My very first memory of adolescence – the odd time when we move from childhood to being teenagers – was the day that Mrs. Emerson came over for iced tea to tell my mother that she was concerned, deeply concerned, that I was flirting too much with her impressionable and innocent son.
Evangelical homeschooling purity culture will really mess you up.
This is a story about purity culture, but it’s not, ironically, a story about falling in love, or hitting puberty, or experiencing sexual attraction. I joked with a therapist once that I didn’t hit puberty until college (which she told me could not scientifically be true, but it sure felt that way), because high school Laura Jean did not have any kind of a sexual crush that I remember. I do remember a long walk on the beach at a youth group event with a Very Tall, Very Kind Boy and I wondered, while we walked and talked about Jesus, if he was Someone I Could Like. I also spent most of highschool in and out of chaotic Best Friendships with several glamorous and gorgeous and detached girls who, in retrospect, I wanted to hold hands with, but didn’t have context for that kind of attraction. Besides that, though, I was mostly reading a lot of books about Jesus and trying to learn Elvish, because I was a nerd and a geek and also a dork. I didn’t date. I didn’t flirt.
In retrospect, that day that Mrs. Emerson came over for iced tea and told my mom that I was not allowed to flirt with her son was the day that I stopped trusting my body and myself, and the day that a big flashing DANGER sign got lit over my sexuality. I had less interest in Robby than I did in a tree trunk, but that doesn’t really matter, does it. We learn to be afraid of ourselves in a single afternoon, and spend our whole lives trying to unravel that fear.
For a brief summer in late middle school, me and Robby were inseparable. I was eleven, and the best thing about homeschooling culture was that little boys and girls weren’t paired off and no one yelled K-I-S-S-I-N-G, and as kids we had snowball fights and built forts and argued about our favorite books. In the woods out back by the swamp, Robby and I found an ancient dump of old bottles and cans from the turn of the century and became relentless excavators of the past. We sat on the tipsy stone walls that Robert Frost wrote poems about and dug up old treasures, in between Civil War reenactments and water fights that spun into week-long water wars. Those were spacious days for me, as a kid with a ton of energy and imagination and a belief in the inherent goodness of myself, my body, and the world.
Then late that summer, Mrs. Janet Emerson came by for my mom’s iced tea. My mom makes wonderful iced strawberry kiwi tea with apple juice and floating frozen strawberries. My mom made this whenever we had summer company, and there was always apple juice and strawberries in our freezer so we’d be ready.
On that day the summer that I was eleven years old, not even my mom’s iced tea could sweeten Mrs. Janet Emerson’s purpose.
I wasn’t there that morning, but my mom sat me down on our couch the next day and told me that Mrs. Janet Emerson was concerned, because I was being too flirty with Robby.
I wanted to sink into the couch in shame. I wanted to die. I wanted to disappear. I wanted to be absorbed into the ground and never reappear.
I couldn’t have imagined anything more shameful that to be caught flirting with a boy.
I wasn’t aware that I was flirting. I had no idea. I was eleven and growing up in homeschool land meant I was hugely sheltered about sex and relationships. I only knew that I liked Robby. I had fun with him. I was happy when we hung out.
I never ever imagined that I was doing something so terrible, so evil, so incredibly wicked, as flirting.
I wish I could go back in time and catch awkward, gangly, big-glasses and baggy jeans Laura Jean in a big ol bear hug and tell her that flirting is a really nice, fun thing to do. There’s nothing wrong with flirting, honey, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling good and enjoying the company of boys, and when you discover that you like girls, too, there’s nothing wrong with that, either. Intimacy isn’t anything to be afraid of, even lighthearted intimacy just for the fun of it.
I stopped playing with Robby shortly after. I started watching myself. I watched myself like a hawk, wondering if there was a way to show that I was interested without, God forbid, flirting. Flirting was being vulnerable, opening yourself up to being seen. Flirting was very wicked and very embarassing. Best to avoid it all together.
There is so much terribly wrong and broken about purity culture. The homeschooled evangelicals were terrified of sex, dating, flirting, bodies, the gayz, and any type of romance that didn’t end in a nuclear family. The rules around relationships – don’t give too much of yourself to anyone! you’ll be like a crumpled rose! you’ll be like tape that’s been stuck and unstuck too many times! – felt endless, terrifying, and impossible.
I understand the fear of the fundamentalists. Falling in love is scary and people get hurt. Sex is vulnerable and you do, in a way, leave pieces of yourself scattered around when you love someone and then lose them. This, of course, is not restricted to sex and romance, though – friendships wax and wane, good friendships go through traumatic shifts and sometimes end in as much fire and pain as our intimate sexual relationships do. No one, of course, would suggest not making friends.
