Sexy Feminist: How Fuller Made Me One

26 May

This little ditty ran in Fuller’s weekly student publication, the Semi, for a series on sexuality (for which very, very few women writers submitted articles).
I was born into the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a denomination founded in the roaring twenties by a woman who had three husbands and later an E! True Hollywood Story made about her questionable kidnapping and other scandals. So, you may think that I grew up in a church environment that broke gender stereotypes, that set women free to express themselves in ministry, in mind, and in body…but you would be wrong. No, my church youth group was probably much like yours—the boys herded off for a talk about sex (read: porn and masturbation) while the girls huddled together and dreamed about the princes that awaited them at the end of the rainbow road of purity and promise rings. Four years at a Foursquare Bible college was—surprise, surprise—more of the same, with the expected addition of make out sessions in dorm stairwells and far corners of public parks. The sexual tension was thick, and the solution was marriage, of course. But I graduated with two ex-boyfriends and no engagement ring, which was practically unheard of for a school where many women attended only to receive their MRS degree (sorry, had to put that in).

One week after graduation, I found myself dancing in a campground bar outside of Paris with a bunch of Australians to that classic 90s jam, “Let’s Talk About Sex,” followed by a quick game of strip air hockey with a New Zealander named Matty. You’re probably thinking: this is where it gets interesting! Bible college grad explores her repressed sexuality in the backpacking scene of Europe…but you would be wrong. Again. I won that air hockey game, after removing only my earrings and my sandals (Matty may or may not have been down to his underthings). And the exploring I did over the next few years had little to do with men and a lot to do with traveling the world for missions and study and fun, discovering more about other people, other cultures, and God—and growing up a bit in the process.

But these things have a habit of resurfacing, and once I was done traveling and settled back in California, I entered the world of Fuller with its ecumenical diversity and gender-inclusive policy. I was so accustomed to using “he” and “men” for all humankind, including myself, that it took me awhile to realize how empowering it was to include both genders in our speech, our writing, and especially in our reading of the Scriptures. Replacing “he” with “she” in some verses about discipleship or God’s love opened up the world to me—I was no longer on the outside looking in, I was invited to get in the game. I started to ask questions and offer comments in class, I no longer hid my intelligence as I did in Bible college, and I began to understand the way it made me feel to be called a “girl” versus a “woman” (hint: boo versus yes).

As an intelligent woman, I returned to some matters left untouched since my high school and college years. I was single and trying to figure out what to do with this sexuality that was supposed to have been activated at 22 if I had married a few weeks after graduation, like a good Bible college student. Sexuality seems to be a given for men, but is still a closed topic for many Christian women. Gathering the moxie I’d collected in my empowering moments of feminism at Fuller, I opened the door and invited myself into the conversation. What does it mean to be 26 and single? I wondered. What if I never get married? How does a promise ring help me then? I knew by now that my perfect prince probably slipped up somewhere way before he turned 26, and I felt cheated. I brought up these questions among friends and acquaintances and discovered that some weren’t ready for that kind of talk, but also found that I’m not alone. I had a conversation recently with a 35-year-old friend who is single, and she’s wondering lately if she’s wasted the past couple of decades with her sexuality on the shelf. Maybe it’s time to take it down and see what happens?

But it’s not even about measuring purity points with a future spouse, it’s realizing that we are not only spiritual, physical, intelligent, emotional beings—we are also sexual beings. And I did not have a clue what that meant. Some things have helped—especially my exposure to Catholicism and other traditions that were quite foreign to me before arriving at Fuller. It wasn’t until this year that I realized how wide is the chasm between my sexuality and my spirituality. In my classes and reading, I’ve been fascinated by glimpses of an earthy spirituality where the body is as much a meeting place with the divine as the mind or the soul—where the three, in fact, are blurred and joined much more than compartmentalized or cordoned off from each other. Last summer in Italy I was still as single as ever, but I immersed myself in the sensuality that marks the citizens of the hilltop Umbrian town of Orvieto—feeling the buzz of wine or espresso in my veins, rich truffle oil and sweet gelato on my tongue, St. Francis’s brother Sun caressing my shoulders. Somehow, these were steps in my journey.

So here I am—not far from where I started, but I have a rucksack over my shoulder and I threw out the maps I received as a child (I Kissed Dating Goodbye and DC Talk’s “I Don’t Want It”). The cartographers of Christian sexuality—at least the Evangelical ones—led me nowhere, but told me to stay in one place and be a good girl until a nice man came and found me. However, I am not interested in going the way of the mainstream, non-Christian world, either, who tell me that God is too big, too slow, too out-of-touch to bring along on these travels. I can’t explain it, and I can’t even say I’ve yet experienced it, but I know that He is the guide and companion that I want, and that in these uncharted wanderings, He is a safe place to camp.

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6 Responses to “Sexy Feminist: How Fuller Made Me One”

  1. Andreas Nordli May 26, 2011 at 11:50 am #

    Dear Joy,
    Thanks a lot for a well written article! You are really good! It is almost poetic, the way you write.

    Our next edition for our magazine Mot Målet is about sex. We are soon ready to print, but I would really like to see your article in the mag. This article is just what we lack, and it will complete the other article in a perfect way. It may be too late… but if we are quick, it may work out.

    Do you think it would be possible to translate it and publish it? We would for sure point to your blog and twitter account in the byline.

