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.

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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 linkspam

Since starting my appearance series, I’ve come upon a lot of writing on the intersection of appearance with gender, (a)sexuality, and/or sexism (mostly, but not all, from the archives of various ace blogs), and I wanted to share in case anyone is interested. My previous posts also include many links to articles that I’ve found interesting and insightful. Continue reading

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.

Appearance, part 6: appearance, obligation, and worth

In my last two appearance series posts, I talked about how society compels people to look a certain way based on their sex. In this post, I want to discuss the sense of obligation regarding appearance more generally.

When people are out in public, we expect them to have their looks up to a certain standard. (This can also hold true when it comes to more private settings; one of the most harmful ideas I’ve seen about the obligation to look a certain way is something promoted in some conservative Christian circles, which is the idea that a woman must keep herself attractive for her husband, and that if she “lets herself go” physically, she’s partially to blame if he cheats on her.) I’m not just an observer of this phenomenon but have thought this way myself; despite not prioritizing my appearance particularly highly, I’ve still caught myself feeling that I, and other people, need to look a certain way when we go out.

It’s like we owe other people something when it comes to our looks—cleanliness, neatness, a certain level of stylishness. That it’s framed as an obligation is evident from the wording we use when policing the appearances of others. Just the other day, I thought about a character on a TV show, “He needs to do something about his neck beard.” To someone with unruly hair, we say, “You need to get a haircut.” Appearance is something we feel very free to judge other people on, and we also feel very free to be vocal about those judgments in the form of mandates. When you tell someone they “need” to do something with their looks, you’re saying, “I think you look bad; thus you should change your appearance.” We put our own opinions above those of the person who the body in question actually belongs to.

The ubiquity of appearance-based judgments may be one reason looking good is so important to a lot of people. When you go out, you make sure you look okay, and that the other people with you do as well—think about parents making sure their kids are wearing clean, matching clothes—because (we think) your appearance reflects on you as a person. We make assumptions about all sorts of things based on someone’s appearance (assumptions that are sometimes just going to be wrong)—age, sexual orientation, class, even personality traits like intelligence and friendliness. These assumptions aren’t necessarily conscious, but to some extent we’re judging people’s worth based on what they look like. So if you look good enough (according to whatever the current standards are—what considered to look good and what’s in style is always changing!), you can protect yourself from that. These ideas were touched on in a comment by morgaine has won on my first appearance post.

This appearance-based valuation leads people to feel embarrassment or shame over things that are perceived as flaws in their appearance, such as acne, scars, or a deformity, even when it’s not anything they have control over. You can escape mockery for wearing a stained shirt by changing clothes. But if it’s having a lazy eye that you’re being ridiculed for, there’s nothing you can do about it. Criticizing someone for the choices they’ve made regarding their looks is one thing; the critic is saying, “You have bad taste” or “You don’t take care with your appearance.” But being condemned for having a physical flaw that you obviously didn’t choose and would get rid of if you could hurts on a deeper level, because in that instance what the critic is saying is, “Something is wrong with you.”

As an example almost everyone can relate to, and one that’s kind of in between the two I just talked about, think about those times when, hours after you’ve last eaten, you find that you’ve been walking around with food in your teeth. You think back to everyone you interacted with and wonder what they were thinking about you (and why they didn’t say something!), and feel humiliated. But why should you be embarrassed  about that? It’s not your fault that you didn’t know; you aren’t obligated to check your face in the mirror after every meal. And yet, you do feel embarrassed, and if you see a stranger with food in their teeth or spilled on their clothes or any other sort of imperfection in their appearance that they don’t seem to be aware of but would fix if they knew, you feel embarrassed for them, because people are going to be judging.

Years ago, my sister and another girl I knew did this thing (spurred by a Sunday school discussion of beauty) where they didn’t look in the mirror for a whole month. I couldn’t understand it at all, and definitely couldn’t imagine doing it myself. How would I know if my hair looked okay? How would I know if I had a patch of peeling dry skin on my face? I wouldn’t, and I couldn’t stand that thought. Looking good, or at least not looking bad, was a way to protect myself from the perceived judgment of other people, and being without that protection, which is what the result of avoiding mirrors would be, would leave me vulnerable.

