It’s really telling to me that, while laziness and hypersexuality are stereotypes are applied to black people in general, so many of the evangelicals Emerson interviewed for Divided by Faith singled out black mothers as specifically embodying and being the root cause of what they saw as black individual, family, and cultural dysfunction. This circles back to the gendered double standard discussed in the previous post: under the complementarian view of gender and sexuality, the responsibility for sexual and reproductive gatekeeping outside marriage is placed almost entirely on women. So again, though “promiscuity” and having “too many kids” are behaviors that require at least one man in normative heterosexual pairings, these labels stick to black women in different ways than they do to black men: the women sit home and have babies while collecting welfare checks, the mothers send the fathers away, etc.
I think this is worth noting because criticisms of racist narratives about black laziness or the failure or demise of the black family often overlook the fact that these stereotypes are fundamentally and profoundly gendered. They’re implicit statements of what gender roles “should” be, based on white, heteronormative, classist measures, and statements that black women and men as a group fail to live up to these measures in gender-specific ways. There’s a reason the prevailing stereotype of black people on certain forms of government assistance is that of the “welfare queen.”
It’s a critique of black femininity as a failed or less-than. The welfare queen is not only wanton in her sexuality and reproduction, she is also negligent in her attentions to her children – in effect pawns conceived for purely mercenary purposes (to get money from the government). The welfare queen is not bound to one man, doesn’t have her reproduction limited or controlled by one man, uses and neglects her children rather than nurturing them, and is therefore a bad mother. She stands as the foil to the “angel in the home” – the romanticized, infantilized image of the “true woman” and “keeper in the home” (a carry over of Victorian and other Western european notions of idealized, non-threatening, non-sexual femininity), whose only concern is for husband, children, home.
One of Emerson’s interviewees argued that the government perpetuates black inequality by “[making] it easier for somebody [read: black women] to sit home and collect welfare and have baby after baby.” There’s quite a bit of irony in that statement when you juxtapose it with the fact that for many evangelicals, the highest display of femininity is precisely to “stay home and have baby after baby” after marriage and be a “keeper of the home,” while the husband acts as unquestioned leader and sole income earner (“provider” – as though homemaking and child-rearing aren’t “providing” for one’s family).
So in effect, when the welfare queen stereotype is leveled at black women by white evangelicals who believe that women shouldn’t work outside the home and should reproduce frequently, the criticism is really of black women for supposedly being “dependent” on the government instead of being properly dependent on and submissive to a patriarchal husband. Again, recall another one of Emerson’s interview subjects claiming that “we have paid their [black children’s] mothers to have their fathers stay away from home.”
And by extension this is a critique of “the black family” as failed or in crisis, in implicit contrast to white families. And it’s specifically a criticism that black parents are not living up to their proper gender roles in the presumed heterosexual partnerships and heteronormative families. White evangelical attachment to the caricature of the absent black father who due to custom or culture doesn’t “provide for” or “lead” his family is an implicit statement about the superiority of white fatherhood and white family culture. So too is the attachment to the caricature of the negligent, unattached black mother, often also depicted as loud, violent, and contentious, an implicit statement of the superiority of white womanhood and motherhood – by the standards of white evangelical conservative culture – characterized by a “gentle and quiet spirit” and a self-negating submission to the sexual and emotional ownership of one man and a likewise self-denying level of devotion to children and the home.
Sexualized stereotypes about black women are not isolated to my former church or denomination, but rather representative of beliefs about black sexuality and family life that remain common among white evangelicals. Michael Emerson, a white sociologist of religion, writes of encountering these same attitudes in his (highly recommended!) book Divided by Faith, an examination of racial segregation in American evangelicalism and of factors in the white evangelical church that contribute to and perpetuate such segregation. [The following quotes and paraphrases from Divided by Faith can be found on pp. 100-104; emphases are mine]
For example, Emerson notes that white evangelicals often see “bad choices” on the part of black people as being primarily to blame for racial disparities between U.S. blacks and whites; among these choices are “having too many children.” He writes:
In their use of these cultural reasons [for racial inequality], white conservative Protestants do not mean patterns of behavior rooted in values (e.g., blacks have many children because they highly value large families), but rather that blacks are making poor choices (e.g., black individuals do not exercise responsibility in child-bearing, faith, or speech).
