If I had to pick one topic that fuels my feminist anger with the most intensity, I would probably pick unrealistic beauty standards and the imposition thereof...or maybe reproductive rights...but the "purity" myth- this idea, stemming from so-called "Christian values," that a woman's worth is wrapped up in her virginity, and that sex is a gift to be given to one man and one man only (as if sex is never something that can belong to the woman herself)- would be a very close second (third?). The myth legitimizes such arcane practices as "purity balls"; events that are half-wedding, half-father-daughter-dance, hosted by churches, during which fathers swear to "protect" their young daughters' purity while the daughters "pledge their purity" to their fathers, their future husbands, and to God- again granting ownership of their bodies to men rather than to themselves. It legitimizes the ritual's more subtle cousin, the "joke" of fathers threatening their teenage daughters' boyfriends with shotguns, as if the decisions about what this girl can do with her body are a matter of negotiation between father and boyfriend (read: seller and buyer, first property owner and second property owner).
There are the old metaphors, like the piece-of-gum metaphor. In this one, a "pure" woman is like a fresh, unwrapped of gum. The more premarital sex she has, the more she gets "chewed." And no man wants to marry an old, chewed-up piece of gum that is full of other men's spit. Or the sticker metaphor, which a female coworker taught to me recently: a woman, apparently, is like a sticker...the more times a sticker sticks to different surfaces, the less sticky it gets. So the more premarital sex you have with different men, the less likely you will be able to truly bond with your husband. The funny thing about that coworker is that she is born-again, meaning she has had more "promiscuous" (yet another word used to sell female sexual freedom as something shameful) sex than I have. She has internalized the toxicity of the purity myth to the point that she is willing to compare not just "other" woman to a used-up sticker, but herself to that same used-up sticker.
I've done a lot of reading about this phenomenon, and have written a lot of essays and plays about the subject. But my research and writing has always focused on the female side. I've barely scratched the surface of the male version of the purity myth: the version that says that for men to be "pure," they must constantly fight against their voracious sexual natures (*ahem*..."boys will be boys"). Natures which supposedly render men, and teenage boys in particular, slobbering, helpless beings who want only to fuck every woman they see as quickly as possible. While purity is an innate quality in women that must be protected (because women don't have sexual urges, didn't you know?), purity is an accomplishment, a spiritual triumph over instinct in men. Both sides of this myth are damaging, especially to women- because in the purity narrative, women must be responsible not only for their own sexuality and purity, but must also be held responsible for men's purity. Women are the sexual gate keepers. Women must deny themselves of all temptation, while being careful not to become "temptation" for men- if women are objectified (and, news flash to the Christian church: equating a woman's worth with her virginity does, in fact, objectify her- maybe even more so than that bikini-clad model does- because it reduces that woman to nothing but her body, its ability to have sex, and its value in pleasing men), it is their own fault for being so.
But I've started to think more about the boys in this equation after stumbling upon the following "letter" from a Christian mother to her Christian son called "Protect her Purity." I found this on a Christian blog after googling "purity letter" (which, by the way, yielded more word-scramble games asking how many words I could make using the letters in the word "purity" than it did actual letters). I was inspired to conduct this Google search after reading an article about the new hashtag, #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear, started by Christian feminist and author Sarah Bessey to highlight the misogyny of the Christian Church. Tweets using the hashtag feature things Christian women have actually been told by other members of their churches; things like, "You are an amazing leader! You'd make an excellent pastor's wife someday!," You're a Christian feminist? Good luck finding a husband!," "Dress in a way that doesn't cause your Christian brothers to sin," and, of course, "Today we'll write purity letters to our future husbands to keep and give to them!" (For the Huffington Post article on Sarah Bessey and her hashtag, click here).
Before I delve into this highly problematic letter from mother to son about his role in policing women's bodies (and truly, I don't even really know where to begin with this one, so I think I'll just go step-by-step through the letter, pointing out all the obvious issues, hopefully in a wry, endearing way), I want to make one thing abundantly clear: I have no problem with women, or any adult person, making the decision to abstain from sexual activity before marriage. In my view, feminism at its very core is about making sure all women have the choice to live their lives in whatever way is best for them. I am not here to judge a woman's choice to live chaste- for example, I have a very close friend who, as part of her religious faith, has chosen to remain a virgin until her wedding night. But this is an informed choice that an adult woman has made for herself. She feels empowered by taking control of her body and her sexuality in this way, and most importantly, she does not devalue or lecture her friends, like me, who have not made this same choice. The problem I have is when the choice to remain "pure" does not lie with the woman, but is rather enforced by her father, her mother, her boyfriend, her husband, her pastor, or simply by the pressure involved in believing she will have less value and be rendered essentially unlovable if she chooses to explore her sexuality before marriage.
