Service: “Spring Awakenings” May 27, 2018 with Jack Gaede
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The setting is 1890 in Germany. Teenagers are slowly waking up to their emerging desires, questions, fears, and insecurities. And the adults in their lives (both teachers and parents) refuse to answer these questions and realities head-on. Moritz is afraid of his body’s changes and confused about why his mind keeps fixating on things that he can’t understand. Melchior is more aware of his desires, but he has no way of understanding how to handle them. Wendla is developing quickly and has many questions, but her mother refuses to explain to her how babies are actually made. Then there is Ernst, who begins to realize that he likes boys. And Hanschen, who is beginning to realize that he likes boys and girls. And we meet Ilse, who is being abused by her father and hated by her mother.
The play was written in 1891 by Frank Wedekind, and it is called “Spring Awakening.” These teenage protagonists are all learning about the complexity of desire—both their own desire and about being the object of someone else’s desire. They are portrayed as persistently curious adolescents who are knocking on the door of adulthood, but unfortunately for them, the adults aren’t opening (or even answering) the door. The adults in the play fail to acknowledge the changing reality of their adolescent children; they refuse to educate their children about how to encounter this whole new world of emerging desire. And the young characters in the play—left to their own devices—end up experiencing suicide, rape, and unintended pregnancy. It is a heavy play, ripe with emotion, devastation, tragedy, and desire, and it tolls the bell calling for comprehensive education that does not shy away from challenging or “adult” subjects. It recognizes adolescents as the adults that they are becoming. And as you can imagine, it was initially censored for its controversial subject matter and provocative message. An honest and bold message about empowered and educated sexuality will always threaten to rip through the secretive curtains of power.
Around one hundred years later, this play was adapted into a musical, which won numerous Tony awards. The subject matter still provoked some people and prompted calls for censorship. Many people were nervous about the “adult” nature of the content of this play about teenagers. It had a groundswell of vocal and passionate supporters—primarily young people, with whom this message resonated strongly. It is not surprising to me that this play caused such a stir. But the interesting thing that I want to point out is that sometimes we think that our teenage years are the only years that we can and should deeply investigate and come to terms with our desire, attraction, and our need for intimacy, as opposed to seeing every new day as an evolving and emerging reality. Just like our taste buds change throughout our lives, our desires and preferences for intimacy, conversation, and connection also change and require regular investigation.
This sermon is going to be about sex and sexuality, and it is important to state early on that here at this church we celebrate a beautiful diversity of healthy and consensual sexual expression and sexual relationships. We recognize many ways of being in this world, including asexuality. I do not presume that every person is a sexual being, but today we will be looking at healthy ways of expressing our desire for intimacy and connection. And we will explore the fact that intimacy with another person requires consent and involves an intertwining of desires. We must be able to know and express our own desires, as well as hearing and honoring the desires of a partner. The importance of clear and direct communication cannot be understated, and that is why we turn to our first reading: the 1944 song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
This song can be a useful tool to look at the implicit and coded systems that we employ in our intimate relationships—in our courting, in our flirtations, and in our dating world. Plus, we might be able to learn a thing or two about the time in which it was written. For many women at the time, saying “yes” to their own sexual desires or to the sexual advances of a potential partner was either less allowed or more taboo than saying “no.” Because of that reality, the word “no” had to mean both “no” and “yes.” In other words, if the woman felt socially pressured to say “no” regardless of how she felt, it was the partner’s duty to find out if her “no” actually meant “no” or if her “no” meant yes. It is in this context that we see the man in this song trying to decipher the meaning of the woman’s line “my answer is no.” He persistently discourages her from leaving for the night by reiterating how cold it is outside, and hence implying how warm it would be to stay there with him. The composer of the song initially wrote it to be sung by him and his wife at dinner parties when it was time for people to go home. It was billed as an amusing diversion and lighthearted fun, and yet the original score called the two roles: “mouse” and “wolf.”
There is a lot happening in this song—in the lyrics and behind the lyrics. We see her providing many reasons for her “no,” many of which are societal. For instance, she wonders aloud what the neighbors would think. She is pointing to societal expectations to act a certain way and alluding to the consequences that she would face if she stayed with him. And yet, I am aware that this awareness of society’s expectation weighs more heavily on her since she would take the brunt of the blame and the shame societally. And yet…there is still an ambiguity about her position. It seems to me that she herself is torn in a few directions. At some point, she concedes to “half a drink more.” And at that point, we could conjecture either that she really does want to stay a little longer or that she is doing what she knows he wants her to do. There are ample ways to interpret this song, and yet I refuse to ignore the problematic communication that it presents and the important power differential that it ignores as just a product of its time.
