Don’t Touch Me — A Reflection on Courtship and Purity: Merab’s Story, Part Three

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HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Merab” is a pseudonym.

< Part Two

Part Three

After the Stephen incident, I relocated and began teaching eighth grade language arts. One day, I went with a friend to a local church Halloween party, dressed as a nerd. At the party, I met a tall man dressed like Felix Baumgartner (the man who has the record for the longest space jump). He was a meteorologist, and when I told him I was terrified of tornadoes, he got my phone number in order to put me on his “tornado notification list.”

The next morning, I woke up to a text from him. We spoke over text and on the phone, and the next week, he took me on our first date. We didn’t talk at length about whether we were ready for marriage; we talked about time travel. We went on several other dates throughout the week, and I didn’t ask him to call my dad for permission.

And then he dropped a bomb on me.

This man felt comfortable and vulnerable enough to be open about his past: He had been married before. He was divorced, following a five-year relationship and two-year marriage during which his ex-wife was unfaithful and left him.

My mind only heard: He had sex before.

He wasn’t pure. He wasn’t whole. He could never be fully mine. How would a relationship work? I still hadn’t kissed anyone. Our first kiss should be at the altar, but he’d had so many kisses before that ours would not even matter to him.

(Now, how convoluted that mindset seems to me, thinking that I wouldn’t matter to him and that he had nothing to offer me because he had sex with someone else before. It is exactly what I Kissed Dating Goodbye taught, though; I still remember the dream Joshua had in which he realized he had given everything away and had nothing left for a significant other.)

Crying, I left. Later, he told me he felt I would never want to see him again.

I called my mother, convinced that she would tell me to run, that this man was tainted goods. She told me I was acting crazy, that God loved everyone regardless of circumstance, and that this man was allowed to love again.

He wasn’t pure, I said. She said, what even was purity? What right did I have to say that someone wasn’t pure?

That night, I began to seriously evaluate my mindset towards purity and the courtship movement.

I viewed myself as being on some pedestal, looking down on the world at all the fornicators who were happily kissing their significant others. I speak out of my own experience when I say this; I am not implying that all people who choose not to kiss before marriage are judgmental in this way.

I allowed my interpretation of the courtship movement to condense a relationship into two all-important factors: physicality, and the avoidance of it. I was not thinking how this man could be affected by his divorce or how much I appreciated his honesty about it; I could only think about him kissing his ex-wife.

After much prayer and discussion with him, I confronted this mindset. I told him how guilty I felt holding hands or hugging for too long, and we deconstructed the guilt through conversation. He and I continued in our relationship, and I kissed him after four months. Even now, writing that, I still feel the need to justify why I kissed him: we loved each other, we wanted to get married, we were committed.

Lastly, I want to be achingly real about my experience with sex. Partly due to the fact I would have felt too guilty and unclean, we waited to have sex until our wedding night. On our wedding night, I felt so bad about finally losing my virginity, losing the purity I had “fought for” for so long, that it was impossible for me to just give it up simply because I had said a few words in a vow. I was so tense and unyielding that we did not have sex until we were married for over two weeks, and even then, I felt guilty. I was frank about this with my husband (who is a saint), and we have worked through this. Adhering to the courtship mindset and its purity reliance made having a physical relationship with my husband more difficult.

I can’t wait to teach my children that sexual experience does not dictate their dignity and value.

End of series.

Don’t Touch Me — A Reflection on Courtship and Purity: Merab’s Story, Part Two

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HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Merab” is a pseudonym.

< Part One

Part Two

Sometime after my first boyfriend and I broke up, Stephen (my old friend from the NCFCA) surprisingly called me. He and I caught up about our lives, about college, and reminisced about our golden debate years. One memory still sticks out in my mind: several years prior, we had gone to NCFCA Nationals; at the afterparty, Stephen had led me up multiple flights of stairs to the top of an historic statue, and we looked out over the city and talked.

I had been convinced I was going to marry him, and now, two years later, he was calling me!

We had been talking on the phone for several months when one day he called me again, his voice different. “I’ve been thinking,” he said, “and I’m just not sure we should be talking on the phone like this. What’s it going to lead to?”

“I’m…I’m not sure,” I said.

“I just think that we don’t want to encourage something that can’t happen right now. I’m just in college, and not in a position to be with someone or support anyone. I don’t want us to spend time leading each other on with no point to it,” he said.

I really respected this guy as a friend, a rational being, and a “good” Christian man, so I immediately agreed. How respectful of me he was, putting us first, breaking things off so our emotional purity was not jeopardized.

I felt like this for a few minutes after I hung up the phone, and then I realized—wait, how we were going to talk?

After thinking some more, I resolved to wait until he was ready. He’d know when the time was right, when God told him he could court someone. If we were supposed to be together, God would bring us together.

And wait I did.

I didn’t have a boyfriend for two years, chiefly because I couldn’t find someone I liked as much as Stephen, who was sweet, rational, artistic, and intelligent—and shared my ideology about dating.

Then, in my senior year of college, the waiting paid off. Stephen got in touch with me again. One conversation led to another and I agreed to make the three-hour drive to his university so we could see each other.

The evening was perfect. We went out to dinner, talking about our families and politics and pasts and dreams for the future. I had just found a job as a teacher after graduation, and he was going to travel. We watched a television show with some of his friends, sitting next to each other but not touching. When it was time for me to leave, he walked me out to my car.

We lingered outside in the cold, neither of us wanting to leave. Finally, stepping closer, he said, “I’ve liked you for a long time.” I told him I had liked him too. After we hugged (quickly), he closed my car door for me, smiling. I felt joyful—everything was finally working out.

But then, nothing. He didn’t call or text me. The silence continued for a week. By now it was Christmas break, and at home my sister saw me miserable with apprehension, so she messaged him on Facebook and asked him to get in touch.

He called me the next day. “I’m sorry I said what I did,” he said. “I’m very fond of you as a friend. I’m still not in a position to be with you; I’m studying abroad next term.”

