Most of the things I was taught about sex were lies, many of them deliberate. Withholding information about sex and sexuality was seen as a virtue. It was unquestioned orthodoxy that good Christians stay as far away from sexual expression as possible before marriage (after all, “purity is a direction, not a line”). I had no framework for even beginning to process the idea that someone could be a “real” Christian but not see premarital sex as necessarily and completely evil. I had no accurate information with which to make a reasoned choice, and lots of deliberate misinformation that made it impossible for me to examine my options impartially. Sorting through all the falsehoods, half-truths, and omissions has been long and difficult process.
I had it drilled into my head that “staying pure” before marriage was a sign of self-control, and respect for the institution of marriage, and I believed this completely. Of course, this was an incredibly judgmental view of the sex lives and marriages of people who didn’t believe as I did, and a pretty smug and self-righteous view of myself. I at least had the good sense to mostly keep this aspect of my beliefs on sexuality to myself. And as I got to know more people who had different views on sexuality, the more unsure I became about the supposed superiority of my beliefs. I became friends with quite a lot of people who challenged my associations of premarital abstinence with self-restraint and being able to commit.
With time I realized that my sexual status when I got married isn’t, as I was taught, anything to be proud of, or anything to be ashamed of. It just is. And I no longer consider it to be a sign of my self-control so much as a sign of how completely brainwashed I was by my upbringing. It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with reserving sex for marriage (that would be pretty hypocritical of me). I believe in choice, and if someone makes a free choice to abstain from sex until marriage, I respect that. It’s just that I don’t see that choice as inherently more respectable than choosing to be sexually active before marriage.
I also don’t feel that being abstinent was really my choice. Had I been better informed, I may still have made the decision to wait until I was engaged or married – I doubt it, but it’s not impossible. As it is, there wasn’t much of a decision to make. Premarital sex was equated with being dirty and evil, “defiling the marriage bed,” “defrauding” my future husband (because it was a given that I’d get married, and marry a dude, naturally), and choosing STDs, unwed pregnancy, lifelong unhappiness, loneliness, and poverty (seriously). Abstinence was presented as staying pure, respecting God’s plan for marriage, and giving my future husband a beautiful gift by “saving” myself for him. And I had plenty of examples of the intense judgment and ostracism people often faced if they were “caught” being sexually active before marriage – with some literally losing their entire family and church support network overnight.
No real choice is possible in such an environment. The decks are completely and arbitrarily stacked in favor of abstinence. Having premarital sex was literally not an option for me.
Joshua Harris was a homegrown celebrity in SGM, and his books on relationships and marriage were literally treated like scripture. He taught that obeying God meant restricting not just sex, but also emotional intimacy to marriage alone; any serious emotional entanglement with someone we didn’t ultimately end up marrying was “giving away a piece of your heart,” something that rightfully belonged to your future spouse. By “guarding our hearts,” we could avoid all the pain that a “worldly” approach to relationships brings. We wouldn’t have to go through difficult breakups or divorces; we wouldn’t struggle to get over exes, or feel jealousy over a partner’s sexual past.
I understand why people would want to believe all this is true, but frankly, it’s a crock of shit. There’s no approach that can guarantee a marriage won’t end in divorce. It’s dangerous and deceptive to teach people that marriage is some sort of magical protection from deep pain, betrayal, or psychological trauma (especially in a context where spousal abuse isn’t taken seriously). While it can be the case that minimizing romantic or sexual entanglements before marriage lowers the chances of getting hurt, it also also preemptively shuts the door on opportunities to love more, enjoy more, to learn more about ourselves and others. Sometimes it’s worth taking the risk of getting hurt to experience more joy and intimacy. Sometimes the pleasure and fulfillment you get out of something in the here and now is worth the risk that it might not last forever.
