The Religious Fundamentalism and Sexuality Project has (finally) returned! Last time, we met Calulu, Jenn, Meggie, Parker, Shadowspring and Vyckie. Unfortunately, Shadowspring will not be able to continue her story this fall. As a result, I’ll be adding Libby Exline’s answers to this group in her place. Libby’s introduction is below, along with her answer to the first question.
- Throughout the project, as before, you’ll be able to follow those of the respondents who have blogs by clicking on their names. I highly recommend checking them out to learn more about the writers and their lives in religious fundamentalism.
You are also invited to join the project! I have two more groups scheduled after this one, and am receiving more answers all the time. The Sexuality Project is going to be a very long-lived part of this blog.
Sex Education and the Body
Q. 1: How familiar and comfortable were you in your own body? Did beliefs about purity, modesty, abstinence, etc. affect your attitude toward your body? Did those beliefs either reinforce or conflict with the messages you received from society in general?
You have to understand the times I grew up in. I was born in 1960, a very confusing time in our culture for things like sexuality and bodily acceptance. In those days before the sexual revolution as a woman you were either a wife or daughter or a whore, or traveling somewhere between those states.
Once I started school the nuns reinforced that sex was bad, you’d end up a whore if you had sex. They claimed there were special blessings for those that decided to embrace a life of celibacy as a nun. I didn’t buy that, because of life around me. Advertising pushed being sexy as a women. My own mother was openly having affairs with different men. Behind her back I was learning about sex by stealing her and my father’s books about sex. It seemed to me as someone on the cusp of adolescence that the church and your parents insisted on purity while a very few people actually practiced it.
I grew up with very mixed feelings about my body. I always felt like my body was somehow dirtied and flawed. Once I started having the first stirrings of sexual desire during adolescence I started to be afraid I was going to be ‘slutty’ or a ‘whore’ Even when I was a young adult supplementing my income while in college by doing some local modeling in the New Orleans area I felt ‘bad’ about my body, like I was a slut just for being photographed or in a television ad. Looking back I cannot believe how ugly I felt then when I had a good figure and such a pretty face. I felt homely and undesirable. Too much interior push-pull between what I’d learned from the nuns and what society told me.
I was not very familiar with my own body. I didn’t even really know what a vagina was until I was in high school. I was specifically taught that sex before marriage was a sin, not just wrong in the eyes of God, but also something that would erode the soul. Kissing before marriage was considered wrong, although my parents never really seemed to expect that anyone would live up to that standard.
Since the woman was considered the gatekeeper of sex, I came to believe the stereotype that women don’t enjoy sex and just use it to get a husband. Also, I felt that I had to keep to a standard of purity or no one would want me. My self-image was tied in with how pure of an appearance I portrayed. Any slip in perception of purity shamed me.
Yes, the message I received and still receive from society is that women cannot have sex outside of marriage (and only limited types of sex within marriage) without being perceived as a slut. I still struggle with my own sexuality and self-image.
Hi! My name is Libby. I’m a heterosexual female, and have been in a monogamous relationship for 10 years. I have no children.
I was raised in a very fundamentalist church. I was born into it, and was in it ’til I escaped at age 21. The church believed two works of grace, salvation and sanctification. Salvation could be easily lost, but sanctification made one holy, because the roots of sin were removed. Though they would deny it, works played a huge part in being redeemed. We had to pretty ourselves up before praying for salvation. For instance, if we’d had a fight with someone that day, before we could be saved, we had to go to that person and apologize. The church (The Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection) was based on the teachings of John Wesley.
It wasn’t until I was in my 20′s that I realized I HAD a body. ‘Til then, I pictured myself as Flat Stanley, I guess. Purity was important in the church, but it wasn’t preached a whole lot. Women who weren’t virgins were looked on in disgust. In fact, anything sexual was disgusting, even after marriage. It was for the pleasure of the husband and procreation only. It was almost as if the woman enjoyed it, she was a harlot. Once again, there wasn’t a lot of preaching on the topic; this was stuff I learned while overhearing the leaders of the church talking.
These messages were reinforced by the people I met in general society, although it was cyclical thinking on my part: they dressed like harlots because they were harlots. They were harlots because they dressed as such. Because….the church said so.
I was never very confident in myself as a child. I thought I was ugly and fat an hid myself under clothes. Nobody’s fault. Just the way I saw myself. I was taught about modesty as a child but modesty was a behaviour, not a way of dressing. My friends learnt the same lesson from their parents. I have taught my children about being modest but again, as a way of behaving. Dress is part of that but more in the sense of “If I can see your knickers, your skirt is too short. Have some self respect.” It was never about protecting someone else. In fact, I stress that you should dress for yourself and not for anyone else. I spent far too many years trying to match the cool kids before I gained the confidence to dress as me. Nieces, on the other hand are taught; long skirts so boys don’t see your legs, long hair because that is a glory to God, the way you look is unimportant because boys will be attracted to your cooking and general home making skills. It is proving to be a recipe for destroying a girls self esteem.
Very uncomfortable…and honestly, sort of lost about how it worked.
Did beliefs about purity, modesty, abstinence, etc. affect your attitude toward your body? Absolutely.
I never felt comfortable with my body. I was short and skinny and my teeth were crooked so I could never laugh or smile. I did not feel attractive or desirable. As an adolescent, I didn’t feel the bodily urges which I’d heard take over teenage bodies, so I concluded that celibacy was perfect for me – I decided to become a nun so that I could be close to God, remain a virgin, not have any kids, and teach English – my favorite subject in school.
The Sexuality Project – Part 1
Comments open below
Sierra is a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog the phoenix and the olive branch
NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce