NOTICE: This article contains detailed descriptions of non-consensual contact and uses graphic religious imagery and language. These references and images may be upsetting for those with a history of abuse and/or spiritual/religious trauma. If you or someone you know needs a friendly voice, please feel welcome to contact Recovering From Religion, visit our list of Crisis Hotlines for toll-free support, and be assured our Hotline Project will be live and taking calls very soon.
Recently an adult male, she thinks in his mid-20s, grabbed my 13 year old daughter’s rear end at the store while she was in line for the cash register. Even if she was an adult this was wildly inappropriate behavior from a total stranger, but that she is a minor made it especially repulsive. Apparently, however, all of my “your body, your business” lectures to her (and all of our kids) paid off. She did not shrink away in tears of embarrassment, as I did many times as a young adult. In fact…well, I’ll get to her reaction in a bit.
But this got me thinking…
What was different about how she interpreted the situation, compared to how I had interpreted similar situations around the same age? Maybe even more important – how do I make sure the rest of our kids feel the same about themselves? I speak out quite publicly about the violence and abuse from my first marriage, and how the indoctrination of fundamentalism enabled our highly dysfunctional relationship. But the first time the “head of our household” attacked me was not the first time I shrank away in humiliation, mortified that I caused his chaos and unaware of my right to exist unmolested. It started long before, where early in my upbringing I learned three important but certainly conflicting lessons:
- Everything happens according to God’s perfect plan.
- I was completely powerless to control access to my personal space. Trying to do so was “bad manners”.
- When someone violated my personal space, it was probably my fault, but always not theirs.
This message of powerlessness was so effective, in fact, that I was certain my “rebellious spirit” was at fault for any physical intrusion on my personal space. I already knew the shame of not-so-subtle public prayer requests imploring the God of all creation to bring me “to Jesus with humility,” and I only knew of “self-esteem” as a negative term equated with narcissism. This stain of surreptitious evil was one I scrubbed from my thoughts at every urging of my spiritual leaders. I prayed fervently for the demons of selfishness and pride to “let loose my soul” in an effort to forever silence the voice in my head screaming for validation and reassurance. “Self-worth” and “empowerment” were buzz words spat from the pulpit each week as our Sunday School Teachers and youth group ministers declared spiritual war on these demonic end-times. We were warned constantly of Satan’s urging to “take our eyes off the cross”, and we were cautioned that children of God are “not of this world”. Silly ideas like “children’s rights” were an “assault on family,” and these ideas were held with the same contempt as words like “tolerance”, “feminism”, and “acceptance”. This was true for all my church homes regardless of where I was or how I worshiped. Throughout the Deep South and the Midwestern United States, whether Baptist, Catholic, or Presbyterian, it was all the same message: Failure to value others as more significant than yourself will set you apart from God, and this was an unstoppable catalyst into the fires of hell.
As far back as I can remember, the idea of consenting to physical contact was entirely foreign to me. I can recall from my earliest memories being instructed to give my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and great-aunts/uncles/cousins “sugar” (a common Southern term for kisses) and “love” (the same, for hugs) whether I wanted to or not, and I usually didn’t want to. Not doing so was “rude”, and reflected poorly on my parents capabilities to raise a civilized, well-mannered young lady – something of great importance not just from our religious community but as a strict Southern standard as well. The same applied to being tickled until I was in tears and furious, horrified that I would wet my pants while my pleas to stop were ignored with mocking laughter. When I got angry and yelled at the offending adult, I was punished for “making a scene” and the end to any playful or friendly interaction was immediate, with no redemption or second chances. If I accidentally played too rough with them, however, or said anything that crossed an unspoken and invisible line of arbitrary social standards I had yet to fully appreciate, I was the one in trouble. If I wanted to “have fun” with adults the message was clear – I had better not get picky about what that fun entailed or it would be over, never to happen again. “What is WRONG with you?” was the frequent response to any resistance on my part. I learned fast that setting boundaries about physical contact was rude, and pulling away from adults was an “ugly way to treat people”. As a young child, I quickly learned to “keep sweet” and ignore the nagging discomfort lurking in the recessed corners of my blurred personal boundaries, choosing uncomfortable attention over the agony of none.
