When the Fight Against Slut-Shaming Overlooks Victim-Blaming

Although I’m thrilled that so many people are fighting back against slut-shaming, I’ve been disturbed to see a significant gap in the discussion. When some asshole says something typically misogynist like, “She’s dressed like a prostitute; she can’t expect men to respect her,” there are plenty of feminists willing to step up to defend a woman’s right to wear whatever the hell she wants without becoming “fair game.”

But where are the people taking issue with that tiny little phrase “like a prostitute”?

Nobody, at least no one I’ve seen, ever brings up the whore-shaming, which is what I’m going to call the “permissible” slut-shaming of sex workers. No one even bats an eye at it. We take issue with sexually active women being called whores, but no one ever tries to defend the “whore” herself.

That bothers me—a lot!

Over the weekend, I made the mistake of paying attention to a discussion amongst some Christians. Normally I try to stay away from things like that because my stupid-tolerance meter quickly overloads, but I hung around and watched for a while. The topic was on lying, so it made some sense to bring up Rahab, the prostitute in the Old Testament who helped two Jewish spies escape from Jericho before that famous non-battle where they knocked down the walls of the city by blowing trumpets (why did that sound so much more believable when I was locked away in funderland?). However, just as quickly as she was brought up, someone else dismissed her as “a whore who did God’s will.”

Just like that everything about her was summed up—she was a whore, aka a piece of filth not worthy of anyone’s attention, who redeemed herself by doing a really good deed. And her life revolved around her whoredom/shame and her obedience/redemption.

I was the only one who pointed out that it was offensive.

Other people tried to defend her with suggestions like maybe she wasn’t a prostitute or she was one but then she stopped. But the attitude that she, as a sex-worker, was somehow “less than” was accepted silently.

It’s not so different from Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who became a disciple of Jesus—except that there is no indication that she was ever a prostitute in any of the gospels. The rumor that she was a prostitute was completely fabricated to discredit her and remove some of her power as a close female follower of Jesus . . . because somehow spreading a rumor about her selling sex is the worst insult you can give to this feminist Christian icon. As a prostitute, everything in her life suddenly becomes shameful and tainted except for the part about Jesus taking her under his wing. (Notice it defames her, but Jesus’ purity never comes into question for hanging out with a prostitute.)

But it’s not just Bible characters who are being whore-shamed. Real people are experiencing this. Just this past week, a court in Texas ruled that a man was not guilty of murder after fatally shooting a call girl who refused to have sex with him. The reason? He was just trying to get what he paid for.

And if you thought the victim-blaming was bad for “promiscuous” rape victims, it’s nothing compared to what sex workers go through. They’re much less likely to be believed if they report that they’ve been sexually assaulted or raped because, as a society, we have this idea in our heads that being a sex worker means you don’t get to say “no.” (Which is stupid and a little bit like saying a store owner can’t get robbed because he has stuff for sale.)

But why? Why do we view sex workers as the scum of the earth? Why are they the most insulting thing to compare other women to? Why is their entire life defined by their work? Why are their choices revoked because of their day–er–night job?

As far as historical judgment, Rahab making a living by getting money for sex isn’t all that different from the other form of “making a living” that was open to women at the time—you know, getting married and having sex with a man so he would put a roof over her head and feed her. Marriage wasn’t about love in the past. It was about ownership of women—kind of like buying a permanent prostitute for the home. If anything Rahab should be a feminist hero for choosing a slightly more independent life!

For that matter, you never see David or Solomon dismissed as “womanizers who did God’s will.” No, they’re biblical heroes who “messed up.” The fact that David’s mess-up was murder and sexual coercion seems to be largely overlooked. The “good” far outweighs the “bad” . . . as long as you’re a man.

Modernly, we seem to be capable of making strides towards allowing women the same sexual freedom as men, but we’re still hung up on the idea of them making money that way (even though we don’t seem to have a problem with men hiring prostitutes–again typical double standard).

Who cares if a woman is a sex worker? If she thinks being a prostitute or a stripper is the best job ever, that’s her free choice. I will fight for her right to do as she pleases with her body. I will fight for her right to be viewed as a human being, treated with respect, given access to health care and protection under the law. No matter what her profession is (no matter whether I like her profession or not), it doesn’t diminish her humanity.

I wish I could end my piece there, with the whole “stop being so judgmental” bit, except that there’s a far greater problem with whore-shaming than just judging someone else’s free choices.

Sometimes, there is no choice.

According to Somaly Mam’s website (and some fancy math on my part), approximately 10 million women and girls are sex slaves. In some countries, children as young as three are sold into prostitution. The sex trade here in the United States is devastatingly successful. Since I can’t summarize it better than this handy little bullet list from The Covering House, I’m posting their list here:

  • Human trafficking generates $9.5 billion yearly in the United States. (United Nations)
  • Approximately 300,000 children are at risk of being prostituted in the United States. (U.S. Department of Justice)
  • The average age of entry into prostitution for a child victim in the United States is 13-14 years old. (U.S. Department of Justice)
  • A pimp can make $150,000-$200,000 per child each year and the average pimp has 4 to 6 girls. (U.S. Justice Department, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children)
  • The average victim may be forced to have sex up to 20-48 times a day.(Polaris Project)
  • Fewer than 100 beds are available in the United States for underage victims.(Health and Human Services)
  • Department Of Justice has identified the top twenty human trafficking jurisdictions in the country:” Houston
• El Paso
• Los Angeles
• Atlanta
• Chicago
• Charlotte
• Miami
• Las Vegas
• New York
• Long Island
• New Orleans
• Washington, D.C.
• Philadelphia
• Phoenix
• Richmond
• San Diego• San Francisco
• St Louis
• Seattle
• Tampa  (Department of Justice)
  • A pimp can make $150,000-$200,000 per child each year and the average pimp has 4 to 6 girls. (U.S. Justice Department, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children)
  • One in three teens on the street will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home. (National Runaway Hotline)

This is where my biggest beef with whore-shaming lies. NO ONE ever wonders if the prostitutes they are dismissing, devaluing, and dehumanizing even want to be doing what they are doing. No one wonders if they are there of their own free will or if they’ve been forced into this life and don’t see a way out. People are so caught up with what prostitutes symbolize that they can’t even see the human being behind the label; with the numbers of sex slaves out there, consent should be the first question anyone asks.

