When should a church be disqualified from having women in it?

Mez McConnell is the Director of 20 Schemes, a church planting organisation seeking to “see Scotland’s housing schemes transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ through the planting of gospel-preaching churches”.  His passion for and commitment to seeing lives transformed by Jesus is extremely inspiring. 20 Schemes is working with some of the most marginalised people in society.  This is also a mission I am committed to.  I come from a working class background, have been a teenage mother and single parent.  I have lived in deprived areas almost my whole life and have worked with many women who have been deeply wounded by men and by poverty.   My husband and I are now raising a little boy from a severely deprived background having spent a year trying to support his mum to be able to become a parent again.  As such I hope that this blog is read in light of my great respect for 20 Schemes mission and passion.

 

Mez published a blog on the 20 Schemes website earlier today entitled “Why My First Church Hire Was A Woman, And Yours Should Be Too”.  At first glance, this blog seems to be incredibly pro-women, challenging male-led churches to value the contribution women make to the life of the church.  Not only that, he is insisting women should be paid for doing this, shifting away from the idea that women’s labour should be offered free.

 

Mez’s audience seems to be those who wouldn’t consider employing women in any role within the church and so it is a positive step that he is challenging such men (and women) to consider the role women can have in Christian communities.  Some of what he says is very helpful, including that:

 

  • Untrained “pastor’s wives” shouldn’t be offering pastoral support.
  • Women need other women to walk the journey with them.
  • 20 Schemes trust women and train them well
  • Mez explains he finds it “offensive to suggest that by giving women responsibility at [a pastoral] level we are opening the church up to serious error. Far more men have led churches astray than women.”
  • Mez states, “Women are encouraged that they have a serious part to play in the kingdom of God and that they are not just bystanders or there to cook the meals.”

 

I have become absolutely convicted that individual, organisational and church views on gender and sex are a primary Gospel issue.   Too many women (and men) are alienated from the Gospel because of Christians who insist that men’s and women’s roles are fixed with men being responsible for women (within marriage, church life or wider society).   Jesus says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.” I understand this to include those who alienate believers by their views of men, women and sex.  Many of the radical feminists I know started off life in faith communities and the rejected Jesus because of the horrific oppression the were subjected to or witnessed in the church.  Complementarian Christians are quick to insist that their theology is Biblical and that egalitarian theology is not.  I will meet them on their terms, complementarian theology is not Biblical.  It is oppressive.

 

The question Mez’s blog raises for me is, “When a church exemplifies oppressive views towards women, should this disqualify them from having women attend their churches?” And I would suggest there are at least 10 reasons Mez’s blog evidences taking up such a policy.

 

  1. Women are prevented from being obedient to God

If women are called to worship lead, to be an executive pastor or to youth work, they cannot be obedient to God in following that call because Mez explains that: “[Churches] will talk about hiring a youth worker, or an executive pastor or a worship leader before they would even consider a woman”.  The only role women seem to be able to do is to be women.

 

  1. Vulnerable women are at extremely at risk in patriarchal structures

Mez explains that single mothers and those with other vulnerabilities are a large proportion of scheme communities.  Much evidence can be provided that patriarchal structures disempower and further oppress women and prevent them being released into the fullness of life Jesus offers them.  Sadly, most efforts to address the oppression of working class people maintain the oppression of women[1]. Seeking to support vulnerable women without having a good understanding of male violence is likely to perpetuate rather than liberate women who have been deeply hurt by male power.

 

  1. The male leaders don’t have time for the messiness of women’s lives

Mez tells us it is “not wise or prudent for a man to invest serious amounts of time into” women who have been subjected to abuse, violence or sexual violation by a partner because their “emotional needs are often so great”.  This statement is staggering in how pastorally insensitive and revealing it is of how little women’s pain should be invested in by men.

 

  1. A third of the male leaders are a sexual risk to vulnerable women

Mez explains that a third of the leaders who preceded him were removed due to sexual immorality that happened when they were intensely counselling women (who he acknowledges had likely been sexually abused prior to the intense counselling).

 

  1. Extremely vulnerable women will be blamed if male leaders sexually abuse their authority

Mez blames women (with possible histories of having been sexually abused) for male leaders sexually abusing their authority.  According to Mez “Any form of tenderness or a willingness to listen from a male is almost always misunderstood sexually [by vulnerable women]… A man who listens to them is a very powerful aphrodisiac. Temptation can be for some [vulnerable women] very hard to resist. They aren’t used to men listening to their problems. They are used to men being the problem.”

 

  1. The male leaders are powerless to stop themselves having sex with vulnerable women

In the above quote Mez is saying that the church leaders who sexually abuse their authority are not the problem; these leaders are the victims of women who find men listening to them so much of an aphrodisiac that they essentially place the male leader’s penis inside them and with the male leader helpless to stop it.  The male leader just passively allows for sexual activity to take place, unable to act.

