I think the biggest confusion in this whole my-sister-is-a-viral-blogger-after-her-first-post thing (besides the part where everyone is assuming her surname is Ettinger — it isn’t, and she’s a minor. So, my parents have requested anyone using her real name please redact it for her privacy), was about why Clare cared about the modesty guidelines more than getting kicked out of prom.

Everyone is reacting along the lines of “oh how HORRIBLE that she got kicked out of this momentous life event!” or “she’s being a drama queen and just wants attention because she didn’t get her prom night.” Neither are true.

While I won’t deny that Clare is an extrovert with a Just Plain Fancy sort of joie-de-vivre about her, she is not a drama queen out for attention. She didn’t write her post because she was upset about missing her prom. And she didn’t lie about what happened — my sister has always had a fierce sense of justice and I’d encourage everyone to actually read her original post rather than just the news articles or petty reactions by her peers. (I’m sorry your prom got so much heat. No one, least of all me and Clare, expected this would generate so much attention.)

For those who aren’t familiar with our background or what going to a homeschool prom like this one implies, let me give you a bit of context.

1) It was a big deal for Clare to be allowed to go to prom. I wasn’t allowed to go to a prom (though there was one and many of my friends went). The homeschool scene in Richmond is rich in cultural appreciation, and some awesome ballroom cotillion groups exist for extracurriculars. But my dad and I had lots of fights throughout high school because he would not permit me to participate in any of their Friday night dances, out of moral objections. Obviously, this standard has now changed, which is pretty awesome for Clare.

2) Our family was part of a cult group (see here for coverage of a sex offender’s trial that shows how the pastors in this cult have been exposed for covering up sexual abuse and pedophilia) and if you’re confused about what that kind of childhood looks like, go read my piece for Cracked.com about growing up in this culture. More details on this stuff and how it related to sexuality and autonomy can be found in my Immodesty Rail series. And a great response to the parental angle in all of this, written by my friend Ashley, can be found here.

3) HOWEVER, that prom (while it was held in a church), wasn’t explicitly Christian. That said, homeschool culture is predominately conservative Christians and the majority of people at that prom were probably your good old-fashioned family values voters who chose to homeschool their kids because they wanted to keep their children away from corrupting influences in the public schools — sex, drugs, gays, abortion, global warming, mini skirts. (I jest. Partly.) But that’s why it was convenient for the parents to hold it in a church rather than another facility, and that’s why modesty standards were imposed on attendees (this year the rules were actually a lot less stringent than in years past).

4) Modesty standards do not hold the same social weight as your average dress code. Which is why a homeschool dad would feel himself legitimately entitled to comment on a girl’s outfit at such an event.

Point #4 there is really the crux of all this, and it’s why Clare originally called the people who shamed her for her dress “rape culture activists.” I’m going to follow up on this with a post later this week, but for now, I’m going to let Clare speak for herself once more. And this time, she made you a video. Enjoy!


::UPDATE::

Please do not harass the coordinator for the prom. Her info can be found online, but I am deleting comments containing that because she does not deserve the ire of internet trolls in her inbox. The coordinator herself was not involved in the decision made. Please leave her alone.

Thank you.

::end update::

Dear everyone:

Clare is studying for finals, so I’m taking the mic here. She is really encouraged by the outpouring of support from all sides, and I think this whole experience as felt really empowering for her.

I would like to ask that everyone commenting on the race issue would lay that aside, on the request of Clare’s boyfriend. He asked me pass this message on to you:

I don’t feel race played a part in all that happened Saturday night. I strongly believe they did not know we were together until the situation had already escalated.

Thank you for understanding. Attempts to revive that discussion in the comments will be moderated.

The Richmond Prom Facebook moderators (we’re not sure who they were) deleted all the comments that Clare and others left on their page. Homeschoolers Anonymous screencapped some of the comments before they got deleted. Late last night they deleted the Facebook page altogether. No statement has been made by the administration, no one has contacted Clare or me, and the rest of the group has yet to receive refunds. Her boyfriend did eventually get one, but that was after he negotiated privately with someone involved. No further comments were made by Mrs. D or the woman organizing the event.

Clare’s graduation is coming up very soon, and we’re hoping these same people won’t cause any trouble for her there.

Any discussion of using Matthew 18 in this situation is out of line and will not be entertained. This event was not explicitly a “Christian” event and this was not sponsored by a church. Clare did attempt to appeal to the leadership privately and was denied that opportunity, so even if Matthew 18 was appropriate, she still followed that course of action as much as the adults involved would have allowed.

For those who find Bible verses inspiring, you may enjoy the one that has come to mind frequently about this whole situation:

Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.  — Luke 12: 1-3

And I’ll end with this little treasure from Anne Lamott:

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Thanks again, everyone. We’ll keep you updated if anything more transpires.

p.s. If you want to support Clare’s college aspirations, any donations via PayPal on the side designated for her will go into a fund for her textbooks for this coming fall.


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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I’m dashing out the door to go to a wedding in Atlanta this weekend (and a quick stop to see my family on our way south – I haven’t been home since July, and I miss them!), but here’s this week’s links. I think you’ll notice two themes: “slut-shaming” (look it up) and how to interpret the Bible well. I’m passionate about these topics, so this was a good reading week for me. I don’t have time to summarize all of these links, but do explore and enjoy!

Rachel Held Evan’s new book is out (I’m going to read it in the car – it arrived on Wednesday, but it’s been a crazy work week and I haven’t had a lot of mental space for reading. Which is also why the post on lust and modesty isn’t finished yet. Look for it on Monday!), and she’s getting a ton of attention online. To be honest, I felt a little skeptical about her premise (“a year of biblical w0manhood,” where she takes biblical teachings on womanhood as literally as possible for a whole year), but as I’m reading more about it and skimming bits of the book itself, I’m realizing that her methods are not so much a sarcastic jab at taking the Bible literally, and more of a sincere attempt to interpret the Bible with intellectual integrity. Which is always her biggest goal.

Related:

A lot of fantastic analysis is going on regarding why the complementarian men appear to feel threatened by RHE’s book (and the controversy over her use of the word “vagina” in it). Some are saying that this is “slut shaming” (a tactic to embarrass a woman who steps outside of social norms in order to force her to abide by them).

Even if it isn’t, there’s been some serious examples of real slut shaming recently:

***

Unrelated and enjoyable:

Have a great weekend!