It’s bad enough that we dehumanize someone for their consensual sexual activity. Victim blaming and slut shaming are never okay. Sex workers deserve as much respect, safety, and protection as any other person. But when dealing with people who don’t even have a choice, the whore-shaming is that much more sinister! Whore-shaming reinforces the sex trafficker’s power over his victims—telling them that they are worthless, they don’t have the right to safety, they don’t have the right to say “no,” they don’t have the right to be treated as a human being. We need to get over the stupid false dichotomies between the virgin vs. whore and sex-for-pleasure vs. sex-for-money and start worrying about the very real difference between consent and rape.

prostittution meme

Irreverence is Good for the Soul

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how I was learning to put playfulness back into playing my violin. It got me thinking about how important playfulness is in my life. Whether it’s wearing fairy wings to work, dressing up in a prom dress just to dance around my apartment, hanging crayon drawings on my walls, or building fairy houses, play finds its way into almost every major area of my life to some extent or another.

But nowhere is it more important than in my spiritual practice.

When I work a spell, celebrate a holiday, perform a ritual, read tarot cards, scry, or peruse religious texts, I deliberately approach the process with a sense of play. I try to never take any of it too seriously because I have found that somberness kills.

Christianity is filled with a fear of light-heartedness. It’s so taboo that “church laughter” has come to mean “uncontrollable laughter at an inappropriate time.”

[Edit: Some have pointed out that my above statement is vague. I do not mean to imply that all of Christianity is afraid of all light-heartedness. Rather it holds a phobia of irreverence and a fear of laughing at itself. In my experience, Christians of all denominations hold certain things to be outside the realm of laughter, whether it be the Virgin birth, Cross, Resurrection, or any other doctrine. That’s not to say that there are no open-minded Christians capable of laughing at themselves and their beliefs, merely that the lack of brevity is much more common in the interactions I have had.]

The sect that I grew up in was even more burdened by a phobia of playful spirituality. Communion was an affair wrought with terror because taking it with a flippant attitude could potentially result in my death, or so I was taught. Making fun of the sacred was a sin—a sin potentially unforgiveable if it was bad enough to insult the Holy Spirit. Even laughing at the foibles of a pastor was discouraged with terrifying stories about children who were eaten by bears after disrespecting a prophet.

Therefore, my first acts of freedom and exploration were tentatively making fun of my religion. It was terrifying and liberating to a degree that would seem absurd to anyone who hadn’t grown up with such taboos.

irreverence good for soul

Today, the things you’ll hear out of my mouth make even atheists gasp in shock. It feels great to ridicule what I was taught was too sacred to question. But here’s my secret, I don’t hate Christianity as much as my ridicule would suggest.
What I hate is the mindset that you have to be scared of irreverence.

I definitely didn’t want to carry that fear over to my new spiritual practices, so I turned it into play time—a time to let my imagination make believe whatever it wants. Staring into a scrying mirror, I’ve met beautiful elves. I’ve eaten cakes with fairies and played hide-and-seek with brownies. One of my favorite meditations is actually wrestling with one of my totems.

Even the “serious” stuff gets lightened up with dramatic displays that make me feel just a little bit silly—just enough to take the edge off.

That’s not to say there is never any darkness. I’ve written about embracing the shadows before. A lot of my spiritual work is healing my own trauma. It can get grim and scary. A simple meditation can leave me crumpled on the floor in tears because my subconscious decided to bring up a memory and say, “listen to me.”

But the presence of solemnity is all the more reason to keep play integral. Play gives me the freedom to explore without the need to get the answers right away. It relieves stress, allowing me to approach the shadows with anticipation rather than anxiety. It shuts down the overly critical, cynical, “adult” voice in my head so that I can contact the parts of me that aren’t so vocal.

In other words, play is what makes spirituality work for me because it frees it from the limitations of expectation.

Developmental classes will teach that play is vitally important to growing up because it’s the means through which children learn about their world and themselves—it’s what makes them so adaptable.

I don’t necessarily think that is only true for children. I think adults need play too. I think the more difficult life gets, the more desperately we need a playful approach. If spirituality is meant to help us deal with the aspects of life that feel out of control, then it is only natural that play should be part of that.

“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” -Chesterton

People assume that playfulness is immaturity, shallowness, or naivete. They couldn’t be farther from the truth. Playfulness, imagination, and brevity are essential to any truly serious project.

Without them, solemnity drowns the soul.

The Point of No Return: When Survival and Freedom Are At Odds

Spoiler Alert: The Awakening and Crewel
Trigger alert: suicide

I finished reading The Awakening for the first time about four weeks ago. I think when I started it, I was expecting feminist erotica—titillating, empowered romance.

While it was certainly titillating and empowering in its own metaphoric way (I don’t think I’ve ever read more vague yet obvious references to a sexual awakening without there even being a kiss in the first three-quarters of the book), what I found was that it was less about sex and more about autonomy. I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting the suicide at the end. And part of me wanted desperately to cry and to see in her death the tragedy of a life lost . . .

But I couldn’t.

All I could see was the freedom that she had found—both the freedom of life and the freedom of death.

It was the same feeling I got at the end of “Thelma and Louise,” when I wanted to scream as much from horror as from joy.

"Something's, like, crossed over in me and I can't go back, I mean I just couldn't live."

“Something’s, like, crossed over in me and I can’t go back, I mean I just couldn’t live.”

I know that feeling oh so well. I don’t often talk about my views of suicide because they tend to be hugely unpopular. I’m not even sure I’m prepared to get into all the nuances of my thinking here. Suicide is a deep topic, complex no matter how you approach is. But suffice it to say that I don’t always see suicide as a tragedy, as weakness, or as giving up.

Sometimes it can be exquisite. Sometimes it can be noble. Sometimes it can be a victory.