Embarrassing my family was one of the most severe crimes imaginable, so I knew to avoid the penalties of that at all costs. From a young age the message was “do as you’re told” and “what will people THINK?” Obedience to authority was good; disobedience towards authority was bad, and it was always that clear cut. Combine that with the doctrine of male superiority inherent in patriarchal religious viewpoints, and the natural result is a rigid mindset that knows standing up to “authority” is defiant and bad, and standing up to men is much worse.
Sometimes learning these lessons involved tremendously dysfunctional guilt trips and head-games. Silent treatment/shunning, humiliation, and the threat of rejection and isolation were constant methods of behavior control. My mother once coldly informed me she ‘couldn’t love me’ when I ‘acted so shamefully’ … I had stomped my foot, refusing to sit on the lap of her co-worker as a young girl of about seven years old. I don’t remember why, they weren’t especially creepy or inappropriate that I recall, but I will never forget the look on my parents’ face when I refused. Over 30 years later and her words still echo in the wells of my long forgotten memories, resurfacing only as a nagging clue in my search for where I learned my worth relied on the assessment and approval of others. As the years went by my inner voice grew shakier and more hesitant, whispering “No” with ever decreasing volume.
Of course my mother loved me, and I know that now, but she carried tremendous demons from her own past and that baggage made it virtually impossible for her to break free from a cycle of what we now recognize as spiritual, emotional, physical, and even sexual abuse. Personal growth beyond the walls of my mother’s rigid faith would have been seen as Satanic rebellion, and she’d seen enough demons “cast out” of congregants who had embraced the sins of the flesh. She was convinced by her father that life’s hardships were God’s retribution for the sinful nature of her (or her family’s) wicked soul, a message she and countless others passed on to my generation with fervent urgency. Beatings were frequent and brutal, and compliance was the only option for my mother as a child. “PK’s” (Preacher Kids) live under the fishbowl of constant church-pew scrutiny and uninvited expectation. Their family’s livelihood is dependent on the mercy and approval of their sponsoring church, which for her family was located deep in the southern Appalachian Mountains. This puts tremendous pressure on the parents to demand perfection from their children. That she was as functional and loving as she was, to me at least, indicates her resilience in the face of abject discouragement and cataclysmic emotional trauma.
To her, however, this was just normal life. She grew up under the virulent eagle eye of her father, a fundamentalist, Fred Phelps-style preacher hyper-focused on both the depravity of mankind and the divine grace of the Almighty. He took seriously his role in saving us from eternal torment deep in the bowels of a sulfuric hell. He traveled his family throughout Central America and the Caribbean, spending decades as church-planting missionaries in the tropic jungle before settling on a desolate, barren property on the border of Mexico. Fluent in Spanish, he ministered to migrant workers and immigrants (legal and otherwise) with my grandmother’s meals, their “open door” Food Pantry, daily church services, and strategically placed gallons of water (with a tiny copy of El Nuevo Testamento tied to the handle) throughout the vast expanse of dust he called home. He was not an evil or angry man – but he was without a doubt a staunch believer in the inerrancy of his scripture, confident that God had called him to reach the unsaved with his particular brand of holy water. He was “fearfully certain” of Satan’s ability to claim the souls of his flock, whether through unholy music, the evils of chewing gum, dancing, adultery, or any other temptation. I still remember the endless hours of sitting in the hard wooden pew of his beloved church, watching in awe and with rapt attention as he masterfully wove the tenderness of Jesus’ love and God’s eternal grace into the complex tapestry of our inherent wickedness so deserving of eternal damnation.
My parents’ views on boundaries (and all lack thereof) were reinforced constantly from their own childhoods, the pulpit and Sunday school classes of our own local (mega) church, as well as the countless dog-eared Christian parenting books (What the Bible Says about Child Training, The Strong Willed Child, etc) adorning our bookshelves. The stakes were high and the expectations were loud and clear: Parents are responsible for the souls of their children. Parenting a child “correctly” breaks their will while strengthening their spirit towards the Lord, making them dutiful and obedient. Willful and disobedient children are a reflection of the parent’s failure to protect their child from the waiting arms of Satan himself. With this mindset there is no point where the parent ends and the child begins – the parent’s value is defined by someone they can’t ever completely control (despite their efforts), and the child’s worth is completely dependent on parental approval, which becomes virtually impossible to obtain without strings attached. Instead there is only a discombobulated merging of identities that lays the groundwork for a lifetime of co-dependent relationships and boundaries fluid enough to sink the Titanic.