 

  1. Men cannot and should not have deep long lasting friendships with women they aren’t married to

Mez explains this in his fifth point about women’s role as pastors pastoral assistants.  Jesus explained that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ and as such should be seeking to build communities that are built on deep and long lasting friendships.  It is by our love for one another (not solely love of those who have the same sex as us) that people will know Jesus.  What state can a church be in if women and men can’t be good friends?  If the only deep interactions men and women have to be sexual?  Maybe that’s one of the reasons male leaders keep having sex with women who aren’t their wives?  Just a thought…

 

  1. It is unbiblical

Mez states that “The church is to be led by men after all.”  I shall put aside the fact his church is led by men who can’t stop themselves penetrating women unless they’re not allowed to be alone with them for too long.

The church is to be led by Jesus Christ, in partnership with the Holy Spirit.  Women and men are to serve God and those He calls us to love, giving up our lives in service to Him.  Jesus tells us that “the rulers of the Gentiles dominate them, and the men of high position exercise power over them. It must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life — a ransom for many.”

 

  1. The church is playing Pharisaical mental-gymnastics with women’s callings

Mez explains, “When we say that our women’s worker pastors our women we don’t mean that she is a pastor, rather, she assists the pastors by providing day-to-day pastoral care to our women”.  The Pharisees played the same sort of mental gymnastics as this to keep their hierarchies in place, “Okay, so we don’t swear by the temple, we just swear by the gold of the temple.”  “I know we don’t support our ageing parents, but that’s because we’re giving all our money to God.”  “We’re being obedient by even tithing all our herbs, look at how awesome we are.”

 

  1. Women are used out of necessity

Mez explains that without women pastors pastoral assistants, “Even with a small church and multiple elders we would struggle under the weight of pastoral issues in our congregation”.  Primarily women are asked to take a role in the church because a) men can’t help putting their penises in women and b) there’s too much work for only the men to be able to do it.  This isn’t about women’s gifts or call.  This is an argument of efficiency, practicality and utility.  It is not about the unique ministry of women, the value of women or God-breathed life in women.  It is not about the image of God that is found in women.  According to the blog Mez has written, this is about men being sexually deviant in nature and therefore women having to lead, pastor and disciple work with women.

 

Mez finishes by saying something I am in total agreement with,

 

“The local church needs women’s workers. Most of the women living in our poorest communities are suffering without the hope of the gospel. They have not heard the good news that can set them truly free from their burdens. Women on schemes need more than women parachuting in to be another worker in their life, perpetuating dependency. They need women who will do life with them every single day of their lives. The harvest is great, the workers are few and women are being left on the shelf. They shouldn’t be. Employing more women for ministry should be our highest priority.”

 

It is heartbreaking to me that the rest of his blog undermines this hugely important message.

 

To find out more about the 20 Schemes perspective on women, have a read of THIS application process for church planters and their wives (only married men can be church planters).  It has been suggested the process may be in breach of various equality and data protection laws.

 

 

 

[1] Even the great Paulo Freire described a poor man beating his wife as the abusive man’s response to oppression and not as a form of oppression in its own right.  Women are always left behind in liberatory movements.

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This Is My Body

I recently met up with some old college friends that I hadn’t seen for over eight years.  We all have children and partners and lives that have stretched out before us since the last time we saw one another.  I bumped into one of them when visiting my home-town a couple of months ago and we chatted about the eight years that had passed while her children made it clear that they didn’t want to stand around waiting for us to reminisce, so we agreed to meet next time I was visiting.

 

They say that time heals.  I’m not sure it does.  But time creates a distance from hurts that allows us to recalibrate ourselves.  We don’t have to be in denial about what was done to us in order to distance ourselves from it.  It’s been over eleven years since I left my ex-husband and I am far enough along the journey of healing that his impact on my life has become a distant memory and an occasional PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) episode rather than daily torture.  I’m no longer the person he moulded me into.

 

Bodies are often ignored in the healing process[1].  We focus on emotional turmoil or psychological affliction.  In therapy we talk about how we feel.  In understanding what has been done to us, we make cognitive shifts from one level of awareness to another.  Yet, all that is done to us is done while we exist within the same body we take forward throughout life.  Time and therapy can transform our minds and hearts, but our bodies remain the same.  We can’t download ourselves into another physical body.  We’re stuck with this one.

 

I met my ex-husband when I was 17 and at college.  The friends I met up with recently included the woman who introduced me to him.  She sat with us both when I found out I was pregnant.  After being released from hospital following a suicide attempt, it was her who I spent the evening with.  Another of the friends I met up with had seen razor cuts on my stomach when I stretched while wearing a short t-shirt at college.  The shame I felt when she confronted me.  Not being able to explain that he had done that to me.  Cut me with a razor.

 

While travelling to and from meeting with these friends, I was reading Getting Off by Robert Jensen, an excellent book about pornography and masculinity.  Throughout the book it describes in detail the forms of sexualised violence that exist within pornography.

 

I have been married to Mr GLW for nine years and free from my ex-husband for eleven years.  In that time, I have done a whole lot of healing and have discovered that sex can be awesome and life giving.  However, the same body that I inhabit now is the body I had when my ex-husband sexually violated me, and previous to that it is the same body I grew into whilst being sexually abused  by a neighbour.

 

Reading Robert Jensen’s book, I was reminded of the many ways my body was violated.  Of how my ex-husband used pornography to normalise that violation.  And how well that tactic worked.  I was convinced I should want all the degrading things that he forced upon me.

