On “Virginity,” Women, and Worth

Let me tell you a story, and a couple of brief anecdotes.

A girl I went to summer camp with as a teenager was from a pretty observant Christian family — mostly Catholic but not exclusively so. She’d been raised to value virginity, and was very proud of the fact that she was a virgin despite the pressure she felt from her circle of rich, popular, athletic friends. And she used to regale us with stories of how she would lie to her parents and tell them she was going to a friend’s to study, and instead go to her boyfriend’s house and spend all day skinny dipping with him… etc. She also had strong views about the circumstances around re-pledging one’s virginity — apparently you could have intercourse exactly once and then repent, and God would accept you as a virgin again, but after that, if you had intercourse again, it “counted;” you were officially defiled at that point, and probably shouldn’t wear white at your wedding.

I have friends who are virgins by some variation of the technical definition, but who’ve fooled around with dozens of people, who’ve struggled with pornography addictions, or whose sexual fantasies dominated their thoughts. I also have friends who aren’t virgins by any of the most common understandings of the term, because they were raped or molested or sexually abused.

And speaking of how we define virginity, I read a news story a few weeks ago about Quebec barring doctors from performing “virginity checks” on girls as part of their annual physicals. It struck me, once again, how much our culture’s language of sexuality aims its force at women — a “prude” is usually a woman, but so is a “slut.” Physiologically, too, we too often attach the concept of virginity to intact hymens — body parts men don’t even possess!

Christians have an obligation to be more biblical than that, to refuse to put an unfair burden on women (who are substantially more likely to be victims of sexual abuse than men) or on men (who are much more likely to feel cultural pressure to be sexually active and to use pornography than women are) in the way we talk about God’s purposes for human sexuality.

I think it’s long past time we quit talking about the ideal for Christians’ sexuality in terms of “virginity.” What, honestly, does the word “virgin” mean if it can be applied to a person like my summer-camp friend above and a person who’s never been so much as kissed, but not to a person who has been sexually victimized? What purpose does it serve to hold up virginity as the standard, if not to confuse the “experienced,” alienate the abused, and stir up pride in the hearts of the “inexperienced”?

To those who might object that “virginity” is just shorthand for “sexual purity,” is there any real sense in which a pornography addict is sexually pure simply because he or she hasn’t had intercourse? Is there any sense in which a sexually victimized person is not sexually pure simply because sex acts have been forced on him or her? It’s ludicrous to think that God’s design for human sexuality can be summed up with a word that frankly isn’t used all that frequently in Scripture.

So once again I’m going to propose that we speak of chastity rather than virginity or even sexual purity. Virginity is a state of being, but chastity is a choice, an ongoing, daily decision to live one’s life in a way that embraces God’s design for sex and sexuality. Virginity, for most people — those who marry as well as many who don’t — is temporary. Chastity is a permanent lifestyle that continues into marriage, because it encompasses all godly expressions of sexuality. It’s just as accurate to speak of a chaste single person, a chaste husband or wife, a chaste person separated from his spouse, a chaste divorced woman, a chaste widow or widower.

Chastity is about a life, a choice, a path of dedication. Right now, as a woman who is not married, chastity is a way for me to witness to the ultimacy of Christ, over and above romantic or sexual love. My life, by God’s grace, can become a picture of the future God has for all his people. If the Lord purposes marriage for me, that path of chastity simply continues as my life becomes a picture of the church’s love for Christ.

Our bodies matter to God, it’s true. He made them, down to the minutest detail. But for those of us who have been made new in Christ, what we do with all of our lives in these bodies matters, not just a few parts. Let’s stop categorizing one another based on what we have done, or what has been done to us, with just a few of those parts, and begin to encourage each other to walk now in a way that honors God.

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How Some Feminism Is Also Marxism (And How This Is Not That)

I said in my series prequel (which… I need to learn to quit telling people what I’m going to write about unless I have the articles written because if there’s one thing I know about myself it’s that I am fickle, dude) that I’m not a Marxist. But the reason I mention Marxism in this context at all, is that I think Marxism and the whole class struggle worldview are foundational to pretty much all modern feminism — and, indeed, to most counterculture movements. Furthermore, I think many of the problems Christians have with feminism stem from our gut-level objections to Marxism, and that, if we can disentangle one from the other, we’ll be surprised at how much common ground there is between our two worldviews when it comes to women.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to use “Marxism” as shorthand for something like this: the set of beliefs and ideas in which the pattern of history is one of class struggle wherein powerful classes, using the structures and institutions of society (government, the Church, marriage, education, etc.) to secure their power, are locked in a struggle with the powerless classes who will, inevitably, rise up to overthrow them and the institutions they control; all those who stand in solidarity with the oppressed class are considered friends while all those who attempt to remain neutral must be crushed as supporters of oppression.

One of the most frequently-recurring themes in the conversation around modern feminism is this idea of “the patriarchy,” which, in the view of many modern feminists, is responsible for many of the wrongs women have suffered throughout history. While it sounds a bit like a conspiracy theory, it’s not — it’s better compared to the cultural water we swim in than anything most folks are aware of. It comes down to something like this: societies have been structured to favor the rule of men for lots of reasons (men are physically stronger than women, most women pre-contraception spent a lot of time pregnant which tended to limit their ability to, like, conquer and swashbuckle and whatever kings do to amass power). This leads inevitably to men oppressing and exploiting women because, you know, power corrupts, and since people in power usually like to keep it, it also leads to men enshrining their power in law at the expense of women. This “patriarchy” concept encompasses all the historical privilege, dominance, power, and authority that men have in a society, plus the way men use those things now — almost always unconsciously — to their own advantage and the disadvantage of women.

