InterSEXtional Projects

“Her Sexuality Should Not Be Pathologized”, Found Poetry

Published in celebration of National Poetry Month, 2017

“Found poems take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. The literary equivalent of a collage, found poetry is often made from newspaper articles, street signs, graffiti, speeches, letters, or even other poems” 1

(My source material included free writes, prose, albums, & documents curated and collected as part of a Beauty Breaks workshop, led by Imani Jackson, as well as quotes from my own, unused, draft material)
My parameters included:
1) Using phrases that referenced or envisioned “Grandmother”, “Grandma”, “Gramma”, etc.
2) Using phrases with a color in them
3) Using half of the sentence / phrase for each instance (the meaning was re-imagined through punctuation and / or lack of punctuation, where appropriate)

“Her sexuality should not be pathologized”.

Red and hot like that candy my Grandma loved
I feel you come closer and your blue energy cools me
And then she came, coffee skin, red hair –

more red

The whitest background you’ve ever seen
The velveteen blood orchid
Purple sounds so tasty like sweet and tart
Purple rain
I could still smell its sweet magenta rimmed message
Premonitions of a grown ass woman.

 

DiShan, the Matrix of Domination, & Deconstructing Binaries of “Holy / Horny”

My friends send me videos, clips, flyers, etc. about churchy (1) things to file away in my “Why do we do things like this?” folder. Last week, I was introduced to DiShan Washington’s body of work through her newest “online symposium” (titled then as) Single, Saved, & Still Wanting Sex:  I Still Want It – A Transparent Conversation about being Holy & Horny.

Initially, I laughed (like… a lot. It turns out there’s a large bandwidth of things to cackle on given how this was rolled out). Yet, as the virility of the symposium increased, I decided to do some research about where it was coming from. It is important to walk through that context for the purposes of this piece. Please bear with me for a moment:

DiShan Washington is a writer, speaker, and primary author of a genre that she calls Christian erotica. The distinguishing point in this genre is that “all of (her) characters are married“. In her personal life, Washington is the daughter of a preacher, married to a 20 year old minister at the age of 16  (2). During this time, she experienced “bouts of low self-esteem, depression, two suicide attempts (3)“. After her marriage ended (due to infidelity), Washington writes that she went “from living a life of luxury to homelessness and even days of wondering where her next meal would come from” (3).

It is important to call out that many of DiShan’s formative years as an emerging adult were spent as a “First Lady” (read as: pastor’s wife). Depending on the church’s context & relationship to patriarchal norms, this could indicate learning & practicing wifely subservience, dependence, & service to God, the church, & their husband above self (3).

In an NPR interview, Washington clarifies:

“I was raised by a generation of women that said sex was for the man […] (I thought) when this marriage ends, what will I deem the cause[…] How do I get Christian women to remove the stigma that being erotic was sinful”.

All of these things are important to note. If we look through our Black feminist lens, we can see certain themes emerging in her specific story and sociocultural context (4).

Washington, like many Black churched women, seems to be (publicly) navigating the “matrix of domination”: the oppression that is connected to racial stigma, gender, mental illness & ability, & class (Collins, 1993). The context provided above allows that the church served as a primary institution in perpetuating the aforementioned “axes of oppression”, in addition to sexual subservience, and economic dependence through marriage & patriarchal norms. In my lived experience, I have also seen similarities of story with many other Black churched women – age differences, notwithstanding.

From the NPR quote above, as well as various live feed posts, it seems that Washington is attempting to create new ways to navigate these spaces.  Creating genres such as Christian erotica & affordable online symposiums that deal with holiness, being horny, & transparent conversations about sex & sexuality might be intended towards this goal (4).

The rhetoric of the symposium fell short of that goal. This was not necessarily surprising, given the way that this symposium was framed (i.e. the symposium itself was not accessible to “men”; a prelude video states that within this conversation, the goal was to “still remain saved” which is read here as coded language for upholding puritanical beliefs on sexuality).

