In the moments when I feel a sense of powerlessness coming over me (as I've often felt in the Trump era), my first impulse is to freeze. Numbness spreads. I lose my will to speak. What can I say in the middle of all this? What can I do? How can my small hand do a blessed thing to stop the world's bleeding?
My second impulse (when I am still warm enough to feel) is to look back at old things, at personal things. A critical voice tells me that it's silly to look back at your personal history in times like this--times when the destiny of the whole world feels uncertain. Times like this when--even if you haven't suffered directly--you still feel in the locality of your body the weight of movements in the world that are directly hurting others. You feel absurd, ridiculous, taking refuge in the sphere of yourself and your stories.
But a gentler voices tells me that the world is too big for me, too big for all of us. I can speak to it only in the small things. I am here in the world. Somewhere, my story meets what is happening globally. I may not know what it is yet, but we'll get there. Maybe roundabout, but we'll find where the stories converge.
In the past few months, I've started to think more deeply about sexuality. Many of the catalysts for these thoughts are what you might expect. My formative years were spent moving about as a female body in the patriarchal world of American evangelicalism. I've been a feminist in some form or another for a good eight or nine years now--almost a third of my life. I've thought and written about the toxicity of evangelical purity culture, not just in regard to sexuality, but in the mode of approach to anyone or anything that is deemed outside the bounds of evangelical culture (however those borders are variously defined). I've cognitively moved away from theologies that denigrate and devalue the body.
But getting those toxic theologies to leave the sacred site of my body is easier said than done. I genuinely and enthusiastically cheer on women around me who celebrate their bodies, most especially women of color and sexual minorities to whom the dominant culture attaches additional layers of stigma.
But when it comes to my own body and sexuality, I hesitate. I hold back the celebration. I am afraid. I've only just started to realize how deeply I've been conditioned to feel ashamed of sexual pleasure.
Not too long ago, I read an article arguing that females of every species have sex for pleasure, but women are stigmatized for wanting to enjoy sex. It wasn't anything I hadn't heard before, but it jogged my memory of what I've known for several years (and mostly try to ignore): I am shy of my own body. I'm not shy with my husband (with whom I've always felt comfortable), I'm shy with myself.
After reading the article, emboldened by the example of the female rat (who apparently really really loves clitoral stimulation), I initiated sex with my husband.
When we were done and moving on to the next thing, about to make coffee, I suddenly found myself crying, trembling. In the aftermath of deliberate pleasure-taking, I felt intense shame. I don't usually feel guilty for lovemaking, and my body's response took me by surprise. After some thought, I realized that I still--on a visceral level--feel the stigma against female self-pleasure. My way of coping, of keeping shame at bay so that I don't feel perpetually guilty for having sex, is to hide in my husband's pleasure or in the pleasure of "us."
This doesn't mean I don't enjoy sex. It means the politics of shame are still in place and that I've been trying (mainly) to manage them instead of rooting them out. It means I still feel unduly guilty for taking pleasure. My framework assumes I am secondary, not equal, and that I should not delight in myself. It presumes that the self does not to deserve to enjoy itself--its validity and pleasure depends solely on the affirming gaze of another. This approach to sexuality is the enemy of self-giving because it assumes that I am not first my own to give (or choose not to give).
The stigma against my own self as a sexual person runs deep. I look back at my teenage self harping on what I considered modest dress, listening to my pious talk about not "stumbling my brothers in Christ." In retrospect, looking at my adolescent writings, it's clear that I very badly wanted to stumble someone--not everyone, but someone. All that covering up wasn't because I didn't want to allure. I covered up both because was afraid that I would be seen and found wanting, and because I didn't want to be labelled as "that kind of woman" (what a dreadful phrase).
I've not wanted to go here in my writing for the same reasons. Even I still have women divided into categories in my mind. There are the intellectual ones like me who write in the safety of the abstract. And then there are the women who write about shocking things like rat masturbation. Obviously, the lines are starting to blur.
Looking At The Self
I've started to re-read my girlhood diaries as a step toward healthy self-love. One day, if I become brave enough, I'll sift through the 150 letters that I wrote to my future husband (thanks for the tip, Brio!) from age 15-17. Thus far, I've only been able to break the seals on 15 (yes, I used sealing wax on every single one) to read them with my actual husband (who in no way corresponds to the imaginary "future husband" addressed in my letters).
I feel one half embarrassed and one half delighted when I read my old writings, especially those from my pre-adolescent and adolescent years. This is mostly (I think) because I see in little Rebekah a well of desire and longing to be known, but she doesn't see this. It isn't obvious to her. She doesn't have the language to express--even to herself in the privacy of a diary--her desires. Like most of us most of the time, she hides behind a veneer of words, half of them overly-dramatic phrases picked up from movies, the other half God-language.
She makes me laugh, but she also makes me blush. I can see need oozing out of her onto the page.
As soon as I grew old enough to be aware of my need for affirmation, I took great care to hide this need. I don't think my habit of hiding is unique. None of us are seen as much as we want to be seen or as much as we need to be seen. And when it comes to seeing ourselves, many voices hold us back.
