Fiona was confused and hurt: She wanted to leave her relationship but she didn’t have the support to do it.
I met the beautiful 20-year-old, a conservative Christian and a friend of my daughter’s, while visiting Chloë in New Zealand during her study-abroad experience some years ago. Fiona had asked me out for coffee and advice after she found out what I do for a living.
As she opened up about her life, she told me about Brandon, her boyfriend back home with whom she had become sexually intimate, but who, I was learning, had been abusing her.
Brandon had been the star athlete in school, and other than a temper, he had been a pretty good guy throughout most of their early dating years in high school. But as soon as they got to college, he pledged a fraternity and quickly fell into a lifestyle of drinking and hard-core partying. As his alcohol intake increased, so did his demands for sex, his angry outbursts, and his public criticisms. Before Fiona had left for New Zealand, Brandon had forced her to have sex and later had left a party with another woman.
By the time I met her, two years into her relationship with Brandon and shortly after the rape, Fiona was feeling like her life was spinning out of control. She knew that she wanted to be finished with him, but she was very confused about what she ought to do.
There was a religious element to the way Fiona described feelings of guilt and confusion. Having grown up in purity culture that equated actions with holiness and demanded sexual abstention in particular, Fiona believed she was damaged goods. Should she stay with him because they had been sexual? Did she somehow deserve his abuse as due punishment because she had not waited for sex with him until marriage? Was the abuse God’s punishment?
Fiona’s faith community back home was tight-knit, but no one seemed to have any inkling of what had been going on behind closed doors, including how intimate Fiona and Brandon had become and how abusive and controlling he was toward her.
But even if Fiona’s family had known, even if she had opened up to them, she feared that she would only be blamed for having allowed herself to become so “weak” and “sinful” with Brandon. She had watched how others in her church and youth group had been treated when they had not lived up to the exacting standards that were set. She heard the gossip from other kids and by the parents too about who was having sex, or caught smoking pot, or coming home late. She remembered the time that Jeff and Nancy, two kids in the college group had gotten pregnant and had come in front of the church to tell the congregation that they were getting married because of it. She remembered how humiliated they seemed and how embarrassed she felt for them. So she was pretty sure there was no one safe to talk to at home.
For Fiona, the toxic mix of influences—the acid of the verbal and physical abuse from her boyfriend, the shame she feared from her church, and the pain of her resulting sense of isolation (let alone being an ocean and half a continent away from her home in Ohio)—had left her with barely an ounce of self-worth.
Studying abroad had done one thing for her, though: the extra distance had given her the space she needed to think and reflect. By the time I talked to her, she knew that she desperately wanted to break up with Brandon, and what she needed was support and compassion to walk away—not condemnation and blame.
In our sexual pain, fear, and ignorance, what do we most need to bring to each other so we can feel safe to learn, grow, and heal? In his book Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen offers this wisdom:
The greatest gift my friendship can give you is the gift of your Belovedness. I can give that gift only insofar as I have claimed it for myself. Isn’t that what friendship is all about: giving to each other the gift of our Belovedness?
This is more like it. Rather than promoting fear by focusing on behavior, what Fiona and others who have been boxed in by purity culture need is to be nurtured in a sexual ethic of humility; a posture in which we draw out the goodness and Godness in one another. Purity culture asks, “Well, did you have sex with him? Then what did you expect?” An ethic of humility, on the other hand, is driven by values: “Does your relationship reinforce the knowledge that you were created in God’s image, or does it make you doubt it?”
Humility comes naturally to us when we have nothing to prove. And I can’t think of anyone who embodies this better than Jesus:
Jairus, one of the leaders of the synagogue, comes to Jesus and begs, “My daughter is sick, please lay your hands on her and heal her.” In response, Jesus is on his way to Jairus’s home but pauses when he feels power leave his body in the pressing crowd. He stops and asks, “Who touched me?”
“Jesus, don’t be ridiculous,” his companions say. “Look around you.” But Jesus knows something extraordinary has happened. A woman suffering from twelve years of hemorrhaging has infiltrated the crowd to find healing in Jesus.
