Playing the THOT: A Reflection on a Moment of Dress-Up

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Last weekend, over the Labor Day holiday, I was in Miami for my best friend’s bachelorette proceedings. There was plenty of indulgent eating, drinking, partying, and of course a bit of scantily clad dressing because that is de rigueur in Miami. But there was one night that would raise the eyebrows of many, a themed night called, “So You Think You Can Dress…Like a THOT.” To quickly fill you in, THOT stands for “That Hoe Over/Out There” and has swept the nation for the last year or so. You can pretty much consider “THOT” the millennial slut. She is classified as such by her questionable and high quantities of men, “ratchet” behavior, too revealing and tight clothing, and even her teeth. I decided that since my bride-to-be best friend loves dressing up–she met her soon-to-be husband at a Halloween party and she loves dressing up for galas, parties, etc–it would be fun to have the group compete in a THOT dress-up contest complete with prizes for “Most THOTful outfit. I also figured that the act of dressing up  this way would be ripe for social commentary and ethical reflection. What can I say, I love a good social experiment and I’m a slave to my research interests.

I was hesitant about this idea at first because I didn’t know if it would offend the sensibilities of a group of young, professional black women. Surely we have enough odds stacked against us that donning our THOT apparel may not help us. But, much to my surprise, the group was for it. The original plan was to dress up the night we went to Miami’s–and possibly the nation’s largest strip club, King of Diamonds, but a last-minute change of plans resulted in us modeling our outfits for an impromptu photo shoot in the lobby of our hotel. Alas my social experiment was axed but it still left me with something to think about.

Days before this themed night I spoke with a close friend about it and asked her what she thought about my posting the pictures on Instagram. Immediately she told me that it would be a bad idea because it would be a conflict of interest with my professional life. She suggested that the photo might fall into the wrong hands and I may be judged harshly for it. A few days after it was all said and done, I told another close friend that I wanted to post one of the pictures on Facebook to which he said, “I don’t think that would be a good idea.” He suggested that someone from work might see it and I might get in trouble. To the latter friend I responded that I wish I would get in trouble for posting a picture of myself in a revealing outfit when they know who I am as a person. I am confounded that this would even be an issue and that, once again, what a woman does with her body–independent of harming anyone else–would subject her to judgement.

We all know that the advent of social media makes it more possible to get in trouble for the things we do in our private time. We also know that photos of women in revealing clothing subjects them to harsher judgement than their male peers regardless of what is known about them personally. And of course, over the last few weeks, we have come to know that at this time people’s computers can be hacked and nude photos released for public consumption without permission. So the reality is, women are damned if they don’t and damned if they do. Our reputation can be put on the line for having scantily clad fun–or for being fully dressed because that’s what fashion critics do–or it can be put on the line during the involuntary release of photos of ourselves. We have no control over whose hands photos fall into and what people will think about those photos when they receive them. Right now it is my prerogative to release a photograph of myself in revealing clothing worn for fun. Conversely, it is another woman’s prerogative to release pictures of herself in revealing clothes that she wears because that is what she likes wearing. Neither of us deserve what could be coming to us in the way of condemnation, judgement, termination from jobs, lascivious attention, rape etc. I had to throw in the latter because before the themed night someone also suggested that we will get unwelcome attention from men and it may be dangerous for us to dress like this. I am personally tired of policing myself based on men’s lack of impulse control–thank you Daily Show’s Jessica Williams for that word. It is rarely other women we have to deal with but men who think they are entitled to certain behavioral outcomes because of the way a woman dresses or men who determine what is respectable and what isn’t. And this leads me to my concluding point, the politics of respectability.

At the end of the day politics of respectability is what this all boils down to. A woman perceived as a THOT or a woman in THOT clothing is not seen as respectable because she doesn’t conform herself to society’s–better yet, the patriarchy’s standard for women–and therefore it is assumed that she doesn’t deserve our respect. But this disregards the humanity of women and their right to choose for themselves whom they will be or in the case of this discussion, what they will look like, and still maintain full integrity of their being. Is a woman not more than the clothes she chooses to puts on her back? Or is she not more than what she chooses to do for money? I am well aware that I speak with a certain privilege because I wore my outfit for entertainment purposes only and I have a certain reputation established, but most of the women we categorize as THOTs don’t have that luxury. And to take it one step further, the term “THOT” was contrived in the minds of men so isn’t it about time the women destroy it somehow? I’m with Madame Noir writer Veronica Well who said,

…as you may imagine the term was originally used to describe sexually promiscuous women. Of course that’s problematic and misogynistic because, once again, women are being punished for being sexually expressive while men, who behave similarly, are given a pass and a pat on the back.

I want to argue for a woman retaining her power regardless of how she chooses to dress. That we all owe women and girls that respect and I say this as a lesson I am teaching myself because I will not act like I haven’t seen a women questionably dressed and not judged her. Hell, I saw plenty of questionably dressed women in Miami, I’ve been appalled by Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” I’ve stared in disbelief as women got paid to dance on top of bars in little to nothing or pole danced…I’ve questioned the content of many a woman’s character for how they dressed or acted. Many are the judgements I’ve waged against those women and the pity I’ve had for them, but these women chose that for themselves with the assumption that they would still be treated with respect, just as much respect as the women who came out of the house or the hotel with respectable clothing on, and I get it. I get it. A few minutes of one night that I chose to dress as a so-called THOT, I expected to be respected and taken seriously because I know who I am at my core. This is what all women expect and are entitled to regardless of how much or how little clothing they are wearing because they too know who they are at their core.

