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Slut-shaming: another reason I left the church

2012/03/08

Since it’s International Women’s Day, I thought I’d cover a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while: slut-shaming. This has been a huge factor in a number of major changes in my life, including my conversion to liberal feminism and leaving Christianity.

Those of you who grew up Evangelical likely know that the really heavy indoctrination doesn’t happen at church, Sunday school, youth group or even Wednesday night service. It happens at retreats, where they put you in a controlled environment for a few days and can have your undivided attention. When you’re a kid, the primary retreat is summer camp. This is a win-win as it gives the church some time to use high pressure sales techniques while you get out of your parents’ hair for a week or so for a reasonable price.I can’t remember when exactly I stopped liking summer camp. When you’re a fat kid who wants to spend his summer reading and watching TV, playing sports and running around in the sun for a week is hardly appealing, especially when you are thrown in with boys your age and not closely supervised. (For those of you who don’t remember, most kids are jerks when adults aren’t watching.) I definitely started resenting this before I started resenting any of the religious stuff. Still, I had to go every year and even had to put up half the money myself.

The athletic competition with other area churches aren’t really the point, though, even if some pastors do get frighteningly competitive. Those are just to get kids who weren’t like me to want to go. The real point is the church service you’re sent to three times a day, including a couple long sessions. They’d be dressed up with sketch comedy, dance groups and music, but they were definitely church. The movies Saved! andJesus Camp give a pretty accurate depiction of these services. Unlike your typical church service, it would go on for hours, though and there would be discussion with your home youth group after, to make sure you paid attention and got the message.

When I was fifteen or so, I found myself in an afternoon service at the high-school youth camp. We had just finished a slam-dunk competition, which I surprisingly won, and watched a couple youth pastors from another church do a skit about parenting that involved pretending to eat poop. Kids love that sort of thing. The subject of the sermon (though they avoided calling it that) was how awful secular culture is. The pastor had been flown in from Los Angeles just to minister to us kids. After a few jokes about fancy-sounding West-coast coffee (“Caffè latte? Sounds gay!”), he started telling us about how The World (it sounded like it had capitals) tries to lead you away from God. It was the usual litany. It glorifies sex outside of God’s intended purpose, violence, makes fun of church-goers, says that money is the ultimate measure of success,etc. In a list of potshots taken at pop culture, he mentioned Madonna’s song “Like a Virgin.” “Can she even remember when she was a virgin?” he asked. Let’s leave aside for a moment the song was over ten years old at this point and not a good example of modern pop culture. It’s pretty typical that the people in charge of these things will have an outdated and ludicrously stereotyped view of youth culture rife with misunderstanding, even if they are brought in for their expertise, like this guy. He was making mean-spirited jokes at someone’s expense. I had always been taught it was un-Christian to do such a thing. It hardly seemed to matter that Madonna was a celebrity and unlikely to care that some LA youth pastor was making fun of her if she somehow found out. A lot of girls in the audience had been sexually active. The big theme of that years’ camp was virginity pledges, including second virginity. I was going to link to Wikipedia to explain it, but they surprisingly have no article, so I will do so myself.

Like most conservative Christian denominations, Foursquare is very big on the idea that you are not supposed to have sex outside a mixed-gender marriage. On the last night of camp, we were supposed to sign a pledge to remain virgins until marriage, which we were told was a contract with Jesus that he would hold us to. We also weren’t supposed to try to skate by on technicalities and quibble about the definition of sex. Foursquare took it a bit farther than most. We heard all the time that dating was practice for divorce. My parents warned me I shouldn’t do any French kissing until I was at least engaged. At this camp, the division youth leader gave a speech in one of the evening sessions about how he hadn’t kissed his wife t all until the preacher said to at the wedding service. However, a lot of people didn’t grow up in the church and a lot of people who did didn’t follow direction well. What to do with them? Just telling them they did it wrong isn’t a message that can get them on board with anything. This is where second virginity comes in. If you stop having sex, then your virginity will be restored, so you can still be a virgin on your wedding night and generally be in line with church teaching. (That plot point in Saved! where Mary thought Jesus would restore her virginity actually had basis in stuff she would have heard at church.)

Here, the church was trying to tell a bunch of sexually-active girls that no one was judging them and they were as good as any other girl in Jesus’s eyes while simultaneously making fun of women who had too much sex. I had friends that were girls. I had seen the devastating effects of schoolyard teasing. Couldn’t this guy see he was just giving everyone a new line to use in underhanded gossip? Everyone laughed, including the dozen-plus pastors, youth pastors and pastor’s wives in attendance. No one said anything. I should have, but I was coward when it came to adults and thought the leadership was supposed to do something. All I could take from this was that this was actually an approved approach.

When it came time to hand in our virginity pledges, I played along and handed mine in, but it was still blank. When you have four people trying to collection from more than one thousand kids, no one really checks these things. From then on, I paid a lot more attention to the things people said in youth group and realized slut-shaming was, in fact, one of the main tools for getting people in line with church teaching. This was one of the main factors that  made me realize that charges that Christianity was immoral were based on real criticisms, as came to a head the next year when my friend Kerry wrote her editorial about being bisexual, as I’ve previously covered, This was one of the cruelest forms of bullying I knew and it was being taught as fine, so long as you used the right words, disguised it as a prayer request and otherwise played along with the trappings of Christian morality.

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