Evangelical teachings about sex, love, and marriage are based on the myth that only guaranteed lifelong commitment is worth investing in. They insist that sexual activity before marriage is purely self-indulgent and meaningless (a loaded word if ever there was one), and that having a sexual history with someone other than a spouse necessarily undermines the strength and value of marital commitment. None of this is true. Most of our married friends lived together beforehand and had other romantic and sexual relationships before they met each other. Contrary to everything I was taught to expect from a “worldly” relationship, marriage is deeply meaningful to them. They’re committed to each other. They don’t take their vows lightly. And while marriage is generally a black box experience – you can’t really know what it will be like until you’re in it – I think most of our friends understood better than my husband and I did what they were signing up for when they got married, in part because they had more relationship and more sexual experience than we did.
My friends who have had more than one partner often understand things about themselves as sexual and emotional beings that I’m just starting to figure out about myself. They didn’t rush serious decisions because they believed it’s wrong to stay in a relationship not clearly headed for marriage, or that you give someone a piece of your heart when you kiss them (which means that if you break up with them, you’ve given a piece of your heart to someone who isn’t going to be your spouse). Unlike a lot of young evangelical couples, they didn’t get married because they were desperate to have sex; they got married because they knew they were compatible and wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. From where I stand now, there’s a lot of respect for marriage as an institution in this approach. It’s just not built on the assumption that the value of marriage is based on confining all legitimate sexual expression to marriage (or on the ability or desire of a couple to procreate, I might add).
A constant mantra of abstinence-only sex ed is that nobody ever regrets waiting to have sex; no one ever regrets saving themselves for just one person. That’s completely false. I regret it. I regret that it was something imposed on me. I regret that I’ll never know what I would have chosen for myself, what I might have learned about myself, or what I could have experienced, if I had approached things differently. I regret that my transition into becoming sexually active after getting married was full of awkwardness and shame, and that we had no one to talk to about it. It put a lot of unnecessary strain on our new and vulnerable marriage.
I regret that I was taught that an arbitrary compilation of ancient literature, shot through with errors and contradictions and open to all sorts of different interpretations, was the word of God and had to be interpreted in a particular, narrow fashion if I didn’t want to go to hell. My “decision” to be abstinent before marriage was based entirely on ridiculous and faulty assumptions, apart from which I’m pretty sure I would have had sex well before getting married (and also probably married at a later age, if at all).
So yes, I regret that I’ve only had sex with one person. I regret that I went through all of college without ever having sex. Sex is great. I don’t feel any shame in admitting that I regret all the years I spent not having it for no good reason. Ok, that’s not strictly true. I feel some shame in admitting it. I’m working on that. Writing about this is awkward, and difficult. But I think it’s important for people raised like I was to understand that life is a lot messier and complicated than we were led to believe. And let me tell you, it sucks royally to realize all this after you’re married and have kids, to try and make the best of the decisions you’ve made and not get caught up in wishing you had a chance to do things differently.
I’m doing some reading for a discussion on different ways in which the masculinity of Jesus is or has been constructed and presented in various Christian contexts. A couple of the articles I’m reading are about how depictions of Jesus in popular art and other media have been read as gendered, and how Christians have read such depictions as being either in line or in opposition to their understandings of Jesus’s gender, and particularly his masculinity. It’s really fascinating stuff, and I hope to say more about it in future posts.
The other article I’m reading is James Poling’s “The Cross and Male Violence,”* which is about how interpretations of the crucifixion of Jesus can either support authoritarian patriarchy and male violence against women, or oppose them. I’m loving this article – it neatly encapsulates how abuse in patriarchal churches and families is, in general, is a product of a patriarchal theology which is inherently and fundamentally problematic:
The cross of Jesus Christ was a violent event and its interpretation over the centuries has been ambiguous. For men who live in patriarchal societies, the cross gives mixed messages. On the one hand, the cross is a symbol that legitimizes male dominance in human community. For many centuries, the cross has been symbolic of the church’s authority as a patriarchal institution. Jesus died as a man of the cross and brought salvation for humankind. Therefore, most churches have argued, only men can serve as governors and ritual leaders in the church, modeling a form of governance for all society, including the family. Theologians have taught that male headship over women is established by God the Father and his only Son, Jesus, and any challenge to male dominance is a challenge to God himself. One can see the cross as a symbol of a natural patriarchal order that must be supported by the interactions of men and women. – Poling, p. 474, my emphases
Poling shows how cultures of abuse in patriarchal churches develop out of theologies that:
– understand the nature of God the Father and God the Son (Jesus) to be essentially masculine
– understand God’s the Father’s nature to be essentially authoritarian, defined by the exercise of total power and the use of violent acts as punishment for human disobedience.
