I’m pretty passionate about women needing to embrace their own sexuality without shame and without regard to male sexual desire, and today I’m over at The Friendly Atheist to review Dannah Gresh and Dr. Juli Slattery’s book Pulling Back the Shades, their Christian response to 50 Shades of Grey.

This [is] a pervasive problem in Christian relationship books aimed at women: the assumption that female sexuality begins with the initiation of a woman into the world of male sexuality. This can be through abuse, rape, regretful premarital sex, or happy married sex, but it always starts and ends with a penis. This gets taken to such an extreme that even masturbation is condemned if it uses any sort of imagination or fantasy to speed things along — that would be making oneself dependent on a man other than your husband, even if he’s fictional. Which would be cheating, and a misuse of sex (by their definition of the act).

Gresh is known for her interpretation of the Hebrew references to sex in the Old Testament (yada, according to her) as “to know, to be deeply respected,” and she explains that this is a sign of how sex was intended by God for marriage, where you can have that sort of intimate knowledge of your partner. She further asserts that sex always transcends the physical act, which is how she explains that cheating is wrong (again: no mention of consent here) and why she believes that no-strings-attached sexual encounters are also wrong.

She concludes this little explanation by saying:

“Erotica places undue emphasis on the physical and disables your ability to connect emotionally.”

I find this hard to believe, seeing as erotica is entirely based on the imaginative capabilities of a sexual human being to use fantasy for arousal, and doesn’t require anything physical at all. The focus in the fantasy, I agree, is physical rather than emotional, but can’t it also follow that heightened sexual awareness can help improve intimacy in the bedroom and increase emotional connection during sex? I suspect that Slattery and Gresh both have trouble connecting their own experiences of moments where they owned their sexuality to themselves as whole human beings in positive ways. The over-emphasis on the spiritual and intellectual understandings of sexuality leave the physical out in the cold in a very Gnosticdualistic sort of way.

Gresh brings this split out further in a later chapter, where she tells a story from her marriage where she considered herself to be owning her sexuality in her marriage in a positive way: one evening, she wore a somewhat sheer black top to the dinner table on a night when she and her husband were dining alone by candlelight. He checked her out across the table, and she congratulated herself and felt empowered. Essentially, she was exploring her ability to perform for her small audience’s male gaze and felt good about her success in catching his eye.

But again, this is about him and his arousal and her sexuality is entirely defined in reaction to or performing for his sexuality. He is the fixed point and she orbits him. It’s as if she has no sexuality outside of him, and while she is quite articulate about how women should not be ashamed of their bodies when they are with their husbands, she shows little capability of being aware of herself as a sexual being independent of her sexual relationship with her husband.

This is not a critique of Gresh or Slattery as individuals. Their stories happen to be very common, compared with the many I have heard and witnessed in my years in the church. Evangelical American Christians don’t have a framework for female sexuality that doesn’t start and stop with a husband’s penis. And I think this is ultimately why erotica is seen as a threat: it’s a primarily female-focused genre, and it explores female sexual pleasure in ways that are infrequently seen in our society.

Read the rest here.


“The hardest part is realizing you’re in charge” – Helen Bishop, Mad Men

One of the things that has been a constant struggle for me, as a woman leaving the world of Christian patriarchy, has been reconciling reality to my learned “right” responses. I have to be gutsy and take charge of my life and heed my personality type and my needs and make sure I’m living in a way that works best for who I am. But it’s hard to learn to do this, because I grew up considering myself strongest when deferring to other’s needs and wants, most godly when negating my desires, and most strong and female when abandoning my preferences to respond and absorb the desires and choices of others.

The term I’ve heard used for this is “learned helplessness” and it’s frequently a gendered problem, but I think it’s not just an issue for women. It’s also an issue for everyone in the “new reformed” circles of young Calvinists.

This is, of course, at the root, a face of that age-old “predestination vs. free will” discussion, but I’m going to lift it from those over-simplified terms because I find that they are useless in the face of reality, where I see a good deal of both/and going on in terms of one’s ability to choose freely and one’s inability to change circumstances. I’d like to lay it aside with the understanding that I think the two concepts probably coexist, and I’m not sure exactly how. Paradox, yes. It’s beyond me just now.

So, first, as a woman dealing with The Most Unpredictable Year Of Her Life Ever!, I’m finding that I have to unlearn a lot of places in my personal character where I’d relaxed into patriarchal norms just because I could when I was married. Things like changing my oil, moving boxes on my own, driving across the country alone, booking a hotel room, getting a credit card, de-icing my car before work, etc. — these were things I had to take on and own for myself.  Some of that is just general cultural gender role stuff. Other things are more Christian patriarchy-related, like realizing that the church search was up to me, if I was going to find one out here in LA, realizing that I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to live my life, or that I don’t need to call anyone to tell them when I’m coming home.

But as I’m talking to other girls trying to take on adult decisions outside of the meet-a-man-and-follow-him-forever Christian patriarchy narrative for women (say, as a woman ends up out of her parents’ house and not yet married, or 30 and living at home without “prospects”), I hear from them over and over again statements such as: “I don’t even know what I like!”  Outside of the girl-to-woman-to-wife-to-mother narrative of patriarchy, they don’t know what who they are, why they want to do what they want to do, or how to make decisions without leaning overmuch on the advice of peers and elders, because they never learned to listen to themselves. Women in Christian patriarchy exist as negative space, conforming to the solid definitions of the men in their lives. And I’m still shaking off stray pieces of that mindset. It’s like sand and children: you’re always finding particles in weird places months after you’ve left the beach.

Similar to this is the “sovereignty of God” talk from the new Calvinists. I’ve been doing a linguistic experiment for the past year or so: every time I feel the impulse to thank God for something or claim his foreknowledge or sovereignty for something, I check myself to see if I’m just talking about an element of my life that’s because of social privilege. If I am, then I don’t do God-talk about it, because that’s just disrespectful to people who love God and live rightly, but still suffer because they’re lacking good things due to privilege. An example: a college graduate might thank God on Facebook for getting her through a private Christian school with good friends and a job offer ready for her in June. The impulse is nice, but it’s infuriating to someone who maybe didn’t have parents who could afford to pay for college, was marginalized socially and had trouble making friends, or got the short end of the stick with the economy and can’t find good work after graduation. It’s not wrong, but does it feels unfair to thank God for something you worked for and earned, or something that was handed down to you by genetics. It feels like it makes light of the hard work you did, or the hard work that less-privileged others put in to try to achieve the same ends.

On the other side of this mindset is the reaction to horrific live events with emotionally numbed reactions: cancer? God’s sovereign plan. divorce? it’s okay, God’s still good. grief? lack of faith in God’s sovereignty. I don’t think this sort of response is meant to be flippant or numbly blasé, but that’s how it comes across. It doesn’t allow for the full range of human emotions to be expressed in normal reactions to traumatic events, but instead cauterizes the emotions with shaming for lack of faith.

Agency is a funny thing. I don’t like that I feel more uncomfortable having agency than I do with feeling helpless. Between the God-is-sovereign catch-all explanation for anything hard or anything good and the patriarchy’s gender roles, the way I thought of myself I was not as an actor in my own life, but a pawn on a chessboard. Things happened to me instead of me making choices.

