Towards a Quaker View of Sex
The Friend May 20, 1960
At its highest, the sexual instinct can lead us to profound experiences symbolic to many of a sharing, however, humble, in the Divine act of creation. Yet variations of the same instinct often result in behaviour which leads to evil and tragedy difficult to describe. Friends do not always face this paradox, and some even seem to deny the existence of sexual problems within the Society. It is easier to respond whole-heartedly to more "outgoing" and material concerns, such as famines, epidemics and refugees, which make clear-cut demands on the emotions and do not so much involve the searching self-examination often called for in an approach to the problems of sexual morality. Yet no one can come into intimate contact with life and ignore these difficulties. Whether as teachers, doctors, lawyers, marriage counsellors, or just as concerned laymen, we continually and increasingly meet the problems of morality and the need to help troubled people, old and young. These are matters which no concerned religious body can ignore.
One of the commonest and most misunderstood problems is homosexuality. Homosexuality is the erotic love of a person for others of the same sex: man for man or woman for woman. It is not a psychiatric curiosity; in fact it is thought by one authority to predominate in nearly one million men in this country. Careful American work showed that one-third of all men had some type of homosexual experience before the age of 45, and the situation in this country--and among women--is unlikely to be very different. Most people grow through this stage to a normal adjustment. Nor can we neglect the overwhelming evidence of psychiatrists that we all carry deeply within us the elements of both sexes, and may be capable of the sexual desire and expression quite foreign to our common selves.
Homosexuality and heterosexuality are both viewed as a continuity of conduct with the exclusive forms of each at the two ends and with varying degrees of bi-sexuality between. Different cultures now and in the past have placed the ideal of behaviour at different points on the scale, and although heterosexual expression predominates in large measure, the total and exclusively heterosexual is probably as much an artificial and "abnormal" produce of his culture and environment as is the exclusively heterosexual. The social attitudes current in this country places great emphasis on one extreme. It hounds and penalizes the male homosexual, causing the greatest human suffering to those who, for not fault of their own, have only known and are only capable of this form of expression, or who are torn by conflicting desires in both directions. Whether practised in private or in public, homosexuality (though not between females) is always an offence against the criminal law. In this respect it stands in sharp contrast with some other forms of sexual deviation which can be practised in private with impunity.
How these sexual orientations are laid down is (and alas will long remain) a matter for speculation. It is doubtful if seduction in early life is a significant cause; but one thing we can be sure of is that fundamental trends are laid down very early on, and concepts of blame and guilt have little place. Skilled help from doctors and others, or sympathetic friendship, may lead a troubled homosexual to "grow through" a difficult phase to sexual maturity, or assist the immutable to adjust his life to the permanent state. Each situation is an individual and personal one. New knowledge of the hormones and chromosomes of sex has not yet helped much at the moment. But homosexuals are not necessarily to be seen as "patients". True, many have psychiatric complaints, but in view of the ostracism that surrounds them this is not necessarily surprising. Many others, unsuspected, live quiet, useful lives in society, as well adjusted to their condition as any of us. Some may achieve marriage and children, although basically they remain unchanged.
One cannot expect members of the Society of Friends to be free from the difficulties that face mankind at large, and the unfolding of homosexual conflicts among young Friends in some of our Universities., followed by their quest for a Quaker answer to their condition, and to the formation of a Quaker group dedicated to the study of this problem. This committee, representing teaching, penology, psychiatry, biology and the law, has been meeting about every two months during the last two and a half years, and has consulted with representatives of Young Friends, Quaker Heads of Schools, the Marriage and Parenthood Committee, the Friends Temperance and Moral Welfare Union, the Penal Reform Committee, the Guild of Friend Social Workers and other concerned Friends.
In its discussions and reflections it has seen itself unable to consider the problem of homosexuality in isolation from other aspects of sexual expression, and in its consideration of the Wolfenden recommendations has seen itself less and less able to distinguish between the evils of homosexual conduct and similar evils that occur in heterosexuality. The seduction of the young, or sexual acts in [....] are equally undesirable in both cases, [...} obviously, it is the ephemeral and irresponsible nature of so many sexual affairs, both homosexual and heterosexual, which the committee believes to be damaging.
The factor of transcendent importance in the human relationship seemed, to the committee to be its quality: the dedication of the self to the other person, and the acceptance of unlimited responsibility for each other. This unselfish and valuable type of relationship was seen to be present in many homosexual liaisons, although the homosexual love affair seems to be typically riven through with doubts, passion and inpermanence--not surprisingly, since social forces, by condemnation, tend to tear it apart while acting to cement the heterosexual situation. These social pressures create other evils: the closed society of homosexuals for example, and the reluctance of sympathetic people to speak up for homosexuals for fear of being so branded.
In our discussion of all these problems we could not always follow what has traditionally been regarded as Christian judgment. We have asked ourselves anew what we really think is right or wrong. Again and again we have been brought back to the fundamental issue: how are these matters related to the love of God and of our neighbour?
It is surely clear that homosexuality is a poor substitute for heterosexual expression, denying as it does the creative purpose of the sexual drive. But should we, as a religious body, regard it as meriting persecution and imprisonment? And going further than this, should we indeed regard it as inherently sinful and contrary to the will of God? Passing beyond the issues raised by the Wolfenden Committee, what attitude do we take on other sexual matters such as masturbation, which is now known to occur almost universally during adolescence, and to persist in an appreciable number of people? Or premarital intercourse? The answer here is less easy than it might appear, for biological maturity in our young people is occurring at an earlier and earlier age; yet the increasing demands of study and specialisation often postpone economic independence.
These are problems to which this group has sought answers through thought and prayer, and to which it believes our Society should address itself. In particular is this important to Elders and Overseers, because there are many young people in our midst and some of them, we know, are much troubled by sexual conflicts of one kind or another. Our Society needs to make known to them that sympathy and understanding are always to be had, and that the Quaker interpretation of the Christian faith is able to speak to their condition.
Anna Bidder (Chairman).
Lotte Rosenberg (Secretary).
A Quaker Group on Homosexuality and Other Problems of Sex