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.


Indulge me, for a moment or two? I’m going to be the cantankerous language nerd here for a bit.

This post has been written many times before by people smarter than me.

But I still hear [straight, white] people telling me that they like the stuff I write and talk about, but they’re not feminists because they don’t like that the word suggests a women-centered focus. What about the men, if it’s about equal rights?

This is a really frustrating conversation for me, because it’s based on an assumption which is an exception to their normal approach to words.

We don’t pick the way words originate, usually. They come into use. And they mean things and have certain connotations, and we develop a cultural awareness of what those words mean to us, to our parents, to our peers, to church people, to “secular” people, to our kids and younger siblings.

And they change, shifting, slipping, taking on new meanings of less or greater potency as time passes.

I wish everyone would bother to read Derrida and not be afraid of him. Words mean things! Yes. But words also shift and undermine themselves as new meanings unravel the old ones as time passes.

Most people hate the word moist, but it is a Useful Word That Means Something Specific, even if we don’t like how it sounds.

My mom used to get twitchy and a little upset because I’d say things like I’m screwed, or I screwed that up in a lighthearted, oops! sort of way. She didn’t like that because when she was growing up, it had the same connotations as fuck does for my generation. My generation knows that screwed had that meaning, but it’s not used in THAT way anymore, unless you’re a little out of date and happy with that.

This is elementary cultural language awareness, folks. We adapt to new meanings of words. We adopt language as it morphs. We can be a little cantankerous about “LOL” getting into the OED, but we also know that it serves a purpose and it’s relevant, and accept it on its own terms. Oh well, lowbrow language. But it works, so, in it goes.

So why are all these people (mostly, but not all, men) afraid of using the word “feminist”?

I’d argue that pretty much everyone I know, aside from some true, die-hard reconstructionist patriarchs, is a feminist.

I have to admit, the weird insecurity I see about a word that appears, root-wise, to be focused on women is fascinating. Do these men have any idea how we women felt growing up with regard to words like “mankind” and “men” being the gender neutral dominant terms for people? If I can accept the use of these “male” words as being gender neutral terms for all people, why can’t they deal with “feminist” as a way to identify themselves as someone who

Advocates for the social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men. [Dictionary.com]

or

 Believes in the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. [Merriam-Webster]

Do you think that men and women should be treated equally to men in society, by the law, in the workplace? [Notice how religion and the church isn’t mentioned! Complementarians, you’re not off the hook!]

Then you’re a feminist.

And please stop fussing about how the word seems gendered or how it suggests men-hating second-wave feminists. We don’t like the privilege and insensitivity of that phase of feminist rhetoric, either. But the word is still relevant and the meaning has changed. It’s not all about women, and your complaint that it is sounds just as ridiculous as a woman complaining that the word history is male-centric. Please. It means more than that now.

Words shift. Deal with it.


I’m on a roll on post ideas, thanks to long conversations with Jori during my visit with her. She gave me permission to tell a story of hers here, for the benefit of anyone else who has perhaps been in a similar position. She says, “Maybe it’ll keep someone from having a similar experience, or maybe a parent will think of it years later and react differently when a daughter comes to them with something like [this].”

Trigger warning: rape, victim blaming.

I think I was 17 when it happened.

I knew it would happen sometime, being a female. But I was surprised it hadn’t happened to me sooner. Before it happened, I had wondered what it would be like when it happened, what I would say, how I would react, who I would tell. If I would cry, if I would know how to respond.

When it happened, it felt surreal, like it was happening to someone else in a cliche movie scene. But it was real life and it was happening.

We were sitting in our favorite coffee shop in Midlothian, the golden morning sunlight painting the wood floor in patches and warming the leather chairs we sat in, both of us with our legs curled up and my shoes were on the floor.  It was the first time we’d seen each other in 6 months, after her family moved to South Carolina. She was holding her cup of coffee in both hands under her chin, her fingers pressing into the ceramic as she held onto it for safety. I was nibbling at my very favorite steaming-hot chocolate chip scone. She didn’t look at me when she started telling me the story.

“So, I met this guy online.”

I froze, transfixed, suspended from reality. It was it. I could feel it.

“We met up at a library while my mom was running errands.”

“He took me to his car. And he wanted to have sex. And I didn’t.”

“And he raped me.”

She was shaking. Her coffee cup was trembling. Her eyes were bright and tearless and wide open, and now she looked at me. “I haven’t told anyone else yet.”