I can picture the reactions of some who are reading this, the horror and disgust they feel at my words. I’m sure some are going to accuse me of saying various things that I haven’t said. Others may attack me out of their own pain. And that’s okay. Those who don’t want to hear what I’m trying to say won’t be able to hear what I’m saying. I know they don’t understand—they can’t understand. And I accept them where they are.

But for some, their hearts are whispering, “I know what you mean.” They, like me, have experienced what Edna experienced and what Thelma and Louise experienced—even what the unnamed character in the Yellow Wallpaper experienced (although she didn’t technically die).

People can live a long time in a stifling environment, whether it be an abusive relationship, a totalitarian regime, a controlling community, or a hateful culture. The ability of the human spirit to adapt to such stressors and even rise above them is well-known and inspiring.

But I’m not here to talk about the endurance of the soul.

I’m here to talk about when the soul is no longer satisfied with merely existing.

For some, there comes a moment when they get a taste of hope and freedom, and they know they can never go back. That moment when they know that conformity doesn’t cut it, that treading water isn’t worth it, and that anything is better than what they have. That moment when the soul whispers, “Give me liberty, or give me death.”

It’s a brilliant moment and a beautiful one!

It’s the point of no return.

To the rest of the world Edna, Thelma, and Louise may look like horrible, senseless tragedies, but those women understood what it meant to value their identity, autonomy, and freedom more than anything else.

Once you have that kind of awakening, it’s irrevocable.

I can remember the moment that I realized I couldn’t stay in the IFB. I’d been suicidal for most of high school, but I always felt ashamed of my desire to die. Then one day I knew that if I couldn’t get out, I would kill myself—and I would do it with relish–because it was far worse to be trapped in that life.

It was my point of no return, and I still think suicide would have been a victory for me if there were no other options.

But this post isn’t just about death . . . or well, it kind of is, but not the kind that we think of. In Tarot, the Death card is a special card. It rarely signifies a physical death. Rather it serves as a symbol for a transition that is so complete that it feels like you are dying in the process.

From the Traditional Rider-Waite illustrations.

From the Traditional Rider-Waite illustrations.

I think in our society’s fear of death, we’ve lost the ability to see it as a symbol. The point of no return is as much about the death of inhibition and the death of your old identity, relational ties, security, and place in society as it is about the willingness to die physically.

And that’s where I find Edna, Thelma, and Louise become symbols for an entirely different action—embracing the unknown. Hurdling off a cliff, surrendering to the vast, endless ocean—choosing to let go of everything you’ve known in order to pursue freedom and autonomy.

I was finishing Crewel around the same time that I was finishing The Awakening. Two books with vastly different plots and vastly different endings, but they felt like they were mirroring each other in a way that not even an English professor could orchestrate. The day after I cried my happy tears as Edna gave herself over to the pull of the tide, I was reading about Adelice ripping open the fabric of her society and contemplating her chances of escaping into the void beyond.

And I saw myself staring into the blackness of leaving my religion.

The point of no return is terrifying, but enlivening. You don’t know whether you’re going to be annihilated or break through to a new world, but in that moment of leaping, it doesn’t even matter.

Technically, we don’t know for sure whether Edna dies at the end of The Awakening. It’s implied that she cannot live, but the moment of death is never actually shown—because it’s the surrender that is the most important part, that moment when she decides she’s not going back. In Crewel however, we do see what happens after the point of no return. Adelice pitches herself over the edge, admitting that the fall could have potentially gone on forever, but nevertheless reaches out in faith, breaking through the unendurable illusion of her former life into an unknown, uncontrollable, but totally authentic world of her own choosing.

“What’s worth doing even if you fail?” Brene Brown asks in her new book Daring Greatly. I know that sacrificing my life for my freedom and autonomy was worth it . . . and that no matter how it ended, I couldn’t fail because I was claiming my freedom.

As Jesus once asked, “What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” In the IFB, I was taught that question was pointing to the waste of worldly possessions in relation to salvation. Now, however, I see it differently. What is the point of surviving–what is the point of safety–if your sense of self and freedom are the price? The point of no return isn’t about death; it’s about freedom being more important than survival.

Is It Wrong to Stone an Adulterous Wife?

“The Bible says it; that settles it.”

How many times have I heard that statement, or variations on it? It’s used as justification for almost any unpopular or unpleasant stance in Christianity.

“The Bible says homosexuality is an abomination. I don’t hate them. I just can’t accept their sin.”

“The Bible says women are to submit to their husbands and be silent in the church. I’m not a misogynist. It’s just the way God set things up.”

“The Bible says that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. If you don’t accept him, you’re going to hell.”

“The Bible says that a parent who loves a child will beat that child to save his soul. I don’t want to whip my children, but the Bible commands it. I would be a horrible parent if I didn’t obey.”

It’s almost as if Christians think that by pulling out this excuse, they can distance themselves from their own actions and words.

Sometimes I counter with other words that have been attributed to Jesus or God.

“Be submissive to the wife; her love ennobles man, softens his hardened heart, tames the wild beast in him and changes it to a lamb.” (The Life of St. Issa)

“The kingdom of heaven is within you and all around you. Cut a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me.” (The Gospel of Thomas)

“There is no such thing as sin.” (The Gospel of Mary)

“I tell you that the son of man is within you all! Seek him inside; those who search diligently and earnestly shall surely find him.” (The Gospel of Mary)

Those who are familiar with the Bible quickly recognize that my quotes aren’t in the “Bible” as we know it.  And, of course, people react negatively to them when I refer to them, complaining that those aren’t known words of Jesus. And we get down to the real heart of the issue.

Why do we accept the Bible as it is presented to us today?

The 66 books contained in today’s popular Scripture are far from the only books that claim to be gospels or holy texts of Christianity. In fact, there are enough texts that aren’t included to create a whole new Bible! I’ve got the collection sitting on my coffee table.

Historically, the Canon has varied considerably since the first century. The Catholic Canon cannot be traced any earlier than 393 (almost four centuries after Jesus). The Protestant Canon, which further rejects the Apocrypha, is even more recent. And no matter which version of the Canon we’re talking about (for there are many), the inescable fact is that it was chosen by a committee of men who had never even met Jesus.

