This is a less documented, more anecdotal post, as a result of my discovery a few days ago that all my books on this subject are in storage. I think I did that deliberately because I was tired of reading things that made me angry. So, this post won’t have a ton of sources, but if you want clarification on anything, I can probably point you to a book or essay explaining it in more depth.

***

I was 15 and that afternoon I was at the local swimming pool with my family. I was wearing a new-to-me swimsuit in an outdated shade of orange, but it was a “modest” one-piece and it fit my angular body well. While Mom was getting the littles slathered up in sunscreen, I stepped out of my shorts and flip flops, and tossed them onto the lounge next to my t-shirt. While I looked around the pool for friends, I untwisted my knot of hair from its ponytail holder and shook it all out in the breeze. Spotting my friends, I started toward them, but then mom called my name. “Hännah! Come here!”

She was beckoning me with a very serious look on her face. I walked toward her, and bent down. “Hm?”

She whispered, “Put your hair back up. You look…” She frowned, looking for the words. “You look too pretty. The young men will notice.”

I was confused. “What?”

“Put your hair back up. It’s long and catching the sun, and that swimsuit is…very striking. It’s too much. Put your hair back up.”

“Okay, okay. I will,” I said, walking away. I took my time with obeying her, dipping my head down and away from the people nearby, letting my hair flop across my face to hide my tears. I didn’t understand, and my stomach felt tight and my face hot. Once my hair was up, I plunged into the diving well, kicking down to sit on the bottom as long as I could before rising to the surface in a burst of cathartic energy.

I spent the rest of the afternoon away from my friends, reading a book by the poolside, wrapped in a damp towel and wearing my hair pulled back tightly. I didn’t want to be noticed.

Modest me shortly after the pool incident.

***

The current church’s concept of modesty is largely reactionary and fear-based.

But I didn’t realize that for a long time after the poolside incident. It was just one of many moments where I was “called out” on some impropriety (sitting cross legged, wearing a blouse with a too-thin back, bra straps peekabooing, twirling without shorts under my skirt at swing club, peekaboo gaps between buttons on a blouse, etc.) or told another girl that she was being immodest and to cover her neckline when she bent down.

In our SGM church, we were taught that modesty was a way we helped men not to lust. In youth group, we had breakout sessions, where the girls sat in one room and listened to talks about not reading romance novels (they make you think impure thoughts and desire a relationship too early!) and about how our responsibility was to not cause the guys to lust. Therefore, we were taught how to be modest.  We were taught that “correcting” each other was the highest form of Christian love, and so if we saw someone being immodest, we should speak to her about our “concern” and help her see how she was hurting the guys by her dress. And if a guy was “struggling”  because of a girl’s outfit, he could talk to her and ask her to cover up. (Meanwhile, the guys were in the next room listening to a talk about the sinfulness of pornography and masturbation.)

We got really good at this. We had the checklist posted up on our bathroom mirrors. We talked in code to each other if we spotted an infraction when we were around boys. We learned to sew well enough to modesty-hack new clothes so they would be “appropriate.” We dressed up in new shopping finds and paraded them for our fathers, asking him to make sure they weren’t inappropriate. If he said something didn’t make the cut, we’d return it and start over. This was “biblical femininity” in action.

Once I was conscious of the male gaze, I was a slave to avoiding it. I became obsessed with obeying the rules as dutifully as I could. I avoided talking with boys—it might be seen as flirting. I avoided looking too stylish or doing my hair and makeup with too much care, because I didn’t want to be dressing for attention. I wore shorts and a t-shirt over my swimsuits or avoided the pool altogether, claiming that I didn’t want to get a bad sunburn. I became a watchdog for my sisters, smugly tattling on them to our dad if I caught them dressing in a way I deemed immodest. I judged my friends for enjoying time hanging out with guys in a group, thinking that this was a perverse desire for male attention.

The effects of this mindset on others (not just in my church, but in the QF/CP movement as a whole) were more personally damaging than my priggishness, but perhaps less obvious. My sister judged classic art for the nudes, “fixing” them with a permanent marker in a textbook. Friends fell into eating disorders, hoping to be less seductive if they were thinner and had less boobs to notice. Some hated themselves for their developing bodies and instead ate too much, silencing their self-consciousness with comfort food. Some took razors to their bodies in secret. Some toed the line, but just barely, attempting to get away with whatever they could without getting “called out” by someone.