 

I read an article once where the author explained that the body takes seven years to completely renew all its cells.  She was counting down the years, months, days until that meant the man who raped her had never touched any of the cells in her body.

 

Christian culture loves the redemption narrative.  It loves the bad person who turns good, and the broken person who becomes healed.  Stories of women and girls “rescued” from human traffickers abound.  Stories about how many of those women and girls re-enter the sex industry, there’s not many of those being told.  We are sold the lie of full freedom this side of eternity.  Especially when there is no physical barrier to healing.  If someone has no legs, mostly (though not always) Christians will accept that there are challenges that person will face throughout their life.  With so called “emotional issues” rarely is this partiality of healing acknowledged.

 

Being raped happens to an actual physical body.  No amount of healing is going to undo what men did to me.  All abuse and trauma happens to us in an embodied way and Christian theology (with our Saviour who was born, lived, died and rose again in a physical body) should be much more aware of this than it is.

 

This body that I walk through life in has been raped.  It was degraded for a number of years and has survived my own attempts to kill and cut it.  I may be living in a place of great freedom, no longer constantly dragged down emotionally or psychologically by what was inflicted on me.  Yet, this body is the same body.  I type with the same hands.  I talk with the same mouth.  I walk with the same feet.  This is my body.

 

I don’t have some big revelation to conclude this with.  I felt compelled to write about this because I know that I am not the only one who is on this journey.  And if you’re reading this and are walking a similar path, please know that it is okay to never fully recover.  Living a wonderful life is not dependent on “getting over” the past.  Our bodies stay with us throughout all that we endure and (thankfully) all that we celebrate.  No matter how much physical distance or passing of time there is or renewal of cells our body goes through, we can’t leave it behind, for our body stays with us.  And though the pain and horror is difficult to overcome, it can be okay.  And we can be okay.

 

 

[1] This is changing within PTSD treatment, with practices like Somatic Experiencing.

Free the Nipple Debate Speech

I thought people may like to read my speech for a debate I participated in a few weeks ago.  I was asked to speak for the proposition on “This house would free the nipple.”

Good evening, women and men.  My feminist, socialist tendencies won’t stretch to addressing you as ladies and gentlemen, so I do hope you will indulge me with that.

I am proposing that we should indeed free the nipple.  For those unfamiliar with the Free The Nipple campaign; it started in the US and campaigns to address indecency laws which criminalise women whose nipples are visible in public.  Men’s nipples have no such law attached to them.  Few US states distinguish between the legality of women stripping off and women who are breastfeeding.  Also in the campaign’s sights are social media sites like Facebook and Instagram  who ban photographs of women’s nipples as they breach the sites’ decency rules.  This includes photographs of women breastfeeding their children.

In the UK it is not illegal for women to share their nipples with the world, and actually in many places men’s nipples are also banned from public display, for instance in seaside towns across the country, men’s (and women’s) shirts are required to be on in cafes and other premises.

So, if in the UK, the nipple is already legally free, why am I here suggesting we should free it?  What should it be freed from?

As with most aspects of women’s oppression, the nipple needs to be freed from patriarchy.  The sexualisation and objectification of women across society means that as women our humanity is consistently reduced to us being a three holed ornament with breeding capacity.

Breastfeeding is not indecent.  It is feeding a baby.  And starving a baby is far from decent.  Women’s nipples are indecent only because they have been wholly sexualised.

I’m not a pro-pornography feminist, I don’t believe that the sex industry liberates any one, it increases the power and wealth of men (and gives few women even a decent or sustainable income).  The sex industry dehumanises women as sexual objects to be violated and degraded (regardless of the individual choices of individual women).  It also dehumanises men as they become less human in their choice to objectify and degrade other human beings.

I’m not unrealistic.  Freeing the nipple on Facebook or Instragram is not going to liberate women.  Yes it may give breastfeeding mothers opportunities to share photographs as they feed their babies.  However, the winners will of course be pornographers and abusers.  We’ve all heard about the rise of so-called “revenge porn”.  I can only imagine how abusers would use the new found female nipple freedom to further abuse a current or ex-partner on social media.  Facebook and Instagram would be flooded with Page 3-esque images.  Freeing the nipple by simply changing decency rules and laws is not going to liberate women.

Yet freeing women’s bodies from the male gaze and being sexually objectified is a feminist imperative.

Freeing the Nipple must be a cultural strategy, it will never be a quick win.

We must:

  1. Raise girls to love and own their own bodies, to see their whole being as not solely sexual, yet to know that it’s okay to have a sexuality, to not be ashamed.
  2. Raise boys to recognise girls as empowered and fully human.
  3. Have proactive conversations with children and young people about pornographies and sexualisation.
  4. Challenge the representation of women and girls in the wallpaper of every day life, we could boycott companies like Lynx and American Apparel who sexualise women to sell products.
  5. Educate men and women to be active bystanders, challenging language which objectifies and degrades the opposite or same sex.
  6. As women, acknowledge the ways we are encouraged to compete for the small amount of power we have access to; measuring ourselves against other women.  Let us celebrate other women and build the sisterhood, united we can stand.
  7. As men, own the privilege afforded to you, while acknowledging the wounds created by patriarchy that insist on self-sufficiency and maintaining power based relationships with other men and with women.
  8. Protest, campaign and live lives of integrity that seek to be a light in the darkness of patriarchy.