White evangelicals interviewed by Emerson repeatedly linked welfare to “bad choices” with respect to sex and family life that produce racial inequality. One woman saw unrestrained black reproduction as the problem:
So many black people have beaucoup [large numbers of] kids. I only had two because I feel as though that’s what I can afford. And, I mean, sometimes I think they just don’t use the brains God gave them.
Similarly, a Baptist woman argued that black women have children to collect welfare payments:
[She]…linked welfare to family dissolution: ‘I think ultimately it goes back to the fact that they have a lot of single parent homes. [When asked by authors why this is] Well, in a lot of instances there was no family to start with…I mean the AFDC payments. A woman gets money for each child she has and there is never a husband involved. In this area it is very common for a black girl in her late teens to be having her third or fourth baby, unmarried. My daughter works in OB (obstetrics), that is how I know. Very common, because they get their AFDC payments.
Other views offered in these interviews:
- One woman described government programs to address [black] poverty are “no different from slavery.”
- Another “was not shy in implicating the government, even while making welfare recipients seem less than admirable: “It has to be blamed on the government. The government makes it easier for somebody to sit home and collect welfare and have baby after baby.“
- Still another woman claimed that under welfare, “we have paid their [black people’s] mothers to have their fathers stay away from home.“
Emerson also found that some white evangelicals saw a feedback loop relationship between black poverty and welfare. On the one hand, “it is blacks who, perhaps because they are seen as having less initiative or moral fortitude, are more likely to receive welfare” (despite the fact that the majority of Americans on welfare are in fact white). But at the same time “it was common to link welfare directly to the demise of individual initiative and responsibility among African Americans.” In other words, there’s circular reasoning at work here: black people are more likely to be on welfare because of lack of initiative, and welfare creates lack of initiative in black people.
As the quotes above show, most white evangelicals Emerson interviewed cited “choice” rather than natural lack of ability as the reason for racial disparities between blacks and whites. Yet these quotes also show that “choice” is framed in such a way as to be almost indistinguishable from “natural” racial inferiority. When you see an entire race as habitually “not using the brains God gave them” or habitually choosing “the easy way out” of “taking” government support (which, again, is really not so easy as some imagine), and habitually choosing not to provide for their families, make “moral” decisions about family life, or exercise sexual or reproductive self-control – when you see an entire race as suffering because of habitual “bad choices” you’ve framed “choice” as something that so completely characterizes a group of people that it’s not much different from a natural trait.
Bringing this back to the notion of “true womanhood,” then, the implication of the attitudes Emerson describes is that black women flout the norms of “real” femininity so regularly and to such a degree that we are basically not real women. Or at the very least, the “realness” of our femininity is always in question in the cultural context of predominantly white evangelicalism. We have to prove, in a different way and to a different extent than white women in the same contexts, our sexual “purity,” our competence and maturity as mothers and wives in a patriarchal (and white privileging) system, and our ability to show a submissive, “gentle and quiet” spirit in a context where black women are stereotyped as loud, unruly, and uncouth. The bar for showing ourselves to be “real women” is higher (and as other commenters have pointed out, similar stereotypes and double standards apply to Latina women in the white church).
More thoughts on the interviews in Emerson’s Divided by Faith in the next post on this topic.
Growing up, I had to make sense of two divergent messages I heard about female sexuality. On the one hand, there was the constant refrain about “Women” as a monolithic, universal category, utterly separate and distinct from “Men.” This idea was pounded into our heads through every possible means: in sermons and books, at conferences and bible studies, in magazines and constant exhortations to the “ladies” about the importance of modesty and to “the men” about fighting lust.