I didn’t know what to say, whether to hug her or hold her hand or to act horrified or shocked. I sat very still. “Oh Jordan,” I said. And I think I picked up my coffee again and sipped it, trying to think.

In retrospect, I think we handled it well, the two of us. She was honest with herself about what happened. I asked her if she had been hurt, if she had taken a pregnancy test. If she was comfortable reporting. That she should go to a doctor to get checked out and I’d go with her if she needed it. Had she told her parents.

She didn’t cry. She was composed, articulate, but shaken and very, very sobered.

We talked for a long time. She made plans to tell her parents, to tell the police, to go to a doctor. I gave her a long, awkward hug, and we parted ways.

I came home quiet, dazed. I went to my mom and said that I needed to talk to her alone, now. I told her the story. She was stunned. “Do you think she’s telling the truth?”

“Well, she wasn’t crying, but I think she was just still in shock. I’m pretty sure she was telling the truth. Why would she lie about something like that?”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

“Mom, you should call her mom and make sure they get her to a doctor and get checked to be sure she’s okay.” [my mom is an RN and frequently provided a reality check for our anti-doctor homeschooling friends]

“Yeah,” she said. “I’ll do that. Just let me know when she’s told them so I can.”

“She’s planning on telling them tonight, I think. So call them tomorrow morning, I guess.”

“Okay, I will.”

***

54% of rapes are never reported to the police.

97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail.

And only 2-8% of rapes claims are “unfounded” (e.g. the authorities didn’t have enough evidence, decided the girl didn’t resist “enough” for it to be “legitimate,” or were patently false.)

***

[two weeks ago, in FL]

Another coffeeshop, catching up after too much time apart. Another pause, another sip, another heart-spill.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. Remember how when you came back from SC to visit, you told me that you’d been raped. And how after you told me, your parents took you to the police station and you signed a statement saying it was all a lie, and then your parents made you come over the next day to apologize to me and my parents for lying about it?”

She laughed. “Yeah, that was awful.”

“What really happened? I kind of assumed it was real but your parents didn’t want to believe it, but…? All I remember is that the next morning your mom called my mom and told her that you made it all up, and that you guys were coming over so you could apologize for lying to get attention.”

She sighed. “Yeah, and they made me come over and we all sat on your couches and it was so serious. Dad told me what to say – that it was all a lie to get attention and none of it was true, and I was sorry for being so proud and selfish.”

“Yeah, it felt really strange,” I said.

“You were really quiet that whole time,” she said. “I always wondered what you thought, since your parents kind of did all the talking for you.”

“It was really awkward. I didn’t know what to say. I think I still mostly believed you, but didn’t know what to think. They made you apologize to that other friend you told, too, didn’t they?”

“Yeah, we went over to her house after yours and did the same thing there. I wonder what she thought of it, too.”

***

As we rehashed what happened that night after she first told me about being raped, a whole new story emerged, one that should shock and horrify any compassionate human, but one that doesn’t surprise me at all, given the culture of the church we grew up in.

I haven’t named this church much before, but it was KingsWay Community Church in Midlothian, Virginia. But I think it’s worth telling you what church it was, and give you the context. This story is one of many like it and it needs to be told. We both attended KingsWay for approximately 10 years, and her dad had been a pastor there for a year or two before they moved to SC.

This story exists partly because of SGM church culture, a subset of that fundamental/evangelical church culture which unintentionally protects abusers and silences anyone who questions patriarchy or misogyny or abuse. SGM is currently facing a lawsuit alleging that the leaders protected abusers and looked the other way when children were molested.

Jori’s rape didn’t occur on the property of a SGM church or at an SGM church event. The rapist was not an SGM church member. But her parents’ response (being a former SGM pastor and his wife) to her story was a response that is very much in keeping with how SGM pastors have historically responded to congregants who were abused. And, for anyone wondering: lots of churches are leaving SGM over the lawsuit, but KingsWay hasn’t left and does not appear to have plans to disassociate itself with SGM.

Jori’s experience was somewhat amplified due to some quirks of her family unique culture. Her family, when we were close, tended to take things to a somewhat dramatic level to prove a point or just because they could. [This was often a really fun thing — they were the best for creative party games and building things and bringing hilarity to life. But it had a darker side, as Jori discovered.]