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Same woman, different clothes, respect regardless.

 

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Failing At Sex Ed

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I took this Sex Ed quiz and I got 3 out of 6 correct. Not only am I embarrassed by my low score but I’m also disappointed that I couldn’t even find out the ones I got wrong. There’s no point in giving someone a quiz if you aren’t going to reveal the correct answers to them, there’s no education in that.

Take the quiz for yourself and see how you do.

Quiz: What grade would you really get in Sex Ed?.

The Problem with Date Rape Drug Detecting Nail Polish and Other Anti-Rape Products

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purple-spill-banRecently a few North Carolina State University students invented a nail polish that detects when a date rape drug has been slipped into a woman’s drink. In order to activate this polish a woman has to stir the drink with her finger and if one of the drugs is in her drink, then the polish will change colors. That’s all good and well but a bit cumbersome to what I thought such a polish would do–in my mind I was thinking such a polish would detect chemical changes in the body and send a signal to the nailbed and from there change colors. Clearly I’m not a scientist. Nevertheless my problem is less with method and more with the creation of yet another product of this kind. It’s a treatment and not a cure to rape. A band-aid, if you will, covering a bigger issue. The reality is we don’t need another thing to protect women from being raped. Not another condom with teeth, not chastity belt underwear, not pepper spray, not another thing before we teach and train men not to rape women. Camille Paglia articulates it well when she says, “Generation after generation, men must be educated, refined, and ethically persuaded aways from their tendency toward anarchy and brutishness.”

Paglia’s project in the essay “Rape and the Modern Sex War,” is to unmuddy the waters that feminism has made murky with blame and shame. Those feminists who’d suggest that those claiming women ought to be more responsible and careful are blaming women for rape. Paglia believes that women must take responsibility for their actions and she states that this is not “blaming the victim” but encouraging women to use common sense. She suggests that if a woman goes to a frat party with her girlfriends, she needs to leave with those girlfriends and that women shouldn’t go up to the room of a guy they don’t know or even a guy they know, particularly if they’ve had something to drink. These are common sense tips to help women protect themselves in situations that are ripe for sexual violence, but, as we all know, a woman protecting herself goes only so far before a man overcomes her. Thus the solution is not always in arming a woman to the tooth with anti-rape weapons, but in changing the perspective of men. I’d like to argue that Paglia knows there are limitations to common sense in rape culture when she says,

“Men must do or risk something to be men. Men become masculine only when other men say they are. Having sex with a woman is one way a boy becomes a man. College men are at their hormonal peak. They have just left their mothers and are questing for their male identity. In groups, they are dangerous.”

We’ve seen this played out on college campuses among groups of men–fraternity or not. Young men’s masculinity and bravado is measured by their conquests, not their lack thereof. I’ve seen it play out on MTV’s “Virgin Territory” where, if there is one male virgin in a group of male non-virgins, the non-virgins will dominate the group discussions and dynamic and encourage the virgin to do what he must in order to have sex with the young lady he is most interested in. The virgin is seen as immature and inexperienced and only when he finally has sex with a girl is he granted full access into the social circle because now he understands the symbolic world his peers operate in. This is all to Paglia’s point about how men are socialized and how group dynamics might drive a man. All of this pressure to perform may weigh a man down psychologically. Nevertheless, not to sound like I am giving men the benefit of the doubt or taking pity upon them because their male relationships can put a lot of pressure on them, I think it is important that we educate, refine, and ethically persuade men against aggressive and sexually violent behavior against women from an early age.

Educating them to understand that the moment a woman says no, regardless of how many blurred lines they perceive in that no, that no is no. Straight up. Teaching them that they are not entitled to a sexual encounter with a woman just because she got drunk with them, is wearing a short skirt, or she flirted with them. Better boundaries must be erected in how men interact with women in social situations where things can get easily misconstrued and this is not all about the woman using common sense, it is also about the man using self-control. (And dare I say, though this is a totally different situation, the same goes for men in the church who balk and complain that women with tight clothing or high hemlines are distracting and tempting them. We are not the ones who need to be controlled, it is the men who must control themselves, their desires, and their wild imaginations.)

Men must be refined to understand that the world doesn’t rotate on the axis of sex and getting it by any means necessary. Sex that is consensual between two adults is good sex. Sex within a loving, monogamous relationship is better. Sex within marriage is best. (And I know I’m getting into territory that is a hot topic so I’m going to leave that there.) All of this to say that all of the striving for sex outside of the parameter of consent is the worst sex you will have in your life. So this refining has to do with fine-tuning understandings of sex and relationships between men and women.

Much of what was said above can also be included in an ethical persuasion to men against sexual violence. Respecting a woman’s “No,” establishing behavioral boundaries in social situations, controlling one’s self for the good of the other, refining  understandings of sex, and right and good places to have it contextually speaking. But one thing that hasn’t been mentioned is respecting the dignity of all persons. Dignity establishes that every person has the intrinsic right to be valued and receive ethical treatment. Every person, man or woman, has the intrinsic right to be valued and receive ethical treatment. To promote this teaching among men means they must see women as valuable beings sharing a common humanity, not as objects of refuse for pleasure. To take this one step further, I dare to insert some Kantian ethics here and say that the categorical imperative should be considered here too. Of the categorical imperative Kant says, “Act only according to that rule whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Another way of understanding the categorical imperative is do unto to others as you would have them do unto you, this is universal law. Therefore, to put it quite bluntly, do not sexually force yourself upon someone unless you are fully prepared for the same to happen to you. I acknowledge that saying this is difficult and possibly problematic because there are some men out there who are more than ready to rape and be raped because they are that depraved. But I am addressing a group more in control of their mental faculties and able to learn and re-learn some of the things that they have been taught about sex.

