by Heather Doney cross posted from her blog Becoming Worldly
So I read this blog post by Rachel Held Evans, everyone’s favorite progressive evangelical blogger. She is a beautiful writer, has fun posts, and I totally have to disagree with her wholeheartedly on something today. See, Rachel Held Evans just rejected purity culture and then tried to agree with purity culture at the same time when she wrote “Sex and The Path of Holiness.”
Maybe she’s got a very narrow line she’s trying to toe for her readers (a lot of other progressive evangelicals) but its still not ok. First off, she didn’t have to tell people whether or not she had premarital sex (and it seems like judging from her tone that she’d have liked to keep that personal), because that’s her own business, yet certain readers apparently bullied it out of her, slut-shamed her into revealing details about her sex life. Shame on them. Just because you blog about your personal life doesn’t mean you need to blog about everything in it and they shouldn’t think they can request it of her. (I’m telling you right now that I don’t have to share one bit of info about my sex life no matter how much anyone might claim to know about me or think they deserve to know about me.) It’s a bullshit construct, these “obviously you’ve had illicit sex” statements that people make to bait you, and it’s transparent that while simple nosiness is the main reason for this sort of fishing, it isn’t the only reason. It’s a way to control people and shut down a larger debate. People try to shame you when you discuss these topics or veer from the pre-approved talking points because they really don’t want to talk in-depth about what people in general should do or shouldn’t do (perhaps they understand that different people probably should and shouldn’t do different things but they like the power of claiming otherwise, or they think they did the wrong thing and want to change the subject, or they think they did or didn’t do something that now makes them much “righter” than most anyone else and want to lord it over other people) but really they mostly just want to get up in your business and squeeze out the juicy details of your sex life without seeming like they have asked a prurient question. So I’m saying first off that I reject this paradigm. It is prurient to openly assume and inquire about these sorts of personal details or pressure someone into divulging them by holding their “reputation” hostage. It is nosy. It is disrespectful. It is bullying. And it is still none of anybody’s frigging business at the end of the day. Whether Rachel Held Evans “wore white and meant it” (what does that even mean, anyway?) and today only does it in the missionary position in her own bed, or has had lots of hot (premarital and postmarital) sex in cars and boats and on tabletops and washing machines that are not her own, it is nobody else’s business and it does not add or remove one bit of value from who she is, how “good” of a person she is, or how much her perspective is worth.
So that’s why it bothered me that Rachel seemingly fell for this crap. She got pulled into discussing when she “lost her virginity” (another term that squicks me out) and then she tried to toe this awkward line that she was not ultimately successful in toeing even though she tried really hard. That’s the thing, in purity culture there is one rule (this is an oft-repeated rule in fundamentalist ideology in general) and that rule is “no winning allowed.” To see what I mean, notice the fact that even though Rachel waited until her wedding night to “know” her husband in the biblical sense (scoring an “A+” on the purity culture litmus test), she still ended up catching shit from readers who assumed she didn’t (and who then began insinuating that this indicated something negative about her, as well as a solid reason to wholly discount her perspective), simply because she’s talking about sex and not toeing their line about the waiting until marriage thing being the be-all end-all that separates the wheat from the chaff. And this, folks, is exactly what purity culture is really about. It’s not about respecting your body and your emotions, or other people’s, or about making smart decisions on who you become intimate with. It’s about dividing and conquering. It’s about controlling other people by regulating their most personal and private of behaviors, and using shame and social ostracism to try and shut down any debate that questions the propriety of these social control mechanisms. That’s likely why Rachel said she felt scared of the topic and dealing with it made her want to bang her head on a table. When total strangers are trying to manipulate your speech and behavior and public character and bedroom activities in these sorts of sneaky ways (and doing it all in one fell swoop, too), those are understandable reactions.
So, I don’t envy Rachel’s position in dealing with this purity culture mess or the people who perpetuate it (I too am quite familiar with this sort of b.s.), but I am kind of annoyed by what she said, how she tried to straddle some imaginary “I’m for purity culture, but not the bad kind” line and how she inadvertently give credence to the very thing she’s trying to speak out against. I really wish she’d just told them to knock it off and go pester somebody else instead.