– understand Jesus’s crucifixion as a moment in which God the Father – the angry Father God – inflicted the violence rightfully due to humanity on his obedient, submissive Son.
If God is male, and God the “Father” is defined by possessing and exercising authority, then human males must share in his masculine nature, and men, especially in marriage and parenthood, must also be defined by the exercise of power, dominance, and violence. Given the patriarchal assumption of binary gender, the corollary of this must be that females are defined by lacking power, submitting to male dominance, and being the targets of male violence.
Under these theologies the cross becomes “a symbol that legitimizes male violence against women” by casting such violence as
“[replicating] the drama between a patriarchal God and an obedient, self-sacrificing Jesus standing in for a sinful humanity . . . the [man] has taken the place of God who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, and the [woman] has taken the place of Jesus who take on the sins of humanity and submits her will to God’s, and sacrifices her life unto death on the cross for the sake of the relationship.
In family violence, a similar drama is enacted. Given the negative and conflicting images of women in many churches and their responsibility to be obedient to an all-loving Father God and his Son Jesus, Christian faith means that men are closer to God than women, that the proper relationship of women to men is subservience, and that the traditional values of submission and obedience are the essence of Christian faith. – Poling, p. 476-477, my emphases.
Just a few days before reading Poling’s article I jotted down some notes for the blog: Not every marriage where submission is supposedly followed is an abusive one. But submission theology is an abusive theology. It’s an abusive framework. When I read the article I found that my notes were echoing a point Poling also makes:
Certain interpretations of the cross clearly create the occasion for sexual and physical abuse of women and children because of their images of the Trinitarian God in relation to families. Survivors of abuse** are saying that an abusive God and abusive clergymen do not contradict the church’s theology. The images of abuse are inherent in the symbols themselves. A church that preaches God’s love but projects the evil of the world onto women and other marginalized groups is preaching an abusive God. – Poling, 47, my emphases.
A culture of male violence against women is therefore not incidental to patriarchal theological assumptions, but is rather a natural product of them. The abusive husband and father, the abusive male pastor or priest, thus becomes a reflection of an abusive and angry God, and the victim of abuse becomes a reflection of Christ – if they endure their suffering obediently, and submissively. This might seem like a very unfair description of complementarian and other patriarchal theologies, but as we’ll see in coming posts on Joshua Harris’s sermons on submission, this is precisely what he tells married women – that suffering silently makes them more like Christ.
*James Newton Poling, “The Cross and Male Violence” in ed. Bjorn Krondorfer Men and Masculinities in Christianity and Judaism: A Critical Reader (2009)
**Poling quotes female survivors of incest in Christian homes recounting what they took form their Christian upbringing – I’ll post these in a separate post tomorrow.
Christmas is around the corner, which for Mark Driscoll, apparently means yet another opportunity to bully men into being just like him. Driscoll, an extra unique complementarian snowflake about who’s certain to come up more on this blog, is the senior pastor and bully-in-chief of Mars Hill Church, a Seattle megachurch (and the biggest church in the city). Driscoll’s confrontational and chauvinistic style of preaching has gotten him a lot of attention in the mainstream media, much more than most complementarian pastors, who usually fly under the radar.
So! Christmas in Driscoll-land. “Daddy” needs to have a holiday agenda for the family; godly leadership means telling people what to do and where to be all the time. At least, that’s what leadership means for Driscoll, and funny enough, it turns out to be what God means by leadership, too! Clearly that’s what it has to mean for everyone else. Hence Driscoll’s “Daddy Christmas Tips” – some interesting ideas on how fathers should be running the show during the holidays:
Tip #1: Dad needs a plan for the holidays to ensure his family is loved and memories are made. Dad, what’s your plan?