I think it’s important for me to be clear here: I don’t necessarily have big problems with this assessment. Men have almost always had more political and social power than women. They have, because of their sinful nature, sometimes used this power to make laws predicated on untrue assumptions about women, laws that unfairly burden women or infringe on their human rights. And — in much the same way that racist politicians in the post-Civil War south leveraged the “poor white” vote to shore up their own agendas in the face of potential enfranchisement of black citizens — powerful classes throughout history have been invested in portraying men and women in ways that make conflict between the sexes seem normal, and that instill fear that the rights women gain will infringe on the rights of men, so that those powerful men could keep their power.

But I think it’s also important to be note that my agreement is far from comprehensive. To the modern feminist, men and women have been locked in a perpetual battle for power, men have always had the ascendancy, and women (together with sympathetic men, and in solidarity with other oppressed and marginalized groups) have the obligation to rise up and overthrow this oppressive patriarchy in order to usher in a future in which there are no gender-based hierarchies — or any hierarchies at all, because the problem, in this view, is that some people have power over other people. To modern feminists and many modern folks generally, authority structures are to blame, and dismantling those structures is the solution.

It’s at this level that I part ways with modern secular feminism. I just don’t buy the Marxist vision of class warfare or the end game of a world in which there are no hierarchies. I think hierarchies and authority structures are built into human society by God — they’re a feature, not a bug. Hierarchy isn’t the problem. The problem is that men and women alike are, at a fundamental level, messed up by sin, and if you take a look at the consequences for sin given to all of us, fallen in Adam, it’s pretty easy to understand why some people look at history as a clash between two sides. Identity. Desire. Power. Work. Biology. That’s not a list of lecture topics from a Gender Studies class, y’all, it’s a summary of the stuff that sin messes with and that the curse affects. And as we can clearly see in that same passage, the end game isn’t overthrowing all hierarchies, it’s placing all authority structures where they belong: under the reign of the true King who will crush the usurper Satan.

But what all that doesn’t mean is that I’m somehow compelled to disagree with every assessment or proposed solution that comes out of a modern feminist’s mouth. Far from it. Feminists are right to be vocal and angry about misogyny, about exploitation, about stuff ranging from sexist jokes to sex trafficking, from how cops ask rape victims what they were wearing to how our society sees illegal sex workers as criminals rather than victims. We should be just as vocal about, and just as emotionally invested in, those things.

And I’m going to prove it.

Brace yourself next week for a look at some of the many and sometimes surprising areas we might find ourselves agreeing with secular feminists.

“Women Aren’t as Visual as Men” and Other Dangerous Lies

I read yet another article today in which a mother of boys reminds young women to be cautious about the pictures they post of themselves on facebook. It was all fair enough, though made slightly ironic by the photographs of her sons doing muscle-man poses in their swim trunks that were scattered throughout the article. But post Twerk-Gate, I’m not surprised by the content: the message that girls need to be counter-culturally modest gets recirculated around the Christian blogosphere every time a celebrity strips off in public or there’s a new case of teenage boys being arrested for passing around naked pictures of their girlfriends. You could practically write a Post-Scandal Mad Lib template: something about degradation, something about self-respect, something about how far our society has fallen, and a whooooole bunch about modesty, but only, or at least primarily, in the context of preventing lust among men and boys.

It’s all well-intentioned and mostly not terrible, but when it comes to modesty… you already know how I feel about that. (If you’re too lazy to click on those links, here’s a tip: in the Bible, modesty isn’t exclusively or even mostly about not looking “sexy.” It’s not mostly about covering up. It’s not even mostly directed at women, or in reference to men.)

But you might not know how I feel about the underlying assumption of a lot of these appeals, namely that men are always and forever, world without end, stimulated visually, and women just… aren’t; that there is a direct line between scantily clad women and men’s sexual sin, so please please ladies, if you love your brothers, cover up — I know you don’t understand because you’re not wired that way, but we are, so please please please…

So are you ready for this? That stuff is just not true. Men and women are different; that’s awesome, hooray. And I think mothers and fathers need to encourage their daughters (and sons!) to dress and comport themselves with modesty and dignity… but y’all, come on: we can’t just look at men, extrapolate from their experiences and preferences, and then assume women are the opposite. It’s lazy. It’s ridiculous. Women are women, humans made in God’s image in their own right, not just un-men. People will often cite these mysterious “studies” in which it is “proven” that women are more into words and men are more into pictures. But let me tell you why I have a problem with that.

First, I’m not sure you can deduce biological causality about men’s wiring from actions and characteristics that could just as easily be attributed to cultural expectations about how men act and what they like. A boy who’s grown up in our porn-saturated, women-as-props-in-male-fantasies society is not exactly a good control subject for an experiment designed to reveal pure biology. Second, just anecdotally, I don’t know one (straight) woman who isn’t physically attracted to the hotness of “hot” guy, whatever her definition of “hot” is. No, not every woman finds shirtless Ryan Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love attractive, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t visually stimulated for goodness’ sake. I also don’t know any men who don’t care about personality or character when choosing a potential spouse. And regarding that last point, I think it’s terribly insulting to men to imply that they’re basically just big hairy bundles of id, derping along until they find themselves in proximity to a hot, immodestly-dressed woman, whereupon they can do nothing but fall immediately into sexual sin.

Third, I think this set of lies is particularly dangerous because of where it leads. A couple of anecdotes:

A popular marriage book (which I won’t name here lest I get some of its terrifying supporters in the comments) describes in graphic detail the supposedly-true story of a young man, filled with lust at the sight of the snug-skirted young woman standing in front of him in church; the book’s author blames the young woman’s immodesty for causing his problem, implying that the young man’s lust was a purely biological response for which he couldn’t possibly be held responsible. If you can’t see the danger of blaming women for the sexual sin of men, maybe you need to read about the judge who last week sentenced a 49-year-old man convicted of raping his 14-year-old student to just 30 days in prison, claiming the victim’s maturity and apparent sexual control over the relationship as mitigating factors in the perpetrator’s guilt, despite the fact that, in the state of Montana, a 14-year-old cannot legally give consent, and the fact that the girl went on to commit suicide.