And of course it pervaded church culture and family life in less official but also powerful ways: the joking-but-not-really comments from boys and men about whom they would “allow” to court their female relatives, and the dire consequences awaiting any man who dared to touch their sister or daughters without prior approval. The warnings to girls and women that we must withhold sex from men in order to lure them into marriage. The pervasive refusal to even consider the possibility that women might want to have sex – even, horrors, outside of marriage – and the complementary assumption that men were always and only really interested in straight sex.
The message was pretty clear: the bedroom for men, the altar for women. End of story.
Except the story wasn’t so simple for me. At the same time that I was being taught to equate “true” femininity with chastity and sexual reticence, I was also learning that many people I went to church with saw black women as having a habitually unchaste and voracious sexuality. A similar disconnect existed between the notion that “women” are nurturing, warm, oriented towards family and the home, and on the other hand, pernicious stereotypes of black mothers as neglectful, irresponsible, unfit parents who either lacked or rejected “normal” maternal sentiment and behavior.
Offhand comments from pastors and church members alike, snide asides, jokes in which black female sexuality was a frequent punchline, and widespread willingness to pontificate about the moral and cultural failings of black communities made it unmistakably clear that the prevailing assumptions about black women stood in sharp contrast to everything I was told came naturally to “Women.”
These are some of the messages I heard about black female sexuality (hopefully unnecessary disclaimer: this is a description, not a statement of agreement on my part with any of the moral judgments that follow!):
– Black girls and women are sexually active early, often, and with multiple partners.
– Corollary: black girls and women can usually be assumed to be sexually active, or soon to become sexually active, with no information or evidence for this apart from their blackness.
– Black girls and women are unrestrained and irresponsible with both sexuality and reproduction, e.g.: black women become parents at a very young age, are usually single or unmarried parents, have large numbers of children, fathered by different men who are seldom involved in parenting their kids.
– Corollary: black girls and women in public with children can be assumed to be single parents of those children, with no information or evidence for this apart from their blackness.
– Black mothers do not adequately provide for their children, are often unemployed by choice and on public assistance.
– Corollary: older black girls or women with children in public can be assumed to be unwed parents of those children supported by the hard-earned money that the government steals from hardworking, white, married people pay in taxes. In other words, black women suspected of being unwed parents are also lazy mooches (never mind that the majority of people on welfare are white Americans, never mind that being on welfare is hardly the primrose path conservatives seem to imagine).
– Black mothers are neglectful, lazy, and abusive in their parenting.
In short, I was left to reconcile the following contradictory messages:
“woman” = “natural” and “God-given” sexual reticence, “natural” desire for marriage and “the home” as boundaries that contain sexuality and reproduction, and “natural” desire to submit to male “leadership.”
“black woman” = hypersexuality, reproductive excess, parental neglect, and the absence of husband/father figures (in other words, the absence of patriarchal covering and authority).
On top of all that, these negative stereotypes were so strongly associated with blackness as to make them seem almost like an innate racial trait. People widely assumed that these behaviors could be taken for granted as characterizing random black women they saw in public, or on TV. Unsurprisingly, these assumptions also affected how black girls and women who weren’t strangers, but part of the church community, were perceived and treated by the white majority of the congregation and even by other black members. These stereotypes so strongly shaped how the church viewed black women inside and outside the community that they rose to the level of “just how black people are.”
As I’ll discuss in the next post, these stereotypes were not isolated to my church or my denomination (or to Christians in general, to be fair); rather, they were representative of beliefs about black people and especially black women that are still quite common among white religious conservatives.
Major trigger warning for sexual abuse of children.
I don’t find “sin” to be a terribly useful moral or ethical concept. In fundamentalist religions especially, it’s a highly arbitrary and variable concept that has very little to do with actual right or wrong. In the fundamentalist communities I grew up in, people were far more concerned with whether something counted as sin or not than they were with whether it caused harm or pain to others. And since the definition of “sin” was based on ill-informed and tendentious readings of documents produced thousands of years ago in a completely different cultural context, that led to some pretty fucked up priorities when it came to judging between right and wrong.