“I completely understand,” I said calmly, my eyes filling up with tears. I sobbed uncontrollably after he hung up. I didn’t care that we would have had to be in a long-distance relationship; I felt I would have waited years for him, a champion of purity. I finally began to view his dating ideology as an excuse for not stepping up and being real with me. I wish he had cut the “I can’t support a wife” line and just said, “I’m not sure if I like you romantically.”

To me, the courtship movement gave men and women alike a ready excuse to not speak the truth.

Even when I knew Stephen was using the “I’m not in a position to support you” statement as an excuse, I still pretended to agree with this because I was supposed to, according to the courtship movement. If someone couldn’t support a wife, he couldn’t support a wife.

At about this time, I began to realize that I could support myself, and that the previous statement was problematic, implying a power structure that favored male earning of income. As more and more of my public-schooled college friends began to date without constantly questioning their purity and value in life, dating also lost its stigma for me. I concluded that I would never be able to know if I wanted to marry someone if I didn’t actually spend time with them, even if I wasn’t ready to drop everything and get married that instant.

I resolved to focus on the work of teaching.

God would still send the right pure man along for me, and we would ride off into a glorious sunset (and have amazing sex because we were pure).

Part Three >

Don’t Touch Me — A Reflection on Courtship and Purity: Merab’s Story, Part One

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HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Merab” is a pseudonym.

Part One

We were alone on the couch at his apartment, and his hand moved down my neck, tracing it slowly. It was my fault, utterly my fault. I was the temptress, Leda lying before the swan.

I had made the choice.

I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye when I was 17, not because my parents made me read it, but because I chose to read it. My parents, although conservative in political beliefs, were not legalistic, and actually openly debated legalism and fundamentalism in our household. My mother especially did not like the book, saying it was unrealistic. My mother and father had homeschooled my two sisters and I since I was in the third grade, mostly to give us a better educational opportunity than our rural Colorado mountain school provided. We moved to the city when I was 14, and everything changed—we joined the NCFCA (the homeschool speech and debate league) after meeting some members at a Civil War Ball.

Many of my NCFCA homeschool friends had read the book, and most of the boys (including Stephen, the one I had a crush on) didn’t believe in dating. “I can’t support a wife, so what’s the point of dating anyone?” Stephen told me when we were 17. Because he felt that way, I checked the book out from my church’s library and a few days later had mentally made the commitment to save myself for marriage, never being alone with a man to avoid temptation.

In my mind, I would never kiss a man until we met at the altar on our wedding day. My future husband would ask my father’s permission to court me, and we would date in large groups. As per I Kissed Dating Goodbye, I didn’t want to give myself to a man I didn’t want to marry, and this seemed logical to me. I didn’t want men to view me as a used rag if I had kissed someone before, or worse.

After graduating, I chose to attend a local college. I soon found out that no boys held to the same beliefs I did. No guy wanted to call my father and ask to court me (weird, right?). I finally met a Christian guy who had been public-schooled, and we were able to spend time together in groups at a campus Bible study. After I informed him that I would not officially “get to know him” unless he spoke with my father, he called my dad and arranged a lunch meeting. My father, afterwards, asked me why I thought this was necessary (he thought the whole meeting was humorous). I had no ready answer. In my mind, I had linked being “pure” and “correct” in a relationship with patriarchal consent. Soon after the meeting, the guy and I started dating.

However, I soon found out an unforgivable secret: he had kissed someone before.

I could not reconcile that in my mind. If you kissed someone, you were forever giving a part of yourself, a core piece of your identity and purity, to that person. You could never get it back. He had given a part of himself away, a part I could never have. That always hung over our relationship. A respectful fellow, he agreed to not kiss me.

I also began to adopt his “public-school dating habits.” We hung out alone. We watched movies on his couch until one in the morning. Finally, during one of these movies, I found myself in his arms. He traced my face with his finger, down my neck, my shoulders, my arms. While he did it, I felt like a prostitute. I was giving something to him. What I was giving, I couldn’t say—but I was giving it. I made that choice to be there. However, I also held this against him. If he really respected me, he wouldn’t have taken that from me. It was my fault and his fault at the same time.

This drove a rift in our relationship. We held hands for the first time after dating for four months. I broke up with him soon after, not being able to handle my feelings of guilt towards myself and resentment towards him. During a discussion after the break-up (we still went to the same Bible study), he tried to touch my shoulder. I screamed, “Don’t touch me! I never wanted you to touch me! It’s all your fault.”

I ran out of the building, half-confused, half-feeling like I was finally championing my values. MY values.

Now, I reflect—were they my values, or the values I adopted to be accepted into the only community I knew? A community that gave me a scripted role to play, the role of “pure woman,” a role I internalized to the extent that I still performed it towards a different, unsympathetic audience?

Even though my parents questioned the validity of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, the culture of my local homeschooling community was so strong that I accepted what my friends thought as truth. When I went on Facebook, I saw some of my old NCFCA friends, courting each other, getting engaged, being thrown into some lake at Patrick Henry College. It was perfect for them; I should have done the same thing.

I resolved to reframe my mindset around purity, and everything would fall into place.

I never deconstructed how this mindset created a harmful image of my identity—I was only as valuable as my state of purity, and it was natural to feel a deep sense of guilt and shame for not protecting that state.

Part Two >

The Dangers of Ideology: Salome’s Story, Part Two

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HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Salome” is a pseudonym. Also by Salome on HA: Home for the Holidays.

< Part One

Part Two

The closest I came to real danger (and the longest relationship I had) was with the misogynistic control freak (the knife-bearing sociopath frequently did so in a crowded room, and was disarmed before he became a threat), so I wanna talk further about him. Let’s call him James.

James was everything I’m not.

