I am thrilled to bring you this piece from my friend Tolly Moseley, a writer I have admired for at least a decade. Back when “newsletters” were called “blogs” Tolly used to organize a blogger meet-up called a Bleet-Up, and obviously I am a fan of squishing two words together (hi, Democrasexy) so I think we were destined to collab at some point.
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More about Tolly:
Tolly Moseley is a writer from Texas. Her pieces on sex, pleasure, and mental health have been published in The Atlantic, Salon, and Sex With Emily, where she is Head of Editorial. She is a proud contributor to Democrasexy, and — plot twist — a performance aerialist, who’s opened for Willie Nelson and shared the stage with Ludacris, but most loves to get down with her fellow aerialist weirdos. She lives in Austin with her partner, daughter, and three spoiled cats.
The Sins I Learned to Love
by Tolly Moseley
*A note to readers: this essay intentionally uses dated language when referring to the LGBTQ community, to reflect my verbiage at the time. Which is all to say: it was the ‘90s.
“What I want to know,” she asked me, “is if it’s a sin to be gay. Do you think so?”
Stephanie and I stood there in our high school library, dressed in prim dance team outfits: a less sexy version of the cheerleaders’ uniform, with an inch more length to our skirts. I nodded, took a deep a breath, and made significant eye contact.
“Yes,” I replied. “Yes, it is.”
Growing up in a fairytale neighborhood of the one percent, I often had conversations like these, because I often had rich friends. And their rich parents passed down their values to their children, and those children went to Campus Life with me. Look, I was no Biblical scholar – but I was pretty sure gayness was sinful. How did I know? I just… did.
“It’s really hard to accept,” I told Stephanie, summoning all the deep wisdom I’d developed in 16 years of life. “And yet, God has made it clear. Love the sinner, hate the sin.” (I actually talked like this.)
As a whole, San Antonio is a place that loves three things: a) Tex-Mex, b) pomp and circumstance, and c) church. A very typical weekend might involve a parade with your family, dining out for fajitas and queso, and waking up the next morning to go to church, where the preacher will rave about the parade, joke about the queso, and remind you to love sinners while hating their sin. And to tithe, because that love/hate balancing act doesn’t pay for itself, folks.
Little to my (and Stephanie’s) knowledge, I’d not only reverse those views two years later, I’d write for a sex media company 22 years later. If that sounds self-congratulatory, that’s because it is. I’m very, very glad the programmed homophobia shook itself off, and I’m very, very glad I went to college, where my beliefs were challenged. If you fear young people having their minds opened, beware of higher education.
I entered college as a religion major. The first semester, I took a class called “The Historical Jesus,” which taught me, among other things, when the Gospels were written.
The earliest one was composed 40 years after Jesus died, which would be like hearing about “Thriller” for the very first time on this very day. Those curled zombie hands: a fresh delight to us all.
My professor also taught us the Jesus texts that – Biblically speaking – didn’t make the cut, like the Gnostic Gospels. Those include the very fascinating Gospel of Mary Magdalene, who has a unique take on Jesus’ message. “Jesus told me that God is already inside all of us,” she tells the disciple dude gang, in so many words. You don’t need Jesus as an intermediary to get into heaven; in fact, heaven itself is questionable.
“All that is composed shall be decomposed; everything returns to its roots; matter returns to the origins of matter.” (-Gospel of Mary Magdalene)
Reader, my jaw was agape.
Why hadn’t anyone told me about any of this? The other stuff written about Jesus during Bible times? And why had no one explained the historical context between the Romans and Jews? Romans were occupying Judea, Jesus was Jewish (totally new information!), and the Romans were worried he’d start a revolution. Jesus hated money, Romans loved money; Jesus hated power, Romans loved power. You could see where this was headed.
