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.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Rosa" by Rita Dove

How she sat there,
the time right inside a place
so wrong it was ready.

That trim name with
its dream of a bench
to rest on. Her sensible coat.

Doing nothing was the doing:
the clean flame of her gaze
carved by a camera flash.

How she stood up
when they bent down to retrieve
her purse. That courtesy.

--Rita Dove from her book of poetry On the Bus with Rosa Parks

Monday, August 8, 2011

Reflections from my time at Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley, CA

Monday, October 12, 2009
After a brief tour of my small room, the kitchenette, the bathroom, and a limited viewing of the upstairs including the chapel (which has a breath-taking view of the San Francisco Bay -- I could sit and stare out that window all day.), I asked Father Thomas how to get to the nearest restaurant; I was famished.  He told me to walk three blocks down La Loma, turn right on Cedar and go all the way to Shattuck.  I would find restaurants and grocery stores.  “It is quite a walk, but I do it, and you look like you could do it,” he said.  Oh, Jesus, I thought, but I must eat.  I can do this; other people do it; I saw some teenagers walking down the mountain.  If they can do it; if he can do it, I can do it.  I took off my boots and put on my tennis shoes and headed down the mountainside.  I walked three long blocks straight down hill.  I caught a vision of Cedar Street ahead on my right, imagining that the down-hill climb would end at Cedar Street, but it did not.  I was careful not to ruin my knees as I walked down, down, down hill.  On the way down I decided to call a friend on my cell – I needed to reach out to another reality and take my mind off the task before me.  The ground did not level until I reached Shattuck.  I settled for the first restaurant I came to --  a Thai restaurant at the corner. I told my phone buddy that I was stopping here because I’m hungry and need to reserve my strength to go back up mountain. I was too tired to explore my options.  

The meal was pretty good.  The waitress was friendly.  I asked her how far the graduate theological union was from the restaurant and how to get to the Bart train.  She said I could walk, but the bus would also take me there.  The bus information provided some relief, but there was always that trek up and down the mountain to Shattuck.  I left the restaurant and went across the street to the grocery store to pick up some items and then headed back up to the monastery.  The walk was worse than I had imagined.  Walking up a steep mountain does not compare to 40 minutes on the tread mill in cross country mode; nor does it compare to jogging around my apartment complex.  I called another friend on the way up to talk and take my mind off the climb; didn’t help.  When I got to La Loma, I had to hang up the phone because I realized I needed even the energy it took to hold the phone to my ear to make it back up the mountain without passing out.  When I reached the monastery, my white turtleneck shirt was soaking wet with sweat and my hair had reverted to unruly curls.  I knew this would not become a daily routine; I would be fasting and contemplating more than I had anticipated.

I laid down to rest my feet and body; I set my alarm on my cell phone to rise up at 4:30 pm so that I could attend the 5pm vespers service.  I was looking forward to being in the chapel with the beautiful view of the San Francisco Bay.  As I reached the top of the stairs, Father Thomas was coming out of a room to my right decked in an off white clergy robe.  It’s interesting how a professional robe hides so much more than the human form; but something of the person disappears as well.  I said hello and followed him into the chapel where four women (three young Latinas and one older Caucasian) and a male were already sitting. He had removed his shoes.  The women were sitting in one section and the man in another.  I don’t know why but I took a seat in the same row as the male visitor. Maybe I didn’t want to reinforce the gender divide in the room.  Father Thomas greeted one young lady and gave her instructions as to how the service would proceed.  This, living in/worshipping in a monastery of Camaldolese contemplative male urban monks, was all new to me.  I heard him say we would pray, sing, and meditate for 20 minutes.  Father Thomas then approached the middle-aged white male and told him to do the Gospel reading.  The singing was more like chanting.  We read a litany responsively.  Father Thomas read with the women, and I read with the one male.  When it was time for the meditation, Father Thomas sat Indian-style on the floor, careful to cover himself with his robe.  He placed a bowl and a brass item in front of himself and took a stick in his hand and rang the brass item like a bell—three times.  The tinkling sound of the bell marked the beginning of meditation and it would again be used to mark the end of the meditation.  It was a struggle to keep my mind on “Jesus” and God’s goodness despite the many times I have sung “I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus.” [What does it mean anyway, “to keep your mind on stayed on Jesus.” Does it mean no other thought should enter my mind? Don’t think so. The mind sometimes has a mind of its own. Disciplining the mind is the work of a life time.] It is difficult to engage in spiritual contemplation when there is so much to distract us.  I had nothing here to distract me; well unless you count the newness of it all; the otherness of it all --the heightened awareness of my otherness and their otherness.  In the end I was proud of myself.  I believe I mediated on things spiritual more than I wondered about the “cares of the world.”  I’ll get better at this; I once was.  But this was different.

During the litany, I wondered if I was doing it all wrong and imagined Father Thomas gently rebuking me for being out of order.  But when the service ended, there was no rebuke, no greetings, and no conversation. Everyone disappeared – me down the stairs, the young women out the front door; and the older woman, possibly a nun, Father Thomas and the man stayed behind, I think. 


I began reading a little book I purchased while at Harvard in September called The Other by Ryszard Kapuscinski.  And it reminded me of the first time I read Durkheim and other sociologists and anthropologists encountering their use of terms like “primitive” or “the savage” and how it disturbed me.  Nevertheless, Kapuscinski reminds his readers that it was Malinowski who said a good anthropologist must live with the other people she wishes to describe and write about.  And, of course, I thought of me, right now, at Incarnation. I chose to be here because I wanted to experience and learn something new or foreign to me.  Hummm.  I did not plan to write about my journey here, but Kapuscinski nudged me in this direction.