In addition to that issue, there’s also the fact that pornography use among women has skyrocketed in the last few years; among older teens and women in their early 20s, rates are rapidly approaching those of men of the same age. When we constantly beat the drum of Men Being Visual And Women Being Emotional, we are driving women who struggle in this area into seclusion and shame; when we offer resources to conquer porn addictions primarily in the context of men’s accountability groups, or hasten to add, “We know this won’t apply to most of you ladies” when teaching about pornography, or in any other way make sexual sin a male or female thing, we are heaping condemnation on these sisters, who now have to deal with feeling like freaks because they’re struggling with something that “isn’t really a woman problem.”

When the sum of our exhortation to women regarding sexual sin is to tell them to avoid Fifty Shades of Grey and make sure they don’t show any cleavage, we’re doing a disservice to them. When we treat men like out-of-control sex maniacs, we’re doing a disservice to them. When we talk about any sin as though it’s the exclusive territory of one group or another in the church, or rely on stereotypes and hackneyed statistics, we do a disservice to everyone in the church. Let’s seek a better path.

International Women’s Day and Casual Misogyny

Happy International Women’s Day!

Today in class we were talking about NASCAR driver Danica Patrick and how she (or rather, the popular portrayal of her) is an embarrassment to women everywhere because, although she’s ostensibly famous for her sport, she’s a) not as great at it as her fame would suggest, and b) far more famous for taking her clothes off and being a spokesmodel in skanky ads. We talked about how offensive it is to both men and women to depict women as empty-headed, easily-controllable imaginary objects just sitting there for male consumption, and I said something about how it turns them into these infantilized child-women, whereupon a student piped up with, “That sounds like a really bad superhero. Infantilized Child-Woman to the rescue!”

So we came up with a whole scenario for Infantilized Child-Woman, who goes around “rescuing” women from intelligent, deep conversations that aren’t about men, and turning them into flirtatious bobble-heads with one flick of her ruffled costume, and who foils male criminals by strutting around seductively until the cops arrive. Her arch-nemesis is Intensely Nerdy Boy, on whom her powers are useless because he prefers the smart girls he meets at ComicCon, and his secret weapon is a Fandom Gun, which makes everyone he shoots it at so involved in a fan community that they stop paying attention to Infantilized Child-Woman. Muahahaha!

I’ve been thinking about this today, a paraphrase of something I saw browsing just now on my lunch break: we need to stop thinking of sexism as part of an identity — i.e., so-and-so is a sexist therefore a wife-beater, a rapist, a woman-hater, etc. — and start thinking of it in terms of actions. Anyone can casually devalue women, and we, both men and women, do it all the time. So many things, from using pornography (i.e. consuming women’s degradation) to implying that women shouldn’t complain about discrimination (because we can, like, vote now and stuff), are sexist, and no amount of, “But I love women/am a woman!” negates that.

We might rightly roll our eyes at the antediluvian attitude that a woman’s place is always in the home and preferably in the kitchen. We might, I hope, get involved with charities that help free women from sex work. But it’s easier to let slide that sort of casual, condescending misogyny that applauds Danica Patrick equally for taking her clothes off and finishing 40th in some race, because it’s so subtle and so ubiquitous. It’s the kind of sexism that we need to be most careful of because it’s the easiest to slip into, the easiest to absorb from women’s magazines and sitcoms, and, I think, the toughest to eliminate.

But we have an obligation to value women, to treat them with the dignity they intrinsically have as image-bearers of God, creations whose absence prompted God to call something “not good” for the first time ever. Christians must strive never to be open to the charge of denigrating or diminishing that value, however casually or incidentally.

Big Scary Topic: Feminism, Part One

This first post is pretty timely, it seems. You see, prizewinning and bestselling British author Hilary Mantel recently gave a talk entitled “Royal Bodies” for the London Review of Books’ winter lecture series. It’s one of the more fascinating things I’ve ever read on famous women and their bodies and how we view them, and I encourage you to read it in its entirety. It’s also turning out to be the talk that launched a thousand rhetorical ships: of course every British paper had an opinion, most of them pretty well to be expected (The Daily Mail’s coverage could be summarized, as usual, as WE ARE HORRIFIED BY WHAT WE ASSUME WAS SAID); even the Prime Minster waded into the fray, missing the point rather spectacularly. Twitter has been ablaze with the question of was-it-ironic-or-wasn’t-it (hint: yes), and NPR highlighted the controversy during their main news broadcasts today.

All that to say, a lot of people are thinking about big issues right now — women and how freely we comment on their looks, fame and beauty and objectification and otherness and what exactly these bodies of ours mean. Those are important topics, and I guess I’m about to tackle some of them.

But I think I need to issue a few denials before I forge ahead, and maybe a couple of affirmations. So here goes.

I believe men and women are different, and that any effort to flatten out gender distinctions is going to end in… absurdity. But I also believe that there are any number of ways to act and be feminine or masculine, not just one (more on this later).

I’m no Marxist; I think it takes a lot of blindly clinging to one’s assumptions in the face of evidence to the contrary to look at human history and deduce that hierarchy is the problem that must be overcome in order for people to thrive. Some hierarchies are awesome and some of them are terrible, but the existence of abusive, exploitative power structures doesn’t invalidate the hierarchy as A Thing. And honestly, does anyone over the age of 35 who has ever read a history book still believe that a human society completely without hierarchy is even possible on any kind of scale or for any length of time? So no, I’m not going to be arguing that women need to rise up and overthrow some mythological worldwide Illuminati patriarchy so that society can progress toward its next evolutionary incarnation.