So with that disclaimer out of the way, let's get started.
The letter begins,
I know your iron clad commitment to sexual purity. I admire your decision to keep a close guard over your passions, reigning in all those desires that can make life a constant battle for a man. I have just the faintest clue of how hard it must be and that sets me to praying for you every day; for strength, for wisdom, for protection from an enemy who would love to sideline you through spur-of-the-moment stupidity.
For an analysis of the above example of the "male purity myth," see above. But there are a couple observations about this first passage that I want to add: the first is that it is really creepy to be imagining your teenaged son's sexual fantasies. And the second is a question- what "enemy" is this woman talking about? Is it some general personification of evil, like the devil, or is it, as the next paragraphs lead me to believe, referring to young female "temptresses?" And then I go to a gathering of Believers on Sunday and see all those beautiful young women vying for men’s attentions. Some are chaste and subtle and content to remain hidden until God brings them to a man in His time. Can we start with the fact that she automatically describes these young women as "beautiful," as people so often do? Not "smart." Not "interesting." Always "beautiful"- and often, beautiful doesn't refer only to a woman's physical appearance, but to her perceived morality. Then, she goes on to make the assumption and the subsequent claim that all of these girls must be "vying for men's attentions," instead of, oh, I don't know, just having a good time with their friends at Church? Now, this woman's assumption might be correct (when you're a Christian girl who has been taught her whole life that her greatest accomplishment will be to marry a good husband and have babies, it makes sense that your priorities would be disproportionally skewed towards attracting male attention), but it does the fast and dirty job of reducing a girl's complex emotional landscape to one simple issue of wanting a boy to like her, and assumes this is a girl's natural state of existence, rather than a state of existence imposed on her by a toxic, misogynist system. And now let's talk about the girls who are supposed to remain "hidden" until God "gifts" them with "a man"- a blatant lesson in lack of agency, and an enforcement of the decree that women's lives mean nothing until they have earned the affection of a man. "Do not take any joy or pleasure in your life or your body," this decree states, "that joy and that pleasure are to be enjoyed by men and by men alone." But others are not. Many are not. And they dance their bodies before the eyes of men who must look away or burn with forbidden desire. Too much skin, too tight jeans, too bold in their beauty. Poor, helpless men, always falling victim to these misguided sluts who dare to be bold in anything. Why do they do it? Because they fucking want to. Or maybe because the damaging ideology that their worth lies in their sexual attractiveness tells them to. What are they saying? They're saying, I have been taught that my beauty and my sexual attractiveness to men is the only valuable thing about me, so I have understandably internalized this and thus put all of my effort into making myself more appealing to men. They are saying, I'm so confused, I am supposed to be sexy and beautiful and chaste and pure all at the same time. I am supposed to simultaneously be what I'm told men want, and what I'm told men don't want. What do they want, these women who love God and allure men with suggestions of more? Maybe they just want to dance. Maybe they just want to wear fun clothes that make them feel good and sing the night away with their friends and be young and carefree and spend just one moment not thinking about what the boys might think of them. Here’s what I think— because I’ve been there and done that and just barely escaped giving more of myself than I ought. And we’re all the same, us women. Deep down we need and want and long for the same things. "Than you ought?" According to who? To God? How can you worship a God who has so little respect for you, your body, and your sacred choice as a woman? How can you worship a God who reduces your existence to only your reproductive organs? And that is a very big claim you're making, that you know and understand what every single woman on this Earth thinks, feels, wants, and needs. So what are these things? What are these things that every single woman longs for? Five Things Every Woman Longs For: 1. Every woman longs to be desired. This is why women flirt, why some uncover too much. There is this little girl inside of every woman that longs to draw a man to herself. To be sought after, to be wanted. And yes, this goes for the sexual area of her relationships as well. A woman cannot separate her sexuality from her soul. To be desired sexually feels like being desired as a whole— that is what every woman thinks and believes and feels. Ok. I don't know about you, but when I was a little girl, I was not thinking about drawing a man to myself. I mean, seriously. I guess this sentence might apply in some way to girls with absent fathers? But other than that, when I was a little girl, I was pretty much worried about learning how to read and about who would sit with me at lunch time. And then we get to the real issue, the one I've been repeating over and over again since I started this post: "A woman cannot separate her sexuality from her soul." I need to say this now, and again, and over and over until everyone hears it and understands it: I am not my sexuality. I am not my sexual attractiveness to men. I am not my body. I am a complex human being, who maintains an existence which extends far beyond who and what I let near my vagina. And as far as us feeling and believing that being desired sexually is the same as being desired as a whole- I would say, half of that is true. I think a lot of us do feel that way, because society has taught us to feel that way. But feeling something and believing it are two different things. Every day I remind myself that I don't have to believe in the toxic feelings my society has instilled in my heart. 