Sometimes I feel like there is fault line that runs between single and married women. It can often feel like women on both sides of the divide are gazing across at each other, wondering what is going on over there, on the other side, without ever attempting to cross the divide created by one adorned little finger.
When I was single, I remember trying to interact with the married women I knew. I remember feeling like they didn't really listen to what I had to say. It seemed like they were always so quick to give me advice that always summed up as "Just wait and it will all work out." Then they would launch into their own personal experience finding a husband as if it somehow was the golden ticket for finding a man. To be honest, though, I didn't really listen back. I found their advice irritating, if not sometimes silly, and quickly chalked them up as not relatable.
Now that I'm married, I still feel the gulf. My single friends like to do things more spontaneously and later at night. They are always with other singles. They somehow both want and are offended by my relationship advice in the exact same way I was some years ago. I'm on the other side of the divide now.
What I often find myself wanting to tell my single friends is that marriage isn't a piece of cake. I remember so many married women saying this exact thing to me and reacting to it really negatively. Of course, I thought, but at least you have what the rest of us want. Honestly, it felt like a queen complaining about the weight of her crown to a peasant looking for food. To my mind, marriage was hard, yes, but it seemed like winning the game we were all playing and with that win certain doors to life and status opened up.
But now, I do know it's not a piece of cake. Any person in a healthy marriage will tell you marriage is beautiful wreckage. It involves the total collision of two people traveling at high speed in pursuit of their own wills, and nothing but a major accident brings them together. It is an incredibly beautiful thing. But marriage is also an incredibly painful thing.
I believe that the pain of life is what can and ought to bridge the chasm between the single and the married. After all, the honest truth is that this side of heaven, we all live our lives in grief. Grief is the pain that exists in us from knowing things are not as they should be. We all have a myriad of things which cause us grief throughout our lives and being able to enter into another person's grief together with them is one of the most humble and humane expressions of love a person can offer.
Being single was painful. There was a persistent grief to it that I hated. My body was frequently grieved by the denial of sexual desire and I remember shedding tears many times over the frustration it produced. Grief was present when everyone else had someone to love and look at, someone to take pictures with, someone to cherish. It was painful to wonder if my singleness was a sign of my immaturity, my lack of beauty, or my inability to interest a man. Every birthday was another reminder that I had yet to enter into the "inner-circle" of married life and standing on the outside looking in caused me to grieve deeply over my unfathomable loneliness.
Being married is painful. Many of the specific griefs of singleness are gone, but none of them entirely. Instead they have simply morphed into new married versions of themselves. My sexual desires can now be fulfilled, but because sex is not about one-sided individualized fulfillment, it can become a disappointing or twisted thing if not guarded carefully. I do have someone to love and look at, but I have not known any pain worse than when that love is out of joint. Singleness brought the dull pain of absence, but marriage ushers in the sharp stabbing pain of a knife. There is simply no pain like being wounded by your best friend and no remorse like being the one who plunged in the knife.
No one lives a life without brokenness. If we want to foster better relationships between single and married women, if we want to go deeper in each other's lives, if we want to jump over the chasm, this is what we must understand. No one is carefree, no one is satisfied. Married women need to take seriously the pain of their single friends without rushing in to offer advice. Single women need to understand just how difficult it can be for married women to be open and honest about the grief they experience in their marriages and stop idolizing something they don't understand. If we took time in our communities to be truly honest with each other and to listen to each other's stories, we would see that we have more in common with each other than not.
After all, God's daughters know that this side of heaven is a world that is still awaiting its full redemption. But that redemption is coming and it is real. In the meantime, whatever story our lives tell, there will be beauty amidst the grief. Singleness is not just loneliness, but it is also freedom, and whimsey, and exploration, and openness, and community. Marriage is not just a collision, but is also the refiner's fire, and surrender, and passion. All of these things are good. All of these things are to be desired and celebrated in their time. Let us support and encourage each other as sisters, weaving our stories together across the fault line.
I spent the past weekend with my mom and sister. As Ruthie stated in her post earlier today, it was a long time coming. The last time we had a true girls weekend was when I moved back to the United States after living in China for two years.
That was an amazing time together, but also challenging in its own ways. I was going through extreme culture shock, my sister was at the end of college, and my mom was just getting used to life as an empty nester. It was the first weekend we had gone away just as the girls and it was the starting point for us learning how to settle into our own and each other's lives.
And settle we have. Many things about who we are today feels much more familiar and comfortable. Though all three of us still have great challenges and uncertainties ahead, we are all three much more certain of where God has us right now in relationship to ourselves and to each other. It's a beautiful thing.