So now let me get into what annoys me about her post. Rachel has talked before about how commodifying sex, making it transactional rather than a beautiful thing shared by two people in love cheapens it. The idea that the man brings home the bacon and the women spreads her legs for him whenever he wants it to “pay” for her upkeep is sordid and shudder-inducing and she is right to condemn this.
However, when you refer to sex as “it,” as in “giving it away,” (and Rachel did in a quote that she used) you’ve just contributed to the commodification of sex. Sex is not an “it” and a woman’s vagina is not an “it.” Sex is an act, a thing you do, and a woman’s vagina is a human body part, not some prosthetic that can be unattached and reattached on her person. So, y’all, please don’t ever refer to sex as an “it” unless you are ok with transactional sex and cheap objectification of women. Note #1: Saying “doing it” is different and that’s ok – it refers to the act of sex, not to sex or sex organs being objects to be used, traded, sold, or given away. Note #2: It seems Rachel edited her post to remove this “giving it away” language. Good for her.
Next, and this is a pet peeve of mine, what is this talk about waiting until marriage? Is waiting for marriage a thing? Now, obviously I’m being a bit facetious here. I know very well that some people wait until marriage to have sex. In the fundamentalist Quiverfull tradition I was raised in, waiting until marriage was seen as a big deal, the only way, in fact. Still, I think this is a good time to point out that waiting until marriage is abnormal. How? Isn’t it the “right thing,” the only tried and true method of ensuring self-respect, a responsible partner, and a happy and lasting relationship? Well, no. See I looked up the stats. The Guttmacher Institute said that even in 1940 you had 9 out of 10 women having premarital sex.
That’s right. Your grandma most likely had premarital sex. Your mom most likely had premarital sex. Your sister and your cousins and your aunties likely had premarital sex. Those old people you see holding hands in the nursing home, wondering who will leave this world first, they most likely had premarital sex. So what exactly makes waiting until marriage so special that people keep talking about it like its something you’ve gotta do or be forever sad that you didn’t? What does it do exactly? What happens if (like most people) you don’t wait until marriage? The answer is…I don’t know. I suspect it might not do much of anything though, since so many smart and stable people choose to do otherwise and because it’s mainly over the top scare tactics, including the (frankly very disturbing) idea that God will be disappointedly watching you make that illicit “O face,” that are (generally unsuccessfully) used to try and convince people that they should tow the purity culture line or feel terrible about themselves and their sinfulness if they don’t (and either way go to church a lot regardless).
While I certainly don’t have anything against people who think that waiting until marriage is the right choice for them, I don’t think they can say it is the right choice for people in general in a society. That’s right, I personally don’t think premarital sex is inherently harmful (although certainly it can be) and I definitely do not agree with what people who adhere to Quiverfull beliefs say not waiting until marriage does to people. They say it is “doing things out of order” and that if you do have sex before marriage, don’t be surprised if you are plagued with disease, heartache, and the destruction of your subsequent marriage, or that no one respects you enough to make you their spouse at all. That’s right. That’s what they say. Nevermind that disease, heartache, relationship problems, and periods of loneliness are inescapable parts of life and they will all have some sort of an impact on you at some time or another (well, unless you live in a hermetically sealed bubble and then three out of the four will still be a problem).
Also, this “purity” thing simply doesn’t work, even if you do “everything right.” This purity culture “formula” given to us regarding marriage and sex is quite bogus. As human beings, each of us is as unique as our own thumbprints, we don’t need that sort of outside control of our personal decision-making and we don’t need that crime and punishment mentality invading our love lives. We need to be given information so we can make choices as individuals, as couples, look at our own situations, look at our own loved ones, size things up, and proceed from there.
Look, I get that doing what you can to reduce the occurrence of disease, heartache, or bad relationships in your life is quality advice and that that’s what purity culture pretends to help you do, but it doesn’t actually do that. It does something much more insidious. For example, my own Mom thinks that because she didn’t wait until marriage that that’s why her marriage failed. She thinks giving “it” away before marriage cheapened her even though she went on to marry the guy and have 9 kids by him. I can’t tell you how upsetting I find this outlook. Personally, I think there’s two other huge variables that she’s not looking at. First, she was 19. Just a girl. She got pregnant and married my Dad after knowing him for four months.
