Why I Am a Feminist

I wrote a briefly about why I am a feminist a couple weeks ago in the Gauntlet, and I’d like to use this post to elaborate. Here’s part of my Gauntlet contribution:

Before I explain why I am a feminist, let’s first define what exactly feminism is — just so we’re all on the same page. I’m going to use bell hooks’s popular definition: “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.” That’s it, really.

But I didn’t become a feminist because of a definition, because it sounded like a good idea, because of Girl Power! or the Spice Girls. It wasn’t because of any books I read or classes I took. I became a feminist out of necessity, as a survival tactic, because feminism provided a way to cope with living in the world as a woman.

Virgina Woolf once said, “A feminist is any woman who tells the truth about her life.” For me, feminism provides a means to tell that truth, a language to describe and validate my experiences as a woman in the world — experiences such as sexual harassment, inadequate access to sexual and reproductive health and education, gender-based emotional abuse, harmful body-image and self-esteem issues, to name a few.

In fact, feminism as a political movement is founded on the personal issues women encounter in their everyday lives. Just look at blogs like ‘Who Needs Feminism?’ and you’ll see a plethora of personal accounts from women — no theory, no rhetoric. These women are simply telling the truth about their lives and demanding to be heard.

It’s like a web 2.0 consciousness raising session! So here’s a bit more of my story:

I need feminism because my Dad told me when I was very little that women were “more easily deceived” than men because Satan seduced Eve first in the Garden of Eden. I was told women could teach other women and children in the church, but they couldn’t teach or have authority over men. I believed all of this up until a few years ago. Feminism allows me to critique and reject patriarchal messages and interpretations within Christianity and call for more female scholars and leaders in the church.

I need feminism because when I cut my hair short in Junior High I was criticized by my religious community for having a “boy’s” haircut. 1 Corinthians 11:15 says, “But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering,” so apparently my short hair wasn’t Biblical. Alternately, I was made fun of by the boys at school for looking like a lesbian. Feminism allows me to claim authority over my body and the way I present myself, and authority to reject those who try to control my appearance through pressure and intimidation. (Feminism also teaches me that “lesbian” isn’t an insult.)

Also, whenever I did try to look more girly and pretty, I was considered vain and shallow. You can’t win, ever.

I need feminism because I started getting catcalled when I was 14. Because I have been harassed enough on public transit over the past 10 years that, whenever possible, I only sit by other women on the C-Train. Because, I babysat a six year old girl when I was 14 and, while walking down the sidewalk with her, two adult men walked by us and one said something incredibly obscene about me – right in front of this six year old girl. Feminism allows me to demand respect and accountability from men so I can walk down the street with a six year old in the middle of the afternoon, or by myself at night, or stand at a bus stop without being harassed. It allows me to deny male demands for attention on public transit without feeling like I am being rude or impolite.

I need feminism because my counsellor at summer camp told me that girls needed to think about how we dressed and how it affected boys. Feminism gives me authority to make decisions about my life and body without having to consider men’s opinion first.

I need feminism because I started making myself throw up food when I was 12 years old. Because dieting was a regular part of my life as soon as I hit puberty.  Because I did the Master Cleanse when I was 17 (a *cleanse* where you drink nothing but a concoction of lemon, honey, paprika, and water for 10 days. Beyonce did this to lose a lot of weight in a short amount of time for Dream Girls). Feminism allows me to reject impossible beauty standards set by the media: television, magazine, music, movies, etc. It allows me to reject the body guilt associated with not reaching these standards; it empowers me to accept my body how it is, to dress how I like it, and not how the media tells me I should look.

I need feminism because I never received proper education about sex and contraception because my family thought it would encourage promiscuity. I need feminism because I have a right to be educated about my body and reproductive health so I can make safe and informed decisions for myself. If I don’t have control over my own body, I don’t have control over myself.

I need feminism because I started borrowing my mother’s anti-wrinkle cream when I was 16. Feminism teaches me that a woman does not become irrelevant as soon as she starts showing her age, that her value is not determined by whether men find her attractive or not, that aging is natural and the expectation for women to look young forever only benefits men.

I need feminism because I valued myself and my talents less because they wouldn’t lead to “real” work, unlike math or science (aka, male dominated fields). Anything in the humanities is mocked as “basket weaving,” a traditionally female task. Feminism tells me that my talents and contributions to the world are no less important or valuable than traditionally “masculine” fields of work.

I need feminism because my family said I would have a hard time finding a husband or keeping him happy because I wasn’t organized (and women are supposed to be keepers of the home, so get on that) and because I had no interest in baking or cooking. Feminism tells me that my ability to be a good partner – and human being over all – resides in my ability to communicate, compromise, love and forgive – not how well I roast a chicken, bake a pie, or keep the shelves dusted. Feminism allows for marriage to be redefined as a union of two equals, no one higher or lower than the other, where neither is trapped in a box of constructed “roles,” but where each person adapts to different responsibilities based on their mutual needs.

I need feminism because I was taught the ideal “Godly woman” had a quiet and gentle spirit. Feminism empowers me to have a voice, speak my mind, be loud, make my presence known, and not apologize for it.

And finally, I need feminism because it allows me to be angry. Feminism does not dismiss me, tell me to “calm down”, say “boys will be boys,” “that’s just the way things are,” or “just grow a thicker skin.”

I concluded in the Gauntlet:

“Feminism gives me a voice to demand change, to not accept the status quo or politely endure sexism. Feminism is more than a political movement, more than a charity group to join to make me feel good about myself, it’s a survival tactic, a coping mechanism, and simply part of who I am now.”

Emily goes to therapy

Several months ago I wrote a blog post acknowledging that a) I think depression is a Thing and b) depression is a Thing I may have. Afterwards, I received so many encouraging comments and messages from friends and acquaintances alike, assuring me that talking about it was the right thing to do. They also directed me to several resources, like the Calgary Counseling Centre or individual therapists they found helpful.