Right off the bat we’re in weirdo land. How do you “plan” for people to be loved?
Tip #6: Dad needs to manage the extended family and friends during the holidays. Dad, who or what do you need to say “no” to?
Apparently mom doesn’t need to be a part of this decision. Or maybe she just doesn’t have an opinion? Thinking something different from her husband might be a sin, after all.
Tip #7: Dad needs to schedule a big Christmas date with his daughter(s). Dad, what’s your big plan for the fancy Daddy-daughter date?
Tip #8: Dad needs to schedule guy time with his son(s). Dad, what are you and your son(s) going to do that is active, outdoors, and fun?
We can’t call a dad’s special time with his son a “date” – clearly that would be inappropriately sexualizing. Men don’t go on dates with each other, gross! But dads can totally take their daughters on dates – there’s nothing inappropriate or creepy about that. (Hint: if a parent can only go on a “date” with a child of the “opposite” sex, um, you are sexualizing the relationship between that parent and child, not to mention being super heteronormative). Also, there’s no way a real girl would ever want to do something “active, outdoors, and fun” with her dad. Girls just want to be fancy – and real boys, obviously, don’t. Because the activities you share with your children are entirely dependent on their genitalia, not on, you know, their actual opinions or interests.
Tip #9: Dad needs to help get the house decorated. Dad, are you really a big help to Mom with getting things ready?
Because decorating the house is really mom’s job.
Tip #10: Dad needs to ensure there are some holiday smells and sounds. Dad, is Christmas music on the iPod, is the tree up, can you smell cookies and cider?
If you can’t smell cookies and cider, your wife is doing something wrong. That kind of laziness cannot stand. Better get on that, dad.
Whew. Dad has a lot of things and people to stay on top of during the holidays! But remember tip #4: Dad needs to not let the stress of the holidays, including money, cause him to be grumpy with Mom or the kids. Dad, how’s your joy?
I’m sure it’s really easy to both be constantly obsessing over whether or not you’re micromanaging the holidays and your family appropriately, and actually enjoy the holidays with your family. Yea.
I’ve been transcribing Joshua Harris’s recent sermons on gender roles for the blog. In reviewing them I’ve been struck again by the frequent disclaimers in both sermons about what submission “doesn’t mean.” In his first sermon on submission, for example, he begins by clearly stating that the text he’s preaching on doesn’t belittle or condescend to women, that it doesn’t condone abuse, or teach that wives are inferior to their husbands. Rather, he says, this passage honors women, and “elevates the dignity . . . [and] the value of women.”
This, to be clear, is a passage that says women should submit and be “subject” to their husbands “as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.” Oh, and it calls women “the weaker vessel.” (1 Peter 3:1-6). Not exactly a subtle or difficult to interpret text; yet Harris categorically states that it does not mean what it pretty clearly says, read as literally as complementarians say the Bible should be read.*
As I’ve discussed earlier, one of the reasons for such disclaimers is that complementarian leaders know perfectly well that their theology is misogynist both in its content and its implications, and they also know that such overt misogyny doesn’t fly with people outside their communities – which isn’t to say that American society in general isn’t extremely misogynistic – it absolutely is. Many of the misogynist ideas explicit in complementarian theology are implicit in how our culture views and treats women. Even so, openly stating a belief in the divinely ordained inferiority of women is pretty unacceptable in public discourse; most complementarians avoid doing so and try to distance themselves from this implication of their theology.
But on further thought, I think there’s a lot more behind these disclaimers than mere PR or image consciousness. In fact, I think it’s probably the case that these disclaimers are primarily intended for people already in the complementarian fold. I think they’re part of a strategy – perhaps deliberate, perhaps not – to use cognitive dissonance to manipulate and control people, particularly women.
