This week is the 10th anniversary of Mean Girls.

This week a girl in my sister’s school beat her up, hitting her face and head into a locker and giving her a concussion.

This week I raged and cried over beer with a friend after work because I’m nearly 3,000 miles away from home and can’t be there with her. Instead, I have to call her late at night (her time) during my 15 minute break at work to find out that these same girls filmed the fight, put it on Instagram, and then took to ask.fm where they verbally abused her and tagged her by her Twitter handle.

The Urban Institute did a study on cyber bullying and teen dating last year, and the results may shock you. They should.

…more than a quarter (26 percent) of youth in a relationship said they experienced some form of cyber dating abuse victimization in the prior year. Females were twice as likely as males to report being a victim of sexual cyber dating abuse in the prior year. More than a tenth (12 percent) of youth in a relationship said they had perpetrated cyber dating abuse in the prior year. Females reported greater levels of non-sexual cyber dating abuse perpetration than males.

(Technology, Teen Dating Violence and Abuse, and Bullying. Zweig, Dank, Lachman, and Yahner, 2013)

I detailed more of the background on what happened to my sister on Twitter, and Storified it here. I may repeat myself some here, but this is the story:

My sister started the school year with a couple guys interested in dating her, she turned them down, they both start dating other girls. The boys reach out to my sister behind their girlfriends’ backs, my sister shuts them down and asks them to stop contacting her. The girlfriends find out, start threatening my sister, waiting for her in bathrooms, at the bus stop, and sending her threatening messages. My sister shows a teacher, and the one girl gets suspended (she’d already been in trouble for fighting). The suspended girl is the queen bee of a clique, and in retaliation, the girls in the clique start threatening my sister further, and the queen bee eggs them on.

One girl takes it further, threatening my sister in the hall at school. My sister’s boyfriend stands in her way, but the girl ducks around him and punches my sister (who has her back to the lockers) in the face repeatedly. And then they took to social media afterwards, because now the second girl is suspended for fighting.

I saw the video. 25 hearts for my sister getting punched in the face.

My parents are pursuing legal recourse, my sister’s resting at home, and she’ll recover. Hopefully this will stop soon and everyone will be able to move on with life.

Here’s the thing that gets me: Mean Girls is 10 years old, and this is still going on.

These girls beat my sister up, yes. But they’re victims just as much as my sister is, and I’ll tell you why.

They’re perpetuating the system established by patriarchy where men are sexual creatures who do not bear the consequences for their the waves left in their wake. They act, women clean up. They expand themselves socially, we cover for them and accommodate. The boys aren’t satisfied with their girlfriends? Their girlfriends don’t challenge them or break up with them out of self-respect; they attack my sister, because they see her as a threat.

They see her as a threat because we have been socialized to see other women as competition for men, not comrades at arms in the struggle for respect, equality, and autonomy.

I’ll step aside here and let one of my new favorite authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie take the mic on this point.

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.”  (The Danger of A Single Story. TED Talk, 2009)

As you know, I help run a YouTube channel where we talk about YA literature with a heavy dose of feminist critique. One of the reasons I chose to start this project with Gretchen is that I was sick of seeing female protagonists in fiction (or film or pick-your-media-of-choice) whose narrative arcs are centered solely on their relationships to men, and I was tired of seeing female friendships in media that were fake.

Fake because they didn’t relate over anything except for men. Fake because they are either flat stereotypes who giggle and “support” each  other in romantic escapades, or are pitted against each other in competition for a man. There’s not much in between, because without a romantic male interest, the media gatekeepers don’t seem to think there’s much of a story worth telling. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard new novelists say that their editor love their ideas, but wanted them to “up the tension” by adding a romantic interest. A female-centered story without a romantic interest, apparently, won’t sell. And realistic depictions of female friendship is worth sacrificing for the sake of male-centered sexual tension.