So, naturally, I sat on my bum for about 8 months and didn’t do much about it. I don’t know what is so hard about simply picking up a phone or sending an email, but it always fell to the bottom of my to-do list. Part of my fear was the cost of independent therapists (and yes, they are pricey) and fear from bad testimonials from friends regarding the public system. I simply did not want to work up the courage to go to a therapist only to have a bad experience and become even more dejected.

And, of course, I had to overcome my own stigmas about therapy as well. I essentially grew up a fundamentalist believing any knowledge of human nature found outside the Bible was false. Therefore psychology = evil. Not to mention no one in my life seemed to acknowledge the field of psychology had advanced in the past 100 years, so if you went to a psychologist today you’d be told you were secretly in love with your father, had penis envy, a wandering uterus and whatever other crazy shit Freud came up with. Thankfully, I’ve let go of a lot of my fundamentalist beliefs, including prejudices about the field of psychology. However, some people in my life were still skeptical and it was hard to talk to them on a serious level about seeing a therapist. It’s not that they necessarily thought it was “evil,” like I used to, but rather I appeared to be doing well enough and didn’t need it. How do you go about convincing someone you need therapy? It’s hard to go through with something when you feel there is little support or that you might be judged for it.

Except my situation was getting pretty bad. I developed a bit of anxiety about going out in public, my introverted tendencies heightened to what seemed like an unhealthy level. I was going through some real intense Dark Night of the Soul shit. I couldn’t engage in everyday conversations without holding back tears. “Oh yeah personal branding that’s cool, public image yes social media WHY AM I HERE HAVING THIS CONVERSATION HOW IS THIS IMPORTANT WE ARE BUT DUST I AM SO SAD AND ALONE and there’s a new Calgary bicycling initiative well that’s so great there are amazing things in store for our city excuse me I need to use the washroom *CRIES IN THE STALL* OH THE SORROW.

A bit of a rough patch, to say the least. Anyways, a couple months ago someone gave me the phone number of a lady therapist. I decided I would finally go for it, but phone number? Ugh. I Googled the therapist and found her email address instead. I emailed her. She emailed me back and told me to call her. UGHH. I pouted for a week and then finally called her, had a short, awkward conversation and set up an appointment.

There. I had finally done it. I was now one of those people who had officially admitted to the world she couldn’t cope with life on the same level as everyone else. It’s quite humbling, really. Whatever, I said, it’s just a thing, it’s not a big deal. Even though it was a huge deal.

“So why are you here?” she asks on my first appointment.

Um. Well. Because I cry a lot? *starts crying*

At this point, there is no doubt I have made the right choice seeking psychological help.

Convincing myself it was a good decision was easy. Convincing others, still difficult.

“So how exactly does it work?” That’s what most people wanted to know.

It’s basically what you’d expect, I tell them. You pay someone a large sum of money to talk about really personal subjects, possibly cry, and they can’t try to change the subject or make awkward excuses to leave because you’re paying them to be there.

“But isn’t that what friends are for? And friends are free!”

Friends are great, for sure. I have some wonderful people in my life I can talk to about anything, but I soon discovered that as supportive and understanding as my friends were, there is only so much they can do. Sometimes friends try to treat your symptoms rather than the cause and assume once you’ve stopped showing physical signs of distress, like crying, that the problem has been solved. Sometimes you need a completely impartial sounding board, someone who has an outside perspective and can point out things maybe you or your friends might have missed. It’s also helpful that this person is educated in their field and has knowledge and resources that might otherwise be unavailable to you.

“Okay, but still, it’s so expensive!”

Well, yes. It kinda sucks, actually, but after actually going through a few sessions I absolutely understand why it’s so expensive. Therapy is exhausting. I would go on Saturday mornings and then spend the rest of the day napping and avoiding any other forms of mental taxation. Anyone who can put up with a day of people expressing their life problems and not only maintain her composure, but remain a positive influence, deserves a fair bit of cash. Seriously, human emotions are some of the most difficult things on the planet to sort through and deal with.

I have to say, however, if it weren’t for my husband’s work benefits I wouldn’t be able to see this particular lady at all. While I may not be able to continue seeing her as frequently as I’d like, I have at least experienced the value of therapy and am in the position to accept help wherever it is available, whether that be the Wellness Centre at the University of Calgary, the Calgary Counseling Centre or elsewhere. I’m sure good therapists can be found anywhere and it’s worth it to seek them out. I encourage anyone considering counseling to do the same.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is: I’m in therapy, everybody, and it’s fucking great. I like that there are people out there whose job it is to help me sort through my inner crisis; it’s legitimately awesome. Every time someone asks me what I’ve been up to this week I want to say, “Oh, I went to this pub on Tuesday, saw this movie on Thursday and had a really great therapy session on Friday,” like it ain’t no thang. That’s how valuable I feel it is to talk about, because you never know if someone is silently hurting, wishing maybe they could do something about it, but they’re too scared, like I was. Or they simply need not only one push in the right direction, but ten pushes before they finally get help.

So there’s that. Therapy = cool. If you have any stories about counseling, good or bad, I’d be interested in hearing them in the comments. I know not everyone has had a positive experience, but I think it might be worth it to step out there and try again with someone else until you find someone you’re comfortable with. And of course, it is a slow process – but it needs to be. I found this quote from Caitlin Moran’s book How To Be A Woman quite apt. She’s talking about feminism, but I think it applies to anyone who’s been under any form of oppression, including the mental oppression that is depression:

“But, of course, on being freed, people who’ve been psychologically crushed don’t immediately start doing glorious, confident, ostentatious things. Instead, they sit around for a while, going, “What the fuck was that?” trying to work out why it happened, trying—often—to see if it was their fault.