    Blessings,
    Andreas

    Like

    • netanya May 26, 2011 at 11:53 am #

      Hei hei, Andreas! Thank you so much. Of course, you can translate and publish it–I love the idea of still being connected w/ Grimerud and YWAM Norway in some way. Thanks for the opportunity; let me know if you need anything else from me!

      Like

  2. Jessica Hamlin May 26, 2011 at 1:21 pm #

    Another insightful post. I appreciate your honesty and humor as always. Finding what sexuality means as a Christian can be such a confusing, frustrating, mystical thing. Women are even more in the dark about it indeed since all we have are fairy tale-esque stories to try to live up to instead of realities and genuine discussion and exploration.

    I remember writing an opinion article for the school paper when I was at APU about how–newsflash–women think about sex too. I expressed my frustration that the male population had separate services or seminars at times to address “male issues” (sex) while women were often lectured about body image–a relevant topic, but the exclusion of women in the sexual discussion was so 1950s, as if we didn’t have urges or thoughts about sex and it was just something we’d do someday when we were married. We were encouraged not to dress provocatively so as not to possibly lead to our male brothers stumbling, while those same brothers could skateboard shirtless around campus. The double standard is still irksome.

    Sex has deep implications for both genders, obviously, and sexuality is much deeper than just sex, but anything with the word “sex” in it is seen as so taboo in Christian culture, I feel, that we learn to disregard a conversation about sexuality and sometimes dim the beautiful things that make us women–not in a worldly sexual way but in a naturally feminine sexual way. What that exactly means can still be vague and finding a balance can be difficult, but I find it endlessly interesting and worth exploring.

    Like

  3. netanya May 26, 2011 at 8:42 pm #

    Thanks Jessica! And thanks for sharing! I love the idea of your APU piece. 🙂

    Like

  4. Christopher Dart May 26, 2011 at 10:34 pm #

    Great article, Joy. Yeah, I find the sexual double standard that exists in much of the Christian community to be rather disgusting. Of course, it’s not historical or even Biblical, but is a remnant of our earlier American Victorianism that large portions of the Church just won’t let go of. (People can’t blame this one on the Puritans, they were much too honest abt sex!) While much of our “secular” society has gone to the opposite extreme, where sexuality, male and female, has become so cheap and surface and deceivingly “easy,” most single Christians are simply just told to “not do it,” but rarely if ever are we told what TO do with the sexuality that remains as celibate individuals. Too many Christians maintain this mental repression or go into Evangelical rebellion mode and just ditch the baby with the bathwater. (Stats have shown, for example, how teens who took purity pledges and broke them are way less likely to use a condom when they do have sex, so higher teen pregnancy rates.) Neither approach is healthy or God-honoring or realistic.

    I don’t have any easy answers (not that you’re looking for any), and I am still quite conservative in my understanding of sexual boundaries outside of marriage, but the approach that I eschew is the one that says (paraphrasing from a book I read on sexual addiction recently that was showing how ridiculous this message is)–“Sex is dirty; so save it for the one you love….” Talk abt illogical!! I think the canonical book of the Song of Songs kind of counters that whole puritanical notion (again, apologies to the Puritans), and the Song is quite expressive in its description of the Shulamite’s erotic desire for Solomon–no “ladies don’t notice the college skater boys w/their shirts off” mentality there, haha, the couple was equally enthralled w/ea other. In fact, in opposition to the Victorian notion that women were somehow more “naturally” moral, spiritual, and “pure” (and therefore asexual) than men, a grad school teacher I had said that during the Renaissance, men were looked upon as the ones more naturally chaste and virtuous, with women being characterized as the temptresses, burning w/lust, the corrupters of male purity. Interesting how those stereotypes change w/the seasons.

    And just as single women are still sometimes taught that their sexuality doesn’t really exist, the opposite is often the narrative young men are thrown into–that they are sexual beasts who can’t control their sexual desires and are really quite helpless to keep that in check. Sexuality isn’t a part of them, it’s this curse that dominates and controls who they are. It’s like that “porn and masturbation” talk you described (how did you know?! Did you eavesdrop? ha)–the message is usually, “Don’t look at porn and don’t play with yourself… although we know you are going to anyway. So, basically, there is no real hope for now and you basically have to just feel crappy about yourself and your sexuality until you get married, which, will be this holy nonstop sex-fest and all of your sexual issues and addictions will just disappear. And if they don’t, you’re screwed, bec Christian women think that if you slip up and go to a naughty website, that you are cheating on them, and they will leave you.” Oh, and “men give love to get sex, and women give sex to get love”? Something like that. Some kind of commodity trading that really doesn’t sound that mutually enjoyable to me. But apparently it’s true…

    Any kind of distortion keeps people from freedom, and keeps us from living in our complete, God-designed humanity. I like your emphasis that sexuality isn’t just abt an “act” (or acts)–part of the influence of porn, I think, which actually objectifies both genders–but rather it’s a category that deals with how we live in and experience our world as embodied and gendered persons. We should cherish it and walk in righteous and wise ways with it precisely because it is good, not because it is base or dirty or shameful. SO not Biblical. 🙂

    Like

  5. Andie @ CanYouStayForDinner.com May 31, 2011 at 7:05 am #

    Joy, you are a beautiful and expressive writer. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Like

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