I went to visit my mom the other day, and on the way to her house, I walked past a church I thought about attending once or twice.
I chuckled to myself as I remembered I hadn't set foot in a church in more than 15 years, save for once back in '97 for my mother's sham of a second wedding.
My grandmother, consummate matriarch and fear inducing tyrant she was, brought me to church with her every Sunday without fail as soon as I'd moved to New York. Each Sunday it was the same deal. I'd get all dolled up in a brand new dress or suit. My grandmother would then put makeup on my nine year old face and make sure my hair was perfect. Then off I'd go to Sunday School. This went on for years.
I don't remember exactly how old I was when I started to question church, but I remember mulling over all the mixed messages I was getting and feeling like something wasn't right.
At the ripe old age of thirteen, I told my Grandma I wasn't going to church with her anymore.
She didn't speak to me for weeks.
Even now, over a decade later, whenever I see her, I get the distinct feeling she's resisting the urge to tell me I'm going to Hell.
When one is young, the presence of God in one's life is fairly uncomplicated. But when puberty hits and hormones start to rage and you start to notice the opposite (or, heaven forbid, the same) sex, then things get kinda fuzzy. I wasn't yet thinking about sex at thirteen but most of my friends were, with one already having done it and with more than one person to boot. She, still a good friend of mine, was a Jehovah's witness and she used to tell me things like sex before marriage was wrong and that even masturbation was wrong. That one I got a real kick out of.
This friend of mine was pregnant and had her first child during our very first year of high school.
I'll never forget the day I received a tearful phone call from her. She called from a pay phone to tell me she had just been excommunicated.
I was angry. Angry because if I were a church official and a fifteen year-old in my congregation were pregnant, I would want to know why. I would want to ask some questions. I would want to educate her, let her know what her options are, help her. I certainly would not kick her out of church, likely the one safe haven she had in her life. I would not order the rest of the congregation to pretend they don't see her if ever they happen upon her in the street.
This friend, by the way, went on to raise a beautiful and well adjusted child. She finished school with honors and today holds an advanced degree. This friend buckled down and held it together better than women twice her age finding themselves in the same predicament.
Fast forward to a couple years down the road when I myself finally lost my virginity. I say finally because even though I was still on the young side, all my peers had been doing it for years. I suppose I was one of the lucky ones. He was a great guy, my first real love and we had a good relationship. But even through the dizzying feelings of first love and finally "becoming a woman," I felt this persistent sense of impending doom.
I'd had sex.
I wasn't married, hell, I was still a minor.
I was going to Hell now for sure.
While blossoming into a woman, a young sexual being, I felt great. Yes, there were the fears and insecurities that come with starting to have sex (and when you become a little more seasoned you realize that those feelings are there no matter how many times you do it) but in all, it was a tremendously joyous experience and a period of awakening for me.
The church tells you that you can't have sex and have God, that you can't be spiritual and be sexual. The two seem to be forever mutually exclusive. The exception is if you are married, and even then, there are still many who believe that sex exists solely for procreation and that birth control is unholy. God forbid you have fun while you have sex and when you do, you'd better be married and producing offspring.
Well, I call shenanigans on that rhetoric.
Why can't you have sex and have God?
The deep rooted causes ironically have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with economics. We aren't so far from the days when women were considered the property of her father until she became the property of her husband, often being negotiated and traded like chattel between the two. A respectable man wouldn't consider touching a woman who wasn't a virgin. He needed every assurance that this woman would not only bear children because failure to do so was just cause to send you packing and back to Daddy, but bear children whose paternity could not be questioned. There had to be a clear heir to the land and house and goats. It's why the prostitute was so reviled in society. She was a woman who took her economic and sexual destiny into her own hands and that was directly at odds with the goals of the patriarchal system.
If I were a young woman and my father didn't lay the whole going-to-hell guilt trip on me, I might get the crazy idea that sex was intended for my enjoyment. I just might have a lover or two before, or even after I found a husband. I might dare to enjoy myself and my sexuality. I may even bear a child. And that would raise all sorts of questions, for these are the days before DNA testing on the Maury show. Who's kid is it? Who's going to take care of it? Who's fortune will it inherit?
If I had the fear of God in me however, all these questions become moot and men could continue to pass their fortunes and legacies down to their first born males who can then in turn oppress their own daughters. The patriarchy had even disenfranchised female deities and religious doctrine that celebrated female power and that looked more benevolently on sex, giving us a stern and wrathful male image of the Divine to worship instead.
I am not knocking the traditional family structure because it has it's benefits, but the idea of primogeniture is basically obsolete in today's society. With no land and house and goats, our children inherit our fears and hang-ups instead.
The same year I moved to New York, a controversial film called The Last Temptation of Christ was released starring Willem Dafoe as Jesus.
In one scene Mary Magdalene, played by Barbara Hershey, is finishing up her "day's work" when Jesus comes to visit her. She rebuffs him. She obviously loves him greatly and he her but because he'd pledged himself to God he felt he couldn't be with her. Jesus then makes known to Mary his intentions to "save her."
And then Mary makes a gesture that I found to be one of the most profound in the film. She takes Jesus' hand and slides it down between her legs and says "You wanna save my soul? Here's where you'll find it."
It's no wonder this film cause an uproar. It presented the idea not that sex can be a healthy part of a spiritual life, that there need not be such a harsh dividing line between the sexual and the spiritual.
Indeed the sex can be a means to God unto itself. I know I myself have never felt closer to the Divine than when engaged in a powerful sexual union. Sex, at it's best, can be a wonderful teacher, a mirror that has the power to make us better people.
I know that sex is not always at it's best, not always employed for a higher purpose. But even in those instances, we learn and we grow.
It makes no sense to me that God is at odds with that.