Purity Rings & Other Lies

I was 13 when I put on my first purity ring.  It was silver and read “TRUE LOVE WAITS” in small block letters.  I loved that ring.  It was a symbol of my faith, my loyalty, my ability to perfectly follow the rules, and my worth.  I’ve always been a sucker for following the rules.  As Monica from Friends would say, “The rules control the fun!”  I loved the rules.  The rules shaped who I was.

I looked forward each year to the “sex talk” we were privy to at youth group.  All of the girls were hearded in one room and all the boys corralled into another.  The boys were lectured on the dangers of porn and masturbation.  The girls were told that sex would be magical if we would only wait until we found our one true soulmate, married him (always him – it was also heteronormative), and then had sex for the first time on our wedding night.  I looked forward to this weird, predictable litany because it reminded me every year that I was doing what I needed to do in order to be a “good Christian.”  I thought God would love me more if I followed the rules.  And every year I was reminded that I could check off another box on my Heaven Checklist.

What I didn’t see was how unequipped I actually was for a relationship.  We spent so much time talking about purity that I never thought to ask any questions about conflict resolution, loving communication, or how hard it is to try to understand the inside of someone else’s brain.  I thought that if I waited for my soulmate, everything would be perfect.  There would be no need for communication skills because I had saved my body for my one true love and that meant nothing would be able to tear us apart.  Everything would be perfect.

It turns out that relationships are SUPER HARD.  Even good, healthy relationships are (one more time for the people in the back) SUPER HARD.  I love my partner.  He’s the most kind and understanding person, and I know that we love each other deeply, but there are still times when we want to strangle each other.  We’ve had to learn how to ask for what we need, how to use “I feel” statements so that we aren’t constantly accusing each other, and how to talk through a conflict to arrive at the seed that it was really about.  I never learned how to do any of this in the church.  I had no idea that I needed to learn it.

Even more concerning is how my purity culture upbringing did not teach us about rape culture.  If anything, it perpetuated it.  First, the fact that we learned about our sexualities in gender separated rooms should really say more than enough.  The inherent belief that men have an unquenchable sex drive and women just want to be told they look pretty is the root of rape culture.  By learning about sexuality as a whole community, we could have fostered some of the communication piece we were so desperately missing.  Purity culture also taught me nothing about how to communicate what I want – whether I want to have sex or not, what to do if I don’t want to have sex, and what to do if I’m forced to have sex I don’t want to have.  It was presumed that all sex within marriage would be consensual.  (Hot tip: it’s not.)  There will be times that your spouse or partner wants sex and you do not and if you don’t know how to navigate that, it will be damaging.  

Furthermore, saving myself for marriage meant saving myself from all sexual encounters, even those that are unwelcomed.  There is an element of victim blaming in purity culture that is more than disturbing.  While it was never spelled out this clearly, it was only logical for me to presume that rape only happened to women who were actually asking for it – their clothes were slutty or they were drunk or they had been sexually active before.  All of these things fell under the category of not saving oneself, and that essentially negated assault as a possibility.  Being assaulted destroyed purity just as much as having sex with a high school boyfriend.  No matter what the situation, it was all the woman’s fault.

Purity culture has damaged so many relationships.  I’ve watched friends get married at 20 to avoid having sex before marriage only to get divorced a few years later.  I’ve watched women endure physical therapy well into their marriages to teach their vaginas to actually enjoy sex without pain.  I’ve watched people be exiled from their faith communities because of premarital pregnancy – planned or unplanned.  I’ve watched members of the LGBTQ community hide for decades (myself included) because of the heteronormativatiy preached within purity culture.  Purity culture hurts all of us.

I threw away my teenage purity ring long ago, but when I found out about Nadia Bolz-Weber’s plan for a vagina statue, I bought an identical ring on Amazon to throw in the fire.  If I’ve learned anything in my exodus from purity culture, it’s that we need to burn it to the ground and resurrect the ways we teach our children about their bodies.  Because if we want the next generations to fix this broken world, they first have to learn how to love themselves, their bodies, and their peers.  Following the rules will not do this for them, just like it didn’t do it for me.  Rings are easy.  Love is hard.

