i said “stairs” but what I really meant was “sex”

I just wrote a sweet, palatable blog about goals and dreams, because goals and dreams are important but mostly because I didn’t want to write about this. I wanted to write about anything but this thing that’s been turning around in my brain and my heart lately.

A friend gave me a book for Christmas, tiny beautiful things:  advice on love and life from Dear Sugar, and now I can’t not write about this thing that is breaking my heart. The book is a collection of letters to Sugar, an online advice columnist who was for years only known as Sugar until she revealed herself to be Cheryl Strayed, an author I really admire and love to read. One of the letters to Sugar was from a young writer searching for the words to put on paper, feeling like she wouldn’t be taken seriously because of her sex. Sugar said, ultimately,

You need to {write}, dear sweet arrogant beautiful crazy talented tortured rising star glowbug. That you’re so bound up about writing tells me that writing is what you’re here to do. And when people are here to do that, they almost always tell us something we need to hear. I want to know what you have inside you. I want to see the contours of your second beating heart. So write… Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”

And that last line made me weep and also made something inside me rise up like a damn warrior because it has so much to do with what’s been breaking me open, lately. You see, lately, I’ve felt so tremendously let down by what the church has done about women. I grew up 100% all in when it came to church. Every Sunday and Wednesday, every youth camp, private school… the whole deal. What’s more, the older I get, the more I love Jesus. Not in a “WWJD” bracelet kind of way, but in a total adoration of his radical compassion, humility, kindness and way of life kind of way. That man… I love that man. I love how He lived and what He taught, but what His people have done about women, specifically women’s sexuality, tears me wide open.

My mother is a brilliant, kind, tough as nails woman and she is a full time pastor at her church, holding a place for women as she serves on the board and ministers to the people who attend there. I am proud of her and hopeful because of her. She taught a sermon once about the woman who was caught in the act of adultery and brought to Jesus. You can find the story in John 8:1-11. This woman lived in a time when only the woman involved in a sexual act was dragged from the bed into the street to be shamed and punished by the religious men. They dragged her, naked, to stand before Jesus and asked what should be done to her. According to the law of Moses? Death by stoning. This is the famous moment where Jesus stooped down, drew in the dust (What did he write??!), and said that whoever was without sin should cast the first stone. As great as that moment is, what He did next is even better. He waited until everyone left and only the two of them remained to straighten up and look at her. When I have heard this story preached in the past, it was always about his forgiveness of her sin and putting everyone in their place. When my mother taught this story, as only a woman could, it became about that moment when he looked at her. There was no one else there when he finally looked up. While the others leered, stared, and picked up stones, he showed her the respect to look away. All of those mens’ eyes were on her, until they weren’t anymore. When they went away, that is when Jesus met her gaze. Not while others were leering and condemning, but when he could look at her knowing that His eyes were the only ones she saw. I feel certain He wasn’t ogling her, either. I know He looked her straight in the eye, restoring dignity and respect to a moment that had been full of lust and shame just minutes before, and He asked her where her condemners were. He asked her. Just moments before, men shouted judgment at her. They hurled condemnation at her, but Jesus asked a question. In her moment of deepest shame, anger, and vulnerability He asked. When she said they were no longer there, He said “Neither do I condemn you.” He did not say that she was wrong and He was forgiving her anyways. He didn’t say that they were right and He was giving her a free pass. He didn’t patronize or belittle her by asserting his authority and letting her off the hook. He looked her in the eye and said, “Neither do I condemn you.” He never judged or condemned her to begin with.

Oh, sweet Jesus. If only we could see women with those same eyes. Instead we still tell them to be virginal and submissive. We still tell them that if they take a wrong step, they’ll be the ones “caught in the act.” We still tell them that their bodies belong to the men they marry and no one else. We still hold the virgin up as the most pure version of a woman, and make it clear that anything less is dirty and in need of a man’s forgiveness. We still tell women who they are, who they should be, and how they should behave. When they turn out not to be what the religious leaders say they should be, we hurl judgment at them. We tell them it was their fault because they weren’t modest or sweet or strong willed enough. It breaks my heart to see women told their worth, the best part of themselves, the most holy and sacred thing they have to give is sex, and sex only to their husbands. We are so much more than our vaginas, and my heart breaks for the girls who have been set up for shame and guilt by the religious leaders of our day.