2. Every woman longs to be loved. It is a woman’s deepest need; for a good man to love her for who she is, to love her no matter what, to love her forever. Every woman is born wanting this and many— far too many women spend their entire lives hoping and wishing and working and sacrificing everything in order to get this kind of love. Yet few ever do. And I think God weeps. First of all, I'm pretty sure every human, whether female, male, transgender, gender-fluid, etc, etc, longs to be loved. It is a pretty basic human need, and we find it in many areas of our lives, from family to friendship, from work we love to pets we cherish. But this paragraph excludes most of these different types of love, and instead gives meaning only to one kind: the love of a man, bestowed on a woman. No homosexual love included. No platonic love included. Only the kind of love that results in traditional procreation. And if God is all powerful, and he weeps for the girls who can't find this "love," WHY THE FUCK DOESN'T HE SEND IT TO THEM? You've already asserted that God will gift good girls with men who love them, and you have already refuted your own point in this paragraph. GET YOUR ARGUMENT TOGETHER. 3. Every woman longs to be cherished. To be valued and considered, to be wanted. To be treated like a fragile piece of crystal rather than a disposable plastic mug. Paul goes so far as to command husbands to cherish their wives, comparing women to the Church and husband to the Savior. (Ephesians 5) This translates in a woman’s mind to carefulness— with her feelings, with her body, with her soul. So, I'm pretty sure "fragile piece of crystal" vs. "disposable plastic mug" is a false dichotomy, and a fundamentally flawed metaphor. Because these two things are not the only options. I don't want to be treated like a "fragile piece of crystal" because I am not fragile. I am strong, and I am whole without a man by my side. I do not need to be "taken care of" in the traditional sense- I only need to be "taken care of" in the sense that my partner and I mutually and equally take care of each other's needs and feelings. But I am certainly not disposable. And unlike this woman has apparently done, I've never thrown away a plastic mug. A Solo cup maybe, but not a straight-up mug. Plastic mugs are sturdy, washable, and reliable. I wanna be that plastic mug. I wanna be the plastic mug that has been around forever, someone's baby mug that is still standing strong in the kitchen cupboard. A mug with history, that has been loved by many people, that continues to serve its purpose well and maintains an infinite capacity to be loved, cherished, and enjoyed. A mug that knows itself. A mug that is unbreakable. Then again, I don't really want to be a plastic mug or a piece of crystal- I don't want to be an object at all. Because comparing women to these items, which are bought, possessed, and used by their owners and which have no identity beyond being owned and used, reinforces the idea that women have no identity beyond being owned and used by men. Women are not objects. Women are not possessions. "Cherishing" a woman should not be equated to cherishing an inanimate object. 4. Every woman longs to be protected. It is there even in the fiercest of women, this need to be watched over and guarded from harm. Instinctively, a woman knows that God created men to protect women, to represent God’s warrior-like protection over His creation. Which is why a woman who marries a man who did not protect her purity while dating or engaged, often feels an inexplicable distrust of him. Yeah, I don't need a man to protect me. End of story. I am not "man's" creation. I am not his subordinate. I am man's equal. End of second story. Ok, last one: my "purity" is to be "protected" by me, and me alone. It is no man's decision whether or not I have sex with him. If the sex is/was consensual, there is no reason to distrust a man who you, as an adult woman, chose to have adult sex with. Now, whether or not sex in a scenario which puts all the sexual power and agency with the man and none with the woman could ever be consensual is the real question here. Ok. End of all the stories. 5. Every woman longs to be led. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… and again… and again. Women want to be led. Not bullied, not dominated, not forced. And we all know there are mean men out there who are tyrants. But the complaint I hear by far most often from women is not about abuse— it’s about passivity. Men who cannot summon the energy or the confidence to step out and lead, or initiate, or communicate where in the world they’re headed. Girl, I've said it before and I'll say it again....and again...and fucking again...I DO NOT WANT TO BE LED. Look. I understand some women believe that being a submissive wife is the natural and correct life choice to make. It is not my place to question that choice, no matter how much I believe it to be the wrong choice, and a choice based on internalized misogyny and Christian brainwashing. And it is certainly not this woman's place to speak for all women on this issue, nor for all men, for that matter. Of course not all women want to be led, especially not by men. And not all men want to lead- she puts a tremendous amount of pressure on men, a pressure which has historically led to, at its most extreme, family annihilators, who kill their families when they feel they can't adequately provide for them. These other women this Christian mom is supposedly talking to, who complain more often about passivity