Her parents were, like mine, adherents to that school of Christian parenting thought where “first time obedience” is paramount to how godly children relate to their parents. This teaching is authoritarian and usually Calvinist, saying that children are born in rebellion to God and so the parents must “shepherd” and “train” them to be obedient and therefore godly and God-loving. Infants are often spanked for “rebellious” crying, children are punished for interrupting their parents even if the cause is an emergency, and if you tell your parent “just a minute” when they tell you to come, you’re in rebellion and need to be spanked/punished.

This mindset functionally trains children to have no ability to reject adult authority if they’re uncomfortable with something, to have no sense of personal space, privacy, or healthy boundaries, and saps any will in children to stand up for themselves. If they do say no to someone or something they’re uncomfortable with, their “training” has conditioned them to feel overwhelming guilt for being “rebellious” or “disrespectful.”

KingsWay taught these parenting techniques and carried parenting books on this method in its bookstore, promoted them for care group studies, parenting classes, and gifts at baby dedications. Jori’s parents adhered to it all back then, given their time in the SGM Pastor’s College and on the KingsWay leadership team.

Jori later realized that the parenting methods her parents used essentially conditioned her to be both a victim of non-consensual sex (you can’t actively resist an authority figure who wants you to please them and pressures you with guilt trips) and a victim of soft brainwashing — your experience is invalid if it contradicts what the authorities say it should be.

***

When Jori got home that evening after telling me and one other friend about her rape, she felt good about telling her parents, ready to open up to them after receiving affirming and kind responses from her friends. They’d listen, they’d help her report, they’d take her to a doctor and get a pregnancy test and STI testing.

The response she got could not have been more different.

Instead of believing her, they accused her of lying, of having consensual sex and then regretting it, and making up the rape story to cover for her actions.

“This sort of thing doesn’t happen to godly girls,” they told her. “You put yourself in a situation for this sort of thing to happen.”

Their reason for not believing her? She seemed too composed. She wasn’t disheveled and in tears, and she hadn’t come to them with the story right after it happened. She was too articulate and detailed with her story — it couldn’t be true because she didn’t seem utterly devastated.

Jori is a very smart person, and after such strict parenting and high pressure in our church to have your emotions under control all the time, she became highly skilled at playing social roles that were expected of her. But when something traumatic happened to her, she wasn’t able to connect with her emotions to display them for an audience on command — she was too far gone into trained disassociation with her own feelings.

Angry that their daughter was shameless enough to have sex for fun and then make up a story like this to cover it, and still refuse to admit that she was lying, her parents decided to drive her to the police station for questioning.

When they got there, her dad told the officers that she was saying she’d been raped, that they knew it was a lie, and they needed help finding the loophole in her story.

The officers began questioning her, and again, her lack of tears worked against her. She told me, “I didn’t react the right way — I didn’t burst out crying. And the rest of the night they tried to prove that I was lying.”

For several hours they questioned her, and she didn’t give in. Her story became more clear and detailed as time went on, and these small adjustments caused them to doubt her even further.

At last she decided it wouldn’t be worth it to keep fighting their accusations.

As she told me that morning a few weeks ago:

“‘Okay, it’s not true,’ I said, because it was going nowhere and was so humiliating. I just wanted to leave. They made me sign a statement saying that I had been lying and closed the case, and then lectured me, saying ‘You could have gone to jail for lying about this.'”

The next day her parents showed up at my house and made her apologize to me for lying.

And for the next several years, Jori shut down her memories of the event, telling herself that it must have been consensual sex that she, like the terrible person she was, had gone looking for behind her parents’ backs and then lied about.

Today, she says:

“[my parents’ reaction was] very damaging to me, and I was depressed, scared, and utterly confused for years as a result. But, I’ve moved on from it. I moved on from the actual rape years and years before I moved on from the terrible reaction to it, but it’s old history now.”

***

There are two things going on here.

The first is: fundamentalist Christian parenting methods train children to not resist sexual predators and to not be able to identify it if they’re molested, raped, or harassed. [this is why the Church remains an unintentional haven for sexual predators, and why reporting sexual abuse in the church to authorities is still a question for debate, not an assumed course of action to protect victims.]

The second is: our culture doesn’t like to believe rape victims when they have the courage to speak up, and the negative response they get often leaves them feeling like they must have made it up, that they’re terrible people for thinking that they were really raped, and that they shouldn’t have said anything in the first place.