People try to argue that the non-Canonical books were rejected as frauds which were most likely written by unqualified people. But the true authorship of the Canonical books is equally questionable. We don’t even have a reasonable guess as to who wrote Hebrews, and the four gospels are neither the oldest nor the most credible in authorship. The Gospel of Matthew wasn’t even attributed to Matthew until well into the first century.

Sometimes Canon apologists abandon the fruitless age/authorship line and try to argue that the non-Canonical books were rejected because they contain unorthodox teachings—that for whatever truth they may possess, it’s tainted with errors and lies and is filled with misogyny or questionable morals.

They’re right.

But the Canon that the church accepts contains passages that command the stoning of rape victims and people who break the Sabbath. The Canon that the church accepts contains passages where God commanded the slaughter of infants. The Canon that the church accepts contains passages that blame women for the entire fall and demands that they redeem themselves through the pain of childbirth.

Authorship and credibility has always been a crapshoot. At least before the Canon was set, Christians were forced to use their brains in determining what to accept and reject.

“But once you start questioning the inerrancy of the Bible, then how do you know which parts to accept?”

I don’t—if by “accept” you mean “don’t question.”

So where am I going with this? Before I finish out my rampage against the Bible, let’s take a tiny little tangent—a story.

Once upon a time there was a man who wanted to see what humans were capable of doing. He came up with a way to test their abilities by setting up a teacher/student scenario, assigning one volunteer as the teacher and one as the student. Teachers were responsible for giving their students a simple test. If the students failed the test, the teachers were told to hurt the students to help them learn from their mistakes faster. It started out with mild pain, but with each mistake, the pain was supposed to get worse.

As the teaching commenced and the punishments rose in intensity, the people who had agreed to help the man with his teaching started to think that maybe the whole thing wasn’t working out so well. They felt like they were hurting the students too much and they asked if they should stop. But the man told them to continue. This work was important.

So they continued.

They continued even after the student had stopped trying to respond to the questions.

They continued even when they thought they had killed the student.

This man wasn’t really interested in how pain affected learning. He was interested in obedience. In fact, the “students” were really actors and the pain wasn’t real—but it was to the teachers who thought they had killed their students.

His experiments became famous. You can watch a sample of them below.

Milgrim Shock Experiment

His results became famous—when ordered by an authority figure to do something, even something atrocious, the majority of people will obey without question.

Obedience.

“Obedience is the very best way to show that you believe. Doing exactly what the Lord commands. Doing it happily. Action is the key. Do it immediately. And joy you will receive. Obedience is the very best way to show that you believe.”

The Bible says it; that settles it.

People do some pretty atrocious things within fundamentalism. I have a four-page document of links to stories of abuse, violence, and hatred in the name of God from IFB churches alone. That’s not even counting the number of scandals in other denominations or the things that get covered up.

When confronted with these acts, many try to excuse their behavior saying, “I just did what I thought was right.”

But the problem is that they didn’t think.

They obeyed.

They obeyed the faulty interpretation of a two-thousand year old book that is controversial in its authenticity at best. Very often, they overrode their own conscience in order to obey a command from someone they had never met.

The Bible should be questioned.  Every fucking word should be questionable, especially if you are trying to distance yourself with a phrase like “God said it; that settles it.”

What are you willing to obey? Are you going to gouge out your eyes or cut off your hand if you’re tempted to sin? Are you going to stone a girl who gets married without being a virgin? Are you going to demand we execute every man, woman, and child in the countries we’re at war with? Are you going to force women to wear veiland cover their heads? Are you going to burn alive your pastor’s daughter if she becomes a prostitute? 

Just because the Bible said it doesn’t make it okay. We are each responsible for our own choices. While claiming the Bible as authority might save someone the grueling labor of figuring out what they actually believe is moral, it doesn’t divert culpability. God is not the invisible white lab coat who is going to accept responsibility for the things someone does in obedience to him.

Obedience is not an excuse.

Ch-ch-ch-children! Grow One of Your Own! The scam of Biblical parenting.

For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about my parents’ philosophy towards raising kids. Like most IFB parents, they believed in the popular “spare the rod, spoil the child” myth that they think comes from Proverbs.

Technically the "spare the rod" phrase isn't even in the Bible. But beyond that, there's enough empirical evidence to show that spanking has more detrimental effects than positive ones.

Technically the “spare the rod” phrase isn’t even in the Bible. But beyond that, there’s enough empirical evidence to show that spanking has more detrimental effects than positive ones.

In and of itself, that idea is problematic, especially when that “rod” is taken literally to mean an instrument with which to beat someone (i.e. a belt, cooking spoon, wooden paddle, etc.) However, it’s not that philosophy that has been bothering me lately, even though it certainly bothers me at other times. It was one they extracted from another verse in Proverbs 22:6.

“Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

My dad had a favorite illustration he would use in his sermons to convey how he thought this verse was to be used. It was the idea that children were like plants. If you want a plant to grow a certain way, you put constraints on it and prune it. Otherwise it will just grow any which way it wants.

The problem is that children aren’t like plants—at least not the way he viewed plants (For the record, I have a much different view of plants, but for the sake of this post, I won’t get into that.)

In his mind, a plant might be “living” in so far as it grew, but it wasn’t a conscious being. It didn’t feel pain. It had no hopes, desires, dreams, plans, or personality. Thus, cutting it or manipulating it to grow the way he wanted was about as offensive as molding clay.

Children are not like plants.

They do have personalities, dreams, hopes, sometimes even plans.

And they definitely feel pain.

To assume that growing a plant is the same as growing a child is grossly problematic. For one, plant growth is physical. It’s an awesome ability to be able to grow new shoots after being cut down, but you can’t cut a child’s arm and have it regrow in a better shape. Children don’t just grow physically, and obviously this illustration wasn’t talking about the physical growth of a child. It was about the mental growth.