I don’t think God meant us to half-live our lives. I don’t think he meant for us to wait for life to happen. I don’t think a life of faith is lived in absence of risk or owning one’s full potential or full emotion or choice. I don’t think God wants us to constantly be yammering about how good he is when it’s not something that showcases his kindness in an honest way. It’s a waste of breath. There’s a difference between feeling genuine appreciation for quotidian graces and clanging a cymbal about how awesome God was to give you privilege.

The tension between brash American self-made bootstraps man mindset (which is also unhealthy) and the self-imposed helplessness of Christian patriarchy and new Calvinism is appropriate, I think, and should be embraced. There’s a glorious dignity to being human, and it should be embraced along with a peaceful awareness of one’s size in the face of the universe. These are not things to be taken lightly.


Christian fundamentalism and Christian patriarchy hurt men too. I’m sobered and thankful for this guest post by my friend Tim. -h

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***

I have been avoiding this all day. All week. In one way or another, I’ve been avoiding this all my life.

Some of you may think you know me, but you don’t, not really. You know a version of me, meticulously maintained, that I’ve spent my life pretending to be. And I am afraid — so very afraid — that if I let that image fall, you won’t like what you see. I’m afraid you’ll laugh at me, that you’ll think I’m weak, foolish, unworthy of respect.

I’m a coward. I conform to what you expect of me. In middle school, I borrowed Les Miserables from the library and read it under the covers with a flashlight. I was caught up in the love of Marius and Cosette, immersed in the burning light of Jean Valjean’s redemption, broken at his justice and his sacrifice. When Valjean had his moment to kill Javert and be free, and spared him instead, my heart beat faster and my breath caught, my eyes filled with tears.

But I was a boy, and boys don’t like love stories.

When my hormones kicked in a few years later, I’d go back to the library for other reasons. I was homeschooled and had no internet, so I’d sneak copies of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition into the very back and covertly page through them, using a big atlas for cover. Once, my mom caught me at. She was silent all the way home, but it wasn’t five minutes after I got back to my room that my dad came knocking on my door.

“Men …” he said, standing awkwardly on the other side of my room, “are visual.” He paused, considered. “So be careful.”

In youth group, we’d periodically be divided up into boys and girls and get a talk from the youth pastor. Men are weak, I was told. If a woman shows any skin at all, we can’t help but think sinful thoughts, and so we should avert our eyes, flee temptation. The girls, I learned, were getting talks about purity and modesty. Our sin as men, they were told, was their responsibility. They just didn’t know, the pastor would say, what kind of effect they had on us.

So I went out into the world terrified. The first time I was ever in a room alone with a girl — at the tender age of eighteen — I couldn’t speak for fear of having lustful thoughts about her. My years of religious upbringing had taught me that all women were potential objects of lust; for me, that made all women actual objects to fear. If a girl had the nerve to wear a two-piece swimsuit or a low-cut top around me, I’d get tense, then ashamed, then cold — my whole upbringing told me that women dressed for men (‘why would you even wear a bikini,’ the arch old church ladies would say, ‘if you weren’t looking for attention?’), and that meant that my lustful thoughts were being done to me.

I met my first girlfriend at a little Evangelical university on the east coast. We never had sex, but we made out and fumbled in the dark like teenagers, and I was ashamed. Not because I felt it was wrong — no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that it was — but because it was improper. Because it would be frowned upon by my community. Because it would make them think less of me. So I distanced myself from my girlfriend, cooled my feelings for her. When we broke up over Christmas break, I told myself that the wrench in my heart was only temporary, that I didn’t care that much one way or the other. I settled into a comfortable numbness, the crash of feeling fading to a niggling static in the background of my soul.

The following year, I went traveling for three months on my own, and my world fell apart around me. My faith crumbled. I had sex for the first time, with a beautiful black-haired girl in a sunlit room above a theater, and despite my efforts to keep my distance, a bit of my heart tore away with her as well. When I left on a ferry a week later, I sat for hours watching the sun sink into the Mediterranean, and wrote a poem to her, cramped by my awkward self-consciousness, that I never sent. A week after that I’d justified it away again, rationalized it away with chemicals and hormones and all of the catch-phrases we use to hide from human connection when we’ve lost our belief in sin.

I found new things to be ashamed of. I was afraid of impotence, of being too quick, of not being good enough, of the nakedness of my mind and my soul that comes with sex, and again, I blamed women. If I felt bad, it was because they were making me feel bad. If I felt insecure, it was because they were failing to comfort me.

When I got back, I declared my apostasy and got kicked out of school for it. A friend came to me, tears in her eyes and voice unsteady, and stammered that though it broke her heart to lose me to eternity, she understood and still liked me, and I looked at her pain and felt helpless, then cold. Who was she to care about me, and about the choices I made? I gave her a hug and said goodbye.

Telling myself I was building a new life, that I was open and adventurous, a free-thinker, I continued to repress my emotions, continued to be afraid of women and what they could do to me, continued to be afraid that people might not like me or respect me. If I couldn’t conform, I’d become arrogant; if they were beneath me, their judgment of me was irrelevant. Emotion was for the weak, and religion was for suckers.

Eight months later, I sold everything I owned, moved out of my apartment, and headed east, to travel full-time. My life was a comfortable emotional flatline; I just didn’t feel much, I told myself, outside of the excitement of intellectual pursuits. Friends couldn’t care about me, women couldn’t touch me, and I was protected from any genuine connection by impregnable inner walls. My persona was impressive, bolstered by a few well-placed real talents, and I enjoyed introducing it to new people and new places, grew uncomfortable the longer I stayed, afraid that they might see the real me under all the pretense.

Then I met someone who, for the first time, challenged me. She could see through the pretense, could see the emotion under all my careful repression, and she called me on it. She infuriated me, in a bemused kind of way, and deeply unsettled me. It wasn’t until we parted ways at a bus station that I realized I was in love with her.

It was six months before I saw her again, and during that time I thought about her every day. I constructed a story of my life, wrote a part for her; this emotionally brilliant, beautiful, talented girl who could drag me out of my impassivity, who I could show off (I must be great, I would think, in my fantasies, because I’m with *her*), who I could tell my ideas to so that she could tell me how great they were. She was my imaginary Heinlein girlfriend, talented enough to be worthy of me; she was my manic pixie dream girl, destined to set me free.

We met again in Paris as friends; later, we started dating. She was gentle with me, easing me ever so slowly out of my sexual and emotional insecurities, and I was happy. She was fulfilling her role exactly as scripted.

But, as the months passed, she began to become frustrated, and then angry, for reasons I couldn’t understand. Our fights would leave me baffled, hurt, afraid, small, and no matter how hard I resisted, I’d hate her a little for it. She was ruining everything. She was pushing me away. I loved her so much that I cried, and I hated her, too, for making me feel so much.

She began to tell me that maybe she wasn’t good for me, that maybe she was hurting me by staying, and I’d get angry, then ashamed, then cajoling, saying stay, stay, I’ll figure it out, I’ll fix it, and then we’ll be happy. Thinking to myself, I’ll figure out whatever it is you want, and do that. I’ll do emotions and vulnerability, if that’s what you want from me. And then I’d find myself failing, feel ashamed, grow cold and distant, the same old cycle playing itself out in its most soul-tearing iteration yet.

