purity culture

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.

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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.

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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.

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.