They have to work out what their relationship is with their former aggressors and come up with new command structures—or work out if they want command structures at all. There’s a need to share experiences and work out (a) what “normal” is and (b) if you want to be in it. And, above all, it takes time to work out what you actually believe in—what you think for yourself. If everything you have been taught is the history, mores, and reasoning of your victors, it takes a long, long time to work out what bits you want to keep, which bits you want to throw away: which bits are poisonous to you, and which parts salvageable.

In short, there is a long period of gently patting yourself, going, “Am I okay? Am I all right?” often followed by a long, long thoughtful silence before any action gets under way.”

 

Review: Funny Face is kind of terrible

Funny Face (1957) starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn was incredibly disappointing. Everything is very pretty, and I loved the Beatnik dance scene especially, but the overall plot and character development is atrocious.

After kissing her within basically five minutes of meeting her (because “you looked like you wanted to be kissed.” Kind of rapey if you ask me), fashion photographer Dick Avery (Astaire) convinces bookish, wannabe philosopher Jo Stockton (Hepburn) to come to Paris to model for Quality Magazine. She has a particular aesthetic, he likes her unique “funny face.” Though Jo has no interest in such “materialistic” pursuits, she agrees only because a trip to Paris means she gets to meet her idol of philosophy Professor Emile Flostre. For her, modeling is a means to an end.

Hijinks ensue as Dick tries to keep track of Jo in Paris, who keeps running off to Beatnik cafes in her black leggings and turtleneck, showing Dick what she’s really all about through conversation and dance. But eventually, she gets to work modeling, discovering she has a knack for it and finds it somewhat enjoyable. Not to mention, ever since Dick impromtu kissed her the first time they met, Jo’s been secretly head over heels in love with him.

However, she runs off to the cafe again the night before a major fashion show. Here she finally gets to meet Professor Flostre, much younger than she expected, at a lecture and they strike up a conversation afterwards. Dick, frantically looking for Jo, arrives at the cafe and drags her out, although he’s not so much concerned about the fashion show as he is about Jo talking to another man who is clearly interested in her. Jo pleads that they were simply talking philosophy and Dick notes that Flostre is a man first, philosopher second and “no more interested in your intelligence than I am.”

Jo is upset and tries to leave the fashion show, inadvertently causing chaos with the knocking over of set pieces and fountains etc. The designer is furious and another show is rescheduled while Dick and Maggie, the magazine editor, search for Jo yet again. The day after, they find her at a gathering of other Beatnik types at the Professor’s house. Jo and the Professor are upstairs talking. Jo is still upset and tells them to leave and that she never wants to see Dick again. Dick and Maggie exit, resigned. Dick leaves for the airport while Maggie tries to make amends with the designer for the failed show.

Jo and Professor Flostre continue talking, but it’s soon clear that the Professor is not interested in talking. Flostre makes advances, but Jo is uncomfortable and tells him to stop. He persists (Jo is having bad luck with these rapey dudes), so she takes a vase and cracks it into his head and runs away. She returns to the hotel, apologizes, and prepares to do the final show. Dick is just about to board a plane when he sees the professor with a bandage around his head, angrily saying Jo was the cause of damage. Dick realizes Jo rejected the professor and returns to the hotel. The movie ends with Dick and Jo on a river raft, floating towards the sunset.

The movie seems like it is going somewhere with the whole philosophy vs. materialism conflict between Jo and the magazine editor, but it drops off completely when she finds out her idol professor is basically a rapist. That’s what happens when girls try to fit in with the boys, I guess. Philosophy is no place for a woman, and even the most intelligent men only want one thing. Jo is portrayed as intelligent at the start, but as the film progresses we see she is more and more naive. Also, neither of the love interests are really suited for her, she basically has to settle for the slightly less rapey one who doesn’t care about her modern attitude (being with neither of them is not an option, I guess). In fact, when she and Dick float away down the river on a raft, Jo is wearing a wedding dress from the fashion show, the last outfit of the evening. Don’t try to fight it, ladies, enough of this “thinking” business, you just want to be a pretty model and marry a crooner like Fred Astaire.

None of the other characters make any sort of journey. Dick never “comes around” to appreciate Jo’s way of being, he is opposed to her Beatnik lifestyle from the start and never changes. Maggie, the magazine editor, has some realization about “empathy” somehow (maybe it was offscreen?) but it really doesn’t do anything for the story at all. The only one who really changes is Jo, abandoning her black turtleneck for more feminine attire, floating away with a man who doesn’t really care about her intelligence, he just likes her “funny face.”

There’s a song near the end called On How To Be Lovely which I thought was tongue-in-cheek about the expectations of women at the time, but by the end of the movie I can only conclude they played it straight.

“On how to be lovely / You got to be cheery / I’ll give you a guarantee / You don’t need dough / You don’t need a college degree.”

When you see how beautiful Audrey looks in all her gowns and how happy she is when Dick takes her picture, suddenly sitting in a cafe with philosophers looks out of place and, well, dangerous. Clearly, it’s no place for a woman at all.

Review: How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

Some days, I am really optimistic about feminism. As shitty as pop culture is, for all the hundreds of Kardashians, we still eke out a Tina Fey here, a Joss Whedon there, and now a certain Caitlin Moran. You know, people in the spotlight, people part of popular culture who step outside of it all and say, “Wait a minute, can we just talk about what’s going on in our industry? Can we just think for a second about media literacy?”

Caitlin Moran’s new book How to be a Woman isn’t a feat of advanced feminist theory, but it’s an entertaining and intelligent summer read, ideal for introducing feminism to those who are new to the subject. Covering all the essential struggles of womanhood: menarche, sex, dating, marriage, motherhood, and media, Moran garners laughs on almost every page. Her weapon is her wit and ability to stay lighthearted, proving yet again one need not be an angry man-hater to be a feminist – a concept that needs to be reiterated in our culture for a while yet before people truly start to get it.