Indeed I could go on and on about this but other things await me in this day. Suffice to say that I can’t celebrate the creation of a date rape drug detecting nail polish before some real work is done to stop the men who rape in the first place. I’m tired of the burden being on women to protect themselves when some men are the ones who must work on themselves. Nail polish, underwear, and sharp condoms don’t help the underlying issue involved in sexual violence and that’s where we need to start focusing.

Secular Sociologist Studies Evangelical Virgin Men Who Got Married | New Republic

So many interesting things to note in this study not limited to the Evangelical man’s thought that men are highly sexual beings (read “more” highly sexual than women) and women are the providers of sexual activity for their husbands.

Reminds me of why some “church boys/men” scare me. Because they are more tied to their embedded theology and tradition than they are to the reality of women’s lives and varied experiences.

via Secular Sociologist Studies Evangelical Virgin Men Who Got Married | New Republic.

Virginity Is Not Just Something to Lose: The Failures of MTV’s Virgin Territory

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Last year I vowed to abstain from reality television but three weeks ago I broke that vow in order to indulge in MTV’s Virgin Territory. The show documents the lives of young people who are virgins, most of whom are struggling with their virgin status and looking for someone to lose their virginity to. Each show features four college-aged people trying their hardest not to come off as stereotypical virgins. This means that many of the girls will dress immodestly–according to their perspective of what virgins look like–and many of the guys will spend time in the gym and perform the “playa.” Beyond external appearances these young people roam the streets of their respective cities looking for someone to take their virginity because, you know, virginity is this heavy burden to bear and it gets in the way of so much in life. Talk about a first world problem. On last week’s episode of VT one of the young people finally lost his virginity–the second to lose it during the show’s run–and it broke my heart.

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This is Kyle and, as you can see by the open empty condom wrapper in his hand and his foolish grin, he just had sex. On the show’s first episode 20-year-old Kyle indicated that no one could tell that he was a virgin by looking at him–because he stays in the gym. Moments later he would tearfully explain that he remained a virgin for so long because of the emotional toll his father’s death took on him. All of Kyle’s friends are sexually active and confident about it so much so that Kyle didn’t tell them that he was a virgin until well into the friendship. Young Kyle had a few crushes who he wanted to lose his virginity to; one was a girl who works at the gym and another was a classmate. Both of these crushes fell through but there was a ram in the bush for Kyle, a friend back home by the name of Amanda. They were good friends with some chemistry despite the fact that Amanda was always in a relationship, until now. Fresh on the market, Amanda kept tabs on Kyle and sent him subtle messages about her desire to have sex with him. Unfortunately it seemed that Amanda’s impetus for having sex with Kyle was more about taking his virginity than it was about her burning desire and love for him. So last Wednesday’s episode focused on Kyle’s trip back home and his reunion with Amanda which was wrought with the kind of sexual tension you’d expect from a virgin and a potential serial devirginizer. Their conversations were full of sexual innuendos–including cliche big foot jokes, Kyle’s nervous laughter, and Amanda’s persistent questioning him about being a virgin. All of this came to a head within the last ten minutes of the episode.

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Kyle and Amanda sat on the couch and she once again asked him why he was still a virgin then, in an instant, she invited him into her bedroom. Kyle realized that this is probably going to be it for him and he nervously laughed and told her that he needs to go to the bathroom to “freshen up.” She jokes and says, “What, do you have to shave your legs?” Kyle goes to the bathroom and it appears that he is not ready for what he is about to do, but there is so much pressure on him to do it. Pressure from Amanda, from his friends–who, the night before, were tutoring him on how to test her readiness by caressing her legs and other regions, from a society that largely frowns upon virgins, and of course from the MTV cameras. Finally Kyle got himself together for long enough to take the condom out of his wallet and head toward the bedroom where Amanda was waiting. He laid on the bed, full of nerves, blushing and still looking not quite ready to swipe his “V-card,” but finally he relented and asked her if he could turn the lights off. The last thing virgin Kyle says is something about being anxious to which Amanda responds, “It’s ok.” Post coitus we see a grinning Kyle holding the empty condom wrapper–pictured above–saying, “Once you do it, you’re not going to regret it. You’re gonna want more,” and then he walked back into the bedroom. Cue my heartbreak.

Seeing Kyle just moments after his first time having sex say, “Once you do it, you’re not going to regret it. You’re gonna want more,” was a big disappointment. I thought to myself, “How dreadfully ordinary, like talking about a bag of your favorite potato chips.” It was yet another moment of extolling the virtues of sex for pleasure’s sake, a message that I think is problematic for MTV’s younger demographic. Kyle’s waving around of his empty condom packet, his Cheshire cat grin, and his base articulation of sex indicates one of the problems with sex in our culture, it’s relegation to a pleasurable event, primarily. Indeed sex is pleasurable but there is more to it at every stage. In his book, “The Meaning of Sex,” J. Budziszewski puts it well when he states:

…although we find pleasure in exercising our sexual powers, pleasure is not their purpose; it only provides a motive for using these powers, and a dangerous one, too, which may at times conflict with their true purposes and steer us wrong. Besides, to think of pleasure as the purpose of intercourse is to treat our bodies merely as tools of sending agreeable sensations to our minds. They are of inestimably greater dignity than that, for they are part of what we are.