The most beautiful thing to my mind is how we talk with each other these days. Thinking back over the weekend, I realize that we talked about a lot of really deep and important things - things about our lives, things going on in the family, things pertaining to friendships and community, things concerning the church, things concerning our biggest hopes and dreams. But I can't pinpoint one time and place that we discussed these things. The conversation freely flowed in and out, meandering along with us around the city.
These women know me and I know them. We don't have to worry about being open with each other, because it's all just out there to see and understand. And that is something for which I am truly grateful.
Quoting Ruthie’s intro to her post last week:
“This is the kind of post that is addressed explicitly to Christians, and will be confusing and strange for many of my friends who are not Christians. So, secular friends, if you keep reading, you are about to get an intimate glimpse into one aspect of Christianity. And Christian friends: grace. Grace all around.”
"Men enjoy sex more than women."
Of all the conversations I had about sex during my adolescence, this phrase was the most important. Spoken by a trusted and authoritative source during a conversation about how a young teenage girl with a blossoming bosom should conduct herself, this comment shaped and formed much of my views on sex. It’s important to understand that the person making this statement was not in any way trying to denigrate sex. Actually, it was quite the opposite. As typical of orthodox Christian beliefs, he was speaking quite eloquently on the beauty of sex and how good a part of creation it is. The goodness of sex was the key reason why this man wanted his listeners to know that it should be protected and not treated carelessly. He made the above comment upon noticing the discomfort his female audience displayed, proceeding to explain that while women may not see certain issues concerning sex as a big deal, all men did.
The tenor of this conversation is very familiar to most women my age who grew up in conservative Christian homes. We grew up with the idea that all men we encountered were loosely reigned-in hormonal torpedoes possible of being set off at a moment’s notice should we give any false encouragement. Now that I look back on adolescents, I actually think this very well may be true of most lads between the ages of twelve and twenty. I do not believe it was damaging to be told as a young woman about how much men are wired for sex or that how I act and dress can communicate certain unintended things. What I do lament as I look back upon my sexual awakening was the constant and pervasive idea that somehow keeping male sexuality in mind meant women do not like sex as much as men or that women do not struggle sexually as much as men.
Because here was the problem - by the time I heard the above statement, I was already struggling greatly with my sexuality. I don't remember exactly how old I was, but I think I was about fourteen or fifteen. The reason I didn't feel comfortable with discussing the topic was not because I didn't like the idea of sex, but rather that I was terrified of how much my body did seem to like the idea of it. I truly believe many young women's reticence to talk about sex in our teenage years was not because weren’t interested in it. It was because sex seemed like a daunting and awe-some thing and we couldn't find the courage to speak up concerning the questions we had or the hormone induced feelings we were feeling.
As I let the idea of men liking sex more than women sink further and further into my teenage psyche, the more and more confused I started to feel. I liked the idea of sex and I liked the sexual feelings I was feeling. Did that mean I was some kind of outlier of femininity? Was I somehow a dirty, over-sexualized woman because the idea of intercourse sounded great? I was convinced that I must have been way more sexually wired than every other good Christian woman I knew, and within my world, this did not seem like a positive thing.
For me as a woman, ideas of sexual purity were somehow closely linked with sexlessness. Teenage male sexuality was recognized and addressed as a good and natural drive; male purity seemed to be defined as Christian restraint. For us young women, though, our own blossoming sex drives were mostly unacknowledged. Purity for us was about helping keep male sex drives in check rather than learning how to address our own rising desires. Male lust and masturbation were seen as natural inclinations out of place of what God intended. The idea of female lust and masturbation did not even exist.
I saw these things play out with even more intensity at my small Christian college. The idea that women did not enjoy sex as much as men and therefore were more naturally pure continued to cause major confusion as young women entered and went through college. Sex was the primary topic that we all wanted to talk about, that we were all obsessed with, but hardly ever got to really engage on. When I look back on life in the female dorms, it seems like the sexual tension was so thick, it could have been cut with a knife. Though it may have looked different from the struggles of our male co-eds, I do not believe we women struggled any less with sexual issues. Porn was not an open problem at the time (though I'm guessing it would be more of one in today’s generation, at least statistically), but there were hardly any limits on what movies or tv shows girls felt they could watch. They had so imbibed the idea that they were more naturally pure that girlfriends frequently told me they didn’t think it mattered what they watched. I frequently and commonly heard women talk about men in ways that if the genders had been reversed would have been immediately called out as sinful lust. Young women, including myself, got away with this kind of openly sexual talk, again, because of our Christian culture's assumption that women do not struggle with lust as much as men. Female masturbation has been the absolute taboo topic of recent Christianity, (most people, male and female, simply do not want to believe that women have the type of sex drives that would be tempted by it), but I know it was very present within our dorms.
