The following article is a lightly edited transcript of the sermon given by Rev. Tony Ponticello on Sunday, July 15th, 2001 at the Community Miracles Center in San Francisco, CA.
On June 28th, the US Surgeon General David Satcher, released a very controversial report. The name of the report is, "The Surgeon General's Call To Action To Promote Sexual Health And Responsible Sexual Behavior." His report expressed many views that are very counter to the views held by our President, definitely views that are counter to those held by the fundamental Christian right. True to the controversial nature of the report, the day after it was published it was condemned by many conservative politicians. It was condemned by our President, George Bush. There were many who called for David Satcher's immediate resignation or removal.
If the past is any indicator of what could happen now, I suppose that we should be very grateful that Satcher wasn't fired. He's still there. That's great. In the past, the last time a Surgeon General decided to say something controversial about sex, she was fired! That was Jocelyn Elders. A number of years ago she came out with a report during a supposed liberal administration, the Clinton administration. She was fired for the absolutely controversial thing that she said. If you don't remember what the amazing controversy was about, it was because she wanted to include masturbation on the list of normal sexual activities. She wanted to be able to list masturbation as something that people do. That's really controversial, isn't it? That particular normal sexual behavior proved to be too abnormal for a very liberal administration.
People say that Jocelyn Elders wanted to teach masturbation, but let's get this clear. She wasn't going to teach anybody how to masturbate. She was just going to make sure that masturbation was on the list of sexual activities that people do. God forbid that any educational authority, like the government, acknowledge that masturbation exists. Isn't that amazing! It's particularly unusual when you couple it with the fact that the main government line is that everybody should abstain from sex until they are in a committed, monogamous relationship. For an educational institution that's promoting abstinence to not teach masturbation seems very -- peculiar. This is just another indication of the condition of sexual dysfunction in our national discussion.
Satcher published his report, "The Surgeon General's Call To Action To Promote Sexual Health And Responsible Sexual Behavior." I will get into what it says later, but before do, I want to say that I have read the report. I got it off the Internet. [http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/sexualhealth/call/htm] The first thing that struck me is how carefully researched this report is. This isn't just the Surgeon General giving his opinion about things. He cites 126 published scientific reports to back up everything that he's saying. He first makes a statement, then he cites a scientific report. He makes another statement; he cites another report. It's an amazingly well researched document. I think that anybody who is critical of this report would benefit greatly just from reading it. It's about 20 pages in length. Actually the whole report is about 30 pages but a lot of that is just the references so the document itself isn't that long. You could probably read it in about 30 minutes.
In one section of the document, section #7 named "Advancing the National Dialogue" Satcher says this:
The primary purpose of this Surgeon General's Call to Action is to initiate a mature national dialogue on issues of sexuality, sexual health, and responsible sexual behavior. As stated (by MS Ruiz in Institute of Medicine) ... "Society's reluctance to openly confront issues regarding sexuality results in a number of untoward effects. This social inhibition impedes the development and implementation of effective sexual health and HIV/STD education programs, and it stands in the way of communication between parents and children and between sex partners. It perpetuates misperceptions about individual risk and ignorance about the consequences of sexual activities and may encourage high-risk sexual practices."
Individuals can begin the dialogue – adult with adult, adult with child ... Adults can communicate with other adults about their views on responsible sexual behavior, what it is, and how to promote it. Parents can educate their children about sexuality and responsibility, most importantly by being healthy and positive role models.
Communities must necessarily approach a dialogue on sexual health and responsible sexual behavior ... This dialogue can be sponsored by local governments, businesses, churches, schools, youth-serving organizations and other community based organizations and should, at a minimum, include: emphasis on respect for diversity of perspective, opinion and values ... and respect for all cultural, gender, age, and sexual orientation groups.