At the same time I was taking that course, the Christian fraternity on campus was protesting our university president for trying to include sexuality in the school’s non-discrimination clause. They were mad that we would openly welcome gay people, something the school had done for a while, but now it was going to be written into the bylaws. The resulting ire made them look…ridiculous, mostly because our campus was 1200 students, which made their passionate town halls somewhat futile, given the 14 people in attendance. Less like gritty social unrest, and more like a high school play about activism.
Whether it was my instincts for social clout (being a not-wealthy kid in a wealthy school will do that to you), or the beginning of a deeper awakening, I started to think these weren’t my people anymore.
The issue for them was homosexuality, but when I looked back on everything I had been taught about sex and pleasure in church and youth group, I realized Mary Magdalene was silenced for a reason.
In high school, Christianity gave me a lot. Community. Friends. A sense of belonging, and a handful of genuinely loving youth pastors. It’s why it’s complicated to write about this, because I don’t feel angry towards those people. On the contrary, I remember my Christian community with affection and actual, real gratitude. I was drifting as a teenager; youth groups swept me up, crowned me with importance, and made me feel loved. Anonymous face in the crowd? Not this girl. Christianity provided me something my unimportant last name couldn’t: status. To a teenager, that is everything.
But there was a price to all this community. Sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, but always lurking in the cozy, carpeted rooms where we gathered: A code of prudishness.
Or to put it another way, sexual shame — cloaked in tasteful Gap sweater sets.
Much ado has been made about youth groups in the ‘90s, so surely I’m not the first one to point this out. But anytime someone asked a question about sex, the Christian adult in charge (a youth pastor, a Bible study leader, a random role model type) would answer with bizarre rhetorical gymnastics.
“Sex is amazing! It’s one of God’s gifts to us!” they would say. “But also… it’s a sin.”
The only thing that made sex OK was marriage, which was confusing to me, because how were you supposed to know you liked having sex with someone before you committed your entire bedroom existence to them? The constant toggling between good/bad, gift/sin was especially awkward when it came from Christian couples who were clearly not having a ton of sex with each other. Teenagers can tell.
I finally started to get the message that although sex was amazing – allegedly – pleasure wasn’t really the point of it. In fact, too much pleasure could distract you from God, who… needed a lot of attention. And although no one said it out loud, it also became clear that sex was primarily about people-making for your family, and since homosexuality didn’t allow for that outside of medical intervention, it was sinful. It didn’t create people. But maybe more damning, it was about pleasure — and pleasure alone.
Back then, there were a few popular Bible passages that backed up this point of view, the same ones that get trotted out today (and probably by me, in the library with poor Stephanie). Later on though, I looked into it, and learned that there are two mentions of homosexuality in Leviticus, but 10 warnings about having sex with a lady on her period.
There are also 17 mentions about the right way to make a grain offering, because you know what they say about grain (actually I don’t, and neither do you, because it was 9,000 years ago).
I probably shouldn’t write this out loud, should a conservative politician try to make period sex and inaccurate grain offerings illegal, but there you have it. Author of Leviticus: mildly concerned about homosexuality, very very concerned about grain weights.
On the flip side, there are cool Old Testament women who were probably in love with each other. For example, here’s a line you often hear at weddings: “Where you go, I will go, where you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people” (Ruth 1:16). It was first said by one woman to another.
There’s also a story in the New Testament, about a Roman soldier asking Jesus to heal his “pais” (Greek for boyfriend). And Jesus does, because in addition to not caring about money or power, Jesus apparently didn’t care about gayness. All kinds of sweet stories like this appear throughout, but they aren’t a part of mainstream Christianity. Why, I’m not sure. But I think it has something to do with pleasure. And on a deeper level, shame around having a corporeal body that can make you feel incredibly, ecstatically good… no Jesus required.
I first started writing this essay months ago, when Roe was overturned. I was anguished and scared and trying to piece together the connection between homophobia and misogyny (someone hand me the red yarn). Here is my theory: sexual pleasure frightens people, because the body frightens people. There’s a long tradition in the Christian church and even Christian mysticism of negating the flesh. It belongs to the earth, domain of sin, whereas spirit belongs to heaven, domain of virtue. An open and shut case of the binary.