Organized religion is fascinated with what it considers sexual sin, particularly that of women. We’re told from our first days in youth group that we should save sex for marriage, how our bodies belong to our future husbands, and that our virginity is the greatest gift we can give a man. Why all the fascination with young girls’ sexuality in the first place? Placing such an emphasis on virginity sexualizes young girls just as much as any video on MTV.  So much about being a young Christian woman revolves around being a virgin, and learning how to be a good Christian girlfriend, and about healthy marriages and how the man is the head of the household.  We’re taught about Jesus and the bride of Christ and how we should feel thankful that a man would one day come for us like Jesus came for the Church, in spite of her flaws and sin. Women, the bride, we’re the dirty ones. It’s the woman that needs rescuing in this paradigm. I get the metaphor. I don’t love it, but I get it. I’m tired of all the assumptions and implications that have been conjured up because of it, though. I’m tired of being told that my worth is directly related to my sexual status, my interactions with men, my relationships with men, and my beliefs about men. And I know this isn’t just a Church issue, it’s everywhere.

We’re taught by church, school, and even the likes of Britney Spears to save ourselves for our husbands, lest we present ourselves as impure. (Remember pre-Justin Britney, marketed as the sexy virgin?) At the same time, we’re told that if we don’t look a certain way- specifically, sexy, skinny, and smooth- we aren’t worth that much. Act like a virgin, look like a slut. For whom? Who benefits from this insane dichotomy? Certainly not girls and women. I haven’t been a “virgin” in a very long time, and I resent the idea that the state of my hymen determines my morality, or lack thereof. I also worry that the generations of young girls being taught to save themselves at all costs, many even pledging their virginity to their fathers, are being set up for shame, frustration, and in many cases where kids are getting married at 19 and 20 so they can have guilt free sex, divorce.

There has to be another way to talk about this. We have got to start talking honestly about sex, and how it’s sometimes incredible and sometimes not. How having sex before marriage doesn’t make a girl dirty, or less, or impure, or damaged. How having an empowered, self-respecting view of sexuality means that some of us will be virgins when we get married and some of us won’t, but that one group isn’t inherently better or more worthy than the other. If we keep telling young girls that their identity and worth is wrapped up in their sexual status, then what are we telling them about their intelligence? Their talents? Their work ethic? Their passions? Their art? Their ability to affect incredible change in the world? The possibilities open to them to be anything in the world they want to be because right now they are more empowered and free than they’ve ever been in history? If we say that being a virgin matters most, we’re going to continue the virgin/slut war and these girls could miss out on the incredible potential they have to be so much more.

I’m interested in an open, messy, compassionate, mercy-filled dialogue about sex and sexuality and feminism and faith where there isn’t one right answer. Where there is room for empathy, nuance, and shades of grey. If I have learned anything about sex since I started having it, it’s that it is anything but black and white. I haven’t myself found a space within The Church to have this dialogue without feeling like the very odd woman out. So, I’m asking you, interwebbers, for your thoughts. If you’re convinced that you’re absolutely right and have this thing all figured out and want to let the rest of us in on the secret, please refrain from commenting. You know that thing in improv comedy where the first rule is that you can’t say “No”? This is like that. Telling everyone “how it is” is exactly like saying “No” in improv. It shuts the whole thing down. What are your questions? Thoughts? Honestly. Submit your comments below, and we’ll have a chat. Or, email me if you want your questions anonymously brought to the discussion for feedback: Daryn.jackson@gmail.com Based on what kind of response this post gets, I’ll write more and we can keep exploring together. Or, maybe I’ll keep writing even if I hear crickets because this is really important to me right now.

I’m interested in looking each other in the eye, like Jesus did, without judgment or condemnation. I hope you’ll join the discussion.

17 Comments on “i said “stairs” but what I really meant was “sex”

  1. I agree with you completely.. But I also feel that sex ( and physical intimacy in general) should be talked about and cared for as a holy and precious and exciting thing. It IS a big deal. . But not something to condemn someone for having or praise someone for not having. It doesn’t define your worth at all! You can’t be all animal with sex.. It is always going to be spiritual, too, because we as humans have souls. Our world has a twisted view on it that completely takes the spiritual and sacredness out of it, and a lot of churches address it as a sin or something ONLY spiritual .. Which I disagree with as well. Judgment shouldn’t be made .. We are all still figuring it out. Everything you said about how a woman is viewed and treated is absolutely spot on, too. You could preach on that!