People gave themselves a pass for all sorts of nasty, damaging behavior while completely eviscerating others for behavior that harms no one. So disowning one’s child for being gay, leaving them homeless and without a way to provide for themselves – that’s not a sin. A consensual relationship between two people of the same gender, though, really pisses God off. Premarital sex? Definitely a sin. Sexually coercing your wife (e.g., by telling her that she can never turn you down when you want sex)? God is totally cool with that. “Sin” basically means whatever they say it means. Ironically, it turns out that, despite all their bleating about how cultural liberalism means “anything goes,” fundamentalists are the real moral relativists.
I was reminded of this as I read the latest horrific story of sexual abuse, victim blaming, and cover ups at a Sovereign Grace Ministries church (trigger warning; also be warned that there’s a lot of homophobia and transphobia in the comments at SGMS, and it is not a safe space). Earlier this week, The Friendly Atheist posted about SGM’s Beloved Leader, CJ Mahaney, and one of his signature (read: stale and recycled) sermons on female “modesty.” See, CJ wants us gals to know that our bodies are dangerous to men, so dangerous that men who want to avoid the “sin” of lust can barely stand to look at us when we’re dressed “immodestly”:
Campus is a loaded minefield. There are girls everywhere… I either have to be actively engaging my mind and my spirit to, quoting scripture, listening to worship music, or simply looking at the sidewalk to make it through unscathed. Many days it takes all four to be safe.
The thing that women do not seem to fully grasp is that the temptation towards lust does not stop for us as men. It is continual. It is aggressive. It does all it can to lead men down to death. And [women] have a choice to help or deter its goal….
Sometimes, when I see a girl provocatively dressed, I’ll say to myself, she probably doesn’t even know that a 101 guys are going to devour her in their minds today. But then again, maybe she does. To be honest, I don’t know the truth. The truth of why she chooses to dress the way she does. The way she chooses to walk, the way she chooses to act. I don’t know because I’ve never sat down with a girl and asked her why [probably because you can’t look at a girl, much less speak to her, without your brain exploding? Just a thought]. All I need to know is that the way she presents herself to the world is bait for my sinful mind to latch onto and I need to avoid it [read: avoid her] at all costs.
Got that, ladies? Our dirty girlbodies are bait for the dudes. Leading them down to death. Because we “make” them think about sex when we dress “immodestly,” and thinking about sex is an awful, no good sin. So dressing “immodestly” must be an awful, no good sin, too. Pretty strict standards there. So, if simply being sexually attracted to someone who isn’t one’s spouse is such an awful sin, and having consensual sex with that person is, too, doesn’t that make coerced sexual contact extra sinful? Shouldn’t that be something the church “wars” against like it does against lust and immodesty? Especially when the safety and well-being of children is at stake?
I guess that makes a little too much sense. Apparently when a child is sexually abused in an SGM church, they and their family need to have their sin addressed by the pastors. In SGM-land, the worst sinners aren’t abusers, but survivors and families who dare to speak out about their abuse, or call for legal or church accountability. The abuser, not the survivor or their family, is the one who receives protection and care from the church leadership. Survivors are harassed with calls to forgive- which in SGM means pretending the abuse never happened, not pressing charges, enabling pastoral cover-ups, even when the abuser continues to have access to children, and instantaneously getting over the trauma of abuse (or at least shutting up about it – seeking closure or trauma counseling or even just talking to your pastors about it shows an “unforgiving” heart). Absent such “forgiveness,” survivors and their families are treated as rebellious church members to be silenced and weeded out.
Wallace and happymom’s story of sexual abuse two of their children suffered, and the ordeal they and their whole family endured at their SGM church is heartwrenching and beyond appalling:
During 12 years as members of the Fairfax church, two of our children were sexually molested by two different people who attended the church….[At Fairfax ]The perpetrator of a sex crime and his family are brought under the care of a pastor. This would involve counseling, accountability sessions and possible minor restrictions regarding movement in the church during services. People “at risk” are not notified. The victim and victim’s family however are usually confronted with opposition from leadership by minimizing and/or invalidating particular aspects of the victim’s story.
