Thursday, July 27, 2017

Body Talk: How the Purity Movement Failed Us

If you are just joining me, I’m in the middle of a series I’ve entitled “Body Talk.” With fear and, let’s be honest, a heavy dose of trepidation, I’ve decided to tackle some hard issues surrounding our bodies head on. I’m exploring how we think about our bodies, physically, sexually and spiritually (and everything in between!) I’m pondering aloud how we can best talk about our bodies with our peers, our spouses or significant others and especially with our kids. I hope you will participate and follow along! Also, I hope you will feel free to share this series if you know someone with whom it might resonate. My prayer is that no one would struggle in silence.

“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”  
~C.S. Lewis

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Early on in my marriage, I went to see a counselor. Together, we spent quite a bit of time exploring my perceptions about my body and how I might go about raising the next generation to not fear theirs in the same way that I did.

I remember one session in particular, where she was describing to me as an illustration, an interaction she had with her firstborn daughter when she was just shy of one year old. She had grown attached to a stuffed elephant that she took with her everywhere. One day, this counselor told me, she was changing her daughter’s diaper. As always, her daughter was clutching the elephant close to her chest. The diaper change was nearing completion when her young daughter reached down and began rubbing herself with the trunk of the elephant.

I sat there, squirming miserably in my seat as I listened to my counselor tell me this story. This is so awkward, I thought. Why are we talking about this? I felt awfully uncomfortable. But it was what she said next, when she recounted her response to this behavior, that nearly sent me running for the door. She didn’t slap her daughter’s hand away nor did she tell her that what she was doing was “dirty” or “gross.” Instead, she did what was absolutely the furthest thing from my mind: she said to her baby daughter “That feels really good, doesn’t it?”

I was all shades of crimson when I heard this; I sat in shocked silence. My counselor's response to the situation was unexpected, unheard of even for me. I had no idea what to do with what she was telling me other than to raise up my inner red flags of alarm. Proceed with caution, this feels unsafe, all the voice in my head blared at me. In a matter of seconds, I had erected a wall of record heights, guarding and protecting the belief system I had formed about my own body and the bodies of others. Suddenly these were being put to the to the test and I felt very wary of this counselor. It seemed so “un-Christian” of her to let her child touch herself and then to affirm that it felt good.

The church I was raised in, like many other conservative evangelical churches, kept the topic of sex mostly under wraps, at least that I can recall (other than to preach that it was wrong outside of marriage). I am told some of the adult Sunday school classes covered the topics of sex and physical pleasure in marriage - and I am grateful to hear this - but it was not a topic young congregants were privy to. And I find this unfortunate. I wish I would have heard some more positive things about sex other than that "it's not for you yet." Of course I don't think children need to hear everything in explicit detail but, as in so many other things, not talking about a topic sometimes sends louder messages than actually talking about it.

I do remember many sermons that covered God's creation of humankind. There was never a doubt in my mind that God made Adam and Eve and that, in turn, He made me. But I wish I would have heard that our sexuality - our sexual urges and our bodily desires - too were created and designed by God. That's a hard thing for one to figure out for oneself when the collective church (not just mine!) fails to address it clearly outloud. So, in the silence, I was left thinking anything relating to sexual urges and bodily desires were bad.

Except for when one was married.

Then they became good?

Oh right, I am married now. So I think they are good?

Or wait. Are sexual urges okay? Or was I not supposed to have them at all?

Now I'm confused.

This was a complicated enough web of messaging in and of itself to untangle as a newly-married young woman. But to translate these messages and figure out how to talk to a child on the diaper changing table who is discovering her sexuality? This was more than I could handle. I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready to respect or even hear what my counselor had to say about sexuality. And so I quit going to seeing her.

I could not get beyond the messaging of my youth that had me convinced that Jesus and sexuality (my body) were mutually exclusive, not integrally intertwined.  

This hasn’t been our culture, at least in my experience in conservative Christianity, to view our bodies and God as intertwined. And I can understand why. It's really complicated and confusing. We are quick to say God created our physical bodies and that they are beautifully and wonderfully made, but do we really, truly live this message out in our actions? 

I see it all the time, well-meaning parents responding in less than ideal ways to their kids about their bodies. Our kids say or do things that catch us off guard every day. Words slip out. Or our facial expressions reveal what we are really thinking. I walk past my daughter’s room and see her with hands in her pants and, without stopping to think, I tell her to go wash up to get the germs off. It’s like second nature for some of us. Private parts equal dirty. It’s terrifying how impactful our responses in these little blips in time can be. 

Before I go any further, I want to make sure it is clear that I think my parents (who read this blog and have given their blessing in my sharing this post) are AMAZING and I have the utmost respect for them and the incredible job they did raising their brood of four. I hope there is never any question about that. (I mean, look at us - we are all pretty awesome if I do say so myself!) Sure, they could have done some things differently but I believe we all try to do the best we can with the information presented to us. I know they were doing their absolute darndest to raise us to the best of their abilities. It just so happened that they were doing the majority of their child rearing smack dab in the middle of a strong and pervasive Christian cultural trend of the 1990s known as the "Purity Movement." 

