Feminism and Christianity have a historically tense relationship. I have been told by Christians that “That stuff [feminism] is all very nice, but sometimes you need to be more feminine and learn to not have such strong opinions.” I have feminist friends who have told me that in claiming to be both feminist and Christian I am essentially suffering from Stockholm syndrome. In their eyes, I am a grateful hostage in an archaic system of patriarchy, devoid of agency. It is important here to distinguish between the people who practice Christianity, and the Church itself as a historical institution. Few Christian individuals are themselves aiming to reinforce misogyny; It is instead the wider doctrine of institutional Christianity rooted in a historically Greco-Roman theology that promotes such ideas. Despite such glaring differences of opinion, feminism and Christianity do in fact agree on one thing; the importance of sexuality.
I write this essay, extracted from one of my university papers, not in an attempt to merely dissect gender roles in church, but to encourage critical engagement with such issues. My reference to 'sexuality' is not merely a synonym for sex, or sexualisation - it is important to define these words because while I believe that sexuality is a socially taboo topic that needs to be discussed more, I do not include in its definition the ever-present sexualisation of both women and men in mainstream media culture. Sexualisation is a distortion of sex, a tool used to maximise profit and to reinforce oppressive physical and sexual ideals. Sexuality, on the other hand, is a foundational part of every persons identity and a powerful tool in the empowerment of many men and women. As a woman, I am only able to write about my own gendered experiences, and I certainly don't claim authority over either feminist theory, Christian theology or sexuality.
Where Did I Come From?
My own experiences of sexuality as a feminist and a Christian have been shaped both by my family, and by my interactions with the Baptist church. I grew up in a household that was not religious, nor did it ever really fit in to typical domestic/gendered stereotypes. My father, a feminist “to a degree”, was a writer and worked from home, made a cooked breakfast for the family every morning and dropped me off to school clutching a packed lunch. My mother, a more vocal feminist, is a teacher who worked from 8am until 5:30pm, managed to slip notes in to my lunchbox each week and share the cooking with my father.
One of my earliest memories is of reading a book entitled Where Did I Come From? which detailed the reproductive process in detail through the use of cartoons. My mother would have long conversations with my sister and I about sex and consent, the importance of protection and contraception, the roles of respect and reciprocity. I recall my first sex-education class in school when I was 12. I was underwhelmed; instead of the realistic anatomical and relational information imparted by my mother that painted a portrait of love and sex being constructive, empowering experiences, I was instead presented with crude animations of over-emotional girls with PMS and hormonal boys ruled by testosterone and a lack of intelligence. It was at this point that I was first conscious of normative gender roles in society. I wondered why girls’ sexual experiences were presented as trivial and something to be hidden or ashamed of, while boys were seen as overtly sexual and overbearing creatures to be reined in. Perhaps by then my mother had already shaped me in to a small, opinionated feminist.
It was in this context that I first encountered Christianity. I was invited to a church that my friend attended; a feisty 14 year old, fiercely resistant and yet worryingly vulnerable to the pressures and expectations of teenage years. The Baptist church has subscribed traditionally to a theology in which men and women occupy different yet complementary gendered roles. Women represent the emotional, men the physical. Such complementarianism in fact advertised a very masculine and heteronormative theology. The God of the Bible is read in the masculine. Eve is Adam’s “helpmeet”, a sidekick, if you will. Heterosexual marriage is seen as the only context in which sexuality may be safely expressed, and in such a relationship the husband has a clear mandate from the church to be the “head” of his wife and to lead her, as expressed by Ephesians 5:2 - “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” I realised the prevalence of these roles when I once jokingly said to my friends parents that my mother “wore the pants” in her marriage. I was made to feel as if my parents were somehow partaking in an Unholy Union, that my mother was a bit Radical, that talking of gender roles in relationships was Inappropriate. I now know that my upbringing wasn’t radical, nor was my experience of complementarian theology representative of all faith/gender understandings.
Preparing for my future husband
As a woman in the church, the most valuable asset I owned was my sexual purity, and even then it was not completely my own; it belonged in an abstract way to the man who would one day marry me. Conversations about dating would often turn to praying for future husbands, that they and we would retain our untouched purity until we married them (in many of our cases, praying for forgiveness was as close as we could get). Ephesians 5:3 was a common mantra; “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.”
