And we’re baaaack. Commonplace links went away when I stopped reading blogs for a month or so.

This week there’s been a fantastic rash of posts on virginity and Christian culture, and I’m really excited that this is being discussed.

I have been hesitant to say so, but I have become increasingly convinced that the concept of virginity is a concept created for male power/social control and not a medical or spiritual reality (and for those suffering from homeschool sex-ed or abstinence-only sex-ed and don’t know what I mean by this, go watch Laci Green explain). I have also discovered that the Bible really isn’t clear on the question: is consensual premarital sex between two consenting, adult, and committed individuals sinful? Instead it seems to suggest that sexuality is wonderful and powerful and deeply intimate (and therefore either so very good or so very damaging), and that God’s best plan is for sex to be a safe place for mutual benefit and love and pleasure and possibly procreation. Marriage is logically the place where this can best happen, but there’s no indication that it’s the only place it can happen. 

[That is what I think. We can disagree.]

So, here’s the best posts on virginity that I’ve read this week. Go read and ponder and soak up the grace.

Virginity: New & Improved — Elizabeth Esther

Whenever we seek to improve upon virtue, we are actually creating an idol. Furthermore, by elevating virginity to the ethereal realms of unicorns and angels, we place an unfair burden upon the shoulders of real, human beings.

And that’s what concerns me the most. The New & Improved Virginity places a heavy weight of shame upon women—even those whoare virgins.

I was a virgin and I didn’t feel “pure enough”  because I’d kissed a couple boys before my husband. I was a virgin and I felt horribly defiled because I’d discovered this crazy, secret thing called masturbating. I was a virgin and I was disappointed to realize that my ‘sacrifice’ didn’t automatically result in a happily ever after marriage.

I was a virgin and I felt superior to “damaged” women. The purity culture showed no compassion for me so I had no compassion for myself or women who had “chosen” to “give away” their virtue.

I am damaged goods — Sarah Bessey at Deeper Story

And so here, now, I’ll stand up and say it, the way I wish someone had said it to me fifteen years ago when I was sitting in that packed auditorium with my heart racing, wrists aching, eyes stinging, drowning and silenced by the imposition of shame masquerading as ashes of repentance:

“So, you had sex before you were married.

It’s okay.

Really. It’s okay.

There is no shame in Christ’s love. Let him without sin cast the first stone. You are more than your virginity – or lack thereof – and more than your sexual past.

Your marriage is not doomed because you said yes to the boys you loved as a young woman. Your husband won’t hold it against you, he’s not that weak and ego-driven, choose a man marked by grace.

And the coup de grace, delivered by Emily Maynard at Prodigal — The day I turned in my v-card

I’m done blanketing all sexual experience outside of marriage as sin and never acknowledging that abuse can happen within a marriage. I’m done with Christians enforcing oppression in the name of purity.

I am not a virgin or a non-virgin.

I am a human. I am Emily.


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?


This new year, I’m trying to be deliberate about self-care. Things that I would have shoved off as unimportant before because they  only meant something to me — I’m taking these up and owning them. I’m fighting the lies in my head: “It’s not a big deal. I’m too busy.” “It’s not important.” “I wouldn’t be good enough/I’m too old to start that now.” “I need the money for other things.”

No more. I don’t mean that in an I’m-obsessed-with-making-myself-happy-with-things way. No more self-denial for its own sake, or because of fear or because of self-consciousness.

So. I am doing new things. I’m taking part in a story coaching group with Elora (a few slots left and only two days more to register, if you want to join us!). I’m going to write the stories in my head and have accountability and community to help me keep going. I really need this.

I’m taking mandolin. It’d been a old dream of mine to pick it up, but I couldn’t afford it/find one/find a teacher, and over Christmas everything fell into place. I have a mandolin. I have a teacher. I have the emotional space to learn it without pressure from anyone who is more musically advanced criticizing or judging me. It’s so healing. I’m making music. It’s mine. No one else’s.

The community of bloggers I’ve found has been incredible. If you ever feel like you’re insane and the only one seeing that maybe your church is legalistic, or your conservative community is prejudiced and hurtful to minorities, or that maybe women shouldn’t be treated they way they are in your church or at your school, or that the relationship standards in conservative Christianity are oppressive, or that your depression might be real and not “lack of faith,” please hear me:

you are not alone.

The latest evolution of this community? Elizabeth Esther and I talk about how expectations for emotional purity are terribly damaging and dehumanizing. An excerpt:

So, how do girls in strict, courtship environments cope? We shut down our emotions.

The bad news is that you can’t shut down one feeling without shutting down them all. I thought that by ignoring, denying, shaming and shunning my romantic feelings for Matt I was preserving my “emotional purity” and “guarding my heart.” Instead, I ended up completely numb.

It got so bad that eventually I believed if something felt good it was probably sinful. If I was happy, I wasn’t suffering enough. Sometimes I wished I were a robot so I could turn off my feelings with a push of a button.

When we finally received courtship approval and it was OK for me to have romantic feelings for Matt, I was a mess. I was depressed, exhausted, confused and literally sick all the time. 

Go join the discussion! 


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.