Yesterday I read a blog post called, The Day I Wore Yoga Pants, from a woman who talked about her boyfriend’s objection to her wearing her workout pants in public. Wearing these pants has consequences, she argued. Namely, they make men lust unnecessarily, and are a genuine burden for Christian men who shouldn’t be subject to “myths” like, “it’s his job not to look,” and “lust is his problem.”
It made me so mad that I wore yoga pants today out of spite. (Look, I’ve never been great at rebellion, ok? In high school I was friends with my teachers. Some of them still write on my Facebook wall, and I love it, ok? Give me a break.) I realize that this is pretty childish, but it’s my own little uprising. That and these words.
Here’s what bugs me about that post: it perpetuates the idea that women are responsible for how men (or other women–another thing that bugs me is that LGBTQ Christians are left out of the conversation here entirely) look at and think about them. We are responsible for someone else’s thoughts, which is just a quick hop to the left from saying we are responsible for the actions those thoughts lead to. It’s the kind of thinking that leads people to ask what survivors of rape and sexual assault were wearing.
Last year I worked in a church where a local domestic violence shelter sent speakers to talk to the youth group about boundaries and healthy relationships, and the presenter did a great job of engaging both the boys and the girls around this topic. He tried to make it clear that boys and girls are both getting some messed up messages from society (boys should be players, boys will be boys, girls should be sweet and modest, blah blah blah), but they both have the ability to make other choices. He talked to them about making sure both people are comfortable with anything and everything that happens in a relationship and encouraged boys not to push boundaries instead of just telling girls, “Listen, the guys are gonna push because they’re guys. Girls, it’s your job to say no.” It was incredible. I was so happy the kids were getting such a well-rounded message. Afterwards parents and even one of the male counselors complained to the youth director that the presenter “picked on the boys.” Being held accountable for their own behavior was seen as being picked on. Interesting.
I think this happens because boys and girls get very different messages about sex and their bodies from a very young age. We’re conditioned to look at them differently, but we never really explore why that is and how that plays out in relationships.
A few weeks ago my boyfriend and a female friend of his and I were chatting after dinner about gender norms and some of the messages we got growing up (I know, we are some wild and crazy kids).
“Yeah,” she said, “like the whole gift thing.”
“Exactly!” I said.
“What?” Matthew asked.
“You know, our virginity is a gift that belongs to our future husband, and we’re not allowed to give it away to anyone else before we get married,” we explained. “And if we do, we have to apologize to him because we took something from him. That is if anyone will still marry us. Because everyone wants to get married, and of course every woman is going to marry a man” we added sarcastically.
“Are you serious? I have never heard this before.”
This woman and I had met once before and grown up in different cities, but we had somehow managed to hear the exact same message over and over again from church leaders, camp counselors, teachers, friends’ parents, the retired sex ed teacher they brought in to talk to the girls in 9th grade–everywhere. They all followed the same script. Meanwhile, my boyfriend and I went to the same youth group, and no one ever once told him his virginity was a gift tied to his self worth. No one told him his body belonged to his future wife and that he would have a lot to overcome with her if he gave it away to someone else before their wedding night, assuming he could find a woman understanding enough to take him in his now damaged state. He was told something along the lines of, “Sex is great, but don’t do it before you’re married.” And that was it.
Do you realize what a heavy burden this gap in understanding puts on women? Sex is already more of a risk for women physically–an unexpected pregnancy can be a challenge for both people, but women are the ones who will physically carry a child (and the social stigma associated with being an “unwed mother”) around with them everywhere they go for nine months. I know that many men do happily and lovingly take responsibility for their families, but some don’t. And ultimately, they don’t have to in the way that women do. If they don’t want anyone to know about their child, no one will. If they don’t want to have a child, they can walk away.
With this gap already so wide, we have no business teaching our children such vastly different messages that widen it. We tell our little guys that sex is a no-no for abstract reasons about purity, but if they slip up, it’s no big deal. After all, guys will be guys. We give them an out for their behavior because girls will pick up the slack. We tell our little girls that sex is sacred and tied to their self worth and to “lose it” would be shameful and terrible. We tell them that boys will be boys but good girls have to say no, giving them the responsibility for both their own behavior and boys’. They are to protect both their “treasure” (or gift, or flower, or other patronizing euphemism of your choice) and their Christian brothers’ purity. And failure to do that would fundamentally damage them for the rest of their lives, physically and emotionally and spiritually. After premarital sex, boys are just boys and girls are damaged.
I know this is not what we want them to hear, but loves, this is what we are telling them, loud and clear, whether we mean to or not.
That’s a lot to get from a blog post on yoga pants, but these conversations about modesty that place the burden for lust on women point to a bigger problem in the way we talk about sex and our bodies in the Christian community–at least the Christian communities I’m familiar with.
So how do we change that? For starters, I think we should consider having some of these conversations with boys and girls together. We should have a chance to compare notes early and figure out where these gaps are so we don’t wait until an off-handed comment between 24-year-olds reveals how very differently men and women are taught to think and speak about this topic in the Church. We should also invite our LGBTQ brothers and sisters who are usually excluded or ignored in these conversations up to the mic to share what all these messages have meant for them in their lives. Basically, I think a little honesty and transparency could go along way here. It’s gonna be messy and awkward, but that’s what family is, right? Personally, I think if the Church isn’t messy, we’re probably not doing it right.
What do you think? What messages have you received about sex and your body from Christian communities? Have they been helpful or hurtful? Have you seen this done really well–if so, can you teach me how please?