One humid August evening in a tipsy back-to-school crowd at GPSCY, a popular hangout for graduate and professional school students, Yale Divinity School seminarian Peter Thompson shared his class schedule with a friend from the music school. The musician raised his eyebrows when Thompson mentioned his sexual ethics course.
“There are ethics for sex?” the music student asked. And you can learn about them at divinity school?
Thompson, a second-year student preparing for ordination in the Episcopal Church, says it wasn’t the first time the idea of studying sex at a divinity school has confused his friends. When people think about a school that instructs future ministers, they rarely imagine a curriculum that includes conversations about sex. But divinity schools teach students not only about theology and history, but also how to guide congregants and how to become healthy community leaders. This process requires seminarians to examine their own struggles — be it with family dynamics or with sexual relations.
After all, in most religious denominations, celibacy is not a requirement for ordination.
Religion is often criticized for its failures surrounding issues of sexuality, but Thompson explains that the sexual ethics discussed at Yale Divinity School (YDS) are surprisingly liberal. One student-led discussion group last spring talked about sexual pleasure, kink, and fantasy.
Thompson’s musician friend wondered if “Sexual Ethics” would turn out to be a course focused on banning certain behavior in the bedroom. But Thompson says that’s not the case. “We’re just trying to look at sexuality and sexual issues in an ethical way,” he says.
Many of Yale Divinity School’s students have come to seminary fresh from college. They still drink and party at bars, and some have casual sex. But now, they talk about it. Still, a more open dialogue around sex doesn’t mean that waking up next to a classmate after a night on the town is any easier.
The awkwardness of running into a fling may be universal, but YDS Associate Dean for Student Affairs Dale Peterson says, “I think what makes us unique within Yale University is that we bring faith to our conversations about sex. That faith inherently means we’re going to talk about the sacred and the holy and that includes not just God, but the sacredness and the holiness of the people around us.”
Talking about the sacredness of sex may elicit a few eye rolls, especially from people accustomed to church rhetoric that demands abstinence before marriage and instructs young believers to “leave room for the Holy Spirit” between themselves and their dance partners. But, for the most part, Peterson sees the YDS community as a group of students eager to understand how spirituality can inform their sex lives.
To understand the growing importance of sexuality issues on the Yale Divinity School campus, it’s important to recognize that the topic of “sexuality” encompasses gender identity, sexual orientation, gender equality, sexual behavior, pastoral conduct, and a host of other related concerns. The topic of sexuality has taken center stage in recent years among student groups, professors, and school administrators, both in classrooms and out, as community members seek the best path between the bedroom and the pulpit.
Many of the most visible changes at YDS can be traced back to alumna Kate Ott. Ott, an assistant professor of Christian social ethics at Drew University, directed the study “Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Ethics.” The study evaluated the way 36 different seminaries address sexuality on campus. It investigated each school’s curriculum, policy, student demographics, and the social justice work supported by campus leaders. The report compiled from the study’s results explained the practices that lead to sexually healthy religious professionals.
When the study was first released, Yale Divinity School failed to make the list of leading institutions. Survey coordinators explained that Yale’s curriculum had a notable lack of courses focused on sexuality. As a result, academic coordinators at Yale worked with visiting professors to fill the gaps. The school hired Professor Linn Tonstad who, her first year on campus, offered a popular seminar on queer theology that explored the place of LGBTQ issues in Christianity.
Additionally, administrators continued to work closely with Ott, who was invited to restructure the school’s “Negotiating Boundaries” curriculum. The “Negotiating Boundaries” seminar is offered multiple times each year to students preparing to begin a ministry internship. Students in the class reflect on how to maintain appropriate relationships between ministers and church members. Under Ott’s direction, the course shifted its focus from solely how to avoid sexual misconduct with congregants, and now includes how to be sexually and spiritually whole while serving a church.
Lucinda Huffaker, the director of supervised ministries at YDS, describes the curriculum change as a valuable part of a wider effort to encourage conversations about sexuality among seminarians. Echoing the “Negotiating Boundaries” textbook, she explains that it’s important for ministers to be understood as regular people who have sex and must navigate the same complicated issues (such as infidelity) that impact everyone.
Efforts to sustain healthier and more fulfilling sex lives, according to Huffaker, are representative of the work ministers must do in all areas of their lives. “We all have such weirdness around sex because of our culture,” she says. “But that doesn’t keep us from being responsible for working on it, for leading in that area and helping others,” Huffaker says.
