Sacred Forms Series: An Introduction

Sacred Forms Series: An Introduction November 28, 2018

I’m consistently surprised by just how little Christians tend to know about sex or the female body. For two things we usually obsess over, you’d think we’d understand both better.

Many of us grew up in homes where talking openly about our bodies was considered crude or sinful, so we shy away from it. But it’s neither. We’re created in the image of God. How can talking about our bodies in a way that honors them be sinful?

I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve been involved with about sexual assault or premarital sex or NFP where grown adults, who claim to know all about it, reveal they don’t even understand the basics of female anatomy. That’s a problem.

To show I understand, let me share a personal story with you:

When I was fourteen, I knew all about menstruation. My mother had already talked to me about it, so I knew you could get pregnant after you started getting your period, and I knew women got their periods once a month.

We’d also watched an educational video at school in junior high. That video is permanently etched into my brain because you don’t forget seeing a mother make pancakes in the shape of a uterus while explaining menstruation to her daughter. While I was fairly sheltered (we weren’t allowed to say things like “butt” in my house), I was more educated than some of the kids I knew.

I decided to read through the entire Bible that year. I was in Leviticus when a verse really stumped me. Leviticus 20:18 said men couldn’t “lie with” a woman who was on her period, but that didn’t make any sense to me.

For some reason, I’d gotten it into my head that a woman could only get pregnant while she was on her period.

I couldn’t figure out why would God make a rule preventing women from getting pregnant. The best I could figure was it didn’t count if you accidentally had sex with a woman on her period, so every child was conceived through accidental sex during a woman’s period. I chalked it up to God coming up with a form of natural birth control, with only rare conceptions when a woman unexpectedly started her period in the middle of marital relations. That way women weren’t constantly pregnant. “Go forth and multiply, but, like, not too much.” (My mental leaps there probably say a lot about how I’ve always viewed God as the protector of the vulnerable.)

Obviously, I was seriously wrong about how women get pregnant.

Somewhere in that talk with my mother, in all those pamphlets I’d read at school, in that educational video, and even in health class, nobody had ever explained that ovulation happens before menstruation. I’d thought it all happened on the same day. I learned the truth by reading Seventeen magazine in the school library.

I’ve run into teenagers who think you can’t get pregnant the first time you have sex. Who think you definitely get pregnant every time you have sex. Who don’t even understand how you get pregnant at all.

I’ve run into adults who are just as ignorant. Men who think every woman in the world has the exact same menstrual cycle. (I guess we all start bleeding at the full moon, like werewolves, but with better hair.) Men who think women can somehow lock down their bodies to prevent being raped. Women who don’t know it’s normal not to bleed the first time you have sex.

We’ve got a lot of people running around with bad information, and some of these people are making decisions that affect the rest of us. The least we can do is make sure we have our facts straight.

I’m going to do my part. I’m starting a weekly series here on sex and women’s bodies. I’m not a doctor, but I do have a vagina and the ability to do research without blushing.

We’ll explore anatomy, intercourse, menstruation, pregnancy, morality, abuse, and myths.

And vaginas. You’re going to be reading a lot about vaginas, so practice getting comfortable with the word.

Which brings me back to what I want to address in this introductory post. Talking about our bodies isn’t crude or sinful. I understand why some people are deeply uncomfortable with conversations about genitalia. We’ve been taught vaginas are dirty and dangerous.

As Catholics, we venerate saints who had all the same female body parts women today have. Most of our female saints had periods. Mary had a vagina, and she used it to deliver Jesus to us. Vaginas are sacred, y’all. Why should we be afraid of women’s bodies when God himself grew within a woman’s body?

As I was brainstorming ideas for this series, Jessica Mesman Griffith wrote a post for Sick Pilgrim that I loved. She talks about that feeling of being grotesque women so often experience, and then reflects on Mary and our sameness.