One of the most important psychological developments for a child is the development of a sense of self—a sense of being a separate being from others. With that sense of self should come a growing sense of autonomy and an ability to think and reason for oneself.

But fundamentalism doesn’t acknowledge that aspect of growth in children and acts in a way that actively tries to stifle the natural development of the child’s psyche. Like so many of my friends who survived living in the IFB, I remember all too well the lessons and songs about obedience. Children were to obey right away, without question. Anything else was rebellion, and rebellion, I also remember being taught, was “as the sin of witchcraft,” which was a stoning offense in Bible times (both rebellion and witchcraft).

From a very young age, therefore, I was led to believe that questioning my parents’ reason for any rule was a dangerous place to go. As I got older and started to develop my own tastes, that presented unique problems. They thought rock, country, pop, rap, CCM, jazz, and any other music genre you can think of were all bad. They thought movie theaters and playing cards were sinful. They thought drinking alcohol was wrong. They thought wearing “tight” (aka didn’t fall off my hips without a belt) jeans and shirts was morally reprehensible. They thought shorts and bathing suits and tank tops were indecent.

And I discovered that I liked Shania Twain, didn’t think there was any logical reason why playing cards and theaters should be off-limits, wanted to wear clothes that fit and that expressed my unique style, and didn’t want to have to leave my cousin’s wedding reception early because people around me had wine in their hands.

I was doing what any normal teenager would do—developing my own ideas for myself. And they were hardly radical ideas to the rest of the world.

But in my family, I was “rebelling.”

There’s actually a psychological term for what I was doing—individuation. It’s a healthy and necessary step in the psychological development of a person.

In fact, as far as I know, every teen in the IFB goes through a “rebellious” phase—some sooner than later. Some are easier to “break” than others (yes, the goal is to “break the will” of the child—their own words)—but every child “rebels” within this paradigm.

So I had a strict upbringing. Who cares, right? It’s no big deal. What is so dangerous about this teaching that children, like plants, can be manipulated into absolute obedience?

The danger is this: Physical growth isn’t enough. Children need to stimulate their mind in order to develop their brains so they can function as adults. By making individuation a sin, my father automatically made growing up an act of rebellion.

I recognize that he is, to some extent, the victim of this teaching too. He didn’t come up with it on his own. It was taught to him, maybe by his parents (ironically, I don’t know what their parenting philosophy was), probably more so by his college and seminary training. And for that, I do not hold him responsible.

However, I do hold him responsible for perpetuating that teaching onto his own family and the church that he pastors.

Shortly before I left, my dad said, “I’m sorry I raised a daughter like you.” I suppose it must have been terribly disappointing to realize that his parenting method didn’t work as well as his gardening methods. Unfortunately for him, children aren’t chia pets.

Chia-Pet-Bunny

The Freedom of Uncertainty (Step One to Spiritual Freedom)

I’m not a huge fan of new-year resolutions or of the whole farewell, time-to-assess-my-life thing that tends to dominate this week for others, but I have to admit that this year has been a wild one for growth. It’s been three years coming, but this year in particular has been the one where I even blew myself away.

Looking back on who I used to be, I barely recognize myself—in a good way. These have all been changes that I needed and growth that I wanted, even if I didn’t like the means of growing at the time. I’ve been trying to pin down what has been the most important lesson or change this past year, the one that kick-started all the others. I’ve come to the conclusion that nothing this year would have happened without the less-astounding, more internal lessons of the previous year—learning to sit with uncertainty.

When I first began my baby steps out of the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement, I never intended to go very far. I wanted to get away from the abusive environment that dominated those churches and “schools” and find a church that held onto the “truth” of Christianity without all the bullshit.

For a while, I clung to the core of my religion as my anchor while allowing myself to question the things around it. Some fundamentalists warned me that if I started down that path, I would lose my faith. But I told myself that if my faith couldn’t stand up to questioning, it wasn’t worth having. I felt certain that I would eventually find my answers.

But for every answer I found, another question appeared. They got bigger and bigger until even the core seemed unstable. All the books and scholars I found couldn’t fully reconcile the doubts and contradictions I had; the answers only covered the surface, never getting deep enough to reset the foundation.

I was faced with a choice. I could turn away from my questions, push away those who reminded me of my doubts, shut my mind off, find reassurance in the imperfect answers that had reassured me before, and live the rest of my life in a religion I was too scared to leave.

Or I could let it all go.

I’ve never been very good at ignoring cognitive dissonance, so I let go.

I wanted to start studying other religions and belief systems immediately to find a new one that I could rely on, but I knew that if I did that, I wouldn’t be doing it because I actually believed in that religion. I’d be doing it because I’d needed to fill the vacuum left by Christianity. I made some tentative attempts at engaging other religions, visiting a Buddhist Temple and talking with some Mormons, but my own desperation scared me.

Probably the hardest thing I have ever done in my life was choosing to be “agnostic.” I’m not talking about the softer form of atheism that claims agnosticism or even the agnosticism that finds answers and comfort in not having answers. I’m talking about confronting my doubts and embracing the fear that maybe there really were no answers to my questions. It was an agnosticism that denied myself my need to explore spirituality until I no longer felt the need to run from the possibility that this was all there was.

For almost a year I held myself to this agnosticism, refusing to even attempt to come up with answers to my questions. I started collecting books, attempting to fill my bookcase with at least one major book about every major belief system I could. But I didn’t read them. I merely let them sit there, their presence reminding me that each of these religions or non-religions (atheism/agnosticism) claimed to be “the truth.”

It was torture. There were days when I just sat in my apartment, crying and rocking, trying to pray to a god I didn’t believe in anymore, trying not to pray to that god. I felt like my world might crumble and disappear right in front of my eyes.

But the world didn’t end. I didn’t cease to exist. Life around me continued on exactly as it had before.

And I learned the lesson that set me free: even though my worldview might make me feel like it holds the world together, in the end, it doesn’t do anything.

Without the preconceived notion that “I’m right,” any worldview had the potential to be right. Some seemed more believable than others, but there was absolutely nothing that was self-evident. There was always room for questions. Always room for other answers. Always room for new discoveries.

