Sex-aversion and purity culture

Inspired by “Asexual, because reasons” by Siggy and this post by Coyote. Also kind of a follow-up to my last post.

Before I knew the word “asexual”, I didn’t think about why I was the way I was; I just accepted it as something about me. But since discovering the term, I’ve wondered many times if I’m ace or sex-averse (I use that term somewhat interchangeably with sex-repulsed, because it’s broader but still encompasses sex-repulsion) because of something in my upbringing—especially the purity culture that I was immersed in through my church.

I knew that I didn’t want to have sex before I was old enough for Sunday school classes on purity, so I know those didn’t cause my asexuality or my personal sex-aversion—I was already not just uninterested in sex, but actively did not want to ever do it. But I do think purity culture contributed somewhat to my overall sex-aversion—I’m not just repulsed by the idea of engaging in sex myself, but don’t like to see it on film, read about it, hear people talk about it, or think about other people doing it. And it’s not just that I feel squicked by those things; rather, sex—any sex—has a wrongness about it to me. I don’t actually think that sex is inherently bad or wrong, but, hard to admit as it is, that’s my instinctual, unconscious reaction.

And I really wonder if I feel that way about sex because of hearing over and over how harmful sex is [outside of marriage], how it’s a sin [outside of marriage], how it will leave you scarred, broken, damaged [outside of marriage]. I’ve read stories of people who grew up in purity culture having issues having sex with their spouses; while that “outside of marriage” is always tacked on, and at least in certain churches/circles there’s plenty of talk about the goodness of marital sex, being told about the badness of premarital sex over and over still makes an impact. So thinking that I, who was already predisposed to not be excited about sex, internalized these messages isn’t very far-fetched.

Why does this matter? Because purity culture is messed up and is hurting people—those who wait till marriage and those who don’t (cw for mentions of rape at the link). If you do wait, you might end up in tears on your wedding night. If you don’t, you’re considered “damaged goods” and shamed, either by other people or just by yourself, because you’ve been told again and again that you’re not worth as much if you sleep with someone before getting married to them.

But more important to me right now is, it matters because it’s okay to be sex-averse. It’s okay to not want to hear about sex, it’s okay to be uncomfortable with it, and it’s okay to not want to do it—and that holds true even if you got that way from unhealthy attitudes, or through some form of trauma.

People need to realize this, for their own sake and for the sake of aces, because some Christians who rage against purity culture use “asexual” to mean “broken”, and emphasize sexual enjoyment as an essential component of marriage and a hallmark of a healthy life (not linking because these articles were upsetting, but let me know if you want them). But these people shouldn’t view being able to have fun, guilt-free sex as the ultimate goal; rather, the goal should be acceptance of and support for people who don’t like sex, who can’t make themselves go through with it, people for whom it always feels wrong. Nobody should have to teach themselves to like sex in order to feel healthy or healed.

No matter where they come from, asexuality and sex-aversion are legitimate, and aren’t things that need to be changed or corrected. Whether you were born sex-averse, or picked it up somewhere, or had it forced on you, it’s still you, and while you certainly aren’t obligated to like it, it’s not inherently bad.

I’m saying this to everyone who’s been hurt by purity culture—including myself.

Growing up ace and Christian

This post is for the February 2015 Carnival of Aces, which is on Cross Community Connections. I’d been wanting to write about this subject already, and this Carnival seems like perfect timing.

I was homeschooled, so I never went through a sex-ed class. But I did get sexual purity Sunday school classes, where we discussed books like Every Young Man/Woman’s Battle­—the battle being with sexual temptation. And the whole time, my thought was, “Um, it’s not my battle!” But neither the book nor the youth leaders ever mentioned that as a possibility. I mean, the book titles say it all—every person’s battle (well, as long as you’re a man or a woman).

I assume the authors of those books and the teachers of the class had never heard of asexuality. At the very end of the girls’ book there was a short chapter on “What if I’m not attracted to guys?”, but that just meant, “What if I am attracted to girls?” At the beginning of the book the authors stated, “Everyone is a sexual being. Even when you’re not doing anything sexual, you remain a sexual person.” And I didn’t like being told that about myself, because it didn’t seem right, but I didn’t have the language or the framework to object to it.

I’d hear Christians say that sex is a gift from God, and I cringed away from that sentiment, because it wasn’t a gift that I wanted. I always knew I was different from everyone around me, and I think part of the reason I did (as opposed to assuming everyone else was like me, like some aces did growing up), was my Christian environment. Once, one of my peers took a vocation-discernment test and received “celibacy” as a possible result, and she reported that to the rest of the class with laughter—and everyone else laughed too. My asexuality didn’t go unexamined because of Christianity’s emphasis on abstinence; rather, I was surrounded by married people, and told that my peers and I would also get married someday. And I always knew what marriage meant. Sunday school didn’t teach “Don’t have sex”; it taught, “Don’t have sex until you’re married.”

My church and Christian culture in general told me sex was powerful, that it was hard for people to control their sexual urges, that it was normal to masturbate and fantasize and want to sleep with the person you were dating—but those desires had to be contained until you were married, when suddenly all your sexual needs would be fulfilled by your spouse. That meant I did not want to get married, because marriage equaled sex. It meant I thought I could never have a romantic relationship, because romantic relationships became marriages. It mean I thought I was destined to be alone forever, because the only long-term, committed relationship you could have was a romantic one.