This was essentially an assumption that lust is damning, women are both the objects and the cause of lust, and so we were responsible to prevent it. This, I believed, was gospel truth straight from the Bible.

Of course, women were never mentioned as having lust problems. We might have emotional fantasies and imaginary romances, but lust was a male issue. This drove me to loneliness and horrific shame, as I was a teenager with a normal, healthy sex drive. I was horny and I was mortified; this wasn’t supposed to be my problem. The church would announce a men’s meeting to talk about fighting lust and accountability for not using porn, and I would shrivel up, wishing that my secret wasn’t a secret, and that maybe there would be a women’s meeting, too. Or that I could “serve” at the men’s event and eavesdrop, and there learn the secrets for freeing myself from myself.

Later I would learn that I was 1) pretty normal, 2) not “addicted” or damned, 3) loved unconditionally by my husband and by Jesus. The bondage I had been in wasn’t as real as I thought—the mindset I had about lust and modesty fed my obsession and my shame, and once freed from the whole set of lies, I would discover that this was just a minor difficulty, not a paralyzing sin issue.

For the guys growing up in this environment of modesty culture, there was (as I have since learned from my husband, who grew up in a church affiliated with mine) a similar sense of being paralyzed by lust and shame. It was so assumed that he would lust after women that he never questioned it when accountability groups would meet and the guys would almost exclusively talk about their struggles with lust. It was as if they were powerless, animalistic and perpetually obsessed with sex. This is a caricature in Hollywood and the über conservative church—but this is not your average man.

Kevin told me that once he left SGM and he’d been out of the dialect and culture for a while, he found that he wasn’t struggling with lust like he used to–the idea of a woman’s body alone wasn’t a turn-on anymore. He found that his desires naturally were directed at a few specific things and toward whoever he was in a relationship with, and that he could appreciate a woman’s beauty and form without lust. He was no longer being told he was a slave to these things and asked to confess and obsess on them, and when he left that environment he was freed from the mentality it fostered.

As I spent time out of this culture, I found changes as well. I learned that being pretty and enjoying making myself look good weren’t sinful things, and I began to relax a bit. After being married, I have discovered that the idea that modesty is a woman’s responsibility is a very demeaning concept, and really doesn’t share anything in common with the teachings of Jesus, who held individuals responsible for their own sins, and gave grace to the naive and broken and penitent. He never said that women caused lust. Instead, he argued that lust reflects preexisting heart desires. And instead of demeaning women like the culture of his day, he respected them and made them his disciples and close friends, and the first witnesses to his resurrection.

I now realize that most of the assumptions I previously held were false, even anti-Christian:

The assumption that preventing lust is my job is wrong: only the one lusting is responsible for his or her heart. 

The assumption that modesty will prevent lust is false: lust wants what it wants and will see it where it wants.

The assumption that men are ravenous, sex-crazed beings, trapped by their passions: false. Men desire companionship and affirmation and sex and love, just like women. Women experience lust and sexual urges and visual stimulation. These things vary from person to person, but not so much gender to gender. There is great compassion in Jesus for our humanity. 

The Bible verses on modesty we all used as proof texts for the misconceptions and legalism we held so dear? These were largely about compassion for others and humility. True modest is not drawing undue attention to yourself. We wear what fits the occasion and is respectable. Finding the line of what’s appropriate and reverent: this is modesty. It’s a heart attitude, not a set of rules defined by gender stereotypes.

I have learned that my shame over my body was wrong. My body is hallowed because Jesus took on a body. My body is beautiful in the echo of creation and redemption perfection. My body is human and flawed and funky in my fallenness. But I am not to be ashamed of how I was made or loathe myself for it, and I am not guilty for the sins of others who may happen to lust after it. I can dress without fear, because I am not responsible for the worst possible outcome. I am responsible for doing well and living in a manner that reflects the grace I know in Jesus’ unconditional love.

Overcoming lust doesn’t happen by working harder. I tried. Overcoming lust happens by loving Jesus more than loving self-service. Shame over past lust and past sins is inappropriate–grace is active in the lives of the saints, and we are conformed to holiness by Jesus’ love. Not by working hard because we think that’s a what good Christians are supposed to do. We are transformed by taking each day on its own and not being anxious over transgressions that have already been cast away. Perfect love casts out fear.


Coming out of a spiritually abusive situation is incredibly difficult.