The conversation went back & forth without imagining new pathways of destigmatizing sexuality & the erotic for Black churched women. For example, I could see Washington’s attempt to complicate our understandings of the Bible (she did this in context of masturbation). However, this was situated along her point that masturbating (as a single Christian woman) promoted lust, which was still a “slippery slope”. I appreciated the assertions that our sexual desires are good & can occur at many different moments (i.e. “sometimes, my hand will graze my nipples and they will get aroused”) but cringed at the suggestion of disembodying ourselves (i.e. “our hormones aren’t ‘saved”). A few of the final notes included smoking as a metaphor for premarital sex (or as my good friend Anaya* said, ‘Fuckin’ is to your spirit as smoking is to your lungs’).

In the case of Washington’s symposium, there is an underlying premise that sex & erotica can only be normalized IF it is within the scope of marriage, patriarchy, and heteronormativity (briefly defined here as the assumption that heterosexual coupling is the “norm”, the standard, and the preference for all persons). Let me state plainly: this premise is dangerous. It allows no room or space was given for persons who identified outside of the “man / woman” gender binary or have chosen partnerships / relationships outside of the gaze of heterosexuality. It allows no space to craft an individual sexual ethos inside of or outside of state sanctioned marriage (which costs money & has gatekeepers). We cannot decrease & disrupt sexual stigma by attaching additional stigmas. We further marginalize ourselves & others by functioning within the realms of heteronormativity & patriarchy.

These impacts cannot be overlooked, regardless of intent (5).

I’m working on a longer form article & what I’ve found in that process is this: Black churched women, at various ages, have capacity to internalize gendered oppression even within efforts to resist gendered oppression. Disrupting internalized oppression is key in gaining sexual & gendered freedoms for self AND for others. This is what I wanted to see in Washington’s symposium… despite the sense of knowing that I wouldn’t likely see it.

I’m writing about this because “a great deal of my work (coincidentally or in-coincidentally) points to dialogue with and about Black church(ed) women. I facilitate & curate resources on sex & sexuality for a private space for women (primarily WOC) who have been and / or are currently church(ed). This is important to me, because there are so many spaces & scenarios where parents weren’t talking about sex, sexuality, consent, etc. and  churches / private religious schools weren’t giving that information either. It is important to me that particularly church(ed) WOC have a space to ask these questions to better discern how they prioritize their sexual health” (6)and construct their sexual ethos OUTSIDE of patriarchy & heteronormativity dressed up as ‘holiness’.

(Black church-ism: You oughta shout right there. Nods head churchily).

In other words: We have to find better, freer, more expansive ways forward. 

Washington stated that a key reason she chose the path of celibacy included a moment of unsatisfying sex. She also announced a forthcoming book on the topic of “remaining holy while horny”. With this in mind, a neat “summary” doesn’t seem appropriate. There are questions yet to be answered and modalities of thought yet to be ironed out, including:

  • How might the sexual lives & choices of Black churched women look different if we prioritized pleasure & found instances of sexual pleasure in sacred text (7, 8, 9, 10)?
  • How can we more readily recognize when gendered oppression is masquerading under the guise of holiness? How do we disrupt, disengage, & divest from in commitments to White, Western norms of morality (10), gender (11), and sexuality?
    • Who can / should partner in this work?

There are a great deal of scholars who are coming back to these questions (and more). I plan to commit to these questions as well. I believe that working towards the answers requires our time and helps us to get free.

Toxic Concepts I (Un)Learned from Church – On Sex & Throwin’ It In a (Prayer) Circle

“Once you know the truth, you can’t ever go back and pick up your suitcase of lies. Heavier or not, the truth is yours now”. – Sue Monk Kidd

“What are the heavy truths that are yours now”? – Journaling exercise

In the past, I’ve chronicled the toxic concepts that I have unlearned from church and / or church adjacent spaces (campus ministries, study groups, etc.).

Today, I’m picking up the series with three more posts on toxic concepts I unlearned (because…word count).

Toxic Concept: Women’s sexuality can be and SHOULD be treated as a commodity, define her level of “purity”, and only be used in the service of gaining & keeping a husband.

