A few months ago, my friend Liz sent me a snapshot of a booklet she found from her high school church’s youth group.
“Sign on a department store sales table that sadly remind me of people who compromise sexually: Merchandise slightly used. Greatly reduced in price.”
My heart sank. This is what the church is teaching our kids? No wonder I have such a f-ed up sense of shame over sex and the church. I was taught that my worthiness as a human being is dependent on my sexual purity. No wonder after I was raped I couldn’t step foot into a church without crying or fuming in anger. No wonder I held onto the shame of the experience for so long I couldn’t see truth.
Now this isn't meant to be a church-bashing session. I love the church. I am still involved to this day. But I hate what the church teaches about SEX. I hate the shame people feel about this totally natural act of God. Literally- God created this! Let's enjoy it...
In my Christian circle growing up, abstaining from premarital sex became a mark of your seriousness about Christianity. If you were a serious unmarried Christian woman, you were celibate and definitely didn’t pursue a man. We were supposed to wait for a guy to initiate a date, just like we were supposed to wait for sexy times. As the daughter of a feminist and a naturally bold person, I definitely didn’t believe this rule to be fair.
What if only guys I don't like initiate dates with me? What if the guy I’m interested in is just quiet and didn’t want to be presumptuous by asking me out on a date? And for the sex part, what if, when we get married and commit for life, we find out we aren’t sexually compatible? That while our mind and spirits connect, our bodies don’t?
The only answers I got from the church was “Trust God.”
These bodies we live in are our vehicles for enjoying pleasure or experiencing pain. They deserve to be treated with respect and love and how will I be sure a man will honor me if I’ve never seen him in that situation?
This purity culture is nothing new. The “true love waits” foundation was laid during the Reagan administration. In 1981 The Chastity Act passed, empowering the government to fund abstinence-only programs. This was the first time in US history and it was an attempt to stop the rising rates of unintended pregnancies and HIV/AIDS.
In 1996, Bill Clinton’s Workfare act passed, which led $437.5m in funding supporting organizations that promoted eight tenants including, “teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity.” When George W. Bush assumed office, in his first year he added $237m to the Act.
So this purity based culture, rooted in shame, is not only directly from the church but it's also from our government. It’s our culture. It’s our society. So how do we overcome it? How do we become empowered individuals in a culture that seeks to make us feel unworthy for sex unless it is in ONE specific context?
As humans we face the question of shame almost daily. Shame isn’t something that is new to me, but after I was raped, shame of this magnitude and ferociousness was. I told my friends and family that it was my choice. I played it off like I was “so cultured” for losing my virginity in a foreign country. As the years passed I learned most women in their twenties have some sort of sexual trauma that they either pretend was under their control or pretend never happened. Most involves alcohol. But many are never discussed.
Even if sexual trauma isn’t in your story, sexual shame is one that plagues us as women on the regular. We are called “sluts” if we sleep with guys and “prudes” if we don’t. While guys are congratulated for their sexual conquests, women are slut-shamed for even thinking about sex!
This is why when we have a sexually traumatic or even just uncomfortable experience, we stay silent. We instinctively hide in our shame because we just don’t want to feel any more pain- we don’t want to be called sluts- and making everything appear okay makes us feel some semblance of normal.
It’s natural for our bodies to want to avoid pain and discomfort, but the only way to heal is to directly face the pain.
If you’ve been around here a while you’ve probably heard me talk about Dr. Brene Brown.
Dr. Brene Brown, an author and professor, has dedicated her life’s work to studying vulnerability and shame.
Shame is a word I first truly understood while in therapy. Dr. Brown explains shame as different than guilt. Shame is when we look at ourselves and say “I am not enough. I am a mistake. I am not worthy.” Guilt is when we look at ourselves and say, “My behavior was a mistake. My behavior was regrettable,” etc. We all feel shame in various forms throughout our life... if we don’t feel shame, we are psychopaths.
Overcoming shame has been the most life-altering mission I’ve set out to do. It started in my therapist's office and what I learned there, I practice daily.
My therapist walked me through an exercise to re-tell the story of that night to myself. She did this because originally when she asked about my emotions that night I would describe it as “shameful, terrifying, and dark.” She walked me through every step of that evening and she let me open up my heart to experience the full emotions again. This time, though, I was to look at it as though that person was not me. I was to see that girl, 22 years old, being manipulated and controlled and see the scumbag that lay on top of her. The biggest thing I wondered about myself was why didn’t I push him off? Why didn’t I scream and shout and yell for my dignity? Looking at it from an outside perspective I could see that I was just a girl. I had no idea what was happening, I was scared and lonely and in a foreign country that I couldn’t even communicate what happened. I didn’t even realize it was rape for many years after. As I looked on that girl that night with compassion and empathy, shame diminished.
“Shame cannot survive empathy,” Dr. Brown says, and I experienced that first hand.
So how do we apply more empathy and less shame to our day to day lives? We practice mindfulness and become aware of our tendencies. Instead of feeling shameful that we didn’t meet our goal of going to the gym 3x a week, instead of feeling like “I am not enough” when trying to manage everyone’s schedules and meet everyone's needs, we take a step back and look at it from the outside. We practice empathy on ourselves for everything that is going on and we love ourselves through it all. We fully allow the negative emotions to surface and give ourselves permission to say no to shame and feelings of unworthiness. We speak truth towards ourselves and own our thoughts, beliefs, and patterns.
When we don’t allow ourselves to fully feel our pain and be vulnerable with it, we rob ourselves of experiencing joy. You can’t just numb pain without numbing all the emotional receptors. We feel it all, we own it all, we bomb it with empathy and we speak truth to the lies.
Are you ready to start speaking truth to your lies? Download my PDF of favorite affirmations I repeat to myself on the daily to get my mind and spirit primed for the day.