For those concerned her book is almost too light, Moran cites the “Broken Windows” theory in defense of seemingly insignificant feminist concerns – if a building has one broken window or other damages left unrepaired, the chances are higher of vandals coming in and defacing the building further. Similarly, if we allow a patriarchal foothold on every day details of being a woman – how we look, what we wear, how we act during sex, what we do with our bodies – it allows access for further patriarchal intrusion into our lives.

It’s Feminism 101: “I’m neither ‘pro-women’ nor ‘anti-men’. I’m just ‘Thumbs up for the six billion,’” she says. And we need more Feminism 101, honestly. We need more Caitlin Morans, Tina Feys and Amy Poehlers, reiterating this concept through punch lines. The fact there is still so much prejudice about the word feminism proves that feminism isn’t “over” and still has a lot of work to do.

a ranty rant: what i’m looking for in a church

Let’s just say, I have a weird history with churches and, no matter where, I’ve never really seemed to find a true church home. I’ll admit, the common denominator in all my bad church relationships is myself. While my Mom often church-hopped, coinciding with the many times our family moved around the city (12 at my last count), my Dad only really ever attended one “church” – a small Bible study on Friday nights that usually consisted of no more than 15 people. I often attended this Bible study with him and learned such fun concepts as “Laodicean,” “backslidden” and “lukewarm” – used in description of most modern churches. Therefore, whenever my Mom would take us to a new church, I always had my guard up, I never quite let myself become part of the community, lest I be deceived by “fake Christians” or whatever. I know, I know, it really doesn’t make much sense, but, in a nutshell, that’s how it was for a long time.

Now the tables have turned a bit and I’ve become skeptical of my strange little Bible study views and over the past several years I’ve been more open to what mainline churches have to offer. Currently, I’m in the church hunting process and I don’t know where I’ll end up, if anywhere. I’ll also admit this church-hunt coincides with my own soul-searching – am I Anglican, Baptist (er, no, actually), Lutheran, Pentacostal, Reformed, Wesleyan, none of the above, blah blah blah? I really don’t know, and thus am having a hard time narrowing my options down.

My criteria for a church has made a 180 degree turn over the past several years. I still can’t help but be skeptical of the mainline church (although I really try to keep it at a healthy level, no church is perfect), but I do have a few simple thoughts about the ideal kind of place I would like to attend.

When churches talk about the needy and oppressed, they usually refer exclusively to the homeless. There are food drives, fundraisers, missions trips to third world countries – and this is all absolutely wonderful. I think most churches do some great work in this area. However, “super poor and/or homeless” is often the only definition of “needy and oppressed” the church seems to acknowledge.

Why is that? Because it’s uncontroversial. Pretty much everyone, religious or not, can agree that we should make efforts to help the poor, to fight poverty, hardly acknowledging poverty is often only a symptom of oppression, not the cause. What about teens at risk of pregnancy or contracting STIs due to lack of proper sexual education (birth control – by the grace of God!)? What about bullied LGBTQ kids who are confused, disenfranchised and alone because we – Christians and non-Christians alike – fear what we don’t understand? (I think they would no doubt qualify as ‘the poor in spirit,’ no?) And can we also admit the patriarchal system a) exists b) is oppressive (aka: bad) and c) especially within religion? What about the war, hatred, rejection and oppression in general that has occurred in the name of Christianity? Can we at least a) own up to it b) stop making excuses for it and c) actually grow in the ways we minister to the community? Can we encourage questioning and critical thinking? Can we not ostracize those who do? Can you truly challenge the congregation in a meaningful way (like addressing some of the topics above), instead of delivering “safe” messages to keep the donations rolling in?

Maybe I’m being too demanding. It’s sort of in my nature to get ranty like this. I know no church is perfect and I know I’m not the perfect church member either (I don’t know how to bake anything!). But right now I know a lot of non-religious organizations that do great work in the areas I’ve mentioned (and they’d probably love it if I showed up once a week). I can’t say as much for the church – you know, the followers of Jesus Christ (that one dude who hung out with all the wrong people). That is not to say a church like that doesn’t exist – I just haven’t found it yet (in NW Calgary would be nice).

Or maybe I’m just not church material.

Female Modesty, Sexuality and Autonomy: The Conversation Christians Need to Have

When left to their own devices, women reveal their true natures: the subversive Eve, the vain and pagan Jezebel and the temptress, Potiphar’s wife. This is the misogynistic mindset found so often in Christian culture. Female modesty and chastity are heavily intertwined and enforced in this culture as an attempt to subdue and control women who might otherwise wreak havoc on men seeking purity and righteousness.

Harsh? Maybe. And I in no way want to paint every Christian with this broad brush, but this thinking certainly exists within our culture and we need to call it for what it is. We need to talk about it because it pervades many Christian communities and harms the spiritual well being of girls and boys who grow up with it. I don’t want people to get defensive and say, “That’s not me, how dare you!” Maybe it isn’t you. But maybe it’s your Dad. Maybe it’s your brother. Maybe it’s an elder in your church. And maybe…maybe it is you.

Matthew 5:27-28 is a source of much tension among men: “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Instead of taking this as a charge to practice self-control over their own thoughts and sexuality, many men decided it would be easier to shift much of this responsibility towards women. So long as women were dressed modestly – that is, in such a way that wouldn’t give dudes boners – there would be no chance of men committing adultery in their hearts, remaining pure as God intended.

