As part of my Master’s program, I will be doing a year-long research project known as the Integrative Project. The point of the project is to integrate my learning from the past three years into a particular set of questions that I’d like to explore. So with my growing interest in feminism and sexuality, I’ll be doing my project on The Church and Women’s Sexuality, focusing particularly on the sexual shame handed down to women by the Church. Feeling a little scattered and unsure of where to begin, I bought a journal and decided to start writing down some of my own experiences around Christianity and sexuality. As I began writing about one story in particular, I got so angry and fired up that I now cannot HELP but share it publicly.
In High School, I was part of a Christian group called the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). During my junior year, I went on the FCA Girl’s Retreat where we spent a few days at a lake house doing Bible studies, having “quiet time,” and talking about the issues we face as Christian teenage girls. And of course, part of that conversation centered around dating and sex. I don’t remember a whole lot about how the conversation began or progressed, but I do remember that part of the conversation centered around modesty. For a lot of girls in my generation, “modesty” had come to mean that, as a Christian girl, you couldn’t wear anything too “pretty,” or anything that really showed your figure. With a reputation as “that girl who always wears the Christian t-shirts,” I considered myself a good example of a modest Christian girl. As part of this retreat, we talked about our struggle between wanting to look nice, but wanting to remain modest. And so the conversation was couched in the language of freedom, attempting to give us more freedom to dress the way we wanted to without disappointing God, Church, our Parents, or–of course–our future husbands. In discussing the different rules we had been given around what clothing was acceptable, I remember talking about the rules around tank tops, one of which was the 3-finger-rule, which stipulated that the straps of our shirts needed to be at least three fingers wide in order to be considered “modest.” In this conversation, this rule was thrown out, and we were given permission to wear spaghetti straps. I remember being scandalized, but also excited about this new freedom.
But this loosening of the rules did not come without its own set of restraints. It was explained to us that boys struggle with lust, and that they quite easily fall into the habit of undressing girls “with their eyes.” Keeping this in mind, I was told that if I wanted to wear tank tops with smaller straps, I should make sure they have built in bras, because if boys were able to see my bra straps, it would be easier for them to undress me in their minds.
In the same conversation, we were told about a Christian couple that wanted to wait until they were married to have sex. In order to help them resist temptation, the girl wore insanely baggy clothes that kept her figure hidden. But in the end, even that didn’t work. They had sex, were filled with shame, and got married out of a sense of obligation.
Though I was grateful at the time for such an illuminating conversation, I now shudder at the demented and harmful messages that were passed on to me. I can see now that the ENTIRE conversation was centered around male sexual response, which became, quite clearly, the woman’s responsibility to control. What the fuck?! In a conversation that was supposedly giving me the freedom to look “pretty” if I wanted to, I was saddled with shame over my own body, the hopeless responsibility of controlling men’s sexual responses, and silence about my own sexual feelings and desires. And unfortunately, I have many other stories like this. And even more unfortunately, I don’t think these kinds of stories are unique to me.
Friends, that’s a problem. That’s THE problem:
SHAME and the SILENCE that comes with it.
It’s time to speak up. It’s time that we, as the Church, talk about what we have done to women and their bodies. It’s time for more women like me to tell their stories, to break the silence, and to take back the power that shame has stolen from us.
* If you are a woman who grew up in the Church and want to tell your story, I am conducting interviews as part of my Integrative Project. My hope is that the interviews will help guide me in the direction that my project should go to be of the most help to women. If you’re interested in talking with me, you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
** Also, check out this retreat for women happening in a couple of weeks. I’m TOTALLY going!
Inspired by Eve: A 1/2 Day Retreat
For a woman to step into her deepest desire(s) can seem risky, if not downright rebellious.
Eve knows this story. All-too well.
And she tells a totally different one.
Eve reached for (and took) what she wanted.
Still, it was good.
A 1/2 day retreat with Ronna Detrick, M. Div.
Saturday November 10, 2012, 9:00am – 1:00pm, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. $35, registration in advance.