Yet, even with all of these very real ways in which we young women were struggling with our sexuality during college, we never once stopped believing that we might not actually like sex itself. I'll never forget the time there was a panel discussion on the topic of sex at the college. I didn't attend it myself, but something was said by one of the panel members that threw all of my female friends into a tizzy worrying about whether or not they would like sex after getting married. One of my friends was engaged and I can still see the panic-stricken look on her face as she worried about what her future would hold. A few days later, a recently graduated and married friend visited campus and many of my friends fell upon her with questions about whether or not she liked sex. An open and unassuming person, she simply smiled widely with a glint in her eyes and said, "Yes. Very much. You have nothing to worry about." A loud collective sigh echoed throughout campus. Somehow, despite everything that almost every fiber of our bodies was telling us about our sexual desires, we needed convincing that it was possible for women to like sex.
I never needed convincing that I would like sex, but I did need to understand that my sex drive did not make me less pure as a woman. I had many fears about sex going into marriage, but figuring out how to want sex was not one of them. It's sad to me now that I ever feared I was too sexual. How can that even be a thing? I and many of my dear friends often talked with each other about wanting to get married simply so we could have sex, but these conversations were always quiet and in private so that we would not seem like “those” type of women. It is a common idea within the Christian community that it’s good for men to get married so that they do not burn in lust, but who has ever heard women openly talk about the goodness of getting married for their own sexual needs?
During the first few months of my marriage, I had a recurring experience after having sex with my husband. We would have a glorious experience, full of love and adventure, but when we finished, I would go and sit in the bathroom by myself. A few times I cried, but mostly I just sat as a certain wave of emotion rolled over me. I still can't name the emotion specifically, but there was a sense of emptiness and loneliness to it, along with a profound recognition of loss. It was similar to homesickness, but wasn't the same. I was not unhappy; I had just been exuberant. I was not ashamed; I have never been more sure and confident of my body. I was not really lonely; my husband is my best friend.
The feeling stopped after a few months and the farther away from it I’ve come, the more I think it stemmed from the perceived loss of my sexual identity. Before marriage, Christian women have a certain and particular identity - sexless and pure. And now, all of the sudden, in the throws of marital passion, I was experiencing a profound and fundamental shift of identity. I was now a fully recognized sexual being in the eyes of my Christian subculture. During my times sitting in the bathroom, my soul was mourning the passage of my perceived purity. But how was I at all any less pure than before I was married? How was I any more a sexual being than before I was married? It seems to me that in our Christian views concerning sex, men simply go from being inactive sexually to active. Why is the change for women so much more fundamentally deep and dramatic? Because the Christian community tends to falsely believe that sexual purity for men is a matter keeping in check something that is already present, while for women, marriage is the turning on of a sex drive that shouldn’t have previously exist.
Like men, women are sexual agents and the Christian community has got to start talking and acting like this is true. In a culture as saturated with sex as our is, we need our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, and dearest friends to be showing the younger generations that they are sexual beings who have something to say to us. Of course there are tasteful and dignified ways to do this, but there is nothing healthy about us pretending that sex is not an issue for women. Women want sex and we can either keeping telling them to deny their identities as sexual beings or we can start an ongoing conversation about the glories of female sexuality as God created it.
So... let's talk about sex.
Addendum: This post was getting really long, so I’m leaving it here for now. But this is a conversation we want to keep having at Carved to Adorn. I’m listing a few points below that I think would be beneficial for anyone to consider when taking up this topic and hopefully Ruthie and I can attempt to write about them in the coming months.
First, Christian purity does not equal female sexlessness. Second, women and men may experience sex differently and prefer different aspects of it, BUT women do indeed love sex. Third, in most cases, good sex takes work, so if a woman does not enjoy it right away, it doesn’t say anything about her (or the gender as a whole’s) natural capacity to enjoy sex. The wisest and best women (and men!) know there are ways to increase your pleasure during sex. Fourth, women are not limited to liking sex when they are young, but rather they can and do love sex throughout the many different stages of life.
If these points can start to be more a part of the general conversation concerning female sexuality, we will make long strides in helping women, young and old, embrace all that God made them to be.
It seems that for the past six months my Facebook feed has been full of one contentious debate after another over topics relating to women. First there was the whole bikini debate, then the graceless-mom rant against teenage girls, and now the two articles double-timing Facebook called something like "Men and Woman Are Not Equal" and "Why Not to Educate Your Daughter" (full disclosure: I have not read any of the first and only parts of the second). It seems every time I open Facebook, some intense feud is raging between my friends concerning issues pertaining to womanhood.
My intention is not to address all of these debates right now. In general, I think they are all old, worn-out, and ridiculous. What I do want to talk about here is an observation I've recently made. It seems the vast majority of people posting these articles (and often writing them) are male. And what's more, they seem to always be posted with the express desire to get both men and women riled up. They are posted with seemingly benign introductory comments about discourse and soliciting opinions. After intense debate follows, the person posting makes an obligatory comment concerning his original good intentions and hoping nobody's feelings are hurt.
