A few years ago, some evangelical writers and radio personalities created The Modesty Survey. They asked thousands of Christian men and boys questions about what immodest things women do that tempt them. Inside the world that The Slacktivist calls “Real True Christianity,” few people seem to think that sort of thing is controversial. Outside that world, many seem to think it’s a giant flaming path to Sharia Law.
Put simply, mainstream American Christian culture has a profoundly fucked up approach to human sexuality, sensuality, and sexual identity. I say this as someone who grew up in a chain of Charismatic, Baptist, Evangelical, Nondenominational, and Assemblies of God churches. My experiences are not universal, but in the years since then I’ve grown confident enough to say that they are definitely representative. They may not be what everyone who is a Christian believes, but if you’re a 15 year old youth group member, odds are, you’re going to be on the receiving end of the ideas presented in the letter above.
A few of moments from my own history stand out.
My first puppy-love girlfriend, way back in the dim recesses of time. She had a crush on me, I had a crush on her… her parents started reading Bob Jones essays, and the rest is history. They forced her to sign a vow, before God, that she would ‘protect her heart,’ and that she would not see me without a chaperone again. We were both thirteen, and I didn’t really see too much of her after that.
A decade later, standing in a Starbucks with a twenty-something female friend who was herself the head of our church’s bible study group for teenage girls. While we were waiting for lattes, a young woman walked in wearing something that my friend thought was provocative. Shorts too short, maybe? I’m not sure, to be honest. She glared at the girl and said to me, “I’m glad none of my girls look slutty, like her.” It occurred to me, then and there, that quite a few girls in that Bible study might be less concerned about ‘modesty’ than afraid of being called sluts by a woman they looked up to.
Around the same time, a large “rally” style event that the church had promoted as “A no-holds-barred” conversation about sex and purity. The speaker kicked things off by reading out questions that had been submitted before the event: “Is oral sex a sin?” The speaker turned, and gave a comedic “Oh, come on!” look to the crowd, and announced, “If you have to ask, you know the answer to that one.” The reason why was never explained: it was just implied (hell, stated) that anyone asking such questions was trying to justify self-evidently sinful behavior.
These snapshots don’t say much in and of themselves, but they’re the reality of ‘Sexuality’ in the circles that produce materials like the letter that kicked off this post. Boys are made to despise the fact that they’re sexual beings — sexual attraction outside of marriage (not even sexual activity, but sexual feelings) is something to be pushed away, sublimated, washed away by hours of prayer, and so on. Girls are made to despise the fact that they have breasts, hips, lips — anything that could be ‘sensual’ is a source of consternation for someone who’s internalized the messages that are sent. A hip, chinos-and-sandals-wearing youth pastor will make a big deal of talking about how wonderful sex is (“With my hot wife!”) but there is no getting around the fact that the inherentlysexual nature of a healthy human being is treated as something to tamp down, to wash away, to lock up like a contagion until the magical day that vows are spoken and then everything is Blessed By God.
The letter that kicked off this post isn’t about women, not really. It’s not about their actions, their dress, their movements, or their bodies. It’s a letter about 1600 young men. 1600 young men who go to youth group every Wednesday and see Jenny in that really cute girl-cut Audio Adrenaline T-shirt, carrying her Bible and reaching up to grab something off the shelf and… and then suddenly it’s “Oh God I’m Sorry, I Shouldn’t Be Thinking Those Kinds Of Thoughts About Jenny! God, why can’t I stop thinking about Jenny’s body? If only Jenny wouldn’t dress like that, this would be easier. So much easier!”
These young men really have gone out on a limb, by the standards of their community: they have admitted that there is a really, really large list of innocuous things they can be turned on by. They don’t want to be, because they know that’s bad, it’s sinful, and oh, if only they could stop waking up thinking about Jenny or Nicole or…
You get the idea.
So they’re going out on a limb and asking women — desperately! humbly! — to please stop showing so much shoulder, or calf, or ankle, or wearing such bold lipstick, or having such tight jeans, or jogging in front of the office, or stretching, or doing anything that makes boys think about those lovely hips, and… and… where were we? Something about hips? They’re in a position where they cannot accept that it is normal, and even pretty healthy for a teenage boy to experience intense sexual attraction to anything shapelier than a streetlamp. Instead of learning how to be respectful and cope with constant boners until their hormones get under control, they have to sublimate, sublimate, sublimate and ask that girls stop being, well, so female.
To me, it’s depressing to watch how girls emerge from that culture and how boys emerge from it, too. All the talk in the world about how “Sex is a beautiful and wonderful and awesome thing between a married man and woman” aren’t a whit of help to someone figuring out that sexuality is part of who they are, not just an act that they perform.