You are a teenager before you notice boys, though at this age, with their bad skin and loud jokes, you are not interested in any of them. Your attention falls, instead, on the men in the novels you devour. Laura Ingalls’ Almanzo Wilder. Eowyn’s Faramir. Elizabeth Bennet’s Mr. Darcy. You linger on passages, something stirring in you that feels foreign and terrifying, like the breasts you did not ask for and do not want.
Now that you are a teenager, the church talks to you constantly about desire. You hear a lot about purity, but nothing about consent. In church, there is no need for consent, because the rules are very simple. Before marriage, the answer to any question must always be no; after marriage, yes, always yes.
You are pulled aside with the other girls and taught that men are visual, that they may struggle with lust or pornography, and you are all asked to help your brothers by covering your bodies. That you too will struggle, that you too will lust, you are left to discover alone, each of you wondering if you are the only broken woman in the world.
At church you learn this, to cover your shoulders and to make sure your skirts always fall past finger-tip length. You also learn about peace, and forgiveness, and eternity, and when you think about everything later, how it all turns out, you will not be bitter. You will understand that there was an exchange made—moral rigidity for a space carved out beyond the reach of the world.
In this charmed space, you were allowed to be a child far longer than any of your peers. You played with stuffed animals and made daisy crowns. No one hurt you; you were rarely sad.
You were fortunate that no one shattered this innocence. If you had been assaulted, for example, you would not have had the words to describe it. You were eleven or twelve before you realized that “penis” is not pronounced like “pen,” and at least that age before learning that the middle syllable of “vagina” is not pronounced “gee,” which, anyway, you were not allowed to say because it was too close to taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Can you imagine if someone had hurt you? It had been mortifying enough to tell your mother when you got your first period. Can you imagine if it had been someone from the church? You would have had to go before the elders, who were also your best friends’ fathers—an all-male jury, tall as giants, their heads a gradient of vanishing hair. What words would you have used? You would have rather died.
You’re only nineteen the summer you work at a hotel front desk, and you look young, so young that an older woman pulls out her phone without asking and snaps a picture of you.
“Isn’t she precious?” she says to her husband, gesturing at your goldilocks braids, your polyester uniform top, your trainee badge.
That’s how young you look when, alone at the desk, you check in another guest, just one more ageless white man in a tight shirt and an expensive watch. He smiles at you, flirts blatantly, and when he sees you shrink into yourself, he seems to grow two inches taller.
Later you won’t remember what he said to you, but you’ll remember the way your skin crawled and the customer service smile slipped off your face. You’ll remember being short with him, much shorter than you meant to be, and you’ll remember the way his face also changed, falling in an instant from smug and inviting to smug and cruel.
Later, your manager pulls you aside. The man complained.
You sit through the warning (our guests come first!) understanding what your error had been. You had broken an unwritten contract, this man’s understanding of how the world worked. You had not laughed at his double entendres. You had not humored him. You had not flirted back.
Such a small incident, in the scope of everything. The man’s revenge is minor. Your warning, whether because of sympathy or absent-mindedness, is never written down. A few months later, you leave the job, go back to school, and your life continues. But you can’t shake it from your head, and as you get older, you’re frustrated by the fundamental unfairness of the rebuke, and haunted by an even more unwelcome emotion—shame.
Had you said something during the innocuous process of checking him in that had provoked his words? Was the outline of your bra visible through the cheap polyester top?
Sexual indiscretion, you have learned, comes as a direct result of the places you go, the clothes you are wearing, what you drink, the way you dance. You are taught to guard yourself so tightly that you blame yourself for even the acts that are committed against you. Men’s eyes fall on your budding chest—you put the shirt at the back of your drawer. Men’s words fall at your back as you walk downtown—you hunch your body, walk faster.
But if these indiscretions are to be endured, apologized for, you have no mental category for the attention that one day, suddenly, wholly, irrevocably, you realize you want.
There’s a boy, and despite what you’ve been taught, you want him to kiss you —you spend entire days imagining his lips on yours, his body against yours. Of course, you cannot tell him this; you are ashamed to admit it to yourself. Instead you need him to read your mind. If he takes you in his arms, you know that you will follow him like a dancer follows her partner’s subtlest cues, your body vibrating with energy, tight as a coiled spring.
He cannot ask to touch you, because the correct answer would be no; it must always be no. But if you don’t allow the words to be spoken or the spell to be broken, you can pretend it is nothing more than the night, the way the birds fly overhead, the stars. You can pretend you are leaning against him because it is cold, and that what happens next is neither your fault nor his.
You are a young woman. After all these years, that is what you have internalized, this is what you have been taught—sex is something that happens to you. That you can be both guilty party and passive agent, this paradox doesn’t occur to you. You’re afraid to think too hard about it. You’re afraid to admit that you think about it at all.
If sex is preached as sin, it should be preached with a broader remedy. Surely godly sexuality goes beyond abstinence preached by the letter; surely it extends to respect and honor of other persons and of the bodies that belong to them, and only them.
So many children are startled and shamed by the desires that are part of their bodies’ wholeness.
So many girls and women blame themselves for acts committed against them.
Men and women who are never taught about enthusiastic consent and emphatic refusal enter into relationships where they hurt and are hurt, regardless of which physical boundaries are crossed, regardless of whether or not they are married.
The church is already talking to its children about sex. These teachings are black and white, with marriage a clear, dark line between what is good and holy and what is sin. Some members of the church community have met the #MeToo movement with something like a smirk, taking it as a sign of the world’s brokenness and the church’s moral superiority.
But one need look no farther than sexual infidelities and assaults being committed by church leaders from every sect and denomination to realize that this is something that the church must reckon with. One need only listen to the growing number of voices saying #ChurchToo, calling out harassment and abuse in church spheres.
More broadly, in the United States, more than one in six women have experienced criminal sexual assault, and so many women face sexual harassment that the question is not if but when. More broadly, in the United States, nearly four out of five single evangelicals have already had sex, a fact that they’ll admit in anonymous surveys, but never to each other, and never out loud.
You are a child.
You are sixty.
You are only nineteen.
You are the women raised by the church, holding up the church, and you deserve more from the church.
Teaching? Reckoning? Or only an acknowledgment:
You are not invisible.
You are not broken.
You are not the only one.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).