But I often wonder if that's really what is going - is the man posting these things is really aiming for meaningful conversation or is he really just trying to collect kudos for how many people pay attention to what he posts? I know many men who are intelligent, gifted in conversation, and think very carefully and respectfully about the issues facing modern women and none of them post divisive articles to Facebook. If they truly want to see what people think about something controversial they have read, they do what any other grown up person does and have an actual face to face conversation about the issue. They are not motivated by clicks or likes or comments, but rather by the desire to edify and encourage both the men and women who struggle with these issues.
Women, if you are wondering about modesty, education/career, family, and the millions of the other things that furrow our brows, please stop paying attention to the young male blogger or Facebook-er who just wants to see how many people he can get to stop by his page and turn instead to the person you respect most and ask his or her opinion. Please just pass over the pointless post because these men do not own the conversation on these topics. Honestly, they probably even barely had a voice in it until you helped give it to them!
Men, please consider your motivations in posting these things. Honestly, what do you hope to gain? Are you trying to actually act for the good of others or are you just using these difficult topics to create more traffic in your corner of the social media world? Are you treating these issues like the extremely serious and weighty issues that they are for women the world around or are you flippantly stirring up emotions and hurt? What are your motivations? Until your motives are servant-like and gentlemanly, please stay away from the post button. Please.
When I got engaged at the end of August, I wondered if it would open a door onto a world of deep thoughts concerning womanhood. It didn't. Granted, much in my life has been changing. But those changes have not made me inherently wiser or more thoughtful about my identity and place in society. Life goes on and I remain mostly the same. Now I find myself wondering the same about marriage. My suspicion is that it might have some small impact on my observations and thoughts, but overall nothing earth shattering will change. I still ask the same questions; I still struggle with the same doubts; I still get irritated by the same signs of brokenness.
While my personal changes have not yet caused much writing, the world around me remains much the same and continues to provide much food for thought. I worked briefly for a woman as a "mother's helper," and I find myself pondering something she once said in conversation.
I consider this woman to be very typical of a certain American demographic. She is in her mid 30s, but looks and acts younger than what older generations would assume of her age. She and her child's father have been together for more than a decade, but are unmarried, and the baby was an unexpected surprise after many years chasing careers and enjoying life with friends. Their lack of preparation for or pursuit of creating a family has not deterred from their love for their child and they now dedicate all of their time and energy to giving him the most perfect, protected, and politically correct childhood in their power to give. They have and want "family," but in untraditional ways.
I found out they are not married through an awkward conversation about my own upcoming wedding, and it was in this conversation that she sparked food for thought. After answering many of her questions regarding my wedding, I nervously asked about her own wedding and she laughed and replied there had never been one. Her laughter eased the whole situation and we were able to talk more freely. I asked if they had ever considered marriage assuming assumed the answer would be "no," but was surprised when she replied that actually her partner really wanted to get married while she did not. I asked more about why he wanted marriage and her response went something like this, "...well, I think he believes it's something sacred," but as an atheist she just could not see any deeper significance to marriage since they already knew they were a committed family. From my understanding, neither one of them have any particular religious commitments, and yet, here she was, telling me that the only point of discussion they had concerning the value of marriage was its possible sacredness.
In the midst of our conversation, this point of sacredness was interesting to me, but it was until I drove home that the full weight of it settled through the silence of my car. Here was a couple with no real interest in or connection to the theological arguments for marriage stating the whole point of the union. It struck me that in all the "culture war" debates concerning marriage, we tend to focus on and speak to the practical or natural needs and reasons for marriage. I believe the rational is that those reasons are the only space in which Christians can speak a common language with nonbelievers, the only areas in which we even have a hope to persuade. But maybe that is not the case. Maybe the younger generations are more open to arguments based on the spiritual aspects or "sacredness"of marriage?
The more I think about it, the more interesting it is to me that faith communities are relying more and more on "practical" arguments for marriage while this very secular couple focuses more on more on the spiritual arguments for it. And it makes me mourn that the church thinks it must neglect what it believes to be the most central truths about humanity in order to speak to the broader culture. The centrality of sacredness in the meaning of marriage should be the starting point of the church in speaking to the culture about marriage, not something that is left for those who already accept the reality of a God who created marriage and therefore has something to say about the institution. I believe some are focusing on this, but the overall voice of Christianity in America does not emphasize the sacredness of marriage when arguing for it. We talk about need for commitment and the goodness of the family, but those two things are only byproducts of understanding and knowing the sacredness of marriage. It is not commitment that we should mourn the loss of in marriage. For who can remain committed to something purely secular? Who can find within themselves the capability for it? The lost meaning that should be mourned and fought for is the rich and deep meaning of marriage that goes beyond commitment and family.