This woman has put herself in danger by entering a public space as an “unclean” person. She has defiled Jesus according to the Levitical purity codes that teach that women must be isolated during and following menstrual bleeding. For most women, this is a portion of each month. This woman, however, has not been ritually clean for over a decade and she decides to enter the fray and claim Jesus’s healing power, at great social risk.
Meanwhile, Jairus’s daughter has died from her illness. Jesus shoos away the mourners around her, those who laugh when he claims she is merely asleep. He takes her hand--the hand of a corpse and the second unclean female body he has come into contact with that day--and says, “get up!” And she did.
Christian purity culture preaches that God demands our purity--purity of thought, heart, body. God wants us to be pure for God’s sake--this is the assumption. But notice that when God became human, he spent much of his time going out of his way to break the purity codes established by his society. Jesus touched and invited touch from people who were otherwise isolated by their “conditions,” enforced by the Very Religious, the Faithfully Pious. Are these the actions of a God who demands purity? Hardly.
Jesus knows all The Rules about remaining pure and he regularly chooses to break them. If it’s not bleeding women and corpses, it’s lepers and women who act of their own accord without male supervision or permission. Touch is not a requirement to Jesus’s healing practices, he does it by choice. Sometimes he heals with words, and sometimes he decides that words are insufficient for the Beloved one who kneels at his feet. In other words, he assumes a posture of humility.
As I read Fiona’s story, I think about what a privilege it is to be a sex therapist. My job is to create an inviting space for people to tell stories that have brought them so much angst and shame and to be curious about them.
I’m curious about where Fiona’s family is in this story. How in their fear, they too have been isolated from loving and comforting their daughter. I am curious about their church community, who in their rigidity has failed to provide a safe community of caring for their youth where they can learn about intimacy and relationships and where they can make mistakes and know that there is comfort and guidance. What could have been different if instead of fear, compassion and grace had been present for Fiona, for her parents, for her church community? What could have been different if real information on intimacy and sexuality had been available so Fiona could have been equipped to protect herself and make more informed choices?
Two years after our meeting and a little over a year after she returned to her home college in the States, Fiona emailed me to say she had found a way to leave her boyfriend. She had joined a women’s studies group on campus, an organization that was drawing attention to the rise in sexual assault on college campuses, and she had also been seeing a therapist. She thanked me for being the first person to hear her story and give her a sense of being loved and valued, and she talked about how it had given her the courage to start taking her life back. She had even found ways to start taking back her faith from all the judgment she’d believed.
She said she wasn’t dating anyone—at least not then. But she felt much better about herself and about the whole prospect of being in another relationship someday. She was a whole lot clearer about the kind of person she wanted to be with. Right now, she just enjoyed helping other women to stand up for their rights as she went around speaking at sororities about dating violence. Her “voice” in the e-mail sounded stronger and more determined than it had at the coffee shop in New Zealand. I could feel her sense of peace and liberation, and I could only imagine that as she lived out her new freedom, other young women around her were catching the aroma of her gospel ethics as well, and imagining what it would be like to live their sexuality like the Good News was good news.
We are created in the image of and loved by a God who chooses to heal with touch, when a word or even thought of mercy would suffice, so let’s do away with purity culture that blames and shames into a particular behavior or state. Let’s instead adopt a posture of humility that calls out the Beloved in one another, in the knowledge of the abundance of God’s love and grace.
Tina Schermer Sellers, PhD, LMFT, is a sex therapist and professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at Seattle Pacific University. Her book Sex, God, and the Conservative Church (available 2017) is the first of its kind written to help people of faith who have experienced religious sexual shame. It offers hope for healing through touch and non-touch exercises and by calling out and affirming the sex-positive messages already embedded throughout the Hebrew scriptures and gospel stories.
The views, opinions, authors, and contributors represented in The Table do not necessarily represent the beliefs of Biola University or the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.