And every so often I’d open my eyes, just briefly, to *her* experience, and it would break my heart. She was in so much pain, and I had no idea why. I hated myself for that, and that self-hatred took me and pulled me back into my self-absorption, leaving her alone once again.

I found myself becoming increasingly insecure around her. She was so strong, so confident, so *alive;* she made me feel small and afraid just by being, and smaller the more I hurt her. The same things that had made me fall in love with her now terrified me, so that I flinched away from them, tried to pretend they didn’t even exist.

At the same time, began trying more and more to control everything. If she wanted to do something, I’d say it was a bad idea. If we went anywhere, I’d want to lead the way. If we talked, it’d be about what I wanted to talk about, and if she offered anything other than unquestioning support, I’d feel insulted and insecure and I’d shut myself down to her, giving her nothing but the unfeeling blankness of my walls. It didn’t matter if she cried or if she shouted; I was so closed to her I might as well have been squeezing my eyes shut and clamping my hands over my ears. It felt like my heart was breaking every day, a chisel pounded in by every fight and every bout of my depression and self-hatred and resentment.

I came to think of myself as a split person; my emotional self, a child, hidden behind the protective wall of my persona, banging to get out but as unable to breach the walls from within as she was from without. It wasn’t until she gave up, until she said she was leaving, that I managed to break free and run to her, to cling to her, trembling, terrified of losing her and terrified that I couldn’t do anything about it. I would cry, kiss, love, and the world would be full of feeling and sensation and beauty, and as soon as the danger passed, I would clamp down again with a vengeance, ashamed of my openness and my emotion.

Every time it was worse, and every moment of openness was shorter than the last. I was so afraid for my perceived self that I couldn’t open myself to her, and so afraid of losing her that it broke me not to.

And finally, finally, in a conversation that lasted until sunrise, my persona began to break down. I began to see the cracks in it. I began to understand, truly, that I was a coward, afraid of living my life, afraid of showing myself to her or to anyone else. I saw that, for our whole relationship, I had been thinking of her as an adjunct to my life, a sort of sidekick, there to make me look good and feel good. I had been thinking of her as less than me, and I had been terrified that maybe, in fact, she was much more.

I realized, in a heart-breaking flash of open conversation with her, that despite all my talk of feminism and liberality and egalitarianism, I was deeply insecure, and deeply sexist. If she criticised my ideas as a friend and an equal, if she talked to me about money, if she questioned my approach to realizing my dreams, if she questioned what I had, even as an atheist, always assumed was my God-given authority, I would resent her for it.

I fell in love with her for her strength, her independence, and her authenticity, and I had fantasized about showing her off for those same reasons — as a conquest, an achievement, a mark of status by which I could earn respect from other men. But she was strong. She was independent. She was authentic. And if it killed her, she would never submit, to me or to anyone else.

When I saw that, as the sun was just beginning to lighten the eastern sky, I broke down with love for her. I told her how afraid I was that I couldn’t be strong, couldn’t be real, in the way she was. I wanted desperately to love her as an equal; to walk the world with her, to lend my hand to her dreams as she lent hers to mine, to twine our independent lives together rather than trying to graft her onto me.

All of my pent up resentment of her, hatred of her, boiled away in that flash of understanding. I was left humbled in its wake, naked and ashamed, my eyes open to what I had been, to what I still was. Weak. Cowardly. And this time, I held nothing back. There were no false words of comfort, no false promises. No hiding from myself. I had spent my life behind walls, behind a facade of competency and professional distance. I told her the truth; that I didn’t know if I was strong enough to let them down.

We parted ways the next day with a last kiss on a train station platform, neither of us sure what would happen next, holding each other tightly in a little pocket of us as a hundred people moved past us. I watched her board, and I was broken inside, brought down to dust on the foundations of my soul. She looked back at me for an instant and my heart caught, and then she was gone.

I stood there alone, wanting to push the emotion of it away, wanting to distance myself from it and from her, but instead I let myself feel, let the tears flow, let the fear of my failure fill me alongside my hope. And I knew at once that I wasn’t sure if I was strong enough to live a true life, but that one way or another, I would die trying.

My name is Tim Raveling, and I am a sexist. I am a coward. I am a conformist. I am broken inside, more capable of pettiness and spite than anything noble. I am terrified to live, terrified to show myself to the world, terrified to feel deeply and uncompromisingly. But my eyes are open, and I know one thing to be true: what happens next is my choice.

Who am I?

I am human.

I am free.


Yesterday the Feminisms Fest was all about why we’re feminists. Today’s question is: why does it matter?

I read Emily Joy Allison’s post this morning about how feminism matters to her because of her younger sisters, and chuckled, because she basically wrote my post for me. But there’s a difference in our stories, and I’m still going to write my own post.

The reason feminism matters (okay, ONE reason it matters — I have a lot of other reasons) to me is because when I was introduced to the ideas of feminism, I was given the language to talk about the cognitive dissonance I was seeing in the circles I grew up in (homeschool, conservative, Christian), what I now loosely call “Christian patriarchy.”

Having the language to talk about a problem or a pain or a fear makes that issue become manageable in new ways. Naming your pain gives you power to confront the source. [I want to talk about this more! But that’s another post.]

So when I learned terms like “slut shaming” and “objectification” and “invalidation” and “privilege,” I suddenly found myself able to describe why strict modesty teachings and checklists and surveys made me uncomfortable, why I didn’t want to make a big deal about whether or not I had my first kiss at the altar, why I would be furious if an authority figure didn’t want to listen to me because I was emotional, why it bothered me so much that white Republicans were so vested in the “pro-life movement” (e.g. why did they care so much about women’s reproductive rights?). The language of feminism gave me a voice.

And it gave me a voice after these issues became intensely personal. When I got married, it was in the midst of great tension with my father. He resented that we didn’t ask his permission to kiss for the first time, wanted to be able to tell me it was unwise to marry someone with student loans and have me respond with deference to his preferences, and told my ex that when we got married he would be transferring his authority over me to my ex.  He was upset that we didn’t submit to his advice but instead consulted our consciences and the Bible and decided that we were okay with agreeing to disagree on certain “grey area” issues — to him, these were not grey areas. They were black and white areas of Christian conviction and to disagree with him was to “reject” his authority and  set a bad example for my younger siblings, leaving him open to the risk of family insurrection if my siblings decided to follow my path and make the same choices I did.

[Why he believes these things is his own story and I disagree with the results but with respect to the origins, as he has valid cause to act the way he did. But it’s an example of this sort of thinking, which is why I tell you about it.]

After all that happened, after I got married in spite of his objections [which, for the voyeurs wondering, had nothing to do with where we’re at now], I followed the path of my feminist explorations, moving from literary theory into contemporary feminist dialog. And oh, man. It set me on fire.

Now, I knew how to talk about my story. Now I understood why things hurt me or bothered me. Now I saw why I had felt so helpless to respond well when I didn’t have the vocabulary to form my ideas and responses. And having the language to talk about these things gave me the ability to start blogging here, start talking to people about what had happened, and start identifying systemic issues in conservative Christian culture which perpetuate unintentional invalidation and marginalization of women.