These assumptions remain for a variety of unfathomably inhumane reasons, assumptions coming from privilege and class hierarchy, assumptions coming from residual patriarchy, assumptions coming from female inability to identify their sexuality apart from the male gaze. [these reasons are why third wave feminism is really necessary.]

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than just these things. But this is a starting place. Jori’s story didn’t happen because her parents are terrible people. It happened in a Christian cultural context that didn’t have space in its ideological framework for a woman to be calm and collected when reporting a rape, for a woman to not be raped in a dark alley by a stranger, and for a woman to have any sort of sexual autonomy outside of the parent-led-courtship-and-abstinence relationship model.

Telling about being raped should never, ever be more traumatic than the rape itself.

***

If you or someone you know is in need of help, start here:
(this list is stolen from Dianna Anderson)


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.


When I posted about Dannah Gresh’s concerning (and poorly composed) chapel sermon at Grove City College on Tuesday, I figured I wouldn’t get much response.

I guess I assumed that most Christian leaders are like those I grew up with — ensconced in their own success and emotionally unmovable when criticized rightly. Pastors and teachers I encountered along my path were usually those who would listen gravely to what you had to say, and then effectively smile and pat you on the head with some platitude or smooth response, and never really hear your hurt or perspective. There was no empathy or genuine concern about how they affected people. Usually, what got their attention was the threat of bad PR, not a hurting individual.

Since then, I’ve learned that there are good pastors. The pastor who cared for me during my last two years of college, the pastor who’s been praying for me as I work through hard personal things right now, the professors at Grove City who have a ministerial relationship with the students under their watch. These individuals (with their relatively small spheres of influence) have given me a lot of hope, personally.

But when it came to those with big public ministries, I retained my cynicism. From where I sit, I have observed that fame does things to people. It looks like it’s easy to be wrapped up in the numbers and the tour and the new topic or book and forget that there are real people receiving and engaging with your message. That people are sometimes basing their whole spiritual life on your ideas and what you say deeply impacts the decisions they make and the way they live. I think it’s for this reason that James reminded his audience that teachers will be judged more strictly.

So. When I posted yesterday, I didn’t know what to expect, but I certaintly didn’t expect Dannah Gresh to personally respond. And I never expected her to respond with gentleness and apology, with an attitude of “please let me make this right.” But I thought I’d at least make sure she was aware we were talking about her message, and I posed this on her Facebook fan page:

FB dannah gresh

I didn’t think she’d respond. I sort of half-assumed she’d even delete the post. But she didn’t delete it and she did respond to me.

And, oh my. This gives me hope for the Church in new ways. Here’s her comment (she posted the same comment on Shaney’s piece, though not on Dianna’s):

dannah gresh comment

Not long after the comment went up, I received an email from her with an invitation to talk over the phone and continue the conversation. We’ve corresponded briefly, and she’s for real. This isn’t a stop-the-bad-blogs-from-talking-about-me move. This is a real, heartfelt desire to avoid the rape culture elements of the Christian purity movement and a sincere attempt at engaging us here.

I’m excited to see where this goes. She still hasn’t addressed Dianna’s concerns about her use of the word Hebrew word “ahava” (which, to be fair, I’m not educated enough to seriously address the nuances of the translation) and the rape of Dinah, but I’m hopeful that she will.

The purity movement is so well-intended, but it’s strayed into legalism and modesty checklists and straw man caricatures of feminism and blaming the victim. This is not okay. But perhaps there’s some hope for addressing these issues, after all?

***

A further clarification for those who felt like her story was certainly hyperbole (which it did turn out to be) and that those criticizing her sermon were “nitpicking” — words mean things. You can’t excuse someone’s careless words on assuming the best about their intent when they have such a big public presence. If she said it in a public forum, it’s up for public discussion, and it’s her job to communicate clearly to avoid sending the wrong message about abuse.

I know we’re all Christians and it’s a good impulse to try to be nice about things, but that’s not appropriate in situations like these, where she was speaking to (guessimating based on my years attending GCC chapels) an audience of 500-700 students and is regularly publishing mainstream Christian books and leads a multi-level ministry to young people of various ages and helps run a blog about  these topics. Statistically speaking, there are those who were in her audience on Tuesday morning who are currently in abusive relationships or have experienced abuse, and without her clarification, the message they heard was “don’t be needy,” “don’t fall in love,” and “being thrown against a wall is okay if your partner really loves you.”

