I remember the exact moment I knew I would not be coming back to church.
I mean, knew in that final way – the knew of tuning into your favorite show again to see how sloppy the writers have become with characters’ storylines and drinking your wine knowing next week you will be watching that show your Facebook timeline insists is viewed by everyone but you.
“Girls shouldn’t just go around kissing boys like that. Even boyfriends. Kissing leads to other things. Boys start off with that to see if you will let them go further.”
I don’t remember how this came up in our Sabbath School lesson, but I had come out of my bored teenager, half-listening fog to hear Sister Jones suggesting that giving into my desire would invite more desire from the boy I desired. It was up to me to cut off this desire before the boy got wind of my secret: I enjoyed the desire.
I could not put my finger on it. I mean, I was only 15 or 16. But, something in her tone. The way she used random Bible verses to support her bizarre notion that sexual desire was most honorable when experienced with someone who had given you his last name. The way she countered each response from the desire-appreciative teens with some version of: Save that kind of affection for marriage. It all irritated me. I was a good church girl born and raised in the South so I didn’t suck my teeth. I might have rolled my eyes (but, only a little bit). I listened to her wax poetic about how much more enjoyable heavy petting was when done with a husband. I smiled and nodded my head knowing.
By the time I was 21 years old, I would have only gone to church once in about four years. My sister had asked me to return a baby stroller she had borrowed from a church member so I stopped by right before 11:00 o’clock service and said, “Chavah says thanks. Happy Sabbath, by the way” before getting back in my car and driving off.
God, the Pleasure Oppressor
I want to make myself clear so there are no misunderstandings. I am in full support of teenaged girls being discouraged from sexual activity. I do not shame them when they choose to have sex. However, my go-to answer for any 15-year-old girl who wants to know if she should give in to all those feelings that overwhelm her when her boyfriend caresses her breasts is: “Enjoy those feelings because they’re quite nice, but hold off on graduating to that other feeling for another few years.” When I reflect on that moment in Sabbath School as a woman in her 40s, I am crystal clear why it did not sit well with me.
The suggestion that sexual desire should only be acted on when one is legally married annoyed me because even back then, I knew marriage was not a construct that appealed to me. I liked boys. I wanted to eventually be in a relationship with one. I knew I would be having sex with one. Not anytime soon, but since I knew I was a heterosexual girl who would one day be a heterosexual woman, I would one day have sex with a heterosexual man. To have it suggested that this normal human desire was one I should never consider giving in to because I would probably never be married was illogical. It also seemed impractical. I had reason to believe that sex, when done right, felt damn good. It was also rumored to calm one’s nerves, which was why so many stressed out, overworked adults did it in the first place. So, if I would one day be a stressed out, overworked adult with an equally stressed out, overworked boyfriend, then yeah…wouldn’t I be having sex?
There has always been something so very patronizing in the church’s focus on encouraging women to “remain pure” until marriage. While I am indifferent to marriage myself, I understand why many value it. I am happy for my friends when they find life long mates and have joyous weddings with hot deejays and open bars. This connection that the black church forces between a woman’s sexuality and her attainment of a ring, though, disturbs me in a way that my other philosophical issues with Christianity (as it is practiced in the West) do not.
There has always been something so very patronizing in the church’s focus on encouraging women to “remain pure” until marriage.
The Price of Purity Prison
The lesson young girls who grow up in conservative Christian churches are taught is their sexuality does not exist solely for their pleasure. To partake in it for personal enjoyment, when one feels ready, is pure folly. First and foremost, a woman’s sexuality should be used as a bartering tool when negotiating for long term partnership. I hear this unspoken pact when my childhood friends who are still in the church talk about their choice to remain celibate until they marry. “I’ma need more than just a wet ass from these negroes out here,” they proudly proclaim. “He won’t get the cookies unless I get the ring.” The arrangement they have made with their god seems to be: in exchange for denying myself this basic human need, I expect a husband.
I pause again to make sure there are no misunderstandings. I do what I want with my special place. So, my girlfriends – saved or otherwise – have every right to do what they want with their special places. We are all grown women. We are all women of agency. I do not place my eager spreading of legs for an attractive man who may or may not offer me a ring on any hierarchy of proper courtship in the same way that the celibate by choice women I know do not use their purity to insinuate I am a hoe who is wasting a perfectly good negotiation tool.
My point of contention is with the narrative that the church has weaved so well over several generations that it is barely noticeable underneath these stories of “dating and waiting.” Just beneath the surface is this reinforced constraint: A woman’s body is never really just for her; neither are the decisions she makes about it.
My Pleasure Cannot Be Confined by Someone Else’s Morality
My body is mine. My pleasure is a part of me. It is as sacred as my spirituality. It irks me when church dogma infantilizes women, treating them like impulsive 14-year-olds who need to be saved from themselves. When I finally admitted I did not believe in key principles one must hold dear if they are to call themselves Christians, I stopped going to church because it seemed disrespectful to true believers to continue to do so. My exit from the church was not solely connected to Sister Jones 1950s lecture to 1990s girls, though.
It is significant, however, that this Sabbath School lesson is what I often cite first when black people, particularly, ask me why I have not returned to the church in over 20 years. I do not begin with my disbelief in this magical place in the sky that will save me from the human suffering I have grown to value. I may never get around to my rejection of the idea of “original sin” and how I am indebted to some supernatural being who is willing to forgive me for being born with a demerit next to my name – if I agree to worship him.
I always mention the shame, the guilt, the condescension of the purity prison.
I can not lay claim to a spiritual practice that attaches my body to the prize of partnership. I see no solace in a belief structure that encourages me to deny myself pleasure to prove myself worthy.
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