The first and biggest step  is seeing the abuse for what it is and allowing yourself name it. Saying, “this isn’t normal; this shouldn’t be this way,” is the watershed moment which allows you to begin see what’s wrong and why.

After my moment, I needed about four years to process it all. And I didn’t realize the effects of it at once – my understanding of the severity of my situation deepened as various life experiences uncovered it more and more.

When I started dating my husband.
When I saw how the courtship model was hurting my friends.
When I saw God at work in churches outside of our church group.
When I went to England with a group of friends and an Anglican priest, who heard my story and exclaimed, “What! That’s so messed up. That’s not normal.”

Emo shot from said England trip. If I was cool, this would be on Instagram.

Emo shot from said England trip. If I was cool, this would be on Instagram.

This affirmation of my experience, of my observations, was the validation I craved. I needed to know I wasn’t crazy, that I wasn’t dishonoring God by thinking these things, and that the situation I had found myself in was indeed unreasonable. Talking with others coming out of Quiverfull or Christian Patriarchy communities, I’m struck by how much we all need to be told this. We’re not crazy, this is not normal or healthy, and Jesus has more for us than this.

After these things began to unravel for me, I hit a wall with reading my Bible. I couldn’t do it. I was a college sophomore, double majoring in English and “Christian Thought” (theology), and my understanding of how to read was being gutted and scrubbed. I found myself discovering that the meditational,  charismatic methods of interacting with scripture I had grown up with were emotion-driven and tended to make me the center of my study, bastardizing any good-feeling scripture passage to soothe my emotions.

And then I realized that my entire relationship to my faith was centered around a daily feeling of the Word, not a real relationship with God or an understanding of Jesus. With my emotional presets on “GUILT,” I flailed and floundered, distressed that I didn’t know how to read my Bible, agonizing over why I didn’t feel like it anymore.

***

It’s been about four years since I found myself dead to scripture in my daily devotions. Since I stopped reading because I began to hear in my head the voice of the pastor whose teachings so damaged my family every time I opened an ESV. Since my devotions stopped being habitual (for the first time since middle school) and occurred only out of emotional desperation.

It’s hard admitting that. In the circles I grew up in, it was hard to look someone in the eye and confess that I hadn’t read my Bible in a week. To say that I haven’t seriously read my Bible on a daily basis in four years is to have to fight condemnation. I am not a “bad Christian.” I am not a “backslider.” I am not “abandoning my faith.” But believing these truths is hard when I think about the number, the days it represents.

But healing takes time. It’s so slow, and we’re so busy, and the Spirit works at a pace we can stand to bear. I have desperately needed this break. I needed the time to detox, to stop hearing other people’s voices, to find myself craving God’s presence once again, and not being afraid of how I should read his Word.

Just last year, I realized that reading Eugene Peterson’s The Message didn’t set me off. So I savored that as I could. This year, I’m excited to find that the NIV version doesn’t make me feel like that pastor is reading his opinions to me through a proof-text passage. It’s safe. I can read it and think on it with integrity, and not be afraid. As a result, I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve actually wanted to read it on almost a weekly basis.

“Baby steps, baby steps.”

It’s a slow process. I’m on the mend. Other things suggest this, too. I find myself using words like thankful and grace again, without grimacing and deleting them to rephrase my sentence without religious jargon.

***

If you’re recovering from spiritual abuse, be patient with yourself. Don’t let the emotional habit of guilt drive you into a premature fix.

The best advice I got last year was from that same Anglican priest. “Follow the pain,” he said. And I was uncomfortable with that, because, really, who wants to do that? But giving myself the time to journal, to talk through, and to ponder the pain I was feeling allowed me the space to begin to heal for the first time.

We are so often rushed, so hurried to be the next iteration of our future selves, to improve, to expedite, to control. Be patient with yourself. Healing takes time.


Click for source.

I’d like to start a regular feature here about the concept of gender roles within the church, and how they affect us, why they affect us, and how they ought to affect us. I intend for this to be primarily a discussion, and I ask that you engage these posts by first laying down your assumptions. Please be willing to read these posts on their own terms, and then compare them with what you believe after you read them. I would also love to get topic suggestions and questions from my readers to address in future posts.

I’ve had this idea for over a year. It’s been kicked around with my sister, with my husband, with my friends, all in various shapes. I’ve sat on it so long for fear of losing my passion for it, for fear of processing it for myself and finding my need to write about this wane as I grow firm in my beliefs and move on. And for fear of how it will be received.