Freeing the nipple is not the biggest issue facing women.  Being able to strip off here or breastfeed publicly without shame is not going to change the fact that 25% of women will be abused by a partner in the UK.  That 72% of girls in the UK will be emotionally abused by a boyfriend and 32% will be sexually abused by a boyfriend.  It doesn’t address the reality that 85,000 women will be raped in the UK this year or the global rates of female genital mutilation, child rape, breast ironing, unfair marriage laws, trafficking, female infanticide and the many other types of male violence towards women and girls that cause immeasurable suffering.

However, the nipple being free from patriarchy is like one of those starfish on the beach that the boy is famously described as throwing back into the sea.  In the drip drip drip of patriarchy, every act towards women’s liberation is part of the solution.

I was a teenage mum.  When I had my daughter at 18 I chose to breastfeed her.  It took all of my courage to start feeding her in front of people.  But I did it because I wanted the best for her.  After attending a youth event in which I needed to feed her, the youth worker involved took me to one side and asked me to no longer breastfeed publicly at youth events.  He explained that the parent of a teenage boy had complained.  He said I could feed her in the toilet if I needed to.

As a teenage mother I experienced great stigma.  To all intents and purposes I was then excluded from a gathering of my peers because someone chose to sexualise me feeding my baby.

That experience didn’t destroy my life.  It is simply one story of many I could tell you about the ways patriarchy and male violence have hurt me.  I propose that we should free the nipple because patriarchy must be smashed and though freeing nipples may only make a hairline fracture in the seemingly impermeable structure, it is with each blow that it becomes weaker.

Does Avoiding Pre-Marital Sex Devalue Marriage?

Two separate things have led to me writing this post.  A few weeks ago I had a Twitter chat with people after pondering whether an abstinence approach to sex may in fact dishonour marriage.  Then a couple of days ago I listened to THIS discussion between Dianna E Anderson and Sarah Long, facilitated by Justin Brierley on the Unbelievable show at Premier.

The debate was “Should Christians save sex for marriage?”

The debate was interesting, though I’m not sure it fully worked.  Dianna has written a book reflecting on US purity culture in Conservative Christianity.  Sarah is UK based and has worked with Romance Academy.  There’s some massive culture differences between the UK and the US, so to some degree it became much more about acknowledging the different contexts and less about a debate based in the same cultural context.  Though I think many would say the culture isn’t as different as was perhaps suggested on the show.

Sarah’s main view was that sex is a covenant and as such should be saved for marriage.  Her work has generally been in a youth context and therefore the focus has been with young people.  Dianna’s view was that the Bible isn’t clear at all about sex before marriage and as such she would place it within the adiaphora of Biblical stuff; basically it’s a conscience issue, not an absolute.

Mr GLW and I didn’t have sex until we got married; I’ve written a few thoughts about sex and Christianity in THIS blog post, in which I bemoan awful post marital sex that is rooted in the many unhealthy messages attached to abstinence values.

Some thoughts I have about the whole saving sex until marriage thing…

1. It may possibly work when people are in their teens and early twenties.  What about people in their forties, fifties or sixties who have never had sex?  Did God just decide they shouldn’t ever experience the awesome gift of sex?  Not everyone is going to have a partner.  The whole abstinence teaching is connected so strongly to the “everyone will get married and have babies” narrative.  What does sexuality look like for people who don’t ever get married?  Do they simply suppress it FOREVER?  What about masturbation?  Is that off limits too?

2. When abstinence teaching is intertwined so strongly with purity culture is there a baby left in the bath when you chuck out the bath water?  Or is the shaming of women, blaming of women, infantilising of men, lack of understanding of consent and terrible sex so fused with “don’t have sex before marriage” that we can’t keep the latter without holding onto the former?

3. Within the Unbelievable debate, there was no mention of how abstinence teaching disables people from recognising abuse.  For me this is paramount.  I am confident that my young adulthood sexual experiences would have been non-abusive if I’d chosen to embrace pre-marital sex.  Could that have been the case if I’d been educate in healthy ways about consent and had awareness of abuse?  Perhaps.  But could the messages from across Christian culture about abstinence have drowned out the voices providing that awareness?  Also quite possible.

I’ve been wondering about whether Christians put a higher value on sex than on marriage.  If people HAVE to get married to have sex, how many (usually young) Christians rush to the altar so they can GET IT ON?  Conversely, how many Christians suppress their sexuality and their natural desire for one another for years while they wait to be able to get married. leading to a whole load of marital problems?

One of the examples on the Premier debate was a couple who’ve been together for four years, are engaged but can’t afford the wedding.  Dianna suggested that having pre-marital sex in that context was a matter between the couple and God, they could pray about it and come to their own conclusions.  Sarah’s view was that the couple could choose to marry in an inexpensive way in order to “save sex” for marriage.

Is that the best approach?  Should people reject the whole Big Wedding thing in order to have sex?  Or does that suggest less value for the whole process?  Do the couple elope and get married in a registry office somewhere so that SEX?  Or is the marriage ceremony and the value placed on it and the community element significant enough that pre-marital sex isn’t the main consideration that should be attached to it?