This is why her clarification and engagement with our concerns is so, so important and encouraging.

Thank you, Dannah. Let’s keep talking.


Harbison Chapel, Grove City College

<< Please see the update on this situation here. >>

 While I may have some mixed feelings about elements of the institution that is my alma mater, I admit, I am quite fond of Grove City College. It’s a good place with good people. I am grateful for everyone there who invested in me and for the time I had in that community.

But as an alumna, I have to say something when this Tuesday’s chapel speaker told a story about intimate partner violence and called it an example of agape love with no qualifications.

That is wrong.

Here’s the quote, transcribed from the audio file (click to listen!) by Dianna Anderson. The sermon (message? talk?) was only about 20 minutes long, but Dannah Gresh packed a lot into that time. This is the part that concerns me the most:

In the New Testament, there’s a more familiar word that you’re probably [pause] aware of…the word ‘agape.’ The Love of God or Christ for humankind, unselfish love of one person for another, without sexual implication. Brotherly love. A love feast.

There’s a lot of sisters in the room right now looking for some brotherly love. They just don’t know that’s what they need.

….

[Quotes Ephesians 5:25, claims agape is the type of love a husband extends to his wife, says that if men are not willing to “step up,” they are not ready for love]

“And here’s the thing, as I was looking over my dating years with my husband, as we were college students. I remember one very distinct time. I was thinking ‘when were the times that he expressed agape love to me?’ I could think of a lot of really neat ones, but I thought of one that was probably harder for him than all the rest.

You see, we had recently gotten engaged and I was living in an apartment and going to summer school so I could finish up a little early – not that I was in a hurry to get married or anything. And he came to see me. And we hadn’t seen each other for months and we missed each other very much. And it probably took one fifth of a second when he was inside of that apartment for us to realize we were really in love. And we found ourselves horizontal on the sofa. And it really wasn’t okay. You get the picture.

But it lasted about a second and before I knew it, my fiancé picked me up off the sofa, threw me against the wall, and ran outside of my apartment.

[awkward laughter]

Yes, I felt horribly rejected.

[more laughter]

But I brushed myself off and I walked outside and I said “What was that?”

And he said, opening the car door, “Get in, we need a chaperone. I can’t be alone with you. We’re going to Professor Haffy’s house.”

[more laughter]

And we spent the weekend in one of our professor’s homes.

That’s agape.

So, I know what she meant. She meant that if you’re crossing moral lines with your significant other, it’s self-sacrificially loving (agape) to help uphold standards or take the high road and stop whatever questionable activity (which may cause sin or be sin…it’s not clear) for the sake of everyone involved. This is generally common sense, though her assumptions about what is and isn’t right here are questionable and, worse, vague.

But what she essentially said is this: premarital sex or lust is worse than intimate partner violence. Or in other words: it’s okay to abuse your girlfriend if it’s going to keep you from having sex with her before getting married.

She could have chosen to qualify this story, to comment, “now, throwing me against a wall was WRONG and he would never do that now,” or something similarly clarifying. But she did not do that. 

And by having Dannah up there in the College-endorsed Harbison Chapel pulpit on a Tuesday morning when students are given chapel credit for listening to this talk, Grove City College is complicit in this endorsement until they state otherwise.

I tweeted at the College’s Twitter account yesterday and was retweeted by others about this, and the feed manager has yet to respond. I assume that they’re busy or someone’s on vacation, because this should not be a difficult question. The College should be able to quickly and easily respond to this, as should anyone else who heard the talk.

Throwing your fiancée up against a wall is abusive and wrong and never okay for anyone, Christian or non-Christian.

I have a host of other problems with this talk — how Gresh is illiterate about what “feminism” and “chauvinism” mean, how her bad use of Hebrew, Greek, and her proof-texting make her a living straw man argument against having women teaching in the church. How her invalidation of emotions for women (and her silence on men with emotions of their own) was appalling and insensitive (and next door to gaslighting). How she mistakenly argued that Dinah’s rape was an example of love. How silly the ending illustration was.

But these are just symptoms of ignorance.

Stating that intimate partner violence is “agape” love is inexcusable.  It’s dangerous and wrong. This is the stuff that has the potential to damage lives forever. 

Grove City College, I’m calling you out. You’re better than this. Make this right.

——–
Check out this post by Shaney in response to Dannah’s talk. A post by Dianna on this is also forthcoming here.


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.