I don’t believe that “society” as some abstract entity has an agenda to “keep women in their place.” I don’t think that what this country needs, necessarily, is more women in ________ industry or field. I do think that looking at a circumstance — say, the fact that women are underrepresented in the sciences — and failing (or refusing) to consider that the reasons for that circumstance might be incredibly complex and even, perhaps, tied to the innate strengths and weaknesses of the genders, is just head-smackingly stupid. I think it’s lazy-minded, thoughtless, callous, and just plain rude, on the other hand, to dismiss all such disparities as merely representative of gender differences rather than societally-influenced.

I don’t think “feminism” as a worldview has any real solutions to the problems of society. But I think traditionalism, for most of us in the Evangelical camp, poses a far greater danger. It’s a prettier poison for many of us, and a subtler one. We need to be able to hear past the talking points and bumper-sticker slogans and strawmen of the feminist vs. traditionalist shouting match and get down to what the Bible actually teaches about women and their value, about objectification, about bodies. And I am convinced that we’ll have an easier time locating Biblical Christianity in the syncretistic miasma of modern traditionalist religion if we spend some time looking at feminism’s critiques of traditionalism.

So there you have it, I suppose: a bit of an introduction to the Big Scary Topic of feminism.

In the coming weeks or however long I feel like writing about this because it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want, GOSH, I’ll be looking at such topics as Plato, Augustine, and the body; big ugly traditionalism and its little ugly cronies; objectification and othering; and, Lord willing, really scary topics like sexual identity, orientation, and even (gulp) rape and sexual abuse — and how feminism and Christianity intersect at those points. Fasten your seatbelts.

Reasons/Excuses/Fear

So. I started and stopped and started and stopped writing a series last year about feminism and the church and Christians and how we’ve historically been so opposed to the negatives of feminism (and caricatures of feminism) that we’ve thrown out the stuff we could really stand to learn from feminists and ignored the beliefs we share with them. I would read something exciting, get pumped to write the series, do some research, and then freak out because… well, for the following reasons in no particular order.

  1. The Internet is not known for its ability to understand subtle, nuanced arguments; trolls are no fun to deal with.
  2. I don’t want people to think I’m some lefty wacko, or that my views on this subject mean I’ve abandoned historic Christian teaching on God’s will for human sexuality and gender.
  3. (REALTALK:) I don’t want dudes to read this and say, “Ew, I don’t want to marry some man-hating feminazi.”
  4. Not a lot of people want to read about things like sexual abuse, objectification, the male gaze, and other five-dollar terminology that tends to populate the syllabi of Women’s Studies classes at universities across the country… no matter how much I absolutely believe they need to believe rightly about those things.
  5. It’s easier to write about Downton Abbey and the Bible study Methods class I’m teaching and the fun stuff I do on a Friday night (HA!) than about deep, complex issues.

Are those reasons? Are they excuses? Are they nothing but manifestations of my own fear of man? Am I basically permanently walling myself off from marriage by writing about feminism? (No, seriously, am I?)

Anyway, I feel really strongly about this stuff, and I think I’m going to go for it. So I guess the alternate title of this post could be “In Which Laura Psychs Herself Up.”

Details, Part Five: In Which Agony Aunt Laura Troubleshoots Your Dating Fails

“Dear Agony Aunt Laura,” you say, “I screwed it up. A totally good dude asked me out and instead of saying yes, I let out this huge spiel about why I couldn’t go out with him, but I was just nervous and I didn’t really mean it and he’s really cute and now I’ve RUINED MY CHANCES FOREVER and I’m probably going to DIE ALONE and be found three weeks later half eaten by Alsatians. What do I do?” Or, “I’ve liked this girl for months but I didn’t know what to say and now I do, but we’ve hung out in groups so much that I know she’s put me in The Friend Zone, and now I don’t want to ask her out for fear of causing awkwardness. Little help?”

Well, I’ve got a twofer for you today, friends; a little advice for the ladies and the fellas. Guys, you first:

1. Waited too long and now you’re friends and don’t want to make things weird? Lame. Carpe diem, bro. Adults can be friends with people they asked out or went on two dates with. Asking a girl on a date is not a proposal. It’s not even saying, “I could marry this girl.” It’s starting an investigation. Like I said: is she interesting? Ask her out. If she says no, that’s fine. Just go back to being friends. (Ladies, this goes for you too; if a guy friend asks you out and you know his character and find him interesting, go out with, him for crying out loud!) The boundary between “friendship” and “romance” is porous. Don’t get so freaked out about the difference between girls-who-are-friends and potential girlfriends. Pick up the phone and make the call. Do it.

2. Flirted, charmed, complimented, sent long emails, texted with her until the wee hours, unburdened your heart to her, hung out with her in datelike situations, basically treated her like a girlfriend without actually asking her out? Brace yourself for some tough love, guys: You’re a jerk and you need to repent. OK, you might not be a jerk, but still. Repent. Because those actions say, “I want to win your heart,” but refusing to actually ask her out says, “I don’t actually care enough about you to think about how my choices influence you, and I’m cool with lying to myself about your level of heart involvement so I can keep getting my emotional needs met (but only on my terms).”

If you’re doing this (or some degree of this) right now? Then, hombre, you need to open a new tab and start composing this girl an email. I’m serious. Vamos. That email will differ depending on your situation. Do you actually like her and have just been a total bonehead about it? Tell her you’re sorry and want to start over by asking her on a proper date. Have you just been using her as a romantic placeholder until a hotter girl comes along? Apologize for your actions and assure her that you’ll be changing the way you behave towards her. And then cut that out. Next time you want a girl to act like your girlfriend, make sure she’s your girlfriend first.

3. General screwups merit an email, too, albeit a much shorter and less-serious one. Got all marriage-y/relationship-y on the first couple of dates? Keep the tone light, and tell her that you’re out of practice on this whole dating thing, you got carried away, and you’d like to assure her that 100% of the conversation on the next date will be about movies, food, travel, or music. Name-dropped all your semi-famous grad school profs — by their first names (or just generally came off insufferable)? Apologize for being a clod and ask for a do-over. Keep it to the point. No rambling, no excuses.