What does abstinence mean anyway?  Should there be no kissing pre-marriage?  No tongues?  No nakedness?  No oral sex?  No groping?  Is everything non penetration based okay?  Is there a sense of legalism in the whole thing?  Is this whole thing simply tithing herbs (Luke 11:42)?  Are we neglecting the weightier matters of a deep and considered sexual ethic that takes into account the many ways abstinence is painful?

The Bible wasn’t written for our context.  People got married REALLY young.  Mary was probably 14.  Women had no rights.  Contraception didn’t exist.  Periods were seen as impure. Singleness wasn’t an option for women.  Women’s sole value was attached to their husband and sons.  Rape victims were to marry the man who raped them.  Then there’s Song of Solomon which is full on sexiness, seemingly between unmarried people.  Marriage was a financial contract between the girl’s (it usually was a girl) husband and her father.  How do we extrapolate a sexual ethic for our time, our culture from a book written in such an extremely different context?

I don’t know.

I do know that the current system isn’t working.  Abstinence teaching doesn’t produce chastity.  It leaves people ill equipped to recognise sexual abuse, sexually damaged, repressed and/or with a deeply unhealthy sexuality, it blames women and encourages men to avoid responsibility for their sexuality and wrongly assumes that every twenty-something Christian is going to meet a nice Christian (opposite sex) partner, marry them, have babies and live happily ever after.

I’m not sure what a positive sexual ethic looks like.  I guess I veer close to Dianna’s view.  What’s wrong with trusting couples to discern what is right for them?  What is the risk in encouraging people to seek God’s will for their lives over and above an abstinence rule that isn’t fit for purpose (and actually isn’t in the Bible)?  When the current messages are causing serious damage to individuals and couples can we risk insisting abstinence is the way forward?

Matthew 23:24 comes to mind…  “You blind guides!  You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”  Yes abstinence may get women to their wedding night with their hymen intact, however what about the camel of shame, vaginitis, pornography use, woman blaming and/or sexual repression?

The conversation amongst young people should be a different to that with adults.  One of the difficulties of the Premier debate was that Sarah’s context was young people.  We can’t liken the sexual choices of two people in their mid twenties (and upwards) to how we approach 14 year olds.  However, is the right approach with teenagers and young adults to focus on marriage as the means by which people access sex?  Does that put unnecessary focus on marriage as the end goal for people’s lives?  In a Christian culture which is deeply heteronormative and idolises the nuclear family, how do we articulate the liberating message that marriage is not the logical start of adult Christian life?

With our children, Mr GLW and I have focussed on:

  • Ensuring they own they bodies, lives and choices. This is the foundation of consent.
  • Nakedness and sexuality are not shameful, bodies are BRILLIANT.  Puberty is fabulous and exciting, if somewhat messy and traumatic.  Since they were very small we regular talked about how bodies change; hair, periods, wet dreams and the like.  This stuff shouldn’t be a surprise.  It is INEVITABLE.
  • That sex is awesome yet SO extremely special and precious that it’s a serious matter.  Babies can be made and diseases can be caught, so great thought must go into when, how and who we choose to do it with.
  • Singleness is GREAT!  We regularly chat about the amazing single people we know.  At first the kids assumed that all the single adults we knew were married, they just hadn’t met their spouses.  This stuff must be made explicit or kids won’t notice it.
  • Critically examining the messages around us; women are not objects, sexism is all pervasive and it is wrong, gender stereotyping is bad, racism is everywhere and it is bad, male privilege is real, a lot of masculinity is toxic and needs to be challenged etc etc.
  • There’s creepy naked stuff on the internet (pornography) and when they see it (because they will)  they need to tell us so we can help them make sense of it.

Our kids may have sex before marriage.  It’s not something I’m concerned about.  What I am concerned about is that every sexual experience they have is one they have entered into willing (and legally), in an informed way and with deep respect and love for themselves and the other person they engage in any sexual activity with, and also deep respect and honour for the seriousness of the act they engage in.

Yes, marriage may be a way of ensuring this stuff happens.  But that is not guaranteed.

Genuinely, I don’t want my kids to get married.  I want them to live lives of worth.  And if that includes marriage, great!  But if not, that is JUST as wonderful!

No Sex Please. We’re Married

Everyone knows what the Christian view of sex is.  That it should be “saved” for marriage.  That it’s this precious gift God gave humans and that sex outside of marriage can be damaging.  Depending on who you talk to, the damage ranges from a vague possibility to ABSOLUTE DESTRUCTION which requires a whole lot of prayer to get rid of “soul ties” which some would say mess you up in all sorts of emotional and spiritual ways.

 

Yesterday I listened to teaching on sex delivered to 12-14 year olds at a 2015 national Christian youth event.  Separate sessions for boys and girls.

 

The boys were told the only relationships they should have with girls should be friendships, in part because they can’t “go out and get a job to support the girl” when they’re only 12.  The speaker explained to these 12-14-year-old boys: “If the girl is not your wife, then she’s your sister.”  He went on to explain there should be no touching, kissing etc. until the couple are engaged.  The boys were also told that masturbation is wrong; avoid it by going for a walk or by reading the Bible (because they were told, the Bible isn’t sexy at all).