Nice Guys Can Be Rapists Too

**TW: assault, abuse**

“I have friends who are women.”

It felt like Brett Kavanaugh repeated this over and over throughout his hearing.  This statement is the patriarchal equivalent of “I have black friends” – a phrase often used by white people to prove that their actions couldn’t possibly be racist because they know a black person.  Knowing black people does not mean you don’t say and do racist things.  And knowing women does not mean you aren’t a part of the patriarchy.  In fact, it’s entirely irrelevant.  Not everyone has black friends (though that blows my mind because it’s 2018).  But, everyone knows women.  Everyone has a mother.  By nature of existing you have come into being through the body of a woman.  Yet, there are rapists, misogynists, and abusers everywhere.  Knowing women means nothing.  The recently arrested East Area Rapist/Golden State Killer was living with his daughter when he was arrested.  Bill Cosby has a wife and daughters.  Brett Kavanaugh has a wife and daughters.  This does not exempt them from being perpetrators.

What’s more, being a “nice guy” does not mean you have never assaulted anyone.  Bill Cosby was the apple of America’s eye for decades.  He was viewed as a wholesome, all-American, family man.  But it turns out, there was a lot of abuse happening under that facade.  Throughout Kavanaugh’s hearing, he pointed to letters and statements from friends that stated he was a good person, a nice guy, a good friend.  These things are not mutually exclusive to sexual assault.  I know because my own story feels eerily similar.

The person who assaulted me is a “nice guy”.  He cares about social justice and even claims to be a feminist.  No one who knows him would point to him as being a violent or mean person.  I’m sure he could get 65 people to sign a letter stating the he’s a good person, just like Kavanaugh.  I myself was blinded by his good-guy persona, so much so that I continued to see him for several months after my assault because I didn’t realize what had happened to me.  It seemed impossible that a guy like him could do the very thing that he spoke out against.  He went to the women’s march.  He fights for the marginalized.  How could he have possibly done something so against what he claims to be his moral code?

I dont’ know the answer to that question, but I do that Dr. Ford’s story feels all to familiar.  If I were in her position, I’m sure people would be saying things about my perpetrator that are similar to the things being said by the committee and others about Kavanaugh.  He has a mother.  He has a wife.  He has a sister.  He has a daughter.  Witnesses claim they have never seen him act like this before.  The reality is that these things don’t matter because they don’t prevent assault.  Having women friends that you talked to on the phone in high school and never assaulted does not mean that you never assaulted anyone else.  No one assaults every woman in their life.  Just because there are women who have not seen this side of him does not mean that side doesn’t exist.  Nice guys can be rapists too.

 

I’m Here and I’m Queer: Coming Out

I’m bisexual.

I first knew this about myself in high school.  I talked to a few close friends about it.  I confided in a queer history teacher at school for advice.  My short lived exploration was met with so much resistance, though, both at school and at church, that I abandoned my questions about my sexuality entirely for the next decade

My high school refused to allow a Gay-Straight Alliance.  Instead, we would meet in secret in the school theater at lunch.  One of the few out lesbians in school came to her car after school one day to find the word “dyke” carved into the driver’s side door.  The only trans person at school was forced to use the bathroom at the nurse’s office because there were no gender neutral bathrooms.  People laughed and talked behind their back.  Things have changed greatly at my high school, which is now much more supportive of LGBTQ students, but when I was there, it was painful.  My youth group was also a place of difficulty.  Whenever we explored LGBTQ+ issues, the teaching was that homosexuality was sinful and against God’s will.  A combination of all of these hardships shoved me decidedly back into the closet for nearly ten years.  I thought I had to choose between being a Christian and being bisexual, so I choose being a Christian.

In many ways, it was easy to pass as straight.  I was not being entirely untrue to myself by dating only men.  I liked cisgender men.  I didn’t like only cisgender men.  But for a long time, it was easy enough to pretend.  I positioned myself as a straight ally.  I was believable.  I’m high-femme (which, if that term is unfamiliar, means I present my gender as very feminine – wearing dresses, having long hair, and wearing make-up) and have had several long-term relationships with men.  Even some of my gay friends assumed I was straight.  I was good at hiding.