Richard Beck raised some brilliant thoughts on the struggle of male sexuality and the concept of the temptress in the Bible:

“It is a product of Freudian projection. Throughout history, religiously conservative males have had to confront one of the greatest sources of their moral failure: the male libido. The male libido–the fact that men are sluts–is a sore spot of any male community wanting to pursue purity and holiness. And what has happened, by and large, is that rather than admit that males struggle mightily in the sexual realm, males have externalized the blame and projected their libido onto women. Rather than blaming themselves for sexual sin males have, throughout history, blamed women for being temptresses. The Whore was created to be the scapegoat to preserve male self-righteousness. Rather than turning inward, in personal and collective repentance, men could blame women, blame the whores, for their sexual and moral failures. It’s not our fault, the men say, it’s the whore’s fault.”

Of course, in many Christian circles today, modesty is not presented as oppressive concept, but as a positive and “romantic” ideal that you are saving your body for your husband’s eyes only. Many women have internalized this patriarchal mindset and agree it is their responsibility to protect their brothers in Christ from temptation. Chastity is a cooperative effort between both sexes to guard each others’ purity – with a considerable emphasis on the ladies’ willingness to not dress like sluts.

One of the best examples of this is found in The Modesty Survey, created by twin home schooled teen brothers Alex and Brett Harris through their blog, The Rebelution. This blog was created when I was in high school and became instantly popular among homeschoolers. That is not to say the Harris family operates within a small corner of evangelical Christianity, however. Their father, Gregg Harris, is a well-known homeschooling advocate, and their older brother Josh wrote the insanely popular Christian relationship book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Ask any evangelical Christian who grew up in the 90s and they’ll have likely read or heard of this courtship-manual. The Harris twins had a vast evangelical base at their fingertips before they even started The Rebelution.

Here’s a description of The Modesty Survey from Alex and Brett:

“The Modesty Survey is an exciting, anonymous discussion between Christian guys and girls who care about modesty. Hundreds of Christian girls contributed to the 148-question survey and over 1,600 Christian guys submitted 150,000+ answers, including 25,000 text responses, over a 20-day period in January 2007.

… Some Christian girls have fathers or brothers to provide godly input on their attire, but many more have none. Many girls seem oblivious to the destructive effects of immodest attire on their brothers in Christ. Others desire to honor God and to protect their brothers, but don’t know where to start.”

They note the survey should be taken as a resource, not a set of rules and the wishes of your parents are more important than the survey results. Also, modesty is a matter of the heart, not wardrobe, so please “faithfully pursue the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.”

The survey is incredibly detailed, highlighting just how incredibly paranoid girls become in this culture about their appearance, seeking male approval for not only their clothes, but posture and accessories. The Harris’ claim this survey is not about legalism, yet they present such absurd questions like whether necklaces draw too much attention to the bust or if seeing a girl take off a hoodie even if she has a shirt underneath is modest. Regardless of the men’s answers, the fact that the Harris’ even address these questions can’t help but lead to a legalistic viewpoint. Combine that with the link between modesty and spirituality, a girl learns she is more Godlike or spiritual by complying with what the men in her life find appropriate for her to wear. It also teaches boys that the female body, and subsequently women and their sexuality, is something to be feared and thus subdued. Again, the Harris’ will reiterate that the bottom line is a matter of the heart, but if it were really about that, they sure as hell wouldn’t be talking about tights with striped or polka-dot designs on them.

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Some say this is at least a far better alternative to the pressures of female imagery in secular culture, where women must be perfect human specimens on display to be admired and exploited by men. At least, they say, encouraging a woman to cover up shows more respect for her body than “putting it all out there.”

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This comic made the internet rounds awhile back, brilliantly addressing the modesty issue. Two women are walking past each other, one with sunglasses and a bikini, the other wearing a burkha. The bikini girl remarks on the burkha saying, “Everything covered but her eyes, what a cruel male dominated culture!” While the girl is the burkha comments on the bikini saying “Nothing covered but her eyes! What a cruel male dominated culture!” Both seek the validation and approval of men in different ways. And that is the issue – it’s not modesty, it’s men telling women what to wear and denying female autonomy.

Besides, covering up doesn’t necessarily solve anything. In her memoir Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali recounts the words of her male friend after the Muslim Brotherhood moved into Somalia, drastically influencing the way women dressed.

“Before the Brotherhood came, you could see everyone’s arms and legs. We never used to notice. But now that the women are covering so much, all I can think about is those round calves and the hair, smelling of coconut. I never used to think about a neck before, but ooh, a neck is so sexy now.” P. 135

Wait, so even if the women were fully covered, men were still getting worked up over necks and calves? What to do then? Just keep women inside? Unfortunately, some do just that. Or, you know, men could respect and honour women and their bodies like Jesus said – practice self control and not freak the hell out over the fact that women are shaped like women. Women are human and deserve as much control over their own bodies and choices as men.

Actor Will Smith was surprisingly poignant in addressing why he and his wife Jada let their 12 year old daughter Willow shave her head (emphasis mine):

“We let Willow cut her hair. When you have a little girl, it’s like how can you teach her that you’re in control of her body? If I teach her that I’m in charge of whether or not she can touch her hair, she’s going to replace me with some other man when she goes out in the world. She can’t cut my hair but that’s her hair. She has got to have command of her body. So when she goes out into the world, she’s going out with a command that it is hers. She is used to making those decisions herself. We try to keep giving them those decisions until they can hold the full weight of their lives.”

This type of freedom not only teaches a young girl that she is in control and therefore responsible for her own body, but that she is free to celebrate her personality and express her personality through what she wears. Sartorial choice is a truly important and phenomenal method of personal expression. Clothing is practical, necessary for survival, and yet we have managed to turn it into art, the same way we’ve done with cuisine. This is amazing – we can wear art to survive. And we will not only survive, but live enriched with the freedom of choice, to express ourselves artistically every day. Regardless of what you wear, it’s your choice, suitable for your life, your body and no one else’s.

