Over the next week we’ll be featuring posts from a few friends of ours at The Marin Foundation that will be sharing a parts of their stories connected to faith and sexuality. We’re starting with a post written by one of our volunteers here in Chicago and she decided to write this first post anonymously.
“You can overcome your sexuality!”
I’ve heard this message my entire life. From the pulpit. On the radio. During Wednesday night youth group. It was pounded into me from my early adolescence. Before I knew what it was, I knew that I had to fight it: my budding sexuality. I couldn’t be curious. Curiosity gives you AIDS. I stuffed it way back into the recesses of my imagination. Everything I was taught added layers of confusion and fear to my already confused and fearful adolescence.
I received a purity ring at age 13. This was a new trend in conservative Christian churches at that time. The idea was to give your daughter jewelry and make them promise not to have sex before marriage. But I didn’t know that. Unfortunately, another trend in the same churches was to not talk about sex at all. When I was given that ring, I knew it was a big moment for my family—my parents were both teary-eyed—but neither they nor any other adult in my life explained what the ring was for. They said, “If you accept this ring, you promise to live a pure life.” The word “sex” was never mentioned. I slipped it on my finger, because it meant so much to my loving parents, and I would be whatever kind of pure person they wanted me to be if it made them so happy.
I later asked an older friend to tell me what it meant.
As a normal preteen, I started to gain weight and develop sexually. I hated the way my chest, hips and thighs were becoming curvier. I was scared that developing into a woman somehow meant that I would become impure, that somehow my womanhood would make me a bad girl. (Society contributes to this image of women who embrace sexuality as “sluts”, and I believe many of us young women feared that label from a very young age.)
I wanted to stay a little girl, the sweet and innocent Christian girl that my parents, my youth group leaders and Christian community wanted me to be. If I could avoid growing breasts, I could avoid the all the negative attention. Not from the boys, but from fearful adults.
So I stopped eating. I thought if I could keep the perfect little girl body, I would finally be able to conquer my sexuality. To demolish it for good. I forced myself to become unaware of my body. I refused to take any joy in it, assuming that any pleasure was sinful.
I became anorexic not to pursue some ideal sexual image, but to avoid one altogether.
I enrolled in college weighing 85 pounds. It was a private Christian college, but I met people who were considered liberal by my community back home. I began to take an interest in my appearance, borrowing roommates’ makeup and clothes. I started dating boys. I developed friendships with normal-sized, beautifully curvy girls. It was there, surrounded by this crowd, that the freight train of my sexuality came barreling through the wall that I had built.
I fell in love with a boy in college. I hadn’t planned on it. I had planned on a life of celibate missionary work, a la Mother Theresa. I did everything I could to appear “not sexy.” I wore baggy athletic pants with clunky leather shoes, parted my graduated bob down the middle, and weighed less than my family’s dog. But during my transition from innocent Sunday school girl to protestant nun, I met Chris, the boy who would become my husband.
As sophomores, our affection for each other was so cute and so, so sappy. We look back on it with a grin and a gag. It was all midnight picnics and one-on-one bible studies, hand-holding and pledges of chastity.
But beneath the Christian courtship facade, the pent-up sexual energy that I thought I had extinguished inflamed my body. I started to take pleasure in my body again. I ate. I wore mascara. I masturbated. But I kept it all a secret.
I still wanted to prove that I was not horny, not unpredictable and still a virgin. In my all-girls dorm, I felt I was alone among my studious, mostly single friends. While sexuality was never discussed in my circle, my work as a resident assistant on campus meant that I was enforcing the “No PDA” rule. I caught those other girls sneaking boys into our female-only dorm and going down on boyfriends in the backseats of cars. Ironically, while I gladly scrutinized and squelched their behavior, I secretly felt camaraderie with them. Despite attending a conservative Christian school, they also felt sexual curiosity and had a drive to experiment. And Chris told me all kinds of stories about other couples’ sexual experimentation on campus. They talked about this kind of stuff in the guys dorm. It was hush hush for all the virgins in ours. No girl wanted to be that girl.
That girl. The girl who is curious. The girl who embraces her body. The girl who loves sex. We all knew who that girl was. The slut. As if the Christian purity influence wasn’t enough, we girls had a supplemental and rigorous set of measurements.
I knew how to play this game. I was good at it. But I was becoming that girl on the inside. I was developing a huge, unfulfilled appetite for sex. And it scared me to death.
Chris and I made it to our wedding night by the skin of our teeth. We were married 7 weeks after graduation.
Marriage was portrayed to me and everyone I knew as a kind of magical light switch. One day intercourse is a lusty, sinful act done in the darkness of secrecy, the next it’s a pure union done in the light of everyone’s approval. But the guilt that had been so carefully enmeshed within it? That lingered. I suddenly had permission to fulfil my desire for sex, but I still did not feel the freedom to enjoy it. Was it possible to be a faithful wife, and yet still be a slut? That girl? Someone who actually loved sex?
Chris didn’t seem to have any hangups in this area. He loved it. He had no inhibitions. His energy, creativity and drive made me simultaneously scared and jealous. How could he be having so much fun with this. It wasn’t supposed to be fun. It was supposed to be sacred. Or something.
Then I discovered yoga. Like sex, yoga was also outlawed by my church community growing up. But I wasn’t in the rural Midwest anymore. When Chris decided to go to grad school, we drove a moving truck out to California, the land of vegetarianism and microbreweries, bikinis and bikini waxing. And yoga.
I really didn’t want to try yoga. But the coupon-loving Midwestern girl in me couldn’t turn down the Groupon for Bikram yoga, which I’d heard reduced stress, eliminated migraines and converted Type A personalities into zen masters.
A decade after I started the journey to disconnect from my femininity and my body, I walked into my first 90 minute, 105ᐤ yoga class. I thought I had learned to force my body into submission. I thought I’d maintained rigid control. However, I reacted violently to the poses and stretches required during yoga. My mind struggled to communicate to my body. Yoga showed me just how disconnected I had become, not just from my body, but from relaxation and pleasure… even from God.
I had always thought that the physical world and the spiritual word were disconnected and mutually exclusive. But the more I tried to distance myself from my body, the further I felt from God. As I started paying more attention to my body, I felt somehow close to God again. I was relearning what it meant to be a creature, his creature, bearing his likeness.
An aspect of our identity as individuals is desire: a desire for spirituality, for friendship, for food, for hobbies, for sex. Thwarting our desires makes us less human, but it does not make us more spiritual. Overcoming our sexuality–and expecting others to do the same–dehumanizes. Unnatural is not the same thing as supernatural.
I’ve learned that God built me with hunger. A hunger that reflects his own zeal. A hunger that finds fulfillment in the richness of this created world. I was afraid to feel hunger. I was so scared of becoming a glutton that I became a waif instead.
Here’s something that I never would have dreamed of saying five years ago: I love sex. I love food and exercise but most of all, I love sex. And I even love loving sex. If that makes me some kind of slutty wife, then I’ll gladly accept the label.
Hunger is the best seasoning, they say. Maybe that’s why, having starved myself for so many years, everything is tasting so, so good.