But I haven’t been able to move on, to burn off my passion with a few months of talking in private. Instead, the number of conversations I’ve had with people about these issues has grown steadily. I’ve become aware of a deep communal need to sort this out in my generation of Christians – those largely raised in the church and coming into adulthood with a unique mixture of earnestness and cynicism. I’m not alone in needing to talk about this, and I’d like to open it up on my blog to enable other Christians to discuss it as much as they need.

Before I continue, I must lay down a clarification of purpose. This blog happens to be written by a woman, but it is not a women’s blog. I’m writing for Christians, in general. I find that the young men of my generation are often just as perplexed and discouraged by these issues as the women are, and need to discuss these things equally.

I’ll get things going with the first real post for this feature later on in the week; in the meantime, I should clarify my personal biases.

***

Most of you know I was raised in a fairly patriarchal homeschooling family, and there were a lot of positives as well as negatives from that experience. I was also part of a cult-like church which emphasized strongly that a woman’s highest calling [read: any other life pursuit is looked down on] was to be a wife and mother and make a home for her family. I was the only one of my graduating peers in that church who went out of state for college, and I was one of the few girls of that group to say that I wanted a career and I wasn’t sure if I’d be a great mom one day. (I’m sure the reality was much, much more diverse than this, but it was my perception of things at the time and it reflects, I suppose, the intense loneliness I felt in that group.) I was also one of the few girls interested in questions of theology and doctrine, and often resented that I was a girl and therefore couldn’t go to seminary.

These experiences, among other things, created in me a sensitivity to gender expectations within the church. This sensitivity was jolted into personal frustration when when my dad pressured me to submit to his discernment on (read: his feelings on and the resulting decisions regarding) my relationship with my boyfriend, now husband. I pushed back against this, asking him why, if he could trust that God was speaking to and leading me to change churches, couldn’t he also trust my discernment in regard to my boyfriend’s character? The response I got was based on the assumption that daughters are to submit to the authority of their fathers until they are wed (at which point, I was told, the authority would transfer from the father to the husband).

I couldn’t believe it. My dad never meant to treat me badly, but the assumptions he was acting under were based on the teachings of the church we were part of for my teen years, and that church had been a place that (for us) fostered serious spiritual abuse. Challenging his assumptions brought our conflict to these terms: I had to prove (using verses from the Bible) that my beliefs regarding my spiritual independence from my dad’s authority was biblical, and then he would be willing to agree to disagree. This is very typical of us – our relationship has always been based in mutual respect for the other’s intellectual integrity, and still is. So, I took him up on his terms. I pulled out the concordance and the Greek lexicon and I drafted 5 sloppy pages on why I thought his interpretation of various verses, especially the NASB translation of 1 Cor. 7:36-38, wasn’t accurate, and responded with my own set of verses and commentaries to justify my spiritual emancipation from him. [As an aside, I have come to the conclusion that these sorts of hunt-and-peck use of verses as proof texts for this and that grey area issue is an abuse of scripture. The purpose of the Bible is not to give us detailed instructions on moral living, but to display the character of God and our relationship to him.]

This was a highly painful season for us. He felt rejected, I believe (which was never my intent), and I felt manipulated and unloved (but he never meant it this way). It was painful and stressful and I probably misremember t0 my own benefit.

This interaction brought to my attention, once again, the reality: in the church circles I was raised in, women are expected to defer to men, and there are significant social and relational consequences if they don’t.

Finally, two other things occurred to push me over the edge into “accidental feminism” or, really, a state of heightened awareness of the church’s messy relationship to gender issues:

First, I was attending a little Presbyterian church for a while during college, and one Sunday they were short on ushers. I heard about this and offered to help for the service.  The ushers functioned as the greeters, the distributors of the offering plates, and they also passed out the bread and wine during communion, row by row to the congregation. I was told that they’d rather go without than have me help–I was female and they didn’t want a woman distributing the elements. I was shocked. I wouldn’t be preaching; I wouldn’t be sanctifying the sacraments; I would just be handing a basket of wafers down the row, then a tray with little juice cups. But because I have a vagina, I wasn’t allowed to help.

