By Laura Sook Duncombe
When I think back about it, I’m so angry I can hardly handle it. Who writes a book like that? And who gives it to young girls?
“Every Young Woman’s Battle: Guarding Your Mind, Heart, and Body in a Sex-Saturated World” was given to me by a friend in high school. She was a youth-group veteran, this girl who had given me my first F.R.O.G. and P.U.S.H. bracelets, and I took her word on religious matters as Gospel. I loved Jesus with all my heart, but I wasn’t able to express it openly like she did. My relationship with Jesus was intense but private—I hoped this book would help make it public. Boys got turned on by what they saw, the book informed me, so it was my responsibility to protect my Christian brothers from sinful thoughts. Suggestions included wearing layers of clothing to insulate me from the boys’ gazes: no low cut tops or short shorts. I started wearing at least two shirts at a time, and jeans under my skirts and dresses. This was my job to save my classmates from sin. And I was happy to do it.
I was particularly susceptible to this, because I was a “good” girl. I thrived on pleasing adults and saw this as a way to be even more pleasing. I would cover myself up, make my body disappear, and thus become an even better girl. By hiding my sinful curves, I would become invisible: children are supposed to be seen and not heard, but girls are not even allowed to be seen.
But it was not enough to protect my Christian brothers from sin—I had to protect myself, too. Popular music and TV might give me ideas about sex, make me feel certain feelings. And I had to be ever vigilant against these feelings and crush them if they showed up. Even if they felt good, they were not good for me, the book promised. “You have to decide whether you are going to trust your own judgment in your pursuit of sexual purity or whether you are going to look to a trusted advisor for guidance.” This book’s message: do not trust yourself. And for years, I listened. I viewed my body as a ticking time bomb, just waiting to betray me. If I felt desire, it was a sin to be conquered. If I enjoyed the feeling of sun on my bare shoulders, I was hedonistic and should put on a sweater to protect my brothers in Christ. I was afraid to wash myself in the shower, lest I accidentally linger too long on my body and enjoy the touch. I avoided being naked as much as possible. Sometimes I awoke from a steamy dream, body sweaty and throbbing, and I prayed for God to forgive me for those poisonous thoughts. I had a dim concept that someday long in the future I would get married and I’d have to have sex, but that was years away and God would lead me once I got there.
But once I got there, there was no instruction manual or divine intervention to guide me. I thought my body would know what to do, but I had been denying my instincts for years, and I no longer knew what felt good and what didn’t. Pleasure had been avoided for so long that I wasn’t sure I would recognize it if it happened to me. Slowly, carefully, my husband and I have been exploring touch—I am learning to be an inhabitant of my own body for the first time. I’ve taken to wearing cashmere and silk, trying to get used to feeling something sensual without shame. It’s strange and surreal—like taking off blinders and realizing the world is full of color and light. It’s beautiful but awfully overwhelming. I could have used some time to get used to it.
The irony of the whole thing is that God never meant this for me. Despite everything, I still love Jesus with all my heart, and I believe that He did not want me to spend years ashamed of my body and its natural urges. I don’t think God wants us to go around rutting like animals as soon as we hit puberty, but I think that the man who hung out with prostitutes and said “let ye among you without sin cast the first stone” understood that it’s complicated. And I am certain that He never meant for my purity to be a bargaining tool or something that passed from my father to my husband. But some members the religious right have imposed these ideas onto Jesus and are putting them into the hands of young, impressionable girls. And it’s a terrible, awful thing.
Desire does not have an on and off switch. It cannot be fully ignored and rejected until a wedding day then flipped on at a wedding night. I was lucky; my husband is patient and committed to helping me undo the damage. But other women—friends—have still not escaped this trauma. When I see copies of this book in stores, I turn the covers backwards so it’s harder for people to find them. I want to protect girls from it. Even bright girls can fall for this shit—I’m living proof. Girls already grow up afraid of men, who will harass, oppress, rape, and murder us—we do not need to grow up afraid of ourselves, too.
Laura Sook Duncombe is a part-time lawyer, part-time YA novelist, and full-time Christian feminist nerd. Greek epic poetry, Sherlock Holmes, and musical theater are a few of her favorite things. Visit her blog at laurasookduncombe.wordpress.com, as well as her Twitter, @LauraDuncombe1.