TW: Childhood sexual abuse.
I was three or four years old, young enough not to have any vibrant memories and young enough not to understand what was happening to me. Young enough not to communicate anything to my parents. Young enough to trust my older cousin. Young enough to follow him into secret spaces away from adult eyes.
He was old enough to know better, old enough to know that what he was doing was deeply wrong, old enough to know the amount of trouble he would be in, old enough to teach his disgusting predatory ways to his younger brother.
Years later when I was old enough to process what had happened, I was also old enough to suspect his brother of leading our younger cousin to similar hidden spaces and old enough to intervene. I knew that his games of hide-and-seek were not innocent and refused to leave him alone with her. But what could I say?
I was old enough to understand the conversations our moms were having in hushed tones in the dining room and old enough to feel betrayed, to wonder if they had those conversations when I was little. I was old enough to resent them for not really doing anything, not teaching these boys better. I’ve never been brave enough to join the conversations, to confront my parents, to do anything but ignore my abuser and try to forget that he exists.
There were no tools to talk about these things in our sheltered communities. These things are just buried, swept under rugs. Sure, were these young men caught in the act there would be a momentary scolding, but how long would that last? And where is the help to the little girls who have no outlet to process, no one to reassure them that they are not to blame for what happened, that they deserve better, deserve to be protected?
I deserved to be protected. I was not to blame for what happened to me.
As I start to sift through my religious trauma, to recall the indoctrination of my adolescence one particularly painful doctrine stands out. I was not spared from purity cultures damaging grasps and I have come to believe that its teachings retraumatized my young developing body. Though this was unintentional, I suppose my youth leaders were simply ill-prepared for the ramifications of purity culture's teachings to those of us who have experienced childhood sexual assault. I don’t think they ever knew of my own experiences, or at least I can’t remember sharing with them the flashbacks I experienced nearly every time sex or relationships were talked about. And I want to be clear that it is not because sex was talked about, it’s the way that sex was talked about that triggered these memories and this trauma. It’s the way that female bodies are covered to keep male bodies from lusting. It’s the way we are told to hold virginity as the highest goal. It’s the way metaphors are used to talk about bodies that are not virginal, a gift that needs to be saved, chewing gum, a crushed flower.
But you see, I could never claim to be untouched. My gift was savagely stolen from me, spat out and stuck to the bottom of a shoe, wilting in the light of a holy God. And it was my little three-year-old body that a male lusted after. She didn’t dress herself, but I’m sure she was covered. What did she do to deserve this?
Are you feeling queasy? Good. You should be because this is fucking disgusting.
Let’s break down some of the messages my developing body received from purity culture, shall we?
1. Female modesty is the remedy for male lust. Being told that the clothing choices I made would cause unwanted attention from predatory men was confusing, to say the least. Being told that my clothing choices could make these men stumble or “sin” is downright victim-blaming. Need I connect the dots for you of how damaging this message could be for a girl who had been sexually abused as a child?
2. Sex outside of a heterosexual marriage was sin, full stop. With no space to attempt to dissect the new sensations I was experiencing in my developing body, I was constantly racked with guilt for feeling any form of sexual pleasure. No one told me this was normal, that my body was just growing and learning to be a woman.
3. My virginity was my most precious gift and should be saved for my husband. In case any of you were wondering, I did save myself for marriage. But, let me tell you, switching my brain from believing sex was dangerous and evil to good and wonderful once I was married was a damn nightmare. Not to mention that I felt it necessary to disclose my sexual abuse in all of my relationships just so that my potential future husband would know what he’s getting himself into before committing. I was damaged goods, after all.
I realize that all of the evidence that I have provided is anecdotal, but I do feel confident in saying that there is something seriously fucked up with the evangelical sexual ethic. Labeling sex as taboo didn’t protect me as a child growing up in a conservative Christian family, and it did more damage in retraumatizing me as I developed into a woman in Church. I would like to go even deeper with you, providing more specific examples, but I’m finding writing this post excruciating as it is, so I will leave it there for now.