In 1998, we discover our child (child-A) had been molested by a young man attending the Fairfax church. We did not press charges and regretted this later on. The father of the young man was initially uncooperative in dealing with the situation until Steve Shank stepped in to handle it…Shank addressed our sin and asked the young man to apologize.
We forgave him; however, with minor restrictions imposed by the staff, he continued to intimidate our child during Sunday services to the point where our child was fearful of going to church. The pastors involved had little to say concerning this as it didn’t appear to be a priority for them.
In October 2007, we discover child-B had been molested. The molestation had occurred 5 years earlier…[After they pressed charges] The detective told us later on that Fairfax had been “uncooperative” in the investigation…. a fact they later denied…
The trial took place in March 2008. Prior to the trial, not knowing how the young man would plead, we asked pastor DH to come with pastor SW ready to give testimony on our child’s behalf if needed. Pastor DH made it known to us they were not coming to the courthouse. I explained to him if the young man pleaded not guilty, our child would then have to get up in front of the court and reveal the entire ordeal along with answering questions from the attorneys. It didn’t matter, they still weren’t coming. His response to us was, “I have my church’s reputation to consider.”….[the pastors ultimately showed up after the threat of a subpoena].
The Fairfax pastors – including an uncle of the abused child! – lied and obstructed this family’s attempts to get justice and closure for their child at every turn. The family was ‘invited’ to leave the church. Later attempts to get some kind of accountability were met with halfhearted apologies and subsequent statements that the family was “sinfully craving answers.”
All that SGM requires of abusers is that they “repent” – which is about as meaningful as the notion of “sin” in this culture. Repentance can be performed quite convincingly – in fact, being able to persuasively fake contrition is a common characteristic of serial abusers. In exchange for “repentance,” abusers get the church bullying survivors on their behalf, giving free access to more potential victims, minimizing abuse, keeping vulnerable families in the dark, lying and obstructing justice for them.
My wife asked pastor MM why they do not warn people at risk when a known sex felon is in their church. His response was, “that perpetrator could grow up and sue us for defamation of character.” So in pastor MM’s mind, the possibility of being sued sometime in the future takes precedence over protecting children from known sex offenders.
There you have it. SGM claims to care about “sexual sin,” but when push comes to shove, they’re too busy policing women’s wardrobes and telling couples how to have sex to be bothered with actually protecting their flock from sex offenders. And they can only deal with the hassle of caring for children and families so long as kids don’t get abused by a church member. They have more important sins to address than sexual molestation – like people who don’t get over being abused quickly enough for the pastors’ tastes, and people who are mysteriously bothered by having to be around their abusers every Sunday.
This isn’t the first time this has happened in an SGM church – in fact, it’s not even the first time it’s happened at SG Fairfax. Nor are these (to put it very mildly) misplaced priorities unique to SGM. They’re direct products of warped and widespread theologies of sin that privilege arbitrary, so-called divine expectations over the actual effects of those expectations on real human beings. They’re priorities that are fueling a cycle of epidemic abuse, abuse-enabling, victim-blaming in countless churches:
When my mother can say “I can only vote on what God tells me is right, and I can’t support gay marriage” and say to me, “It doesn’t matter what your brother did, you have to forgive him or else your risking your relationship with God” where is God’s justice? Why does he care so much about the actions of consenting adults, but hates victims? Why is it easier to be a rapist than to love another human being, why is your God’s love for me dependent on my forgiveness, but your love for him unconditional? Where is justice in that? (somaticstrength, Dear Christians: Your God needs to get his priorities straight)
So I’m tired of hearing about sin. If your god can stomach sheltering abusers and abusing survivors, but not a woman in a halter top, your concept of sin is utterly meaningless, and your god is seriously fucked up. You can keep him.
The crux of the controversy over Ann Voskamp’s book revolves around accusations that she wants to have “intercourse” with God. Everyday Mommy, the blogger whose post sparked the debate, argues that the biblical image of the Christian church as the bride of Christ is solely an analogy that illustrates how different persons of the Trinity relate to each other, and how husbands and wives should relate to each other – except for the sex part. “The Biblical imagery of marriage between Christ and His bride has [nothing] whatsoever to do with sex,” and exploring any sensual or sexual aspect of this marital metaphor is “[imposing] our own fallen, fleshly views on scripture.”