 

The girls were told “God wants His best for you.  He wants you pure and undamaged and unhurt.”  They were also told, “If you want to be attractive, dig into God.”  The girls were told that girls’ wanting to have sex was a form of seeking love and validation (the boys were not told this was the case for them).  The girls were also told that masturbation was wrong, addictive and the devil would use the shame they subsequently feel from masturbating to harm them.

 

This was at an event that happened in 2015.

 

In the church, we’re very good at talking about not having sex.  What we’re not good at talking about is the awful post-marital sex a lot of Christians endure, especially if they’ve done the “right” thing and waited.

 

If a couple have waited to have sex until they get married (whether or not they’ve had sex previously) there can be an expectation that such a sacrificial and counter-cultural choice will be rewarded by mind blowing sex from the wedding night onwards.

 

Sadly, multiple orgasms do not ensue.  From 12 years upwards they’ve both been told not to masturbate and not to think about sex.  At all.  Until “she’s a wife not a sister.”  The boys have been taught they should “resist temptation”.  The girls have been taught their value is intertwined with their purity.  Both have been conditioned to think only males have a sex drive.

 

Post-abstinence marital sex can be utterly abysmal.  Rarely is this talked about.  When it is talked about, it’s euphemistic at best.

 

I’ve been married over 8 years, my husband and I didn’t have sex with each other until after we were married.  We’d both had sex previously, and I brought two small children to the relationship.  From 17 to 21 I was abused by my ex-husband.  Much of the abuse was sexual.  I had been raised in Christian culture which taught me not to have sex but didn’t tell me what consenting to sex actually meant.  All of my first sexual encounters were coerced, forced or manipulated.  And Christian culture had given me no framework for this, so I thought the trauma I was suffering was caused because I had betrayed Jesus, not because I was being raped.

 

At 23 when I married my now husband, I’d been dealing PTSD, depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and more.  He’d been single in the church for 13 years and had tried to avoid thinking about sex the whole time.

 

Our honeymoon was amazing in most ways.  Except that sex was generally difficult.

 

Marriage has been awesome for us.  Sex not so much.  And even though I’d been sexually abused for the majority of my life at that point, my husband being raised in the church caused us at least as many issues as my stuff did.  We’re not alone.  So many Christians (even where there hasn’t been abuse) experience extreme damage from abstinence and purity teachings in church.

 

Christian women and men have been conditioned to see sexual acts as shameful.  How do they then engage in those same acts after saying “I do” without shame?  The wedding ceremony isn’t going to negate years and years of unhealthy and sexually negative messages.

 

My husband and I are doing good now.  But stories like ours must be told.  Because otherwise every couple struggling, every woman feeling ashamed for simply considering initiating sexual activity, every man feeling inadequate because his sex drive doesn’t meet some arbitrary level he’s been told is normal, feel this is just them.  And it’s not.  There’s loads of us out there.  Welcome to crap Christian sex!  We’re not getting much.  But hey, it can get better!

 

I would tell 12-14 year olds that…

 

  1. Compulsive masturbation is a problem. What isn’t a problem is learning how your body works, what feels good and what doesn’t.  Girls especially are not taught about their genitals and popular culture can leave girls and women ashamed of their woman bits.  God isn’t ashamed of your vagina or vulva, he made it and He wants you to love it!

 

  1. Boys, it is not your job to pursue, provide for or protect a girl. That is nonsense made up by people.  Only God does those things.  Don’t take on responsibility that was never meant to be yours.  God made women and men equal and gave them the awesome gifts of intimacy, equality and partnership found in marriage.

 

  1. Choosing to have sex is a big deal. God made it as a thing to do within a marriage relationship.  There’s the potential for making babies and catching diseases and all sorts when you start doing it.  Understanding the difference between choosing to have sex and being coerced or forced is really important.  Sex is a big deal and when someone hurts us sexually they can cause us great damage.  But there is help available and healing is possible!

 

  1. You are not defined by your virginity. God loves you whatever your sexual experience or lack of it and so should any person you have a relationship with.

 

And to all you Christians preparing to get marriage please be aware that if you haven’t engaged in sexual activity with your spouse before getting married, don’t expect sex to be mind blowing straight away (if it is, lucky you!).  Like anything valuable in a relationship, it takes time, effort, understanding, respect and self awareness.  Sex can be awesome, get help if you need it and marriage is so much more than how good the sex is anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Intimacy Agenda

After a break from writing about pornographies, I have more thoughts to share.  The previous pieces are here:

 

Porn Is Not A Thing

The Christian Porn Conversation

De-Euphemism-ising Pornographies

 

It seems everywhere you look (both inside and outside the church) those who watch pornographies (mainly men) are being diagnosed with intimacy issues.  It’s the Big Thing in addressing the fact that a lot of men and boys are watching highly degrading and sexually violent images and videos of women and girls (teenage girls are the most sought after videos and pictures online).  While watching these images boys and men are most often masturbating, usually until they ejaculate.  Apparently due to a lack of intimacy or something.

 

There various issues with the Intimacy Agenda (as I shall call it…).