I see a lot of women and girls living in this world still, and while it makes me sad that they’re still “stuck” in Christian patriarchy and often defend it with eloquence and sincerity, I realize that (with the risk of sounding arrogant, so forgive me) most of them don’t see the system (they haven’t transgressed it, so they don’t know it’s limiting them) and most of them don’t have the words to describe it, even if they sense a disconnect between ideas (like: be a critical thinker! but submit to the authority of your father/pastor/husband’s teachings; we respect and cherish women! but they have to adhere to complementarian gender roles to be godly women). They can’t talk about it if they don’t have the words for it. 

Which is why, when I see stories like the one about the girl who finally left the Westboro Baptist Church, I cheer. The language of feminism indirectly made this possible. She got out because she had the language to start asking questions. And that is the key to freedom.

But without the language to discuss things, to ask questions, these women in Christian patriarchy are left with expressing how lonely they are waiting at home for Prince Charming, how exhausting it is to be 25 with 5 kids under 6, how scary sex is as a newlywed (without any sex ed), how they wished their dads would be more involved or loving, somehow (but they can’t explain it), how depressed they are at the thought of just being another stay-at-home mom and how they feel compelled to start a home business or something so they don’t get bored when it inevitably happens.

Without the language, these women amaze me in their ability to endure difficulty, to be creative and celebrate individuality within their limited spheres, with their capacity to love despite being disrespected and not listened to. It’s incredible and it’s a beautiful testimony to the power of the soul to withstand much trouble.

But, should they have to? Is it necessary? Is it worth it? I’d argue that it isn’t, and I get so, so excited when we start talking and I see them trying out new words and new ideas and learning to talk about their experiences and gain confidence to ask questions. Seeing the beauty of a soul being restored to health after years in a barren land is the most wonderful thing, and feminism’s language has shown itself to be the key to this healing over and over again.

So, feminism matters to me because of my sisters and my mom. Because of Caleigh. Because of Ruth. Because of Elizabeth Esther. Because of all the “Quivering Daughters” and the “No Longer Quivering.” Because of the stay-at-home daughters who are trying so hard to be the right sort of future wife. Because of all the stay-at-home homeschooling mamas who are killing themselves to get it right and burning themselves out in the lonely trenches of complementarian gender roles without any compromise or compassion. Because of the women suffering post-partum depression who get told that they just need to work on their sin issues and it’ll go away. Because of all the women suffering under graceless Christianity without realizing how much Jesus loves them as they are.

Feminism can help you talk about why it hurts. How to fix it, how to bring nuance and humanity and grace back into the discussion of women’s roles in the home, society, and the church. It can free you from the childishness of a world that is only black and white, right and wrong, good and bad, and let you walk out of the farmhouse and into the technicolor of Oz. It’s a beautiful world that we have here and it’s okay to enjoy it. I think that Jesus would walk out there with you.

Link up with FemFest here!


I was talking with some friends this week about favorite childhood books (we’re still not over Sheftu. True story.) and I realized that reading good stories with strong female characters built a lot of subconscious mental structure which helped me see women as equal to men, and drove me to be skeptical of the soft patriarchy in complementarianism and question other elements of privilege or inconsistent treatment of people in the church.

I just needed to have the lights flipped on in my head to bring these two parts of my mind together and see how they didn’t line up. But before I realized that I was a feminist, I was the girl who ate up stories about strong women and female warriors and brilliant females from history.

Maybe my first awareness of feminism came from my fierce, academic grandmother, who halted me mid-sentence one day when I was 6 or 7 (and probably prattling on about how “we” didn’t like something as a family because dad didn’t like it), and looked me in the eye and said, “well, you’re entitled to your own opinion.” That idea stuck with me — I remember yelling it in fights with my sister when I was in middle school. “I’m entitled to my own opinion! Shut up!” (Sorry, Heidi.)

That idea gave me permission to enjoy the host of strong female characters in YA historical fiction, in the books on the Sonlight reading list, in the literary classics I gobbled up, despite my mother’s concerns about attitudes in books like Ella Enchanted. (Was I the only one who had to write a book report about that one with the expectation that I’d be critical about the negative portrayal of obedience to parents?)

But books were my gateway to feminism. Before I even knew the term “slut-shaming” and what it meant, I read The Scarlet Letter and I realized how inappropriate it is for the church to treat a woman like Hester was treated.

I read fairy tales and I learned how hard life is and how it’s possible for a woman overcome terrible fates if she’s quick with her mind.

I read Till We Have Faces and I learned that the agony of a woman’s soul can be beautiful. That a woman’s spiritual journey is deep and intense and full of meaning.

I read biographies of Mary Slessor and Amy Carmichael, and I delighted in how fierce and true they were, and wanted to be like them.

I read The Scarlet Pimpernel and realized how destructive a marriage can be if there’s no intellectual equality, honesty, or companionship.

I read the Anne books and learned that making mistakes and learning by experience is a valid way to live (and not everything has to be dominated by principles and ideals), that women in the “olden days” went off to college and were the better for it.

I read Little Women and felt a kinship to Jo and her misfit spunk and how she embraces her own huge personality, and most of all, I related to her as she grew into her writerly self and took courage from her confidence.

I read the Little House books and every time Pa called Laura “strong as a little French horse,” I wanted to be like that, too.

I read the Brontës and Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, not so much for their stories and poems (though I adored them), but for their ability to do what they loved with their lives, despite gender norms.

I read The Ordinary Princess and loved Amy for her communion with nature and her spiteful attitude toward an arranged marriage.

I read Lord of the Rings and wanted to be Eowyn.

I read everything I could find by Madeleine L’Engle and coveted the intelligence and bravery of her heroines.

I read stories of women who disguised themselves as men and fought or spied or traveled. I read all the books I could find about female heads of state throughout history, and read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs for more stories of brave women who defied cultural standards. I wanted to be Joan of Arc, Hatsheput, Boadicea, Sacajawea, Margaret of Austria, etc., etc.

And I never wanted to be a feminist, because feminists hated men and were selfish.

But then I went to college and two things happened while this English major was just a baby English major.

1) My scary-wonderful-smart Brit Lit prof asked us: Could we name a book where a male author succeeded in creating an authentic and rich inner life for a female character?

And we couldn’t give her a single title. [She retorted that it was just as well, since the only one she knew of was Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.]

2) I met feminist literary theory, in particular: I learned to read the absent female narrative in a text, starting with Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar on the madwoman in the attic (and damn, there was a lot of female silence in literature), and I became acquainted with the concept of semiotics and the works of Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous.

And I barely scratched the surface with those authors and theories before the light switch in my head flipped on after reading A Handmaid’s Tale.

I was a feminist. There were voices missing. Feminism wasn’t the feminism my parents had grown up with — it was much more mature, nuanced, thoughtful than the second wave feminists who scared them into complementarianism. This was a feminism that was intellectual and observant and, I began to realize, compatible with my Christianity in a way that didn’t just complement it, but reinforced it and made it more holistic and loving and thoughtful.

Then I went back and I reread the four gospels. And I sat on my bed and cried over how Jesus treated women, because it was so beautiful and tender and respectful. Because it was so very, very different from what I had seen presented for women in the church as I grew up.

And then I realized: I’m entitled to an opinion of my own. I’m a feminist.

[linking up for FemFest here!]