    • AJ- Thanks for your input. I completely agree that sex is a huge, sacred, potentially life changing deal and should be treated with incredible care. Thanks for bringing this to light. Sex is sacred whether we treat it that way or not, and what it does to our minds and hearts will happen whether we shut ourselves off to or remain open. Treating sex and ourselves and our partner(s) with respect and care should be the central focus of the discussion.

  2. Ms. Jackson,
    So, let me preface this with, I am not a good typer/writer and hope this makes sense.

    I applaud your tenacity in this vivid explination of how we have fallen as a society and let our vindictions guide our moral compass and agree with you 100%. I am not saying you or I follow these vindications, but society seems to be like the flock that follows blindly in them. Sex, Feminism, and Sexuality have fallen victim to these vindications in my opinion.
    I have a simple phrase that I like to say every chance I get and that is, “Love is Love”. We should all look at each other in the eye and love each other. I know I love you and respect you for the soul that you are. I see so much strength and power behind those eyes, and that power will empower many young souls to be infected by your example of unconditional love.
    With that being said, I have learned from you that Love like Jesus’s Love does exist because you have shown me that love. I have come from many years of shame and have not been able to express my love because it is not viewed in the eyes of our Christian bretheren as love. But as you said, we should look at each other as Jesus did with this woman. I think we all have a place in Jesus’s eyes. We just have to be accepting of this.

    Oh Daryn, words cannot express the feeling that you get when someone looks at you the way that you look at me and make me feel loved. It is truley an awesome feeling because I get to experiance it everyday waking up next to the person I love.

  3. thank you for writing this. it is such an elephant in the room within the church. i think you are spot on, and this conversation needs to happen and happen a lot. i wrote a similar post a few years ago – at that point i was not identifying as christian anymore, and a big reason was that most of the church was only interested in my hymen. i was writing in retrospect of my experience with the church and sex. you worded things more gracefully than i did, but i think from a similar place/ache. i do again identify as a christian, and i do see slivers of hope for a real respect for and celebration of women (as whole, complex, sexual beings rather than just walking wombs) within the church, but just tiny slivers. thank you again for this. this is one of those slivers. 🙂
    here’s my post http://betsydiamond.blogspot.com/2011/03/in-defense-of-premarital-sex.html

    • Thanks for sharing your post, Betsy. I really enjoyed reading it, and identified with a lot of your story. I’m glad to have your perspective in this discussion, too.

  4. You and I have very similar life experience with the church. Private school, chapel, Sunday morning, Wednesday night, and every other day they could get me in the doors. For me, sex was always taught as a dirty, sinful thing. Its fine after you get married, blah blah. I took note of the constant elevation of virginity to near sacramental status. And the constant use of the female as the keeper and guardian of all things sexual. Also, her degradation when such lofty rules were not followed. But that is where our paths part.
    I’m a pretty introspective person. Years of this sinful sex message being beaten into my head, began to break me down. I started to view my gender as awful. Men were the evil ones. We run around trying to have sex with anything. I was told men use love to get sex. That gratification was wrong, and that at the end of the day I was just sex driven army trying to break down the walls of the girls, trying to keep me out (and themselves pure) I was basically made out to be some kind of animalistic rapist inside, and my duty as a good Christian boy was to control that.
    Sadly this made me see myself as a horrid thing. And while girls were so fiercely warned to keep themselves pure, lest they suffer the wrath of god, I began to feel like I wasn’t worth the warnings. No one tells their dog to lock the door, right? That’s for people who know better. While I understand that there are plentiful verses in the bible to counter act my conclusions about myself, I drew those conclusions based on what was preached at me, what was drilled into my head, and by what was omitted. Sadly my “religious” upbringing left me with a sense of self hate and and a general disgust with all things sexual. Bummer.
    I’m a happily married man, and even now those feelings live in me. Its sad, I know every reason I shouldn’t feel this way. Every verse, every logical rebuttal and yet here they are. I guess what really worries me is that I was able to cultivate a sense of worthlessness out of nothing more that religious omition. It must be so much worse for the girls being forced to feel this way by the actual text and dogma that belittle them to nothing more than a sexual device charged with its own security.