It wasn’t until I got to seminary that things began to change.  Suddenly, I was confronted with queer people who were also faithful Christians.  I had never met anyone who was able to live fully into both of these parts of themself.  I didn’t know it was possible.  Christianity and queerness had always been presented to me as mutually exclusive lifestyles.  You could be one, but not the other.  During my time at seminary, though, I realized that I could faithfully be both.  At first, I didn’t think this would mean coming out.  I thought it just meant being honest with myself.  That, in itself, was a big step.  Because of my experiences as a teenager, I thought my bisexuality was silly and childish.  It had always been discussed as something I would grow out of once I became a more insightful adult.

Meeting other queer people who continued to explore their sexualities and gender expressions opened my eyes to the fact that I could be a serious, ambitious adult and faith leader who was also bisexual.  I didn’t have to leave that part of myself behind.   It wasn’t silly or stupid or shameful.  To the contrary, in order to fully mature as a person, I needed to embrace who I really was.  Once I realized that Christianity did not have to be an obstacle to my coming out process,  the reasons for staying in the closet thinned. I now know that it is more faithful for me to be honest with myself and others than to lie about who I am.

Coming out to my family was another significant obstacle in my coming out process. My parents are loving and caring people, but we don’t always see eye to eye politically.  I know that they love me deeply, but I was afraid that they wouldn’t be supportive.  Last month, though, I developed the courage to write them an email.  I spent weeks drafting it and sent it to a friend for feedback.  After weeks of delaying and thinking, I finally took a deep breath and hit send.  It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done.  However, it turned out that my anxiety around being honest with them wasn’t warranted.  My parents told me that, of course, they love me no matter what.  They had questions and concerns, but they listened to my answers patiently.  I believe coming out to my parents will be an ongoing process, but I’m grateful for their acceptance and curiosity.

Now that I’ve been honest with myself, my faith, and my family, I am tired of hiding.  I spent most of the month of June desiring to be a full part of the LGBTQ community so I could wear rainbows and wave flags with my fellow queers.  I know that it’s not that simple, and that the queer community has it’s own set of challenges to face, but after ten years of hiding, I want to celebrate who I am.  I’m ready to bravely stand up to those who say I can’t do things and show them that I’m just as worthy.  I’m ready to use my privilege as a white queer person in a straight-passing relationship to teach others about what it means to be queer.  I’m ready to be my full self.  While this will no doubt be an evolving journey for me, I’m glad to have my community in it with me.  I can’t wait to continue to share about who I am and where I’m going.

Happy Belated Pride, queens.  Let’s do this.

For more information:  A few months ago a did an anonymous interview on a friend’s blog about being a queer, closeted Christian.  I answer questions about my sexuality, my faith, and being a queer pastor.  Read it here.

He Doesn’t Hit You But…

*tw: emotional abuse*

EDIT: The image for this post features a man of color and a white woman.  This image in no way indicates a correlation between abuse and race.  The featured image was chosen for other reasons by the author and should not be taken to imply that men of color are more likely to abuse their partners.

Several years ago, a popular hashtag cropped up that provided a space for people who had endured abusive relationships to share about their experiences.  Survivors of emotional and verbal abuse, primarily women, took to Twitter to increase visibility for the types of abuse they had endured.  “#HeDoesntHitYouBut his words create bruises just as punches would.”  “#HeDoesntHitYouBut treats you like property.”  “#HeDoesntHitYouBut he uses breaking up with you as a constant threat.”

At the time, I didn’t say much about it, but I sat back and watched friends and strangers validate my own experiences.  It was through this hashtag that I realized the truth of things I had experienced.

In the beginning, he was charming.  I was young and still figuring out who I was.  I was blown away by the fact that a boy I had just met was interested in me.  I was pretty dorky in high school and was still growing accustomed to the fact that men might pay attention to me.  I was naive and had unrealistic expectations of what romance should look like.  We fell in love over a summer, and it wasn’t until we entered our first few months of long distance that things started to shift.