I was sitting with her, pouring out some woeful stories close to my heart. And when I finished, she chuckled and said this:

“Weak men are intimidated by strong women. They don’t know what to do with them. They’re afraid of them.”

And I’ve been mulling that over for two weeks.

I call myself a feminist for these reasons. I have been hurt by the church and her male leaders. But I’ve always had a core of unshakable certainty in my own worth, that I have things to say and they are good things worth saying. And I don’t hate men or think that they’re a bunch of scumbags or idiots. I have some wonderful, caring, smart, thoughtful men in my life. They’re showing me good things about what the full potential of the body of Christ can be at its best.

But I think there’s a lot of truth in that quote.

You could find a whole host of famous historical examples of this, but my thoughts went to the strong women in my life.

Photo from Alfred T. Palmer,US Office of War Information during World War II

My great-grandmother, who gave us our blue eyes, lived in Chicago during WWII, deaf and smart and beautiful. One day she trapped her supervisor in the hold of the ship she was building (she said she welded him into a corner) when he tried to molest her. She got his boss and the whole crew to see her innocence and see justice done. When she finished telling me that story, she chuckled to herself, and added “he was afraid of me and showed respect, after that.”

rita

My grandmother, her daughter, who was smart and beautiful like her, was tricked into marrying her first husband when he told her that the doctor’s office had mailed her pregnancy test results to him as planned, and that the result was positive (it wasn’t). But before that, she had turned down three other fellows to pursue her dreams of college and a career. She even chucked an engagement ring in a pond when her beau suggested she stay home and have babies instead of going to college to get her English degree. But then she got stuck, thinking she was pregnant.

When she actually was pregnant and a mother, later, she worked in an office to put her husband through his Ph.D. program and made herself more professional in a Northern workplace by losing her Texan accent. And then she put herself through a masters program to get her teaching degree, with her little ones quietly next to her in the back of the classroom each evening.

Later, she taught me a passion for good writing and edited my childish short stories and middle school attempts at writing a novel. When I went to college, I became an English major, just like her. When she died, I got her National Honor Society pin. I keep it pinned to the inside of my wallet. I am her kin.

My mother isn’t her daughter, but she is yet another smart and beautiful woman. She graduated from the University of San Francisco with her RN and a 4.0, and then worked night shift for a year in the intensive care unit in a SF hospital, caring for patients suffering after receiving liver transplants. When she quit her job, it was to give life to and homeschool nine energetic, stubborn, fiercely creative children. She threw herself into this role with passion, but never lost herself. Her love of learning and her independent drive to nurture creative talents has been a stable and beautiful part of my family culture from day one. I am proud to be her daughter.

And my New England grandmother, her mother. A more reserved woman, but her self-sustained contentment and independence in her long years of widowhood have fascinated me. She sings in the church choir, she takes athletic classes, she reads voraciously and has fine taste in music, literature, musicals, and food. She has quiet but firm opinions on how things should be, but bites her tongue and lets people make their own mistakes. I’m realizing that under her reserve is a depth of soul and intellect that I under-appreciated previously.

This is my heritage: strong women who know what they want and why. And they know how to get it, how to live well, and how to preserve their dignity and integrity.

And I want to be like that. And maybe I intimidate people sometimes, but I don’t need to worry about it, I suppose, if I’m making sure to walk in the little way as much as I can. I am also a strong woman.


Disclaimer: This is a semi-fictionalized story blended from a couple different real events in my life. All the guys who inspired this are good and well-intended men who grew up a lot afterwards. The point of this is not the guys themselves, but the ideas they assumed to be true because of the Christian culture in which we were raised.

We sat on the scrubby carpet of my dorm room floor, the door halfway open behind him. I held my mug of tea tightly, using the pressure to channel all my anxiety into the warmth and firmness of the mug.

“Mike” had IM’d me just 20 minutes earlier, when I’d just walked in from dinner. “Can I come over? We need to talk.”

I knew he was right. But I didn’t want to talk. I wanted to avoid this conversation. “I only have a few minutes,” I replied. “Come over and I’ll make a cup of tea. But I have to be somewhere with friends in 45 minutes.”

So he came over and there we were, sitting cross-legged on my floor, avoiding eye contact.

***

Dating at a conservative Christian school where everyone has read and seriously prayed about Josh Harris’s dating books is a complicated, dramatic process. Everyone takes everything too seriously, too soon.

After being isolated from male friendships by either coincidence or strategic parents (still not sure which) and my own insecurities around boys (after losing a really delightful friendship with one guy at 14 to a cross-country move and comments like “oh this makes me so happy! I’d hug you if you weren’t a girl!” me: Whaaat?), I got plopped down in the middle of one of those conservative Christian colleges where the primary campus traditions involve engagement hazing and a mad race to get hitched in May after graduation. And I was the naive INFJ who liked listening to people and felt horribly guilty saying no to anyone. By sophomore year I was in over my head.

So that evening, when I met to talk with Mike, a lot had happened already. He had scoped me out for a couple of months (I think we’d talked, one on one, maybe three times?), emailed my dad to ask permission to date/court me, gotten an non-committal “we should correspond and explore this, tell me about yourself” response, assumed he was going to be dad-approved, somehow found a stupid “husband qualities” list I had made early on in high school from an old blog, saw he matched a lot of them, and asked me out. I told him I’d think about it, but observed that I didn’t know him very well. (Reality: he was a good person, but I wasn’t “feeling it,” but I thought that I should give him a shot because…I didn’t know how to say no or feel like I had a right to turn him down).

In the month that followed I spent a little more time with him, but didn’t do anything outside of group events. He never asked me out to dinner, I never invited him over for a movie. Because, you know, conservative ex-homeschooler problems.

And then, he IM’d me and asked to talk alone. I wasn’t looking forward to telling him no — I didn’t want to hurt him. He was a friend. I didn’t know how to tell him “I’m not attracted to you” in a [conservative Christian] socially acceptable way. And the last time I had tried to tell a guy that things weren’t going anywhere, he ended up telling close friends that we were “unofficially a thing, but just working some details out” afterward. I was sure I had told him no! So I really, really didn’t want to make that same mistake again.

The conversation was brief and awkward. I remember we were both trying so hard to be kind and polite. I remember feeling flushed and restless the whole time. I remember that he was skittish about making eye contact.  But I was so proud of myself. I told him I didn’t see anything beyond friendship with him and I was as clear as I felt I could be while still being sensitive.

He was quiet for a long time. He finished his tea. He fidgeted with the mug. He put it aside.

“But God very clearly told me that you’re the one. How can he tell two people two different things?” It was sincere. He was hurting.

The perpetually impish side of my mind detached from the situation for a moment and snarked: “What the heck? Did he just say that? For REAL?”

But he was looking at me for an answer, and he was my friend. “Um,” I stalled. “Um, well, maybe God just hasn’t told me yet? Maybe he will? I’ll pray about it and I’ll get back to you if he tells me something different from what he’s been telling me so far. But I don’t think that’s what he’s saying to me.”

***

I recently read a post by Allison Vesterfelt called “God told me to break up with you” and I laughed.

This idea — making God out to be the agent for starting and ending a relationship (“God told me you were the one”) – -starts in a theologically okay place (God has a plan for your life and it’s really good to pray and feel at peace with a decision before making it), but it really twists his role in relationships and puts too much pressure on sincere Christians to over-spiritualize everything about dating.