He was intensely emotional, tall, slender, metrosexual, and spent more time in front of a mirror than I do. At first, everything was great. He understood me to a degree that very, very few people ever do, and accepted me for who I was. We had long conversations, joked, and played pranks together. He was extremely observant, and would go out of his way to understand what I was thinking. He quickly adjusted to my tendency to be brutally honest, and we talked about literally everything. I enjoyed our conversations, and I basked in the feeling that I mattered to someone.

I’m not entirely sure when the first warning signs started appearing. They were almost imperceptible at first, and I had no one who was close enough to the situation to point them out to me. We were lying to each other (and everyone else) about our intentions. He told me he wasn’t attracted to me, and didn’t want a relationship. I certainly didn’t want to call him my boyfriend, because then I’d have to deal with all of the baggage my upbringing attached to that label. I think I might have loved him to some degree, at least at first. I never really was physically attracted to him, but I figured I probably couldn’t do better than thoughtful, suave, and funny James.

It took me a really long time after we broke up to admit that we were dating. We just called it hanging out.

Our hanging out included sneaking out for an entire Saturday to see Act of Valor when it first came out. Today, I can’t believe I didn’t see that that was a date. Then I was too blind and too young and too repressed – and I didn’t have my mom to counterbalance my blindness. It’s really hard not to feel cheated, you know? Anyway, on top of our lies, he started making misogynistic comments. He always found a way to exclude me from his “all women are untrustworthy bitches” attitude, but I eventually started noticing that he was on dangerous ground. When I pressed him, his underlying attitudes didn’t exclude me at all. Then, he started timing how long it usually took me to reply to his messages (around 5 minutes), and if I took any longer than that, he’d freak the hell out, spam me with messages, text me, and call me, and say he was gonna come over to check on me.

He tried telling me what music to listen to (and what to avoid), and what TV shows to watch, and started regulating my caffeine intake and even my bedtime. I eventually started lying to him and telling him that I was going to bed early every night, but then staying up till the wee hours of the morning to try to get my work done free of him. Over Spring break that year, I traveled to Europe without him for a couple of weeks, and when I got back, he demanded to know every detail of every day. He then told me that he literally had not slept for 2 weeks because he didn’t know I was safe.

I hadn’t realized that I felt stifled until I was on another continent, and all the sudden James’ messages felt sinister.

My grades had plummeted (because he demanded that I spend all my time with him rather than do my work), I was intensely depressed, intensely exhausted because of my sleep habits, and intensely stressed, because I couldn’t bear the thought of being controlled by James the way my father had controlled me – and in the name of protecting me! The few classes I didn’t have with James became my solace during the week, because I had a few hours free of him.

My professors even started noticing that something was wrong, and several started going to extreme lengths to give me grace. They tried to help me, but I couldn’t bring myself to admit how bad it was. It wasn’t until very recently that I found out that the attempt to control a significant other is a hallmark of abusers. My patriarchalism-steeped parents certainly never taught me that, because then they would have had to allow me some autonomy. Soon after the Spring break debacle, I completely cut off contact with James, and have not missed him at all (even though we live in the same area still).

Let me be clear: I wasn’t in a toxic relationship because I was homeschooled.

Controlling jackasses exist everywhere. That was my screw-up, and I’ll have to live with that bad decision. But the ideologies that were preached at me from every direction left me without a security net, and kept me in that relationship longer than was healthy (because a controlling, arrogant, narcissistic, misogynistic man raised me. That’s my norm.).

Ideology led me to be dishonest about the nature of my relationship with James, which complicated the situation even further, and probably only exacerbated his urge to control me, because he had no assurance that we were exclusive (and I, being a total jackass, went to a dance with another guy to prove to my friends that James and I weren’t dating… my naivete still astounds me.).

Ideology set the stakes high, because I was not supposed to be in a relationship without the intention of eventually marrying the guy (which almost certainly would have been disastrous with James).

Ideology left me without any clue which boundaries were healthy, what was a normal expression of affection, and what was a big, flaming red flag.

Ideology left James feeling like I needed to be protected and guided, and left me feeling like that was normal.

Ideology led my parents to exercise parenting techniques which left me vulnerable, broken, and with the deeply internalized belief that I’m worthless and unclean, and no one will ever want me. It’s really hard not to feel victimized, bitter, and angry, to be honest. I missed out on – no, I was cheated out of – a beautiful and normal part of growing up.

I’m so pissed about that.

End of series.

The Dangers of Ideology: Salome’s Story, Part One

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HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Salome” is a pseudonym. Also by Salome on HA: Home for the Holidays.

Part One

My family, my church, and my homeschooling group were up to their eyeballs in purity culture.

My youth pastor used to say that if he could tell you were dating, you were doing it wrong. That meant no holding hands, no hugging, and no kissing. He’s since relaxed a lot, but the damage was done. Later, we realized just how badly our purity culture had screwed us over when a significant contingent of my grade (most of whom were also members of my homeschooling group where the courtship model was also wholeheartedly embraced) got pregnant out of wedlock, and most abandoned Christianity because of the judgment and the pronouncement that they were now unclean. Some were subjected to epic parental freak-outs, which did nothing but deprive their parents of a meaningful relationship with their child and grandchild.

Most of my friends were homeschooled — well, the few that I had; I have always been extremely introverted, and due to the level of emotional abuse I suffered, I have always been angry, blunt, and kept everyone at arm’s length. Such friends belonged to the same homeschooling group I did. Our parents were all close, and all shared books.

This, unfortunately, included Eric and Leslie Ludy and Josh Harris.

(Interesting side note, here. Years later, I got to know the Harris twins. One of them, I believe it was Brett, informed me that when Josh fell in love, he found out his advice sucked. He ended up ignoring it himself, and didn’t ask his wife’s father for permission before he married her, because his wife didn’t have a good relationship with her father.)

My mother and her friends, however, took it as the gospel truth. My mom regularly told me that she wished she hadn’t had her heart broken by any of her pre-Dad relationships. She admitted that she still occasionally thought of her other boyfriends. Now, years later, I think that she was just unfulfilled and bored as well as supremely unhappy, because I was her confidante multiple times when her marriage was on the rocks (when I was wayyyyyy too young to healthily process any of what she told me). Then, my innocent little mind filed away all of that information, trusting that my mom knew best.