    • I’m glad you joined the conversation, Anthony. It’s good to have your male perspective on this very personal conversation that has a lot to do with all of us. Just as we need healing around this discussion as women, our men need healing, too. The tone of the sex discussion for men seems, and this is my observation as a woman looking in from the outside, lacking in the compassion and vulnerability department. There are some major shame issues for men and sex, as well, and the dialogue for you deserves the same about of empathy and nuance and understanding as the one for women. I’m sorry to hear about the experiences you had around your sexuality, but I’m hopeful that you can find the space to continue speaking about it as honestly as you did here and find empowerment for yourself, too. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your story.

  5. Just as a first comment I found this blog beautiful. I agree the focus in the church on female purity is just as demoralizing as what is being done in the public sector. Coming from a different angle I found a different response to sexuality in my life. I chose to wait, for me it was a spiritual choice but it was also a logical one. For me I could imagine no better gift for my now husband than myself wholly and fully for the first time. I ran into a different ideal from those around me. While I harbor no judgement for anyone that doesn’t choose the way I did, I found a lot of judgement thrown my way. I was treated as naive and silly for this thought. In one instance I was referred to as boring and a goody two shoes. This mind set put me in a whirl. I didn’t understand why this choice made me less complete as a person than others and why my theatrical art form was viewed as dishonest, all because of my personal choice to wait. Thank you for allowing an open forum where this can honestly be discussed from both sides. This dialogue is so important and as vulnerable as you may have felt writing it, it allows others such as myself to feel safe in our choices, no matter which side of the spectrum they fall.

    • Erin, thanks for your response. I got a private message from a woman in a very similar situation. She has chosen virginity, and feels just as judged for that as people who chose something else. The point for women is that we finally get to choose, and when the choice we make is informed, empowered, and in line with who we are, then it is good. I’m glad you brought this perspective to the table.

  6. Daryn-
    What a brave and thought provoking blog. I admire your rawness and honesty about this incredibly sensitive subject. As a healthcare provider who works in the area of women’s health, I am privy to details of women’s lives they would not share with most. History of when they first became sexually active, presence of STIs, past abuse, frequency of intercourse, painful intercourse, inability to consummate marriages, lack of sex drive, partners with sexual dysfunction, infidelity… The list goes on and on. The conclusion I have come to is that our sexuality, like many other things, a broken and imperfect thing in this world. The effect of original sin has changed something that was intended to be beautiful and God-honoring into something less and messy and potentially destructive. Much like the rest of our world, our physical bodies/health, our interpersonal relationships, our ability to relate to God, our environment, etc, sexuality is not the only “broken” thing. It is all broken, creation experiencing the weight of sin and reflecting the need for redemption.
    Enter Jesus, our redeemer. The one who would restore us, show grace and mercy inspite of our broken and ugly state. The one who would show us tangibly that even though humanity had defied our Creator, God is in the business of making broken things new and restoring us to himself for his Glory. He came with kindness and a suspension of human judgement so that he could demonstrate his compassion and mercy to even the least desirable of Jewish society.
    I loved hearing your perspective of the woman caught in adultery, the emphasis on his intentionality of restoring dignity for a woman was beautiful. While he showed her kindness and grace and respect that was unheard of for that society and culture, his last words in that passage cannot be omitted. “Go and leave your life of sin.” He does not condemn her to die on the spot, but recognizes that her life is broken- as are all the people he came to save. I suspect he would have given the same instructions to her partner. I think that is an important part of the passage- Jesus is incredibly gracious and loving to this woman and every other woman we see him interact with is scripture, yet he is not condoning their lifestyles. Over and over again in scripture he addresses the sin of those he encounters not by condemning them with Jewish law, but by calling them to leave what ails them and follow him. This is not exclusive to sexuality, it includes greed, selfishness, gluttony, religion, inequality, etc.
    So to address your point specifically, I agree that womens’ worthiness should not be exclusively wrapped up in their sexual status. Sexuality in this life is just as broken as everything else and it seems unfair to judge each other exclusively by that standard. This goes for men and women- we all have issues. However I believe that sexuality can be sanctified, if you will, within a God honoring marriage, but that is a whole other conversation.

    I hope these thoughts are helpful.

    • Amanda, thank you for sharing your perspective. There are several conversations wrapped up in this post, and in your response, and I’m hopeful we can get around to having all of them. It’s a heavy, layered, highly nuanced conversation and I’m glad to have your thoughts. Thank you!