I remembered Mike and his sad, serious question, and the drama it caused that year. And I got to thinking about this. It was more than just a symptom of a problematic over-emphasis on the  charismatic type of hearing-from-God/knowing-God’s-will (which is a common concern in both charismatic and reformed circles — a sincere, but misguided anxiety to do everything correctly causes a skewed understanding of how God reveals his will to believers). This was a huge part of it, and it remains a huge problem. But there was something else that bothered me.

In a later conversation (where I had to tell him no again), I felt pressured (not just by him, but by my own understanding of how to “do right by him” and by my dad’s probing questions about why I didn’t like this guy) to have lots of rational reasons for saying no. I had to come up with a list in my head beforehand. I remember I wrote the list down on an index card and pulled it out to go over on my way to “end things.” (“Things,” which never existed.) I felt like I had to prove why we would never work well as a couple, and my game plan was to find something about myself that I knew he would accept as a deal-breaker and let him down with that revelation so he would be sure to never bother me about this again.

Why did I feel like I was obligated to do this? To have two or three conversations with guys to tell them “no” as kindly as possible? To have a list of “rational” reasons why we wouldn’t work? Why was the burden of proof on me? Why wasn’t it okay for me to just say “no, I’m not interested,” and leave it at that?

From my current feminist perspective, now I see a lot of cultural assumptions about women that I was going along with which made me feel this unnecessary pressure to “prove” that my reasons for not dating this guy were valid.

1) Men grow up being told by media and culture that they’re entitled to a pretty girl and if they go through the motions of being a nice guy and woo her, they’ll win the game and get the girl. [see this expounded more here]

2) Courtship movement teachings promote the idea that emotions are deceiving and that being attracted to someone isn’t important in the long run in a godly marriage.

This is pretty messed up — emotions do matter, and attraction is important. Love isn’t all about choice. Love also isn’t sexual desire or infatuation. It’s much richer and more beautifully nuanced than that! But I believed that my lack of attraction to this guy and lack of emotional “click” were not valid reasons. [This is usually only a girls’ problem in these circles, because guys are supposed to initiate, and can therefore choose to initiate a relationship with whoever they are attracted to. Girls are only supposed to respond. Again: messed up. But because of his privilege and his feeling of attraction to me, I had to defend to him my reasons for saying no.]

3) Saying “God told me” is a way of playing the complementarian spiritual hierarchy card. If a man is supposed to be the head of the house, spiritually, and women are not to teach and to submit to male spiritual leadership in the church, then a guy saying he’s heard from God and “hey, babe, you’re the one for me!” puts her in a difficult position. Even though he’s not yet married to her or her spiritual leader, he has a position of greater spiritual legitimacy and authority, and so if she thinks differently, she has to first question his spiritual authenticity and then question the validity of complementarian hierarchy to defend her own spiritual discernment of God’s will. Most girls won’t think this through and will either go with their gut and shut the guy down, or realize they’re up against a system where their spiritual voice is less valid, and go along with dating the guy for a while to “give it a shot” and see if maybe God’s actually in it.

This is utterly inappropriate. A girl should be allowed to say no without playing the God card, and if she has to play the God card, it should be valid independently of “gender roles” in the church and which gender is supposed to lead and initiate.

[Where this line of thinking leads: What if a girl is dating a guy and they’ve talked about engagement and plan to get married, as long as things keep going well, and he says that God told him that should have sex. He says it’s okay because they’re going to get married anyway. He also argues that, since Mary and Joseph were “betrothed” and that was considered the same as being married in the Bible, it’s biblical! So then the girl goes along with it and has sex, even if she’s not ready/doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with it, because he “heard from God” and he’s her “spiritual leader,” since they’re “unofficially engaged.” This is basically manipulation, devaluing her comfort zone and her spiritual authenticity, and pressuring her into sex. And I’m not making this up — it happens.]

4) Girls are constantly given cultural messages that their feelings and opinions are always questionable because they might be “irrational.”

My first problem with this: this is a post-enlightenment concept which privileges reason over intuition. This is fine in the sciences, but the whole universe of human interaction doesn’t work on the basis of logic and we really can’t treat it like it does.

My second problem with this: If a girl who is sensitive and kind seriously desires to honor God, she will feel very pressured to avoid following her emotions or gut instincts on something. Because of this, I felt like my reasons (which were: I wasn’t attracted to him, I didn’t have any romantic interest in him) weren’t valid because they were intangible, intuitive gut feelings. He was perfect for me “on paper” — he matched the silly list I had made up once upon a time, my dad liked him, he had a solid career plan and no college debt, he was disciplined and spiritually mature (relative to my experience at that point),  etc. But I had this gut feeling that I shouldn’t pursue it, and I couldn’t explain it because God hadn’t “spoken to me” and I didn’t have a rational, deal-breaking reason to give him.

This is a false gender stereotype/expectation. People are rational and emotional. Reasons for relational boundaries are valid whether or not they make complete sense, are wholly emotional, or are wholly logical. People deserve respect, whether or not we agree with their reasons. But I couldn’t stand up for myself in this, because I was still buying into the idea that my reasons were invalid because they weren’t logical.

If you want to have biblical support for this idea, look at the teachings of Paul, where he urges believers to care for each other’s weaknesses and not make them stumble. He urges the Corinthians: if your brother is uncomfortable with the origins of the meat you’ve got for dinner, respect that and don’t serve it to him. It’s not wrong according to the gospel, but it makes him struggle in his heart. Be kind.

Likewise, if she doesn’t feel comfortable dating you, leave her alone. Don’t turn into a stalker like every chick flick male lead and “pursue her” until you’ve finally worn down her defenses. Let her be. Let her feel safe. Boundaries are healthy. Love her where she’s at: not okay with dating you!

***

I’m really glad that most people I know have matured and grown past this silly idea  that it’s okay to tell someone “God told me to date you/break up with you/marry you.” I’m not saying that it’s impossible for God to actually act that way, but it’s highly unlikely, given a quick survey of his history of acting in the course of human events. Yes, your love life and decisions are important to him because you’re important to him. But they’re probably not of such earth-shattering, instant significance that he’s going to you “look, she’s the one” without bothering to tell her that you’re the one for her, too.

Even if we don’t like someone’s reasons for saying no and feel they’re irrational, it’s not our place to push them into something they’re uncomfortable with.

 

 

 

 


I’ve been stewing on this one for a long time. It’s controversial. It’s probably something we don’t want to admit that we do. But I think it needs to be named and noticed.

Within the church and western culture, our assumptions about gender roles create some tensions between the personality of an individual and the ideal personality traits for their gender. Sometimes pastors will shame men who don’t fit the ideal gender stereotype, like when Mark Driscoll will call men who are nurturing stay-at-home fathers “man fails” [can’t find the original video to cite this, but he said it during a “Real Marriage” talk], or when another pastor, Stephen Altrogge, tweeted that men who wear messenger bags are effeminate and it’s actually a purse, dudes.