My parents also stigmatized normal relationships.

I don’t think they purposely created an environment where it was unsafe to bring someone home, because they’re pressuring me to settle down, find a guy, and give them grandkids. They were partially victims of their own assumptions – that Dad was somehow gifted with more wisdom than normal (which is bullshit. He’s a fool.), that he had the right to exercise absolute control over us, that his job was to protect me from myself and all of the depredations of lustful young men (even though when I was victimized he attacked me instead of protecting me, and ended up “protecting” me from people I didn’t need to be protected from, while ignoring the real threats), that I had to “guard my heart (a phrase I internalized too well, because I can’t fall in love for the life of me.),” and that anything less than their ideals of modesty, purity, and emotional distance was too “worldly,” which is a criticism my father leverages against literally everything he disagrees with… I still wince whenever I hear it, whether it’s warranted or not.

Thanks a lot, Dad.

They’re also ridiculously awkward and almost Victorian about romance and sex, and they deal with that by joking about it. It’s impossible to have a serious conversation about it. I literally have never brought, and never plan to bring, a guy home with me, because I’m just not sure if my family will chase him away at gunpoint, will be terribly awkward, or will accept him with open arms. And the worst part? They don’t know any of that, and aren’t open to being told, because they hear every criticism of their parenting skills as a judgment of them personally.

My parents also tried (and failed) to enforce rigid gender roles for awhile. 

Since I have never been the most feminine woman ever, my parents lectured me more about that than basically anything else. I wear whatever the hell I want, don’t cook unless I have to (and have cussed my father out when he tries telling me to make him dinner), and swear like a sailor. I’ve never been meek and submissive. I’ve never accepted my mother’s demands to show respect to men (which means meekly assenting to whatever they ask me to do and never standing up for myself – which would have been disastrous in my relationship with James.). However, I’ve still internalized those lectures. I still feel like my body is dirty, and my modesty somehow a coat of armor.

I still feel guilty for loving more traditionally masculine things.

Instead of protecting me, the environment I have described led my sister and I to go behind our parents’ backs and seek emotional fulfillment without calling it dating, while taking away the support structures which could identify warning signs early and save us from dangerous situations. In my sister’s case, it ended with a call to the cops, because she was involved with a bad apple.

My experiences are a little more complex. I have consistently attracted psychopaths in every sense of the word (including one knife-bearing sociopath, a drug addict, a patriarchal scumbag, and a raging misogynistic control freak… and those are just the ones I ended up having a close relationship with – with the exception of the drug addict. He was scared away fairly quickly. There are a few more who made unwanted sexual advances, including one who then threatened to kill me when I turned him down. My parents still don’t know.). I swear, they can smell blood in the water, because good God they swarm around me. This tendency is only made worse by the fact that I tend to be emotionally and mentally attracted to someone before I’m physically attracted, and thus tend to want to heal broken men.

Maybe that’s because feeling compassion is the closest thing I feel to tenderness anymore. I don’t know.

Part Two >

I Fell in Love with My Best Friend: Achsah’s Story

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HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Achsah” is a pseudonym.

I remember attending a wedding. I was maybe eight or ten at the time and the pastor’s oldest daughter was marrying a young man in the congregation. The only real detail I can conjure up is that they made it a point to let everyone know that the couple had saved their first kiss for the wedding.

As I sat watching this first kiss, I remember thinking that it was a beautiful thing and decided to save my first kiss for the marriage altar.

I grew up in a church that was affiliated with Joshua Harris’s church. His books were at our little bookstore, in our homes, and taught like gospel truth. Couple that with my parent’s odd obsession with Vision Forum Ministries, and you have a young girl that knows nothing other than courtship.

When I was about seventeen, my mom realized that I was old enough for the boys to come after me. Or something like that. So, she bought three brand-new copies of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. She kept one, gave one to me, and one to my younger sister. For a few weeks, we would meet in the living room and discuss a chapter. I don’t remember much about the book, looking back. I remember that my younger sister hated everything about it and tried to push back against it all. But I was the example. I had to be the one that agreed with everything my parents believed.

Besides, it sounded good. My younger sister liked guys. But they terrified me. I didn’t want to have to try and navigate a relationship with one of them. Courtship promised a formula that would keep everything in neat little boxes. If I didn’t have sex and saved my first kiss for marriage and made sure to cover up then I would not get my heart broken. If I let my parents lead our relationship, then I would have the perfect marriage. And I wanted it. My life plan consisted of children and my world revolving around them, and, by default, that included a husband. But a man in the picture was just a minor detail in the grand scheme of things.

And then.

Well, then I fell in love with my best friend. Suddenly, all of the songs made sense.

The skies were bluer. I walked on clouds. Everything made sense. But me falling for a girl was so confusing. There was no formula for this new development. I wasn’t able to talk to my parents about it. My heart, it seemed, was not something I could hold on to. It gave itself away before I knew what was going on. And it wasn’t only that. I never knew what attraction was. Or consent. Or that I would actually want to engage in sexual activities. Honestly, the thought had never occurred to me.

My wife and I began dating the month after she came out to me, which prompted me to come out to myself. By then, I knew I would spend the rest of my life with this woman and that it would be good and full of happiness.

Neither of our parents were thrilled. I remember my dad saying that if I had only talked to him about what was going on, he could have talked me out of it.

We moved shortly after that.

In the year-and-a-half since we married and moved across the country, I have been slowly extracting myself from the conservative mindset. As I am trying to figure out how to be a wife, I am realizing how much I don’t know. I have found that instead of wanting me to be self-sacrificing for our family, my wife wants to pamper me and ensure my happiness. I found that instead of demanding my respect, my partner gives me hers. I found that instead of worrying about lines and how far is too far, my wife and I have been able to communicate our thoughts, concerns, worries, and desires.  Previous crushes were supposed to be a big deal; part of my wife’s heart was supposed to be missing. But past crushes didn’t take something from her; they gave her something.