Vulnerability means taking risks, and then getting hurt, and then practicing resilience in light of heartbreak. We learn to grow a little stronger but not less rigid, less breakable but more bendy. We learn to be brave enough to stay soft.
The homeschool evangelical purity culture that I grew up in was not as cruel as ones I’ve heard about. It was a gentler, but more fearful, version. It tried to be kind, but it was terrified, and out of the terror control grew roots. That culture wanted to protect us from relational hurts and risks. As C.S. Lewis says, though, the only place we will be safe from the dangers of love is hell.
Yeah, I’ve had some heartbreaks that felt almost overwhelming. Are there choices that I’ve made that I regret? Hell yeah. Are there choices that ended in heartbreak that I still don’t regret? Absolutely. Did I have sex with people I wish I didn’t? Yup. Did I give my heart to people who dropped it? Yes.
Is there any way to practice vulnerability, resilience, and love except by doing it wrong, mourning, weeping, getting up, and trying again?
There is nothing that we learn in life, not one thing, that we learn without trying and failing and trying again. There is no way to improve at any skills, especially relational ones, except by practicing. It’s hard to practice anything without a skinned knee or two.
Purity culture tried to protect us from skinned knees, because it didn’t believe that there are worse things than skinned knees. I can think of a helluva lot of things that are worse than skinned knees. Never playing outside, never climbing trees or diving off rocks into the lake or playing soccer – never balancing on stone walls or getting our hands dirty in the garden – never going skinny dipping under a full moon or collecting shells barefoot while the tide comes in? Can you imagine? To see the risk of potential pain as worth skipping all this joy?
I would rather run at full speed into the ocean while the moon is out, stark naked and giggling like a goofcanoe with someone I love, and risk all the vulnerability and failure and literal and metaphorical skinned knees that come with that crazy beach dash – than stay inside, closed off from danger but also from love.
Unlearning purity culture for me has not been about having more sex or dating more people or even learning to flirt (spoiler, I have never learned to flirt and still think that arguing about religion and politics is the Best First Date. This is probably why I don’t get a lot of Second Dates).
Unlearning purity culture has been learning that the worst case scenario isn’t a broken heart, or an ended relationship, or taking risks that don’t pay off.
The worst case scenario is being so scared that you stay inside.
Unlearning purity culture, for me, has been a process of learning that my body is trustworthy and safe. It has meant learning that vulnerability can be playful and failure won’t kill me. It’s meant trading some security for some mystery and trusting that what is uncomfortable is not necessarily bad.
It has meant listening to myself, a lot, when I try new things, and trusting that I have deep wisdom in my body about what is safe, good, and holy.
And finally, oddly and beautifully, unlearning purity culture has brought me more deeply into relationship with God.
Most practically, I talk to God a lot more about this things than I used to. I didn’t really “talk” with God about relationships when I was still stuck in purity culture. Why talk to God when you can substitute a relationship for a rule? These days, though, as I re-learn what ten year old Laura Jean knew – that the world is good and my body is trustworthy – these days, I talk to God a lot about fear, hope, vulnerability, risk. I ask more questions and listen more carefully for answers. I am less afraid of what God will say.
I am less afraid, period.
Fundamentalism was just fear, loads and loads of fear – fear of God, sex, bodies, movies, pop culture, going to hell, being wrong. Purity culture was just one more fearful, panicked effort to control everyone’s bodies and souls and keep us from getting hurt or, in more malicious circles, keep us from being free. All that fear drips into every area of our lives, into our conversations with each other and into our conversations with our God. As I unravel what purity culture lied to me about, I also unravel rule-based interactions with my God. I discover that in the holy of holies, there is also vulnerability and risk, because the most true thing in the holy of holies is love – and there is no love without risk, even for God.
The more I unravel purity culture, the more I discover a vulnerable God who invites us into vulnerability with Her. I discover a God who took a risk to be love and be loved, and who got killed for it. I discover a God who didn’t run away from what makes us so fragile, but who became more fragile – just to enter into love and to accept the risks of intimacy with us.
What kind of a God accepts the full burden and risk of intimacy, the full danger of loving the mysterious Other?
The kind of God Incarnate that calls me into the risk with Him. The kind of God that is proud of us when we are brave enough to be vulnerable, even when we don’t know how it’ll turn out. The kind of God who celebrates with us when we take a chance on intimacy, and cries with us when we skin our knees, and then takes our hand and helps us stand up and try again.
The kind of God who thinks flirting is just delightful, and is delighted when we give it a shot.