You simply don’t know someone well enough to marry them after four months (although some people certainly do marry that soon and luck out). You also probably shouldn’t be getting married as a teenager (one of the biggest risk factors for divorce, after all, is getting married early). My Mom rushed the wedding because of the pregnancy (which she lost to a miscarriage) and she later found out that my Dad wasn’t the man he’d seemed to be. She felt stuck and she blamed herself for not keeping her legs closed, said that sex had “clouded her judgment.” The real culprit was purity culture though. It clouded her judgment. It was the fault of purity culture that she never got proper sex ed and didn’t know how to make responsible decisions when she did decide she wanted to have sex. It was the fault of purity culture that she felt compelled to get married right away when she discovered she was pregnant. It was the fault of purity culture that she felt she had to remain married to my Dad once she had made those wedding vows, despite the fact that she was very unhappy. It was the fault of purity culture that she fell pray to Quiverfull teachings of “having as many children as God gives you.” It was the fault of purity culture that she felt she had to “submit” and keep doing her “wifely duties,” keep having kids with him, when she didn’t even like him to touch her anymore.
So it was a concentrated dose of purity culture, this thing that’s supposedly there to protect young people, keep ‘em on the straight and healthy path, uphold a good and just society, and it instead stripped away her sense of agency bit by bit and turned her into chattel, little more than a living breathing piece of meat. She didn’t see that though. Instead she believed the bible-thumping purveyors of purity culture and blamed her “lack of self control,” her own failing in her attempt at “purity” at age 19 for where she ended up in life at 50. She still believes this today.
That’s the sneaky thing about purity culture. It’s a type of indoctrination, it sends your mind on endless feedback loops, and it’s not ever really about what is right or healthy or good or makes you happy. It’s about guilt and shame, because they are some of the most powerful control tools ever, and they are easily harnessed by power-seeking patriarchal men (and women) as a way to turn women into second class citizens.
But wait – waiting until marriage shows that you have “self-control” you say, and obviously we need this sort of self-control? Well, sure self control is good, but how does this connect so directly with sex and waiting until marriage? I just don’t buy the idea that having sex before marriage means that you don’t have self control or that having sex within a marriage means that you do have self control. What if you have a partner that wants to wait until marriage and you don’t? Well, then congrats – that’s not your own self-control that you have. It’s external. What if you get married just so you can have sex? That’s not self control either. It’s a huge ass mistake.
Also, because everyone’s sex drive is different and everyone’s situation is different, waiting until marriage to have sex doesn’t really indicate how much self control you have regarding sex or how much self control you’ll have once you start having sex. Example: Say sex is chocolate cake. Some of you may really want it, real bad. Others may be ambivalent. Some may outright despise chocolate cake. They aren’t all exercising “self control” if they don’t eat it. Also, if they do wait for a certain amount of time and then instead of having a slice or two, they binge and eat the whole cake, that isn’t self-control either.
Also, sex isn’t chocolate cake. Sex partners aren’t chocolate cake. You consume chocolate cake. It is an object, a thing. Whether or not to have sex and when and why and how is a joint decision to reach together with *gasp* the person you are (or are not) having sex with! It’s not just about you! What about how they feel? What about their self control? What about their boundaries, their interests, their desires? Fact is, in relationships where consent is given the proper amount of respect, the person with more boundaries (and, contrary to popular culture myth, this isn’t always the woman) gets their wishes respected and adhered to, whether in a marriage or outside of it. If you want to do something in the bedroom that they don’t want to do (or vice versa), in a relationship where both parties respect each other, it ain’t gonna happen!
That gets me to my next pet peeve. What is this “on demand sex” thing you evangelicals speak of, and where do I find this? Actually, I know the answer already. I can’t find this. Do single people get this? No. Do married people get this? No. In a consensual, non-coercive relationship (and even if by relationship you mean “that friend I hook up with sometimes”), on-demand sex doesn’t exist. If you are having sex with another live human being there should be this little thing called consent involved. You ask them and they can say yes or no. They ask you and you can say yes or no. Every.single.time. Well, that is, unless (like Quiverfull beliefs seem to indicate) you believe that married people can’t say no and then you often have coercive sex and marital rape occurring, or at least an arrangement where you pretty much sold your bodily autonomy for a gold ring. Once again sex is commodified, made into a transaction.