To me, courtship was about putting on a mask and conforming to a list of rules. It was giving someone else complete reign in my life. When we stripped away those rules and took off the masks, I found that I could finally breathe. I understand the concern our parents had when they decided to raise us with courtship in mind.

But it ended up being a cage.

Reprogramming: Susan Young’s Story

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Also by Susan Young on HA: Former Employee of David and Teresa Moon at Communicators for Christ Alleges Workplace Abuse, Harassment

As a teenager and into my mid 20s, I was surrounded by courtship doctrine.

Swimming in it. Drowning in it. I not only owned a copy of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”, but was also on Joshua Harris’ mailing list to be notified when it was published. I purchased his following book “Boy Meets Girl”. My shelves were also full of titles such as “Passion and Purity” by Elisabeth Elliot, and pretty much everything written by Eric and Leslie Ludy – even the early books that are now out of print. At the age of 22, I would go to a weekend retreat for young women hosted by the Ludys.

Until the age of 13, I had it in my head that I would wait on dating until I had reached 16. Anything younger than that was too young. I had heard things like “don’t kiss on the first date” and waiting until marriage for sex was pretty well solidified in my mind. The big mystery to me why people acted like waiting was so hard. Then again, my reaction to “The Talk” was pretty much nausea and contemplating a life of celibacy. I had never heard of anything so gross.

At 13 years old and just months after I was clued in to the workings of a marriage bedroom encounter, I attended one of Josh Harris’ early conferences with my mom and a group of homeschool friends. This is where I first heard the concept of courtship in modern times even before the publication of Harris’ first book.

My heart was presented to me as a fragile piece of china that could be damaged and would never be worth as much once given away.

While I don’t remember this specifically coming up at the conference, it’s not uncommon for girls who have had sex get the degrading comparison that says “no one wants a piece of chewed gum”. My feelings were apparently in just as much, if not more danger of losing their value.

I bought into the whole thing. No kissing until marriage. Guard my heart so I don’t “give away pieces of it I’ll never get back” to men other than my mysterious future husband. I have to admit, my ready adoption of this way of thinking was not so much because I really thought it through, but because I had defined myself from an early age by being the “good girl” that never caused any trouble and made my parents proud. This could put me at a level above most of the other good kids. In short, I was just as arrogant and self absorbed as many other 13 year olds. It just manifested itself differently.

Unfortunately, I had hormones and feelings because I wasn’t a robot. Of course I fell for a couple of guys before I met my husband. I felt like I’d failed because of it. I got older and tried to get away with more form fitting tops, which resulted in bad conflicts with my mom because boys are visually stimulated, unlike me, apparently. Yet, there were cute, physically attractive people around me and I noticed. That made me feel like there was a deviant freak just under the surface of my good girl veneer. I had older female relatives outside of this restricted culture who were definitely checking out Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman’s boyfriend, which did give me a clue that there was maybe something normal about noticing someone physically attractive. They were the worldly ones, though, so it didn’t really count so much.

There was a huge romantic void in my life. My desires and feeling were growing naturally and my circumstances weren’t keeping up. I tried to get into the habit of writing letters to my future husband and telling him how I was praying for him to fill that gap until I met him. I managed a grand total of 3 because it felt so forced. After we got married, I don’t think we decided to keep them. They were a lot more of a disturbing window into what kind of crazy system I’d bought in to than they were remotely sweet or romantic.

I got older and into my 20s my parents were still telling me I wasn’t ready for a relationship. I should work on being ready, which was an odd, vague concept that never got remotely clarified when I asked. My life was in a frustrating loop. My fantasies revolved around a Disney-esque escape thanks to a man who would rescue me from the dead end of my life. That was never going to happen; so then I fantasized about a successful career, leaving home, and adopting a child to raise as a single mother.  That scenario was almost equally likely to come out of my circumstances.

The doctrine fell apart because I was human.

I had wants and needs and feelings. I started dating (yes, real dating) my husband within two weeks of my relationship falling apart with my family. I was out of the house, 24 years old, the expectations were gone, and I had a minor inkling that the relationship methods I’d been taught weren’t quite spot on. What I didn’t know is how long it would take to undo that much programming.

The first time he kissed me, I couldn’t sleep that night and cried the next morning. I was a failure. In truth, I was robbed of the joy of my first kiss by the toxic mentality that placed my value on how shiny and new everything was about me. I wondered if I had ruined our future marriage. The voice of Bill Gothard spoke in my head reminding me that wives who went “too far” with their husbands before marriage ended up resenting them for it. Of course, this is based on the premise that the men were the ones that actually wanted any kind of physical connection.

Fast forward to marriage and a surprising lack of resentment toward him. Yes, we were technically virgins when we said our vows, but we weren’t exactly models of purity culture by that point.

We’d been through the ceremony, but now what happens in the marriage bed after this much fear, indoctrination, and taboo regarding sex? While we had the impression from the culture around us that this was supposed to be fun, for me the concept had only progressed from “gross” to “clinical”. There are pairs of teenagers that have done better on their first attempts. I’ll steer away from the TMI, but we were seriously poised for failure. It takes some time to undo that damage.

What’s worse is what happens when your sexuality has been the property of some mystery man your entire life rather than your own.

When this person does show up, in your mind, it’s all still his. Sex is not something you can say no to when you’re just not into it at the moment when it never belonged to you to begin with. As we re-evaluated our beliefs from the past together, I realized that my body is actually my own: this is something my husband had not realized I wasn’t on the same page about. If anyone doubts that men need feminism, just imagine what it’s like to be a good man who respects his wife to find out she hadn’t been telling him when she didn’t want to be intimate. It’s an incredibly disturbing moment.