I thought that this was a great statement for the Surgeon General of this country to be making. Now, maybe you're asking, "What does this have to do with A Course In Miracles?" Well, speaking as a person who is a spiritual counselor, who has been counseling in private practice for about 15 years, issues of sexuality and sexual relationships are the primary cause of people coming to counseling. It's a primary cause for the disturbances, for the lack of peace that so many people feel. If we can imagine that the number of people who do come to counseling with these issues represent only a very small percentage of the people who are actually troubled by these issues we can begin to appreciate the magnitude of this healing problem. We have a huge problem about our sexuality, about our sexual expression and about all the emotions that it brings up for us and I want to be a very thorough witness as to how important it is that we bring this to the light – that we have this kind of discussion. I think, unfortunately, many of us in spiritual circles and many of us even in A Course In Miracles circles, want to see the world through rose colored glasses. We don't want to see the conflicts and problems of the world. We want to see everything as "fine" all the time. Yet I believe, A Course In Miracles is trying to teach us something different. To think that the Course wants us just to overlook all the problems of the world, and our own problems, is a real distortion of what the Course is actually saying. In Lesson 133 it gets very clear as to what the Course wants us to do with conflict. It says, "Conflict must be resolved. It cannot be evaded, set aside, denied, disguised, seen somewhere else, called by another name, or hidden by deceit of any kind, if it would be escaped. It must be seen exactly as it is, where it is thought to be, in the reality which has been given it, and with the purpose that the mind accorded it. For only then are its defenses lifted, and the truth can shine upon it as it disappears." (W-pII.333.1:1-4)
So we're not supposed to pretend that the conflict isn't there. We are, ultimately, supposed to know that the conflict doesn't represent our reality, but in order to release it we have to see it, exactly as it is, exactly as it appears to us with all the belief, energy and emotion we have put on it. We have to be connected to it. We have to see it, offer it up and work with it. We offer it to the Holy Spirit and work with it. We offer it up for discussion and dialogue. That's why I really connected to what the Surgeon General said. It think it's time for us to, as a society, bring these issues into the light. I actually think that it is our reluctance to talk about sex and sexuality that makes problems of sex and sexuality there in the first place. I personally want to respond to the Surgeon General's bold challenge. I certainly want us, the Community Miracles Center, a socially conscious church: to be part of that challenge, to respond, to take a stand about not keeping these issues hidden, to be a space here where it is okay to talk about sex and sexuality. Not only is it okay to talk about sex here, but it's actually encouraged because we recognize this as part of the healing that we have to do.
The following quotation from the Course talks about how important it is to bring the hidden to the light. "The escape from darkness involves two stages: First, the recognition that darkness cannot hide. This step usually entails fear. Second, the recognition that there is nothing you want to hide even if you could. This step brings escape from fear. When you have become willing to hide nothing, you will not only be willing to enter into communion but will also understand peace and joy." (T-1.IV.1)
If we have this sexual dialogue, the first thing that we're going to notice is that it brings up fear. That's why we avoid the dialogue in the first place. Maybe we don't think it's fear; maybe we're just nervous talking about sex. Well, that's a form of fear. We're self-conscious talking about sex; that's also a form of fear. We're embarrassed, we feel guilty, we avoid it at any cost – all forms of fear. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day who just got the advanced, digital cable package for her television. Now she can get HBO and Showtime. So, she's been watching the award winning program Sex and the City. She's a straight (heterosexual) woman and she really likes the star Sarah Jessica Parker. However, until recently, she had never seen Sex and the City. She's now watched 5 or 6 episodes of the award winning series and she came to me and said, "I can't believe what those women on the show are talking about! All that explicit talk about sex and sexual practices. I can hardly watch it. I get too embarrassed. I didn't realize I was such a prude! I thought I was liberal." The women on the show talk very frankly about every sexual issue imaginable. My friend asked me if I knew about a sexual practice that they were talking about on the show. (Of Course I did and my friend said that she did not want to know if I practiced said activity.)
It's amazing, but we don't even realize where we are in the whole national discussion about sex. We're so unwilling to ever talk about sex to anybody we don't get where we're at with it. Yes, we do need a discussion and, yes, it's probably going to bring up embarrassment, as sense of self-consciousness, but this is just the first thing that happens. That's the fear that the first step brings. As we continue to talk about it and offer it to Holy Spirit, that fear gets released.
The Course tells us, "The journey that we undertake together is the exchange of dark for light, of ignorance for understanding. Nothing you understand is fearful. It is only in darkness and in ignorance that you perceive the frightening, and shrink away from it to further darkness. And yet it is only the hidden that can terrify, not for what it is, but for its hiddenness." (T-14.VI.1:1-4)
The things that we are afraid to talk about are not fearful in and off themselves, but because we instill them with fear and then choose to hide them, we make them seem fearful to us. As we bring them to the light and start talking about them, the first thing that happens is we uncover the fear and we feel it, but very soon we realize there was nothing to be fearful of in the first place. There was nothing to be embarrassed about in the first place. There was nothing to be self-conscious about in the first place. We have arbitrarily and capriciously, as a society, decided that we wouldn't talk about these things. It was only because of this decision to hide sex and sexuality that it ever had any quality of embarrassment or fear about it.