Did you know that if a movie has a sex scene where a man is receiving oral sex, the film’s rating is going to be either PG-13 or R, but if a woman’s receiving oral sex, the rating hits NC-17? A woman receiving sexual pleasure from a man is apparently more dangerous to society than the other way around.* Did you know that we’ll get a movie with a raccoon and a tree as superhero leads before we’ll get one with Black Widow or Wonder Woman? Did you notice that The Hunger Games books opened and closed on relational plot points rather than action plot points? (I didn’t notice that myself, but I can’t re-find the source on that observation now–help anyone? ::edit:: Gretchen pointed it out, thanks to her reading of Swati Avasthi) Did you notice that Katniss and Tris don’t have any female friends, not really? Did you know that conservative leaders are still saying we don’t need feminism anymore?

But Mean Girls is 10 years old, and my sister has a concussion.

How many of you have experienced girl drama because of the patriarchy?

::edit:: This deserves some clarification–Black Swan was originally rated NC-17 and they dropped it down to R after an appeal. The reason this is remarkable is that girl-on-girl sex scenes are generally performed as if for the male gaze, and are there for a “curiosity” item of sorts, and not aimed at female viewers. Therefore it’s less “offensive,” apparently, than a woman getting pleasure from a man — something that is rarely done in film because it’s not for the male gaze and has to be all about her sexual satisfaction.


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.


When one of my friends starts dating someone exclusively, I like to ask questions, to capture in my head not just the story of how he asked her out or how she warmed up to him, but to understand the essence, the thingness of what makes their new relationship attractive to them. What do you like about him? Why’d you say yes to a date? What about her makes you want to spend time with her?

I’m a collector of stories, of people, of ideas. I soak it up. There is so much to the world and I want to understand things.

I get some really interesting answers to these questions. And I’ve given some really interesting answers to friends asking me similar questions, too.

One thing that gets me a lot, that makes me feel a little hollow inside and worry, is when I hear a man or a woman bragging about their significant other unduly much, and when I hear him or her saying things like “s/he’s just so good to me!” whenever he or she talks about the person they’re seeing. 

I promise I’m not just being curmudgeonly. I promise I’m not thinking of anyone in particular. And I promise, that what I’m about to say is not a universal thing. But I have noticed some trends, and I think it’s worth talking about it.

You see, when you’ve grown up in the conservative Christian world and hope to save your first everythings for your forever other, you put a lot of pressure on yourself to get it right the first time. To not get your heart broken. To push through hard things as a couple and make it work, dammit. I have good taste in men, really. He just needs to grow up. She’s not always like that–she’s really good to me! Just trust me. I’ve got this. We’re happy. 

Once you have this pressure on yourself from yourself (maybe you got to third base with this guy and you are ashamed and just want to marry him so it can be okay and romantic, instead of Potential Mistake And Regret For Lost Purity, or maybe you’re just afraid of heartbreak and being alone), it sets you up for codependence. Or it can, if both parties are subscribers to this way of thinking.

Codependence thrives on fear of loss. This is my realization of the week. Codependence has to have the potential absence or loss of the enabler, the person you’re dependent upon for emotional stability. You don’t notice your codependency until the security blanket is threatened. Once it’s threatened, you feel manic, naked, offended, and you may become possessive and jealous, or you may become cold and aloof and self-sustained, passive-aggressively determined to make the other miss you and make them come back to you.

I’ve played both sides of this game. I’ve seen it modeled for me over and over when I was growing up, and I’ve been slowly loosening the claw-grips of these emotional habits from my head and heart. Facing my deepest fears this year, against my will, was my personal Eustace-the-dragon moment. I couldn’t pick off scabs of codependency thoroughly, because I was afraid of how much it would hurt, and when my ex ripped himself out of my life in a matter of days, I was suddenly on the other side and codependency (what little was left after trying hard to unlearn it for two years) wasn’t something I could wean myself away from anymore. I had to quit, cold turkey.

And then I realized something. Yes, I loved him. Had been in love, still am working out the fact that you never really stop loving someone even after it’s over, and it was real, for me at least. But it was also childish in a lot of ways, and there were things that I had grown accustomed to about our relationship that were cramping me in unhealthy ways. Not in the sense of “he cramps my style,” because he didn’t. But there were things about who I am that literally had no place in our relationship. Things that defined me for ages before I met him, things that were always going to be part of me, but things I neglected to “fit” him better. I don’t mean this in a cheesy-finding-myself-better-off-without-him way at all.

