sexism

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.

Pants in the Pew: The One-Sided Labor of Modesty

KJ* was an emerging stylist and fashion consultant. We attended the same nondenominational church, sang alto on the worship team together, and frequently used the “green room” to swap information about the best places to thrift and makeup tips to get through multiple services without sweating it all off. (Listen… the ‘singing 2-3 services’ struggle gets real). On one particular morning, I remember her bursting into the green room, pulling me to the side, and crying, “I am LIVID! I was essentially told by the worship team leader that I needed to go home and change into something more modest”. (She was wearing a black top with black pants. KJ and I had both gone through drastic weight changes that year and were striving to dress for our ‘new bodies’ in ways that were comfortable, practical, and fierce). For about 30 minutes, we talked over what she’d planned to do. “I am always so careful to dress for the occasion… and to say that I’m dressed inappropriately because my shirt is tighter than you think it should be is incredibly annoying!” (I will admit that I muttered under my breath, ‘And incredibly sexist’). In an earlier Pants in the Pew / Pulpit post, I talked about my mother’s choice to use her body and style politics as a site of resistance: resistance to being regarded as inferior and in need of more feminization (Weitz, 2011). In KJ’s story, there was yet another struggle: a struggle to resist her body being sexualized and objectified in a sacred space. The script on what women should and should not wear in sacred spaces is not necessarily a new one. In my lived experience, there is one such “script” that has been used to instruct women on what to wear, particularly in sacred spaces:

1 Timothy 2:9-10 Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works

Often times, those who are using this text to hold sway over the clothing choices of women in sacred spaces do not offer any context, sociocultural & historical background – a picture of the climate in those times – to explain their use of the text today. Let me be clear: I have heard, seen, and deeply appreciate the theologians who choose to add nuance to texts such as this (i.e. understanding the damages of heteropatriarchy, preaching / teaching with sensitivity to the fact that these damages are real and impact women on a very systemic and individual levels, balancing it with sociohistorical context). Yet, I also acknowledge that on the whole, we have a long way to go, and asking congregants & church leadership to complicate theology with sociopolitical understandings or critical gender theories… does not always go over too well. So, in the past weeks alone, the script has been under continuous revision. I have seen a revision as entertainers advise women to dress a certain way to obtain a certain man (the counter-post on this by Anna Gibson is absolutely everything)! I can recount the times I’ve sat through retreats or workshops on dating, and hearing a wide array of content on how to dress for and / or keep dressing for a man as a partner in my life (interestingly enough, we did not cover issues of consent, emotionally healthy practices versus emotionally abusive /coercive practices, etc).

The script has been revised in the fair share of cautious admonishments for women to maintain their modesty as the summer months are coming up (argument: more heat = less clothes = ‘modesty compromised’). I can say that each year, around the summer time, the “What Not to Wear (for Women in Sacred Spaces)” revisions roll over and over in my screen, in church services, and in conversation. I cannot help but wonder: What is this obsession that we have with what women are wearing?!  

What many do not understand is that no conversation is without a framework. Think of it as a portrait or a painting. While we focus on the pictures of what women should and should not wear… we might be missing the frame of what we are implying: that women’s bodies are (foremost) sites of dangerous and enticing sexuality…distracting… and in need of guardianship & rules. Dr. Rose Weitz (2001) asserts in her study that “For millennia, women’s subordinate position has been justified by an ideology that labeled their bodies and brains as inferior (Weitz 1998) and has been reinforced by a unique set of disciplinary practices aimed at creating a submissive and “feminine” body…” p. 668. *emphasis mine

So, what might those disciplinary practices look like in sacred spaces? In so many of my memories, they have looked like KJ’s story: being ostracized and asked to ‘sit down’ because of clothing choices. In one such sacred space, I was told that women were not allowed to wear heels in the pulpit because “It was distracting to the men”. This meant that when they were in that space, they had to wear flats or go with bare feet. In another, women were instructed to always wear scarves over their laps, regardless of length, so that they “would not distract the imagination of the men”. You might also remember the public shaming of Christian entertainer, Erica Campbell of Mary Mary, for choosing a dress that hugged her curves.

From the time that I was 13, I began negotiating my style politics due to the natural changes that were occurring in my body. Sundays were often the most difficult days because I did not know what would be deemed as ‘modest’ or ‘immodest’. At one point, it was immodest to wear heavy makeup or earrings. At another point, it was immodest to wear a certain length of skirt. As time went on, it took longer and longer to simply get dressed to worship:  a V neck or no V neck because… boobs? A tulle skirt or no tulle skirt because… curves? If I decided wrong, the disciplinary practices of ‘being sat down’, covered up, or publicly shamed (in churchyterms they’d say ‘admonished’ and / or rebuked’) loomed over my head.

These disciplinary practices, in sacred spaces, don’t always look like disciplinary practices because they might also be hidden and enforced under a) the guise of rigid definitions of what Biblical womanhood is (i.e. all Biblical women wear / look like ____) and / or b) the concept of wisdom (i.e. Yes, you can wear whatever you want… but is it WISE if you know you will gain unwarranted attention). Instead of thinking critically about the question, ‘What makes it possible and / or ‘the norm’ for women to have to dress a certain way to be acknowledged as inherently worthy and multidimensional’there seemed to be more of an overall preference for conversation on which styles, cuts, and fabrics are most distracting (insert subtext: for those who identify as men in sacred spaces). Writer, Jessica Valenti explains it like this:  “This “distraction” standard for a dress code (for women) sets up a model in which the default student (person / congregant) we are concerned about – the student (person / congregant) whose learning we want to ensure is protected – is male”. The labor of modesty is very often a one-sided labor.

In an earlier post, I explained that my mother’s decision to wear pants in the pulpit, inevitably sent a message of resistance. Why? Because for so long the bodies of women have been sites of resistance of and / or conformity to patriarchal norms (Weitz, 2001). KJ decided to go home and change that day. I wanted her to stay and sing worship exactly the way that she came. But I also know that navigating style politics in sacred spaces can be incredibly murky and sometimes. Yet, I always wished that there was more that I could do for KJ. I wished I knew what to say, in the moment, for the women who told me they had to sing praise and worship with bare feet because their pastor said heels were too sexual.

I thought about all of the younger women I know who stress over what to wear each time they go to worship. It is then that I remember the two-fold mission behind this site and my writing: 1) to lovingly & creatively challenge secular and sacred systems toward greater levels of inclusion… and that INCLUDES making space for women’s voices, women’s stories, women’s leadership AND women’s style politics in sacred spaces.

Want to hear more on the subject? READ PT. I here.

Image Credit: DeathtoStockphoto.com, Retreat Collection Resources WEITZ, R. (10/2001). “WOMEN AND THEIR HAIR: Seeking Power through Resistance and Accommodation”. Gender & society (0891-2432), 15 (5), p. 667 – 686. Creative Commons License Pants in the Pew: The One Sided Labor of Modesty by Jade T. Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

 P.S. Not even 24 hours after writing this post, WordPress’ Daily Post prompt asked writers to:… “ tell (them) how appearance impacts how you feel about yourself”. Ha! Serendipity 🙂