But now that I’m able to see that social acceptance isn’t the ultimate goal anyone should be striving for, and that our ideas of what is and isn’t socially acceptable can be problematic, I see the value in the mirror experiment (especially for women, whose appearances are over-valued and over-criticized). Purposely staying away from mirrors for a month, although still not something I plan to do (since I still have a level of anxiety around my appearance, and knowing how I look helps alleviate it), is a way to send a strong message to other people and remind yourself that how you look isn’t the most important thing about you.

I’ve had times when I’ve had to interact with strangers at a store or the office where I used to work while feeling like I looked ugly. At those times I was very aware of my appearance—specifically the fact that I didn’t look good—and almost expected to be treated coldly because of it. So when I was smiled at by the strangers and not treated any differently than I was at times when I felt I looked okay, I was surprised and grateful. These incidents have been a good reminder that we don’t have to base our entire judgment of another person just on what they look like, and that other people aren’t necessarily always doing that to me or each other (they also make me think that other people probably aren’t critiquing me as harshly as I do to myself). But I shouldn’t have to feel grateful to someone for treating me decently. You aren’t worth less than other people if you don’t look as good as them. You shouldn’t have to feel like you need to change clothes or put on makeup before a trip to the grocery store. You shouldn’t have to fear being judged because of how you look. We don’t owe other people anything in regards to our appearance. Everyone deserves respect and decent treatment no matter what they look like.

Appearance, part 3: appearance and being ace

I recently read Anthony’s Bogaert’s Understanding Asexuality for the first time, and in one chapter he mentioned that asexual women might not feel the need to look sexually attractive (I can’t remember exactly what he said so if anyone else knows, feel free to remind me!). That rang true for me because, taking it a step further, I would specifically like to not appear sexually attractive to other people. When I was younger I did want to look attractive, or at least pretty, and I feel like there might not be a definite line between just plain “attractive” and “sexually attractive”, but for me it meant looking nice while avoiding any clothing that was too tight or showed too much skin.

It really wasn’t (or isn’t, since I still feel this way) such a reasoned-out thing, though; not “If I wear a low-cut shirt, there might be a sexual component to any admiration other people give me”, but something much more instinctual—“I would be really uncomfortable wearing anything that showed cleavage.” I can’t really fathom how people are fine wearing bikinis in public; showing that much skin strikes me as very vulnerable, and I could never do it. And I’m guessing these feelings all come back to that fear of being looked at as a sexual object, or even just a sexual being. I don’t want people to think of me that way, because that’s not how I am.

Teachings about modesty in high school Sunday school classes freaked me out because we was told that men were prowling around ogling women and thinking lecherous thoughts about them—or at least, that was my interpretation. The teachers said, “Dress modestly so you won’t cause your brothers [in Christ] to stumble”, but what I decided was, “I’m going to dress modestly so I won’t be a victim.” Not of any physical harm, but of being thought of sexually. And although I now know that these classes presented an inaccurately homogeneous view of men, I still feel that being seen as sexually appealing would be a form of victimization to me; one I would never know about, true, but still one I want to avoid.

I think this specific idea comes from being a sex-repulsed ace. I would never willingly engage in sex, and so the idea of anyone thinking of me in a sexual way feels like a violation of a boundary I’ve set up, and makes me really uncomfortable. So I try to avoid entertaining that idea, and the way I accomplish this isn’t by actually preventing anyone from thinking of me sexually (because it would be impossible to know if I’m fully succeeding or not), but rather by trying to make myself feel like no one is by looking as un-sexual as possible. Not giving anyone reason to think of me sexually allows me to assume that no one is, which makes me feel safe, even if this feeling is based on an illusion (after all, we were also taught in Sunday school, “Some guys will still lust after you even if you’re wearing  a sack!”)

Anyway, I’m guessing that this is at least part of—maybe even the main reason—why looking feminine in public makes me feel vulnerable (I think another part is that I feel more likely to be critiqued and judged by others when appearing feminine), and why I’m most comfortable presenting fairly androgynously. Maybe it also at least partially explains why I don’t prioritize my appearance particularly highly—I know not all aces feel this way, but I do wonder if it’s a factor for me.

Read the rest of the posts in the appearance series here.

Dividing children by gender

Note: Since non-binary genders aren’t recognized in the situations I discuss in this post and I’m not sure how these institutions would handle trans* people, these groups aren’t mentioned, but their lack of recognition and inclusion by and in society is yet another reason why systems that divide children based on their being one of two sexes/genders are problematic.

