Sunday, August 28, 2011
Coming Out Part 5: “Virginity and Scars”
Through my counseling sessions with Dr. W, I began to take control of my life rather than relinquishing it to my deceased abuser and the abuse. But one ongoing psychological and moral struggle I experience stemmed from the church and society’s teachings about virginity. Women and children (and men) have been taught and believe in the metanarrative or over-arching story or myth that the protection of one’s virginity is paramount to one’s moral value and validity as a Christian. Of course, historically and still today such virginal morality is expected more from females than from males. Persons who embrace the virginity metanarrative and are sexually abused can experience a split within their moral selves. Although, many children (if not all) experiment with their sexuality, children who are victims of sexual abuse may experiment with greater frequency or may do so even earlier than their peers since their sexuality has been unnaturally, prematurely, and violently aroused. Sexually abused children may look back on sexual experimentation with greater sense of guilt.
Recollection of childhood sexual experimentation coupled with heighted feelings of guilt create or contribute to an even greater degree of moral dissonance (conflict) in light of the virginity metanarrative. The virginity metanarrative does not take into consideration, generally, how a female “loses her virginity” (as if virginity is money which one has been instructed to hold for someone else; maybe the equivalent when we think of bride price and dowry). If she loses her virginity, she cannot retrieve it. Although some churches preach/teach that one can become a “spiritual virgin” by confession, repentance and renewal. Yet, the virginity narrative primarily claims that a female loses her virginity when she has sexual intercourse for the first time (penetration of vagina by male penis). Supposedly, when a female loses her virginity by having sexual intercourse with a male for the first time, the hymen is broken and some bleeding is expected. But we now know that the hymen can be broken during any vigorous or strenuous exercise and that not all women bleed when engaged in sexual intercourse for the first time. In the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, a virgin was expected to bleed on the wedding sheets. If there was no blood, the assumption was that she was not a virgin. The consequences of not being able to prove the virgin of one’s daughter on her wedding night were fatal. I can only imagine the many animals whose blood was shed in an effort to provide proof of a daughter’s virginity. The father would be left to take care his daughter for the rest of his life rather than selling her to her future husband for a bride price. (E.g. Deuteronomy 22:13-30)
The point I am making is that the notion or myth of virginity (see Jessica Valenti’s The Virginity Myth) has caused women and girls a lot of psychological and moral distress, which is magnified in the case of sexually abused women. How do I come to terms with the moral necessity to claim my virginity in light of my childhood sexual abuse and its aftermath? How do I understand myself sexually when I’ve been taught to understand myself, my sexuality in the context of the virginity narrative? A woman is either a virgin or she is not. And if she is not a virgin, what are the alternatives? Whore? Used goods? And how does such an understanding psychologically impact women when their sexuality is inextricably linked with their morality by the institutions (churches) they believe to provide the authoritative hermeneutical (interpretative) moral barometer or yardstick for their lives?
This has been a long struggle for me. And to free myself from the oppressive, heavy hand of the virginity metanarrative, I have had to debunk, debrief, and detox from this harmful teaching. Who, I asked in an earlier post, benefits from the notion of virginity? My friend Steve Clayborn replied on that post, “men!” And he is correct. I, of course, do not advocate for “promiscuity” (which may mean different things to different folks), but I encourage responsibility and the valuing of one’s body as a gift from God. But the female body has been treated as a gift from God to be used as men please within the realm of societal norms. And societal norms have not favored the protection of females and historically certainly not black females. While I value my sexuality as a gift from God, categories like “virgin,” “whore,” “prostitute,” etc. that label women in relation to men are not helpful or hopeful.
Why is it that although Jesus declared that the greatest commands are that we love God and love our fellow human beings, some of us have sought to de-center those commands and replace them teachings about women’s sexuality (and now gay and lesbian sexuality)? Often at the heart of such teachings is control of bodies and/or fear of losing control of bodies (one’s own and that of others). Labels imposed by others that define us are oppressive. When our lives fail to meet the expectations of the label, we are subjected to verbal, psychological, moral, and physical violence. And sometimes the violence is inherent within the labeling and we don’t recognize it. The virginity narrative has left many females (and males) frustrated, scarred, and hopeless.
Virginity also does not allow for a woman to be a sexy or sexual being. If you are too sexy or sexual, then you deserve to have (or contributed to) your sexuality being forcefully taken from you. The molester and/or rapist could not help him (or her) self but succumbed to your “feminine wiles.” As a victim of childhood sexual abuse, I felt I had done something wrong to warrant the kind of attention and abuse I received from my grandfather. The scar I carried (and still struggle with) is an uneasiness (to say the least) with my own sexiness or sexuality. I am not comfortable with too much attention. And in the past I have not been comfortable with other women who wear low cut blouses or skirts above the knee (not minis). I had associated such clothing with loose women (and I’m not talking about mini skirts or deeply cut tops). This is a continual struggle for me – becoming comfortable with being sexy and a woman of God. But I have and I am making strides. I used to be very uncomfortable with the deep cleavage my niece would show when we would go on vacation together. It was all I could do not to cover her up. Interestingly, when we went on vacation together this year, her cleavage was mostly covered with tub tops and I wore a sexy, strappy, fitted black dress that she said I looked good in. The bikini I still wear a little conflictedly.