Physical manipulation was also a common persuader when I was growing up. I was dragged into my bedroom for punishments, physically overpowered to pick up books or toys, or poked/pushed/shoved in the direction they wanted me to go (if I was in the way, or dawdling – which I was quite prone to do). This was all par for the course, and as most of my friends were also from my (or a “sister”) church, I didn’t see anything different until my community finally grew beyond my youth group. When I was disobedient, “getting whipped” or “switched” was especially awful, not just because of the physical pain from a leather belt, hand, or whatever was in arm’s reach, but emotionally it held the power to humiliate me into compliance before a single blow landed. The red stripes on my legs, visible below my dress, meant everyone knew I’d done something “willful”. Crying only exacerbated the problem and was usually followed by the “I’ll give you something to cry about” response. Careful and measured management of my reactions became paramount to emotional survival. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve begun to embrace my right to experience unpleasant emotions like frustration and anger, and it is something that still challenges me regularly.
I was taught from my earliest memories that behaving correctly meant attracting the least attention, and that maintaining continuity with the surrounding social order was always top priority. This upbringing demanded I cover myself, remaining “chaste and pure”, through specifically defined (and often arbitrary) modesty standards only applied to girls starting in the earliest years. In the rare instance my own parents were more restrictive than my church, their iron-clad rules prevailed. It was instilled in every Sunday School student the fearful idea that all men were tempted to lust when women fell short of their responsibility to honor God through their modesty. They taught me that “I am not my own; my body is a temple of God”, and that “I was bought at a price”. All of this served to reinforce the nonexistence of my independent self, erasing my right to set limits on the access people had to my physical body, much less have those limits respected.
I still remember the shame and horror of getting in trouble as a 1st grader in school. I had “sassed” the teacher, and as the principal pulled up my dress and exposed my underwear, I was informed I’d ‘get it double’ if I didn’t act like a lady while they paddled me in front of the class. I was mortified, and can still feel the burning shame just thinking of it. When I got home, I endured another round. Not just because my behavior had been so terrible to warrant getting in trouble at school, but because I had embarrassed my parents by someone else pulling up my dress in front of everyone. I still remember how furious they were that I had ‘let the whole school’ see my underpants. It never crossed my mind to question their rage – it was clearly, and plainly, my fault.
Unsurprising to anyone who knows me now, I was a bookish teen (before it was cool) and an unrepentant music nerd in high school. I practically lived in the music hall studying music history and theory, practicing concert piano, or the several instruments I played in various ensembles. One afternoon, a football player at my (very Catholic) high school followed me into a stairwell, shoving one hand up my shirt and another down my waistband as his knee and body weight pinned me into the cold concrete brick corner. I still remember him telling me what a “lucky bitch” I was that he had “picked” me.
I was mortified to tell anyone, but was even more scared of what he might do next with the help of his friends, so I finally told my (very religious) foster parents. They asked what I’d done to encourage him, how long we’d “known each other” and if I “liked” him or had been “flirting”. I was encouraged to talk to the school’s head priest, but for confession, not compassion. The student was ultimately expelled, but the rumors made one thing clear – I was a tease who couldn’t handle the attention. Several girls told me they wished they had been ‘picked’, and I’ll never forget the eye rolls from my gym coach (also the football coach) when I couldn’t face the hateful whispers from classmates in the co-ed gym class. I had asked, in tears, for an unexcused absence to go sit in the library and was informed I’d “have to learn to deal with it at some point”, and this was followed by a not-too-thinly veiled reference that football players usually had pickier taste in girls. The blatant double message was clear – physical attention, even unwanted, was something ‘good girls’ don’t complain about, and if they do, they are whores responsible for causing their shame.
Another instance was in college. A co-worker had been grabbing at me for months, and I eventually mentioned it to my boss. This resulted in his chastising me in front of said co-worker about ‘making waves’ and that I ‘should take it as a compliment’. By then, after so many years of authority figures defining my worth (or lack thereof) via focused indoctrination, it simply didn’t occur to me that my boss was at fault for failing to respond appropriately. At the time, I didn’t even know what an appropriate response would have looked like, and since I was under his authority I knew no other option than to believe he must have handled the situation correctly. Weeks later, the co-worker followed me into the bathroom after the restaurant closed. He blocked the door with his massive post-prison frame and made it clear how I would be “earning” his permission to leave.