Eventually I did get to a place where the doubt felt almost like an answer—not the answer I was looking for. It didn’t solve anything. But learning that it was okay to simply not know freed my mind in a way that nothing else could have. I began to play with ideas, trying them on like clothes, seeing how they fit. I allowed myself to start exploring and creating my own spirituality, choosing what made sense to me rather than what I was too scared to reject. Suddenly the journey to find what I believed was a wondrous, fascinating, and exhilarating journey, rather than one of terror and pain.

It is because of that year of uncertainty that I have been able to sprint through so much internal work this year. It’s because of the year of unidentity that I’ve been able to make so many strides in creating my identity into who I was always meant to be.

Part of me would have liked to return to Christianity, and I admire the friends I have who took a similar journey and found a place for themselves within Christianity. But I honestly don’t think I was meant to be a Christian. My spiritual life now feels so natural and so fulfilling, an expression of the things that have always been inside of me waiting for permission to come out.

As I head into the new year, I’ll ignore the pressure to make new-year resolutions as usual, except perhaps the resolution to continue to live the full breadth of life, facing down fear, embracing uncertainty, and finding myself through it all. And I encourage others to dare to take that journey themselves.

It’s worth it; I promise.

Conversion Stories: Happy Eternity in Hell!

I must say, this is one of the more unusual and amusing conversion attempts I’ve ever had! I was “blessed” with the opportunity of having a political conversation turn to the Bible. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly expressing any political opinion outside of a conservative one will bring out the Jesus freaks.

In this case, I was discussing marriage equality. Interestingly, it didn’t start out with the usual pro- versus anti- marriage equality for lgbt. In fact, no one was really disputing the fact that same-sex couples should have the right to marry. The deeper question, instead, was whether polygamy should be legal.

I probably take a more radical approach to marriage equality, believing that the government really doesn’t have any business defining or determining what a legitimate marriage is. If someone wants to marry fifty consenting people, that’s their business. If another person wants to marry as a contractual agreement to get health insurance or gain access to citizenship, also their own business.

We didn’t actually get that far in the conversation though. I had barely expressed my support for marriage equality for polygamists when new guy jumps on, calling me a witch.

I didn’t assume it was serious. I thought it was a joke at first, perhaps a petty attempt to shame me. Since an insult first requires a negative view of the label, I wasn’t insulted. I responded with a light-hearted comment about being proud to be a witch if that meant standing for marriage equality.

After a few more random and incomprehensible comments, this guy asked, “Have you read your Bible lately?”

I love that he assumed I have a Bible (or want one), but I let that go. “No, I’ve had enough of that for one lifetime.”

Then he said, “And you guys will lose . . . Bible prophesy, actually Bible code!”

I can only assume he was talking about the election here. Still trying to keep things light, I joked that I might win if I hexed him. I even pulled out the big guns and dropped a few names of people I know in high places. “I’ve got a pretty good relationship with Santa. We met under the Christmas tree a few times last year, and he owes me some favors.”

By that time, I was practically wetting myself laughing because this guy was taking me seriously! It was like a mouse being handed to a cat. I just couldn’t resist the play.

“I’m not afraid of you!” he cried back.

Seeing an opportunity to end the conversation somewhat amicably, I replied, “Nor I of you. That’s the point.”

But did he take the point? No, or course not. That would have been too boringly easy.

“No,” he admitted, “but you are afraid of my God.”

I suppose he felt he was making one hell of a zinger, but in what universe does my scoffing translate to fear of his god? If I were afraid of his god, I would still be a Christian. I really shouldn’t have had to point out the obvious, but I did.

Then this oh-so-kind-and-godly Christian told me, “Happy eternity in hell!”

Looking back at the exchange now that the election is over, I have to smile at the fact that his predictions proved false. I wonder if he thinks I really did hex him or if he’s still trying to convince himself that his god didn’t somehow fail him. I’m sure he’s able to comfort himself to some extent with the idea that I’m still going to hell for all eternity.

And I can comfort myself with the promise of peace and happiness down there while all the Christians like him are safely contained up in heaven where they can eat each other alive over their doctrinal differences. I get the feeling that God might come down and join us heathens just to get away from the snarling piety. The tolerant Christians are welcome to join us too. But hell doesn’t put up with conversion attempts, so leave the proselytizing at the gate.

Modesty: The Insidious Objectification

I am posting again a bit early, but I’m too riled to wait until next week. I haven’t thought about the topic of modesty in a pretty long time. Since leaving fundamentalism, it hasn’t intruded into my decision making process when I look through my closet in the morning, and I no longer run in the circles where it comes up as a casual or formal topic of discussion. And it’s been nice!

But I think it’s time to visit the topic, even though it doesn’t play a major role in my life right now, because some asshat made the mistake of commenting in a conversation with me that it’s “easier to see a woman as a whole person when she dresses modestly.” That man should be thanking his lucky stars that knees can’t reach groins through the Internet.

Hang on tight, because I’m pissed and I’m going to blow this shit out of the water.

Modesty is just another form of objectification.

It’s just another form of the patriarchy attempting to reduce women to their body parts.

It is not about respecting women. It is not about protecting women. It is not about teaching them to value themselves. It is ENTIRELY based in preserving male privilege and propagating the pathetic myth that men can’t control themselves and women, therefore, are responsible for men’s thoughts.

From memegenerator.net

I’m going to go even further than that and say that the principle of modesty is the foundation of rape culture and objectification. The assumption that women need to cover their bodies in order to get respect from others or to have self-respect for themselves is what makes people think it’s okay to say that a woman’s dress contributed to her rape or sexual assault. It’s the assumption that women’s bodies are always sexual when exposed that makes people think that exposing _____ amount of skin means she’s there to be looked at or used for sex or that she wants to have sex. And further, it’s that assumption that an exposed body is a sexualized body that makes people think it’s okay to degrade and objectify women who have exposed their body, without regard to the reason for the exposure.