I would call him and he wouldn’t answer.  While I knew I couldn’t expect him to be available every time I called, I would sometimes go three or four days without a call or text from him.  I would start to get worried and would contact one of his friends or roommates in a desperate attempt to make sure he was okay.  They were never very helpful, and eventually he would reach back out to me.  He would give some sort of flimsy excuse about why he had been off the grid, and I would blindly accept his explanation.  I wanted him to think I was “chill” and not clingy, and grilling him on where he had been seemed like a definitive way to drive him away.  He would disappear like this intermittently during our first year of long distance.  Eventually, it stopped.  Even after years of being with him, though, I never got a clear answer on his disappearances.

His flightiness was only the beginning.  Eventually, he tried to control what I wore and who I spent time with.  I wasn’t allowed to wear leggings or yoga pants outside my house because other men might look at me.  If he saw a picture of me in work out pants on Facebook, he would call me and question me about whether I had worn them outside the house and why.  I wasn’t allowed to wear too much make up.  Sometimes, I wasn’t allowed to wear any make up.  I initially thought this was romantic.  I thought it was evidence that he thought I was naturally beautiful, and maybe that was true, but controlling what I put on my body was not the proper way to show me.

Arguing with him was impossible.  Sometimes I would bring up things that were bothering me about him or about our relationship.  He would always claim I was making it up or exaggerating.  He would say I was attacking him and turn my concern back onto me, claiming I was the one who was flawed.  We would never resolve the initial things I brought up and I would leave the conversation feeling like a terrible girlfriend.  There were times when these arguments would get heated.  I’m not an aggressive or angry person.  I very rarely yell or snap at people, but with him, I did.  Often over the phone, we would yell and I would hang up with him and throw my phone across the room in exasperation.

Things continued to worsen when I moved to a different city.  I made new friends that he had never met and that concerned him.  Any time I claimed to be alone studying with a male friend, he would be noticeably suspicious or even blatantly angry.  I wanted to spend time with the new friends I was making, but if I told him I wanted to get together with friends instead of visiting him, he would always get angry or at least annoyed.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of this relationship was that he cut me off from my family.  My parents never liked him, which, obviously, as an 18 year old, made me even more defiant.  However, he gradually convinced me that my parents weren’t the people I thought they were.  By the end of the relationship there was a noticeable distance between my parents and myself.  He had convinced me, over a period of years, to be completely on his side, mistrusting my family.  He manipulated me into believing that he knew what was best for me better than my parents did, so I trusted the things that he told me about them.  It was a vicious cycle.

He was never physically violent with me, and I’m grateful for that.  There were times when I worried about it, especially when he got angry.  Still, I know that plenty of people experience violence and abuse in relationships much more severe that what I catalog here.  But if you’ve experienced this sort of gaslighting and manipulation, I want you to know that you’re not alone.  If you are reading this and wondering about the state of your own relationship, don’t hesitate to reach out to me or someone you trust.  Because this isn’t just about me.  It’s about equipping others to leave unhealthy relationships, and healing in the aftermath. It’s about recognizing the signs before it’s too late. It’s about teaching (not exclusively but especially) our men deeper empathy and compassion.  Even the strongest among us can be emotionally abused, and the first step toward stopping it is realizing that it’s happening.

why did you stay?

why did you stay?

He grabbed
my waist
and told me
he liked my lip ring,
and then kissed it.

I said,
“no, please,
just come lay with me.”
I wore a white comforter,
and we held hands
on the couch
at 6:30
on a Sunday morning.

A train when by
the window
and he ordered me
around the bedroom
in a way that
I mistook for
romance.

He left
granola out on the table
for me,
and honey.
“You’ve overcome
so much,”
he said.

He held
me in his lap
and I touched
his sweaty neck
while he exhaled
and told me his secrets.

He told me
my writing
reminded him of
a certain British philosopher.

I misunderstood,
“I know we
should
let this go, but I
still
want to kiss
you.”

I saw a
pink hair tie
on his nightstand
but
excused it for
a rubberband.

The man before him
told me that I couldn’t
wear tight pants
or make up
because other men
would look at me,
so this kind of violence
seemed more romantic.

