This Is Holy Stuff

Sex and religion come together on Missionary Positions at Wash. U.

By 11 p.m., the small, makeshift studio at Washington University is overflowing with students who are laughing and chatting, squeezing four at a time into a sofa designed for three, spilling onto the floor around a maze of electric cords and cameras. Up front, under bright lights, is a panel of three men of the cloth -- a rabbi and two priests -- and Alison Small, the student host.

Small greets the first caller: "Hello, you are on Missionary Positions. Do you have a question?"

The female caller pauses momentarily, then plunges in. "My question is about something that happened this past weekend," she says. "I was getting a little freaky-deaky with this guy, and I found myself taking charge with him. I felt like I needed to be in control, and I wanted everything done the way I wanted it done. Is this an acceptable role for a female to have? I'm afraid he is going to think bad of me and not call me back."

The Rev. Gary Braun, a Roman Catholic priest with a thundering laugh who favors sandals, doesn't chastise the young woman or urge her to go to Confession. He thanks her for calling and answers her: "Whether or not he feels like you taking charge was inappropriate has to do with his own needs and desires," Braun says, "but that is not because he is a guy."

Rabbi Hyim Shafner, a balding, 35-year-old Orthodox Jew, has a question for the caller: "Did he say he was upset?"

"No," the young woman replies. "But normally I'm just not like that. I don't know what came over me."

"Well, can you give me an example?" asks the Rev. Mike Kinman, an Episcopal priest.

The rabbi looks at the minister in mock horror: "Mike, you're a married man!" Then, with perfect comedic timing, he asks the caller, "Were handcuffs involved?"

The caller laughs, and so does the studio audience. Coed angst is put into its proper perspective.

Shafner turns serious: "How did you feel about what happened?"

Braun cuts in. "It sounds like you were scared by your own passion and desire," he offers.

"No," she says. "I felt kind of empowered."

"I think it's great you felt the impulse and felt empowered by doing it," says Kinman. "But when someone in a relationship takes charge, they should consider the needs of the other person, and part of doing that is talking to them about it before and after."

Braun seconds the notion: "If you were really in charge, you would not be afraid to check in with your partner and ask, 'How did you feel about that?' It is not just being empowered with your body but with your words as well. So, are you empowered or not?"

It's a recurring question on Missionary Positions.

Although past episodes have included discussions of masturbation, fantasies and hooking up, at the heart of the show lies the idea of students' engaging in healthy relationships that aren't just about sex.

"There is a fear out there of talking to each other," Braun says. "They are way more afraid of that than connecting genitally. Sometimes they ask me questions that they should be asking each other."

"I have been amazed that students who live in the 21st century really have a lot of serious questions about relationships and sex," says Shafner. "I figured they would be so mature and it would all be overdone, but it is not that way at all. What we hope is that the students would have fun with it and that we could give out some good information."

The program was Shafner's idea, inspired by an episode of MTV's now-canceled Loveline. He approached an undergraduate student who worked at WUTV, the campus television station. As the idea of a weekly program evolved, he teamed up with Braun and Kinman to be panelists.

Braun, a campus minister, admits to having initial misgivings.

"I was worried at first that this show wouldn't be understood," he says "I wondered if it would be appreciated, or would it be judged wrong? It was an act of faith, really, to believe that this might be a way to reach more students."

Any concerns were erased by the overwhelming student response. Call lines were jammed during the first show in September. Alison Small wasn't surprised. "College students are so starved for answers to these questions," she says. "We are away from our friends and family and aren't used to not having people to talk to. Suddenly we are just thrown in the mix with lots of questions on what is right and what is real."

Soon after the show began, word spread on campus, and entire floors in the dorms began tuning in. "We have Missionary Positions parties," says 19-year-old Sara Holtz. "The show is great because you never know what they are going to say."

"Their background may be religious," says Eve Van Sice, "but that's not the emphasis. Everything that comes out of Father Gary's mouth is hilarious."

Braun believes that his celibacy does not disqualify him from speaking on matters of sex. "There is something mysterious about celibacy," he says. "I am not neutered; I definitely have a penis, and it works. It is up to my students to discern whether or not my celibacy leaves me out of touch with sexual issues. I don't think they would say that. My presupposition is that every single human being has had every experience, at least incipiently."

Kinman agrees: "People think it is just bizarre that a priest, a rabbi and a minister are talking about this, but why not? This is holy stuff."

Then there are the callers who ask about rough sex.

"You have to tell them beforehand," Shafner advises. "You can't just spring it on them. Rough sex can scare the unaware."

"I don't really know what rough sex is," says Braun.

"You shouldn't," says Shafner with a chuckle.

"Could you describe it for me?" Braun asks.

Later, Braun says, "You can talk about sacred and reverent things being a little tongue-and-cheek and with a sense of humor. There is a fine line between truly irreverent and too reverent. That line is different for all of us." With a sly wink at Kinman, he adds: "For the Episcopalian, it's way over here. I think in my next life I want to be an Episcopalian."

On another show, a caller raises the subject of men's obsession with women's weight. Braun argues that it is rooted in a fear of the woman's becoming obese. "Men are more visual," he says. "I can't tell you how many men I have talked to that have said their biggest fear is that their wives will get fat."

"Then there is something very basically wrong with that relationship," retorts Shafner. "In a real meaningful relationship, it is about who they are, not what they weigh."

"Some men have a seduction profile," Braun says. "If their partner can't fit into that, then it makes it difficult for them to perform."

"Oh, that's bullshit! It's not supposed to be how you look on a particular day," Shafner snaps. "If you don't believe heavy women are attractive, go on and punch in 'sex' and 'fat' and 'women.' There is tons of porn out there." He pauses. "So I've read, anyway. I don't know if that is true, but I think it's true."

Kinman steps in to mediate. "You both are right," he says. "When it comes to people, it is all about diversity. Every person is attracted to something different. There are definitely men out there who only like thin women, but that can't be an excuse to discount a relationship. If we look only at the body, we objectify a person and ignore the beauty of who they really are."

Although response to the show has been overwhelmingly positive, the occasional caller wants a little less sex talk and a bit more holy talk. A recent caller asked, "How come you don't talk about God and religion more?"

Says Shafner: "Our goal has always been to sanctify this to bring morality and holiness into general sexual conversation out there. We are not preaching. We are meeting people where they are at. If students called in and started talking about their girlfriends and sexual issues and we just said, 'Well, you shouldn't be having premarital sex,' that would just stop the conversation."

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