Once students start talking openly about sexuality in the classroom, they have to take the next step and apply abstract teachings to their own sex lives.
Will Stanley, a second-year student seeking ordination as an Episcopalian, explains that life in the Yale Divinity School community doesn’t always differ from his days as an undergraduate. Hook-ups and break-ups are as much the focus of coffee-hour conversations as sermon suggestions or prayer requests. Wanting to be a pastor doesn’t affect an appetite for gossip.
Stanley was amazed at the speed of the school’s rumor mill when he came out last year. “I wanted to wait and tell each of my good friends in person, but the waves were going too fast,” he says. “It felt like everyone in the world was going to know before I could even call my parents.”
But Stanley appreciates the community that made him feel comfortable enough to come out in the first place. “It’s good to keep in perspective that the things we struggle with are only possible because we are fundamentally an affirming, real, loving community,” he says.
Div School student Peter Thompson, however, cautions students against thinking any sex talk is good sex talk. He echoes Stanley’s sense of the student body’s good-heartedness, but believes that community members are too content talking about sexual orientation in abstract terms, instead of discussing how their own sexual experiences have influenced their understandings of sexuality. It’s difficult to ask students to share the intimate details of their personal lives, especially when sexuality is addressed in an academic setting. But Thompson believes that a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy isn’t helping anyone.
“We’re more aware of sexuality and sexual ethics here than some of our counterpart [seminaries], but there’s still a sort of dichotomy where we don’t have a way of acknowledging our sexual experiences, even when they involve other community members,” he says. “We aren’t going to be able to talk about sexuality openly and figure out what it means if we can’t authentically speak to our own experiences.”
Thompson says that the course he took with Ott last semester helped him work toward “a more thoughtful sexuality,” which has informed his dating life since. Ott’s seminar, entitled “Body and Soul: Ministry for Sexual Ethics, Education and Justice,” asked students to assess their own sexual history and work together to develop skills for sexuality-related educating, counseling, and preaching.
“The class requires that you not only attend to what you think, but also to how you feel,” says Ott. She acknowledges that students finish the course with a variety of conclusions, but she hopes that, overall, her work within the YDS community will help encourage a sexually healthy ministry. Her research shows that ministers who have looked at their own sexual history and attitudes and beliefs about sex are better prepared to pastorally care for their congregations. After all, ministers are often the first people congregants turn to for help with relationship struggles or questions about the morality of certain sexual acts.
On the Yale Divinity School campus, the conversation about sex is getting louder. One group of students has planned a symposium on sexual violence, which will be held in early April. Four different women’s groups have come together to host an event in which students will discuss sexual misconduct at Yale and the University’s response, in light of the high prevalence of sexual assaults on campuses across the country.
“The [Sex and the Seminary] report urged improvement in the amount of education that seminarians receive to prepare us to minister to people with regard to their sexual lives,” explained Allyson McKinney, a second-year student and the co-coordinator of the YDS Women’s Center.
“One of the potential risks from the way in which sexuality has been treated in our Christian tradition is that there can be shame or secrecy around sexuality,” says McKinney.
As conversations about sexuality become more frequent at YDS, many people wonder whether seminarians are actually changing the way they behave in the bedroom.
During the “Body and Soul” class, Corinne Ellis, a third-year student preparing for ordination in the United Church of Christ, says she was most struck by how difficult it is to change sexual habits formed in adolescence. Her efforts to help fellow students incorporate their sexuality into their spirituality stem from her sense that, for many seminarians, the road to healthier choices may be a long one.
“If you’re not learning what it is to have a sexual ethic until you’re twenty-something and in seminary, it’s hard to train yourself out of old habits,” Ellis says. “It makes me wish someone had better conversations with me when I was fifteen.”
Ellis and her peers hope to have these conversations with others. As seminarians learn more about their own sexuality, they enable themselves to better minister to the young people in their future congregations. For example, “Body and Soul” students were required to read Sex + Faith, Ott’s book about the conversations on sexuality that should take place between birth and adulthood. The students also simulated small group activities that would help future congregants ask the questions that lead to safer sex lives.
What’s most important to Dean Peterson is that students are doing what they can today to be better ministers tomorrow. In his words, “It matters to us who students are in their lives. We want them to be healthy and well and appropriate and respectful in everything that they do.”
Which includes having sex.