At some point during (Christian) summer camp orientation, an adult would always announce to the other teens/pre-teens and I, “Girls are red, guys are blue. No purpling.” I never knew exactly what this meant, and I’m sure it wasn’t completely clear to lots of the other kids either. Did it just mean no physical interaction with the opposite gender, or was it meant to discourage us from even hanging out with them? I remember gossiping with my cabin mates one year about Lauren, a girl with purple eye shadow and pretty hair, because she spent lots of time talking to the guys—”Lauren’s purpling,” we said with condemnation and self-righteousness. We would never engage in such illicit behavior.

After a few years of attending that camp I went to a different one, which had somewhat of a different format. Instead of having boys and girls there at the same time, they had three weeks of boys’ camp followed by three weeks of girls’ camp. Their reasoning, if I remember correctly, was both that boys and girls have different interests and that it was better for them to enjoy camp without being distracted by the opposite gender. This is similar, I’m guessing, to the philosophy behind having separate girl and boy scouts (which I’ll go into more in a minute).

I have two problems with these attitudes. “No purpling”—at least when left up to the kids’ interpretation, who may decide it means all interaction with the opposite gender is prohibited—says that you shouldn’t pursue friendships with people who don’t share your gender. If you’re looking for human interaction, socialization, friends, you should stick with people who have the same body parts (because of course everyone is cis!). Besides restricting potential relationships (perhaps romantic, which I assume is what the leaders were trying to discourage, but platonic as well) that could form, this attitude says that it’s dangerous for you to be around the opposite gender. There will be too much temptation for you to do things that the adults would disapprove of, so they’re going to mandate your separation to keep that from happening. But that grossly overemphasizes kids’ sexuality, as if the only possible relationship a girl and a boy could have is a romantic/sexual one. If kids think the opposite sex has cooties, if they think it’s impossible for boys and girls to be friends, if they only think of the opposite gender as potential romantic partners to either reject or pursue, they end up denying the humanity of the other gender. Boys become males first, humans second, and the same with girls, and that becomes awfully limiting because the potential for engaging with someone simply as another human being whom you might enjoy talking to or being friends with is removed. And I don’t think kids would hold this view—that you should avoid the opposite gender unless you’re looking for romance or sex—if it wasn’t for adults cultivating the attitude through their fear. Yes, surely these prohibitions have kept plenty of immature summer camp romances from happening. But how many friendships and moments of connection have they also prevented?

By limiting children in these settings to friendships with those of the same gender, we’re also sending another message—that all boys, and all girls, are the same. The attitude of the second camp that I mentioned especially cultivates the idea that girls and boys will get along best with people of their own gender. Anyone who’s found that they connect more with other genders than with those who share theirs, or who likes and forms relationships with others regardless of whether they’re male or female, is out of luck. And beyond the relational aspect, this camp format, as well as organizations that divide kids by gender like girl/boy scouts, declares that girls are interested in X, and boys in Y. When my brother was in boy scouts, I always thought it sounded like fun—wilderness safety, camping, knot-tying (and my sisters and I always enjoyed Boy’s Life magazine, much more than my brother did). I didn’t know what girl scouts did, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be as appealing to me as boy scouts, because I knew that their activities would be different from those the guys got to do. And in fact when I was talking to my aunt and uncle once, who have one boy and one girl who are both involved in scouts, my aunt, who helps with her daughter’s troop, told me that all the outdoor/adventure aspects have been excised from the girl scouts. Nothing has changed for the boys, who still go on camporees and learn how to treat snake bites, but girl scouts are apparently expected to have no interest in such activities. My aunt was unhappy—it was a frustrating process for her to convince the higher-ups to let her scouts go canoeing—and rightly so. Just like all boys won’t enjoy camping, all girls won’t be happy sitting inside earning computer merit badges (which is what my aunt told me when I asked what activities were available to the girls. I guess it’s good at least that computers aren’t considered to be boys-only?).

Couldn’t we just have scouts, instead of dividing the organization into boys and girls? Let everyone choose the activities they’re interested in, instead of only making certain ones available based on the participant’s body parts. And if you’re worried about kids’ hormones running away with them, distracting them or causing them to engage in inappropriate behavior, can you give kids a little more credit and see that you’re keeping them from the chance to have friends who are different from them, friends that some of them might get along with better than those of their own gender? If we stopped keeping boys and girls apart and promoting the idea that they’re innately different, maybe we’d see a difference in their interactions when they grow up to be men and women.