Complementarian women are constantly reminded that “God” requires them to obey their husbands, that God created them to follow male leadership. But at the same time they also hear a constant refrain that unquestioning obedience is really liberation, and that their second-class status in their families and their churches is really evidence of how loved and valued they are by complementarian men and their patriarchal god. They’re taught that passages which, read literally, clearly teach that women are of less value and status than men, really don’t undermine gender equality at all.
In order to accept these contradictory claims as true, complementarian women have to live in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. And there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that inducing a state of cognitive dissonance (deliberately or not) is a very effective means of controlling and manipulating people. Living with cognitive dissonance requires constant rationalizations of obviously false or contradictory claims, and tenuous explanations of why these claims appear to be false or contradictory, but are in fact true or compatible. And once you can get people to be constantly engaged in the mental gymnastics required to maintain cognitive dissonance, you have them in a place where they’re much more likely to accept other absurd or illogical ideas as true. People are more suggestible and pliable in such a state, because they’re already invested in defending whatever you claim as true, no matter how far-fetched it might be. Unsurprisingly, cognitive dissonance is a common feature of cultic or controlling groups (more on cognitive dissonance and cultic thinking/behavior here).
As I see it, this is one of many reasons why so many women accept complementarian theology as unquestioned truth and morality, despite its obvious devaluation of them, and anything or anyone considered “feminine.” They’re so deeply invested in defending the absolute truth of their theology, and the absolute righteousness of their leaders, that they are primed to accept some truly ridiculous assertions about the “holiness” of female subservience as entirely compatible with gender equality.
*I’m aware that there are translation issues with this and other texts, and that there are other more egalitarian or feminist interpretations of these texts. I’m talking specifically about the translations complementarians use and the principles of interpretation they apply to the Bible.
Some religion, gender, and sexuality related news and blog happenings from the past week:
The big news from this past week is the lawsuit filed by two young men against Bishop Eddie Long, alleging that Long used his pastoral authority and influence to coerce them into sexual relationships. Long has been described by the SPLC as “one of the most virulently homophobic black leaders in the religiously based anti-gay movement.” The men in the original suit have now been joined by two others, and some sources claim as many as 30 other men may file suit against Long on similar grounds.
There’s a lot to say about this case – not least about how we need to start taking the reality of spiritual abuse more seriously, and about how the internalized homophobia of people who are deeply closeted can poison their lives and the lives of people around them. But for now there are some excellent commentaries on this case at Religion Dispatches: Eddie Long Case Should Mark the End of Black Church Homophobia and Eddie Long Plays Victim.
In other news:
Your WTF for the week: Texas radio host claims that the government and MSG in juice boxes are making kids gay.
Maggie Haberman broke the story that in 2001, GOP congressional candidate and Christian conservative Jim Russell wrote an extremely racist, anti-Semitic essay blasting (among other things) interracial marriage and school integration. Russell’s racist beliefs intersect with equally problematic ideas about gender and sexuality. He frames black masculinity in particular as a threat to the sexual purity of young white women and assumes that white female sexuality rightfully belongs to white men:
“The sociobiological warfare that our youth is subjected to is likely to be even more diabolical since it appears to deliberately exploit a biological theory of sexual imprinting at the critical period of sexual maturity. Movies like this past year’s spate of miscegenationist titles, Save the Last Dance, Crazy / Beautiful and O, a parody of Othello, appear deliberately designed to exploit the critical period of sexual imprinting in their target audiences of white pre-adolescent girls and adolescent young women.”
God’s emotions: why the biblical God is so human. First post in a series by Valerie Tarico “looking at how God’s emotions are depicted in the Bible, what is now known about emotions as physical and social phenomena, and how these two intersect.” Not directly related to gender and sexuality issues, but potentially illuminating in terms of the broader context for Christian patriarchy based on literal readings of the Bible.
New study finds that teens who have abortions are no more likely to become depressed or have low self-esteem than their peers whose pregnancies do not end in abortion. I found this interesting as someone raised to be very opposed to abortion for religious reasons – one of the things that was drilled into our heads was that women who have abortions always regret them and live with depression and self-loathing for the rest of their lives.