Feminists have long asked this question, but I think it’s time Christians did too: why should “effeminate” or “feminine” function as an insult for men?  If my husband admires stay-at-home dads or cares about matching the width of his suit lapels correctly to the width of his tie, he’s no less of a godly man. He’s just a unique person with normal human interests and traits, and he won’t always line up with your “real Christian men” checklist. These differences don’t make him less of a man or less of a Christian. It’s easy to let popular opinion or cultural assumptions make us forget these things (and sometimes these assumptions can even cause us to misinterpret Scripture to our own detriment).

I read this piece on Thought Catalog a couple days ago, “No One Will Love A Loud Girl.” I read it with some bitterness, because I’ve been that girl. I’ve been the girl who liked shooting guns because it was powerful and I was a good shot, but got told that it wasn’t feminine. I’ve been the girl with lots of loud questions and I’ve been shut down and told to listen. I’ve been the female Sunday school student who resented being talked down to in third grade and perplexed her pastor with a letter about how the teachers were being fakely nice and shouldn’t bribe us with candy to bring our Bibles or find a Bible verse, and should answer the hard questions I wanted to ask about the Bible stories instead of brushing me off. I was the girl who liked action movies and martial arts and people didn’t know what to make of the fact that I enjoyed some crude humor (this was shut down so firmly by the disapproval of authority figures that I stopped having much of a sense of humor until I was halfway through college and realized I liked Arrested Development). I was the 12 year old girl who attended church membership class with my parents and argued with the pastor about predestination, and then later asked about women attending the pastor’s college, only to be told that was for men who had been chosen for church leadership. Amusingly naive, yes. But the sobering truth in that situation was that I was a woman and I wasn’t fitting into the mold of the Keepers at Home groups where biblical femininity was taught.

In the mainstream church, we’re better at accepting an intelligent woman who asks hard questions. But we’re still not great at it (see anything on Rachel Held Evans lately for evidence of this).

But one thing I’ve recently observed, that seems to be an active prejudice within Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull circles, as well as mainstream “secular” America and the more mainstream evangelical Christian culture, is a real distaste for a woman who has any sort of anger present in her words or actions. Rightly or wrongly angry, acting on her anger or just talking about it, she’s almost universally shamed into passivity, because a passive woman is the cultural idea (subconsciously held or deliberately taught).

Don’t misunderstand, I think the result of anger can easily be sin. Violence is almost universally wrong, and is usually caused by anger or aggression. But what about a woman who has a damn good reason to be angry? What if she was a man and was angry about…oh, I dunno. Rape. A man gets raped, or was abused as a child. He speaks up about it. He’s angry. We’re not surprised and we sympathize and we say he has a right to be angry, but please don’t do anything rash. But a woman? She’s just supposed to be crushed and sad. Tender, broken, weepy. But if she gets angry, she’ll probably be thought of as shrill or bitchy or, worst of all, asking for it. That’s just terrible to assume, but it’s culturally a normal, even easy thing to think, particularly in conservative circles.

Now, on a less dramatic scale: you’re a woman in a church, and you start seeing your daughters and sisters and friends struggling with fear of sex, guilt and loathing for their bodies, eating disorders, shame, and fear, because of legalistic modesty teachings. You start talking about this, how it’s wrong, how it’s damaging. If you play your cards right, you’ll get listened to. But playing your cards right means: tearful testimonials to men in authority, navigating translation battles and hermeneutical landmines to confront the assumptions behind the teachings, and lots of long talks about law vs. grace to address the legalism aspect driving it, without offending anyone or turning them off from your vision of grace-filled teachings about women and their bodies to heal those broken by the weight of shame and the law.

If she goes mama-bear and is angry for the sake of those who are wounded (which would be natural), she will certainly be shut down, dismissed, and ignored. In some way or another, depending on the church. But her anger will instantly disqualify her from speaking about this. Why is that okay?

Likewise, if a girl grows up in an abusive home, and later realizes it, and speaks to that abuse with the normal response of grief and anger, she is told that she is slandering or being bitter, and she should not speak of her home life like that. If she is angry, she is not commended for finally recognizing right boundaries in a healthy relationship and naming the wrongs she used to endure. Instead it becomes uncomfortable to relate to her, because her pain and her anger is not acceptable in our social framework. She does not fit into our little set of boxes, so we either label her with a sin problem, or pass over her emotions in hopes that it was all just a misunderstanding. [Please note that I am not actually speaking of my own personal experience on this point. However, I have seen it done to friends and family members.]

How is that reflecting Jesus and his kind of love? I can’t reconcile this behavior to the teachings and example of Jesus. Angry women are socially uncomfortable, I get it. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong or sinful or not worthy of love and community. They are not worse at being Christians. They’re just honest.


I feel like I should have posted more this week. I know I wanted to write another Immodesty Rail post, and I wanted to tell you about the author readings and book signings I’ve been to this last month (Lorin Stein, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins). But it’s been an exhausting week, and some people took offense at my post on loneliness, and my sister is moving, and I’ve been remembering that I’m an introvert and the emotional fullness of this week  has taken its toll. I’ll get y’all caught up soon. But when I’m ready.

For the time being, I’ve found some noteworthy pieces worth your reading attention. 

Golden Sea, Makoto Fujimura

Makoto Fujimura, one of my favorite Christian thinkers and a gifted artist, lost a lot of his more recent work in the rising waters of Hurricane Sandy. There’s no insurance money or FEMA help for the damage done to the gallery and his art, and they’re taking donations to try to repair the damage.

Justin Welby is the new Archbishop of Canterbury. I admit I was hoping John Sentamu would get this post, but we will see how Welby does.

Rachel Held Evans writes her best post yet, and what I think should have been the preface to her latest and highly controversial book. This is a fantastic read.

A Christianity Today blog post on reading modern-day assumptions into the Bible and Mr. Mom.

My dear friend RoseAnna reflects on what she’s learning in dating after her divorce about grace and people.

The Greek island Ikaria is, according to the New York Times, the island where people forget to die.

Preston writes a beautifully poetic post on what the phrase “pro-life” evokes in his mind.

I just discovered this blogger this week, and I was surprised and impressed at his love poems–they’re quite good.

This may very well be the best thing I’ve read all week: The Trinity in Gender DebatesIt’s the perfect follow-up to this post I read earlier, where Libby Anne observes that Debi Pearl’s concept of wifely subordination is based on her assumptions about the Trinity (which I found to be hugely problematic and borderline heretical). I recommend reading the Love, Joy, Feminism post before reading the first essay, to understand what this looks like in practice before digging into the theological nuances of such statements.


Shortly after her breakup with her serious boyfriend of two years, a friend confided in me that she worried that no good Christian guys would be interested in her, because of the things she had done with her ex.

“What sorts of things?” I wondered. Her response: nothing more than your average youthful makeout sessions, which was understandable considering she ended things after a long relationship and about two weeks before he planned to propose.

And yet she felt guilty and wondered if the next guy she dated would reject her because of what she had done.

She is not alone–almost every “good Christian girl” has worried about this. Some become paralyzed with guilt if they’ve “gone too far” or lost their virginity. Some feel guilty and can’t handle it, so they numb themselves and stop caring about physical boundaries or balancing trust and intimacy in a relationship, telling themselves they’re used, so why does it matter now?

I worried about this, too. At one point in our engagement, Kevin and I talked very seriously about calling things off for various reasons, and I found myself panicking, wondering, “If we break up, then what? Would any good guy be interested in me, knowing I was engaged to someone else? Would he resent the physical elements of relationship Kevin and I had?”

