I grew up in a branch of Christianity best described as fundamentalism, something I’ve written about here before.
I have a literal lifetime of experience in all those facets of the evangelical-fundamentalist-conservative compound, including anti-choice, sexual repression, political extremism, and a casual sprinkle of imperialism and racism to top it all off. But I’m here today to talk about sex. Because I am still a Christian, albeit a much more liberal one, and I’m sex-positive.
First of all, let me tell you that there are many of my former prayer-warriors-in-arms who would disagree with me on this topic. Actually, they’d tell you that I’m a heathen and a sinner and that if it isn’t impossible for me to be a Christian and believe in consensual, healthy sex outside of a marital covenant, it’s close to it, and if I get into heaven at all it will be by the skin of my teeth.
I have an email folder filled with strangers who have taken it upon themselves to disown me from the faith because I’ve tweeted “The only sexual sin is anything non-consensual.” There are also people who email me to say that I’m not actually a progressive, independent woman, because I’m allowing myself to be oppressed by a religious system steeped in misogyny. (These two types of missives go into the same folder.)
Trust me, I’m not immune to the criticisms of my faith. If you’ve got any, I’ve probably thought of them first. I live in a sort of no man’s land of progressive faith, but it’s a demarcation zone that’s rapidly filling up with my peers.
To us, there’s a way to live life filled with belief and still see things differently than the generations before us did. My church attendance isn’t the most defining thing about my faith; it’s become more personal, close to my heart, but not practiced in the typical sense.
I wouldn’t say I’m actively fighting within the church for change, but I have friends who are and sometimes, when I’m feeling especially hopeful, I like to think that kids in youth groups ten and twenty years from now won’t go through the same things I did.
What did that look like, exactly? Well, let’s take the incident on the bus from summer camp as an illustration. I was maybe 13, and my parents were the youth pastors at the time. Imagine with me, if you will, sinking ever-lower into a bus seat as your parents tell the story of their sexual sins years prior to an audience consisting entirely of your peers. The short of it is that they had sex before they were married, were punished for it by their church, and apparently this tragedy still affected their marriage to the point that my father could never truly respect my mother, decades later.
If you were me, in that moment, not only would you be mortified, but you’d also contextualize this information with an insider’s perspective on your abusive home and your parent’s contentious marriage. You mean all this chaos and anger is because of that? Yeah, you might have some fucked up ideas about sex.
This is, however, a fairly mild incident in my childhood. I sat in on a litany of anti-sex seminars and sermons, where girls who let boys do things to them were compared to filthy toothbrushes, smashed pieces of cake, Biblical seductresses, torn up pieces of cloth, and, as a bonus, we were shown photoshopped pictures of aborted fetuses.
Once I watched as a pastor conducted his sermon by having a teenage girl hold a giant Mrs. Field’s cookie, in the shape of a heart. One by one, he called all the boys in the audience to come take a piece of it and eat it in front of her. The illustration, while crude, was effective: If you give yourself up, you give yourself away, and there will be nothing left.
Much scholarly work has been made about the lasting effects of purity culture and the commoditization of women’s bodies in evangelicalism, and it’s all better than my amateur attempts to describe growing up in it (for more in-depth reading on the subject, check out the upcoming "Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity" by my friend Dianna Anderson). What I am good at, though, is telling people how I wrestled my way out of this mindset that my body was something to be consumed.
The tl;dr version of this, of course, is feminism. And Google, and reading. Lots and lots of reading women who had been there, done that, left it behind, and lived healthier lives. It took me about four years, maybe five, if we consider the process to still be ongoing. Sometimes it feels like I’ll spend my entire life working through the conditioning of my youth.
My feminist education was similar to my fundamentalist one, in that it was a grassroots level effort. I didn’t take women’s studies courses in college. I wasn’t educated on an academic level (something I’m trying to remedy now), but by women who had struggled their way out of the same kind of worldview I was entrenched in.
As my understanding of healthy sexual ethics grew, so did my self-worth. I didn’t need to put it into practice to feel the effects of a holistic approach to the idea of sex. The idea that I couldn’t be reduced solely to the status of my virginity was a novel one. Eventually, as my perspective opened to include acceptance of other religions (or lack of one) as a valid life choice, so did my perspective on sex.
I still believe in practicing healthy boundaries. But what’s healthy for me isn’t healthy for everyone. I have friends who practiced the boundaries put in place by the church, and it turned out to be the best choice for them. I have friends who chose an opposite path, and that was what worked for them. Everyone’s sexual habits are not up for discussion in my life, and it honestly doesn’t matter what I think of them as long as all parties involved are consenting.
My sexual choices aren’t up for public judgement either, and this is truly a radical departure from the way I was raised. Anyone could, at any time, approach you and question your private life, as a way of controlling sin and keeping each other accountable to the universally accepted path.
I’ve found that life holds a lot less self-loathing and fear when you step off that path and embark on something else. There’s a lot more empowerment out there, too.
As to how I reconcile my own view on sex with the one held by the majority of evangelicals, it’s simple: I don’t feel the need to. I have people in my life whom I trust to help me out when I need it, but after the experience I had growing up in church, that tradition isn’t part of me anymore.