4. Listened to your bonehead roommates and waited too long to call after a date? Relax. Call her, apologize for the delay, don’t make any excuses, and then ask her on date two. (But, guys, don’t be shocked if she tells you she’s gonna pass. Many, many women have had a really painful, heartbreaking experience of being strung along at one time or another, so if she says no, it’s probably not personal, it’s just, you know, once bitten twice shy.)

Now ladies:

1. Wigged out when he asked you out? The only mature choices: cut your losses or ask for a Mulligan. Seriously. Call him up, quick, apologize profusely for being a stammering boob, explain that you didn’t say what you meant, and tell him that you should have said yes, of course. And laugh! Laugh at yourself! It’s funny! You’re ridiculous! You’ll tell this story someday and crack up about it anyway — why not start now?

2. Came across as high-maintenance, catty, ice-princessy, whatever? Email time. Short and to the point: “Hey, I really did have a good time last night and I realized after I got home that I acted ______________ when I really didn’t feel that way at all. Sorry about that! Chalk it up to first date nerves. Do-over?”

3. Worried that you’re leading him on if you’re not super into him at first? Please. Don’t worry about this until… like… date five. Besides, you’re not leading him on unless you’re acting like you like him when you don’t. Being open-minded and willing for your attraction to grow is just smart. As long as you’re having fun and are still interested in finding out more, keep going out with him. On the other hand, if your interest isn’t growing, don’t be afraid to call it quits. It feels fantastic to have a good guy interested in you, I know. It’s a little addictive. But if you know for a fact that you’re not into him after, say, date four, do the kind thing and move on (and go ahead and enjoy the fact that a good guy liked you enough to ask you out, girl).

4. Responded favorably to a dude who did what I mentioned in the guys’ #2 above? Ooh, child. Toughie. Been there. A man who does this is either not ready for a relationship or not a good guy. Email time: redefine the terms of your friendship (as in, back to “friends” rather than “OH GOD I LOVE him and I THINK he likes me but I just don’t KNOW ohtheAGONY”), emphasizing that you’re not going to act like his girlfriend any more without actually being his girlfriend. It’s not an easy step, but it’s so necessary. Again, short and to the point is best. Try to keep it to a paragraph so you don’t accidentally end up confessing your undying love to him. (What? Like that’s never happened to anyone else?)

Everybody:

Dating is awesome. Not only is it the best way to find a mate, it also gives you tons of life experience — getting along with lots of kinds of people, figuring out the opposite sex, being a good conversationalist, dealing with screwups and successes gracefully. It’s a grownup thing to do. So do it more, OK?

Fellas, I have a serious, legit challenge for you. Ask a girl out in the next week. In fact, make it a contest: challenge your roommates or work friends or the dudes in your small group to man up and ask a real live flesh and blood woman, someone you know and see in person, on a date. Whoever doesn’t, gets… I dunno, dogpiled or sucker-punched or whatever it is men do to people who lose these challenges. Or set yourself a challenge to ask one person out a week until someone says yes. I bet it won’t take nearly as long as you think. Y’all are awesome (seriously: I know some of you reading this are off-the-charts solid dudes) and you can totally kill it.

Ladies, I have a challenge for you too. Make it a policy to say yes to good guys. You need a better reason to say no than, “He’s only a barista” or “I don’t want to date guys who look like me” or “He’s five years younger/older than I am.” I’m talking about serious stuff, like “He dumped my best friend last week after dating her for six months,” or “He hasn’t had or looked for a job in five years” or “I find him absolutely, utterly unattractive both physically and personally.” Say yes. Really. Let that be your default answer, even if he’s not exactly your type, even if he’s “only” a barista/UPS box-slinger/T.A./waiter/still in school. You want the men around you to act like men? Then you act like a woman. Respond. Go on, what’s it going to hurt?

All right. I am tapped out on this topic for the time being. So go forth, y’all.

Details, Part Three

It’s a little crazy to think about this, but so many people in my age range just don’t know what to DO on a date or after it. So first, a little help for the ladies. Overarching theme: just be a normal, nice, friendly person.

1. Encourage his planning. If he asks for suggestions, give them, but let him make the plans. If he’s being weird about it and hemming and hawing about things, say, “I’d love to do x, y, or z, but you decide. I’m happy with any of those.” Some guys have baggage-y mom/sister/ex experiences that mean they’re afraid to make a decision lest they end up with a moody, silent woman in their car or across the table from them.

2. Have a mental list of five or ten questions you want to ask him. Favorites lists are good here — what are your top five favorite books? movies? albums? tv shows? places you’ve been? places you’d like to go? experiences you’ve had? shows you’ve been to? And then, of course, you can follow that up with a “why?” Normal conversational questions are great too and super-revealing — family, upbringing, job, college, stuff like that.

3. Again, laugh at his jokes. Smile a lot. Be interested. Ask follow-up questions. Be open. Think about your body language and your face. Relax. Even if you aren’t crazy about the guy — and this is crucial — be willing to be persuaded.

4. If he asks you out again and you’re keen (or can see potential), go out with him again. If you’re not, stick with the simple answer from date one, but with a VERY little elaboration: “Thanks, I had a nice time (unless that’s a lie), but I don’t see anything happening between us.” I recommend two or three dates (real dates, not “we were at the same movie night”) minimum unless a huge red flag came up on the first date.