Modesty isn’t just another way of reducing a girl to her body parts. It is the way of reducing a girl to her body parts. The obsession of covering or uncovering a woman’s body is the same obsession. And it comes from the same mindset—that women are there for men, either as temptresses or toys. Either way, her body isn’t there for her. It’s all about how it looks to someone else—specifically some other man. Her body loses its function as the vehicle through which she lives and instead becomes the measure of how others determine her virtue.

And there is no winning!

Modesty teachings range all over the place. I used to get emails on modesty when I attended Bob Jones University. Everything was a “stumbling block.” Pants drew attention to the butt. Skirts drew attention to the butt. nude hose made legs look sexy. Colored stockings made legs noticeable, thus indecent. Bare legs made guys think of sex. The only “safe” option was to not have legs!

Oh, it is such an effective way of keeping women confined. It’s such an effective way of keeping them feeling guilty for their bodies, ashamed and hyper-aware of every aspect of it. It is the perfect method of reminding them that their primary function in life is sex-appeal.

How convenient to put the responsibility on women to be viewed as human beings.

How convenient for men to be told they can’t control themselves when it comes to sex. It’s so much easier to believe it’s uncontrollable and to blame someone else for the prejudice, superiority, and privilege than to admit that one is prejudiced, views women as inferior, and is too fucking lazy to fight against the culture that reduces women to body parts.

But newsflash! My humanity isn’t determined by my dress! Walking out the door butt naked shouldn’t in any way diminish my personhood to anyone.

I don’t have a problem seeing a guy as a lesser person because he’s shirtless. And before we get into the “but men are visual and wired to view women that way,” let me just remind everyone that I’m attracted to women too. I’m attracted to the exact same body parts as men. And I’m very much a visual person in my attraction. But I don’t have a hard time remembering that a beautiful girl is a person, EVEN IF SHE’S DRESSED IN NEXT TO NOTHING! I don’t stop seeing her because I see her cleavage!

It’s time to stop focusing on what women are wearing and take a good hard look at the cultural mindset that allows men to think of women as “less than.”  In the end, if, like this guy, you have a hard time seeing me as a whole person, it’s not my clothing that makes it difficult for you to view me as a whole person; it’s your prejudice that makes it difficult for you to view me as a whole person. And that isn’t my responsibility to change. It’s yours.

My world doesn’t revolve around men. When I get dressed in the morning, I’m not thinking of men. I wear what makes me happy or what serves my needs, regardless of whether someone else likes it or not. If I wear shorts, it’s not to get a guy’s attention. If I wear an ankle-length skirt, it’s not to “protect” a guy’s mind or prevent him from thinking about me. I dress for me and no one else.

Show a little modesty, guys, and stop thinking that everything to do with my body has something to do with you.

Transformative Magic: Embracing my Dark Side

In a previous post, I gave a sneak peak into some of the things I would talk about, including one on how “negative emotions are good.” I’ve had requests from several people for more on that, so I thought now, with the approach of Samhain, would be a good time to approach this topic.

We live in a culture where certain emotions are viewed anywhere from simply “negative” to downright “wrong” or “sinful.” No matter where you go, the general consensus is that these emotions need to be resisted, “released” (one of my favorites of the coercive terms because it sounds so innocent. Right up there with “forgive” or “just get over it”), or not even felt if you’re a “good person.” The taboo on emotions is especially strong surrounding sadness for men and anger for women, but it’s pretty safe to say that, in general, “negative emotions” just aren’t considered good or healthy to experience.

But what if we have it all wrong?

A little fairy once told me, “Changing your perspective gives you the power to change your world.” And as many pagans and witches know, the highest magic comes not with transforming the world around you but with transforming your thoughts.

So let’s try some transformative magic.

It’s easy to recognize how a world of continuous darkness would be bad. Life would die because life cannot function without light. It’s easy to see how a world of continuous rainfall would be bad. I’ve seen the floods and destruction that come with a few too many days of rain. But I rarely question the destruction that would surely follow a world that was always sunny. There are times where there is too much sun; it’s called a drought. But I never think about droughts when thinking about excesses of something!

Growing up, I remember hearing preachers disdain the philosophy that “life’s purpose is happiness.” In their minds, such a wasted life was a life spent pursuing happiness. And as much as I would disagree with the reasons for that statement, I find that I actually agree with the statement itself.

Pursuing happiness is a pursuit doomed to failure.

Does that mean I don’t have the right to be happy? Should I be miserable, as those preachers seemed to want?

No, I think I have every right, even a destiny, to be happy! But I am coming to see life’s purpose as wholeness, not happiness. And there’s a big difference. While wholeness certainly involves happiness, it also involves the ability to feel sadness. While wholeness involves peace, it also involves the ability to feel anger or fear.

They’ve been labeled “negative emotions.” They’re portrayed as something I shouldn’t have, something to avoid, something I must drive out when I feel them. But imagine if you could not feel sadness or anger or fear? I’ve thought of these emotions as out of place, but that’s only because I didn’t recognize their purpose. Something would be terribly wrong with me if I could not feel anger when I saw a child abused. Something would be terribly wrong with me if I could not feel fear when I got too close to danger. Something would be terribly wrong with me if I could not feel sadness when I lost a loved one, or guilt when I hurt someone.

Without them, I would die just as surely as I would die without hope or joy or courage.

A tree requires both sunlight and darkness. Its branches reach for the sky while its roots tunnel into the ground. If the roots are not cared for or fed, if they’re cut off, the top of the tree will quickly die as well. In the same way, I have a shadow side, a side that is buried away from view, that isn’t fun to look at, that doesn’t feel good, that has the potential to make others and myself uncomfortable. But if I don’t embrace that side of myself and accept it as part of myself, I doom it to rot and fester until it destroys that bright side of me too.

Wholeness isn’t about cutting myself off from the shadow side of life. It’s about recognizing the purpose for that shadow side—the purpose for those emotions and experiences—and melding it together with the light side into a single whole. I have so much duality in me. I have light and darkness, reason and intuition, “femininity” and “masculinity”. Heck, my life card is the Sun and my Spirit card is Death. You can’t get much more dual than that. And the amazing thing is, each side, each facet, has a freaking purpose! They all work together to create me! And just as I’ve given up so many other things with fundamentalism, I’ve also given up the idea that there is anything inherently in me that is wrong.