I recently went to see a documentary movie named Keep the River on Your Right. It was about a man, an artist and anthropologist, named Tobias Schneebaum, who went into very primitive cultures and lived among these "simple" people for extended times. In the cultures that he went into, they wore no clothes. These "primitive" peoples were very open and free about their sexuality and their genitals. Have you ever seen wood carvings from the tribes of New Guinea? The figures all have full genital display. Schneebaum in the movie talked about how no one seemed to be embarrassed about displaying their genitals. In fact, in one of the cultures the customary greeting for males was to go up to each other and to grab the other males genitals. That's what you shook. You didn't shake hands, you went and grabbed your friends balls and shook those! We all think that's so bizarre! However, this idea about being embarrassed about our bodies and our sexuality, that's what bizarre. It isn't natural to be embarrassed about our sexuality. It's not inherent in the species. It's a cultural thing. It's something that our Western culture has reinforced. We could be different.
There's an old saying that's very popular in 12 Step Programs. I think it's very apropos here. It's not part of the 12 Step Program itself; it's just common in those circles. The saying is, "You are as sick as your secrets." Anything that you keep secret is going to end up being your problem. The very fact that you are pushing it down is going to make it a problem We need to keep talking about these things or they will make us sick. They are making us sick as a society.
The Course says, "The little problems that you keep and hide become your secret sins, because you did not choose to let them be removed for you. And so they gather dust and grow, until they cover everything that you perceive and leave you fair to no one." (T-25.IX.9:1-2) These things that we keep secret just mold and gather dust. We have to let them out into air, bring them to the light of day. We need to open the psychological windows and doors so that they air out, so that the don't get moldy and rotten down there in the corners of our mind.
I'm not in total agreement with everything that Satcher's report says but I'm aware of the political climate that this report was released into. If you read the report it's obvious many times the Surgeon General is elevating the committed, monogamous relationship to the gold standard he believes that everybody in this society must be aspiring to. I think that this is an interesting assumption, but I don't know if it is necessarily a true one. However, I understand why he probably felt he had to make these references, whether or not he actually believes it himself is another story. In the political climate that he's functioning in, he's only trying to keep his job. He's not going to say that there is also a tremendous amount of other scientific research that says that the committed, monogamous relationship is not necessarily natural. I just read a book a couple of months ago named The Myth of Monagamy (David Barash & Judith Lipton / 2001). This was an amazingly well researched, scientific book which, among other things, talked about how many cultures around the face of the earth, especially those ones that we call primitive cultures, do not have committed, monogamous family relationships at the core of their social framework. There is a whole, vast and broad array of ways we can be with each other socially, romantically and sexually. To assume that the way we are in Western culture is the way that we are supposed to be is naive and arrogant on our part. I can forgive Satcher and his bias for committed, monogamous relationships. As I said, along with trying to keep his job he was doing his best to keep from having his whole report thrown out altogether and ignored. Considering the conservative political climate in Washington today, he was probably trying to keep himself from being lynched! If he came out with any kind of anti-monogamy statement who knows what might have happened. However, Satcher did make very bold statements all throughout his report. I want to focus in on some of those. He said this about sexual orientation:
Sexual orientation is usually determined by adolescence, if not earlier (scientific study cited), and there is no valid scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed (scientific study cited). Nonetheless, our culture often stigmatizes homosexual behavior, identity and relationships (scientific study cited). These anti-homosexual attitudes are associated with psychological distress for homosexual persons and may have a negative impact on mental health, including a greater incidence of depression and suicide, lower self-acceptance and a greater likelihood of hiding sexual orientation (5 scientific studies cited).
Every bold thing that he says he backs up with research, and I was amazed and pleased to have something like this coming from our government.
We A Course In Miracles students may like to say that we are above all of these sexual prejudices. We don't think we have these prejudices. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we think we certainly don't have any prejudices about sexual preferences. This is the liberal capital of America!