For the first few years, I still dressed pretty conservatively. I even checked with my husband when I was worried an outfit might be too revealing because he would possess an insight into a man’s mind that I don’t have. At least, that’s why my dad used to check my outfits. That was incredibly confusing to my husband. If I was happy with it, he didn’t think it really mattered what he thought of it or what any other man might think of it.

Gradually, I learned it wasn’t my job to control what men thought. What that left me with was shame. The reason to cover and hide myself so completely was missing, but the impact it had on what I thought of myself remained. My body was something to be hidden. It was dirty. It was wrong. I’m still working on getting over that.

While there are still some remnants from the past that have to be filtered out of my mind, overall I’m in a much healthier place. This summer will mark my 6 year wedding anniversary to a man that wants me to respect myself and hold my own. My view of my body is getting healthier all the time.

The best part, though, is knowing I’ve taken charge and that I’m not just waiting on the actions or approval of someone else to take the next steps in my life.

Ticking Time Bombs of Atomic Hormones: Abel’s Story

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Abel” is a pseudonym. 

Growing up in my homeschool world, I heard constantly from everyone around me about the importance of modesty and purity. Women were supposed to dress up like Victorian-aged puritans because men are so susceptible to lust and we just can’t control ourselves. I never understood this. But I accepted it because everyone else around me seemed to and I never felt I had the right to question it. If I tried to question it, wouldn’t that just be the sexual freak inside me trying to fight God?

Oh. Yeah. I kinda got ahead of myself.

There’s a sexual freak inside of me. Or, well, there’s a sexual freak inside of every male. According to my culture, all males are sexual freaks waiting to happen.

We’re like ticking time bombs of atomic hormones.

You don’t want to let those time bombs out until marriage. And it’s really easy to let them out. That’s why women should all dress so carefully. If a man happens to see a woman readjusting her bra strap, all hell could break loose and men could turn into savage beasts. There is a rapist inside of all men, including me.

I never thought there was a rapist inside of me. I never felt a desire to force myself onto a woman when I accidentally saw a bra strap peaking out of a woman’s denim jumper. But I still felt sick to my stomach when I caught myself looking one second too long at that bra strap. I felt that indicated my inherent dirtiness. I felt nothing but pure disgust for my body. I felt God staring at me from that bra strap, as if he was about to turn me into a pillar of salt, just like he turned Lot’s wife into salt for looking back at Sodom.

I’d stay awake at night, begging God to forgive me.

I’m surprised there’s not a whole generation of homeschooled males that have fetishes about bra straps.

But really, what I took to heart from all this talk about how obsessed men were with sex was not just that there was a rapist inside of me. It was that apparently I had a broken rapist inside of me. Because, honestly, I never felt so overwhelmed by semi-exposed skin that I couldn’t control myself. I spent years thinking there was something wrong with me. Men were supposed to “stumble” when they saw a midriff, or a shoulder, or too much leg. But I never “stumbled” like that — meaning, I never saw a midriff and went home and masturbated about it.

So I decided when I was sixteen that I must be gay.

In retrospect, that only made me feel worse.

Because men never made me “stumble,” either.

Because I’m not gay.

I was actually straight. And as far as straight people go, I was actually normal, too. Apparently normal people — straight or gay or whatever you are — don’t obsess about sex as much as homeschooling parents do.

I was conditioned by all these myths that pervade homeschooling that males are so overwhelmed by sex that they can’t exercise any semblance of self-control. But you know what? We can. And we’re not only hurting women by saying that women are responsible for mens’ thoughts. We’re also hurting men by making us all out to be monsters with uncontrollable sexual urges.

Rape is a horrible thing that should be opposed by everyone. Normal human sexuality is completely different. And I am sad that I grew up in a world that saw no problems with blurring the lines between the two.

It took me years to figure that out. What I used to think was me being gay eventually became me wondering if I just had a really low libido. But then I went to the doctor and found out, no, my libido is fine, too.

Apparently my problem was that I’m not a stereotype manufactured out of thin air by the I Kissed Dating Goodbye courtship cult.

But after everything I’ve gone through, that’s a problem I am ok living with.

Be Perfect as Your Heavenly Father is Perfect: Charity’s Story

true_love_waits_ii_by_oriel94

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Charity” is a pseudonym.

I’ve been following HA from the beginning. I knew from the first moment I saw the Facebook page that I would write my story, even though I do not think there is anything surprising about my life. I was raised in a conservative Christian home, was homeschooled through graduation, and in graduate school dropped Christianity for feminism. That transition, while difficult, felt natural for me. Feminism gave me a language for the discrepancies I could see and feel, but could not name. To this day my parents are dismayed and my brother is bemused about my ideological transformation.

I don’t know what parts of my life are important to tell, which parts are most salient. I just know that along the way I learned to hate myself. Because even though I know that I am smart and beautiful, I also know that I should be better. The only yardstick I have is absolute perfection for whatever it is that is on my plate in the moment. And if I can’t be perfect, then I need to just complete whatever the project is and move on to something else. There is so little joy in that way of living. There is no self-acceptance. Nothing can just be what it is in the moment; the striving is both constant and tortuous. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me explain.

I was raised to be a good Christian girl who did the best she could. It just so happens that, aside from math, I’m good at most things I have tried. All of my life I’ve been told that everything I touch turns to gold. There is a shit-ton of pressure in that statement and that pressure is the center of my story.

Until college, my social circle consisted mostly of other homeschoolers and families from church. Basically my life was “all Jesus all the time.” I learned from a very early age that both God and Jesus were perfect and that perfection was the goal. Of course, my parents would deny that they ever taught me that explicitly, because of course perfection is impossible. But try telling that to a child who grows up hearing about how the perfect love of God covers all her sins! I am a typical first-born, Type-A overachiever. Combine that with the teaching that God made it possible for me to be perfect through the perfection of Christ and his sacrifice on the cross, and BOOM. I am a walking shitfest of a mess.