What I mean is: I wasn’t done growing up when I met him, and started dating him, and did the Hard Thing and Made Things Work and sacrificed a ton to be there for him and be the right sort of girl for him. Initially this was smothering, and we talked it out and I learned how to not trip-fall-run all over myself to bring all these subservient and codependent emotional habits I thought were good things that would make him feel loved and make us closer. Our relationship had some really good times, and the best of these were when I was taking care of myself, not trying too hard to be there and be everything he needed, and when we treated each other like equals, with respect. When our relationship was at it’s healthiest, there was no sense of possession/possessing/being possessed by the other. There was give and take, but we were most whole and united because we were individuals being open with each other, as individuals. Without being afraid of loss of companionship or love, or autonomy and personal voice. But the thing is, it never lasted. It wasn’t safe like that most of the time, for either of us, for lots and lots of complex reasons.

And so, I see in my own story, that sweet teenage, godly girl bragging on her first boyfriend, “he’s so good to me! he got me this thing I needed when I had a rough day!” and I hear that young Christian guy talking about how wonderful his sweetheart is in all the right ways and how he never wants to lose her, and I feel sad. What if their story is like mine? What if they’re afraid of getting it wrong, so they force the first one to be the right one? What if they settle for someone who’s good, because they don’t know what they’re missing because they’re afraid to lose what they have?

This agonizing existential question is what my ex chased after, leaving me behind. It’s a real question, and it’s worth asking. But being afraid to ask it when you’re dating, when you’re engaged, when you’re so infatuated with the newness of everything sexual–this is the coward’s path. You feel the stakes are so high because they are emotionally so high.

But the mean little secret is: breakups suck, but you’ll live and it gets better. Being afraid of these questions isn’t worth stuffing them deep down in the back of your internal emotional landscape until they become so pressingly real and you can’t ignore them anymore, but you’re married and it’s too late.

Ask the hard questions. Do the harder thing. Don’t force it to work; face your fears instead. Don’t keep dating her because she’s a godly Christian girl and fits the list. Don’t say yes to him because he’s good enough and you don’t have any other options.

Being single isn’t that awful of a fate. Being married isn’t a heaven that will erase all your tensions and private lonelinesses.

[and please, if you’re single and lonely and reading this, don’t take this too much to heart. you’re held in Love’s arms. don’t tell me i wouldn’t say this if i knew how lonely it is to be single and face those hard things on your own. i know. we’ll be okay.]

 

 

 


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 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.


My purpose with almost everything I write here is to communicate two things: 1) you are not alone and shame is not from Jesus, and 2) it is possible to develop an authentic theology of the body and live as an embodied sexual being and experience both healthy boundaries and real grace.

These two things have never been more true than for this post.

Please be gentle with me and with each other as we discuss this.

To begin, I’d like to tell you a story.

***

I didn’t have much of a sense of shame or self-awareness when I was young. I happily shed my clothes to play in the sprinklers in the front yard, and scandalized the neighbors (I was banned from playing with several neighbor kids because going nekkid in the sprinklers at 5 years old on a hot California afternoon in July was being a “bad influence”). I finger painted in my panties in our backyard at six, proudly drawing a red H on my chest and prancing around with it to show my parents. I skinny dipped in my best friend’s backyard pool with no thought that anyone wouldn’t do such a thing if given the chance.

I chatted up strangers at the grocery store and asked impertinent questions like “when are you going to have a baby? why is your skin brown? how old are you? do you know Jesus? do you like being fat?”

My mom used to say that God had given a child like me to introvert parents “to stretch us out of our comfort zone.”

And one summer evening, when I was 7 or 8, it was one of those evenings where the light fades late in the day and small children are restless in bed because they can still hear friends playing out in the street and the blinds are still glowing with sunset light. And as I was trying so very hard to be obedient and stay in bed and be quiet and fall asleep, I discovered a secret.

A few weeks later, my mom checked in with me and discovered me touching myself and we had a talk about it. “It helps me fall asleep quickly, Mom!” I explained.

“Well, it’s not really a good habit to get into,” she said. “Try to sleep with your hands away from your private parts.”

So I complied. Or tried to.

I was hooked. It felt amazing. But I managed to refrain more often that not, and kept it from becoming a habit.