I believe that we err by treating sex, particularly in this context and to this age group, as primarily a pleasurable event independent of cultivating a desire for lasting union–whether it is a long-term monogamous relationship or marriage–and–dare I say it and sound a little Catholic–procreation. That is creating a safe space where a sexual relationship can flourish and being open to the possibilities that every sexual interaction proffers. But I won’t get into cultivating the desire for union and the procreative possibility of sex because that is beyond the scope of what I want to talk about here. Instead I want to focus on two points of contention; the objectification and commodification of the virgin and the external pressures society and church culture place on young people who are virgins.

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The Purity Ring app is a digital reminder of a purity pledge, mimics the wearing of an actual purity ring, and seeks to compliment traditional pledges rather than compete with them.

If you were raised within the church, your virginity and the indefinite keeping of it was established for you before you even learned to write your own name. When you are young you are marked as a virgin which makes you inexperienced but pure. If you are still a virgin when you get older you are inexperienced and awkward. At every turn the virgin is made aware of their status whether negative or positive–even the flood of articles from the Evangelical community harping on the virtue of purity and virginity border on idolization of virginity. All of this focus on the virgin and virginity bolsters the objectification of the person and their sexual status and catalyzes desire to lose virginity by any means necessary. Furthermore, an entire capitalist system has been built around the selling of purity, chastity, and abstinence to young people, their parents, youth group leaders, and so on so forth. There are are rings, mobile apps–see image on the left, t-shirts, books, conferences, and now this show can be added to the list of people who profit off of virgins. These young people may not be making money but MTV/Viacom is, so these young virgins have symbolically sacrificed themselves at the altar of capitalism and will have nothing to show for it except for a casting credit and a video clip.

But aren’t these young people and young people on general more than a virgins or more than a sexually active person you can create a show around and sell stuff too? Is a show about young people who are virgins really a worthwhile and, more importantly, healthy endeavor?

We may be sexual beings, as is exhaustively stated and a bit cliché I might add, but sexual beings are not all we are. Furthermore, far too often we misunderstand what it means to be sexual beings and interpret it to mean that we have a right to have sex when, where, and however we want it. That is not (fully) the case. I suggest that there must be another way that focuses not on virgins or virginity but on the power of these young people and their ability to form an identity for themselves not beholden to anyone or anything. This is not to ignore sex and desire but to rightly order them in the life of the individual for the individual’s sake. What “Virgin Territory” would lead many to believe is that losing virginity is a focal point in the life of a young adult over say, arriving at knowledge of self and construction of identity. It makes “virgin” the constructed identity of cast members until they are so consumed by it that (some of them) grasp at straws to erase that identity. They are constrained by their desire to lose their virginity so they forge relationships for sex and play into prescribed roles in order to appear favorably before their peers. But all isn’t lost on this show because some of the most fruitful and powerful stories come from those who have cycled through their thinking on the matter. They start as people who believe in virginity in the traditional sense, became people who try to lose it by any means necessary, and land at the place of people who abstain for their own sake and no one else’s. These are the stories that give me hope not because of their decision to abstain but because of their thought process in making that decision. Thinking through rather than acting out is an admirable virtue regarding sex and young people.

As I’ve thought about sexual ethics for teenagers and college-aged young adults, I’ve always fallen on the side of abstinence not for religious reasons but because of that population’s lack of knowledge of self and–more often than not–their inability to make decisions that aren’t influenced by external factors–peers, media, etc. This is not to say that young people are incapable of making healthy decisions regarding their sex lives but it is to acknowledge that there are competing interests for their attention that can cloud their objective decision-making ability. For example, a group of young people in a predominantly Christian setting will abstain from sex until marriage because that is the normative ethic of the group. Likewise, another group of young people may make the decision to have sex before marriage because that is what most of their peers are doing–such is the case of the participants on “Virgin Territory.” In both cases, these decisions are always influenced by external factors and not by the individual’s critical thinking process. This is what Lawrence Kohlberg would call, “Conventional Morality,” located on level two of his Stages of Moral Development. This stage’s focus is on conformity and playing “nice” with an eye toward how decisions affect interpersonal relationships. The key question here is about social acceptability, “What must I do to be seen as a good girl/boy?” We are deluding ourselves if we believe that we foster anything other than a conventional morality regarding sex and sexuality among our young people and this must be unlearned. We must give our young people better spaces to make decisions–which probably also includes allowing them to make mistakes–but we can’t decide for them. The church can’t decide, nor can their parents/guardians, MTV, or culture. This is not to condone reckless behavior or establish a false sense of sexual liberation–and this will surely be a post, but it is to allow young people to decide for themselves, apart from external influences, what’s best for their lives. It’s about trust. We must help them move away from the thought that virginity is a burden to be traded or a sacred object to behold and move them into critical thinking through their identities and core needs.

