For those who grew up in the church, particularly during our adolescent years, we can all knowingly smile when someone brings up the topic of purity, or keeping yourself pure before the Lord so that you please your future partner, and more importantly, God. As teenagers, we were duly informed every spring and summer to not wear revealing clothing, to not cause our brothers or sisters to “stumble” in their spiritual journey. We were told to never be alone with a member of the opposite sex so that we could avoid temptation and, again, the desire to “stumble”. We were enlightened by the adults in our lives to the dangers of watching films with explicit images, or listening to music with suggestive language, or reading books with sultry scenes.
But when we step back, just for a moment, and really take a look deep into our memories, what do we find? This might not necessarily be the case for every single one of us, but for most, the aforementioned messages, warnings, and pleas were generally directed towards women, implicitly if not explicitly. I spent my entire life in Evangelical/Baptist circles, and during all those years, I was never once told to change my shirt because someone might be lusting after me. I was never told to wear longer shorts because my thighs were too prominently displayed. My gender has never been singled out from the pulpit to “help protect the purity and holiness of our sisters in Christ”. I was never gently rebuked or chastised for showing too much of my chest region, or my butt, or my legs.
Why was this the case? Is it because women don’t lust? Is it because they’re not equally as hormonal or sexually curious as men? Is it because they’re not as desiring of sexually intimate encounters as their male counterparts? That was not, and is not, and never will be, the case. Having a background in studying the sociological underpinnings of societies, and particularly the Evangelical one, a number of elements have become increasingly clear to me, with respect to the issues of chastity and purity: men are considered to be moderately incapable of controlling their sexual urges and desires, women must help them fight these desires because women themselves are sexually neutral, and that the best way for men to help fight these lustful thoughts is for the women to dress and conduct themselves in such a way that the men be slightly relieved of their burning passions.
There are a number of obvious errors in these assumptions. The assumption that women don’t have the sexual drives or desires comparable to men is simply untrue. The belief that men are moderately incapable of controlling their desires is equally incorrect. When we view this situation from an objective lens, it becomes very clear that the Evangelical church is still operating within a patriarchal system of belief, and while this hurts men to a certain degree, it is much, much more detrimental to the lives of young women. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been inundated with stories I’ve read of women who grew up in the church, were assaulted at some point, and spent years wondering what exactly they did wrong, fully blaming themselves for the attack. Year after year after year, the church puts forth a message that they think is best, and Godly, and proper. I can’t blame them for their intentions. But what has happened over time is that the young women in the church have had every bit of the blame placed squarely on their shoulders. Why? Well, you know, “Boys will be boys, after all”.
Maybe you think I’m being too dramatic, or I’m blowing things out of proportion. If that is the case, I encourage you to research the sexual assault cases that recently came to light at Bob Jones University, Pensacola Christian College, and Patrick Henry College. Every one of the women involved, without exception, was grilled on their version of the events, asked if they were being seductive or wearing tempting clothing, and were told that the men accused were “good guys” and wouldn’t do such a thing. The men accused all went on to graduate and some married shortly after. The women were left in a position where their stories were not believed, with some being eventually ignored or being accused of being unforgiving to their assailants.
It’s certainly not too late for the church to move in a different direction in regards to purity. It needs to recognize that women are sexually autonomous beings, that women have sexual agency and control over their own bodies, and that men have no claim to do whatever they wish to women. As long as men are bombarded with the message that they’re essentially sex machines who can barely restrain themselves, and women shown (via recent events) that they will not be taken seriously when they bring charges against their assailants, the church will continue to inadvertently create a cocktail of sexual abuse and trauma that affects these young women long after the actual attack. We need to change, and we need to change now.
When we isolate a part of ourselves from the rest of our being, we can so often cause painful and longstanding damage to the wholeness of who we are as friends, partners, and lovers. The church, with respect to sexuality and sexual expression, has for so long asked its young people to abstain from the temptations of the flesh, to fight the hormonal impulses of youth and to flee the desires of the heart, for they are taught that all evil wishes spring from it. The intentions behind such a requirement are certainly noble, and perfectly natural. After all, as parents and teachers, the adults in such an institution wish to provide the best care and protection for their young charges, and there is certainly nothing unreasonable about this drive. As someone who experienced adolescence within the framework of a fundamentalist Christian upbringing, I can attest to the fact that those around me wanted nothing but the best for my future, as well as my present, and their teachings in regard to sexuality and sexual expression certainly reflected good intentions. Many kids who grew up in traditionalist or fundamentalist households experiences trauma or abuse of some sort, but I was blessed, immeasurably, to avoid such a fate.
The church, on the whole, has a wide variety of admirable goals for its young people with respect to their sexual development and maturation. I, and my Millennial peers, came of age during a time when the Church was really kicking into overdrive to help us hormonal teens keep our raging sexual desires neatly tucked away until the moment we were betrothed to a similarly virginal individual. The Silver Ring Thing, True Love Waits, Love Never Fails… these were but a few of the programs and campaigns executed by non-profit and parachurch organizations to help ensure that our Christian youth remained pure and unblemished until the day we committed ourselves to another person. The adults had surveyed the (sexually charged) cultural landscape of America from the 1980s onward, and concluded that in order to protect their children from the sexual decadence of the new Sodom and Gomorrah, projects such as the ones mentioned above were absolutely vital. A study from early 2007 highlights the purity math: over a billion dollars was spent during the 90s into the early 2000s focused solely on abstinence-only education across most of the United States, with few exceptions. Churches pooled their resources and funds to create festivals and weekend events celebrating purity before marriage, and brought in speakers to highlight the supposed risks of engaging in any physical contact with the opposite sex before one was to be married. Tremendous amounts of time, energy, and money was (and still is) spent to help provide a hedge of protection around the teenagers and young adults of the Church, all with the intention of ensuring the all-around purity of those involved.