Sexual pleasure signals freedom, and folks worry about too much freedom. Can’t trust it.
If we’re all liberated, what if we’re lazy hedonists? What if we do bad things to children?
What if we kill each other?
When you have a pessimistic view of human nature, it’s easy to think this is what people would naturally fall into. But Mary Magdalene didn’t share this thinking. And according to her, neither did Jesus.
There’s a Martin Buber quote I’ve been remembering lately, because despite everything I’ve written here, I’m still helplessly attracted to the divine. Or what I think of as divine, anyway. The knowing touch of a lover. Belly laughs with a friend. My daughter’s ready smile, my cat’s insistent purring, a hug that lasts a little too long… but then you give in, yield, and allow yourself be held.
A good conversation to me is almost equal to good sex: both bathe me in pleasure, and both leave me wondering if I accidentally stumbled into the sacred. Did I?
Martin Buber was a Jewish philosopher, and in the wake of the Holocaust, Jews asked themselves: “Where was God? How could he have let this happen?” Years earlier, Buber had written a famous essay called “I And Thou” about the sacred connection between two humans. For Buber, that’s where God lives, but when people dehumanize one another – as did, say, the Nazis – there is an absence of God. Divinity turned to dust. I and it: God isn’t there.
“When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them,” Martin Buber says. This rings so true to me, and explains how satisfied I feel when someone really listens. When someone is curious about me.
When we are curious about each other – our thoughts, our animating passions, our bodies and our personal histories – something sparks, and that something feels spiritual.
These days, I am a student of pleasure. Which sounds hokey at best, creepy at worst, and yet… having a spiritual connection to pleasure itself has healed so much for me. Pleasure has educated me too: an unlikely compass for navigating topics like colonization and suppression, a useful lens on privilege, and a necessary companion to presence. Who can let their mind race after all, when you’re eating the most delicious chocolate cake on God’s green earth? When a lover’s touching your body, registers your pleasure, and asks: “more?”
More. Yes. Thank you, God.
The moral I’m circling around, then, is the idea that deep pleasure shared between two people might be the most holy thing there is. That we use our flesh in service of spirit, an invisible thread between our bodies taut with divinity. No, this isn’t an advertisement for tantric sex (yet). But it’s a celebration, rather than a denunciation, of our feeling selves and whoever or whatever authored them: God, earth, stardust.
Sexual pleasure has been commodified, because capitalism, but not only in the ways you’re probably thinking (subscription-based porn). It’s apparent in the idea that we own each other. Once yoked to a partner, our pleasure is to stay bound: I take you to be my husband and/or wife, to have and to hold. “To have”: it’s underwritten in the bylaws of partnership, so normalized no one in the chapel even blinks.
But what if we thought in a more expansive way about pleasure, human connection, and what it means to bask in the sacred?
What if we touched the divine, each time we — to borrow Buber’s phrasing — authentically and humanly touched one another?
“I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions” — a Zora Neale Hurston quote that leaves me breathless. She also wrote, “Life is the flower for which love is the honey.”
I could replace this whole essay with Zora Neale Hurston’s words, and we’d both be edified.
But Zora captures something Mary Magdalene and Buber did, too.
Be discerning of illusions. Have nerve. Honor this life by drinking the honey, the source of which is God’s love, or each other’s love, or self-love.
Maybe it’s all of them.
Want more Tolly? She is @tollymoseley on Instagram and TikTok. Follow her at both (she’s begging you) to enjoy aerial dance, political screeds, and creative nonfiction. That’s Instagram at least. She’s still figuring out TikTok.
Democrasexy is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Thank you so so much for sharing and distributing this, my dear friend. Love that we get to walk this pleasure journey together.