It was exciting, actually. Loud music, pulsing beats, hundreds of teens shouting in unison. Do you love Jesus? "YES!!" Do you believe God has a plan for your life? "YES!!" Do you want to honor your body? "YES!!" And on it went with dynamic speakers, humor, more music. And we were talking about love and sex and bodies, always a favorite topic of mine, even at age 15 or so.
It was toward the end of the rally that I realized what it was all about. I always was a bit slow to understand the church's stance on sexuality and sexual activity. As things wound down and the speaker asked us to commit to purity and chastity, I wasn't quite sure what she meant, but I felt a bit queasy. I wasn't sure what she meant by virginity, but I was pretty sure by most definitions I hadn't been one since I was six.
Later we followed up the rally with in house discussions and a skit something like this one:
I didn't last long in this space. I had questions. And they weren't the kind of questions that were easy to ask in a church youth group full of people screaming, "YESS!" every time someone asked, "Do you love Jesus?" I took one of the leaders aside and asked what I should do if I wasn't a virgin. She explained that I could be re-virginized by pledging not to engage in sexual activity anymore. Now she had questions. I was mortified.
I explained that I had been abused, and her demeanor changed. "Don't worry!" she chirped. "Jesus knows it wasn't your fault. It's not like you wanted this or were willing."
I left that youth group meeting very confused. It has always been hard for me to explain to people what the situation was as a girl. Certainly a six year old child cannot legally give consent to an adult for sexual activity. But in order to survive the situation, to navigate the complexities of impossible choices and fears that seemed larger than life--and certainly larger than a little child--there were plenty of permissions granted. One learns to trade one thing for another, to manipulate, to hide when possible, but get through it when it's not. It isn't that I was willing or that I wanted it. It's that it took me seven years to speak up and end the abuse, and in the meantime I was a participant in intimate violence. Early on in therapy I pinned the blame and responsibility for this cruel situation on my wretched relative, but that has not always been helpful in my further ruminations on sexual consent. "No means No" is a healthy and useful slogan, but it doesn't cover all the bases.
Even more confusing was the relief the youth group leader expressed over the fact that I had been raped. It seemed to her a far better situation if I had been raped than if I had engaged in consensual, pleasurable sexual activity. There was no need, in her mind, to "revirginize" a girl who had been raped. I could still make the pledge to purity and chastity with the other girls and boys.
I have to say that in the years that followed, every consensual, pleasurable sexual experience was better/healthier/holier for me than any of the nonconsensual rapes I experienced, either as a child or as an adult. I know that isn't what the woman meant, but I know I was confused and ashamed in that moment as I contemplated whether or not I was "pure." At that point I still had his voice in my head accusing me of seduction. Others had called me crazy. Others had said I was damaged. This woman was relieved I hadn't chosen willingly to engage in sex.
I didn't make that pledge.
I didn't keep that pledge.
I wouldn't ask any young person to make that pledge.
A few years ago I stumbled upon a book by Jessica Valenti called The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. I was fascinated by this book as it delves into the phenomenon of Purity Balls, where young women (and sometimes young men) pledge chastity, handing over their virginity to their father's keeping, who will then hand it over to their future husband. While many churches do not utilize such formal rituals, almost all of our Christian churches teach young people that sex belongs only in marriage and that sex outside of marriage is sinful. I still find this troubling. After five years of working as a youth pastor, I could say this about teenagers and sex: many of them were engaging in sexual activity; many of them were doing it without much information or education; our stance on chastity drove their activity underground.
We continue to perpetuate an ideal for our children that most of us have no intention of living out ourselves. Find the biggest proponents of chastity before marriage and lifelong monogamy with a single sexual partner, and you will often find people who are divorced and remarried or who have been engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage. True, many of us don't want for our children to repeat our own "mistakes," but we are on shaky ground with sexuality.
Jessica Valenti shared about her first sexual experience. When I read her words twenty years after attending that purity rally, I found myself profoundly relieved. She expressed in a few paragraphs what I'd been grappling with for thirty years: how could a man's touch or semen or a penis have such a contaminating effect on my body and soul? Here is a brief excerpt of this excellent book:
In the moments after I first had sex, my then-boyfriend--lying down next to me over his lint-covered blanket--grabbed a pen from his nightstand and drew a heart on the wall molding above his bed with our initials and the date inside...The date seemed so important to us at the time, even though the event itself was hardly awe-inspiring. There was the expected fumbling, a joke about his fish-printed boxers, and ensuing condom difficulties. At one point, his best friend even called to see how things were going. I suppose romance and discretion are lost on sixteen-year-olds from Brooklyn...I've often wondered what that date marks--the day I became a woman? Considering I still bought underwear in cutesy three-packs, and that I certainly hadn't mastered the art of speaking my mind, I've gotta go with no. Societal standards would have me believe that it was the day I became morally sullied, but I fail to see how anything that lasts less than five minutes can have such an indelible ethical impact--so it's not that either.She writes much more on this subject, and over the last few years I have realized that there are many ways, not just one, to approach sexuality with a sense of the holy and ethical. It is a complex subject, and our starting experiences are not all the same. For those of us who have been sexually violated, healing often comes in the form of later consensual experiences. Sometimes we deliberately seek out partners willing to work with us on healing our bodies and souls around sex. We find in those relationships love, desire, patience, tenderness, curiosity, and humor. We find in those relationships liberation from nightmares and flashbacks. We regain trust. Those relationships do not always last, and they do not always take place within the bounds of marriage or monogamous partnership. They are nonetheless healing. And I believe they are, nonetheless, sacred and blessed.
Brian Ammons, who blogs at Nekkid Resurrection, wrote a post about Sacred Sex. I think there is so much more to be said and built on from this paragraph below, but again, as I read it I could feel my own tension and shame easing. It is good to read the words of others who have experience sexual violence. It seems fitting that these words come from a Baptist man.
The term “resurrection sex,” which I used in my talk with Richard Rohr, was a direct reference to the Lazarus motif in my previous talk at Big Tent Phoenix...We are called to practice resurrection, to chose that which is life-giving in the face of the death-dealing violence. Sex as a spiritual practice — particularly for those of us who have experienced the same acts distorted into dehumanizing violence (which, to differing degrees, I think is probably all of us) — is about being fully alive, fully oneself, bringing all of you are to another to be seen and celebrated. It is choosing life.Finally, I engaged briefly in a twitter discussion about so-called "boyfriend Jesus" songs this week. There were a few folks who emerged from conservative, evangelical traditions who recall this kind of music used to manipulate their emotions and commitments. Others shared a distaste for the cheezy, overly sentimental lyrics and overdone music. Some simply do not prefer the image of God or Jesus as lover. Understanding God as lover is a time honored tradition within orthodox Christianity. Such imagery can be found in scripture aplenty. Our traditional hymns sometimes employ this imagery. For me, as one who has experienced intimate sexual violence, the image of God as lover has been healing and hope-filled. I don't limit my musical enjoyment to "boyfriend Jesus" songs, but I am often deeply moved by them. I share this one below, and wish you well. May you find healing in the powerful blend of spirituality and sexuality.