It didn’t get any better after I discovered asexuality; when I Googled around at one point, trying to find a Christian view of it, I only came up with articles like this horror, which calls asexuality “sub-Christian”  (content warning in the “sexuality” section at least for heterosexism,  cissexism, binarism, and sex-normativity/compulsory sexuality). I also concluded, from a little more Googling and verses like 1 Corinthians 7:4-5—“The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again”—that it would be wrong to be in a sexless relationship with an allosexual. And nothing I had ever been taught contradicted that conclusion; the idea of a sexless marriage was never mentioned.

Christianity helped me realize I was asexual, even if I didn’t know that word at the time, because of its emphasis on sex and sexual desire/temptation. Christian culture is sex-normative, and it made me feel isolated and completely alone. It gave me a messed-up view of men as having voracious, barely-controlled sexual appetites, insisted that I was sexual even though that didn’t ring true for me, and told me that if I wanted a romantic relationship, I would have to have sex.

Hearing asexuality mentioned as a possibility alongside the talk of temptation would have been so validating; it would have been such a relief to have my feelings acknowledged and presented as okay. Instead, I had to wait till I was 20 to find out that asexuality was a thing, after suffering through years of compulsory sexuality from my (now former) religion. So what could Christians do better? It’s not hard: Know about asexuality. Be okay with asexuality. Don’t glorify marriage above singleness, and don’t glorify marital sex. And when you teach about sexual purity, mention that being ace is a thing—and that there’s nothing wrong with it.

Appearance, part 8: Appearance and Christianity

Christianity isn’t the only religion that places restrictions, implicitly or explicitly, on the appearances of its adherents—Islam, predictably, is another that springs to mind—but it’s the only one that I have personal experience with, and I ended up with enough to say about it alone to fill a whole post. Also, I should note that my experience is with Protestant Evangelical Christianity, but I’m sure at least some of this applies to Christianity in general. This topic overlaps with appearance and sexism in that Christianity has much stricter appearance rules/guidelines for women than for men (although there are some conservative Mennonite and Amish groups that regulate men’s facial hair and everyone’s clothing), and because these rules are often, if not always, for the benefit of men. The main one that I have in mind is the idea of modesty.

Once a year, my high school Sunday school class would split the guys and the girls (because of course certain things apply to girls only and certain others to guys only), and while the guys learned about not lusting, the girls learned about helping them out by dressing modestly (among other sexual purity-related topics). Of course, what is and isn’t modest is subjective, but we were taught various modesty tests, like, “Does your shirt still cover your midriff when you raise your arms above your head?” and “Do your shorts go past your fingertips when your arms are at your sides?” If the answer was no, your clothing was immodest and you shouldn’t be wearing it around guys—because guys are visual, and even a glimpse of a girl in supposedly immodest clothing could cause them to commit the sin of lust (an idea that made me kind of afraid of men).

I went to Christian camps where two-piece swimsuits were banned; if a girl had brought one, she had to wear a t-shirt over it when she swam. The tightness and lowness of girls’ shirts and pants was also monitored, and the shortness of dresses… you get the idea. If you want to see exactly what lengths some people went to to try to define modesty, check out this post that discusses a survey where teen Christian boys gave their opinions on the modesty or immodesty of different items of clothing, as well as postures and actions. Reading through that survey made the post’s author conclude that to be modest, you basically have to not be female—because every single thing that was asked about, from wearing jeans to stretching, was considered by some guys to be immodest.

As the author of that post says, this is a really harmful attitude because it implies that women’s bodies are bad, the source of men’s sin—and that when a man lusts after a woman, the woman is at least partially to blame. And what is that but rape culture? The idea also has the effect of making women feel bad about their bodies. At a youth retreat, I witnessed one of the other girls crying when a (female) youth leader pulled her aside and asked her to change her shirt because it was short enough to sometimes reveal her belly. The youth leader did it in a really kind, gentle way, but that didn’t change the fact that a girl was being told that her stomach was a problem—or that she was in tears over it.

The woman who wrote this article has experienced even worse situations, and received reprimands that aren’t nearly as gentle or well-intentioned. The article is somewhat upsetting (because of how badly she’s treated by some people, and the effects their words and attitudes have on her; content warning for internalized fat-shaming), but definitely worth a read because it shows what this stance looks like when taken to the extreme, and what a harsh toll it can take on women and girls.

Christianity seems to have kind of an obsession with women’s appearances; besides modesty, there’s the idea of fighting vanity—the point of the mirror exercise I mentioned in this post was to help the female participants not focus on outer beauty, a goal that people support with Bible verses directed to women, like “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self” (1 Peter 3:3-4)—and also the idea that women owe their husbands attractiveness, which I mentioned in that post as well. In contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Evangelical Christians discuss men’s appearances. My youth group had no rules for guy’s clothing (swimming shirtless was fine); there was no such thing as male modesty (although now there is, at least in parody articles).

I want to end with a quote from an article on modesty by Rachel Held Evans, a Christian author I admire and whose blog and books I enjoy (even if I disagree with her on some things):

While popular culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to get men to look at them, the modesty culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to keep men from looking at them. In both cases, the impetus is placed on the woman to accommodate her clothing or her body to the (varied and culturally relative) expectations of men. […] Women are left feeling ashamed of their bodies as they try desperately to contort around a bunch of vague, ever-changing ideals.

The article goes on to try to hash out a more biblically-accurate idea of modesty (and it’s worth reading if you’re interested in a re-examination of modesty within a Christian context)… but I’m going to end there.

Read the rest of my appearance posts here.