Despite all of this, early on in my parenting journey I was strikingly similar to my own parents in how I raised my children. Of course I married a Promise Keeper husband with similar standards and values. We were both fundamentalist evangelical Southern Baptists, right in step with the generations before me on the path to salvation via Bible studies, Sunday school, revivals, potlucks, and Awanas. We parented with an all-too familiar top-down authoritative rule that left no room for error or negotiation. My husband was the “head of our household” and I was his “helpmeet”, well aware I’d be labeled blasphemous if I was not discreet, chaste, a keeper of my home, and obedient to my husband. Respect was a demand made from subordinates instead of a skill learned through mutual relationships. Our children were to obey every adult in their lives, even at the expense of their own personal boundaries and comfort zones. I still look back and cringe at the lessons we worked hard to ingrain into their psyches.
All of our interactions with our children, whether in our daily devotions, educational lessons (we homeschooled), work/chores, or play, were opportunities to demonstrate our authority within the very rigid confines of our religious worldview. I dutifully instructed my children to hug or kiss their extended family, even when my father-in-law would intentionally startle our autistic son, laughing as he recoiled from physical contact. I patiently reminded our brood that it hurt their relative’s feelings when they acted as if the didn’t want to participate. This was rude and disrespectful, and would not be tolerated. I didn’t fully agree with what I was saying, for my own obvious reasons, but by then I recognized this as my “spiritual weakness” and prayed for the “peace that passeth understanding” to fill my heart. Again I shook off the nagging voices of discomfort to preserve my the only space I thought I belonged – at the feet of our Lord and Savior in heaven. Now even typing those words makes my stomach sick, but at the time I believed it earnestly.
Leaving that marriage, however, meant an overhaul in how I approached just about everything. I had drawn a line in the sand when my ex attacked our then 11 year old daughter, throwing her into her bedroom wall. Making him leave was the first time I’d ever considered my right to set a limit on others, and while it wasn’t a limit for my physical person, it was a limit to protect my children’s right to live in safety. That was a tremendous first step. I clearly recall how my crisp judgmental critique of the world grew increasingly murky through the cloudy lens of my religious upbringing; a view smeared by the jarring discrepancies of my sincere and faithful devotion intertwined with the sudden isolation of my new reality. I had to re-evaluate everything, including how I raised my children. Until that point in my life, I parented using the models held up as beacons before me – James Dobson, the Pearls, my own parents, and of course my church leadership were all revered as experts. But by putting my foot down and declaring there was a limit to the reach of their father’s brutal authority, I began to tentatively explore the novel concept that they had rights at all.
Slowly my views on parental authority changed and I began to consider the possibility that my children should be allowed to define access to their personal space. For the first time I realized that everything I did or said created a base model for their future interactions and relationships. I stopped spanking them almost immediately, but learning new and more challenging (to me, at least) methods of parenting was entirely foreign to me and it was definitely not easy. Rather than parenting through fear and authoritative domination, I worked at what I now call ‘respectful parenting’. I started teaching them communication skills and healthy cognitive processing as well as how to identify and prevent unhealthy patterns of dysfunctional relationships (including, many times, our own). I wanted desperately to see my children grow up emotionally healthy, free from the dysfunction modeled by their parents (me included), their grandparents, and the generations before them. But if I wanted to prevent them from carrying it forward, I first had to unpack the baggage I’d inherited.
I didn’t always know what to do (nor do I still) at each parenting junction. Sometimes we just fake it well, and we certainly know what not to do just by referencing our own past as we carefully explore the lessons we need them to internalize. I realized they needed to feel respected in order for them to learn to respect others. They needed to see their own boundaries valued in order for them to value the boundaries set by social and personal relationships.