The second thing was this: I was fighting with spiritual dryness and decided to sit down to reread the gospel and epistles from the apostle John, in an attempt to see Jesus at his most relational. Reading through these books took a lot longer than I anticipated. I was stunned by my reintroduction to this Jesus. Coming to these passages deeply empty and under significant emotional distress about the situation with my dad allowed me to come to these pages with new eyes. And I realized: Jesus loved women. Jesus didn’t treat them like the rest of society did at that time. He took them seriously, he interacted with them without shame or superiority, and he made them significant members of his entourage, and the first witnesses of his resurrection. I saw that the way Jesus treated the opposite sex was nothing like how the church was dealing with gender issues, and certainly nothing like what I was experiencing from the church as a woman. Furthermore, the Jesus of the Bible didn’t really line up very well with the ideals for “masculine Christianity” as posited by the likes of Mark Driscoll, Stephen Altrogge, Douglas Wilson, or John Piper. And then I knew that, if the church is to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world, these things would have to change.

So this English major (who was also in the middle of an honors seminar love affair with Jacques Derrida), began to reconsider all her assumptions about what the church had taught her about sexuality and gender, and revisit all the proof texts for these issues with fresh curiosity for context, audience, linguistic implications, authorial intent, etc.

Now, I’d like to take this personal study of mine public, and explore individual issues relating to the Bible, gender, and the church along with you.

***

A word of clarification regarding the title (with thanks to David for coining it!): this snarky turn of phrase refers to the modesty panel/modesty rail in the front of the first pew in most old-style churches. This panel derived from times when churches weren’t heated and parishioners needed the paneling to contain heat in the winter, but evolved into what it is today because of shrinking skirt lengths and concerns about peeping toms in the choir. Or something like that. I’m a born-and-raised Christian kid. This is my front-row perspective and I’ve decided to stop holding back on what I see.

I chose “immodesty” because I am deliberately drawing attention to grey area issues in the church, insignificant compared with the gospel and the creeds, but pertinent to most people and frequently ignored by the privileged. Immodesty, as my dad says (quite well, I think), is “drawing undue attention to oneself.” In homage to With apologies to Flannery O’Connor, I hope to draw “large pictures” for the blind that they might see what is before them – both the positive and the negative. I will draw magnified attention to these issues for the sake of those working through them, and for the sake of those who don’t yet realize that these issues are worth consideration. Furthermore, I think it’s funny that one’s awareness about this issue often starts with questioning traditional modesty teachings.

I also chose the word “rail” with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor: women with controversial or non-conformist opinions are often accused of being “shrill” or “emotional.” A shrill tirade used to be synonymous with “railing” at someone, and while I intend to be reasonable and calm, I am sure that my discussions will be called rants. So I’ll just take the liberty of truncating that: here I will reasonably “rail” about issues pertaining to gender in the church, and I might get a bit exaggerated with it to make a point. So gird up your loins! We’re going to start with the topic of modesty and lust later this week. Okay, I’m done with the cutesy puns.

Do you have ideas for topics to discuss on Immodesty Rail? Email me at mattiechatham [at] gmail [dot] com.


This week has been so busy. We’re getting ready to head to Maine for a week of vacation with family, and then celebrate the wedding of my dear friend and former college roommate, Anna. (Go read her happy post about it — she and Tim got set up by their parents and the story is pretty adorable.) It’s going to be lovely. I’m hoping to schedule some posts so there’s not complete silence over here next week, but if there is, I don’t apologize. You’ll benefit later.

I’m working on some upcoming posts and new features, but for now I’ll leave you with a list to some posts I read this week and found to be thoughtfully chewy or just plain good. Some of you have probably read these already from my Facebook. Either way, I’d love to hear your reactions to any of these in the comments!

Family First Is Not A Biblical Viewpoint” — A little article which addresses making an idol out of your family and mistaking loyalty to family as a higher value than faithfulness to God’s calling for your life. As the daughter of a family-first Quiverfull family, I found this directly addressed issues I felt unduly guilty about. I love my family dearly. But my loyalty to Jesus comes first.

An Honest Pregnancy Update” — This is a bit of honesty from Nish of Nish Happens. Pregnancy is not always hearts and roses and farting cute rainbows. This post is good to read.

Oh My My My: Part 12” — Wedding photography superstar “I’m Kristen” writes the best part [so far] of her newlywed love story. Okay, I don’t get sappy over love stories (yeah, sorry). But this? This? Caleb’s letter (in which he describes leaving legalism for real grace in a relationship) made me teary.

