I started seeing a therapist while living in Alabama for two primary reasons. First, to work towards rebuilding a dysfunctional relationship with my parents. And second, to search the insecurities of my heart and start to believe in love “again.”
In our six months together, I thought I made a lot of progress. Some of the most productive conversations I have had in my adult life occurred in her office. And some of the best resolves on romance often occurred during the two-hour car ride home back to Birmingham. I was feeling pretty confident I was on the right path to a successful relationship in the future. But that all seemed to come into question a few months ago.
We were acquaintances. He was familiar but new in my life. Kind and charismatic. Liked the articles and books I read. Shared my love of terrible movies. Nothing too crazy. And then he kissed me. I could see it coming. Given my lack of prospects, one could assume I would praise God at the opportunity to kiss such a beautiful man. But this is me, cynical me. Afraid me. I wanted nothing more than to run away.
He told me I was beautiful, but I did not believe him. I did not want to participate. It was not what I signed up for. Furthermore, he could be with any woman he wanted. He must not have realized how messed up I am. And I figured he said I did not need to change to simply ease his eventual dogging me out.
I’m not telling you the full story, but I can say my fight-or-flight was depleted. So I tried to live in the moment knowing I was not in sin. But I immediately felt shame and guilt for trying. Trying to embrace someone who got the rare opportunity to embrace me. Trying to ignore my discomfort.
I hated myself for trying…
This all got me thinking. Now several months removed from ‘Bama, my biggest takeaway was I never believed in love in the first place. From an academic or even biblical perspective, I understood it, the depth of it, and its purpose. I always rejoiced with those who rejoiced in love. But while existing in a constant state of relational martyrdom and perpetual disappointment, I did not believe (eros) love was for me.
Rather, I believed in the methods I was taught to win the very love I did not buy into. I would bounce between hopeless romanticism and doing my best to shrink anything exuberant about myself. More than anything, I found myself believing in “the call to singleness” often offered as an answer for my loneliness, all without being critical of why certain girls were able to find love and certain ones were not. All while making sure whatever I did, I could work through my messiness without any disruption from complications. Or so I thought.
Even with all my efforts, things never seemed to go as planned. There would always be the negative reinforcement of my father about my body and image. Or a high school beau who punished me with stalking after I stopped calling. Or the two sexual assaults that occurred before I turned 18 and then again in 2014 by a lovely Christian man I thought I would one day marry. Or the myriad of times since then my trust or heart has been broken void of any physical contact. Or the guy from a few months ago whose antics I am trying my best to move on from, even though it’s hard to disassociate him from the song that was playing in the background (which everyone is playing this summer) or the outfit I wore that day.
These occurrences led me to wonder whether I was still pure, worthy of love, or in queue for stability. Especially given the only thing I shared in common with many other “admirable” Christian women in my community was my commitment to celibacy. But this journey in abstaining from sexual activity appeared far left of the evangelical blueprint of a Proverbs 31 woman or anything “captivating.” And for that, I remain bitter.
I’ve been blessed with the desire to help others through my writing. But I am realizing now more than ever I have not been able to heal of my disdain for love, romance, and intimacy among other things while seated in the community I would assume would help me. These unfortunate events do not happen in a vacuum. This is not just my past in a file cabinet or something I should just absorb because of widely accepted stereotypes about black women. Crap keeps happening because people make willful decisions that hurt me or take advantage of my emotional paralysis.
I cannot disassociate anything remotely sexual, spontaneous PDA included, from abuse or abandonment. And I am not confident “waiting for the one,” getting a ring, or placing any more weight on my wait will remedy that.
With every heartbreak, every sexual assault, or each unintended kiss, my rehearsed biblical womanhood tenants were crushed. Every time I was left empty and reminded of the fact I was not safe. I was not like the other girls who were soft, delicate, and being chosen. I had to be hard, cold, strong, and never too cute because I may risk another rape attempt. And definitely never expectant of boundless love.
My primary desires in partnership have always been protection and provision. But is any relationship safe? Every time I attempt to be more positive, manage my anxiety, or hate men less, the enemy knocks me down.
“Bitch, why are you trying?”
I used to think I never had a “real boyfriend” because something was wrong with me. My ethnicity. My weight. My hair. My height. My ambition. My disdain of ranch dressing. Or maybe my unicorn collection of life skills. But it became clear these were never the cause. I was single because I was celibate, and I was celibate because I grew to acknowledge sex, love, and all forms of intimacy as violence. And because these things were violence, I fell in line and was conditioned to take the blows.
I smiled through the pain. I played the church’s game. I made fragile Evangelicals feel more comfortable around me by not speaking up about how I found no joy in celibacy, much less “biblical womanhood.” I stopped opening up about my sexual wounds because the sheltered women who attempted to disciple me would just cry and derail any attempt for me to seek accountability. I aimed to be their token. I appeased their rules. I shamed feminists. I isolated myself from my friends and allies.
I “prayed” for a husband who I already resented. I ignored the desire to be rescued from this internal hell. If purity culture and complementarianism were my gods, then I was a functional atheist. Because every time I was forced to assert or address any facet of my sexuality, I had to respond from hollowness and fear. And many times I contemplated the church being much better off without me existing in it because I felt ill-equipped to be what people wanted from me. Yet, I wondered if there was a way to uphold my commitment to holiness without erasing a nuanced journey not too raw or uncomfortable for a God who was sovereign throughout.
Much like me, the sexual politics of women in the church are often complicated and touch so many facets of personal identity. Along with interpersonal and emotional violence, the church’s complicity with gendered binaries is one of the most harmful elements of patriarchy. The risk averse biblical interpretations aimed at protecting daughters are often cutting down the knees of the women they become.
Sexual politics for the American Christian are almost inherently complicated. They seem to be perfectly open to redemption for pastors and other male Christian superheroes who commit adultery, rape, or have pornography addictions. But as for women in the Body? You are either a saint only saved by your hymen intact or a groom that decides to wash you in the Word. Or you are the woman at the well. Nuance is a misnomer to us. And women are suffering because of it. That includes me.
So what do we want?
I can only speak for me. Yes, I want true love without bounds. Yes, I want to learn what a less awkward Christian sexual ethic looks like. Yes, I want one-to-one discipleship without bearing the burden someone’s naïvete. But more than anything, I want to be reminded of God’s sovereignty in my life through the ways my communities wash my feet, embrace my tough truths, and step down from their ivory towers.
Acknowledging it is not as cut and dry as “waiting until marriage” does not automatically lend theology to have loopholes. Dispelling works-based homogeneity never discredited the gospel. From Exodus to Acts or Romans to Revelation. We owe the female image bearers of our faith the grace of knowing they are not the sum of their sexually complicated experiences.
That their commitment to honor God is seen yet it is not their burden to bear alone. That they are whole in Christ. That they are made pure by what was completed on the cross. That while people are still learning about the complexity of individual sexual politics, that they are seen. That patriarchy is a political tool of Satan disguised as a benevolent, Utopian ideal for Christian ethics. That justice against abusers will be sought on their behalf. That they can find safety among brothers and sisters who will reject willful ignorance. That they do not have to conform in fear of making others comfortable or the fear of being unlovable.
That there is hope for love even when it is far from us.