Virginity is not just something to lose but it is also not something to keep the traditional views on that haven’t served us well for a long time. It’s time to take off the kid gloves and help our young people THINK through their lives and sex–not just their sex lives. Allow them the space to think through who they are and what they want and need in this life and not just cheaply sell them the, “We are sexual beings” line. We ARE sexual beings but that is not all we are and for that reason it’s time to stop holding people’s sexual status over their heads and pressuring them with expectations to maintain a certain sexual status or sexuality. It’s their sex lives but, overall, it’s their lives. Let’s give them the proper space to figure things out. Preferably without the cameras…

 

 

 

When Sexual Violence Goes Viral There Are Many Perpetrators

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16-Year-Olds Rape Goes Viral On Social Media: No Human Being Deserved This | ThinkProgress

This is Jada, a young woman who was drugged and raped at a party thrown by fellow high schoolers. She wasn’t aware of her rape until she saw pictures of her unconscious body circulating on social media. Once Jada realized what happened she decided to release her identity and publicly speak out about the incident in hopes that the perpetrators are caught and punished.

I believe that there isn’t just one perpetrator in this case but there are as many as have sent her image around. Indeed the first perpetrator is the man or men who sexually assaulted her but the second perpetrator(s) are the people who shared her image or likeness, they share in the crime of sexual assault/violation as well. This ought to be a new way of thinking given the proliferation of viral images and videos of women being sexually assaulted, people being physically assaulted, and all manner of intimate and personal violence that has become just another source of entertainment. Therefore, my hope is not just that the young man or men who assaulted her are caught but that every person who forwarded pictures of her vulnerable body are caught and have to deal with the consequences of their indirect involvement in a sexual assault.

In the age of mindless sharing of viral videos we need to be more mindful and we need to be in the business of exacting some measure of consequence for sharing things that directly harm and put the lives of others in danger. If this all seems too ideal then we need to ask ourselves one simple question before sharing images or videos of a sensitive nature–I am specifically speaking about situation such as this, the Steubenville rape case and videos such as those shown on sites such as WorldstarHipHop, “Will this do harm or good to the involved parties?” This question is of particular importance when the involved parties are minors. We must be concerned about how we protect our young and, arguably, most vulnerable population.

I commend Jada for her bravery in publicly speaking up and hope that some measure of justice will be served. I also hope that her actions will encourage many others like her to speak up and out against perpetrators. Lastly, Jada’s actions have actually turned the hashtag meant to shame her into redemption. The real #jadapose represents the courage and strength of a young woman who will, undoubtedly, encourage many to be victors instead of just victims in the fight against sexual assault and violence and for that #istandwithjada

 

I Almost Lost Focus

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I haven’t written in a while for a variety of reasons. I’ve not been sure about how I want to write about sex and sexuality on this blog in the midst of a world that tirelessly talks about sex. I have many drafts from things I’ve written in response to current events such as the Duke Porn Star and the book that incensed a nation of parents, “It’s Perfectly Normal.” I didn’t publish those stories because I felt they were just reactive and I didn’t want to be a part of the multitude of voices that always have something to say with very little qualification or credibility for saying it. So I’ve tried to find my way and think through what is expedient in regards to talking about sex here and beyond and I’m finally getting to the point where I think I’m ready to come back. But this return was almost not.

A few weeks ago I was interviewing for a job I really wanted and all was well until they told me that I wouldn’t be able to speak or write about sexuality or sexual ethics because it would be a conflict of interest with the organization’s work. I was shocked. Even though I don’t write about sexuality all day, everyday–as you can very well tell from the skeletal nature of this blog–I still believe that work in the field is essential to my life’s calling. The CEO of the organization even pointed out that it seems I get a lot of energy out of talking about and thinking through matters of sexuality. But I also wanted the job because I saw it as a really great opportunity to broaden my professional experience in another area. So I told the team that I could deal with not writing or speaking about sexuality in exchange for a larger goal. I even cracked a little joke by saying, “I can still read books about it, can’t I?” They laughed and we continued with the interview, yet the thought of letting go of the opportunity to write and speak about something important to me weighed heavily on me. When I was done with the interview I called a trusted friend and told her about it and she agreed with the answer that I gave them and talked me through my concerns. It seemed more than logical to take a break from writing and speaking about sex in order to get in on the ground level of some really great and important work within its own right. But I was still discouraged about the possibility that lingered. I know I have a long-term commitment to studying, writing, speaking, teaching, reflecting, on matters of sex and sexuality and I know that’s important to me. I didn’t know for sure, however, if I should jettison that for something that I am much less certain about. Sure I was excited about the organization’s work, the possibilities within the position, and even my brilliantly bright future colleagues, but would that be selling myself short? Long story short, I didn’t get the job.

The official reason for not getting it wasn’t even about all the energy I get from talking about sex or my feeble attempt at proving I’d be fine without writing/writing about–at least as they tell it. It was about the organization needing to reassess their staffing needs. I can’t help but think it was also about God trying to keep me on track. I don’t speak in these terms often because I don’t like to presume what God is or isn’t doing in my life, but I am hoping that this is one of those times where God was doing something particular. The last few months have been bleak for me and I haven’t always been certain about where I’m going, so it meant something that someone took an interest in me and felt my experience impressive. I felt like I mattered again. I needed this opportunity in more ways than one. I couldn’t wait to move and start a new life and I was even delaying plans I’ve been talking about for a while. But just like that the plans changed and it seemed like I was being told to stay the course. And so here I am. No regrets. 

Earlier this week I had a chance to speak with a group of people living with HIV/AIDS about faith and sexuality and it was the most vibrant discussion I’ve had. I did the same talk at a church as few months ago and I felt like I was pulling teeth with the congregants, but this week’s group had so much energy around the topic. Interesting because they are a group of people whom some in a church context would say are “marked” because of their deleterious sexual behavior. Yet those people were the most faithful I’ve encountered and the most fearless as well. They didn’t feel entitled to anything. They had no bourgeois Christian laurels to rest on. They just have this lived experience and the certainty that God is still with them. If it wasn’t for not getting that job I wouldn’t have been able to have that experience with the group and to remember what is most important not only to me but to others. So here I go, once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. I don’t know where any of this will lead me but I am glad to not have given up so easily.