 

  1. It can make the man’s viewing of exploitative and abusive images of women and girls (and the masturbation accompanied with it) into an issue that is external to him. If it is an intimacy issue, that relates to his relationships.  Does that mean the responsibility for his choices falls onto his partner/wife/girlfriend/parents/friends?  Or that he needs someone else to fix it for him?

 

  1. Lots of men and boys who are viewing sexually abusive images of women and girls are in positive and healthy relationships. The consuming of those images and masturbation that goes alongside that is not a by-product of a deficit.  It happens in spite of fulfilling and healthy relationships.  If we’re not careful, there’s the potential to raise issues in a relationship where they may not be issues.

 

  1. Where intimacy is related to the man’s use of images where women and girls are sexually violated, is solely focussing on it as the main issue helpful? As you will notice, in my language I insist on de-euphemising the language we use to describe the act often referred to as “watching porn”.  When that happens, it’s very difficult to see intimacy as the biggest concern.  Suddenly the focus shifts onto the nature of the content being viewed.  As it must if we are to respond effectively.

 

Where somebody has a partner who is watching pornographies, that is a deeply painful experience. As Jesus said, when you look at someone lustfully, you are committing adultery.  The partner of someone who is viewing images of women and girls being degraded while masturbating is experiencing the pain of a partner committing adultery.  It can be deeply traumatic to find out our partner is not who we thought they were, that they are engaging in sexual activity without us.  It can lead us to feel insecure and lacking in value.  Our partner’s continued use of women’s and girls’ bodies can be painful and fill us with shame.

 

Within that context, it seems totally lacking in compassion to make intimacy the big issue for men who are masturbating to images and videos of women and girls being sexually used by men.  So often the man who discloses his “struggle with porn” is presented as a victim dealing with intimacy issues.  If he has a partner/wife/girlfriend, she is invisible.  Her pain potentially increased by the inference that intimacy is the issue, what we may read into the Intimacy Agenda is “his relationship is the problem”.

 

It’s not that intimacy isn’t ever a factor.  It’s focussing on intimacy that is the problem.  Surely re-humanising the women and girls in the videos and images should be a higher priority?  As should the need to take responsibility for our choices.  The man is the active agent in the “struggle” between a man and the pornography he is watching.  He chooses to open the browser, click on the link, begin masturbating.  Those are not actions that happen to him.

 

Until our language and communications insist on personal responsibility being key in addressing people who consume images of women and girls being sexually degraded we will not achieve the seismic shift required to reduce the impact of pornographic content on society.  Intimacy issues might be involved (often they’re not), but what is ALWAYS involved is the active choice of the viewer to watch the content being offered to them.  It is choice, not intimacy, that must be the focus.

The Spectrum of Pornographies: A Man’s Perspective PART 2

This post is part of the series I’ve been doing about the spectrum of pornographies, you can read the others (along with a few of my previous posts that cover the subject) here.

This is the second guest post from a Christian man who I asked to share his views…

I personally have been helped by some of the literature and resources developed by Christians aimed at men who consume porn of the types I did. Their frameworks for understanding compulsive behaviour and my motivations were very useful, as were the practical strategies for changing problem behaviour. I would commend the work of XXXChurch in the US particularly, especially as it is noteworthy that they are addressing aspects of the production of porn as well as its consumption.

However, the language in the books and on the websites produced by Christians can be problematic. Talk of addicts and addiction, of being a user can reinforce the notion of men being primarily victims and analogous to drug users. Yes, the literature does address the effects on family and friends of an ‘addicts” behaviour, just as those addressing alcohol or drug abuse do.

But telling men they are victims in a spiritual battle – whilst partially true – is only a part of the bigger picture.

The battle can be too often described only as the struggle of ‘good men tempted’ against the ‘flesh and blood’ of naked women (or men) having sex on screen.

It is closer to the truth, I think, to say that men are called – no, compelled – to take up a battle against the ‘powers and principalities’ behind the systematic and all-pervasive denigration and objectification of women of which pornographies are manifestations of.

That may mean men learning not to solely be obsessed with maintaining personal purity (though resisting the lust Jesus speaks of IS a non-negotiable) and being willing to speak about and root out every form of misogynistic thinking and practise. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and but it’s essential we stop casting ourselves as the victims of the piece and face up to our greater responsibilities.

What does an effective response to this issue look like?  Do you have any thoughts about what a theological response to the issues looks like?

I only have tentative answers but there are some things I think we definitely do.

Firstly, given that the majority of exploitation and degradation one can observe in pornography of all forms is enacted by men against women, we men firstly need to listen to what women would have us do. Men are not the saviours of porn performers nor of porn consumers but we do have responsibilities. We need to learn not to shrug off our responsibility to act but we do need to curtail our assumption that men know what is best for women and that we know what women need us to do.
I think too that men need to engage more readily in conversation with – and especially in listening to – feminists within and outside the Church. They are able to teach us how pornography connects with wider issues of sexism and women’s liberation.

We also need to talk together more frankly and honestly about what is out there – I don’t mean talking porn for the sake of showing how much we know or how in touch we are with what is out there but in order to confront the realities and expose the mechanisms of exploitation and damage.

