Taking Back My Body

pexels-Jeffrey Czum2I was not my own. I was bought at a price.

I was my beloved’s and he was mine.

My husband and I were each raised in conservative evangelical Christian homes and churches, and we were both given the same basic messages: our bodies belonged first to God and second to our future spouses. It never felt like much of a burden. I was confident in God’s sovereignty and love, that he both knew and wanted what was best for me.

A Lady in Waiting

Sex education is a touchy subject for Christians. The messages I received came by way of a hodgepodge of sources: the bits and pieces my parents dared to drop when they couldn’t avoid it, the occasional still-titillating-while-abstinence-heavy sex-related topics taught in youth group, church-approved resources like James Dobson’s Preparing for Adolescence, and of course, school friends.

I came away with the belief that my sexuality and my body were the property of my husband, reserved on a shelf in layaway, and it was my job to make sure all was kept dusted and pristine for his eventual arrival. I believed even masturbation was wrong—not only was it a use of my sexual anatomy that didn’t benefit my husband in any way, but it could ultimately be harmful to our future marriage in that I would learn to please myself in a way that he may not be able to replicate. Better to be as fresh and inexperienced as possible so we could learn together, our sex drives primed and ready and eager to respond to the first sanctified touch.

As it turned out, though, I didn’t even know how to masturbate in the times that I did try it out, because I didn’t know my own body (It’s basically just fingering yourself, right? Right?). It was, after all, not mine to know. And when my first serious boyfriend came along when I was eighteen, he taught me that I had a clitoris, and oh boy, that’s what all the fuss over orgasms was about! I gave myself a brief period of allowance for my sexual awakening, believing that I would marry this guy, and that even if I didn’t, God and my husband would forgive me. Besides, I wasn’t having real sex. When it was over, I swore to do better and wait patiently for my husband. And wait I did.

Only a couple miles down the road, my husband was growing up with the belief that his body belonged to the woman he would marry one day, but that didn’t stop him from masturbating. He simply felt constantly guilty and ashamed. He had never dated anyone before we got together in our early twenties, and we confessed our past sins, as we perceived them, and fell madly in love. I was eager to belong to him, to give myself to him in every way. It was, after all, what I’d been waiting for my whole life.

We had “I am my Beloved’s and He is Mine” inscribed on the inside of his wedding ring. We tried to wait until our wedding day to have our first kiss, though admittedly we only made it as far as our engagement and did a little fooling around between that and the wedding. But we made it to the wedding night with our virginity intact. Cue sigh of relief. Now all bets are off.

Two people were raised with the same messages: we belonged first to God and second to each other. But one was a man, and even if he never saw it then, the world already belonged to him. The other was a woman, and she already knew that she belonged to men.

Not Your Own

I’d grown up in a world where my appearance dictated my worth, my body subject to the scrutiny of the masses. It was deeply embedded in my sense of self long before I’d ever had the words for what I felt, for what I knew. I’m also wired in such a way that I need emotional connection in order to feel sexual desire—a trait I would learn years later is called demisexuality—and because of this, I couldn’t be stirred to want sex if our relationship was lacking.

As newlyweds this wasn’t much of a problem, but around the time I got pregnant for the first time, our marriage began to struggle. We had never learned to communicate our needs during sex, given that we were raised to either avoid or feel shame about the pursuit of our physical needs before marriage, so we knew nothing about how to guide each other. Occasionally we stumbled onto something that worked, but it was never more skilled than a lucky stumble.

We belonged to each other alone, so it was understood that there was no sexual expression outside of our relationship that was permitted, even anything as innocuous as masturbation or fantasy (at least, fantasy about anyone other than each other). When pregnancy upset the balance, we had no skills to help us navigate our way through it. After two pregnancies with less than a year between them, the damage was done. I had stopped enjoying sex, but that didn’t mean I was going to stop having sex. My body, after all, belonged to my husband.

He knew I wasn’t enjoying it anymore, but because we didn’t know how to talk about it, he didn’t know why. He thought my sex drive had simply fizzled away, and maybe, if we were lucky, he would somehow figure out how to please me again and reignite what I’d lost. So we soldiered on, having repeatedly resentful sex that left us feeling more miserable afterward than we had before we’d started.

It wasn’t until my mid-thirties, when I began to deconstruct my faith and realize it didn’t hold up under scrutiny the way I’d always been assured it would, that I started to look at myself and the world differently. I began to listen, for the first time, to the message that I belonged to myself. And I felt something break inside of me. Something old, weary and aching and trying to hold up a life it was never meant for, finally collapsing under the weight.

The simplest of all things was the one thing I’d never had: to be my own. When we do not belong to ourselves, we lose a part of our humanity. It’s the reason why things like slavery and abuse are so horrific, because by laying claim to another body, we deny their personhood. Every time we had sex, I lost a part of myself. All I could do was try to resist the loathing and hatred I felt for both of us each time I forced my body through something it didn’t want, that I didn’t choose because I didn’t feel I had the right to say no.

I don’t blame my husband. He truly didn’t know the damage that was being done all those years. He believed it might get better if we just kept trying. When we finally acknowledged how unhappy we were and started talking about the possibility of separation, he asked if I wanted to stop having sex. I burst into tears. I had never felt like I could ask for that, but it was all I wanted, the right to not have to give my body away.

What I experienced all those years was assault, but it wasn’t my husband who committed it. It was the culture that told us he owned me, that my body existed for his pleasure, that I should shut up and endure it even as it tore my soul apart. It’s the same culture that would tell us both we’re wrong to have put our sex life on hold, despite the fact that to “perform my wifely duty” now would likely induce a panic attack that would set us back months of recovery. It’s the same culture that favors dogma over personhood, and would rather us toe the line than decide on our own what’s best for us. It was wrong. And this thinking carries on, wounding millions every day.

Reclaiming My Time

I can’t offer a happy ending, because my story isn’t over. I’m still healing, still learning how to belong to me, how to stop apologizing for the right to listen to my own voice. But three things have had the biggest impact on my ability to see healing begin and have hope for a better future.

First: therapy. Real therapy, the kind that digs deep into long-festering wounds and harmful internalized messages. It took us hitting rock bottom to finally realize that the cost to our finances and pride was worth it if it meant the alternative might be the loss of both marriage and sanity, but now it’s clear how worth it it was. Therapy is for everyone, y’all. Don’t wait till you hit bottom.

Second: a spouse who loves me. My husband’s willingness to see new sides of me, things I felt for years I had to suppress in order to be a good, godly wife, and to accept and welcome these things as valid parts of me instead of flaws, has done wonders for my ability to heal and begin to let him in again. The importance of feeling both known and accepted can’t be understated. I have hope for us again, and there was a time when I thought we were a lost cause.

Third: learning to love myself. It’s no small thing to reverse the life-long message that you are depraved and unclean and worthy of nothing short of eternal torment. Unlearning a message like this doesn’t happen overnight, but slowly I’m learning to believe that I deserve to be happy. I need not be conformed to the model of approved womanhood.

My body is good, beautiful as it is, worthy of love and pleasure, and, yes, is my own. My own, first and foremost.

And it’s a thing worth celebrating.

[Image Source: Pexels]

__________

Gwen Fisher is an aspiring writer, a mom to two, a geek-of-many-fandoms, checks “none” on the religion boxes, and is learning to love life, herself, and her husband again. If you’d like to contact her, she can be reached at removingthefigleaf@gmail.com.

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