We all ask for affirmation in different ways. But overt pleas for affirmation leave you vulnerable and are almost always disappointing. We all know (if not by experience than through film) the terrible moment when one person works up the courage to voice how they feel: "I love you." And the other person just says, "Thanks." And it's dreadful because you aren't saying just, "I love you," but asking the question, "Do you love me, too?"
The romantic scene is the one that makes it into popular mythology, but we ask for affirmation in many types of relationships. But we can't feel affirmed by just anyone. It's not simply a matter of someone pronouncing a distant verdict of "good" on us. We want someone to see us, to trace our details, and respond with pleasure. We wish more than anything that someone would pay attention, notice us, and answer with genuine wonder.
So here I am confronted by little Rebekah who is both me and not me. I am embarrassed by her need because it reveals in the most telling ways the need of adult Rebekah. Because of this, because she is me (or a window to me), I choose to resist the shame and lean into the delight. I look at the contours of her tiny being, paying attention to her awkward flailing for love.
Why do we ask such abstract questions like, "Who am I?" The infinitely more practical question is, "Who am I in this story?" You must love yourself in the same way you would love your neighbor: by noticing her details and responding with pleasure. This is the gesture toward self-love. Looking at your details, looking long and hard. Taking in all of yourself, taking generously, taking pleasure.
Reading through my diary from 1996-2001 (age 9-14), a few themes recur. I liked boys, watching the PBS series Wishbone, collecting rocks, writing stories, and pleasing God.
I was polyamorous in my crushes and felt perplexed by this (if not also guilty). Over the span of five years, I managed to devote nineteen pages to the nineteen boys that were the objects of my unrequited love. The illustrations are the same on each boy's page. Beneath "I love [boy's name]" are two smiley faces, a pair of lips (labelled "kiss," lest the reader be in doubt of its meaning), a pair of outstretched arms labelled "hug," a heart pierced by Cupid's arrow, and a two boxed wedding rings. "[Boy's name] and Me," is written on the pierced heart.
The diary is filled by my quandaries about my nature and the nature of love:
"I love Harrison, but how can I have a crush on two boys?" (age 9).
"I like Jillian's brother, Jacob. I like him as in I'M IN LOVE WITH HIM. I also like Jim and Jerry O'Dell. The boys love my impression of Barney" (age 9).
"I love five boys, but my favorite is Harrison" (age 9).
"I found out that love, like romantic love, is not having a crush from the start and liking them. It's when you don't know you like them, and just grow fond of them. Like with Derek Ferris, I didn't really like him that much, he fought with other kids and isn't handsome, but I have grown to love him. Being so young, I am not absolutely sure what love is, but my conception of it is nice" (age 11).
"I think Rudy is very insensitive. He was bullying this kid. I made a resolution not to like him, but it isn't working very well" (age 11).
I also had strong feminist leanings, feeling indignant whenever boys teased me for being a girl or said I couldn't do stuff with them:
"I almost hate the O'Dell boys for the way they treat me. They say words like 'my little maid' and they say boys are stronger than girls. But Jesus wouldn't hate them, so I will just love them and forgive them" (age 9).
"Jerry O'Dell is annoying because he said I had little hands" (age 11).
What surprised me most looking over these writings was the few overt references to sexuality. I don't remember ever consciously thinking things like this, let alone writing about them:
"My feet are still growing like crazy. I just bought sandals. And now I have new sneakers, My old ones hurt my feet. I haven't had my period yet, but my breasts are developing. I am having weird pains in my left leg and right big toe. Also weird is that I know I would never have sex and I don't know what it feels like either, but I think of it every time I think of a boy. I think it's normal, though, because Benj [my older brother] says that's how he feels sometimes about girls" (age 11).
I also felt a very keen tension between my love for God and love for boys:
"[Jackson] doesn't seem to draw me farther away from God, like my other crushes. I am not absolutely certain the last sentence is true. Maybe I'm only fooling myself. I don't know. I'm just gonna have to keep praying" (age 14).
It's clear, judging by my diaries and future-husband letters, that I felt this tension throughout teenhood and beyond. I believed that feeling was bad, that God was jealous. I couldn't love any boy too much or God would (for my own spiritual health) want to take him away. It could only ever be me and God on life's lonely road, and God was that mysterious, unknowable Ultimate. This meant that I would forever be a mysterious unknowable, always hiding in God, perpetually afraid of myself.
This fear of knowledge is really what I find so problematic about the world I grew up in. Implicit in our theological framework was the notion that knowledge and desire is the antithesis of faith. It marked humans as innately bad, seeing us as a danger to ourselves and the world, as bodies to be contained and distanced rather than known.
The idea of God then becomes a cover, a mask to shield us from ourselves and from one another. It excuses us from the responsibility (and pleasure) of becoming acquainted with ourselves and the world. It relieves us of the impulse to love our neighbors and ourselves because God will do it for us. Fear of the self is the end of knowledge, and displeasure the enemy of love.