To The Women I Hurt, I’m Sorry.
A year ago this month, I wrote a post that would become a seminal piece in my body of work. Since then, The Cult of Heather Lindsey has been accessed more than 71,000 times. I’ve had my fair share of both praise and criticism for the piece and its assessments of purity culture. Lindsey herself even knows about it; it still ranks on the first page of Google when searching her name [and the tiny fact that she blocked @UnfitChristian on all social media was a small clue, too].
The biggest question I always get in criticism is why I chose to write about Heather Lindsey. Aside from her incredibly large presence and the points of constructive criticism I raised, the piece was also profoundly personal. Herman Hesse said, “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.” What raises my ire in HL is only a reflection of unspoken conflict and regret in myself.
Closed Legs, Closed Minds, & Purity Culture
I don’t have many regrets in my life, but among the ones that I do hold is my participation in and encouragement of Purity Culture. You see, once upon a time (not so) long ago, I wrote a book called Closed Legs Do Get Fed that I now only vaguely acknowledge. I literally haven’t opened the book in at least two years and cringe each time at the thought of doing so. In the time since penning that piece, I’ve unraveled so much of my thoughts and beliefs around sexuality, sacred space, and spirituality that I’m terrified to even revisit what I wrote.
To be fair, the book was incredibly different in many ways than other books by my then-contemporaries. I endorsed masturbation. I advocated for living together before marriage. I told people they couldn’t use celibacy as a tool of manipulation. I opened the book by stating that it was cisheteronormative in language and expression. Not to mention, I was a brown-skinned, fat Black woman pushing this – which is not the usual aesthetic of Purity Leaders. In short, even then I disrupted the status quo of celibacy and purity culture. Still, the sting of shame remains.
For all of the things I did “right” and in a progressive, more inclusive way, I still know that my work contributed to reinforcing harmful sexual ethics for women, especially women who look like me. That’s a hard thing to acknowledge. An even harder thing to admit publicly.
Fast-Tailed & Hot: The History of Black Women’s Sexuality
Black women’s sexuality has, historically, been negatively constructed and perceived. It has been positioned as oppositional to White women’s sexuality while simultaneously rendered as both invisible and hyper-visible in dominant discourse (Hammond, 1999). Although Black women tend to talk more with their parents about sex than Hispanic-Latinas or Whites (Hutchinson, 2002), discussion outside the realm of intercourse is often taboo.
Undoubtedly, this is likely because Black America’s loves themselves some Jesus. We have had an ongoing affair with intense religiosity for generations. Religiosity is broadly defined as “the importance of God, frequency of church attendance, and prevalence of prayer in daily life” (Pattillo-McCoy, 1998:767). According to a national survey Black Americans “are, by most measures, the most religious group in the world.” (Gallup and Castelli, 1989:1) The Black Church continues to be a community pillar as one of the few institutions built, financed, and controlled by Blacks (Drake and Cayton, 1945; Frazier, 1974; Nelsen and Nelsen, 1975). Society has traditionally exercised its influence through religion to limit sexual experience to marriage (Woodruff, 1985). Therefore, recognizing the pervasive presence of the church within the Black community, it is reasonable to assume the institution has influenced sexual attitudes.
With all of this, Purity Culture is an easy market to posit oneself as a leader in. The approach is formulaic and safe: abstain from sex, be blessed with a spouse for your obedience, and ride off into the sunset of God’s promises. It is a well-worn marketing method with new, willing consumers each day. As long as internalized sexual shame is coupled with desperation for a spouse to be both validated and made holy, there will be a continued market (and profit) for Purity Culture.
Whom Has the Son Set Free?
A huge crux of religious teaching centers on keeping a set of rules that look nothing like the freedom promised in John 8:36. We want so badly to be good when we come into relationship with Christ. We give our lives to Christ and are told we’re receiving freedom only to be shackled by oppressive theology that preys on our vulnerability. We’ve been taught our whole lives that our womanly bodies are the downfall of men, so it’s a seamless transition when we come under teachings that indoctrinate our bodies as sites of immorality and distraction. Denying our desires, telling ourselves that sex is bad until it is made holy by marriage, and calling it salvation in hopes of achieving holiness is an opiate that goes down easily.
Closed Legs, in all its attempts at progressive sexual outlook, only added to the coded sexual politics for Black women [specifically Christians]. I pushed a narrative of celibacy as what’s best for the Christian woman who wants to be at the top of her game. I vilified sex as the enemy of perpetually single women suffering from a string of heartbreak and bad relationships. I pushed sexual purity as a salve for a wound that cuts so much deeper than how we choose to engage our genitals. Though I made room for healing from sexual trauma, I undoubtedly re-traumatized some women with the preaching of soul ties. How cruel of an image have we created of God wherein we would think nothing of telling women that they’ve created impermeable spiritual ties with someone who violated her?
My Sexuality Is Not In Opposition of My Faith
What I should have done was teach women to normalize their sexuality, that their bodies were not in opposition of our Christ, and that their sex would never be what kept them from being free indeed. Instead, I toed the line in an effort to push a harmful agenda that punishes my fellow women. I should have done more to unpack why we choose celibacy, boldly advocating that celibacy was an act of sexual agency instead of a misery-inducing attempt to please God.
I should have pushed us all to ask the hard questions. What does God gain through the repression of our sexuality? More importantly, what does God gain by inherently setting us up for failure? How does God delight in our withheld sexual pleasure and high-risk failure of abstinence? What do we say to these things when post-marital sex is devoid of pleasure but filled with anxiety and pain? Instead, I fed into a cultural indoctrination that essentially says that God, despite gifting us the pleasure of our bodies, desires for us to suppress/repress it while waiting indefinitely for a spouse; and ideology espoused by poor contextual analysis of the Biblical text and a desire to maintain control.