Frankly I think this response points to a rather low view of sexuality as something to be ashamed of (“fallen” and “fleshly”), while divinity necessarily means being sexless – but also necessarily means being of male gender. The obsession with a power-hungry, violent and vengeful male God who is completely invulnerable to any kind of human need or desire, perhaps most especially sexual desire, is very revealing of the gender and sexual politics at the heart of complementarianism. It’s the sort of thing Freud would have had a field day with (and did, I think).
But as for the claim that the metaphor of “intercourse with God” is unscriptural and heretic, this would have been news to Puritan Christians. In his study of sexuality in colonial America, Richard Godbeer shows that Puritans found such imagery not only appropriate, but in fact necessary for understanding the proper relationship between God and the Christian soul. They believed that physical, sexual passion was not to be repressed, but rather channelled into heterosexual marriage and celebrated in that context; all sexual expression outside those boundaries was “unclean” and “disorderly.”
At the same time, even legitimate marital love could become a sin if it distracted a Christian from what should be their primary object of affection, namely, Christ. For many Puritans, the imagery of Christ as bridegroom to the Church, and the erotic language in which they rendered that imagery, wasn’t merely an analogy. It was an illustration that pointed to the very real spiritual passion a Christian should feel for Christ – a passion far more important than any human affection, and a passion that, pursued above any other, would lead to far greater and more lasting pleasure than any human relationship could. Puritan literature on the love between Christ and the Christian soul was full of talk of ecstasies, swooning, raptures, and even “seed” and “impregnation.”
We can see an example of this in the writings of Edward Taylor, a seventeenth century Massachusetts pastor. Taylor wrote to his future wife that his intense, “sanctified” love for her would nevertheless always have to be subordinate to the love “betwixt Christ and his church,” and spoke of this spiritual love in sensual and sexual terms. In his poems, Taylor described his soul as a “womb” which would be “impregnated” by “Christ the spermadote” with the “seed” of grace, and eventually give birth to the “babe of grace.”
Taylor’s spiritual poetry portrayed his relationship with Christ as a passionate, sexual encounter. He imagined Christ as a lover who was a “spotless male in prime,” and wrote of preparing “gospel pillows, sheets, and sweet perfumes” to welcome Christ into the “feather-bed” of his heart. Through union with Christ he expected to experience “love raptures” quite clearly orgasmic in nature: “Yea, with thy holy oil make thou it slick till like a flash of lightning it grow quick.”
Whew! Pretty hot and heavy, I’d say. Certainly far more explicit than Voskamp’s vague, generic longings to “make love to” or have “intercourse” with God. And as Godbeer points out, Taylor “was neither unique nor unorthodox” for his time in making use of such erotic language and imagery. Nor did Puritans consider it inappropriate for men to write about Jesus as a masculine, spiritual lover – to the contrary, his masculinity was emphasized in such writing. As I’ll discuss in a future post, the greater fluidity of Puritan understandings of gender (by comparison to 21st century Americans) made what looks to us like a queering of the relationship between Jesus and the church completely acceptable, even in a context where same gender love was roundly condemned.
Which is why I found this comment from a male reader at Everyday Mommy so ironic:
@Karen and the supporters:
Since this stuff is okay I’m going to write about how [Jesus is] *my* lover too. My soul longs for sweet, intimate, gay sex.
And if you protest I can just say it’s spiritual.
Or we could recognize that EverydayMommy is right about this is morally reprehensible.
Not to worry, dude. Edward Taylor was waaaaay ahead of you.
[Note: In this series of posts I’m paraphrasing and drawing on research by Richard Godbeer in Sexual Revolution in Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.]
Trigger warning: rape/sexual assault.