Until I was 15 and more stressed than I had ever been before, with so much constant chaos at home, little privacy, regular demands on my time to babysit and help the family, lots of pressure to keep up in school (I was falling behind due to the chaos of toddler twin brothers and another infant in the house). And I was increasingly isolated from my peers as more and more of the things they became involved with were Things Our Family Doesn’t Do (movies, NCFCA debate, ballroom dance club, teen “care group” at church, top 40 radio, pop concerts, etc.). On top of all that, I found myself no longer getting along well with my roommate sister, and the constant tension between us over how to decorate our 10′ x 10′ bedroom, when lights-out should be, who could play music when, etc., sucked us both dry emotionally.

And so, to relieve the stress and distract my affection-starved self, I became addicted to sneaking romance novels from the library and reading them behind my school books. But after a while, I became fed up with the clichés and stock characters, and replaced this with a habit of masturbating when I was stressed and overwhelmed.

Dear reader, I didn’t realize that I was doing it to relieve stress, but looking back on how incredibly tense those three years were, I see it all now: that was my primary outlet and it was because I craved  affirmation, connection, unconditional love, and I wasn’t getting it at home and I couldn’t get it elsewhere AND. and. I was 15 and newly horny as hell. I thought instead that I was horribly perverted and a vile, filthy sinner.

I have the pain-laced journal entries from those three years to prove it. Usually confessory, they read something like this (spaced out at about two of these entries per week):

1) Frustration over some conflict with family member (during which description I beat myself up for being bothered by these things at all and ask God to make me more loving, loyal, content, peaceful).

2) Grief and appalled shame that I masturbated AGAIN.

3) Thanking God for being good to me even if I’m such a horrible worm and detestable in his eyes (cue long dramatic description akin to that found in Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”).

What happened, between the mild conversation with my mother (who, to her credit, never ever told me that masturbation was a sin or that my sex drive was wrong or shameful) when I was 8 and this perpetual emotional self-flagellation for my wickedness?

A couple of things happened: first, I got caught up in a church culture where shame and self-loathing were used by authority figures to prey on the insecurities of their congregants for the purposes of social control. Second, I became displaced when we moved from California and lost a lot of my self-confidence when I was introduced to Southern social expectations and felt the pressure to conform to [what seemed to me] bizarre standards of dignity and politeness. Suddenly I was immersed in a culture where sinner, sinner, sinner was emphasized spiritually, and girls were expected to be ethereal, saintly, soft-spoken, and elevated above the physical.

Happy little dirt-and-trees-and-creeks-and-loud-laughter-and-louder-ideas me was totally lost, and I was overeager to perform well and please everyone. But I had this secret.

And so I was caught in an overpowering sense of fear, shame, and guilt. I was the messed up one, the girl who wished she could attend the men’s retreat session on lust and pornography. The girl who was afraid to date someone because what might happen if I “woke love” and my desires increased more than they are now?! I was embarrassed because I liked my body, and all my friends hated theirs and dieted and binged and cut and hid theirs under frumpy clothes. I did, too, for fear of boys looking at me, but secretly I dreamed that someone might notice me beyond my frumpy clothes and see that I could pretty and desirable if I got a chance to try being so. And they all chattered on about what the most romantic proposal might be and who’d end up having the first baby, while I wondered what it might be like to be kissed and wondered if I was the only one among us who felt this way.

The rest of the story goes like an American rags-to-riches story, where I steeled myself with the power of shame and I fought hard and worked harder at school and chores and keeping busy, and I read myself to sleep at night and eventually broke the habit. I was free.

And I swore to myself that I would never tell anyone. Not even my husband. Because it was too dark and shameful and no one could ever know that I was that sort of person. 

***

Here’s the thing, though. That wasn’t a victory.

I killed a habit. But I sold my soul to shame in order to do it.

And the problem wasn’t whether masturbating was right or wrong. The problem was that I was using it to cope with stress. I sought out the cathartic high instead of facing the real issues I was living with — loneliness, anxiety, fear, anger. It could have been any number of things — I could have discovered cutting, I could have developed an unhealthy relationship with food, or become obsessed with working out or studying. But instead I developed an imbalanced, unhealthy relationship to my sexuality.

But like any “addict,” I supplanted one addiction for another to overcome the initial habit: I replaced masturbating with emotional self-flagellation.