Okay, I want to relate a true story. We here this morning know we are in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco and what that means. However, there might be somebody listening to this lecture on a recording [or reading this transcript on paper] so I have to say that the Community Miracles Center is in the middle of the Castro district of San Francisco, which is the famous gay district of the city. San Francisco itself is a noted gay city. We have a large gay population and we have a lot of acceptance for gay culture here. So we are right in the heart of it. Yet, I think the Community Miracles Center has never conceptualized itself as a gay church. I have no notion of that. We are an A Course In Miracles inspired church, where everybody is welcome. Gay people certainly come here but many heterosexuals come here too. Sexual preference is never an issue here. If you were to do a quick survey on any given Sunday you would see that there was a good mixture of sexual preferences here. We're not active in gay political issues. We don't take stands on those things the way gay churches do. So I don't think of us a gay church. We are an A Course In Miracles inspired church. A couple of years ago, a noted A Course In Miracles author was going to be in the San Francisco Bay Area for an extended period of time, about seven weeks. I'm not going to tell you who the author is or what his/her sexual preference is. The author came here, certainly knew who we were and where we were. I was friendly with him/her.
When the author visited, the Sunday service was just about this size and she/he saw that there were about 25 people here. The author came up to me afterwards and said something like, "I was surprised that there weren't more people here. Are there usually more?" I said, "No. This is about average for us." The author came back the next week and again saw about the same number of people, the same attendance. He/she came up to me after the service and said to me, "Where are all the A Course In Miracles students? Why aren't they here?" I jokingly said, "I don't know why they aren't here. Why don't you go ask them?" What I didn't realize was that the author took this seriously. She/He took our list of San Francisco Bay Area study groups. As I said, the author was going to be here for several weeks. In the next month that author attended every one of those groups that she/he could attend, which was most of them. The groups were in the evening so he/she could go to them. After that month she/he attended another of our Sunday services; he/she liked the Sunday service a lot. After the service the author came up to me said, "Tony, I've been to all the study groups and I've talked to all facilitators." I said, "Really?" I hadn't realized that the author was doing this. The author said that after attending each group he/she would very casually, without expressing any kind of bias of any sort, go up to the facilitator at the end of each group and have a conversation with them. The author would say something like, "You know I'm going to be in the San Francisco Bay Area for a short period of time and I'd like to know where an A Course In Miracles student would go to really be with other miracles students and study the Course. Where do you go to talk A Course In Miracles? Where is A Course In Miracles really studied in the San Francisco Bay Area?" The author then told me that, invariably, every one of the facilitators said that the California Miracles Center (we were the California Miracles Center at the time) was a great organization and a great place to go. They all said they we really focus on A Course In Miracles here. They all said that we were very sincere and serious about our ACIM work here. The CMC was the place to go. So then the author said to the facilitators, "Okay, great! Do you go there?" Then the facilitator would invariably say, "No." The author would then, naively ask, "Well, if that's the best place to go study A Course In Miracles, why don't you go there?" Can you guess what the answer was that the author most frequently got? (pause) "It's too gay. It's too gay there."
It's too gay here!
I thought that people would come here to study A Course In Miracles. I didn't know the fact that there were gay people here was going to be a problem!
It's too gay here? I didn't get it! I was really amazed especially because most of these facilitators had never even been here. I knew that people might have a perception that there were gay people here, but that they would not come here because there were gay people here? I just didn't get it. As I read early, the report by Satcher said, "These anti-homosexual attitudes are associated with psychological distress for homosexual persons and may have a negative impact on mental health." People have very negative, anti-homosexual attitudes and I forget this because I live right here in the midst of it. It's easy to forget, but that prejudice is right here too, right in our Bay Area.
There's another situation we have had to deal with. In 1987, when we moved into this facility, Rev. Larry was in charge of redecorating the place. He decided to paint the CMC these wonderful shades of rose. It's painted light rose and dusty rose. Most of the people who come here really love the color combination. They think it's amir and it feels healing, but every once in a while we get someone who really thinks the colors are inappropriate. In fact, we have had people, people very involved with us, sit down with us and aggressively campaign for us to repaint the Center. Why should we repaint the Center? Seems like some people have come up here with their straight friends, and their straight friends have said, "It's pink. It's too gay." (pause) To which Larry and I always respond, "They're not pink! They're rose!" Rose is not pink. Of Course, there are those who say that only a gay person would know the difference between rose and pink and maybe that's the problem!
Do we need tolerance, discussion and acceptance about sexual diversity? Yes, I think we do – even here in our own San Francisco Bay Area, which we like to think is so liberal. It's not as liberal as we might think.