than abuse, must be only other women in her Church and faith. She isn't talking - or listening - to women of different backgrounds and beliefs. If she did, she would probably tell us we've been brainwashed and morally compromised by the corrupt liberal media. Or, maybe she wouldn't...I don't actually know her, after all. I can only make a conclusion based on how people I know who share her beliefs would respond to my arguments. But if she did respond to me this way, and to those who have responded to me in this way- I wonder how you would all feel if I told you that you had only been brainwashed by your misogynist Christian doctrine. To lead takes tremendous courage, I know, but dear sons who are listening, I pray you will have the courage to lead as you are led by Christ. Once I had a conversation with my female coworker (the same female coworker mentioned above) about being a "submissive wife." Men were created as women's superiors, she argued. Men were created to lead and women to follow...I guess because we are physically smaller? And more emotional? But she asked me a strange question. She asked, "well, if you met and fell in love with a man who really made you feel whole, who made you feel loved and cherished and respected as a woman, would be be able to respect him as a man?" I couldn't answer this question, because in my view, being "respected as a woman" means being respected as an equal human partner. Being asked to "respect someone as a man" would automatically make me feel disrespected as a woman. Because I am not an inferior. I am not a subordinate in my own home. If I am with you in a loving, equal, heterosexual partnership, it is because I choose to do so. I choose to give you my time, my energy, my love, and yes, my body. God has nothing to do with that choice. You have nothing to do with that choice. It isn't my choice to make, and mine alone. From the heart of a mom who prays for you and for your friends, Mom
Well...I know this post is probably long enough, but I wanted to end it by writing Matthew my own letter- a letter encouraging him and young men like him to respect women for who they are as people, not for what they are capable of giving to men.
Dear Matthew, I know you have decided, based on your religious faith, to abstain from sexual activity until marriage. I respect your decision, and I hope you find fulfillment and joy in exercising agency over your sexuality. I also know that you are surrounded by women every day, both women who share your faith, and women who do not. Some of these women are your peers. If you are heterosexual and cisgender (and by the way, it's totally cool if you're not, I promise God will still love you), you have probably noticed these young women, and found yourself being attracted to some of them, both sexually and personally. Maybe you find yourself attracted to this woman's hair, this woman's breasts, or maybe you find that one woman makes you laugh, while another challenges your intellect in a pleasurable way. Maybe you have thought of dating one of these women, or marrying one of these women, or kissing them, or yes, even having sex with them. This is perfectly natural. And I want to tell you a secret: those girls you notice and think about? A lot of them notice and think about you, too. Some may try to attract your attention at the church dances, but some also might not be so worried about what you think of them. Some might imagine kissing you, or even having sex with you, and then move on. Some might think you are a cool person, and want to be friends with you, but simply aren't attracted to you in a romantic or sexual way. And some may have no interest in you, even as a friend. All of those things these women think and feel? They are perfectly natural too. And you have no control over these women's thoughts, feelings, and actions. Some women may decide they don't want to date men until they are ready to get married, and some may decide to remain sexually abstinent until marriage, just like you have. These girls are probably compatible partners for you, because you share the same beliefs and goals. But other girls will not make this decision- other girls will decide they are ready to be in a sexually active relationship, whether that relationship be casual or committed. If these girls are attracted to you and approach you, hoping to be in a sexual relationship with you, all you have to do is tell them that you are not ready or interested in having sex with them. They are not trying to tempt you. They are not evil or bad. They simply have beliefs and goals that are different than yours- and that's ok. And let me tell you something else that I hope will leave you feeling empowered- you are not helpless in the face of your own desire. You can say no, even if your body wants to move forward. You are in control of your own body and your own sexuality, just as all those girls are in charge of their own bodies and sexualities. You may see some of these girls wearing tight, sexy clothes. Maybe their skirt is short, or their jeans or tight, or their cleavage is showing in a low-cut shirt. You will see young women being bold in their beauty, and bold in themselves and their voices. Why do they do this? What are they saying? They do this because it is their right. Because it makes them feel good, and strong, and beautiful.They do it because they are young, and it is fun. If witnessing women's boldness is too difficult for you to handle, you can look away. You can be the one to hide; from their stunning light, from their power, from everything wonderful they have to offer you. But you can also choose to be confident in your own choices, and realize that their agency is not threatening yours. You can understand that when they dress this way, or dance sexually, it is not for you. It is for themselves. And you can move on, and let these girls live their glorious, empowered