And I never addressed the most fundamental missing puzzle piece to this whole thing: I never bothered to pair up a grace-centered understanding of myself as BOTH a child of God and a sexual being.

Stopping the “addiction” didn’t fix what was broken.

***

I’ve been thrilled to see so many wonderful faithful saints raising their voices to challenge the shame-centered Church teachings on virginity. This is a start to healing in the church that has long been needed.

Here’s my bone to pick with the Church on this: we can’t possibly create healthy marriages and a healthy theology of the body (and ourselves as sexual beings) if we assume that men are the only ones with sex drives, the only ones tempted to seek out titillation, the only ones prone to thinking with their genitals.

I’m sorry. That’s bullshit. My vagina likes to try to make my decisions for me, too.

Men are no more rapists in their natural state than I am asexual in my natural state.

These caricatures deny us both our humanity and a chance at a decent conversation about our sexuality and bodies and God’s intent for these beautiful, mysterious, pleasurable, soul-touching things we’re capable of creating when joined together in the fullness of human connection.

Limiting the conversation to “guard your heart” and “porn is wrong” and “don’t have sex, you’ll be damaged goods” is cheating ourselves out of mature discussions about why these things work the way they do, why our bodies are important, why emotions are beautiful and powerful and dangerously good, and traps us in a black-and-white world where we can only think with childish terms of understanding and control the deeper, more mature intuitions of our emotions and bodies with the blunt tool of fear and shame.

Shame as a tool for control creates perversions and nullifies grace. It does things like: twisting developing sexual habits so that some of my peers can only get off when they feel shame or pain; preventing virgin newlyweds from having happy and safe honeymoon sex because they’re unlearning years and years of fear-based self-control; letting married women think that sex should/can only be on their husbands’ terms of use/desire (e.g., she should only be turned on by what turns him on because they’re soul mates/made for each other/designed for each other); keeping married couples from communicating about what they like/don’t like in the bedroom, because of unspoken expectations about How Sex Is Done; etc., etc.

I’ve known people who got married and couldn’t have sex without having panic attacks, throwing up/feeling nauseous, tensing up and being unable to follow through with penetration (both him and her), feeling dirty and ashamed for desiring one’s spouse, for asking for any sexual favor from one’s spouse, and the list goes on. This is directly caused by the Church (okay, fine, the evangelical church) abdicating from a nuanced, mature, intellectual discussion of a Christian understanding of sex and the body jointly. These two things should never be discussed in isolation from each other.

I am not just a soul. I am an embodied being and my body is who I am just as much as my soul is. God made me this way and called it good. And part of this existence is that he made me a woman and he gave me a healthy sex drive and my body is good and I like sex.

And sex is spiritual AND physical, intimate and natural, meaningful and a bodily function. All together. At once.

Masturbation is natural and not necessarily sinful on its own. But objectifying human beings for sexual pleasure is wrong just as it’s wrong to be addicted to anything. Both choices are compromising to the soul.

But the worst is shame. An appropriate grief for sin is right and good. But dwelling on your sin and obsessing to the point of self-loathing? Jesus never taught that.

Perfect love casts out fear. Living life with delight in Jesus and in the grace found in relationship with him sets us free from fear, from shame, from being chained to shame or lust or arrogant self-righteousness.

Instead we receive each day with the promise of wholeness through identifying ourselves with Jesus and living without fear.

Dear friends. You are not alone.

Don’t be afraid.


I didn’t expect to write two angry-at-abusive-mindset posts back to back, but here I am. This needs to be said.

Christians take romantic relationships too seriously.

Not even just courtship-only Christians, or virgins-until-wedding-night Christians. Pretty much any sincere Christian who wants to serve God and honor him with how they handle a romantic relationship is going to be prone to this obsession with doing things right.

Let me back up.

Now, first: I have no regrets with how my life so far has turned out. It’s mine, it’s beautiful, it’s messy, it’s hard, but I have been a survivor and I have grown through hardship and become more me, more whole.

But. I feel that I was told some things which are common assumptions for most Christians, and I now think that these are unnecessary and harmful. So I’m going to name them.

