Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Good intentions and justifying the means

Since I've moved away, the church I grew up in and that my parents still attend has gotten more conservative. Last year, my mother told me about an event the church was hosting for teenage girls in the community. It was a lock-in and the theme would be--you guessed it--saving yourself for marriage. They were going to decorate the church as if for a wedding, and there would be dress forms showcasing bridal gowns around the church.

The idea sort of sickened me. It was just one more message these girls were going to get that told them their value lies in how worthy they are of wearing a white wedding gown. Of being ready for a wedding night. Of being chosen by a man. Of all the themes that could have been chosen for a church youth sleepover, it had to be about sex. It is what Christians are most worried about concerning their youth.

She told me, "The woman who organized it had a child outside of marriage at a young age, and she wants to make sure these girls don't make the same mistake." Okay, good intentions. I understand what she's trying to do, I just don't like how she's doing it. But I think all people that teach purity have good intentions, and look what's become of their teachings. For most youth, it simply didn't work. And for the ones who took the teachings to heart, like I did, many of them are now speaking out against the pain it has caused them in their lives.

When I was first working through my issues with the purity movement, I asked myself, "Can the end justify the means?" If teaching sexual purity can help a few teens avoid making some sexual mistakes, is it worth it? I do care that young people don't get hurt by jumping into sexual relationships too quickly or by getting pregnant way before they're ready. The answer came to me pretty quickly. There are other ways we can help them that come with much less baggage, less lies, and have application past the short range of young adulthood.

When I think about the things I was taught that were so dependent on the assumption that I wouldn't need them past the age of 22-25 (because I'd be married by then), it makes me angry. Angry that I was being fed a temporary fix that wasn't meant to be a lifelong value, but something that would simply get me safely past a finish line. The adults in my life should have known better. They were old enough to know the truth. Yet they allowed us to believe that waiting would make our married sex life better than everyone else's, that premarital sex would put us in a world of hurt no matter what the circumstance, and that people who had premarital sex were damaged goods nobody would want to be with.

Granted, the majority of the voices I heard hawking purity were young ones. Single or newly-married Christians in their twenties. Maybe they didn't know better. And maybe the older ones had fully convinced themselves the lies were true, despite whatever evidence they had witnessed to the contrary. But does that make it okay? Those facts do not change history. They do not heal wounds. Good intentions do not right wrongs.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Something lighthearded for a change

I've found satire to be incredibly therapeutic after leaving a place in your life that has caused you pain. Poking fun at the monster that used to torment you feels good and bonds you with others who have experienced the same thing. Here are a couple things I've come across in the past two weeks that poke fun at the purity movement:

Christian couple maintains abstinence through first two years of marriage

Is it just me, or is the logic of "If it was holy before it must be double-holy afterwards" not that ridiculous compared to the ridiculousness of what the purity movement actually believes?

Marriage announcement for Mormon couple

I love this so much. It perfectly encapsulates the arrogance and condescension of a successful "true love waits" couple, as well as the tall tales they tell of their wedding nights. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Pam Stenzel, slut-shaming, and setting rules

There is a recent article on Jezebel about the religious abstinence lecturer Pam Stenzel. I've mentioned her before in my posts about my personal history with the purity movement. I've seen her speak probably three to five times that I can remember. Usually it was at my public high school, but she also appeared at Christian youth conferences I attended. Jezebel points out her harmful tactics of slut-shaming and presenting wrong information about birth control.

I can attest to the accusations about slut-shaming. I don't remember what she said about birth control, but when I was a teen with the best intentions for staying pure, I didn't need to think about birth control. Stenzel always spoke/yelled very loudly into the microphone. She used a lot of humor and sarcasm. She ruthlessly mocked people's hypothetical reasons for having sex. I can still hear her say "But I loooooove him" in a high whiny voice.

And I loved it all. She was funny and engaging, and her rhetoric validated and reinforced everything I had already decided on for my life. I was going to refrain from sex until marriage. I hoped everyone who chose differently would regret it. That's why her slut-shaming didn't bother me. I was a slut-shamer, too.

Thinking about that makes me sad. The purity movement had the unintended effect of making me a meaner, more judgmental and spiteful person. The higher the standards I tried to live up to, the more people I would look down on.

I remember her saying something like, "You get married, and as soon as you say your 'I do's,' you can have at it," [cue the laughter] "but until you have that ring on your finger, keep your hands off each other!" She could list a million direct or indirect problems caused by sex that sounded terrifying to anyone. Everything depended on that ring, that ceremony, that legal marriage certificate. Then sex was A-okay. Why is it so easy for Christians to believe marriage alone fundamentally changes everything about sex? I've written about my frustration with this before.

I think it boils down to making decisions easier for us. Figuring out what's right and what's wrong on a case-by-case basis can be tiring. Making exceptions for people in unique situations is confusing. Many Christians find it easier to make a one-size-fits-all set of rules that prevent us from ever getting close to sin. Once you have those black and white boundaries, you don't have to think anymore. Just follow and obey, it's that simple.