I am used to
lies,
and his, at least, came with
honey on his hands when
he held me down,
sticky sweetness on his lips when
he said,

“No wonder this is so hard for you.”

I Am Afraid of Men

TW: sexual assault, emotional abuse

I can’t say when it all started, exactly.  When I’m on the train, when I’m walking down the sidewalk, when I’m in a store – I am always on guard.  I put on my “resting bitch face” and my sunglasses and my headphones so no one will bother me.  I feel much safer when I’m surrounded by only women.  This doesn’t mean I hate men.  I love my father, I love my partner, I love my male friends.  I am not afraid of them because I know them.  They have proven to me that they are trustworthy.  But sometimes, even the men who find their way into my inner circle are not trustworthy.

I was emotionally abused for years by a previous partner.  He told me what I could or couldn’t wear.  He expressed an irrational, jealous rage if I ever spent time alone with a male friend.  When I went to seminary and developed into a budding feminist, he told me my views were wrong.  He yelled at me for taking naps when I was tired instead of spending time with him.  He used guilt to control me.  At first, though, he was charming.  But after a few months of sweeping me off my feet, he became distant and inaccessible while also needing to know everything about what I was doing so he could keep tabs on me.  Our relationship went through cycles of growth, but he always returned to his controlling patterns.  He taught me that relationship does not mean I should not be afraid.

I was sexually assaulted by a friend.  I’ve written about this experience before, but it’s important to emphasize that this didn’t happen to me in a dark, damp alleyway with a scruffy stranger.  Like many women, I was assaulted by someone I knew.  We had a budding friendship and I was developing feelings for him, but he still took advantage of me when I was vulnerable.  He taught me that friendship does not mean I should not be afraid.

If I haven’t even been able to trust the men closest to me, it is not wonder that I feel afraid to walk down the street.  I feel my body tense and my heart race each time I pass a man on the sidewalk, bracing myself for catcalling.  When I get on the train, I look for a seat next to a woman.  When I enter a public restroom, I look around to make sure there are no men lurking in the corners, waiting for an unsuspecting woman to enter.

I work at a social service agency, and we primarily serve men.  Whenever I have to walk through our lobby, with rows of men waiting to receive services, I clench my jaw and ball up my fists.  I worry about being grabbed.  Instead, I usually get comments about my body or asked for my name followed by a “mmm” or a “damn”.  While we are currently working to improve what safety looks like in our organization, for the reasons I mentioned as well as several others, it wasn’t until this week that I came to the realization that I am constantly afraid.  I am afraid in my workplace.  I am afraid on public transit.  I am afraid walking to my apartment, even in the daytime.  I often create scenarios in my head so that I have a plan prepared if something bad were to happen.

All of this fear is exhausting.  Being in a spaces with only female-identifying individuals is like letting out a breath I’ve been holding in.  I don’t worry about my body.  I don’t worry that my smile will be misinterpreted.  I want to feel this way all the time.  I don’t want to hold all this fear in my body.  But until men can prove to me that they are not a threat, I continue to clench my teeth and ball up my fists.  We are learning every day about more reasons to fear men.  For the past few months, it seems like every morning there is a new name to add to the list of famous sexual harassers.  It’s hard to face a world of men when I hold my own sexual trauma and constantly hear about the trauma of others.

But I don’t want to feel this way.  We don’t want to feel this way.  Women do not want to be afraid all the time.  So, men, prove us wrong.  Be kind.  Be vulnerable.  Show sensitivity.  Do not be defensive.  Open yourself to the possibility that you don’t know everything.  Listen to what we have to say.  Do not assume we owe you anything.  Do not say something to a woman you don’t know that you wouldn’t say to a man.  Stop catcalling.  Make sure your coworkers are being fairly compensated.  Be confident enough in your sense of self that you do not see a strong woman as a competitor to be squashed.  Be our partners, not our hunters.

Disclaimer: This piece deals with gender in a binary way.  I apologize to those who are trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary.  You have a place in this conversation too, but I cannot speak to your experiences of gender, so I have not included them here.  Please speak your own truths to better inform all of us.