 

Bob Jones University and Theological Rhetoric that Mishandles Sexual Abuse Victims

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Greenville, S.C. (February 6, 2014) – In the fall of 2011, the national news was filled with a steady stream of heart-breaking revelations of sexual abuse on college campuses. These events prompted Bob Jones University to evaluate its processes and procedures for responding to reports of sexual abuse and specifically to ensure the University maintained best practices for a legally compliant and loving, scripturally based response to such reports.

To accomplish this, the Board of Trustees appointed a committee external to BJU to review our policies and procedures. The committee recommended some policy revisions and also that the University appoint an independent ombudsman to review past instances in which it was alleged that the University may have underserved a student who reported they had been abused at some point in their lives.

BJU subsequently engaged GRACE as the ombudsman. In addition to working with GRACE, BJU independently implemented a number of initiatives to raise awareness of sexual abuse. BJU provided live Sexual Abuse Awareness Training to all 3000+ students and 1000+ faculty/staff members—unprecedented in institutions of higher education—and is creating guidelines to assist present and future students who work with minors in the community and on campus. BJU also is working to provide a comprehensive Child Safety Workshop for local church leaders this spring.

Over the last several months, we grew concerned about how GRACE was pursuing our objectives, and on Jan. 27, 2014, BJU terminated its contract with GRACE. It is BJU’s intention to resolve its differences with GRACE, and we are disappointed a resolution could not be reached before our differences were made public. Both BJU and GRACE desire to raise sexual abuse awareness and minister to victims whose lives have been ravaged by abuse. GRACE has been helpful in assisting us in focusing our efforts in this area.

BJU sincerely appreciates all current and former students who participated in this initiative thus far, and the University regrets any delay BJU’s cancellation of its agreement with GRACE may have on this important project.

We grieve with those who have suffered abuse in their past, and we desire to minister the grace of Christ to them. Our prayer for the abused is that God will be their refuge and strength.

This is a press release issued by Bob Jones University announcing the early termination of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), an organization they hired to look into sexual abuse allegations on campus. One month before GRACE was scheduled to conclude their investigation BJU, without explanation, terminated their services. BJU claimed that they didn’t like the way GRACE was “pursuing our objective” but, to me, it sounded like GRACE was digging up a lot of dirt which would have made it harder for BJU to hide. The sexually abused might finally find a voice with the help of GRACE but an institution in size and stature such as BJU might crumble and the higher-ups couldn’t let that happen. So, better to continue to sweep the sexually abused  dirt under the rug than to have a large Christian institution come under fire. But this post isn’t about speculation but dealing with the press release posted above, particularly the last sentence, which I believe perpetuates the silencing of people who have been sexually abused through the use of theological rhetoric.

“We grieve with those who have suffered abuse in their past…”

This might be the only thing the concluding sentences get right about the role of the community with persons who have experienced sexual abuse. The phrase suggests  solidarity with persons who have been sexually abused, an active, emotional solidarity of being present in their suffering and taking hold of the fact that if one of us is broken and wounded, we all are because we are part of the same body. This is significant in a society that largely sweeps these persons away when it should embrace them and standing in solidarity with them. In the context of a Christian community this should be a primary deed done toward those persons. In sharing all things in common, joy and sorrow, happiness and sadness, etc, we partake in gospel work. Yet this is not the role of many churches and it surely doesn’t seem to be the role of Bob Jones University. Why? The next phrase may provide some insight.

…and we desire to minister the grace of Christ to them.

Here the theological rhetoric begins. By this I mean the style of speech or writing used in Christian spaces that projects Christian altruism as a method of persuasion but that concerns rarely results in any effective action. Not action that ends up helping anyone but the utilizer of such rhetoric. It’s in the vain of “I’ll pray for you,” which sometimes sounds like the thing to say so the person can escape an otherwise hard conversation. In this case, BJU establishes persons who have suffered abuse as those in need of the grace of Christ but does a person who has suffered abuse need the grace of Christ? What does that even mean in this context? That was my first question. I imagined that the last thing a person who has suffered abuse wants is for someone to minister the grace of Christ to them, at least not as a first response to an experience of abuse they have lived with in silence for years. This person doesn’t need grace in the way I believe this statement is suggesting. Context can shape interpretation and in this context it seems that ministering the grace of Christ is BJU absolving themselves of any stake in the healing process of persons who have been abused. As a close friend remarked, “The word ‘grace’ doesn’t do any actual work except to satisfy BJU’s conservative compatriot’s desire that certain words are used in dealing with this type of situation.” To be clear, the grace of Christ is effective and can soften our hearts in a world that has hardened them, but the person who has suffered abuse may need and require a different kind of healing work altogether. A work that puts their community in contact with them in tangible ways and doesn’t leave them to their own devices. This has to do with solidarity and consolation, not grace, at least not immediately. Indeed these persons need to be gracious with themselves throughout the unearthing and healing process and they will need to distribute grace to their abuser, but initially grace isn’t sufficient. I confess this is hard to say because it could be interpreted as me not believing in the grace of Christ to heal, but what I am getting at is a larger concern about how some religious institutions use theological rhetoric as a substitute for good work. For years we have watched churches of all stripes sweep the accounts of persons who have been sexually abused under the rug and, in the cases where the abuser is in the church, we have watched how the abuser gets more attention than the abused. In the midst of all of this, God is like a supernatural salve who heals everything on contact without God’s servants ever having being responsible shepherds of the flock God entrusted to them. God is like the ‘Tussin you apply to everything even when it makes no sense to do so, God and prayer…

“Our prayer for the abused is that God will be their refuge and strength.”