As a teenager I tried to do everything right. I signed the True Love Waits pledge card, and took it one step further: no kissing until marriage. I taught abstinence-only sex education to 7th graders at a local Catholic school. And as if that wasn’t enough, I happily boarded the Joshua Harris I Kissed Dating Goodbye train. I am still baffled as to how I believed that I could do so much talking about sexsexsex, whether it was blatant or veiled, and not want to even think about doing it! I was encouraged and applauded by every adult I met for my amazing character, commitment, and chastity. But what I remember most was feeling shame about every inch of my body and what it wanted, how good it felt when I touched myself, and the simple desire of wanting a boy to like me. How could I be perfect if I wanted to have sex?

Growing up I lacked imperfect role models…people who were successful, but weren’t afraid to genuinely admit their imperfection.

For the next decade, that was my frame of mind. Any little imperfection ate away at my self-worth. I really bought into Matthew whatever-whatever, ‘be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.’ Instead of seeing my life as an opportunity to nourish my soul through learning what my mind and body could accomplish, every endeavor became yet another way to measure my failure. How can I be the perfect student if I don’t have a 4.0 (finally got it on my third degree!)? How can I be the perfect yoga instructor if I can’t touch my toes? How can I be the perfect partner if what I want is to leave the man I married? How can I be perfect if one of the few places I find both joy and solace is in a bottle of rum? Growing up in the Christian homeschooling subculture taught to view life from the negative. I want to believe this was unintentional. My flair for the dramatic aside, my biggest regret is that I wasn’t taught to enjoy and love my body or my life. I was taught that both my body and my life were things to be disciplined, controlled, and held in check.

I bought into the belief that not being perfect meant I was a failure.

A different truth is that if I ever achieved perfection, there would be nothing left for which to live.

I took a three-day break after writing that last sentence. I needed time to process. Yesterday morning I was having breakfast with a friend of mine and I told him about this essay. He asked me what my story had to do with being homeschooled, since it sounded to him like a story about being raised super-Christian. Good question. My answer? Being homeschooled meant that I only ever came in contact with other people of the same persuasion, religious/belief system, hell!, life system, as the one in which I was living. Being homeschooled for me was being surrounded by people who were also supposed to be perfect because we were all ‘covered by the blood of Jesus.’ I didn’t know that imperfection was an option. I didn’t know that I could make choices outside of the Bible and still be a good person, that I would still like myself, that people would still like me, that God would still like me. Not that I really believe in God anymore, but that’s for a different essay. It wasn’t until graduate school that I finally came out of my shell—out of my parents house—and realized that there was an entire world in which my identity didn’t hinge on if I was a virgin or read my Bible or went to church or dressed modestly or all the other things my childhood and adolescence was hyper-focused on—because of course, for a woman, those things equal perfection.

Hang on. I’ll be back in another couple of days.

After rereading and thinking and editing, I’ve decided that this is not something I want to come back to. This isn’t really the story I want to tell. So let me start again.

I was homeschooled. I was sheltered. I was raised in a very conservative, Christian home. But I got out. I don’t have any major regrets from high school; I am lucky. I have worked exceptionally hard to get to know myself, to be honest with the people in my life, and to make choices that are good for me. Being homeschooled taught me to hold myself accountable and that at the end of the day, the only person who was responsible for what was or was not accomplished was me. My parents taught me an amazing work ethic that I couldn’t shake even if I tried. Sure, that has led to me being a perfectionist workaholic who sucks at relaxing, but the yoga and rum are helping with that.

My parents and I no longer talk politics or religion, but I know that they love me and have my back. Being homeschooled meant that I had a lot to overcome in terms of finding a footing in the world outside of my parents house; I think it took me a lot longer than average to figure out who I wanted to be because the people I came in contact with were so homogenous—I didn’t have options to pick from until I was in my 20s. But, being homeschooled also taught me to be content with myself because quite often I was left alone to my own devices.

So, all that to say being homeschooled was definitely a curse; in that sheltered, Christian environment I learned some pretty shitty ways of thinking about myself. But being homeschooled also taught me how to look out for myself. Perhaps that part of the equation paved the way for me to become the feminist I am today? My mother would die if she read that. But even so, without both those pieces of the puzzle, I doubt I’d be writing this today.

Feminist philosopher Margaret Urban Walker writes that,

In any case, I think that feminist thinkers are entitled to the excitement and intellectual challenge of forging and intensively testing visionary paradigms, of inaugurating their own discursive communities as sites of solidarity and creative communication in their own terms, and of self-consciously exploring confrontational rhetorics as some instruments, among others, for initiating wholesale intellectual change in their favor. (“Further Notes” 154)

Writing this piece has been a process of “feminist thinking” for me; becoming a part of the HA community has forced me to (re)consider so much about myself. I am grateful for the opportunity to add my voice in solidarity.

Burn In Case Of Evil: Cain’s Story, Part Two

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Cain” is a pseudonym.

*****

In this series: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

*****

"I don’t take spiritual advice from cultists."
“I don’t take spiritual advice from cultists.”

There are two versions of me: my parents’ version of me and my version of me.  Before my high school years, I don’t think there were two versions of me.  Instead, there was just the version my parents wanted.  This is probably true of most children, but my parents were fundamentalist Christians involved in ATI – a homeschooling cult.

In my middle school years (I can’t really tell time by years, or by grades, my youth is blurred and marked by big events or debate resolutions), my parents plunged me into the patriarchal/men-must-be-leaders movements of the 1990s.  They saw homosexuality, single women, women in authority, and feminism as threats to traditional gender roles.  So they trained me to be a warrior for godly men.  ATI’s version of this was called ALERT (Ralph has written about it here) and they liked to play Boy Scouts – but with less fun and more Bible study.  I became a biblical scholar around this age, constantly studying passages, their Greek and Hebrew meanings, cross-referencing those passages in lexicons and study tools, and recording my observations on something called the “Meditation Worksheet.”  Ironically, these worksheets prepared me deconstruct my cultic worldview and to rebuild my own worldview– whoops!

