by Annabeth Leong
I'm religious. As in, I believe in God, I attend church regularly, and I have a shrine to Mary in my home. I pray, I have religious dreams, and my religion plays a role in my sense of morality. I particularly believe in my religious obligation to help the people around me and to share my belongings and resources with those who have less. Religion is a deep, important part of my identity.
I also have a complicated, insistent sense of my sexuality. I've explored my sexuality in many ways, including some that violate societal taboos. I write about sex because it fascinates me and turns me on, and because I believe in combating shame, supporting a variety of gender expressions and groupings, and enjoying the bodies we've got. Sexuality is a deep, important part of my identity.
In negotiating the terrain of sex and spirituality, I do what I always do with deep, important parts of my identity—I write about them. Religion is a major theme in my erotica, and I'm proud of the various ways I've explored it. I want to give a few examples because I don't think these issues are simple or one-sided.
1. Acknowledging Common Compromises
What I most often see is erotica, about characters who aren't religious at all and have no moral issues with sex, opposed to inspirational romance, about characters who are waiting for marriage. I'm really interested in subverting this because it doesn't reflect the reality I've observed at all. I know very few religious people who actually waited until marriage (I certainly didn't). And yet, many people who fornicate remain religious for other reasons (again, this is me).
The Ellora's Cave Branded line—which requires sexually active characters to be married to each other—was dubbed "inspirational erotica" by some and mocked for that. On the other hand, I think this is an interesting step toward putting sex and religion together, and I love acknowledging that sex and romance don't end when a couple gets married. I've written for this line (Get Laid) and am proud of that work.
Really, though, I like to go farther than that and write about characters who are living with the contradictions. In Run for Your Love, a book I wrote about the zombie apocalypse, my characters are practicing Roman Catholics. The Church also play an important role in providing for the people hurt by the chaos in the world. My characters sincerely believe in their religion and try to follow its morals (for example, the hero, Zach, is a pacifist because of his interpretation of Christianity). They're also fornicating. They discuss this and decide that it's not a priority for them to worry about that. I'm really proud of these characters and that scene as a true reflection of what I've seen and admire in life, but it was very uncomfortable to write. I know tons of Catholics who don't do exactly what the Church tells them to do, and yet I so rarely see that portrayed.
2. Portraying What Is Possible
I'm really excited about a story I have forthcoming from Storm Moon Press called "Never Not a Priest" (It will be in an anthology called Devout). It's about a gay priest whose life is changed by the legalization of same-sex marriage in his state. This isn't a character who dismisses worries about fornication—he believes in and wants to experience the sanctity of marriage, but has been suffering because he's been shut out of choosing it. A major issue in this story is the repair of the relationship he's been in, which has been damaged by being kept secret.
This is sort of the flip side to what I said above. It's possible to choose to ignore certain pronouncements of church and/or state, but what if you don't want to? I frequently see liberals suggesting that queer people suffering discrimination in the south should just move, but this is an inhuman demand. It's not a solution to order people to leave their homes and families (and the Human Rights Campaign recently made a very poignant video to this effect, interviewing many Southern queer people about why they don't want to leave). Similarly, people are sometimes told that they should just stop being religious.
I'm not willing to give up on religion. Changes have happened. For example, there is a general acceptance of divorce that was really not present just 50 years ago. The Anglican Church has torn itself apart dealing with issues including ordination of women and same-sex marriage, and I respect that struggle. I want to help it, not abandon it. That's my political motivation behind "Never Not a Priest"—I wanted to present a positive view of religion becoming more inclusive. I believe in the importance of showing visions of possibility.
3. Reveling in Transgression
I'd be a huge liar if I failed to acknowledge the enormous thrill of doing what I'm not supposed to do. Part of the fun of sexual exploration lies in being naughty, and religion can really juice that. I've done a lot of kinky things that play with this fact. I've put on Catholic schoolgirl skirts and played Christian wife and all the rest. It's hot. I do think that, as a person who sincerely believes in this religion, I get more excitement out of fucking with it than a nonbeliever would. I could participate in a kinky scene that screwed with, say, Hindu mores, but I doubt I'd get the full-body fear and pleasure effect of blasphemy from doing so. Also, I think I'd be uncomfortable with doing this. Since Christianity is my religion, for better and for worse, I feel okay about criticizing it or toying with it in a way that I don't when it comes to the religions of others.
As far as heresy and transgression, my magnum opus is "The Miracles of Dorothea of Andrine," which is forthcoming from Forbidden Fiction. I filled this story with authentic detail about how the Roman Catholic Church historically conducted investigations into miracles and potential beatification, and then I accompanied that with an equal helping of kinky acts (lactation fetish, self-penetration with large dildos, blasphemous phrases translated into Latin, etc). The main character is a bishop who thinks this is all terribly dirty—until he just can't resist participating.
While this story is mostly about transgression, I also adapted many authentic Marian prayers into celebrations of the divine feminine. By the end of the story, the characters have set up a heretical branch of the Church that changes the role of the Holy Mother to something much more sex-positive than what exists in mainstream Roman Catholicism. I generally can't help myself from including some of my political views, even when I'm out to be naughty.
4. Mining a Rich Tradition of Story
The recent story I'm most technically proud of is "The Good Brother," published in the Coming Together: By the Book series (sales benefit Darkness to Light, an organization working to end child sexual abuse). This is a contemporary retelling of the story of the rape of Tamar, and it's an exploration of the aftereffects of rape and incest (including more incest).
I'll never forget the first time I encountered the original story in the Book of Kings. I was pretty young, and I was generally interested in being "good." People frequently extolled the virtues of daily Bible reading, particularly the value of the Bible as a set of instructions for living. Well, at this point, I'm pretty sure that you can't describe the Bible that way if you've actually read it. It's full of contradiction and mystifying stories and it's short on clear instructions. But I didn't know better yet, so I was trying to read it every day. I was a bookish kid, so after a while I encountered the rape of Tamar. That story disturbed me and wouldn't let me go.
But this is actually key to the value I do find in the Bible. The story of the rape of Tamar is ugly and confusing. It raises questions, and it shows injustice clearly. I've since been in church while it was being read aloud, and I enjoy the discomfort it produces. We need that discomfort. We need to talk about these brutal, terrible things. We need to talk about sex that isn't sexy, and also sex that is sexy when it feels as if it shouldn't be.
When I write with a rich tradition of story behind me (whether that's Greek myth or Biblical lore), I often get a resonant effect. I'm proud of the language in "The Good Brother," and I'm proud of the sense of doom that will kick in for readers who are familiar with the King David cycle (because they, for example, know what becomes of Absalom). I disturbed myself writing it, but sometimes I need to go to that place, and religion can help me get there.
I'll cut this post off here because I've already gone quite long. But I expect to write much more religious-themed erotica over the course of my career, and I hope I explore even more aspects of the territory.
Meanwhile, in real life, I'm also negotiating the territory. I'm functionally Roman Catholic, but I attend a church with more politically liberal policies because I can't stomach any less. I go straight from church to kinky weekend events. I choose to hear particular Biblical passages as coded references to BDSM. I judiciously ignore some things and speak up about others. I wear sky-high heels to church and secretly get off on it. I worship, and I accept my confusion, and I live with the contradictions and the resonances.