I used to get exasperated that people couldn't follow simple rules. Now I get exasperated when people don't want to use their brains to ask "why."

Monday, April 8, 2013

The contradiction of "sex positive" purity teachings

I grew up in a purity movement that liked to rave about how great sex was. "Sex is beautiful." "God created sex." "God wants you to have great sex." We were taught that sex was important in marriage. I was given the impression that "anything goes" in the marriage bed, that there was no wrong way to please each other. Yet despite all these supposedly positive sex teachings, I still came out of it thinking that sex was wrong, sex was dirty and naughty, and that God would punish me for having it. That's because they teach all those things, too.

The purity movement views premarital sex and marital sex as two completely different things. One is really bad and one is really good. One will heap negative consequences on you, like a poor marriage, heartbreak, unwanted prenancy and STIs. One will bring blessings untold, like pleasure, intimacy, happiness, and beautiful children.

The problem is that sex is the same thing, whether it's had inside or outside of marriage.

Certainly there are factors that can make a sexual experience a positive one or negative one. But those factors do not divide neatly over a marital boundary. They have to do with a multitude of circumstances that can be found in or out of marriage. Things like consent, relationship, communication, health, mood, confidence, or experience.

So when young people are taught that sex is both horrible and amazing, what are they to do when they find out sex is just sex? How do we rationalize that sex is supposed to have two separate meanings without leaning one way or another?

For me, sex wasn't real. It was a concept, and I could give it duplicate meanings in my head, seamingly without problem. That is, until I had to apply it to reality. It was really easy to see it as dirty and wrong when unmarried people did it. Judging them was easy. But to view it as normal and good within a marriage was hard for me. Conceptually, I knew it was true. But realistically, I felt that married sex was having permission to do a naughty (but fun) thing. I never would have described it that way because I didn't realize I felt that way. But that's the way I and most of my Christian friends treated it when we spoke about married people. Married people were privileged. They had won at the game of life. They no longer had to live by the rules. Lucky.

Even to this day, I find remnants of my negative views on sex infiltrating my otherwise very positive views on sex. I have a hard time believing that most of the couples around me have frequent sex, or even have sex at all. Because I lived sexless for so long and didn't expect it to be a major part of my life (I thought I might be single forever), I tended to view others as the same way.  Also, sex was this rare gift put up on a pedestal for so long. If it really was as amazing (within marriage) as I was taught, the married people I knew would be more changed if they were experiencing that, wouldn't they? But they seemed just as average as me.

Also, I sometimes feel a sense of rebellion and pride in regards to my current sex life, that I wish there was no cause to feel. Pride that I'm getting to enjoy sex before others who are waiting for purity reasons, and before my Christian friends and teachers think I should be allowed to. Pride that I've discovered the truth about healthy sex and relationships, pride that I know better. Rebellion in that I'm living out everything I was taught was bad--and am happier for it. Rebellion for breaking the rules I upheld for so long. It feels good to rebel against the people and teachings I feared being judged by. But this isn't normal, this isn't right. I would never have had a cause to feel these ways if I had not been taught that sex was wrong. If I had never been taught to judge people based on their sexual past or status.

While religious leaders who teach "sex is great within marriage" may be better than those who pretend sex doesn't exist, their teaching is still not good enough to lead people to healthy views on sex. Just because people believe sex can be good does not mean they are equipped to handle it. It doesn't mean that the negative teachings won't bleed over into the good.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A man's experience in purity culture

Most discussion on purity culture has centered around women, probably because purity culture itself appears to focus on women. Women are held accountable for a man's stumblings, and women are the ones most devalued on the basis of their virginity status. And it's been mostly women who have been the loudest voices speaking out against the harmful messages of the purity movement. But men have suffered, too. The same messages that told women their worth was determined by how they've been touched by a man told men that they were uncontrollable sexual freaks and rapists at heart.

There's a really good post over at Homeschoolers Anonymous that describes the confusion and guilt experienced by one man when he was taught that he was something he didn't feel he was. I recommend reading the whole thing. An excerpt:

But really, what I took to heart from all this talk about how obsessed men were with sex was not just that there was a rapist inside of me. It was that apparently I had a broken rapist inside of me. Because, honestly, I never felt so overwhelmed by semi-exposed skin that I couldn’t control myself. I spent years thinking there was something wrong with me. Men were supposed to “stumble” when they saw a midriff, or a shoulder, or too much leg. But I never “stumbled” like that — meaning, I never saw a midriff and went home and masturbated about it.

So I decided when I was sixteen that I must be gay.

In retrospect, that only made me feel worse.

Because men never made me “stumble,” either.

Because I’m not gay.

I was actually straight. And as far as straight people go, I was actually normal, too. Apparently normal people — straight or gay or whatever you are — don’t obsess about sex as much as homeschooling parents do.