Welcome to Motherhood” (series) — Joy writes about the birth of her first daughter in a mini-series this week, with two posts daily. This is a really wonderfully-told story of a newlywed couple coming to grips with God and their newborn daughter’s birth defects.

The Day I Destroyed My Diet Pills” — If you don’t read only one post on this list, read this one. Tamára tells about the day her littler daughter called herself “chubby,” and she realized the massive importance of passing on a healthy body image. So much honest grace in this little post!

Why I Don’t Like The Church” — Jessica Bowman posts (just before visiting yet another church, to try it again) about her struggles with the modern evangelical-type church. I relate to this post way too much. These issues are part of what drove me away from the non-denominational churches of my childhood to find something more staid and established.

Why I’ll Eat Anything You Serve Me” — This post on “Becoming Peculiar” follows up nicely with my series on food. Kathleen explains why, despite her own strict dietary restrictions at home (for various reasons), she puts community and fellowship first and eats anything served to her when she eats away from her own kitchen. This is beautiful.

Complementarianism’s ugly relationship with rape” — One of my long-standing issues with complementarianism is the logical loophole allowing for marital rape. A little provocative, but worth reading soberly, without jumping to defensiveness.

Esther Actually: Vashti, the Other Queen” — Rachel Held Evans outdid herself here. I’m probably getting to be obnoxious about how much I openly love this blog (and RHE’s memoir, Evolving In Monkeytown). But this post. THIS post. RHE is responding to Mark Driscoll’s rather perverse assumption that Esther is a godless book featuring Esther’s sexual sins. This third post in the series, on Vashti, is really splendid.

Enjoy. See you when I get back!

p.s. I have red hair now. My temperament finally has a matching external indicator!


Being the first of most of my friends, either from church or college, to get married has made it necessary to do my own research on birth control options, without having many married female friends to pass information onto me about their decisions and research (this is, of course, because in conservative Christian circles, it’s usually assumed that you don’t have sex before marriage, and so education about birth control is either passed on by hearsay, your mom’s [usually bad] experience with it, or WORLD magazine articles about the pro-life movement). Any information I received was either 20 years outdated, sketchy on the science, or based on Catholic “rhythm method” information about how the female fertility cycle works.

My mom’s a nurse, so I like to take medical science seriously and believe in the worth of precautionary measures and immunizations and all that stuff that’s often dismissed in super-conservative circles as bad science and propaganda from pharmaceutical companies. While I am suspicious of the FDA and pharmaceutical groups and their back room brokerage, I do believe that most of the fine print information for medications is as accurate as possible, and I have the curiosity and patience to sort through it.

So when Kevin and I got engaged, we talked a lot about our expectations for family planning and what we felt convicted about and called to (to use the common phrases). Since I came from a big family where I had been heavily involved in helping with my younger siblings, I really didn’t feel comfortable trying to have kids right away. I [rightly, so far] felt like God had a lot of things to teach me before I became a mom, and we both wanted some time to be a married couple together before starting a family. (This is a bigger issue for some people–“Is God okay with me trying to control when I become a parent? Is this an issue where I lack faith?”–than it was for us. These questions are worth prayerfully considering on your own and together as a couple. For us, we felt like we would honor God better by waiting a bit so we could be a more mature couple and give our kids stable home, financially and emotionally and spiritually.)

We didn’t want to try to use the fertility charting method, since it would be hard for me, for various reasons, to get an accurate prediction. Once we were agreed that we both liked babies, wanted some eventually but not right away, and that we are pro-life, Kevin told me that what we decided to use was up to me, saying “it’s your body, you decide. Just talk me to me about it and explain why.” Then I got real cozy with researching hormonal birth control methods and why the pro-life movement is so strongly opposed to most of them.

What I found surprised me. Most of the information I had heard growing up was based on half-science, old science, or Catholic theology (which is a different thing entirely, and I’ll get into that a bit more later). And just for the record, my mom wasn’t the source of this misinformation–she understood the science, but she and dad felt a particular call (not just the Quiverfull-that’s-what-every-godly-couple-does! groupthink) to have a large family right away. But what I found is that, if you’re protestant, there’s no reason why you can’t be staunchly pro-life and ethically use most hormonal forms of contraception. (I’m going to leave out, for the sake of time and space, discussion of why a Christian would want to control fertility and only have planned babies. The protestant position on this is usually pretty laissez-faire as long as the right-to-life of a fetus is upheld. The Catholic perspective is much more complex. For my part, I want children and am very “pro-life”–on this issue, the death penalty, and war.)