I still remember one day when I was upset with my oldest daughter (now in her mid-20’s and a fantastic mother) for essentially telling me “no” about how she was going to do her chore. I initially balked at the idea of her refining my request on principle alone. Then I realized – this, like every other parent-child interaction, was NOT about whether or not she “obeyed my authority”. This was actually about practicing when, where, and how to define and set limits with others. By denying her the right to practice (and even get it wrong), I was teaching her not to use the skill at all. That I saw her refusal as a challenge sent HER the message that ‘good girls’ don’t do such things. That changed my entire perspective, and catapulted my parenting language into educating them on assertively setting boundaries with clear communication. They don’t always handle it perfectly, but that’s to be expected. As parents we hold their hands as they learn to walk, pick them up when they fall off their bikes, and encourage them through the challenges of childhood that pave the way into becoming a responsible adult. Learning to navigate the skill of assertive boundaries isn’t any different. Instead of “do as your told”, our family motto has become this:
We THINK: Are my actions Thoughtful, Helpful, Informative, Necessary, and Kind?
We don’t demand physical displays of affection – we might ask if we can give them a hug or kiss, or ask if they want to give us (or Grandma) one, but we include language that encourages permission to say no, free from any guilt or shame. It also doesn’t “mean” anything other than “No, I don’t want to do that with my body” and it isn’t taken personally. Simple tickling is now light hearted practice on how to say “no” effectively, and this is a hard and fast rule everyone appreciates. We do a lot of roughhousing, but when someone says “stop”, everyone backs off. There’s no threat of ending the fun, nor is anyone in trouble, we just check in that the person is ok, regroup, and back to the races we go. My youngest child, at a year and a half, already knows how to say “Stop!” when he is done being tickled and “More!” when he’s ready to go again – power he gleefully wields over whomever holds his attention.
Their childhood is based around respect for healthy boundaries, making it easy for them to identify when their boundaries are violated and who is responsible.
Despite my fears early on during this transition that I’d raise “entitled tyrants” and “spoiled brats”, our kids are complimented on their manners and public demeanor pretty often. They are NOT perfect, and each has days that shouldn’t be broadcast to the general public – but that’s no different than the rest of us, and I’m certainly not going to take that away from them either. As they grow older we create open discussions about their bodies, sex, relationships, and increasingly complex emotional and physical boundaries as they explore their world. Rather than hide the many flaws that exist in every relationship, we take a deep breath and plunge through explaining them, warts and all. When my partner and I have conflict, we don’t air it out in front of them but we do normalize the frustrations that occur when lives overlap and personal needs intertwine with family responsibilities. Maybe we didn’t communicate clearly, or a limit we had set was disregarded, usually unintentionally of course, but we own our mistakes and answer their questions honestly.
These topics are ongoing discussions – priorities that set the tone for how we empower our children, and the standards by which we evaluate our own emotional health and maturity. Which brings me back to my teen daughter. How did she respond, when standing in line at a register when an adult male manhandled her rear? She slapped him. Hard. No apologies and no excuses. She wasn’t flustered, she was pissed. She wasn’t embarrassed, she was indignant. My first response when she told me, of course, was asking if she was ok. I’ll never forget the look of surprise in her face when she answered,
“Of course I’m ok, why wouldn’t I be?! He grabbed ME! I didn’t do anything wrong!”
Another customer did lay into the guy for behaving like that, and another tried unsuccessfully to follow him after he left the building. At that moment, however, I saw something in her reaction that made me pause. The silhouettes of shame and insecurity that whispered silence! into my young subconscious hadn’t even been allowed closet space to influence hers! I’d have called the police if I was right there when it happened, but clearly she didn’t need my voice to defend her. She not only heard, but she listened to the voice in her own mind – strong and unwavering, sure, and confident.
We have since had numerous conversations about additional tools she can use, and we’ve discussed situations where this reaction might compromise her safety instead of secure it. But overall it is the stark difference between her handling of the situation compared to mine (at her age) that inspires me the most. Unlike my or my partner’s childhoods, our children do not seem to question their right to set limits, or the responsibility of others to respect the limits they have defined. They know that the same is expected from them as well.
Our kids make mistakes, have tantrums, torment each other, and forget their chores – but without question they know to listen for their own voice, and to set the conditions of any relationships they choose. I am filled with hope that their self-worth and inherent value have lit a spark bright enough to overpower the darkest shadows of dysfunction, and that the cycle of spiritual abuse is finally the only thing broken in our lives. My daughter’s bright and untarnished view of the world dazzles me, and with every day I learn more and more as she and her siblings teach me more than I could have ever imagined.