After several decades of this grand experiment in Evangelical circles, the results are in. David Sessions, a writer for the Daily Beast who has written several pieces concerning the purity movement in America, describes the latest data results we have on the matter: “The facts are staggering: despite almost universal affirmation that premarital sex is a sin, 80 percent of unmarried evangelicals (PDF) are having it, and 30 percent of those who accidentally get pregnant get an abortion.”. If the goal was to keep evangelical Christian kids abstaining from all manner of sexual interaction, the experiment can be rightly considered an abject failure. And when we consider the fact that, anecdotally, many teenagers consider oral and anal sex to mean that they haven’t lost their virginity, the odds are very good that the 80% number might be slightly higher. Sessions continues: “Though an overwhelming majority believe premarital sex is wrong, white evangelicals are sexually active at a younger age than any demographic besides African-Americans, and are one of the least likely groups to use contraception.”
What’s our collective takeaway from this data? At the very least, it means eight out of every ten kids in Evangelical Christian circles has been or is currently sexually active before marriage, even though young adults associated with religious communities often marry sooner than the national average. So if the overarching goal was to keep kids from having sex with one another, it was not a success by any means. Even at the cost of over a billion dollars, teens and young adults still had some form of sexual expression with a partner. The Church, despite its best intentions, has failed a generation of teens who expressed themselves sexually, felt guilt and shame due to their religious upbringing, and continued to carry those psychological scars with them throughout the years. I feel that if the Church wishes to truly protect the hearts, bodies, and souls of their young adults, they desperately need to take another approach, and consider what exactly went wrong over the past few decades.
In the next and final section, I’ll be exploring what direction the Church should consider moving in, with respect to the findings covered today. I’ll be looking at the situation from a much more personal perspective, and sharing insights I’ve gained coming to terms with myself as sexual being.
Tina Sellers, a professor of human sexuality at a Christian university, pens a beautiful essay on the topic of how the church engages (or doesn’t) with a wide variety of sexual topics. She expresses a sentiment that I’ve shared for several years now but have struggled to articulate it as well as she does in the following selection:
“When we continue to shroud sexuality in silence and an abstinence only discourse, we continue to burden faith filled children, adolescents, young adults and adults with a deep shame that interrupts their ability to fully know God’s love and grace. Shame modulates distance in intimacy and sexual expression in the monogamous relationships that are foundational to community living and a significant expression of God’s active love. When people are filled with shame and self-loathing, their affected self-esteem takes precedence in interactions with others. It dominates and eclipses a person’s ability to see and love another. In essence, sexuality encased in silence and shame keeps people from intimately knowing both God and each other, and cripples our ability as a community of believers to truly love and be a healing force in our hurting world”.
Sellers makes several critical points here. In her role as a professor of human sexuality at the graduate level, she notes that after having read literally hundreds of sexual autobiographies, the story is essentially the same. The subject begins to explore themselves sexually, learning how their bodies work and how to provide themselves with pleasure, their parents inevitably discover this behavior somehow, chastise them roundly, wherein the subject begins the process of hiding an intimate part of themselves, shrouded in the unfortunate cover of guilt, shame, and remorse. Sellers reminds the reader, via a thorough examination of historical events regarding the Church’s dealings with human sexuality, that the guilt-shame cycle we create as a faith community is not actually based on some moral code located within the Scriptures, but rather a number of individuals, including St. Augustine, helped to shape a rather Puritanical approach to sexuality and sexual expression. Thousands of years later, we’re still struggling to throw off these unwieldy, and unnecessary, shackles of shame and guilt. If we are to understand, rightly, that this cultural moral code is just that, a social norm, rather than something directly from the Gospel itself, why do we insist on its preservation? And, as Sellers beseeches, at what cost do we insist on upholding such a repressive, damaging, and scarring ethic?
Many, many generations of Christians have been raised on these types of norms, and as a Church, we’ve created legions of individuals who, having been hurt or scarred in some manner, spend years or decades working to create a healthy, balanced sexual ethic, whether they remain within the faith community or not. Online communities such as the “No Shame Movement” and “Thank God for Sex” are working tirelessly to create a safe spaces where people can come together to heal, share their stories, and reconcile the Gospel and their own sexual identity, which has for so long been an object of derision, guilt, or self-loathing.
For so many of us, myself included, the Church handed out an impossible ideal of sexual norms, activities, and rules, and expected us to fall into lockstep with these mandates. For the tiny minority who managed to somehow live up to these terrifyingly high expectations, they were welcomed with open arms. For the eight of of ten of us who “failed”, we were left with an unrelenting (and unfair) sense of shame, guilt, and remorse that cycled through itself over and over until we began the process of creating a healthier, more reparative, and more authentic sexual ethic. Ultimately, we wish to glorify and give praise with our bodies, to rejoice in the pleasure they bring us, and to be grateful for the connection we have between the divine spirit and our own sexual expression.
Next week I’ll be unpacking and exploring the “eight out of ten” statistic I alluded to in the paragraph above. Thanks to everyone who reads and allows me to honestly share my heart in regards to the difficult topics being discussed. Blessings to you all.