There were many well-known individuals and organizations that played a large role in creating the momentum for the Purity Movement, a period in evangelical Christianity where singles (particularly teenagers) were asked to commit to purity and to abstain from having sex before marriage. While I am all for abstinence prior to marriage, I believe the leaders of the Purity Movement missed some key factors. Anna Lynn summarizes it nicely on her blog Thoughts By Anna Lynn. She writes:

"What I am saying is that the purity movement addressed pre-marital sex without addressing marriage. Instead of painting a beautiful, fascinating, healthy and realistic picture of marital sex, they attempted to control the behaviour of teenagers and left marital sex almost entirely out of the conversation. No one was preparing young people for sex, they were trying their best to get them not to have it."

Back in 1997, when he was only 21 years of age, author Joshua Harris published a book entitled I Kissed Dating Goodbye. In it, he writes about sincere love, purity and purposeful singleness. He presses readers even further, advocating that couples not to just stay sexually pure, but also commit to "courting" vs dating (an approach where one sees another only with the intention of marrying them). He urged couples to use this method as an alternative to society's secular dating scene. His book was very popular in Christian circles and read by many. One of the premises he speaks toward (that has since received much criticism) is that each time you go out with someone who you do not end up marrying, you are essentially "cheating on" your future spouse. 

I believe Harris was well-intended when he wrote the book, as were many others before him who created momentum for the Purity Movement. However, over the past few years, Harris has received a lot of negative feedback from readers who were hurt by the principles in his book. They say his words (and all the messaging from others they received during the Purity Movement surrounding sex) have caused them to experience feelings of shame surrounding their bodies and guilt over any form of sexual desire. Enough feedback has reached Harris that he is revisiting the book and has gone as far as to set up a place on his website where people can share their stories. He is taking the criticism he's received and he's addressing it. Kudos to him! I admire his bravery.

I never read Harris' book and neither did my parents. We didn't court or practice purposeful singleness. I bring him up simply because his book is a fascinating example of some of the ideology of the time period AND because his is a perfect example of the Purity Movement gone awry. 

Tina Sellers, a marriage and family therapist, founder of the Northwest Institute on Intimacy, and professor at Seattle Pacific University, is one of very few academics to research the negative impact of the Purity Movement. She recently published her first book: Sex, God and the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy which made it on my list of 5 books I couldn't wait to read this year (click on image below for more details).

Sellers came and spoke at my MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) group a few years back and her talk was striking for many reasons. One thing in particular that she shared, I just couldn't shake:

She told us how woman who lived under the messaging of the purity movement often present in therapy exhibit symptoms similar to those who have experienced sexual abuse.

She writes about this more here and I will warn you - it is just as graphic as it is sobering. I guarantee you will feel a healthy dose of wild discomfort, particularly if you spent any amount of time living under the ideologies of the Purity Movement, or if you were encouraging youth to do so.

The challenge with every new trend, every movement, is that unfortunately we aren't privy to it's successes or failures until much, much later, typically long after the rewards have been reaped or the damage has been done. This phenomena occurs in every area of our lives. Take diet for instance. About a decade ago, there was the low fat craze. Fat was to be feared and reduced-fat and nonfat products started flying off the shelf like hotcakes. We were told to avoid fat at all costs and our food supply was altered as a result - fat was removed from many manufactured food items and replaced with....wait for it...sugar!! And now we have record numbers of people struggling with obesity and diabetes. Go figure.

This is essentially the story of humanity, going hard after one craze, like a school of fish lunging after food in a feeding frenzy. Later, once we learn of the downfalls of what we were so whole-heartedly pursuing, we change directions completely. We ride this pendulum constantly, as each new or novel idea gains velocity only to eventually hit the brick wall of failure and swing backwards again. It feels good and fun and right on the momentum of the upswing as we ride that wrecking ball freely. But when it makes contact with the wall, reality, there inevitably is some devastation.

There was a point in my life where I seriously considered saving my very first kiss for my wedding day (Thank you, Purity Movement) because I believed it would somehow make me a "better" Christian. In my recent research, I have come to realize just how many individuals have been profoundly impacted by the messaging of the purity movement. This isn't a topic often talked about because it is uncomfortable. Which is probably why you find me sitting here typing about it on a blog rather than standing on a stage holding a microphone. Sometimes it's easier to begin these conversations shielded by the safety net of our computer screens. Face to face, eye to eye dialogue about our bodies, our pasts, our shame, our misinformation can be unbearably uncomfortable. But we'll get there. 

My intent here though is not to blame but rather to shed light for healing and redemption to occur. Like I’ve said before, I certainly don’t pretend to have the answers. But what I can do is help illuminate the problem. Our experiences inform us and one of the reasons I am thinking about this topic so much is because I want so desperately for my kids to grow up knowing them were created intimately by God – ALL parts of them – and I want them to be proud of their bodies and to be confident in them.  

It’s a journey folks. Praise Jesus that His mercies are new every morning!

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  1. roommate and I at SPU (both of us psychology majors) spent countless nights brainstorming research we could do which would compare the feelings of shame and guilt in SPU students compared to students at the UW - our hypothesis being that Christians actually experienced way more shame and guilt than non-Christians, especially in the sexual realm. I think my biggest disappointment was that the church spent SO much time worrying about my sex life (and cults that I might join) and so little time actually making sure I understood the bible and theology. It was at Capernwray that I finally understood how everything in the Bible fit together, despite a lifetime of attending church 3 times a week.

    1. Oh my word yes! This made me laugh outloud (though it really isn't all that funny...but it's a little comical when you step back and think about it). I'm curious about your joining a cult though. Ha! I don't recall that being a fear in the church but I don't doubt it wasn't!


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