lives. Not all woman are the same, and I can't speak for all of us. But I can speak for many of us, and what we wish all men would give us. Five Things Many Woman Long For: 1. Most women long to be respected. Most human beings like to feel that they are respected. Respect means acknowledging and appreciating our achievements, our passions, and our inner selves. Respect means not belittling what we love, even if you don't also love it. Respect means letting us have a choice about how we want live our lives. Respect means seeing beyond out beauty, or lack thereof, and seeing instead our intellect and ability. Take time to get to know us as someone beyond how sexually appealing you may or may not find us. 2. Most women long to be heard. Engage us in conversation. Actually listen. Don't talk over us. Don't interrupt us. Try to hear us and absorb our words when we tell you what we think is important, and what causes us pain, and take us at our word. Don't play "devil's advocate" about issues you don't understand. Don't argue against our existence. Try to understand what it might be like to be us. Acknowledge your male privilege. Recognize that our strength does not threaten your strength. Recognize that there is room for both of us to have voices. 3. Most women long to be validated. Do not gaslight us. Do not dismiss our feelings, do not reduce them to us being "too sensitive" or "too emotional," or worse, us experiencing "that time of the month." Recognize our unique experiences and our responses to them as valid. If you perceive a woman as sensitive and emotional, consider how this method of existence might by valuable in the world. Do not assume that the way you live your life and process information, or that the traditional "male model" of living, communicating, and processing, is the "right" way. They are simply different ways. And everyone has the right to be different. 4. Most women long to be treated equally. Outside of your Christian bubble, I do not believe most women want to be led by men. If we did, there wouldn't be so many of us fighting to close the wage gap, for more female representation in leadership positions, and for better child care and maternity leave options in the workplace. Here's the thing about the real world: you will have to interact with people, and with women, who live outside of your Christian bubble. It is your job as an adult male to respect these women who want different things than what your religion teaches, and to treat these women, particularly if they are your coworkers, as your equals. Because they are your equals, and sometimes even your superiors. If they are working alongside you, in the same job or in a higher position (and even in a lower position, because it is statistically more difficult for women to get promoted than it is for men, especially white Christian men), they are your equals in education, ability, and intellect. And all human beings are equal in their humanity- doesn't your religion teach that as well? And for those women who do belong to your faith, who have chosen to live their lives as submissive wives to Godly husbands, at the very least, treat them as your equal in value. The world needs them as much, if not more, than they need you. It takes an enormous amount of strength to suppress yourself enough to be led by your husband. Women are not small and timid by nature. Women choose to make themselves small in order to make the men around them feel larger. Respect that strength and the sacrifices your wife and other wives are making to make you feel big, to make you feel in charge. Realize that they need to be strong in their femininity in order to protect your fragile masculinity. 5. Most women long to live an existence free of sexual harassment and separate from the sexual desires of men. Mostly, we just want to be treated as people, not as bodies. Not as objects meant to be consumed. We don't want to be afraid walking down the streets at night. We don't want to have to look down to avoid the gaze of the man who is yelling comments about our bodies. We don't want our bodies politicized, although we have had to politicize our bodies out of necessity. We don't want to disappear into a man. We don't want to hate ourselves because we don't fit the beauty standard society tells us is most desirable. We want to know that we matter even if not a single man finds us attractive. And if you do find us attractive, realize that you are not entitled to our attention, our mutual attraction, or our bodies. Our bodies do not belong to you, but to us, and us alone. We want you to stop calling us "beautiful" and start calling us "interesting." We want you to stop judging our worth based on what your penis thinks of our appearance. And we definitely don't want our character, our ethics, and our morality judged based on whether or not we have decided to have sex before marriage. To do these things I've listed, to check your male privilege, to step outside your sexual desire and take a minute to interact with women as human beings, to be strong enough in your religious beliefs and your masculinity to place value on women and their experiences takes tremendous courage, I know. It takes courage and strength to validate women as your equal, because it requires that you leave your ego at the door, and it requires that you change your thinking to allow that lifting women up does not mean men are being beaten down. But dear sons who are listening, I implore you to talk to every single woman you meet, to find out what she believes and what she needs, before assuming she needs your leadership or protection. If you have to assume anything about women, assume that she needs your respect- or better yet, that she needs nothing from you at all. From the heart of a woman who hopes you and your friends can help us shape a better future, Anna Miles, on behalf of your female peers