to popular culture, popular songs. When “true love” is experienced, there is no postponement, there is no gradual time for contemplative prayer, no arguments against it, no space for considering alternative options, no space for differentiated conversations, no space for hard conversations with loyal friends who may offer suggestions out of love that may be skeptical of “true love.” It is “pure,” and nothing can stain this “true love.”
The pop group The Platters from the 50s prophesied this was going to happen to Melton, “Heaven on earth that's what you've made for me since the day we met.” They sang about Melton's immediate attraction, “Only you can make all this change in me, For its true, you are my destiny.” Again to be clear, this authentic experience does happen. But Melton was married. If anyone had any questions about Melton's love at first sight in the hours and immediate days afterward, she could quote The Platters for her uncompromising (moral seal of pure approval) about how she knew.
There is in (secular and Christian) progressive thought a kind of sexual purity wherein minimal sexual consent/autonomy is currently held as sacred, uncompromising, unbending, unyielding. These purity advocates boldly criticize the other extreme of the conservative sexual purity ethic.
But progressives? Sex with strangers? Yea, its hot. Sex with a date you've known for four hours? Adult choice. A college professor engaging in sex with his students? No problem! The students were over 21. Tinder sex with multiple dates in the same week? The more, the merrier! Learning about true love, you know! Non-monogamous sex? Uncompromising sexual openness is the position that is held tightly.
But for those progressives who want us to swallow instant attraction coupled love at first sight as a deal breaker for individuals who are already married? As we all know, the intoxication behind this kind of purity trumps all mundane commitments, loyalties, obligations, family ties. If one is already into this kind of uncompromising progressive purity, which it sounds like Melton and her husband were, this love at first sight was a no-brainer! And, that's exactly how this purity comes across in the Elle article.
We all are familiar with, I assume, with the instant attraction, love at first sight narrative.
But what happens when one is married?
This touches us all deeply in an area that is so valuable, meaningful, and unbelievably precious to all Christians. Authentic fidelity. I'm a straight guy. I focus on hetero issues of sexuality and friendship. But I assume authentic fidelity, covenantal love applies to marital sexuality, gay or straight. As sociologist Eva Illouz so perceptively points out in the great contemporary world of “sexual uncertainty,” she asks, “which obligations and commitments, exactly, does sexuality entail” (Hard-Core Romance)? Now, we might not like it, and feel terribly uncomfortable, but I would like to suggest this: we need some discernment when it happens to married individuals.
Maybe it still happens, but I remember coming across many charismatic Christians in the 1980s and 1990s who grounded their decision-making in “God told me” as if they had this infallible pipeline to the Holy Spirit. How is Melton’s instant attraction different from that?
On the hetero side of side of things, I have had conversations with individuals who have experienced powerful first-time attractions. Powerful. I have had countless conversations with married Christians about sexual attraction.
Can we apply some moral sensitivity, discernment, and contemplative awareness to this, please?
You know, if Melton were my friend at the time, and she came to me that night or the next day, I would care for her, my heart would be listening; I would validate the intensity of her experience. If she talked about this sudden admiration toward Wambach, I would validate that. If she told me she felt an intense romantic attraction toward Wambach, I would not shame her for the attraction.
But I would urge her to allow some space for healthy and wise discernment toward her experience and the attraction. After all, she’s a married woman. Its so easy these days to surround yourself with yes people when it comes to sexual purity choices.
But gosh, any educated, well-read progressive knows the phenomenon of sexual fluidity. There are stories out there where hetero women have experienced intense lesbian attraction, even had sex with other women, but remained committed heteros, committed married heteros.
Maybe her instant attraction just signaled she was bisexual. If you discover that you are bisexual in an instant attraction scenario, does that mean you automatically leave a mixed marriage?
What about plain, old, simple instant intoxicated infatuation?
What if in the discernment process she learned she could have this passionate, significant non-romantic other in her life like a Gayle King and Oprah friendship? There is no discernment process in her story to consider whether a social trust would best be served by understanding the difference between romantic attraction and friendship attraction. There are so many unbelievably rich, intense female friendship stories of profound connection.
But someone may say there was this immediate feeling of love at first sight that included sexual attraction. Well, then, what about lust? What do progressives do with Jesus’ words: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:27-28). Is there going to be no such thing as lust for progressives in gay marriage? Is there going to be no discernment between sexual objectification and non-objectification?
If a married man had this kind of story about instant attraction toward a woman this would be objectification. This is a total stranger. She doesn’t even know anything about Wambach as a person or as a friend. Is not a valid concern of love at first sight experiences that they could be just lustful fantasies?? How do we discern the difference between sexual pleasure/lust in the moments, hours, and days afterward and non-objectification?
As a total stranger, Melton is irresistibly drawn to Wambach’s physical presence with a clear sexual attraction hoping for a better world for her including the sexual pleasure. Suddenly. There are many psychological interpretations that would suggest anyone falling for a love at first sight scenario has attachment issues.
On the other hand, philosopher Collen McCluskey suggests, “What makes the difference between objectification and non-objectification is love of friendship. Without love of friendship, there is objectification” (Virtues and Their Vices). I don’t see any hunger for Melton to thirst after wisdom about objectification and non-objectification after this encounter. As married individuals, gay or straight, how do we distinguish between love of persons and love of pleasure in love at first sight attractions? Classic friendship 101. Melton obviously had not known or loved her as a friend, previously.