Lena, a youth group minister*, sat us all down for one of her infamous ‘talks’. You never really knew what to expect from Lena, so the best course of action was to brace yourself for whatever was coming. In this talk, she took out a box of tissues:

“If I need to wipe my nose, then I use one of these tissues”. She feigned wiping and dramatically dropped one to the ground. “Now that I’ve done that… who wants to use this tissue”.

Of course, the room was enveloped in silence and stares.

“Some of you want to be hoes in the hallway and sluts in the stairwell. But once it’s gone, it’s gone. Once it’s used, it’s used. Have some more pride and dignity in yourself. You ought to carry yourself in the manner with which you want to be treated!”

Humming under the surface of my consciousness, I learned that having sex (and moreover, having it freely) would bring my worth down to the size of a snotty, used tissue – fit only to be discarded.

If you’re not familiar with this type of rhetoric, then this example can seem pretty extreme. To be clear, there are many spaces where similar analogies are made: “Your virginity is a gift – you don’t want to give your husband an opened gift”. Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye (and icon of the Evangelical Christian movement in the early 2000s), likened virginity to a rose. “Losing it” or giving it away would result in all of the petals being plucked off – there would be nothing left to give for your someday-husband.

So, I learned to be afraid. Afraid of my own body and its desires.
I learned that good Christian women “keep their legs closed” (as if that’s the only way to… you know what, let me not get ahead of myself) until marriage and that THIS would result in procuring a wonderful husband – and at that point, he would be provided with access to your body as a gift, an unused tissue, a fully blooming rose.

giphy1

I know it sounds like… a lot. But it is this rhetoric that reinforced what we now refer to as ‘purity culture’.

So, why am I writing about this again and why am I writing about this now? First, because this culture still exists and is now being further distilled down / spread abroad via memes. (Help us, Jesus). Second, because many Black churches have adopted, repackaged, preached, and profited off of these ideals. (Help us, Jesus).

It suggests that women who do NOT make the choice to abstain until marriage are unclear about their body’s worth. Not even THEIR INTRINSIC worth. The worth. Of their body. Yikes.

But perhaps most importantly, I bring it up now because these beliefs have such harmful ramifications in day-to-day life. These ramifications are things that some of the people I love are STILL living with & through. The No Shame Movement chronicled an entire chat  regarding some of these lasting impacts.

I want to tell you about the countless moments of attempting to comfort friends who really & truly felt like / feel like “losing” their virginity means losing their greatest “commodity” and “asset”. (Shudder). I want to tell you about the private spaces I’ve curated with the help of some good friends – in order to address the feelings & even questions that come up when you’ve grown up with this type of toxic belief. I could tell you about the women I’ve known who married hastily – simply because they had sex with their partners and felt that penance meant marrying that person.

I could tell you about the panic attacks that came over me in waves – even after I knew that my sexuality wasn’t a bargaining chip. Even after I knew I could make my own decisions about my sexuality AND have a secure relationship with the Divine. Even after I knew that my virginity wasn’t just some commodity for a husband to enjoy. And I want to tell you that I’m not the only one who experiences this – that after healing from this, I went on to curate private spaces for other women to process unlearning this shame & to ask basic questions about sex & sexual health after the gaps that abstinence-only education left in their path. I could tell you, from first-hand conversations I’ve had, that sometimes your body has to unlearn the trauma of this toxic concept… has to learn how to experience pleasure without guilt. But the word count it would take would be too great for just one post…

So, I’ll end by sharing a story about its ramifications in my own life.

A friend of mine is doing research on this very topic (and it’s going to be amazing when it comes out). I’d agreed to help out with a research query she had – and responding opened up my own experience to me in a way I’d never considered before. I told her:

I saw the toxicity of this belief first-hand when I ended up in a pretty bad relationship with an aspiring minister. I was beginning to do more formal study into this topics at the time, which really wasn’t agreeing with this partner. So, asking for what I wanted resulted in being seen as “domineering” and / or a temptation to deviate from the Gospel. I listened to their stories about they repressed their own sexuality and was told that even passionate kissing paved a way to the slippery slope of eternal damnation. (This is not hyperbole). It was clear that the only circle I was going to be throwing it in… was a prayer circle.

f7a02086-0438-4cfd-ad41-089d41eb561d

The hilariously awkward Netflix show, Chewing Gum, does a great job of showing this type of dynamic

Who knows whether that choice was actually mine – I was too busy worried that my “feminine wiles” would steer us “off the path”. Hashtag the patriarchy is a mind-fuck.