That’s the thing. Consent is always a necessary component but for some reason evangelicals seem to so often forget this. They think the wedding ring means “consent forevermore” because purity culture commodifies married women just as it commodifies women who aren’t married. Purity culture uses “legitimate sex” as a tool, a weapon even, to keep women in line with what the powers that be have decided that women should be, and it’s no surprise that such a rigid idea of what “legitimate sex” is then quickly brings up the disturbing specter of “legitimate rape.” Those “legitimate rape” discussions are even more horrifically wacky and convoluted than the “legitimate sex” discussions but they often come down to the same argument – the woman is seen as having to “take it” because if she didn’t want to take it she would have and should have stayed away from all of it in the first place. Then the whispers start. She shouldn’t have married him. She shouldn’t have been wearing that short skirt. She shouldn’t have had those last two drinks. She shouldn’t have gone to that house. She shouldn’t have expected him to help her. You know how men are. Women have to guard their purity.
There’s a reason for this kind of dialogue and it is because purity culture and rape culture are the exact same thing – they both lack a concept of consent, both assume that “on-demand sex” is something that exists, and they both look at sex as a good to be given and taken according to an outside set of rules that may vary from place to place and can seem quite arbitrary most of the time. They both also inspire fear, put women on the defensive, and can result in shameful secrets – rape and consensual encounters being equally likely to be hidden from friends and loved ones out of fear that something very important will be taken from them – their reputation for purity. When the need for a “good reputation” is so strong that people feel they must hide experiences of love and pain, we need to ask where we went wrong because we went wrong, for sure.
So, if you want to talk about sex being connected to respect and trust and love and fidelity, you can’t connect it to purity culture or its’ transactional, commodified terms and its’ loaded figures of speech like virginity, illicit sex, “giving it away,” and “sex on demand” without giving credence to all the “slut shaming” and “she needs to cover up or she’s asking for it” and “she didn’t scream, so she must have been ok with it” stuff as well. That’s right, the reason you can’t seem to find the words to properly respect people’s individual decisionmaking or inherent worth while talking about purity, or get away from the commodified descriptions of sex and the transactional language that goes along with it when talking about this stuff is because purity culture cannot be divested from these things. It is these things.
You have to start a new dialogue. The thing that sucks about starting a new dialogue though is that people who are “winning” under the current paradigm have to relinquish something in order to meaningfully engage in it and women who have won the “purity award” are often loathe to give that up. How hard or easy this is depends on how attached you are to the idea of what “I waited” means, how much of your identity it is resting on this perception, and how wobbly or dangerous of a pedestal you might now view it as standing on. The fact remains that even if you like this wobbly pedestal and would prefer to keep it, if you want to reject the core icky and incredibly divisive things that make up the flesh and bones of what purity culture is, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You’ve got to let it go. You’ll have to reject the false sense of privilege that your supposed high place in the “purity hierarchy” accords you, which means you will have to reject the idea that your love, your relationship, your marriage is somehow superior to others’ because you guys waited until you were married. It’s a bit hard to do, right?
Thing is, when you think about it, what have the 1 out of every 9 women who wait until marriage to have sex really “won” that most other married women didn’t also win? Maybe they won the comfort that they were dutifully following their faith (I’m not discounting the importance of that, btw – if that is what you feel your faith requires and it’s an important thing to you, you should by all means stick with it). However, other than that, the women who waited won a public promise from their beloved that they would be together for life. They made a commitment to be each other’s only sexual partner from here on out. They formed an agreement to share a home, finances, secrets, hardships, and maybe even raise children together.