Which means my emotions, by themselves, can’t be wrong.

None of them.

So what is it that makes these shadow emotions seem “bad”? Outside of a general inability to tolerate discomfort and do messy soul work, I think we’ve mistaken the emotions themselves for specific scripts surrounding them. It’s a kind of confirmation bias. When we think of anger, we think of when someone became violent in their anger. We don’t remember the times that anger was constructive or creative or protective. Once you get to the point where you associate the emotion itself with the negative behavior, then you get so busy fighting the emotion that there’s no chance to fight the script that you’ve adopted about it.

As part of my spiritual practice, I’m learning to become comfortable with my dark side. I’m throwing away the scripts I’ve been taught and searching for a new, transformative perspective about the shadow emotions. I’ve come to appreciate this time of year, when the Goddess traditionally takes a journey down into the underworld for a few months until spring, because it reminds me that I also need underworld journeys, as tough as they are. It’s not easy to sit with an emotion. It’s much easier to go back to my scripts. But sitting in discomfort is essential to my emotional transformation as much as it is to my spiritual transformation. The ability to sit with uncertainty and discomfort is, I think, one of the key aspects to true freedom.

And as I take this journey, I smile to myself because I recognize what I never could have from within Christiantiy—that Jesus, too, got angry, felt grief and despair, and considered bailing out from fear.

To Hell With Hell

I guess this could be considered my first official conversion story and interfaith ramble. I do need one to match the description I’ve given myself, after all.

Part of what prompted the start of this blog was a conversation I was having on a friend’s wall about abortion. It’s not hard to guess that I’m pro-choice. However that doesn’t mean I’m pro-abortion or anti-life. I value life a lot, which is why I think that such a heavy decision as to whether to bring life into the world shouldn’t be made lightly, especially when bringing new life into the world will have such a huge impact on an already existing life.

I’m really not here to talk about abortion, and for this blog post, at least, I won’t approve comments trying to delve into the topic. This is the backstory.

Now, back to the story.

As I said, the topic was abortion. I was having a relatively great discussion with people from multiple perspectives about whether abortion should be legal. It ranged from discussing the place of religious conviction in legal matters to scientific perspectives to philosophical questions about the beginning of life. It was an all-around good, respectful discussion.

Suddenly, this woman jumped on, throwing around the God card. I’m not opposed to God or someone holding a religiously backed belief. I’m just opposed to it being imposed on me. I responded by listing other religious traditions and religiously backed beliefs about abortion that differ from conservative Christianity (yes, there are actually others out there).

The woman then dropped the conversation completely and asked, “Do you know where you’re going to go when you die?”

In my experience, there are only two reasons why someone would ask that question. Actually one, but two approaches. The reason is to establish a sense of superiority. If I say I’m a Christian, she assumes a version of appeal to authority where she steps in as a parent with the “you should know better” attitude of correction. If I say I’m not a Christian, the actual topic at hand is conveniently forgotten in the new interest of trying to convince me to escape hell.

Well, I precluded both options.

I replied, “I don’t care.”

Actually it was longer than that and a little more derisive, but the gist of it was that I really don’t care. And here’s why: you can never know.

Seriously, you can never know whether your belief in the afterlife or in god/s is accurate or true.

“But what about the Bible?”

What about it? It’s a self-validating book of writings by men who claimed to have encountered God and recorded what they think God wanted. There are a lot of those types of self-validating books. There are even multiple versions of the Bible with different writings in them. Just because it claims to be true and you believe it doesn’t mean that your belief is assured. That’s basic common sense. It’s a secondary source at best, more likely tertiary or worse. Try using those kinds of sources in an academic paper and see if the teacher calls it good research.

I’m not an atheist. I have my rituals and beliefs too. I dance in the light of the full moon, chant, meditate, will work a binding spell on someone trying to harm me, pray sometimes, and even read the Bible. But the way I look at it, you either believe what you do out of fear or you believe it because you want to.

I spent a quarter of my life believing out of fear. I overlooked mistreatment of myself and others, shut my eyes to science, ignored history, drove myself crazy trying to create logic from illogic, bent over backwards to justify things that weren’t just hypocritical but felt downright wrong, and basically denied what I felt and experienced as truth in order to believe what I was taught because I was too afraid of the big, angry God in the sky who would send me to hell if I dared to question too much.

And I’m done with that!

I really don’t care where I go when I die because a god who violates his own principles of morality and acts like the quintessential abuser isn’t worth my time, and an afterlife that can only be gained by living a miserable, hateful, ignorant life on earth isn’t worth pursuing.

After you’ve all released gasps that surely came with my blasphemous declaration, now ask why I do what I do? Why do I meditate, burn incense, or attempt to commune with a Divine being?

Because it doesn’t hurt. In fact, it makes me happy. Those things help me appreciate life. I’m not using them to beat another into submission. I don’t need some religious book to determine my morality. And whether when I pray I actually tap into something bigger than myself or merely tap into myself, it helps me deal with life. I’ve discovered that there is a beautiful form of spirituality that comes when belief isn’t a means of distracting from reality but rather a means of enhancing it.

Imagine that! I can enjoy the discoveries of science without finding my spiritual path threatened, and I can follow a spiritual path without needing to block out the discoveries made in the world around me!

I’ve stopped believing out of fear and started believing because it enriches my life and helps order my universe in a way that I can understand. And others are free to do the same for themselves because the beauty of my faith isn’t determined by a need to prove myself right on a subject that is impossible to prove. Later, I’ll delve a bit into the process of becoming comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, but for now, I just want to leave you with this.

I don’t care where I go when I die because my life is so beautiful and worthwhile now that I wouldn’t do anything different even if I knew what would happen when I die. This life, right here, right now, is enough. If there’s more to come later, it shouldn’t detract from the one I’m currently living. The things that make it a “good life” shouldn’t change. I may not live only once, but I only live this life once. And I’m much more concerned with actually living it than enduring it until I reach the next.