I was that really Christian kid that probably drove you nuts.  I preached to my Christian neighbors that they shouldn’t be reading the NIV because it was Satan’s tool to undermine the divinity of Jesus.  I passed out tracts at restaurants.  I was not afraid to judge everyone, as a thirteen year old, and inform them about the Straight and Narrow Path to Holiness.  Some of my closest friends became the pastor of our small Southern Baptist church – we would regularly discuss theology.

In high school, I started to think for myself and form my version of me (I’ll call it “me-me” and my parents’ version “parent-me”).  Whenever me-me would discuss his thoughts with my parents, I would come into conflict with them.  Their Christian worldview permeated every sector of knowledge – biology, geology, and especially politics, history, and religion.  Throughout my high school years I vacillated between me-me and parent-me.  At will, I could “turn off” all the parts of myself that my parents disliked.  However, when there was something me-me really wanted that I couldn’t just “turn off” my desire for, it drove me crazy.  Usually it was girls.  It wasn’t a sexual thing, I just loved the intimacy and having someone I could share all my teenage angst with.  My parents and I fought for probably five years over girls.

My parents decided that I needed some relationship indoctrination, so I got to learn all about “courtship.”  Courtship is about as traditional and stupid as it sounds.  I was told that I was supposed to “guard my heart” against “serial dating.”  They made dating and breaking up sound like this violent emotional crime that left people with long-term scars.  This meant that, before I entered into any relationship, I was supposed to ask my parents’ permission before I asked the girl’s father for permission to date her.  Mind you, all power and authority over women was supposed to flow through men.  Like any good patriarchy.  Physical contact during a courtship is almost always a strict no-no.  You are not allowed to hold hands, kiss, hug, or even be together alone.  Some of the courtships I have seen have ended in terrible marriages and, in one case, double homicide.

This idea of courtship was huge and fixated on sexual purity and emotional purity.  It grew huge after Joshua Harris’ book I Kiss Dating Goodbye and it was advocated at basically every homeschooling event and by most institutions.  Some groups formed solely for the purpose of educating people about courtship and Patrick Henry College (started by Michael Farris to train homeschoolers to be influential in Washington, D.C. politics).  ATI was huge about courtship, they even advocate betrothal!  That’s where the children have even less power in their romantic lives and the parents “pick” out a decent mate for them, then they are forced into a marriage because it’s “God’s will.”  Of course, only fathers, and occasionally mothers, know God’s will

So commitment in my romantic relationships was usually propelled by the guilt of needing to be in a “courtship.”  Of course, you aren’t supposed to court until the man is financially able to support a woman, which meant I was supposed to avoid romantic relationships til my mid-20s.  This was unacceptable, so I just engaged in quasi-courtship with three different girls through high school – sort of promising to marry them all, planning our lives and futures together, and then usually they broke up with me because God told them to (though I was an ass).

I remember I would form a lot of what would become my identity on the car rides home from something.  My truck became my only escape on a daily basis – with my truck came the first time in my life I had literal freedom.  I could go where I wanted, when I wanted.  That freedom usually provoked thoughts and I would work big issues like courtship in my mind listening to music.  I’m always amazed at how my parents will dismiss me-me and try to guilt and shame parent-me out of the shell.  De-construction and re-construction your identity is not easy and my parents always acted like it was fun for me to rebel.  Yes, when I was a teenager it was fun to let the immature me-me out for a joy ride, only to be clamped down on and repressed.  But that excitement ended in college.  I slowly came to a peace about myself that did not depend on my parents, or their affection.  Finding the me-me was one thing, but synthesizing that into my emotions was much more difficult.

I say all this to try and explain both of the versions of myself.  I can be parent-me, I can turn it on, and turn off my own desires and personality.  It took years for me to even find out what me-me wanted from life and I found a tremendous peace when I discovered my desires and not my parents’.  Throughout college, I would go home and I would let a little more of me-me come out – it was a very slow “coming out,” to borrow a phrase.  I admitted to smoking tobacco.  That I wasn’t a libertarian anymore, I was a liberal – lots of these involved political discussions where my parents felt almost as betrayed that I no longer shared their political beliefs than if I had renounced the faith.  I never did renounce Christianity, only the corrupt vessel of the Christian church.  Admitting I was dating took awhile – I just recently admitted I believed in evolution.  Usually, each admission of the me-me ended in a fight or conflict.  Even in college, they could not let go.

When I first started dating my wife, I asked if she could stay the night in my parent’s house because I needed a ride back to school.  My father said he wasn’t comfortable with that because it would give my younger sister a bad example of “serial dating.  To put this in perspective, this would be the second girl I brought home to my family ever.  I said that I was really serious about this girl and if they chose to act like this, I would tell my girlfriend, and I would understand if she didn’t want my children around them.  This sobered them up quickly and they agreed to let her stay.  But it demonstrates the types of conflicts that would occur when me-me contradicted parent-me.

When my parents manage to convince me to attend their church, my mom always expects me to sing.  My mother and I spent a lot of time bonding in the church choir when I was younger, so she expects me to find the same joy in it now as I did then.  It simply does not work like that.  Me-me does not enjoy church because it reminds me of all the negative feelings of guilt, shame, and intense pressure to be good.  These days when it comes to spirituality, me-me cannot compromise.

Even now that I am married, my parents still want and expect parent-me.  I don’t like the same things, I’m not the same person, and when they laugh and reminisce about the great times they had with parent-me, I can’t help but feel uneasy inside.  They reminisce for parent-me because they know they may never see him again.  They still try to draw on the guilt and shame they instill in me by saying things like “that’s not what we wanted for your life.”  Or telling me the consequences of my sins, then questioning why I don’t think certain things are sins.  When they pressure me-me to revert to parent-me, I get angry, defensive, and emotional.  So I just stop expecting anything, sharing anything, being vulnerable.  I don’t want parent-me for my life – that should mean something.  And I don’t take spiritual advice from cultists.

To be continued.