Of course, over time, I had to re-imagine my role in that relationship (read: chile, we broke up – Mama didn’t raise no fool). But after debriefing this period of time, I realized two major things:

1) My partner got this from somewhere. They got these notions from the pulpit, from their Bible college, and from their socialization into male privilege.

2) This didn’t just happen to me. 

There is an unbalanced pressure on women in religious spaces to view their sexuality as nothing more than a commodity – something to preserve and give away in service of a husband. Given the huge industry that purity culture makes through selling rings, books, and multimedia efforts – sex is selling – even the lack of it.

So, what I’m saying is this… and this alone… WHENEVER we feel we have the right to be prescriptive about every woman’s body & sexuality… we’re already in the wrong. And although not under the same circumstances, it’s still helpful to ask the question that James Baldwin posited (one that gets me free every. single. time): Who benefits?

Who benefits from the mass sexual repression of women? And how does it point to making money off of our bodies?

Ending Notes:
In the pursuit of answering this question, do feel free to check out Dr. Tamura Lomax’s work on religion & the erotic, NoShameMovement.com, and the #Blackchurchsex thread on Twitter.

*The title “throwin it in a prayer circle” stems from a popular meme which made its rounds on Twitter & Instagram

This post is a part of a larger series. You can read the other posts in the series here.

“Tried (It) Again” – Examining ableism & homo-antagonism in Burrell’s sermon

Let’s talk about what’s going on in the Black church, at present.

On Dec. 30th, I spent an evening-to-morning good time with my gurls from my college years. It’s not often that we get to see each other, so we spent most of the night sharing life updates and talking about almost every topic under the sun. Despite those good vibes, I woke up late the next morning (read: early evening) to a barrage of texts & inbox messages about singer & pastor Kim Burrell’s homo-antagonistic sermon.

My initial response was anger.

My thoughts swirled for days after, as I reviewed the sermon itself, her subsequent faux apologies, and many spot-on analyses from friends, peers, and colleagues.On a personal level, I needed to wait to weigh in. Far too often, the name of the game is to “cover xyz topic first” and in this case (like many others), there are far more connections to make – and some of the connections take some mulling over to explore or even articulate.

One such connection, for me, included Kim Burrell’s display of both homo-antagonism and ableism in her recent sermon. She begins the clip by lambasting the LGBTQI community with a barrage of insults and accusations of “perversion”. She, then, goes on to use Andrew Caldwell – recent internet sensation best known for the viral clip from the COGIC Convention in which he states he was “delivered” from being gay – as an example. This is where she implicates that sexuality and disability are both at the whim of ‘spirits’; and / or and indicator of ones relationship with God.

Burrell states:

“Mr. I Am Delivert with all these different types of spirits… on Jimmy Kimmel… you see what the enemy is looking for?… The minute somebody comes out with a deaf and dumb spirit… a mute spirit… one that can’t even talk… and that has a perverted spirit says that ‘I am delivert’ and makes it all the way to Jimmy Kimmel. You think the enemy isn’t trying to make a mockery of the church?”

To be clear, her sermon was primarily (read again for emphasis) antagonistic for community members within the LGBTQI community. This was her key focus, and the reason why she has been / is being uninvited from many opportunities.

However, what she also did as (a perceived) “aside” included situating gender identity, next to disability, next to sin. The implications here are HUGE – because in this, she implies that both LGBTQI identities as well as disabled persons are inherently possessed by spirits / dealing with sin.

Inclusive Jesus, help us.

Dr. Fiona A. Kumari Campbell (2007) asserts:

“A chief feature of an ableist viewpoint is a belief that impairment (irrespective of ‘type’) is inherently negative and should the opportunity present itself, be ameliorated, cured or indeed eliminated. What remain unspeakable are readings of the disabled body presenting life with impairment as an animating, affirmative modality of subjectivity” (p. 5-6)

Thus, Burrell’s sermon included statements which were both homo-antagonistic and ableist. Whether or not this was intended is beside the fact.