You know, sometimes I feel like I’m exaggerating the awfulness of what I was taught about sex, like it couldn’t possibly be as bad as I feel it was. After all, in addition to all the warnings about premarital sex, I did also hear a lot about how sex is a beautiful gift from God to married couples, and how married people have the best sex (in retrospect, this is kind of a weird thing for married adults to be discussing with teenagers y/y?).
Maybe the fact that I had trouble with sex when I got married has more to do with personal and family hangups than it did with anything I learned at church. Maybe I’m assigning blame unfairly. Then again . . .
h/t Jesus Needs New PR (warning for some potentially fatphobic language).
Then I watch clips like this, and remember that this bullshit is EXACTLY what I was taught. That I’d be dirty and used up and unwanted if I had sex. I remember, and I start to think it’s a fucking miracle that I ever managed to have sex with my husband at all.
Small bloody wonder so many evangelical couples find the transition into marital sexuality awkward and even traumatic. How are you supposed to literally change your perspective on sex overnight? Sex one night before your wedding makes you like a germy piece of candy or a cup of spit, but one night after your wedding is a beautiful and glorious gift from God? What about the couples who buy into Joshua Harris’s ridiculous standard of saving their first kiss for their wedding day (seriously!)? How can a couple entering marriage with virtually no experience with being physically affectionate possibly be expected to navigate such a transition without major issues?
These kinds of teachings set couples up for lousy sex lives, which make for not so great marriages. Cis women in particular bear the brunt of teachings that they are being used and besmirched if they have sex, and many can’t magically shut off the effects of years of indoctrination. They aren’t going to feel any less used just because they’re married to the person they’re having sex with. They aren’t suddenly going to feel like their sexual desire or their husband’s sexual desire is any more legitimate than it was before they got married.
Abstinence advocates will say that they aren’t talking about married sex, of course. Just premarital sex – oh, and all non-hetero sex, and masturbation, and any sex involving trans or genderqueer people. Kids just need to remember that only hetero cis married sex is clean and safe, and everything else is dirty and perverted. Well. The problem there – apart from the big, hopefully obvious one of treating something almost all humans do as shameful and wrong in all of its forms but one – is that it’s very difficult to make such a statement not come across as a blanket condemnation of sexual activity (perhaps because, um, it basically is). The message people hear is that any sexual contact or activity is polluting and degrading, and the intense emphasis on maintaining virginity reinforces this powerfully. A few words here and there about how beautiful marital sex is doesn’t dilute the impact of that message. If virginity is a state of purity and self-control, then sexual activity – whether in marriage or not – is implicitly coded as impure and indulgent.
And as many survivors have attested, these teachings are incredibly damaging to people who have been raped or sexually assaulted. The abstinence movement’s concept of virginity is framed entirely around the notion of “purity” or “impurity” of the body and the mind. A virgin body is one that is untouched and unsullied: an unwrapped piece of candy, a rose with all its petals. A virgin mind is “innocent” – which often is a euphemism for “ignorant” – of sexuality. Whether sexual contact or knowledge is freely chosen or imposed on someone is immaterial in such a framework. Coerced sexual contact doesn’t make one any less of a chewed up piece of gum. Survivors of sexual abuse from evangelical or fundamentalist families often feel used, guilty, and worthless because they are no longer “virgins” or “pure” – and they are often treated that way by Christian loved ones and fellow church members. For example:
I had a good friend in college who had to gather a lot of courage to tell her serious boyfriend that she was not a virgin because she had been raped as a teenager. Her boyfriend then went on a tirade about how he thought he was getting something new but it turns out she was “used merchandise” and thus she cheated him. She went on to marry this guy. I still hate him.
I hope it’s been clear that my point isn’t to belittle people who choose not to have sex before marriage. That’s a legitimate choice to make. The point is that the way the professional abstinence movement frames virginity, premarital sex, and sexuality in general is deceitful and dangerous. It relies on shaming tactics and misinformation, and promotes an unhealthy, negative attitude about sexualities and bodies. And it’s not just wrong in the abstract; it’s not just a movement with terrible ideas. It has far-reaching, negative consequences for basically everyone who’s exposed to it unarmed with accurate information.