Now, I’m not saying clothing should be off-limits for criticism, but let it be a matter of style and taste rather than morality or spirituality, alright?

The great C.S Lewis brings home the gold in Mere Christianity when he says “a girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes” could be considered modest according to the standards of her own society. He goes on to explain:

“I do not think that a very strict or fussy standard of propriety is any proof of chastity or any help to it, and I therefore regard the great relaxation and simplifying of the rule which has taken place in my own lifetime as a good thing. At its present stage, however, it has this inconvenience, that people of different ages and different types do not all acknowledge the same standard, and we hardly know where we are. While this confusion lasts I think that old, old-fashioned, people should be very careful not to assume that young or ’emancipated’ people are corrupt whenever they are (by the old standard) improper; and, in return, that young people should not call their elders prudes or puritans because they do not easily adopt the new standard. A real desire to believe all the good you can of others and to make others as comfortable as you can will solve most of the problems.” p. 95

While modesty and chastity are not always connected, I believe a positive body image certainly factors into a healthy sexuality. Christianity teaches the point of modesty is delayed gratification, that when you share your body with your spouse for the first time in consummation of holy matrimony it is free, pure and spiritually fulfilling. But is that always the case? Sex for the first time, for many women, is uncomfortable, even painful. And while that’s not always the case, let’s face it, no matter the circumstance, there’s a certain degree of awkwardness. Logistics. Not to mention it’s even more daunting when you’ve been taught your entire life that your body and sexuality are a source of sin, to now share it with someone else “in righteousness.”

Richard Beck again has some interesting thoughts on the subject:

“Christian women are to be the Madonna prior to marriage, vigilantly safeguarding their virginal purity. But then, after marriage, Christian women are to make a smooth and quick transition to being the Whore in the bedroom. And [according to this mindset] if she fails to make this transition adequately she can be blamed for not fulfilling her sexual obligations to her husband.”

Christians love talking about the Song of Songs and what a beautiful celebration of married sex it is. They love to tell you that the couple is naked, free, and bangin’ in the best way possible. They love to inform you the wife performs an erotic striptease for her husband. Look at what a blessing sex is within the confines of marriage!

And yet the church never addresses the transition from not married to married. For many, sexuality is simply a switch that turns on when you say “I do.” Before then, it must be denied, despised and hidden. But today, sexuality becomes a part of our lives far before marriage does. We don’t even have a say in it, our body enters puberty on its own schedule.  Everything from this point forward, others’ reactions to these changes, our own acceptance of these changes, will eventually factor in to what our sexuality will look like as an adult in married life.

The best way for a woman to be free and comfortable with her own body in marriage – as generous and confident as the woman in the Song of Songs – is to be free and comfortable with her body before marriage. The concept of a “switch” from Madonna to whore shouldn’t even exist. Neither does her body and sexuality go from being under her father’s care to her husband’s. There should only be one setting: autonomous woman. A girl needs to be encouraged as she grows up to embrace autonomy, to be free with and responsible for the body God has given her. To think any other way is to keep the church irrelevant to issues women face today and sexuality in general.

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Update: Welcome all readers from Rachel Held Evans’ mutuality synchroblog! For a bit of context, I started writing this post before Rachel even announced Mutuality Week, but I just so happened to finish in time to contribute to the conversation. If you have any thoughts or questions feel free to leave a comment. I hope to start conversations and continue important discussions others like Rachel have already started. Thanks for reading!

In which I find Real Marriage by Mark & Grace Driscoll *spoiler* rather unhelpful.

I got married four months ago. Marriage has forced me to confront something I’ve been avoiding for awhile – the role of women in Christianity. As a person of faith, I now have to come to terms with what is typically prescribed for a Christian woman and wife. I’ve had to grapple with the fact that sometimes my faith isn’t as female friendly as I’d like to believe. Sometimes (or perhaps a lot of the time) the Bible isn’t as female friendly as I’d like to believe. It’s quite a conundrum because I’m personally a fan of the whole God-so-loved-the-world thing. The submissive wife and women-be-silent-in-church thing? Not so much.

Mark Driscoll is one of the most popular and influential Christian leaders out there. His most recent book, Real Marriage, co-authoured with his wife, Grace, made the Amazon and New York Times Bestseller lists. Thousands, if not many more, have heard him speak about the subject in a live sermon or podcast. He’s not a fringe preacher. I know Mark’s type of theology so well I could preach his sermons myself, or at least write them. The ideas he espouses have been around far longer than he has, but his superstar status has affirmed those ideas in today’s Christian mainstream. And with that comes the aforementioned conundrum-inducing perspectives towards women in Christian culture.

This culture has spent the past decade or so countering accusations of sexual repression. “Now look here, see, we can talk about sex,” said Christian pastors. “Four part series on marriage and sex! Ten part series on the Song of Songs! Did you know that the Bible approves oral sex? Oral sex! Clusters of grapes! Twin fawns! Man, and these non-Christians think we’re repressed.”

Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship & Life Together by Mark and Grace Driscoll is, judging by popularity, the best mainstream evangelical Christianity has to offer on the subject. And it’s not very good.

Granted, the book has its moments: the friendship chapter, open discussion about dealing with sexual abuse and the degradation of women in pornography. Unfortunately, these chapters aren’t quite worth the price of admission. Those interested would be better off finding books on those individual subjects. I would include the Driscoll’s honesty about their own relationship as a highlight, but they blatantly falsify other information in the book that I simply can’t take their accounts at face value, though I want to. Specifically, and this brings me back to my initial conflict, the book’s portrayal of feminism.

The Driscolls aren’t fans of feminism, mainly because they don’t understand it at all. Right away, they set us up with a false definition of a term used throughout the rest of the book: feminism is female chauvinism.