5. Forget what Clueless taught you about boy time and variations thereof. Forget what Seventeen Magazine taught you about how to tell if he’s a keeper. Forget what that well-intentioned lady in your church told you about never dating a guy who doesn’t open all your doors. Cut him some slack. You’re not running an audition for the role of your own personal Mr. Darcy. Cut yourself some slack too. Just take the whole thing down ten or twelve notches in your brain. If you find yourself playing the “what if” game, just answer the question. What if he never calls again? Then he was a jerk and you’re well rid of him. What if he doesn’t like me? Then you pull up your big girl panties and move on, chalking it up to experience. What if I don’t like him? Then you let him down easy and he chalks it up to experience.

Details

In reading a few things on The Internets recently, it has occurred to me that many 20- and 30-somethings just actually don’t have the skills to ask out or be asked out. I, in my 12 years as an unmarried adult, have been on the receiving end of seriously great and seriously awful efforts in the dating arena, and have responded both well and poorly to those efforts, so I want to just throw my experience and advice out there. Hope it’s helpful.

Part one is for ladies.

Gals, it’s a risk for a guy to ask you out. Recognize that. Men are screwups and klutzes just like we are, and we need to give them a break. So, with that in mind:

1. Encourage your guy friends. Be nice to them. Ask them questions about themselves and their lives. Be an interested, interesting conversationalist.

2. If you like a guy, be extra encouraging to him. Smile a lot. Laugh at his jokes. Don’t suppress your natural feminine responsiveness. Dare I say it? Flirt. Not in a shameless or provocative way, but in a responsive, open, charming way.

3. If a guy asks you on a date, say yes, unless there is a glaring (and I mean glaring) red flag. I’ve turned down guys I had absolutely zero attraction for, both personally and physically, or whose request for a date sounded more like a marriage proposal because that level of intensity is not something I want to encourage. Overall, I’ve probably said no to three or four guys in my life, counting junior high and high school. If he’s a nice guy, a Christian, and you think he’s interesting, say yes. On a really practical level, say something like, “Sure, sounds great. What did you have in mind?”

4. If you have to say no, keep it simple. Don’t patronize him with a line about how great it is that he was brave enough to speak up (done that). Don’t make up some nonsense about how you’re “not really into a relationship right now” (done that too). And for the love of everything good and holy, don’t feed him that awful nonsense about how you just don’t think it’s God’s will. God is not your scapegoat, girl. Be kind but not long-winded. Cook up a brief response, practice it in the mirror, and stick with it. He’s a grownup. Treat him like one. My canned response is, “Thanks so much for asking, but no thank you. I appreciate the thought!”

Choosing Singleness?

I don’t think that (most) Christians in my generation are making some sort of conscious choice not to marry. Many of them are making or have made practical life choices that have resulted in or contributed to prolonged singleness, but I don’t think many, if any, of them set out at age 20 to postpone marriage indefinitely. Most of them, frankly, simply lack the skills to make marriage happen. This is a big indictment on men, since they’re the initiators, but many single women also lack skill in encouraging and responding to godly masculinity when they see it. It’s also a pretty serious indictment on our parents’ generation, unfortunately. Somewhere along the line many parents forgot that they had a duty to pass on a legacy of maturity and responsibility to their children and became enablers of adultolescence instead — many parents even misguidedly encouraged their children to put off marriage as long as possible! (Side note: if you think young people today are too immature to consider marriage, the solution is not to tell them to postpone marriage; the solution is to encourage and teach them to grow up!)

But we have to begin where we are. We have to dismantle the lie that people have an expiration date past a certain age, or that a person’s singleness is either their choice or their fault — most of the time it’s really neither.

No, I wouldn’t like to try online dating, but thanks for asking.

I’ve given some thought to just coming up with a brief little canned response when people ask me why I don’t try ReformedChristianSingles.com or eHarmony or whatever. Brief, because they do NOT want to hear the whole spiel, which goes a little something like this:

Marriage is good and I would like to be married. But it is not the goal of my life. The goal of my life is Christlikeness. Now, if I felt like there was some Christlikeness-obtaining value in me signing up for eHarmony and going on dates with strangers, then I would consider it. But all that would be accomplished if I personally signed up for a dating service would be for me to be more focused on marriage as a goal and a purpose for life, rather than more focused on Jesus. Online dating isn’t inherently evil or anything, and I know many happily married people who found their match online. But online dating is also definitely not for everyone, and I can tell you without the slightest hesitation or doubt that it is NOT. FOR. ME. 100%. End of story.

 

Here’s the thing: I think for some people, they can sign up for eHarmony or whatever, humbly submitting to God and feeling like He’s leading them through the whole process to the person He means for them to marry. But for ME, with my personality? It’s totally going to be me either saying A) “Look, Lord, you’re not doing things quick enough so I’m going to take it into my own hands, thanks,” or B) *siiiiighh* “Fine, I guess if I don’t want to be a pathetic spinster for the rest of my life, if I want my life to have any meaning, I’d better just resign myself to whatever loser I can find online…” And both of those things are founded on total lies, and completely stupid, and I’m not going to have anything to do with either of them. You dig?

See? People are not going to want to stand and listen through that whole thing.

Honestly, Why Do We Need Posts Like This? Argh!

I have blogged about this issue before (ahem, several times), but the firestorm of comments on a couple of Kevin DeYoung’s posts (darn that guy, always writing stuff I wish I’d written) makes me think it’s time to revisit.

Look, people. There is nothing inherently wrong with or less mature about being unmarried. Paul? Pretty darn mature guy. Jesus? Him too. Also: Marriage isn’t the silver bullet to make you grow up, and it’s not a superior status. Also: Don’t give advice to people you just met. Also: Don’t try to fix people and certainly don’t try to “fix” them with pithy axioms. Also: Don’t be a jerk. Also: The golden rule, you guys. Nine tenths of the hurtful, ridiculous stuff that gets said to single folks could be eliminated if people just remembered their basic kindergarten manners.

That stern intro aside, here are some Dos and Don’ts, bullet-point style:

DO pray for your unmarried friends. DON’T just pray for them to get married. (At a loss? Start with “Christlikeness” and go from there.)