The Surgeon General has asked community groups in general, and churches specifically, to start this discussion, and I want us all to consider that a personal invitation and be open to it. The Community Miracles Center has always been open to talking about sex and actually it has always caused a lot of problems for us. I talked about this not too long ago. I wrote an article named "The Reclamation of Grandeur" (Vol.15, No.1/Mar.'01) which dealt with the trouble that I get into here when I talk about sex. I get it. It's a problem. It's always been a problem. However, now what I see is that we were just ahead of the times. The Surgeon General wants churches to talk about sex, so we were right on track all along. I feel very good about what we have been doing here at the CMC.
The Surgeon General concludes his report with this:
VIII. Conclusion: – "Based on the scientific evidence, we face a serious public health challenge regarding the sexual health of our nation. Doing nothing is unacceptable. More than anyone, it is our children who will suffer the consequences of our failure to meet these responsibilities.
Solutions are complex but we do have evidence that we can promote sexual health and responsible sexual behavior. Given the diversity of attitudes, beliefs, values and opinions, finding common ground might not be easy but it is attainable. We are more likely to find this common ground through a national dialogue with honest and respectful communication. We need to appreciate and respect the diversity of our culture and be informed by the science that is available to us.
This is a call to all of society to respond to this challenge. These efforts will not only have an impact on the current health status of our nation, but lay the groundwork for a healthier society for future generations.
We're being called here, challenged, to do something by the Surgeon General and it's a great call. It's something that we, as individuals and as a community, can certainly respond to. What are the consequences if we don't respond to it? What are the consequences of our silence? The report listed the consequences. Here are some of them:
Sexually transmitted diseases infect approximately 12 million persons in our country – 12 million!
There have been about three-quarters of a million AIDS cases reported in the US since 1981. Nearly two-thirds of them have been sexually transmitted.
It is estimated that there are almost a million people currently living with HIV. Of those living with HIV one-third of them are aware of their status and are in some kind of treatment. One-third of them are aware of their status but not doing any treatment and a third of them are not even tested and are not aware that they are HIV positive. These are the consequences of the silence.
It is estimated that there are 40,000 new HIV infections every year. (pause) 40,000 – and they don't want us to talk about condoms.
Nearly one-half of all pregnancies that occur in this nation are unintended. People aren't trying to have a baby, they just get pregnant. (pause) We can't talk about condoms.
It is estimated that 22% of women and 2% of men have been victims of some form of forced sexual act. More than one-fifth of women have had a forced sexual act. (pause) It's estimated that 104,000 children are victims of sexual abuse every year.
These are the consequences of a culture that doesn't want us to talk about sex. These are the consequences when we let our embarrassment or our prudery stop us from bringing sex and sexuality out into the light. We can keep pretending that teaching abstinence works, but that's all were doing. We're pretending that it works.
Another thing the report says is that there has been a lot of research about what happens when you teach people about safer sex and birth control. There is a conservative argument that says when you teach kids how to use birth control they will have more sex. That's the argument. We don't want to tell them what to do for birth control and safer sex because that's giving them permission to do just that. Here's what Satcher's report says:
This evidence gives strong support to the conclusion that providing information about contraception does not increase adolescent sexual activity, either by hastening the onset of sexual interCourse, increasing the frequency of sexual interCourse, or increasing the number of sexual partners. In addition, some of these evaluated programs increased condom use or contraceptive use more generally for adolescents who were sexually active (10 scientific references).
Teaching kids about birth control doesn't make them have more sex, but for the ones who are having sex it certainly does help them use birth control and to practice safer sexual practices. It's all there. The Surgeon General is calling us to find a common ground and to communicate. Isn't that what A Course In Miracles is asking us to do? Come together. Find a common ground. Keep communicating. The Course says, "The Holy Spirit sees the body only as a means of communication, and because communicating is sharing it becomes communion." (T-6.V.A.5:5)
This is the purpose for being here in a body. It is to communicate that which is within. Certainly to communicate about the things that we have issues and problems about. Our goal here is to heal those and communication is how healing happens!
I ask all of you to join with me and Surgeon General David Satcher in starting a mature, national dialogue about sex and sexuality. Maybe someday soon we will even be able to acknowledge that we, along with 90% of the population, masturbate regularly and thoroughly enjoy it.
Thank you very much. That's it. ♥
c/o Community Miracles Center
2269 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94114
This article appeared in the July 2001 (Vol. 15 No. 5) issue of Miracles Monthly. Miracles Monthly is published by Community Miracles Center in San Francisco, CA. CMC is supported solely by people just like you who: become CMC Supporting Members, Give Donations and Purchase Books and Products through us.