Take a young woman who has told you that she was sexually abused and tell her that your prayer for her is that God will be her refuge and strength. Your prescription for prayer may sound good in theory–and if you ask me it actually doesn’t sound good–but in practice it is weak. As in the case of ministering the grace of Christ to a person who has suffered abuse, prayer can be interpreted as yet another absolution of responsibility. In talking this through with a friend I initially came to the conclusion that “prayer and other things” are needed in situations such as this and in a split second I changed my response to “other things and prayer” are needed. Moving prayer as the last thing that a victim of abuse might need is to suggest that someone who has experienced intimate violence is sometimes in need of more than prayer can provide. Furthermore, praying that God, the God who is traditionally perceived as male presence, become a refuge and strength to a woman who has had an experience of sexual abuse by a man, may do more harm than good. How does this work in situations when the woman was abused by a male figure she loved and trusted? How does she suspend her distrust of male figures long enough to put trust in her God traditionally narrated and given as patriarchal figure? I bring this up given discussions of how inclusive language and understanding about God aids in healing work for those who have suffered abuse at the hands of men and can no longer put their trust in a God who has always been a “He, Him, His.” This is not me being a person of little faith, it is acknowledging that as a people of faith there is hard work we have to do on behalf of our fellow brothers and sisters and it requires carefully measured deeds, not just words that can potentially be interpreted as empty. This is significant given how sex abuse scandals are handled in the Christian church and how the world outside of the church observes what it is we do to help one another–and really it doesn’t appear that much is done. Maybe the whole problem is that many want desperately to believe that the only thing they need to do is minister grace and pray instead of sitting with the broken and wounded and sharing in that space with them for however long it may take. I don’t dismiss God in this process and don’t want to suggest that God can’t handle healing all on God’s own, but I believe, more often than not, God expects God’s people to also roll their sleeves up and do some hard work in the healing and recovery process of abused persons. I believe there is a particular responsibility that we, as a community, have toward one another and BJU is yet another example of a shirking that responsibility in favor of giving victims of abuse, empty theological rhetoric.

Now, I may be making a mountain out of a mole hill. A close friend, whom I also talked through this with, brought this to my attention as we worked through our thoughts on the matter. Overall we agreed that “grace” as referenced in the press release does no real work and that solidarity is necessary but he added this,

But maybe this is just me imposing upon Bob Jones and its representatives my elitist assumption that words, particularly theological words, actually mean things.

The elitist assumption that theological words actually mean things is a longstanding one that stares us–the Christian community–in the face every time we stand before our sacred text. It stares us in the face when we make theological claims. And here it stares me in the face as I wonder if all I have written about BJU’s words is in vain because I’ve assumed that their words mean something. I’ve thought about this throughout the weekend and have come to the conclusion that when it comes to speaking on behalf of a Christian institution or tradition about how to handle victims of sexual abuse you must measure your words carefully because words can do violence. One can never be certain of how their words will be interpreted in general, but when those words are the focal point for a wounded community, those words must do no further harm. I am concerned that BJU’s words–and of course their actions–are doing more harm to persons who have been sexually abused. I am concerned that the language they used throughout this press release continues to hold people who have been sexually abused at a distance instead of bringing them into community. It also makes those persons seem more like cases to be handled than persons to be cared for. I can say all of this because I feel the harm as someone not many degrees of separation from persons who have been sexually abused. It’s time for the empty rhetoric to stop and the rigorous work to start.

The Southern Baptist Sex Summit and Me: It’s Bone Picking Time

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A few days ago news broke that leaders in the Southern Baptist church will hold a Sex Summit in Nashville, Tennessee where they will talk about pornography, teen sex, homosexuality and how pastors can talk to their congregations about human sexuality in an over-sexed world. This was intriguing to me for reasons not limited to my academic interest in studying Christian sexual ethics but because of my own experience in the Southern Baptist church.

A little known fact about me is that I spent a fair amount of my teenage years in a Southern Baptist Church. My mom and I were members of a large Southern Baptist church where we were one of a handful of black families in attendance Sunday after Sunday. We both went to Sunday school and I was quasi active in the youth ministry. This was the first church I became a member of and I was baptized in this church. One more significant thing happened in that large Southern Baptist church, it was the church where I pledged to not have sex until marriage. Through the “True Love Waits” campaign I made a pledge in front of my mother and a room filled largely with white people, to abstain from sex until marriage and keep myself pure. My pledge was sealed with a chintzy gold-coated metal ring. Armed with “The marriage bed is undefiled,” I was held responsible for keeping my sexual desires in check without an adequate discussion about what those desires would feel like and how I can embrace them without burning in hell. I knew how to say “No” before I knew what I was saying no to. There was a large gap in my understanding of sexuality that the very institution that initiated the pledge wasn’t trying to fill and little did I know how problematic that would be. Before long I broke that ring along with my pledge.