DO be on the lookout for potential mates for your closest unmarried friends. DON’T assume that you can make romance happen between two of your friends however much you want it to, and DON’T accuse your friend of being “picky” if he or she says, “No thanks.”

DO encourage your unmarried friends to grow in godliness, contentment, and maturity. DON’T imply (or say!) that any deficiency in these areas is what’s standing in the way of them getting married.

DO offer specific counsel when appropriate to your level of friendship with your unmarried friend. DON’T just offer pat answers — why don’t you move churches, why don’t you try online dating, why don’t you do speed dating, etc.

More soon on the right and wrong way (or… a wrong way and a better way) to fix up two friends and other ways for you married folks to step into the lives of unmarried folks.

Guidelines for the Guidlines (Part 1)

1. Modesty is not primarily about women helping their brothers in their fight against lust.

Lust is a problem. It is. And Christian women ought to be concerned for the purity of their brothers. But the claim that modesty is about keeping men from sinning? That’s shallow at best, and misleading at worst. After all, one of the most oft-cited passages about modesty (1 Tim. 2:9-10) has nothing to do with provocative clothes, but rather with gaudy, showy clothes.

2. Modesty is primarily about all believers desiring to point away from self and toward Christ, killing their desire for recognition, and removing stumbling blocks from the communication of the Gospel.

Godly, Christ-centered humility, service, and selflessness are the heart of modesty.

3. Modesty includes speech, attitude, and comportment first, and dress only secondarily or by extension.

Remember, the Gospel is communicated with words, so speech matters, and words are always accompanied by nonverbal communication, so attitude and comportment matter. Modest dress is an extension of a humble, servant-hearted, selfless desire to point to Christ with our words and actions.

Just one more thought about “frumpy is not the same as modest.”

My barometer for all those rules about how I can dress is this: Does it work? In other words, if the problem of modesty is about seeking attention and recognition for myself, does wearing long skirts and baggy tops and never cutting my hair work to make me humble and selfless? Obviously, the answer to that is no. If I can wear the Christian “uniform” of a long denim skirt, nylons, boxy shoes, a baggy top, no makeup, and uncut hair and still be eaten up with pride, or worse yet, have that costume FEED my pride, I need to check my heart!

I think there are a whole lot of women who need to take a look at our hearts long before we take a look at our skirt length.

Frumpy is not the same as modest.

If the purpose of modesty is to make women responsible to protect men from their own unchecked lust, then we end up with the hijab and the burqa. Obviously most of us would reject this.

But even if the purpose of modesty is primarily to help our brothers keep their thoughts pure, which is, I think, where most women start in this discussion, then we end up with dumpy sack-dresses and people arguing that anything that reveals that a woman is a woman must be immodest.

Lent, Day 2: In which the top of my head shoots off.

OK, I have to get this off my chest. Sorry it’s such a long, rambling bit of nonsense. If it’s too long and rambling and nonsensical, I won’t be offended if you skip it. 😉

Fellas: you are misinterpreting data, to your own frustration and the frustration of many, many single women around you. In 2011, a woman who has a career and a college degree (maybe even an advanced degree) and a mortgage, who pays her bills on time and takes her own car to the mechanic and hasn’t lived with her parents in ten years is not necessarily, by definition a raging feminist who thinks she needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Nope. She is NORMAL. Got that?

Tip: that’s the summary. If you’re sufficiently convinced, feel free to stop right here. Need more persuasion that you oughta change your mind? Read on, my friend.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, women in the business world were rare. The average age of a first marriage was still in the early-mid twenties for both men and women. And the message from Western culture was loud and clear: Sisters, get into work. You can still decide to have children later, after you’ve gone up the ranks in your job, after you’ve accomplished something “real.”

Add to this the shame that generation of feminists heaped on men: you’re irresponsible, power-hungry, insensitive; you’re someone to be resented and competed with, boxed in, restricted, pushed aside, stepped on.

But, guys? That was thirty years ago. Somehow, it seems, too many Christian men are still being taught to see career, mortgage, and financial stability in a woman and interpret that as “feminist, not wife material, run far far away”!

I grew up being taught not to waste time or money sitting on my hands, and that it was ungodly to waste my gifts and opportunities. You know who taught me that? Not just my mother, though she certainly did. No, it was the women who had, thirty years ago, bought the lie that they could subjugate their God-given desires, that those desires were wrong, that “wife” and “mother” were not the most honorable titles they could seek, but that they were rather titles to be avoided. These women, who learned through bitter experience, taught me to cherish my God-given desire for marriage and motherhood, but also to seize whatever opportunities the Lord put before me. They passed on their experience and wisdom, and started to break down that paradigm.

In my bitter moments, I want to sock every Christian single guy who whines about modern women being overly independent, and tell them that, if they didn’t propose to a girl in college, it’s their own fault there are all these career women running around. But in my better moments, I just want to be helpful.  So let me help you.

Most of us, brothers, are working, paying our bills, getting promotions, working on our degrees, and all those other things, not because we  don’t  want to get married and have children.  It’s because we had the opportunity to use our gifts in a job, or use our finances more wisely by buying instead of renting, or develop our skills with an advanced degree, or whatever… and haven’t had the opportunity to get married and start a family. Most of us would happily re-arrange any or all of those things for the right man, if given the chance.

If I have one word of caution, it’s this: guys, you tiptoe toward slandering your sisters when you silently accuse them of selfishness, unhealthy independence, and unbiblical attitudes toward femininity just because they have careers and mortgages — love, after all, believes the best about people. You are misinterpreting the data, and coming to wrong conclusions. Don’t be put off by a woman who makes a decent living at a job she’s good at, a woman with an advanced degree, a woman who owns a home. Don’t assume the worst about her.

Thirty years ago, a power suit and a mortgage might reasonably have meant this was a woman who didn’t want marriage and family. It doesn’t have to mean that anymore. Got it?