We ought to know that it is highly offensive to even use the phrase “deaf and dumb”. It is even an issue to suggest that the ways in which folks walk through the world (as it pertains to both queerness and disability) are due to “spirits”. So, to check* her (a colloquial term, rooted in AAVE, which means to correct and / or unequivocally challenge) via social media on one aspect, without examining both is something we can’t afford to do.

Surely, we ought to understand in 2017, that being LGBTQI does not involve or imply a spiritual shortcoming (as resources, please refer to Darnell Moore’s works on this, Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas’ 1999 text Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective, Dr. Pamela Lightsey’s 2015 text Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology, and then some…).

Surely, we ought to understand in 2017, that being disabled does not involve or imply a spiritual shortcoming (refer to Belser & Morrison’s 2011 article, What No Longer Serves Us: Resisting Ableism and Anti-Judaism in New Testament Healing Narratives).

Surely, we ought to be able to see that in this instance (like so many others), further marginalization happened from the pulpit – and as a minister of the Gospel – this should not be so. At this point, we need to understand that systems of oppression are inextricably linked – especially when we cannot / refuse to see its connections.

Additional Resources & Notes:
Belser, J. W., & Morrison, M. S. (2011). What no longer serves us: Resisting ableism and anti-Judaism in New Testament healing narratives. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 27(2), 153-170.

Campbell, F. A. K. (2008). Exploring internalized ableism using critical race theory. Disability & Society, 23(2), 151-162.

*Title references Kim Burrell’s 1997 album & single by the name of “Try Me Again”

*This essay is posted with special thanks to those affectionately know as my “e-cousins” for helping me to flesh these thoughts out more fully

Photo credit: The MEPR Agency via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-ND

On Benevolent Sexism & Purity PR

Brelyn Bowman, daughter of pastors Michael & Dee Dee Freeman, was recently married to her sweetheart, Tim Bowman. What makes this story noteworthy is not only their status as big names in particularly the DMV Evangelical Christian circles, but is also the fact that on their wedding day, Brelyn Bowman presented an OBGYN approved certificate of purity to her father, Pastor Michael Bowman.

Brelyn Bowman first took a covenant of purity given to her by her father which included strict discouragements from intercourse, rubbing, petting, etc. at age 13. A few days after the wedding, which featured high profile guests on the Evangelical Christian scene, Mike Freeman Ministries posted the picture that has been rotating through my timeline non-stop, since yesterday. It depicts a father and his daughter, both beaming, and holding the Certificate of Her Purity which states that her hymen was completely in tact.

My response comes with the full understanding that up to this point, Brelyn Bowman’s sexuality has been both physically and emotionally scrutinized. To be clear, the purpose of this post is not to scrutinize her or her personal decisions even further.  Brelyn Bowman’s decision to remain abstinent prior to marriage is something that is her choice to make and hers alone. A woman’s sexual ethic is hers to decide. However, understanding purity culture in Evangelical spaces begs us to dig a bit deeper. And as such, stories like these hearken back to a few deeper themes that can be problematic:

  • patriarchy & the church (including the policing of women’s bodies)
  • the PR that is attached to women’s sexual choices and bodies

1) Benevolent Sexism & The Body
In many Christian Evangelical churches, the policing of women’s bodies is normalized and spiritualized as ‘God’s design’. In the case of the Bowmans, Pastor Michael Freeman posted the picture of the certificate with the caption:

Who knew that a pic like this would get so much negativity but a natural man will not understand things of the Spirit for they are foolishness to them!!! ‪#‎meetthebowmans‬‪#‎readyourbible‬‪#‎prayingforyou‬

Supporters chimed in via social media sites stating how they might want their daughters to do the exact same thing. And herein lies the opportunity to  discuss benevolent sexism. Glick et al (2000) defines benevolent sexism as “a subjectively positive orientation of protection, idealization, and affection directed toward women that, like hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men (p. 763)”.