  7. I know this blog has probably been closed, but I follow your posts on Facebook and felt like returning to it to catch up on all the responses that have been posted. I expected more responses, but I guess the majority of people, as you stated, sent private messages instead, probably concerned about making such an intimate discussion public. I’m not sure why I’m posting here. I’m not a woman, and this issue has no bearing on my life. I’m not a Christian, per se, because, although I’d like to think that I live my life based on the principles that Christ taught, I don’t believe in the afterlife, or rewards or punishment based on my behavior on earth. I do it because I believe it’s the right thing to do. I really just wanted to respond to what Amanda wrote, and how it relates to this particular blog entry. One detail I noticed that you left out when discussing the stoning story was the word “adultery”. I’m not sure why that is, but you chose to describe it simply as a woman involved in a sexual act. As you know, the word “adultery”‘ implies more than simply extramarital sex, which makes your description less than jurisprudent. It’s a tangle of religious, cultural and legal issues — but I suppose the heart of it is that it is mostly woman who bear the “weight of sin” when it comes to extramarital sex. What I think is interesting, and this is where Amanda’s response comes in, is that we still confuse sex with sin and not a lifestyle where sex is pervasive or misguided or somehow corrupted. I’m sure Amanda has witnessed a great deal of relationships where the sexual aspect was dysfunctional — most of us have, and some of us have been a participant in them. What she doesn’t mention are the relationships where sex is a healthy and functional part, that exist outside of the institution of marriage. It’s as if, to her, and most religious people, this is simply inconceivable. How is a woman, or a man, who has integrated sex into his life in a healthy and non-judgmental way to “go and sin no more”? I’d like to ask her that.

    • Angelo,

      Thanks for your input. You’re right that most of the folks I corresponded with were in private messages. I haven’t revisited this post in several months. To your point about the sexual act being adultery, specifically, I agree that the issue becomes more involved than simply a sexual one at that point. It does become a legal and cultural issue, but the public shaming that the woman experienced in that instance is all we see. The fact that nothing became of the man involved in the act, or that it was never part of the narrative, is what makes the story so remarkable. In a moment of shame, only the woman is brought forth. My point, which I clearly have not clarified soon enough, was that women are overwhelmingly the ones called out by religious leaders who condemn their sexual acts. Christ, rather than participating in what seems to be a par for the course judgment, showed mercy and restored her dignity.

  8. I know this blog has probably been closed, but I follow your posts on Facebook and, after seeing an update, I decided to return to it and catch up on all the responses. I expected more, but I guess the majority of people, as you stated, sent private messages instead, probably concerned about making such an intimate discussion public. I felt led to post a response myself, but I’m not exactly sure why. I’m not a woman, and this issue has no bearing on my life. I’m not a Christian, per se, because, although I’d like to think that I live my life based on the principles that Christ taught, I don’t believe in an afterlife, or rewards or punishment based on my behavior on earth. I do it because I believe it’s the right thing to do. But I wanted to respond to what Amanda wrote, and how it relates to this particular blog entry. One detail I noticed that you left out when discussing the stoning story was the word “adultery”. I’m not sure why that is, but you chose to describe it simply as a woman involved in a sexual act. As you know, the word “adultery”‘ implies more than simply extramarital sex, which makes your description less than jurisprudent, I suppose. It’s a tangle of religious, cultural and legal issues. We know, in most religiously based societies, that when it comes to extramarital sex, it’s mostly women who bear the “weight of sin”. What I think is interesting, and this is where Amanda’s response comes in, is that we still confuse sex with sin and not a lifestyle where sex is pervasive or misguided or somehow corrupted. I’m sure Amanda has witnessed a great deal of relationships where the sexual aspect was dysfunctional — most of us have, and some of us have been a participant in them. What she doesn’t mention are the relationships where sex is a healthy and functional part, that exist outside of the institution of marriage. It’s as if, to her, and most religious people, this is simply inconceivable. How is a woman, or a man, who has integrated sex into his life in a healthy and non-judgmental way to “go and sin no more”? I’d like to ask her that.

    • Oh, boy. No reason to get upset, it wasn’t personal. I didn’t revisit this blog for about 9 months, that’s all. You did open with, “I know this blog has probably been closed…” Sorry I missed your comment.

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