1) Christians are given special knowledge about God’s will for their lives because they can have a relationship with God, so they should to get things right in romantic relationships because otherwise they’ll be a bad witness for the gospel. Subtext: the world is screwy and doesn’t get sex or love right because they don’t know Jesus, but we can because we do know Jesus. Sub-subtext: it’s us vs. The World.

2) Christians don’t need to fool around because they believe sex outside of marriage is wrong, and they should be able to get things right in relationships because they have Jesus, so it should be possible to find your mate quickly/early on without dating around a lot. This will show the world how we get it right and make them curious about Jesus because we’re different, and getting married at 22 instead of 28.

3) If assumptions #1 and #2 are true, a Christian couple can actually manage to be virgins on their wedding night, so all Christians really need to try to live up to this standard. There’s no good reason not to achieve this. If you don’t, your faith is probably weak and you’re a bad witness.

4) We have to submit to our authority structures in the family and in the church to be accountable in our relationships. Unbelievers don’t believe in God so they don’t have any respect for authority or accountability or consequences, so they’re more likely to sin sexually in a romantic relationship or just do what feels good instead of being responsible, committed, or mature. Christians know we are sinful and our hearts may want to be just like the unbelievers, so we need to be transparent to authority and have our fathers, mentors, and pastors help and guide us and let us know where we’re in sin, being lazy, or hurting our significant other in how we act in our relationships.

5) You may not end up with the one you’re with, so don’t do anything that would be committing emotional or physical infidelity. If your desires are uncontrollable, you probably need to marry the person you’re with, because it’s [somehow] less of a serious sin if you end up getting married.

6) Dating early (15-17) is okay as long as you are serious and committed to “honoring God” with your relationship and have older, wiser people involved.

7) Christians can have better marriages than unbelievers even if certain things in a relationship are harmful or immature, because knowing and practicing biblical gender roles and committing to your marriage vows will honor God’s plan for your life and he’ll give you extra grace for keeping your promises when it’s hard.

I saw a lot of people acting on these assumptions inside the Christian bubble, courtship-minded and not, complementarians and egalitarians, homeschoolers and mainstream Christians. The folks at my Christian college seemed to all be in a rush to be paired off at the end of senior year and married by the end of the summer after graduation. The folks in my homeschooling community back home similarly pressured themselves to pair off and get married and have babies — it was as if they felt like real adult life couldn’t commence if they weren’t settled down and married. Most of them would never dream of living on their own (away from their family of origin) unless it was to get married. [That’s an extreme that’s less common, but you get the point — real life starts when you’re married.]

Even my husband and I rushed to get married because we were trying to sate the intense pressure we felt from my dad and others to “get it right” — and for whatever reason it wasn’t seen as a good option to break up or take more time to be sure that we were sure, or that we were mature enough, or had done all the single-life things we wanted to do before getting married. My dad certainly pressured us to find those things out, but it was because marriage was seen as the endgame, not because it would make us better individuals.

I have a few thoughts on how to why these assumptions are harmful and how we can improve the way Christians approach dating/romance, but I’m just getting the conversation going, really.

Dating doesn’t have to be huge, serious, or marriage-focused. Maybe it can just be getting to know people and yourself. Maybe it can just be enjoying a person for who they are, and maybe the romance can just naturally flow from that sweet spot where connection and friendship meet. Maybe taking all those crappy purity metaphors too literally restricts us and makes us more naive and vulnerable to abusive situations than we should be. It undermines healthy emotional development and a right sense of boundaries to commit yourself to this complicated, authority-and-shame driven path where it’s easier to “mess up” than it is to enjoy a person and learn from your relationship with them, and then either move on, or continue to grow in trust and intimacy in a wholesome manner.

And dating relationships should never, ever be focused on proving a point about Christianity “getting it right” or some other bizarre evangelism-by-example tool. That goes against the truth of grace and the power of the incarnation. Relationships are human. We’re going to do some things right and we’re going to hurt each other. Jesus became human, not to show us how to do it right, but to meet us where we’re at and free us from shame.

Let’s talk about this. What do you think? How can Christians avoid making the subject of relationships and romance a legalistic fear fest? How can we practice healthy boundaries and emotional growth in romance? And can we please, please talk about how a right theology of the body would improve everything about Christian dating assumptions?


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.