Letters to My Daughters #9: Taking Ownership of Yourselves

Letters to My Daughters #9: Taking Ownership of Yourselves May 10, 2016

hikinggirlYou girls are growing up fast, and now that three of you are teenagers (how can this be?), the things I have to say to you are “aging up” as well. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the messages I know you are hearing in church, and while I usually keep my opinions about most of those things to myself, there is one particular subject about which it is high time I say a few things.

I want to talk to you about the messages you are hearing in church about your own sexuality, about dating, and about who deserves to claim ownership of who you are.

As you know, I grew up in the same church in which you are growing up. I was once a leader in the same youth group you now attend, and I once heard and repeated the same messages you are now hearing. I know how these matters are approached within evangelical Christian culture, and I take issue with how it is done. So I’m going to take a few minutes to spell out what my disagreements are so that you can at least be exposed to a second opinion in these matters. For all the things that I don’t speak up about, I think I deserve a chance to pick at least one battle every once in a while. And today, this is it.

Three Things I Think Your Church Gets Wrong

First of all, you are being taught that thinking about sex is spiritually the same as actually having it. That goes right back to Jesus himself, and I realize that you have been taught to accept whatever he said over what anyone else says, but I am telling you that I disagree. Do what you will with that knowledge, but I have to start there and say that I think this notion has done a great deal of psychological harm to countless people over many centuries.

It’s patently obvious that thinking about sex with someone isn’t the same as actually doing it. Let’s start there. In context I’m sure Jesus was trying to make a point about how moral choices begin in the heart and mind, and his words about hating your brother and calling him a fool were pretty well said. But he was using hyperbole, and when he began talking about sexual desire I believe his words had the unintended consequence of making fantasizing about another person a kind of “thought crime.” Whether he intended for that to happen or not is immaterial to me; what matters is the damage this has done to healthy sexuality for the rest of us ever since.

I believe healthy human sexuality includes an element of fantasy which is perfectly normal, perfectly natural, and perhaps even crucial to an accepting view of who we are in our physical selves. My former faith always struck me as excessively negative toward the body, despite the noblest attempts of its most articulate spokespersons. This is an example of where I think this way of thinking gets things wrong. And now that I’ve put that out there, it leads me to the next point:

Second, you are being taught that dressing to accentuate your maturing bodies is dangerous, and leads other people to sin. Leaving aside my issues with the way that “sin” is defined, this way of thinking displaces the blame for other people’s thought lives onto you. That’s called blame shifting, and I have a major problem with it.

I used to be a teenage boy, so I feel that I can speak about this with some authority. Nobody ever made me think anything. That is my choice, my responsibility. Holding you accountable for the thought lives of other people is a manipulative and controlling tactic, in my opinion. I find it especially appalling that people would lay this burden onto you at precisely the moment in your lives when you need most to hear that who you are becoming is a good, healthy, desirable person.

As healthy young women, you want to be noticed. You want to be admired. You want to be desired by other people. I’m telling you there is nothing wrong with that, and these negative messages about concealing anything that would highlight your attractiveness are very destructive messages in my opinion. They impress deeply upon you the feeling that who you are becoming in your physical selves needs to be hidden, as if there is something to be ashamed of. And yes, I know their rhetoric centers around saving yourself for your husband, but I have a serious issue with that as well…

Third, no one owns you but you yourself. You do not belong to me or to your mother. If one day you marry, you will not belong to the person you marry. You are not possessions to be owned at all. I know there is clear biblical language to that effect, but the Bible was written an awfully long time ago, during a time in which women were literally seen as possessions. During Bible times, a groom had to even pay the bride’s father a certain amount of money to marry her because in the culture at the time, that was seen as a business transaction in which a property (the bride) was being transferred from its previous owner to a new one. You may be shaking your heads at this, convinced that a book inspired by God could not possibly get something like that so terribly wrong, but if you look into this yourselves you will discover that I’m not making this up.

The same language of ownership is used when Paul says that “You are not your own; you were bought with a price.” He was talking about salvation and the crucifixion and in that place he wasn’t just talking about women, but I still have major problems with this line of argumentation. I am suggesting that the church culture in which you are growing up does a poor job of teaching you a healthy view of self-ownership. Call it personal autonomy, call it personal agency—there are many ways of talking about it but the point is the same: I see something within the church’s talk about you not owning yourself that opens the door to unhealthy thinking, and to an unhealthy view of your own feelings.

If you don’t own yourself, then you don’t get to say when you’re ready for physical intimacy. If you don’t own yourself, then you can’t decide for yourself “how far is too far” or whether or not you really wanted for someone to speak to you in a certain way, or relate to you in a certain way, or even touch you in a certain way.  But if you can’t decide that for yourself, then who can?  It’s easy enough to say that God will do that, and his answer is always “Wait till your wedding night.” But isn’t there at least some level at which you feel in your gut that somehow this is an oversimplification of a highly complex and dynamic subject? Once you get married, the concept of self-ownership still matters even then. To my mind, it doesn’t fix things that Paul once used language of mutual ownership within marriage. Why not speak in terms of mutual freedom, mutual autonomy?

The way the subject of sex is discussed in the Bible creates more problems than it solves, in my humble opinion. But then I’m keenly aware that it’s me versus the Bible, and there are limitations to what I can ask you to accept. Still…I’m not being forthright with you if I don’t tell you that this is how I feel. As the man in your life who cares for you more than any other man alive, I feel I have a right to give my opinion on this subject. I think you should at least consider the possibility that there are some things the Bible gets wrong. It was written by people, and people are products of their own times and cultures.

I Want You to Make Decisions for Yourselves

The other night on the way to the movie, I introduced you girls to Meghan Trainor‘s song No. You all seemed to like it right away both because it was catchy and because it reinforces what you already know: You have every right to say “no” to anyone who tries to impose their will onto yours when it’s not their place.

My name is NO
My sign is NO
My number is NO
You need to let it go

It’s a great song about personal empowerment, and the beauty of that particular message is that I know your mother and your church would agree with me: You should always feel entitled to say “no” to anyone who asks you to do something that you don’t want to do (with exceptions made for real responsibilities like cleaning up your room, doing your homework, and obeying laws, of course). There’s no disagreement with your church there.

But what about when the time comes that you want to say “Yes?” I don’t just mean for sex, either. There is a long list of things on a spectrum of intimacy with another person which fall far short of that, and I am suggesting that you and you alone are capable of figuring out what it is that you are ready for.

Now don’t get me wrong: I am in no hurry to see you girls grow up faster than you already have. Adult problems are no fun, trust me. You will have the rest of your lives to wade through the mind-bending complexities of making decisions which significantly affect the lives of other people besides yourselves. I’m even okay at a level with how relatively sheltered you girls have been as members of a Baptist youth group in the heart of the Bible Belt in the Deep South. You live inside a cultural bubble that would look foreign to a great many people in the rest of the country.

But I also want you to be prepared for life outside of that bubble, and I want you to be prepared for approaching intimacy with other people in ways that are healthy, that are realistic, and that enable you to enjoy being who you are and owning your own decisions with as much personal autonomy as possible. Learning to take ownership of your own lives is among the most crucial life lessons I could teach you, and this note is a step in that direction, controversial though it may be.

[Image Source: Unsplash]

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