***

I call this “purity guilt.” And I am now convinced that this guilt is the wrong and natural result of a flagrant misunderstanding of real purity and real grace. But because we grew up in the purity (and courtship) culture of evangelical churches, we don’t know better. This guilt is the natural correlary to my last one on modesty and lust in its abuse of the law and corresponding misuse of grace. For what I can tell, it’s predominantly a female issue, but I’d be really eager to hear from the guys if this runs both ways.

***

When I turned twelve, my dad took me to a jewelry store where we picked out a ring to be my “purity ring.” Most of the girls around my age at our church were getting purity rings with precious stones for their birthdays, and my parents had planned on using this occasion as a sort of coming-of-age ceremony where they could talk to me about saving myself for marriage (e.g. maintaining chastity until after the vows—the technicalities of this were nebulous). After presenting me with the ring, they asked me to sign a document stating what “saving myself” meant to me and what I was promising (this was quite vague–I was twelve). However, this promise became nuanced with a lot of unspoken assumptions as I grew older.

The “godly” girls in our church made their purity promises too, saying things like “I will save my first kiss for the altar,” and “I will not hold hands until after I am engaged,” and “I will not tell a man I love him unless he is my fiancé.” I probably wrote down similar things in my little contract, which my parents and I then signed and stuck in my 7th grade school file. Here’s one like mine, that my friend Carley signed (along with her dad and her pastor–talk about weird).

This sort of thing was (and still is) not entirely unusual. What’s more unusual are the parents who try to enforce these pledges later on. Most don’t, trusting the self-consciousness and guilt of  the memory of these promises to keep their daughters making wise decisions. Some, however, like my friend Carley’s parents, try to hold their daughters to the letter of the law. Carley ended up eloping with her husband, because her white parents wouldn’t approve of him because he is black.

Her situation, obviously, was more rare, but the obsessive concern about girls’ purity/virginity is a troubling constant in the evangelical world.  The idea of Christian girls and virginity as a precious commodity is a value in Christian culture going back to the very beginning of the church, when many young believers chose martyrdom over marrying or sleeping with an unbeliever. These are the women of the Catholic canon of saints, and for good cause–their dedication to their faith is admirable.

But their situation and culture isn’t the same as ours–they were dealing with rape-or-death situations. We are instead dealing with young couples exploring intimacy in (often) healthy and normal ways. But girls like Carley and me are still urged to save our first kiss for the altar or asked by our parents to have short engagements, because “the temptation is too great.” And when we discover that holding hands or kissing is actually nice and doesn’t suddenly hurl us into sexual sin, we become confused and struggle with guilt: were the things we taught wrong? Or am I just being callous to sin? Am I ruining my hope of a good sex life in my married future by doing these things now?

This emphasis on sexual sin is turning good and natural things (the existence of my sex drive, discovering how my body works, kissing my boyfriend goodnight, etc.) into hotspots for guilt and shame. The gospel of Jesus doesn’t teach that sexual sin is somehow worse than anger or gluttony, and Jesus didn’t ration the grace he gave for the sexually experienced. Instead, he ate with prostitutes and protected the woman caught in adultery from stoning.

Sexual sin is real. But why have we made it out to be more than it should be? We have inflated the concept of sex to a spiritual high (which it can be, but this ignores the physicalness and humor and ordinary joy of it), and so the sexually inexperienced good Christian girl is plagued by fear of ruining this future experience by her participation in any number of normal and healthy physical elements of a normal and healthy dating relationship.

Furthermore, we’ve allowed ourselves to make this a gendered double standard: why is it usually no big deal if a young Christian guy is sexually experienced, as long as he’s repented and trying to stay pure? Girls don’t get that sort of treatment. Virginity is “lost,” and suddenly the girl is “damaged goods.” We girls feel guilty because it’s culturally normal to make us feel guilty. The church accepts this as okay without much of a second thought (and only mild lip-service to “second chances”) because this practice, called “slut-shaming” by those outside the church, has for so long been culturally normal.

Before I get into the grace & guilt part of this, I must say: Did you know that, physiologically speaking, it’s impossible to tell if a woman has ever had sex or not? The hymen is sometimes present, sometimes not. Sometimes there’s no bleeding the first time she has sex. Sometimes, it’s impossible to have sex for the first time without significant tearing. Every woman is different, and the idea of “virginity” is an abstract concept, impossible to prove physically. (Feminist author Jessica Valenti theorizes [not a 100% endorsement, but a very interesting read] that the concept of virginity originated as a way a man could prove without a doubt that his son was his and should inherit his property and goods–if the wife was a virgin at marriage and he was vigilant and sure of her faithfulness, then the son was his and the inheritance safe. The Old Testament concept of virginity reflects this feudal mindset in the law.)

Our culture has some messed up assumptions about purity and girls, and we’ve woven them into the Bible’s teachings on sexual fidelity and made purity 1) the woman’s responsibility, and 2) all about technicalities and rules and “how far is too far.”

My brother got a purity ring, too, and I commend my parents’ equal treatment of this issue , regardless of gender. Some Christians don’t just make it a girls’ issue, but this is not very common.  Modesty is the girl’s job, and it’s easy to make purity the girl’s responsibility, too.

The whole idea of “purity rings” and virginity as the highest sexual moral good is based on some fundamental assumptions made by about sexual sin being somehow “worse” than other sins, and this is problematic. Sexual sin is serious and can have more significant emotional effects on a person, but it’s no more damning than any other sin.

Parents who teach these detailed, legalistic approaches to purity often bring these things up (and even urge their daughters to make these purity promises) when they’re only 12 or 13. At this age, girls are often still in that blissful twilight of childhood where self-consciousness is still rare and interactions with other people happen without ulterior motives or fear. They simply don’t understand what they’re promising.

When purity and modesty issues are introduced, these young girls experience a rude awakening to fear of self and fear of interacting with the other sex–boys are no longer just boys, but sex-obsessed animals. This fear of self and sex and men is perpetuated throughout adolescence with modesty talks and sermon illustrations of girls who slip up and get pregnant out of wedlock, and the purity guilt (over flirting, over slips into “immodesty,” over sexual desires) is increased.

The New Testament teachings on sexuality don’t say that virginity is the highest good, that those who have sexual experience and aren’t married are dirty and unworthy of grace, or that setting physical boundaries is either a guy’s responsibility or a that keeping physical boundaries is a girl’s job.

Instead it says: flee sexual immorality. Be content, and if you can’t be content, get married. Don’t take advantage of each other, but treat each other with respect. Be faithful to your spouse. Don’t abandon your commitment to someone in the name of piety. Love one another. Mutually defer to one another in love.

Sexual purity for a couple considering whether or not to pursue marriage is never really spelled out  (at least not along the lines of the purity teachings my peers and I received from the pulpits of our churches). Sex is held in high value and reserved for marriage. But the guilt and the shame that follow the uncomfortably detailed teachings about purity and virginity–these can’t be found.

Jesus loved unconditionally. He didn’t die for us to wallow in fear that our sexual sins or infractions of a man-made purity code would ruin our marriages or future relationships. Sex saved for marriage is ideal, but Jesus’s best for us is a life lived without shame, with forgiveness and grace and unconditional acceptance by the Father.