“Curiously, God made the woman from a rib taken out of the man’s side. Perhaps this was because she belongs at his side as an intimate equal and not in front of him as feminism would teach or behind him as chauvinism would teach.” P. 37

It’s actually disturbing how badly feminism is misinterpreted here. Feminism seeks equality, not dominance. For those who are familiar with his preaching, Mark is hyper-aware of his masculinity. He fears “wearing a dress” like a “gay” priest more than hell itself. He fears emasculation and, in his mind, feminism is out to do just that. The Driscoll’s misleading version of feminism appears early in the book which betrays my trust early on. If they’re not willing to properly understand and define such a revolutionary and basic idea, how am I supposed to believe they have anything relevant to say to me about relationships and sexuality?

It’s interesting to note the Driscolls acknowledge the importance of feminist thought and the title of “feminist” only when it suits them. In fact, the chapter on pornography quotes three separate feminist scholars. As I stated earlier, this chapter does a decent job explaining the degradation of woman in pornography. It also shows the Driscolls are willing to quote anyone, even a dreaded feminist, to support their arguments. For all other intents and purposes, feminism is something to avoid because they have defined it as something it is not.

The real definition of feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men. Even if the Driscolls had defined it properly, they would still have issues with it as they strongly advocate traditional gender roles. The concept of egalitarian marriage gets the same treatment as feminism – dismissive and uninformed.

“In past generations, chauvinism was common because some husbands did not respect their wives as equal or value their contributions. In reaction, feminism then came into vogue, seeking to get women out of the home and into the workplace, and to make husbands do half the chores at home. This method has been called an egalitarian marriage.” p. 61.

Oh, and, you know, the right to vote, go to university and run for office. Again, the Driscolls brush past the importance of the feminist movement – its most significant impact is that men are now doing more household chores. Feminism, instead of a revolution for women’s rights, is described as “in vogue,” like some transient hype. Egalitarian marriage is chalked up entirely to chore division not, you know, equal opportunity for both partners to determine marriage roles as they see fit, according to their situation, needs and wants.

While we’re defining things, let’s look up complementarianism, a concept the Driscolls spend a lot of time endorsing: “God has created men and women equal in their essential dignity and human personhood, but different and complementary in function with male headship in the home and in the Church.”

I actually have absolutely nothing wrong with that statement up until “with male headship in the home and in the Church.” If men and women are so equal in dignity and personhood, it seems arbitrary that men get to lead just because. And trust me, I’ve heard all the arguments. I’ve heard, in an ideal world, submitting to a Godly man would be no probalo because he’d naturally consult his wife anyways and try to make the best possible decisions for the family. This kind of arrangement simply has no place in a flawed world such as ours, especially when men have abused their authority for, oh, you know, thousands of years. Even Mark agrees it would be terrifying to see one of his own daughters marry an ungodly man.

“The thought of walking my daughters down the aisle and handing them to a man and trusting that he will love them and protect them and serve them and care for them and look after them causes me fear and grave concern.” p. 49

The idea of being married to a man who expects me to be the submissive yet somehow equal helper leaves a lot of room for error. It’s a slippery slope. And yes, I have to use that term. Different men interpret “Godliness” differently, and being the “head of the house” gives them an excuse to exact authority based on their interpretations, even if they’re damaging and wrong. I know what happens when men abuse arbitrary “spiritual” authority over you and it’s not pretty. I’d much rather we put men and women on equal ground completely and just call it a day.

While women are called to submit to their husbands, explain the Driscolls, they are not called to submit to men in general (pg 82). This is a huge paradox that makes the authors look completely ignorant. I don’t know how I can proceed to read this book on a rational level. Let’s look at the Driscoll’s prescription for a Godly woman:

Women are sanctified of Original Sin (disobeying God by eating the apple in Eden) by becoming wives and mothers. In the same way, men are sanctified by working a providing for the family. It is “acceptable” for a woman to work before she has children, but the man should be the primary breadwinner (p.52). While birth control itself isn’t necessarily bad, a woman is sinful if she uses it specifically to further “lesser priorities” like a career and delay “higher priorities” like starting a family (p.198). Once a woman has had children, Mark strongly advocates she resign from her career and stay at home.

So if women follow this prescribed “Biblical” life path of babymaking and staying home as submissive wives, who does that leave to fill leadership roles in the private and public spheres? Men. Male politicians, lawmakers, police, doctors, lawyers, teachers, pastors, employers. Women have no choice but to “submit to men in general.” Again, it’s a paradox the Driscoll’s make no effort to explain or even acknowledge.

But wait, there’s more!

Despite all I’ve already discussed, the chapter entitled “The Respectful Wife” is the true root of my distrust. Grace Driscoll twists the Biblical story of Esther so far out of context it’s unbelievable.

“[Esther’s] example illustrates the repeated command across all Scripture that wives respectfully submit to their husbands and removes any excuse we have for disrespecting our husbands… Amazingly, when she had an extremely urgent request, she respectfully waited outside [her husband’s] room to be heard. She didn’t barge in and demand that he do what she wanted …She didn’t disregard his need for respect.” (p.65)

Or, you know, she was being extremely tactful so this king she was forced to marry wouldn’t kill her and commit genocide against her people which he was totally planning on doing. The complete abuse of the Esther story, and I’ll use a bit of “Christianese” here, is a huge stumbling block for those who have actually read the book of Esther – and it’s not that hard to do, it’s like four chapters.

How am I supposed to feel when I read Esther’s oppression is actually an inspiring story about respectful submission? It’s the nail in the coffin for downplaying how legitimately oppressed women have been throughout time. Instead, this oppression is whitewashed as idyllic wifely respect. They’re not doing much for their complimentarian cause when they blatantly misrepresent any arguments against it.