“The desire for wisdom,” Christine Roy Yoder in her essay, The Shaping of Erotic Desire in Proverbs 1-9, “thus engenders a fierce commitment to neighborliness and justice: it empowers one's moral agency.” Personal agency is exactly at the heart of all instant/romantic attraction scenarios, gay or straight. Feminists scream for personal agency when men invoke a sense of helplessness as they are in the throes of lust. Is Melton helpless to put on the brakes and say, “Whoa, this clearly needs some mature awareness!” Is she possessed by this erotic charge? Psychologist Robert Augustus Masters suggests that in a healthy sexuality, “We are, so to speak, in charge of our charge” (Transformation Through Intimacy)
There is no language of intentional discernment, wise processing, and waiting in the Elle article. In my hetero world, a man who has an instant attraction/love at first sight experience with an uncompromising posture would not be glamorized by wise, progressive women. Is there going to be no such thing as objectification and/or lust in gay marriage?
But did you notice that Melton had used her star power and platform to engage the evangelical purity culture? Did you see where she criticized Mike Pence's commitment to the Billy Graham rule in an essay in Time Magazine back in April?
Melton has solid criticisms of Pence (and other men) who practice a marital fidelity that is essentially born out of a conservative evangelical sexual purity. She rightfully challenges Pence. She charges him as clinging to an “18th century political ideology” of “separate spheres.” All the points she makes, I have also made throughout the years on my blog. I applaud her.
But she entirely steers clear of the elephant in the living room: contemporary romantic attraction centered around love at first sight stories. Our culture is filled with love at first sight stories. Books, movies, pop songs. Pence is close to my age; so he has probably heard all the Beatles songs about how easy it is to fall into intense love—forever. Maybe he has listened to Linda Ronstadt’s hit song, Just One Look, which has the lyrics, “Just one look and I fell so hard, in love with you.” There is this uncompromising dogma about instant attraction in our culture that anyone beyond puberty is in tune with.
It could be that Pence (and many other married men) fear, among other things, a modern narrative that makes instant romantic attraction the sine qua non of “true love.” Steeped in a Freudian culture, Pence fears exactly what happened to Melton. Whether the immediate attraction comes suddenly meeting a total stranger or meeting an acquaintance for lunch, men like Pence are in tune with that. Believe me, I have talked with many conservative evangelical men over sexual attraction issues and it's much more complicated than Melton is admitting in this essay.
Pence would be quite aware of the “helplessness” that evangelical men claim when they are in the throes of immediate attraction, objectification, or lust.
Modern sexuality has more temptations than just patriarchal issues. Progressives should know this. Melton’s story confirms it.
Consider this: Two egalitarian women are meeting for the first time alone. What are the possibilities here? What if I tell you both of them are experiencing a powerful instant attraction that feels like love at first sight? Now what are the possibilities? What if I tell you further that each of them is married to other women? Now what do you say about the possibilities? Has anything changed in how you see this situation? Just one more item of information. One of them is therapist and the other is her client, and this is their first counseling session. This attraction would have to be processed in an entirely different and mature way than the story we read in Elle. It would not be “true love” with God’s approval for them. In fact, even in light of the instant attraction they may both know true love in their current marriages.
Respectfully, Melton should know this better than anyone else: Pence fears a temptation of irresistible instant attraction—the kind of powerful experience that compelled Melton to anxiously and urgently text her husband immediately and that cast a pall over the publication of her book literally days away.
This instant attraction under the name of “love at first sight' that irresistibly draws two people into a romantic merger is also a legitimate concern for all who are married—if they haven’t done some hard work deconstructing sexual purity from a progressive side or conservative. Especially after reading the Elle article. Perhaps by the time of Melton's article back in April, Pence may have heard of her story. If not, I would guess the odds are pretty good that he’s heard some heterosexual instant attraction stories that led to divorce and were fraught with sexual uncertainty. They breed social anxiety.
Melton couldn’t offer him some kind of reassurance that there is mature wisdom for married individuals to process and discern the difference of being helplessly drawn into a sexual/romantic attraction toward someone at first sight. She couldn't offer him a soulful and contemplative attunement toward his present spouse and marital fidelity in the moment. Don't married individuals (LGBT or straight) need this reassuring wisdom?
Now, I am not suggesting any pat answers or any formulaic answers. That’s just it. If the Elle reflects the accurate story, it is lacking this mature wisdom in moral sensitivity to Christian wisdom for marital sexuality as a gay or straight woman. She couldn’t offer Pence or other men the joy and blessing of communal discernment. That’s a rich, rich Christian tradition.
In this article critical of Pence she could not bring up the biggest deal breaker that undermined her fidelity to her husband within the past year: instant attraction toward a total stranger invoking the love at first sight privilege—which has so many assumptions about romantic ideology, uncompromising sexual purity with no postponement, no space of dialogue to process. She did not come clean in her article with her own romantic ideology; and her ideology (progressive sexual purity) had nothing to do with mature, healthy, LGBT sexuality. She lacked a self-awareness and other-awareness in addressing Pence and other male readers who hold to the Billy Graham rule.
I’m just not impressed with a progressive sexual purity on steroids.