Let’s break this down a bit given what I’ve emphasized above. Again, the thing about this type of sexism is that it’s “subjectively positive”; it’s coded in language that sounds good to the ear. You might hear this type of rhetoric in sacred spaces that espouse that it’s God’s design for women to be led by men… in order to PROTECT the women. The first element of benevolent sexism is the element of protection: protection of women’s assumed fragility, purity, and sanctity. Online news sources allude to Brelyn’s promise of virginity to her father at thirteen years of age. Given the Evangelical line of thought that the father protects & provides for the family (trust me on this… you can analyze these things when you’ve gotten some distance from those spaces), this sort of covenant / contract / promise might sit squarely under the guise of a father’s protection of a daughter’s purity.

The second element of benevolent sexism is the element of idealization. Each post and picture sets up the idealization of the docile, virginal, “pure” body. The comment sections are filled with statements about incorporating these practices and tools into women’s Bible studies and girl’s groups. What might be causing this? Scholar, Rose Weitz, talks about institutions thriving on the use and subordination of women’s bodies as docile, in order to ensure that these spheres can continue to be male-dominated (2001). Even if this was not the intention, we cannot rule that out as a possible output. We might consider that her partner had no such procedures done (nor did this seem to be an expectation, given the couples’ wedding video). We might also consider the fact that the very act of remaining pure was not credited to Brelyn and her partner, on paper. It was acknowledged and credited to the patriarch, on the tangible certificate. Regardless of the intent, it’s important to consider Brelyn’s bodily and sexual choices were put under what many Evangelical spaces would call ‘a covenant’ at the age of 13. As an adult, it was then her choice to verify and prove that those terms were fulfilled. However, the final certificate was presented to the patriarch. And it’s worth it to sit with that & to think about the implications for other families that will follow these steps. For women & girls, we have to ask ‘Do these particular forms of ‘protection and idealization’ of purity and chastity (when used as a means for celebrating a marriage vow to one man & a covenant promise to another man) serve to ‘justifiy women’s subordinate status to men’? And if the answer is yes, is this something we want to perpetuate within our sacred spaces?

2) When Purity Becomes PR The purity business is a thriving one: there have been books, seminars, Bible study materials, and families that have spent thousands at jewelers for purity rings in every shape & style. The messages of ‘remaining pure’ that are particularly geared towards women are really nothing new. In this particular case, pastors reached out for press coverage of Brelyn Bowman’s story in order for it to go viral.

If you know anyone in TV, radio or any major blogger that would be interested in Brelyn’s story have them contact us – that way, we can get this message of purity out to our young people!

Posted by Dee Dee Freeman on Monday, October 19, 2015

Again, the decision to wait is to be commended, as it is uniquely her choice to make. However, with media stints on Bossip, Media Takeout, and more, the question then becomes… what makes purity PR so appealing? When did the sanctity of a couple’s sexuality & sexual choices (be they abstinence, celibacy, or intercourse) become fodder for the media? Because while this is an interesting piece to write on a fascinating story, there is one, final, remaining question… why is this something that we all know about… to even write about?

Resources:
Tannenbaum, M. (2013)The problem when sexism sounds so darn friendly. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/psysociety/benevolent-sexism/

Glick, P., Fiske, S., Mladinic, A., Saiz, J., Abrams, D., Masser, B., Adetoun, B., Osagie, J., Akande, A., Alao, A., Annetje, B., Willemsen, T., Chipeta, K., Dardenne, B., Dijksterhuis, A., Wigboldus, D., Eckes, T., Six-Materna, I., Expósito, F., Moya, M., Foddy, M., Kim, H., Lameiras, M., Sotelo, M., Mucchi-Faina, A., Romani, M., Sakalli, N., Udegbe, B., Yamamoto, M., Ui, M., Ferreira, M., & López, W. (2000). Beyond prejudice as simple antipathy: Hostile and benevolent sexism across cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79 (5), 763-775 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.79.5.763

WEITZ, R. (10/2001).“WOMEN AND THEIR HAIR: Seeking Power through Resistance and Accommodation”. Gender & society (0891-2432), 15 (5), p. 667 – 686.