“The Sex Minister” Gives Us Relationship Advice

Divorce rates in the U.S. have climbed to over 50% in the past few years. Why is this? Is it that we don’t fix relationships the way we used to? Is it that we have too many options and ways to be unfaithful? Is it that we don’t know what we want?

Barbara Lee, author of Sacred Sex: Replacing the Marriage Ethic with a Sexual Ethic, has her own ideas on why relationships aren’t working the way they used to. Her main reasoning? The teachings of the Christian Church in regards to sex and matrimony.

Lee claims that “It is unrealistic that one person is expected to be our partner, lover, best friend, therapist, doctor and priest. When we are living to 100 years old, that kind of pressure exerted for 70-80 years can be too much weight for any one person to bear.” She also advises that “sex without marriage can be perfectly healthy and holy and it may even lead to happier and more successful marriages.”

Curious? So were we. We sat down with Barbara Lee to ask her some questions about her book, open relationships, and the true key to a healthy relationship.

Can you tell us more about your book, Sacred Sex: Replacing the Marriage Ethic with a Sexual Ethic?

Between sex as sin and sex as sport is an embrace of sexuality as a good gift. Between the teachings of “just say no” and “whatever turns you on” is a platform where we are free to love our bodies, relish sex, and marvel in this sacred gift. There can be a fine line between sex that harms and sex that heals. How will we make wise decisions about how we will and will not express our sexuality? This book advocates for the development of a Sexual Ethic that takes seriously the desires, needs, and pains of our bodies. Living by a Sexual Ethic frees us to love our bodies and to celebrate the gift of sexual intimacy. A Sexual Ethic begins by recognizing that people of all sexual orientations and gender identities are sexual beings who have the innate right to experience a full and satisfying sex life. This book also discusses the movement of masculine and feminine energy in our sexual encounters. Finally, it addresses the damage caused by the separation of body and spirit in the objectification of human beings that is the mainstay of the sex industry.

What inspired you to write this book?

I had a highly oversexualized childhood that included sexual abuse and exposure to abundant pornography. My experiences led me to believe that no one would be interested in me if they didn’t have access to me sexually. But I was also raised with a very strict teaching that I was not to have sex unless I was married. So when I did have sex, I felt so guilty that I felt I had to get married. What followed was a series of unhealthy and abusive marriages. When I share my story, I always find others with similar stories. I wrote the book in order to do my part in creating a culture in which we can talk about our experiences of shame and abuse and get on with living healthy sexual lives.

Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story, 1959.

“We need to spend less time trying to figure out our partner and more time trying to understand ourselves.”

Are you saying that open-relationships should be more widely adopted?

I am advocating for every person to create and live by a sexual ethic that takes seriously the needs, pains, and desires of their bodies and that doesn’t seek sexual satisfaction at the expense of someone else. A sexual ethic requires open and honest communication about the nature of the relationship. There are individuals who prefer open-relationships and as long as all partners agree and respect and honor each other and all of the keystones of a sexual ethic, there is no reason this can’t be a successful model. There are other individuals who are not comfortable with open-relationships and who would violate their own sexual ethic by entering into such an arrangement.

Do you think that our society is making progress in the way that it views sex? Or do we have a long way to go?

Yes and yes. In some ways we are less sexually repressed than in the past. Lots of people are having and enjoying sexual relationships without being weighted down in shame and guilt. However, we still have many parts of the country who teach abstinence only, shame-based education in the school system. We still have a media and advertising empire that uses sex as a marketing campaign and reduces it to a commodity. The sex industry is larger than ever and is fueling the objectification of human beings. Our young people are growing up inundated with sexual messaging but without being given the tools to navigate their sexual lives as they develop. The fact that we are asking the question indicates that we are making process, but we clearly have a long way to go.

What are some of the major changes someone should make to ensure happier relationships?

There is a myth in our culture that two people in a relationship become one person or that one person needs a partner to be “complete.” Neither are true. We always remain individuals. The best relationships are formed when the individuals within them have a solid self-identity and like who they are. They best way to improve a relationship is to do your own self work. We should pursue our own interests and nurture a variety of relationships with friends and family. Ultimately, to ensure happier relationships, we need to spend less time trying to figure out our partner and more time trying to understand ourselves.

What are some things a person should discuss with their partner regarding having multiple sexual partners?

Conversation, conversation, and more conversation is critical for such a relationship. People need to be able to express their wishes and desires and ask for what they want. And they need to respect that other people may or may not be able or willing to give them what they want. To enter into this kind of relationship requires agreement and mutual consent which means there can be no coercing or pushing. If both people are committed to this change then they need to clearly define boundaries. Are there some things (activities, names, physical and emotional limits) that only the two will share? What schedule will you follow? What places will you meet? How will you deal with very natural feelings of jealousy? At what points will you revisit the terms of the relationship to ensure that you are both still feeling honored and nurtured as individuals and in your relationship.

In an ideal world, how do you think people should treat their relationships?

With honor, dignity and respect – just like they should treat their partner and just like they should treat themselves. Relationships require intentionality and compassion. Healthy relationships require shared responsibility and decision making, open communication and trust. Relationships are always a choice. If a relationship is not healthy, we owe it to ourselves and our partner to be honest about that reality and then strive to restore healthiness if possible and to end the relationship if necessary.

Do you think that the reasoning behind your argument is why so many spouses are unfaithful in their relationships?

Yes. Affairs don’t create problems within a marriage. Affairs are what people do when they are unable, for whatever reason, to deal directly with the problems they are having with their partner. When people are having difficulty in their relationship, an affair allows them to “blame” the cheating partner or even the third party. And it keeps them from having to deal with their own issues while working on the relationship itself. Some people have affairs because they are seeking affirmation or excitement or some other unmet need. They are not dealing directly with their own problem and their own health. Others have affairs because they want to be caught. They want the affair to call attention to the problems in the relationship or they want the affair to be the catalyst that ends the relationship so that they can move on. Sometimes they need the assurance of a new relationship before they feel they can leave an unhappy one. Either way, affairs tend to happen when a partner cannot find the fortitude to talk to their partner about the honest state of their relationship. They are never part of a sexual ethic because of the lies and deception involved.

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