I recall being 17 and listening to a sermon on purity. The speaker, a male in his late 20’s, spent the hour preaching about the pornography industry, the temptations of promiscuity and the benefits of abstinence. However, the entire hour was dedicated to men’s own experiences of sexuality. It was implicit in his speech that he regarded women as holy temples not to be marked, let alone thought that as teenagers surrounded by religious pressure to avoid any expression of sexuality, women may struggle with forming and making sense of their own sexual identity. Thus, having grown up in a context of openness and frankness regarding sexuality, I found myself being idealised as a blameless bride and was enveloped in guilt and shame at my deviance from such a model.
Thoughts from the Castle
After a year studying theology in my hometown of Auckland, I moved to Wellington to pursue my bachelor’s degree and it was in this little city that I grew in to a comfortable understanding of sexuality. After spending my first year in a Christian hostel, I moved in to a house that was a part of a faith based intentional community involved with social justice issues in Wellington. I view this period as having been formational in the deconstruction and reconstruction of my Christian faith and in my discovery of feminism.
I live with 9 other flatmates and common dinner conversations revolve around Christian faith, politics, environmentalism and feminism. While living here, for the first time in my life I experienced a freedom in being able to explore faith and feminism in an accepting environment. Many of my flatmates held conflicting opinions about the Marriage Amendment Act when it was being read in Parliament. Some of my flatmates err more on the conservative Christian side of the debate, while many others object to the train of thought that equates non-heternomormative sexuality with sin. These debates reinforced my relief at having come to a place of critical engagement with my faith and acceptance of queer sexualities. When I look back and think of Ross, my father’s best friend who was gay, I can see that I was confused and torn between acceptance in church, and the relationships with my family and friends that didn’t fit in to church ideals. Towards the end of his battle with cancer Ross attended a large, queer-friendly church in Auckland. The last time I saw him before he died was when my father and I visited him in his hospice. He noticed that I was wearing a cross pendant as a necklace, and started up a conversation about God which took me by surprise. I can see now that I was a teenager trying to make sense of the world around me, perhaps finding comfort in the systems and boundaries that the church provided.
Many feminists have discussed the importance of phenomenology and the lived bodily experience of women, especially in relation to sexuality. The lived experience of sexuality is central to the formation of a woman’s personal identity, and also sexuality in relation to reproductive potential is hugely influential on her social identity. I would take this further and say that given sexuality is a central factor in the subordination of women - a means through which gender differences are reinforced and historically a way in which women have been controlled by men - a feminist understanding of sexuality cannot be realised unless from a phenomenological perspective. Parsons (1991) describes Christian attitudes to the body and to sex as flavoured throughout by the notion of renunciation. Women experience their own bodies as good, but are taught to understand them as dangerous, or only good within conditional boundaries, thus accepting a view of themselves which is not their own. As a woman in the church I was taught to think as a disembodied being; the flesh was advertised as sinful, and to transcend it in pursuit of holiness involved denying it’s desires and the legitimacy of its experiences. It was almost a relief to be able to escape from the confusing turbulence of my teen years and the sexual pressures evident in my high school culture to a place where my body did not necessarily represent who I was – perhaps I was in a way grateful to my captor for freeing me from the messiness of dealing with such ‘messy’ issues of identity.
I do struggle to reconcile my recently empowered and critically aware self with the girl inside me that still reverts back to sex gender dichotomies in cases of uncertainty, but I believe that this is a part of the struggle to create a space outside of dominant religious discourse. Sexuality is central to human identity and my sexuality is my choice, made not as a hostage of a patriarchal institution, but as a culturally and historically placed woman exercising agency over her body. I think that it is hugely important to critically analyse and question the assumptions about gender that we grow up with, and are constantly surrounded by. The outcome of my journey has created a space for me, somewhere in between discourses of feminism and discourses of religion, where sexuality as a female is distinctly flavoured by both ideologies. The following poem by Kaylin Haught (1995) sums up my feelings very well:
God Says Yes To Me
I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don't paragraph
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I'm telling you is
Yes Yes Yes
Parsons, Susan. (1991). Feminist Reflections on Embodiment and Sexuality. Studies in Christian Ethics, 4(16), 16-28.
Haught, Kaylin. (1995). God Says Yes To Me. In Kowit, Steve, The Palm of Your Hand: The Poet's Portable Workshop. Tilbury House Publishers: MA.