The biggest problem that I see is simply a lack of education on the subject. A lot of abstinence-only sex-ed leaves out information on what contraceptives are and how they work, because it’s assumed that if you educate kids on that, they’ll feel more comfortable having sex. This is a weak argument–if kids are horny and don’t have the self-control or moral impetus to abstain, they’ll just have sex anyway. Abstinence-affirming sex ed with information on contraceptives could potentially prevent a lot more abortions than continuing to promote abstinence-only.

In homeschool circles, sex-ed is usually absent altogether, which is an even worse issue. This causes fear and body image problems and a ton of guilt issues that just shouldn’t exist for Christians. But I digress.

So, common things I heard about birth control that aren’t true (I’m not going to cite a lot of sources, because I want to encourage you to do your own Google search and read the fine print yourself. Also because I’m lazy, and I’d prefer to keep this post to layman’s terms.):

  1. All hormonal birth control is abortifacient.
  2. If you use the pill for a certain amount of time, it’ll be harder to have a baby later or might even make you infertile.
  3. Hormonal birth control might be abortifacient, but we don’t know. However, all morning-after pills cause abortions.
  4. Birth control should only be discussed once a couple is engaged, otherwise it’ll encourage premarital sex.

[if you think of other common assertions that should be discussed, comment and let me know!]

Here’s what I learned, in response to each of those statements!

One. Most birth control isn’t hormonally strong enough to cause an abortion if taken during pregnancy, and it’s designed to work in such a way that conception can’t occur if taken properly. The pill comes in two forms: one type uses a combination of the hormones progesterone and estrogen, and this fools the body into thinking that the woman is pregnant. Although ovulation and a period still happen, the uterine lining is thickened so an egg can’t implant , and the cervix forms a mucus plug during ovulation to prevent sperm from passing through. Essentially this allows for a normal cycle (using placebo pills to initiate a period), but creates an environment where it’s essentially impossible for fertilization to occur.

The second type iprogesterone only, and this inhibits ovulation altogether and stops the usual cycle from occurring. This is the method, I believe, which caused some infertility scares in the past, but I understand that this issue has been eliminated and doctors generally agree that there are no real detriments from preventing ovulation and a period from occurring–the earlier issues was caused by the hormone dosage.

There are, obviously, some risks associated (however inconclusively–increased risk of breast or cervical cancer for those with genetic predispositions to these diseases), and some side effects (water retention, moodiness, etc.), but the side effects are usually minimal or none if you’re on a dosage and hormonal proportion that works well for your body type and preexisting issues. (For example, I was on a pill for 9 months which made me prone to anxiety attacks, and once I switched to one that had a different variant of progesterone, as well as a slightly different progesterone to estrogen ratio, the mood swings and anxiety subsided and I was more my normal self. The downside was that on the previous medication, I didn’t have any cramping, but on the new one I experience some normal cramping on the first day of my cycle. )

The primary concern I’ve come across from pro-lifers who are okay (in theory) with the pill and accept that it won’t cause an abortion if taken according to the doctor’s instructions is this: if I miss a day, the packet tells me to take two pills in a row. It also says that if I miss 3 days in a row, I need to use other forms of BC and wait for my period to start before going back on the pill. Does this mean it’s trying to overcompensate and abort an accidental conception?  I don’t think so, and here’s why: one day isn’t long enough for conception to happen–it’s just trying to keep you from experiencing “breakthrough bleeding” mid-cycle (caused by missing the hormones for a day or two). With the three-day instruction, if your body goes back to its own cycle in the fastest way possible (conception after 3 days would be highly unlikely) and you do accidentally conceive in those 3 days, the direction to stop taking the pill is to prevent birth defects if you are pregnant at that point (taking the pill then wouldn’t cause an abortion, but it might hinder proper development a bit). If you haven’t conceived and have missed 3 days of the pill, the instructions still ask you to stop taking it because your body has experienced withdrawal from the hormones and needs to “reset” by going through the normal period cycle before you can restart the medication.