In yesterday’s paper, for instance, I read Harvey Weinstein’s attorney argue that Weinstein wasn’t the one that originated the casting couch, shockingly implying something close to “boys will be boys” or “that’s just the way it’s always been in Hollywood.”And I’m just not buying it. There is a very important power dynamic at play in the Weinstein case that cannot be ignored, and to interpret this song without analyzing its power dynamics would be foolish as well. It is important to note that it is the woman wondering what the neighbors would think because she would pay the higher price. Also of note in this song, when he thinks that she will succeed in rebuffing his advances, the man asks the questions “what’s the sense in hurting my pride?” and “how can you do this thing to me?” The sense of entitlement and ego wrapped up in those two lines is too jarring to miss. And they beg the question: What does she owe him? In the past (and even somewhat still today), there has been an assumption that after a certain number of dates have transpired (especially if one partner has paid for the dates), that something is owed to that partner. But dating, sex, and intimacy cannot be boiled down to economic or transactional exchanges. For a gift to be given, it must be given freely without attachment to reciprocation.
But some people take this obligation and entitlement mindset even further. I just found out about a movement this month called the Incel movement—a movement of involuntarily celibate people. The community first called themselves Inv-cel before the name got shortened even further to In-cel. It started out as an online forum of support for single people who were unable to find sexual and romantic partners; it was basically a lonely hearts’ club. The original founder was a queer woman from Canada, and as the moderator of the forum she kept encountering lonely and sad men who expressed their hurt by spewing hatred and anger towards women—a move that is hardly original but is wildly dangerous. At some point, the founder of the forum had been in a relationship for a while, and she was no longer interested in moderating this forum. Plus, this movement was really taking off, and there was no longer just one forum. Since that time, as you can imagine, many of the groups formed initially for solidarity and support deteriorated into echo chambers of misogyny and anger towards women.
A whole coded language got created to communicate among this Incel community. There was an Alpha class of people (called Stacys and Chads) who were attractive and who found love, sex, and intimacy easily. There was a Beta class of people (called Normies—short for normals) who were less conventionally attractive than the Stacys and the Chads but who somehow still found love and intimacy despite their unconventional looks. And then there were the Incels who placed themselves in the Omega class. They were the very bottom of the caste system, and this placement both confirmed and created a deep sense of anger and grief. I found this group because one Incel member just went on a killing spree in Toronto, where he drove his van on the sidewalk, killing 10 people and injuring 15 others. He had left a Facebook post earlier that day, referencing his status as an Incel and lauding the actions of his hero, a fellow Incel who had killed 6 people on a shooting spree in California in 2014. As we can see, this anger and loneliness and hurt and desire for connection is a serious problem and needs to be taken seriously. Otherwise, there will be disastrous, real-life consequences—not unlike the characters in the musical “Spring Awakening” or the real-life news events all around us. In the same aforementioned section of yesterday’s paper where I read about the Weinstein case, I read about the nearly 5000 rape kits that are still sitting untested in Missouri’s police stations.
I think all the time about how to respond as a man to the #MeToo movement, to instances of rape culture, and to instances of rich, white rapists who avoid substantial jail sentences because of their privilege. And I am reminded that one of the best ways to fight toxic masculinity is to name and celebrate healthy masculinity, to encourage and educate people about healthy sexuality. I am reminded about how empowering clear and direct communication can be—both for the speaker and for the listener. Our association of UU congregations has co-created an excellent sexual education curriculum that is holistic, comprehensive, and age-appropriate, dealing with all components of intimacy and relationships. It is called OWL (which stands for Our Whole Lives), and there are curricula for K-6, 7-12, and Adults, and we are always looking for facilitators to teach this curriculum to any age group.
We are living in an era of emergence. A lot has changed in 75 years, and I will not pretend that the progress we have made is enough. Women are still being paid less than men. Marginalized people across the spectrum are still experiencing oppression. And more than before, people who are marginalized are boldly and loudly naming who they are, speaking their truth, and demanding to be heard and seen. People of dominant or privileged identities are invited to listen, and yet there are so many ways that we still overlook the voices of the marginalized. We are living in a time (more so than 75 years ago) where a woman can boldly and publicly say “yes” to her sexual desires and her sexual power, and this now means that consent is more important than ever. No doesn’t mean both no and yes; no simply means no. People of all types are saying no and meaning no, and yet there are numerous ways—not just regarding sex or intimate relationships—that we still don’t respect consent. But what might it look like to celebrate a modernized version of our dating and courting system? Can we interrogate the ways in which people strive to have power over people and situations, causing someone else to lose their sense of agency? For the purpose of this moment, I want to offer you a revamped version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” This version was written two years ago as a lighthearted and playful yet bold statement about the importance of consent and clear communication, even (or maybe especially) amidst competing desires. I want you to take special note of the response that he says two different times, “You reserve the right to say no.”