While my sorority sisters held hands and passed the candle around the circle as they prayed, I had never felt so intensely like I didn’t belong.
The ritual passing of the candle, which celebrated the engagement of one of my sisters, made it clear that in Biblical womanhood, the role of wife and mother was her highest calling and achievement.
When I first joined, it felt like a good fit. My sisters were organized and driven, and I became the little sister of the chapter’s treasurer, an immediate invitation into the senior sisters’ inner circle. From this proximity, it only took a semester to realize my sisters’ visions for their lives didn’t align with mine.
At age 19, I had never had a boyfriend. I was afraid of being intimate. Evangelical purity culture had convinced me that if I did choose to have sex outside of marriage, I would ruin any chance I had at a life. I thought the Christian sorority I joined would understand, but because so many of them measured their value by the men in their life, I felt utterly alone.
Being the odd woman out constantly turned conversations toward who I should or shouldn’t be dating and exhortations to stay away from the sex-obsessed men at our university. These mixed messages made me feel even more isolated and judged, and by the time I walked in late to the chapter meeting with the candle ritual, I was already questioning if joining the sorority had been a good idea.
After the chapter president finished praying, she passed the candle on, and the young women went down the line, adding to the prayers. Claiming I was sick, I left early. When I skipped the next meeting, my sisters texted. They called when I failed to show up for the one after that. I didn’t answer any of them. What could I say?
My brief stint in the Christian sorority wasn’t the first time I encountered the evangelical purity movement. As a child, my mother raised me to think that getting married and having kids should be my primary life goal.
Regardless of what the Bible says, many of the Christian women of my generation were brought up on a strict, borderline-Victorian binary of gender roles coined as biblical manhood and biblical womanhood. The biblical man is the king of his domain. He talks, and the women and children listen. The biblical woman is quiet. She selflessly cares for the needs of her partner and their brood. There are passages in the Bible — like Proverbs 31, which paints a picture of the ideal wife as successful and independent, a merchant and businesswoman in her own right — that fly in the face of this interpretation. So it’s clear that the binary of biblical manhood and womanhood represents faith with a heavy dose of the patriarchy.
At 14-years-old, I asked my dad, who was raised Lutheran but didn’t go to church anymore, for a promise ring. Several of the girls my age were getting them. Promise rings were supposed to symbolize purity, meaning no sex before marriage. Promise rings also represent obedience to men: obedience to your father before eventual obedience to your husband. To some, obedience to earthly men represents obedience to God the Father. Even though I didn’t quite see it this way, I thought of a promise ring as an agreement to not have sex that would also get me jewelry.
Perhaps sensing this, my dad balked.
This was one of the only times sex had come up with my father. Up until that point, sex fell strictly in my mother’s domain and was limited either to agriculture (horses and rabbits) or to its biblical symbolic interpretation as a union between man and wife in marriage. To me, sex was either procreation or communion. It had a purpose.
“A pitfall of treating sex as sacred is that, when it comes to education, instead of normalizing bodies and sexuality and feelings of pleasure that are completely natural, we tend to treat sex as this huge, scary, amorphous thing that we shouldn’t think about now because it’s not time yet,” says Steph Auteri, sex expert and author of the forthcoming book “A Dirty Word.” “It will be dealt with later. When ‘the time’ comes. The problem is, when ‘the time’ comes (and that’s different for all us), we’re ill-prepared.”
After years of being told to dress modestly or else a man would think I was “the wrong kind of girl” and “take advantage” of me, the concept of sex had begun to seem more like a punishment than a future reward.
Many followers of evangelical Christianity are brought up to believe that women’s bodies are either evil and seductive or pristine and inviolable, and men’s brains are weak and easily tempted into sexual violence. “The result can be a deep-seated belief that women have to dress, talk, and behave in just the right way to protect themselves from an almost unavoidable (and thus almost excusable) experience of male bad behavior,” says Linda Kay Klein, author of “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free.“
It’s no surprise this sounds very much like victim blaming.
Many of those people were raised with similar attitudes toward sex, relationships and gender that lead to silencing of women and underreporting of rape, domestic violence and assault — not to mention bigotry and violence against LGBTQ people.
To change that culture, Christians need to take a hard look at their leadership. That work is already underway within the Southern Baptist Convention, which had its own belated #MeToo moment earlier this year. Other congregations, too, need to become aware of the fixed power structures that give an outsized value to cis men over others.
“Less than two percent of pastors in America are women,” says Lyz Lenz, author of the forthcoming book “God Land,” speaking about how the evangelical landscape has been designed by and for cis men.
When a Christian woman is sexually assaulted, if she seeks help from the power structures she’s been taught to trust, she will end up talking to her pastor. Inevitably that means she will “have to go sit down with a middle-aged white man who’s not trained on therapy and tell him someone in his congregation did something to [her] — that’s the opposite of a safe space,” says Lenz.
I’m lucky I was never in that situation, at least not at church. My life has been more characterized by a fear of intimacy and, therefore, a lack of it.
For most of my life, I had planned to get married before I was 20. I am now 28, and the drive to define my life in that way seems less urgent than ever. The older I get and the more I travel, the less I feel the need to fit the mold of wife and mother.
Still, the purity movement has left me with feelings of shame and self-doubt. Too frequently, I think back to my last sorority chapter meeting, with my sisters passing the candle, and the feeling that I will never be valued by society without a man.