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It may help in understanding these rather abstract statements if we illustrate them with a practical example. One might say that McNeill is here explaining why a pickup game among friends on the local basketball court can qualify as "play," whereas the same game played between professional teams, or in the Olympics, or even between two high school teams, cannot. In each of the latter three cases there is something more going on--making money, national honor or local honor, respectively--than the game itself. Thus the game is no longer meaningful in itself, and cannot be "play." Even the pickup game can cease to be play if it becomes a grudge match, where the pride of the players becomes more important than the game itself.

If there is no subtext, nothing to be earned or proven by the game, the players are then free to enjoy the game itself, and free to enjoy each other; they can be there "fully for each other," without any other concerns about performance getting in the way of their enjoying each other's company.

Finally, without the pressure for performance, without worries about rankings or medals, there is a sense of security: in these circumstances one is free, for instance, to miss a lay-up, and players are free to come and go without feeling they have let anyone down. Under these circumstances, it is truly not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game which matters. All three points are necessary, and vitally interrelated, if an action is to be thought of as "play."

The linkage between play and freedom, and in turn between play and the nature of the interpersonal relationships it supposes, has obvious ethical implications.
Indeed, it is precisely that which makes a behavior "play" that also makes it ethical behavior. If play is only possible in freedom, then, on the positive side, all relationships which are to be termed play demand the freedom to decide and the consent of the parties involved.

On the negative side, the linkage between play and freedom rules out manipulation or exploitation by either partner, although this is particularly an ethical responsibility for the more powerful partner in the relationship. This is true for all relationships, as differentials of power are ubiquitous in human relationships; but it is perhaps particularly true for age-structured relationships, where a power differential based on age and status is inherent. The issue is not, however, the existence of the differential itself, as though power differentials were something unique to these relationships, but, as in all relationships, how that power is used (or abused).

Furthermore, the issue of power and exploitation must be addressed not only at the level of the persons immediately involved, but also at the level of the social context. A perspective of freedom and play demands examination of the basic dynamics of economic and racial inequality underlying, for instance, "sex tourism" situations (I am not referring just to what some boylovers are accused of, but also to wealthier Northern and Western European divorcees going to Cyprus on vacation to pick up a younger man for a fling; the ethical considerations are the same), or situations in which "gifts" are given by one partner to the other, and the limitations on freedom which such inequalities impose.

Going the other direction, from the social to the psychological, there is also however an internal dimension to the relation of freedom and play. Not only must there be social and interpersonal freedom, but for an action to be play the individuals involved must be operating from a position of psychological freedom. This is another way of saying that obsessive conduct can not be play--a distinction recognized in other areas, such as the distinction we make between a compulsive gambler and someone out for flutter. A person who compulsively seeks relationships, sexual or otherwise, cannot be said to be "playing." Pursuing a compulsion rules out both freedom, and being able to be "fully present for the other" in the relationship. Again, as Stringfellow recognized, this is true for all sorts of sexual relationships--but perhaps particularly for persons whose sexuality has been under attack by society.

There is no question that there is a good deal of distortion, confusion, brokenness, ambiguity and corruption in the lives of boylovers and in their relationships--if they dare have them--today. It is there not just because of personal failings--"sin," in the language of religion--but also the effects of the social prejudice and pressures under which they live, which inevitably warp their lives and relationships. There is arguably more distortion and brokenness in sexual relations in general than in other kinds of relationships, because of the general negative attitudes surrounding sexuality in our society, and arguably more in the relationships of sexual "outlaws" than in those of persons whose sexuality is less exposed to social censure.

Fundamentally, then, Stringfellow's contention that the church must deal with sexuality--all sexuality--in the context of conversion is true: it is a task which is hardly begun. But for those who can and will break a path for themselves in this terrain, church or no church, the Gospel, with its message of acceptance, liberation and renewal (or indeed other spiritual and religious paths which have at their heart human integrity and growth), can provide a way to surmount this brokenness as boylovers, to find the security and freedom to play, and to develop the ethical outlines in which to engage others in play.

Donald Mader is assistant pastor at the Pauluskerk (St. Paul's Church) in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, which has a long-running ministry to marginalized social groups including sexual minorities.  He has written numerous articles on Christianity and sexuality, and is a doctoral candidate in Literature at the University of Amsterdam.

All relationships which are to be termed play demand the freedom to decide and the consent of the parties involved.

© 2001 Paraklesis