There are many like me who, in their high school years took a pledge to abstain from sex before marriage and, for one reason or another, they broke it. In fact, a study done in 2003 showed that 6 out of 10 people who took the TLW pledge in college ended up breaking it and of the 40% who said they were abstaining from intercourse 55% of them admitted to having oral sex. But few people have gotten to the root of why young people are breaking this pledge. I believe that part of the reason that many young people broke their pledge to abstinence is because of the incomplete education they received regarding sexuality in the church.  In my experience the church specializes in shallow teachings on sexuality that do nothing more than tell people to beat their flesh into subjection without really allowing them to think through and discover what this flesh is all about. People are taught that the flesh is a hard thing to control instead of being taught that it is something we have control of and we ought not be scared of it. We can master it in a way that isn’t guided by fear-mongering that implies it will devour us every time we have a warm, tingly feeling. So many topics are tip-toed around and treated as taboo when the reality is, many pastors would be surprised about what their young people know about sex. Hell, many young people would be shocked to know what some of these pastors are doing behind closed doors and it has nothing to do with the marriage bed, but that’s for another day and post. I believe it is time for the church to stop demonizing the flesh in regards to sexuality, to stop throwing around the same tired scriptural references that are never interpreted correctly, so that we may arrive at a healthy, holistic understanding of who we are in Christ, faithful and sexual creatures. I say all of this as someone who still has a commitment to the church. I’ve not abandoned it and have no intentions of abandoning it ever, hopefully. And so my goal is to take up the work of helping the church have these hard conversation about sexuality and desire in the sanctuary. And this, finally, has everything to do with why I want to attend the Sex Summit.

More than 15 years ago the Southern Baptist church gave me a sexual ethic before I knew what a sexual ethic was and it nearly ruined me. Because it was planted in me during a stage in my moral development when I was amenable to conformity out of fear of consequences, it took root in me and those roots are strong. I have spent years pulling up those roots and trying to discover what is the appropriate sexual ethic for Christians or how and when should an ethic be established. I’m generally curious about how many denominations go about teaching sexual ethics to their youth and young adult, but with the Southern Baptist Sex Summit I feel like I can get in on the ground floor and see what exactly it is that pastors are teaching each other in regards to sex. The Southern Baptist Church’s position on sexuality states “We affirm God’s plan for marriage and sexual intimacy–one man, one woman, for life. Homosexuality is not a “valid alternative lifestyle.” The Bible condemns it as sin. The same redemption available to all sinners is available to homosexuals. They too may become new creations in Christ.” Oh to pick apart this statement, like, “If homosexuality isn’t a valid alternative lifestyle, what is a valid alternative lifestyle?” “And why are they still using the term “homosexual” or “”homosexuality” as if they are still in 1952–the moment in time when the American Psychological Association categorized it as a sociopathic personality disturbance in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM). By 1974 it was categorized as a sexual orientation disturbance.” To use these terms is to treat the LGBT community with clinical gloves, as pure disorders without the possibility that there is some order. I say this as someone who, as of three years ago, JUST removed the term from my own vocabulary after writing it in a paper and having a professor correct me. He told me that “homosexual” is a clinical term that has negative connotations and I should use “LGBT” in future reference. This was in a school of theology, granted not a Southern Baptist school, but a school concerned with educating future faith leaders and scholars of the world. A school interested in how we care for God’s people and that is a universal concern not limited to denominational doctrine. Southern Baptists are not excluded in learning how to speak of God’s children, all of them. So I want to know how they will unpack their statement on sexuality and if any of it will be reworked for language and for logic.

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I’m curious, having looked at the Sex Summit speakers, how a group comprised largely of white men and one black man–and one black woman who will only participate it brief reflection session–are going to talk about sexuality from sexual behavior to sexual preference. How will such a racial and gender imbalanced group handle the vast field of sexuality and dare to teach other leaders how they should be teaching it. I will be honest in saying that I feel some kind of way about the multitude of men who will be in that space, the ones teaching and the ones being taught because the Southern Baptist church “recognizes the biblical restriction concerning the office of pastor, saying: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” So if I am understanding correctly, a bunch of men–mostly white–are going to teach a bunch of other men–probably also mostly white–about what they should be teaching in their churches about sexuality. And these churches will probably be comprised of more women than man, people of color, impressionable teenagers, etc. This should be really interesting…

I’ve said a lot but I’d love to hear from my readers who have experience in the Southern Baptist church, especially those who took a True Love Waits pledge. How did that work out for you? Did you keep the pledge/are you still keeping it? How long? If you broke it, how long until you broke it and why? If you were attending a conference such as this or could send in questions, what would you ask? Let’s talk about it.

I don’t wait anymore.

I kind of wish I wrote this because I agree with much of what the author said. The theology this young woman discusses wreaked havoc on my life, a type of havoc I am still trying to recover from. The “cause” and “effect” theology of “If you wait to have sex, then you will be blessed” is damaging because that isn’t necessarily the case. As I’m wont to argue, the “If you do good, then you’ll prosper” formula went away with Job and Solomon and we are existing in the “If you do good, you might prosper or you might not and either way it’s still all good–and all God.” (I can unpack this at another time.) You will not be more blessed because you waited to have sex or less blessed because you didn’t. Your husband or wife won’t arrive any faster because you abstained nor will he or she delay because you didn’t. I’m not saying this is license to be reckless but I am willing to say that type of theology is reckless and slightly unsubstantiated–at least if you have any empirical evidence from your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ that says the opposite. Lord there is so much more I could say, but I want folks to read the original post and formulate their own thoughts. What do you think?