“Meditating on these images of Mary not just as maiden or mother but as woman, I find myself less grotesque. I can imagine my body as other than a site of pain, shame, or even mystery or titillation.” –Jessica Mesman Griffith

Female bodies have been thrown into the villain role. Forces of evil often attack women through our bodies. We’re taught to be ashamed of having breasts or having periods. We’re denied access to information about how our bodies work. When men come along and objectify our bodies, the blame shifts to us.

Let’s change that.

I know what it’s like to bust through all those mental blocks that are telling you it’s not Christlike to talk about these things. We have to remember talking about sex isn’t the same as encouraging lust. There’s nothing erotic about discussing anatomy and how our bodies function. I believe having a better understanding of anatomy and sex can actually help us resist temptation. We can learn to talk about the human body in ways that don’t exploit our brothers and sisters, but allows us to honor one another instead.

It’s important for us to expand our vocabularies to include the names of our body parts. How I can feel comfortable discussing an issue with my doctor if I can’t even bring myself to say the word “vagina?” How can a child tell an adult about their sexual abuse when they’ve been shamed into never using the word “penis?” These aren’t bad words and they’re not bad body parts either.

Our bodies aren’t dirty or bad. Our bodies are weird and beautiful and awkward and miraculous.

If you’re a woman, I hope you love yourself enough to learn more about your body. Even if you never have sex, you still need to know how your body functions.

If you’re a man, I hope you love women enough to honor them by learning more about their bodies. I especially hope this would be true of any man who is a husband, father, or is in a leadership position. You men can do a lot to influence our cultural views of women in positive ways, and that starts with educating yourselves.

I look forward to exploring our sacred bodies with you.

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  • JoshM

    I’ve never understood why we have such a cultural squeamishness around human female anatomy. Maybe it has something to do with a discomfort among men at the fact that there might actually be something that women know more about than we do?

  • Could be! I think part of it is because some men like to pretend we’re mysterious so they don’t have to make an effort to understand. Other men want to focus on sexually objectifying us, and a frank discussion about anatomy pops the fantasy bubble. And some of it boils down to anything “female” being viewed as inferior.

  • JoshM

    Yeah, any or all of the above, I suppose. The male ego can be a weirdly flimsy thing.

  • I may be a horrible evil conservative to most of the people on patheos (heck, may is an understatement) but when it comes to teaching my own son, I’ve followed the ideal that innocence doesn’t need to be powered by ignorance.

    He’s known for 12 years, at age 15, how babies are made. Due to the sad fact of my wife and I being only borderline fertile, he’s heard all his life about using NFP in reverse and how birth control, for or against, is not infallible (in our case, we were constantly using it FOR for 17 of the 19 years we’ve been married, until we switched to mutual prayer for intimacy because it just wasn’t working and other health issues started intervening that made sex contraindicated).

    I applaud your courage, and will be very much supporting this ministry.

  • And one thing I’m still ignorant of. Breasts are ideally for feeding children. Men who objectify women, including me at one point in my life, focus on them largely because they are different, beautiful, and visible.

    But are they really an erogenous zone, or is that a cultural myth that has become true because it’s true for some really small minority of women and it pleases men?

  • It depends on the woman, but it’s generally true. Breasts, and especially nipples, contain a lot of nerve endings which increase sensitivity. For some women, that translates into pleasure. For some, that sensitivity can actually be painful. And we have to take psychology into account. Just because a woman has nerve endings somewhere doesn’t mean she wants to be touched there, even if it feels pleasurable and it’s her husband.

  • Which explains another reason why, at this time in our lives and with our health issues, we’ve chosen mutual prayer over mutual sex.

  • James Van Damme

    Pop culture teaches us – constantly- that the purpose of contraception is for women to be available to be used by men any time, without consequences. Thus men have no need to be concerned with such matters as menstruation or ovulation or luteinizing hormone or any of that.

    We teach NFP and the first class can start off with nervous looks from some of the attendees. By the third class, the guys are enthusiastically drawing temperature levels, happy to understand what is going on inside that wonderful lady.

  • Yes, this is absolutely vital information for couples using NFP, especially the knowledge of how different some women’s cycles can be from the norm since that can cause problems with NFP. I’m glad they get so into learning. That’s awesome!