The truth is that people who wait until marriage to have sex still win something normal, something that the people who gave their sex life a test drive first also got (pretty much everybody who gets married wins this same package) and it still isn’t a guaranteed thing, for anybody. About 50% of marriages end in divorce, even more if you’re in the military, and somewhere between a quarter to more than half of marriages (depending on what stats you use) have infidelity occur within them at some point. Houses, money, and kids aren’t ultimately any easier to deal with than affairs and divorce. I could give you some scary stats on those too. That’s the thing – having sex before marriage or not having sex before marriage simply doesn’t give you the “cheat codes” to the game of life, or, rest assured, the word would’ve gotten out and lots more people would be doing it. The truth is that there are no cheat codes to the game of life and people who claim there are are either mistaken or trying to sell you something.
For those of you who waited, I imagine there were plenty of times before you were married that you wanted to get it on but didn’t and some of you are still waiting. Me sitting here saying that I don’t see you gaining something big, obvious, and important for having gone through this frustration, this self-deprivation, likely doesn’t feel good. People generally want to think that hardship, even when self-imposed (perhaps particularly when self-imposed), means they ultimately gain something from it, that it has an important purpose. Senseless suffering and deprivation, after all, are one of the hardest things for us to wrap our minds around even though they are quite common and we see some pretty extreme examples of them happening everyday. Also, everyone wants to think that their relationship is exceptional, that they are exceptional. When you’re told your choices were just one option out of many perfectly ok scenarios, it can be a bit of a bummer, kind of a letdown.
I think a lot of the feelings that get swept up into this talk of “sexual purity” and “saving yourself” are really about self-respect and respect for others in the sexual arena. If that is the case, then we need to not only jettison the idea that people who don’t adhere to the “have marriage before sex” precepts are morally hardened or dissolute (hey, they might be, they might not), but we also need to get rid of the false idea that people who are having sex for the first time with wedding rings on are inherently better people, happier people, more righteous people, more holy, etc. They aren’t. They put their pants on (after sex) one leg at a time, just like the rest of us.
Also, a few questions to ponder – do the biblical teachings about chastity still apply today? After all, rules on how you’re supposed to treat your slaves aren’t adhered to today because we understand that the whole underlying construct is barbaric. Why is it ok to still treat women according to rules used when they were the property of the men in their lives, still judge them primarily by what has and hasn’t been in their reproductive tracts, and then decree that the only way anyone should be able to ever enjoy a sexual relationship is by going in blind, promising commitment for life? I can’t imagine I’m the only one who finds this inherently disrespectful and a supremely bad idea at the same time… Also, when it comes down to it, (if there is a God) does God really care who gets you off in the bedroom or is it about you caring about who gets you off in the bedroom? Because if you don’t care and it could just be anyone with the right physiology, easily interchangeable, then that callousness is what is truly the problem then, isn’t it?
That’s why I think the real issue when it comes to sex isn’t one of “purity.” There is no such thing. The real issue is respect. It’s about treating yourself and other people like human beings – making a conscious decision to get to know other people for who they are and cultivate a certain level of connection based on love and caring, for yourself and others. Correcting the underlying issues of sexual exploitation and people feeling used starts off not with rigid judgments or rules about sex but with a view towards human rights, taking to heart and sharing the idea that just by being alive and having thoughts and opinions and feelings and a heartbeat that a person is due a base level of humane treatment, and should be seen as inherently of value. Are you comfortable enough with this idea that if you were to openly say to friends and family that no people are lesser than you and that no people are ever meant to be used as objects or commodities that they would nod their head, already knowing you feel that way because they see it in your actions everyday?
If so, then you have something called “virtue,” and if not you might consider getting yourself some. It’s a much better litmus test of what kind of person someone is than their “number,” their romantic and sexual interests, or their marital status.
Now, because I’m done with this rant, I will end with a song by Reggie Watts that is explicit and, if you choose to listen to it, will make you laugh and then be stuck in your head all day – “If You’re F*cking, You’re F*cking.”
Comments open below
Heather Doney blogs at https://becomingworldly.wordpress.com/
Heather was raised Fundamentalist Evangelical in South Louisiana until she was 13. At that tender age she was introduced to the world at large and starting her journey away from home schooling environment.
Her blog is primarily about Quiverfull lifestyle, homeschooling culture and politics, child welfare, PTSD, education, poverty, big families, gender issues, and maybe a few bits of south Louisiana or New England culture and a recipe or craft project or two thrown in, just for fun.
She is a member of NLQ’s The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network
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