No Happily Ever After
Women are bred, born, and groomed for an end game she’s invariably taught she has no choice in. I recently saw an image on Facebook where a woman said “Too many women want to be married but they walk in the spirit of a girlfriend.” I thought to myself, “great, there’s another stone hurled at the already fragile womanhood of other sisters.”
See, the way we teach Godly Womanhood, especially around sexuality, is that a woman’s objective is to be considered marriageable by a man. Of course, your marriageable status is determined by your ability to withhold your body for that special God-sent man. Purity Culture, in my experience, has cultivated an elitism in its adherents that is as stable as a house of cards. There is subtle assumption that the chaste Christian woman unlocks “the cream of the crop” of available men coupled with some sort of esoteric knowledge on being a good wife. The novelty of virginity or celibacy wears off at some point. In pushing sexual chastity, how are we cultivating women to be good people? How are we helping to mold them into people who create a global impact outside of “women’s business” of wife/motherhood?
Non-Hetero Women Desire Marriage Too
What’s worse is, our ideas around Godly Womanhood don’t give room to women who don’t desire marriage or those who don’t desire to marry a man. Are these women supposed to spend the rest of their lives chaste and unfulfilled? Should their desire for companionship be met with wagging fingers of their inherent sinfulness instead?
I regret that even with the platform that Closed Legs afforded to me, I didn’t bother to give voice to these issues. Instead, I only further marginalized queer women by not even breathing a word about the politics of their sexualities within the context of faith. It was not enough to not condemn LBTQ women and I don’t give myself cookies for that. We cannot have a discourse on sexuality of women to the exclusion of non-cisgender, non-heterosexual women, period.
Towards a Saved, Sexual, & Sanctified Outlook
My chief regret in penning Closed Legs is my failure to address life after celibacy. It didn’t address the complexity and frustration of “waiting” after 30 or even 40. It didn’t express the anxiety that we develop around sex the longer we abstain from it. I didn’t help us unpack and deal with the reality that even in this sacrifice that we may still find ourselves alone. I didn’t normalize the choice to end celibacy before marriage – because even in my “progressive” approach, I was still pushing the conservative view of sex; one that required women to wait while men were free to do whatever they pleased while “choosing” their wives.
Women who read Closed Legs deserved to know that long term celibacy can batter your sense of sensuality. In all transparency, I felt my own sensuality slip away the longer I abstained from sex. I struggled with identity crisis, wondering who I was if not the woman who was waiting dutifully for marriage. They deserved to know how I talked to other sisters in the life and listened to them detail their painful loneliness only to swallow it whole with the pill of God’s faithful promise to them. I struggled with reawakening the sensual side of my sexuality. I struggle [present tense] to reconcile my sexuality with my spirituality because I spent so many years being told that the two were mutually exclusive; the secular and the sacred requiring that I either be sexual or spiritual with no room for and.
Deciding to Pursue Being Made Whole over Being Holy
Often, Purity Culture boasts celibacy as an act that helps us attain holiness. Unfortunately, in pursuit of being holy we often negate to do the work that is required for us to be made whole. Abstaining from sex does not, in itself, bring us closer to God. There is such a focus on the act of sex that it obscures the very real emotional and spiritual issues that we should address to actually draw near to God.
In pushing celibacy, it is near-universally required to shut down your sensuality. We ask women to, essentially, deny the very existence of their sensuality so that they aren’t tempted to have sex. In doing so, we turn celibacy from a period of healing into a preoccupation with avoiding being beset by sex. Celibacy should be a period of healing – from previous trauma, emotional baggage, negative familial ties/trauma, etc. – that rids us of the things that keep us (as a result of internalized shame and self-loathing) from being fully naked before God. Instead, the church and Purity Culture leaders have turned celibacy into a profitable business model that preys and plays on women’s brokenness, longing for spiritual grounding, and desire for love.
The Recovering Celibate
I cannot change the fact that I contributed to a movement and theology that robs women of their sexual agency. Yet, I do wish to continue to cultivate more sex-positive conversations for women like me; women who are in recovery. Recovery from a dogma that did not aid in their healing but only in blinding them from their brokenness. Women who are in recovery from denying themselves in more than just the flesh.
Sensuality coach Rashida KhanBey put it best: “A relationship with God is nothing if it’s only from the head up. Embracing our sensuality is less about sex for someone else’s pleasure and more about creating a visceral connection to God and our sense of self-worth.”
FOR FURTHER READING:
Gallup Report (1984) Religion in America.
Drake, ST. C. and H. Cayton (1945) Black Metropolis. New York: Schocken.
Hammonds, E. M. (1999). Toward a genealogy of black female sexuality: The problematic of silence. In J. Price & M. Shildrick (Eds.), Feminist Theory and the Body (pp. 93-104). New York, NY: Routledge.
Hutchinson, M. K. (2002). The influence of sexual risk communication between parents and daughters on sexual risk behaviors. Family Relations, 51(3), 238-247.
Nelsen, H. M. and Nelsen A.K. (1975) Black Church in the Sixties. Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky.
Pattillo-McCoy, M. (1998). Church culture as a strategy of action in the black community. American Sociological Review, 63(6), 767-784.
Woodruff, J. (1985). Premarital sexual behavior and religious adolescents. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 24(4), 343-366.