Two. The pill/patch/Nuva ring (I’m going to just lump these together as “the pill” or “BC” from here on out) have been constantly improved since they first came out. Various brands have had problems and lawsuits over the side effects, and each time this happens, the company producing the drug has had to go back to the drawing board and try to improve the “recipe” to eliminate these issues, just like any other big manufacturer. They want customer loyalty. In the 70s and 80s, there were definitely issues where some forms of hormonal birth control made it harder to conceive right after discontinuing use, and some even caused infertility.

These issues have largely been eliminated now, though it depends, of course, on how fertile you were before going on the BC, how much of the hormone is in your system and how long your body will take to adjust to start cycling normally again. A lot of this is more connected to your own metabolism, cycle length, and natural hormone balances. Because hormonal BC has been improved so much since the 80s, infertility issues after using BC are going to be preexisting issues with your own body and not the fault of the pill. Check with your gynecologist to make sure you get the best hormonal option for your body–because every woman is different, different hormonal cocktails will work better with your body than with mine or anyone else’s.

This is the benefit of coming to BC right now–there’s been enough time and research put into this so that there are a lot of different dosage options and just about everything is a refined and improved version of the stuff our moms had available to them.I had irregular cycles, but no major issues like endometriosis,  and I have high metabolism and a naturally low BMI, so I needed a low-dosage option. Someone else might be better off using a higher dosage or a different proportion of progesterone and estrogen in their BC than what I use.

Three. The morning-after pill isn’t actually an abortifacient, either, even though it’s designed to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex. There are three main types of the morning-after pill and they use different hormone combinations/dosages to thicken internal mucus and delay ovulation. This creates an unwelcome environment for sperm and allows the woman’s body to hold off on releasing an egg until after the longest potential life span of sperm. The one emergency contraceptive that would be unethical for a Christian to use is the RU-486 pill, which does terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester. Personally, I think that the RU-486 is as morally wrong as abortion. But I also think that victims of incest or rape should have access to the standard morning-after pill as a matter of course.

Four. I think every adolescent should be educated about birth control. And I think that a couple should discuss their expectations and ethical beliefs long before they get engaged–these are issues where it’d be healthy for spouses to be in agreement. I appreciate Kevin’s respect in letting me decided what I’m most comfortable with, but I also really want him to be equally comfortable with the choices we make in this area.

Beyond all this, girls should be comfortable with their bodies and taught to understand how things work and why, and hormonal birth control can be a great help for a woman with endometriosis, irregular cycles, painful cramps, etc. Even if a girl isn’t sexually active and doesn’t need to get a pap smear or vaginal exam done, it’s healthy for her to go to a gynecologist to just discuss her cycle and make sure there aren’t any issues that may need investigation or treatment–things like delayed puberty or missed periods are often symptoms of an eating disorder or intense stress; severe cramps can signal endometriosis or polycystic ovarian syndrome or a hormone imbalance, etc. These things are significant, and parental insecurity about a sex talk isn’t a good reason to avoid helping your daughter know why her body works the way it does and how to know if something is amiss.

What else am I missing here? Feel free to raise questions in the comments–but be kind to me. I’m strongly pro-life (don’t bother arguing this), I’m not a chemist or a doctor, so this is just what I’ve learned through research, and I might be wrong. Check with a real doctor if you’re unsure about something, and correct me if you have medical qualification on this subject and see a mistake I’ve made out of my inexperience.

Finally, regarding the Catholic position (and I’ll just summarize generally because I’m not a Catholic–feel free to chime in if you are!): Catholics have a very detailed theology of the body that overshadows their theology of marriage and the purpose of it. Protestants don’t consider marriage to be a sacrament, and this is the fundamental difference. Because marriage is one of the seven Catholic sacraments, procreation in marriage is a sacred duty and the ability of that union to give life has a higher sacramental value than is commonly held by protestants. Therefore, any contraception is considered to be going against God’s design for marriage. This would include, I have been told, even the use of condoms. As a result, Catholics attempting to delay pregnancy will typically use a method where the couple charts the woman’s fertility via temperature readings,  learning to understand what types of mucus are discharged during peak fertility, etc. When the woman’s 3-5 day fertile window opens up, they will abstain if they want to avoid pregnancy. This is actually a pretty safe method of preventing pregnancy (and a really useful tool if you’re trying to conceive), but you have to really pay attention to your body’s rhythms and be very accurate with the temperature readings and subsequent charting (there’s actually some good technology available to make this easier, too). It’s a lot of work, but if marriage is a sacrament for procreation in your theology, it is worthwhile and ethical.