Being raised Pentacostal meant adhering to the strictest possible modesty standards. Long before I had any idea of what sex was, I knew that it was a sin for women to wear pants, jewelry, modern clothes, cut their hair, or do anything else that might distinguish them from the illustrations in the “Little House on the Prairie” books I read. The reason given was “modesty” which I understood in the vaguest sense to be a way for women to not exalt themselves or draw attention to themselves. A loud woman was an immodest woman, by my reckoning. I’m sure the church would not have disagreed with me there.
At an older age, however, I was introduced to Josh Harris’ “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” series, and all of the toxic purity drivel that came with it. Suddenly I had a new idea of modesty. It wasn’t about the woman at all… it was about the man. It was explained to me that men would be caused to sin if they were attracted to me. To think, that a passing glance at an attractive person could condemn an otherwise good man’s soul to hell! It was terrifying to contemplate. Suddenly, women who dressed in modern clothes weren’t just prideful people… they were actively dragging men to their deaths. I admit, I felt hatred towards women who would risk peoples’ lives for the mere sake of looking appealing or feeling good about their bodies.
Now, let me take a break to point out how ludicrous this notion is. Positive body image was being presented to me as something harmful to others. Needless to say, I did not have a positive opinion of my body. In fact, I did not really have much of an awareness of my body at all. I was oblivious of the changes my body was going through and avoided looking at myself in the mirror. The female body was just not something that I felt comfortable looking at… not even my own.
But my skewed vision of my body is a story for another day. In addition to causing me to disdain women who dressed in clothes that showed their form, purity teachings caused me to deeply distrust men. It was very alienating to me to realize that the other sex was constantly on the verge of horrendous sin. It seemed that they were creatures without self-control, who were just waiting to violate me spiritually at any second. After all, there was no distinguishing between attraction and lust in these teachings. Finding someone sexually attractive was, in itself, a sin equivalent with committing adultery. It was little wonder, then, that men suddenly seemed strange, foreign, and dangerous to me. It didn’t help that I had long identified myself more as a man than a woman and enjoyed feeling like “one of the guys”. This divide opening between the two sexes was confusing and dismaying to me, since I no longer felt I could keep one foot in each.
Unintentionally, these beliefs set up men as the enemy. While I was in highschool, a friend of my mother’s thanked my family for making my sister and I dress in baggy, “modest” clothing. “It is so hard for my teenaged boys not to lust after women, and it is a big help that your daughters aren’t tempting them,” she said. Even at the time, I was upset by her words. I felt violated by these disgusting male sinners that might be trying to commit adultery with me in their hearts. “Why can’t they just not lust after me on their own?” I wondered. “Why is it my job to make them not look at me?” Clearly, their mother didn’t understand the difference between attraction and lust either. I feel sorry for these boys, in retrospect, for being taught that their human instincts were basically visual rape of a woman. How guilty they must have been every time they felt any desire.
Being unable to distinguish between attraction and lust also led to a dreadfully warped idea of sexuality. I felt that a relationship could only be fulfilling if the partners were not attracted to each other. After all, any sexual interest would be sin, which would mean the relationship was out of favor with God. Surprise, surprise! I was not attracted to my ex-boyfriend at all, but assumed that this was a sign of a healthy relationship. I stayed in the relationship for over two years, trying to fight away his sexual advances and feeling revulsion anytime that I caved to them. I truly believe that having a healthier view of sexuality could have saved me a lot of unwanted physical contact, because I would at least have been able to recognize my own sexual desires or lack thereof. Instead, I was wrapped up in the moronic idea that my boyfriend pressuring me for sex and me being repulsed by the idea was the way things ought to be. After all, I was a woman and he was a man. Men lust and women do not.
This misunderstanding also tainted my view of homosexuality. I was taught that practicing homosexuals were mentally ill or purposely rebelling against God, but I also assumed that the attraction itself was a sin, not just the sex acts. I honestly suspect that this is the reason that many Christians still condemn homosexuals, without regard to whether or not they are actually having sex. Saying “I am gay” is already akin to committing the act of sodomy in the minds of certain religious people.
I have since come to a much healthier understanding of sexual desire (corresponding in part with coming out as a lesbian). I am not afraid of my attractions, and I am not threatened by the attractions of others. I recognize that a person’s thoughts are not harmful to anyone, so long as their behaviors stay within the appropriate bounds of consent and respect. Attraction is not sexual obsession. Attraction is not mental adultery. Attraction is a healthy, normal part of being human. Claiming otherwise is imposing moral oppression on a child, damaging the way men and women relate to each other, and setting up future relationships to fail or be strained by unrealistic ideas.