As I’ve suggested, we need to think more carefully about our language and terminology. Can we find language which is more accurate and honest than only “addict/addiction/purity/lust”? Should we be speaking of consumers not users given most pornography is unashamedly cynically marketed product, given that many pornographies is outworking of capitalism?
What about the language of “models” and “performers”? Where is the line between “performer” and “product”? I don’t want to deny the self-determination of women nor the fact that women do choose to produce and act in porn movies, and I don’t wish to speak for women (see above) but when women are saying “pornography is hurting women in all manner of ways” then to fall back on language which emphasises freedom and consent and downplays power and exploitation is disingenuous.

This goes for the larger narratives we employ in our writing and speaking about pornographies in the Church. Whose stories do we emphasise: men who have “suffered” loss due to porn, men who have “recovered” from addiction? Or do need to give more airtime and platform space to women telling their stories about porn? About the effects of the men they know consuming porn? Of their own experience of having been exploited by porn producers? Do we need to pay more attention than we do to the voices of women who have suffered sexual violence due in part to the shaping of men’s minds and actions by violent porn?

In some of the Christian books and websites I’ve read addressing pornography I’ve read much about men who “use prostitutes” and stripclubs, or pay to access porn online, but next to nothing in the same books and sites about who these prostitutes are, who works at these strip clubs, who made the porn and “performed” in it.
For every man’s life “ruined” by pornography consumption there is at least one woman whose life has been ruined and whose health and well-being have been compromised.

Even the well-meaning talk of “would you want your daughter to be watched in that way?” is problematic. We should instead be saying things like “should any woman be treated in this way or feel compelled to make a living like this?”

We need to resist shallow stereotypes about men and women and sex. Addressing porn has to be connected with what we teach in churches about men and women and sex more broadly. Much teaching can inadvertently give more license to men to consume pornography by emphasising “men’s needs” and their apparently greater sex drive, and women’s supposed more “emotional” and “passive” view of sex. If our church teaching on sex reinforces male potency and drive, and female passivity and receptivity, does this not shape men’s expectations of sex to conform to what they see on their screens?

We need to join the dots in our speaking and acting between pornography, sex trafficking/slavery, and sexual violence. These relationships are complex. Not all that comes under the banner “pornography” is necessarily exploitative and connected with sexual violence; but much is. However, we need to resist seeing ourselves as the male saviours of poor helpless women – back to listening and learning before acting – whilst still acting when we can.

We need to read our bibles “better” – to see the narratives of sexual exploitation, the gender stereotypes often under the surface of texts we read too simplistically.

A quick example:

David and Bathsheba: do we read this as David in a moment of weakness succumbing to temptation? Or do we notice and highlight the power dynamics at work: the powerful king seeing another woman as a sexual object to own and consume, a woman who could not realistically say no to the summons from the King who “sent messengers to fetch her”? In our modern terminology, was this really fully consensual sex or was this exploitative behaviour within an asymmetrical power relationship?

I’m not advocating that we demonize King David or dismiss the fact that he was a man “after God’s own heart”; rather we perhaps need to learn that “good men” are not simply “tempted”; sometimes they are exploitative and abusive.

We need to open our minds to recognise that when we laud a biblical character simplistically as a “goody” we risk overlooking the patterns of sexual exploitation and sexism even within our scriptures.

The same goes for other aspects of the Bible – how do we read Paul’s epistles within a “pornified” culture where women are routinely objectified on camera and in print? When I read in 1 Corinthians that a wife is not “master” of her own body, I must treat and read that text extremely carefully given that pornographies so frequently depict a woman’s body simply as an object for a man or men to use to achieve orgasm. Paul had his reasons for writing, and I don’t think he is advocating the routine objectifying of women. However, thousands of women within pornography industries are routinely treated and told that they are not “masters” of their bodies; they are told that their bodies exist for men’s pleasure, and their value as people is proportional to the degree of pleasure a man derives from gazing at or physically using their bodies.
We certainly can draw on Paul’s writing to develop a healthy theology of the body and of sex BUT we need to be very careful and not rely solely on a simplistic reading of him.
I’d also ask: please, please, please resist quoting chunks of Proverbs to address porn and sex. I’ve heard that book used too often to endorse narrow sexual roles especially for women, and to perpetuate the notion that men are “potential victims” who must resist the advances of “temptresses” whether in the flesh or on screen.
Finally, if we want to hold up Samson and Solomon as heroes of the faith, also be honest about the massively exploitative sexual behaviour they were engaged in. Solomon’s harem of women were not in his royal court purely of their own volition, acting from true freedom and self-determination. Our ancestors In the faith used women as objects for pleasure and to continue their bloodlines. Yes, God was gracious enough to “use” these men for his purposes but let’s at least be more honest about the long legacy of sexual exploitation in our faith’s story.

I realise I’ve offered more questions than answers. I realise I’ve offered no programme of action or 10 steps to eradicating pornography. I hope these suggestions about how we think and speak and listen will provoke others to develop appropriate ways of acting. My greatest concern is not so much ridding my home or computer of porn (though this is essential), nor to rescue men from addiction (though men do need help stopping what they’re doing). There is a bigger cause of ridding the world, our communities and churches of the ways of thinking, speaking and behaving which contribute to pornographies being so pervasive, and increasingly violent and damaging. That’s a huge and more complex task.