Rachel Held Evans, a Christian feminist, summed up the situation perfectly in a blog post, which I recommend you read in its entirety here.

Whether we like to admit it or not, the Bible was written at a time in history when most women were owned by their husbands.

Technically speaking, it is biblical for a woman to be sold by her father to pay off debt (Exodus 21:7), biblical for her to be forced to marry her rapist (Exodus 22:16-17), biblical for her to remain silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), biblical for her to cover her head (1 Corinthians 11:6), and biblical for her to be one of many wives (Deuteronomy 21:15-17).

…the reason Esther waited outside her husband’s room was because she would have been executed by Xerxes if she hadn’t! Or that the very act of summoning her husband was an act of defiance, not submission, that could have gotten Esther killed. Or that the dynamic between Esther and Xerxes is decidedly not the picture of a healthy marital relationship, what with the harem and death threats and all.

Driscoll and Patterson’s bizarre interpretations of Vashti, Esther, and Xerxes represent yet another example of how the modern biblical womanhood movement isn’t as concerned with returning to biblical womanhood as it is with returning to 1950s, pre-feminist America.”

Now that we’re properly prepared to raise an eyebrow at almost every other statement in this book, we can move along to the sexy times? That was me raising an eyebrow in syntax.

Much hullabaloo has been raised over the “explicitness” of the chapter entitled “Can We____?” (Side note: I definitely need to use the word hullabaloo more often). Conversely, much has been said about the chapter’s banality. I fall into the latter camp. It’s such a typical and sterile discussion of sexuality I can barely understand why anyone would be alarmed at its content.

However, I will make a small concession. The Driscolls note nearly every translation of Song of Solomon 7:2 is incorrect. The popular translation reads: “Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine.”

They quote a scholar who says,

“’The problem is with the word ‘navel’… the word almost certainly is a reference to the innermost sexual parts of the woman, her vagina (vulva).’ …the image evokes a comparison that is based on taste. The description of the woman’s aperture as containing wine implies the man’s desire to drink from the sensual bowl.”

So why “navel?” The Driscoll’s excuse the mistranslation of vulva as a “subtle and tasteful allusion.” Implying that “vagina” or “vulva” is vulgar? To me it just screams the translators just got skittish about the word vagina, a skittishness not at all uncommon. I have actually heard a middle aged man refer to “vagina” as “the v-word.”

Anyways, the Driscolls almost got points with me for that one. Moving on.

In determining whether a sexual act is acceptable or not, Mark asks three questions: Is it lawful? Is it helpful? Is it enslaving? Early in the chapter, he explains that something is enslaving when it becomes obsessive, addictive and compulsive. He then goes through various acts: masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, sex toys and role playing, giving the thumbs up to most of them provided they never take precedence over good ol’ vaginal intercourse. If something else becomes primary, it risks becoming enslaving. Never forget, vaginal intercourse is the Ultimate Sexual Act. He never explains why but I assume it’s because it’s completely heterosexual and makes babies. Given the trajectory of this book, it makes sense. And yet I am assuming where I shouldn’t have to assume. I am completely taking his word that if a couple has oral sex, or anything else, more often than “regular” vaginal intercourse, there might be something wrong with them. And, given the history of misleading information in this book, coupled with the fact that Driscoll is not actually a sex therapist, I am not inclined to take him at his word.

Let’s take a look at what an actual sex therapist with a Ph.D has to say about vaginal intercourse:

“My initial forays into oral sex were a crutch, a way of compensating for my sexual inadequacies, and they were approached with the assumption that cunnilingus was a poor man’s second to the joys and splendors of “real sex” – like many, I took it for granted that intercourse was “the right way” for couples to experience orgasms….I quickly learned that oral sex is real sex…”

That’s Ian Kerner in the popular book She Comes First published in 2004. He never once warns that oral sex should be secondary to intercourse lest it becomes ‘enslaving.’ So why does Driscoll?

“So long as it [oral sex] is part of a couple’s life and not the primary sexual act, it is being stewarded well.” (p. 187)

He has no sources, no back up, no clarification; he just says it and expects us to believe it. Why Driscoll is doling out sex advice when so many others are far more helpful and qualified is beyond me. Oh, wait, it’s because “most sexual teaching outside the church is perverted.” (p.xiv.)

That statement essentially sums up what is wrong with the sexuality portrayed in this book. It’s so open about its closed-mindedness. Rarely willing to reference any actual sex therapists or experts, the Driscolls claim authority by quoting ample surveys and statistics. The numbers are fine, but the assertions made based on those numbers often seem arbitrary and confusing. I’m not saying Driscoll doesn’t ever have good points or statements that might truly help some people, but it’s mixed in with head-scratching assumptions and banal observations that undermine his credibility.

I’m afraid there’s not much more to say about how incredibly confusing and unhelpful this book is in every way. Christian sexuality, though a popular sermon topic, is still repressed as ever. By refusing to acknowledge modern concepts or even define them correctly, the Driscolls have proven that a great many evangelicals are still willingly ignorant of the world around them, choosing to remain in an isolated ideological bubble.

As for me, I haven’t gained any satisfactory answers about my role as a Christian woman and wife. By wanting to pursue a career first instead of a family, I am selfish and sinful. By identifying as a feminist and favoring egalitarian marriage, I am emasculating my husband by making him do household chores. By not considering him the “head of the house,” I am disrespectful. Essentially, I am in need of repentance for being a sorry excuse for a woman and wife.

Thanks, but no thanks, Mark and Grace. I don’t want my marriage to fail, but I don’t want it to look like yours either. You’ve shown me I’ll have to search elsewhere for relevant advice and factual information about marriage and sex. You’ve shown me you are disinterested in the plight of the modern Christian woman who seeks to reconcile feminism and marriage equality with her faith.