Titus 2 is for Single Girls, Part 1

In my observation, when a pastor preaches on Titus 2, this is what often happens (caution: hyperbole ahead):

Married guys, MAN UP and lead your families!  No!  Just shut up and do it!

Married ladies, you need to be mentoring younger married ladies and teaching them what you’ve learned.  We love you, and we know it’s tough to be married to us horrible, horrible men.  Don’t be discouraged even though we keep telling you that you have the hardest and most-critical-not-to-screw-up job in the world and that you’re basically 100% responsible for your both your husband’s fidelity and his self-esteem.

Single dudes, have some self control, and get married!  And quit watching porn and playing video games!  And get a job!  And move out of your parents’ basement!  And you suck!  And there’s basically no hope for you!  UGH SINGLE DUDES UGH.

Single ladies… uh… I dunno.  Be patient I guess?  Maybe?  Yeah, I got nothin’.

At Sojourn we’re blessed to have pastors who handle God’s word… well, a lot better than that, and I could address the problems with each one of those paragraphs, but I’m only going to deal with the last one, because I think it’s the place where even the most well-intentioned, careful, Gospel-centered teaching can kind of go off the rails.

What do we do with single women in the church?  In the case of Titus 2, I think what we often imply is that her calling is on hold until she gets married, and even then that her calling hasn’t reached its ultimate fulfillment until she starts having kids.  Then, we seem to say, you’re really living out your calling, sister.

How do we make sense of the biblical teaching that seems to speak primarily to married women with children, when all around us — both in the Scriptures and in the Church — are unmarried, childless women?

I think the key is to begin to see the connection between calling and identity.  Calling, in the Scriptures, is a function of identity — sometimes a current identity; more often what we might call a prophetic identity, a declaration of a new identity given by God to the person he’s calling.  So when we see passages that call us to a certain set of actions or attitudes, I think it’s important to ask what identity is behind those actions.

For example, God calls all Christians to care for the poor and the alien.  What identity is behind this?  Ultimately, we are a people whom God has rescued from the ultimate poverty and alienation, and we paint a picture of the Gospel when we reach out to the poor and alien.

What about Titus 2?  What is God telling all women about who we are (or are becoming by grace) through these instructions to married women with kids?  I’ll address that in Part 2 tomorrow.

Greatest Hits: What CAN I Do, Then?

(Originally Posted September 18, 2007)

Since I won’t be writing much while I’m on Spring break this week, I’ll be posting some of my previous favorite articles, slightly edited in this case.   I’ll be back at it on Monday, March 29th.

Much as we claim to hate them, there’s something kind of appealing about the simplicity of rules, isn’t there? Do Not Feed The Lions. 45 MPH. Keep Off The Grass. Simple. There are people whose careers have been dedicated to figuring out rules for other peoples lives: advice columnists abound. There’s even a book called The Rules. Heck, there’s an entire genre — the “self-help” genre — that’s dedicated to giving people rules for everything.

So here’s the quandary: as believers, our lives are no longer defined by our adherence to the law. God’s word makes it perfectly clear that we cannot live up to the standards God has set.  That’s the bad news.  But the good news is that the Eternal God came into time and space in flesh and obeyed God’s law, to the letter, in our stead.  We are free from the penalty of the law and from its curse.

But… I like rules. I would love it if someone would just tell me exactly how I’m supposed to behave.

So, rather than striving for Christlikeness, for actions defined and bounded by grace and characterized by love, I make myself a little rulebook. Don’t look at x. Don’t say x. Don’t think about x. Don’t do x. This much of x is all right, but this much is too much. No flirting. No R-rated movies.  No romance novels. No ice cream.

With all that running through my mind, is it any wonder that I stopped today and wondered, “Well, what CAN I do, then?”

You might be surprised –or, if you’re alive, you might NOT be surprised — at how difficult it is to figure out how to act when all you have to go on are injunctions and prohibitions. It’s like a professor who gives a writing assignment, and when you ask for help he tells you, “It shouldn’t be written in Swahili and it can’t be about the 17th century Spanish monarchy.” Not helpful.

In my daily interactions, I’ve discovered that the Law of Christ is harder than rules. Far from being an easier way to live, Christian freedom is much more complicated and mentally taxing than legalism. It requires that I search God’s word. It requires prayer. It requires discernment, and accountability, and community. It results in mistakes, sometimes mistakes I don’t even realize until later. But it also produces humility, maturity, wisdom, deep friendships, equanimity, contentment, and joy. It causes me to trust the Lord, because there’s not always crystal-clear dictation in Scripture for the minutiae of life (by which I mean, there’s no 3 Corinthians 8:14 that says, “And to my single sisters I say, not I but the Lord, that thou shalt behave thusly toward handsome young men…” Although, wouldn’t that be kinda awesome? Anyway).

“This side of heaven,” as my dad says, I’ll never have it all figured out. I’ll continue to fail in how I strive to be like Christ. But I praise God that he is already at work, never sleeping, always faithful, until I am conformed to the image of his Son.

Rewording Stuff*

One of my old roommates and I had many conversations about this: When you’re single and in your late twenties, you don’t want to have to wait some indeterminate amount of time until you get married to have decent plates or towels that match or a non-twin size bed, or whatever.

It’s not necessarily that we want to project the image of being that utterly independent, home-owning, job-loving career woman who doesn’t need anyone, but I think that’s the vibe people often get when women choose not to wait until they’re married to quit living like college students.

Keep throwing money away on rent, eat off mismatched plates, settle for hand-me-downs, work crap part-time jobs, and wait for the right man to come along? Or buy a house and your own dishes, find a good career, and give everyone the impression that you’re a Lone Ranger and don’t want a man at all?

*Based on thoughts and comments AGES ago on the lovely Fiona’s blog.