I tell you all of this, the thing about ovaries and dating apps, because sometimes I just wonder if we’re talking about this kind of thing enough.
In a world of constantly branding ourselves through social media, and all the ways we curate the window displays of our lives, and how even public vulnerability sometimes gets commodified – when everything becomes a rhetorical performance of a certain version of what it means to be human, and all our bits and pieces become social currency, what do we do with the anxieties and heartaches that we can’t speak about?
What about when no sane person would hashtag that?
Sometimes I worry that when I do something like press on the validity of dating apps as an acceptable form of coupling, I’m merely curmudgeonly.
This could be. After all, I’m not a true millennial; I was born in 1980, and I straddle the fence between Gen-X and millennial. (Or so I tell myself; we fight about this over dinner sometimes.)
But then when I start talking, and you all start talking back to me, I begin to realize that I may have my finger on the pulse of something.
When I told my housemate (a decade younger than me and firmly a millennial) that I was thinking about an app last month, and the questions I was working through, he asked me to find someone to process it all with, because things done in secret have a way of breeding shame.
(The whole internet is a someone, right?)
So here I am. And here’s what I’ve been thinking about after the last post, and the responses I received:
I think, particularly right now, that our whole dating lives may possibly run the risk of falling into the realms of “things done in secret that have a way of breeding shame.”
And not just dating lives, but sometimes our married lives, and sometimes our bedroom lives, and sometimes things we’ve done and things that have been done to us, and what we want to be done to us but hasn’t been done, or what we definitely don’t want, and sometimes the things we’re grieving.
I truly think this.
I’ve written enough in the past few years to bring on so many conversations, whispered confessions, letters, questions from friends who are relieved to be able to talk openly about bodies and sexuality. Most of you are pastors or training to be. And everyone who has opened up has known, because you know me, that I have no credentials. None. My only credential is that I talked about it first. And that tells me something – namely, that we’re carrying a lot that feels lonely and super vulnerable, and we need one another, particularly here.
Here’s what I also think:
After the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, the church buckled down on sexuality, on right and wrong, and began to push purity culture (but we didn’t call it this yet).
I’m a child of that era. I signed the pledge cards because good Christian children did. Nevermind the fact that in some ways, this conversation was far beyond my comprehension and readiness, and random when I consider how little else I was hearing about or thinking about sex. I was 11 when a friend and I, between flicks of mascara and layers of eye-shadow at a sleep-over, talked about when we’d have sex, and I said I’d wait till marriage and she said she’d wait until she was 16. Who knows what I even thought I was talking about? It was an ethical mandate without much context at all. But signing those cards was the epitome of holiness and obedience to parents who seemed to be far more anxious about my sexuality than I was.
I think for most of us my age and younger who grew up in the church, we’re working through the shame-legacy of that buckling down. We’ve pushed back against purity culture in some ways, often ways that look like liberation, but not without some resulting shame – new shame – and a hell of a lot of anxiety about what we’re doing with our bodies.
On the one hand, we’re more progressive in our sexual ethics than our parents were, and we’ve at least got a hunch that there’s more to “good sex” than whether it happened before or after marriage.
Honestly, just the fact that we can imagine putting “good + sex” in one singular phrase says something remarkable.
On the other hand, we just don’t know where to go from here. We can feel the damage of purity culture in our own flesh.
For many of us, especially if we’re married and did wait (because “true love waits”), we’ve done a ton of hard work in our relationships to try to work through the baggage, the shutting down of our bodies and then pressure to suddenly open them back up, and with so little actual knowledge of the mechanics of sex and what it entails, other than what we’ve seen in media, the mysteries of a high school biology textbook, and possibly pornography.
For others of us, we didn’t wait, but that has its own kind of baggage because maybe it didn’t feel like the liberation we thought it would be – and now we have loads of heartache. But because we were told we should wait, and we didn’t, we can’t talk about that heartache because it feels like we brought it on ourselves.
For some of us, we didn’t wait, and it was amazing and maybe still is, and what the hell could that mean? Is it even permissible to say that out loud? Or maybe we didn’t wait and it’s still complicated, but we’re doing the work in healthy ways with a partner who is tender and patient with us, and it’s working, outside forces of morality be damned.
For some of us, maybe we’ve deconstructed it all in the classroom, academic courses on human sexuality, but the lived experience still feels confusing and complicated, like we are completely unprepared to have bodies that live in this world.
For some of us, we’ve been too paralyzed to even move.
And it’s not as easy as just constructing a new sexual ethic. (Though Nadia, if you’re out there reading, I’m super excited about your upcoming book!!!)
(I jest. Of course she’s not reading. I know that.)
Truth be told, we both do and don’t want the church to say anything about sexuality. We feel like it should, like it has to, because the church. And also, we’ve watched the nightmare in slow motion that this can be, and so we simultaneously dread it.
Or I do. But I don’t think I’m just projecting.
Frankly, the church right now is in the middle of saying very particular things about sexuality – drawing lines about who is in and who is out, who can be Christian and love God, and who can’t, based on desires and bodies and acts. And in the end, I sometimes think all of this is a smoke screen for everything else I’ve named above. Or maybe not a smokescreen, but an expression.
At times I wonder if the LGBTQ debate is a scapegoat for those who have sexual anxieties and wouldn’t dare voice them, so all that anxious energy is channeled toward hypothetical debates about right and wrong, a form of vicarious sexual liberation through expressing opinions.
Other times and for other folks, I know that this is the very heart of a new sexual revolution – that what we’re pressing toward in this church-historical moment is bigger than the particular debate which has in some sense been the case study for how to live as a Christian post-purity culture. The questions aren’t all particularly sexual and biblical, but are more bound up in what it means to flourish, to have abundant life, to find tastes of heaven in the now. We love people who are differently oriented, or heck, we are people who are differently oriented, and however this became the case, the question now is how then shall we live?
Maybe we are both kinds of folks at once.
And all of this, everything above, brings me back to the infamous dating app situation.
What is moving about what I said a few days ago is not the humor about my ovaries, the particulars of dreamy tattooed stock-trader, or that I come to conclusions about my life at the end.
What is moving is that I described what has become a nearly universal experience of our generation: dating apps, but more particularly, the extremely tender questions about how it is that we navigate bodied existence in the tension between post-purity culture and sexual revolution that sometimes feels more libertine than liberation.
The app, for me, was a quiet way to work through questions I’ve wrestled with for a long time – like what it means to be confident in my body, and can I imagine a way to be a woman sexually which is not necessarily passive or submissive and yet not promiscuous either. And how to be a woman who identifies deeply with #metoo, while also still wanting to be loved perhaps, and therefore not crippled by fear?
But there was no place to really work that out in my life in a seen and witnessed way. And I didn’t know how to navigate in person what I feared would be wells of deep shame, or at least some serious social awkwardness and discomfort.
As it turns out, there’s an app for that.
At the same time, I had a sense of deep despair that this is just how things are: From now on, our whole lives and all meaningful connection are mediated by a series of windows and practices of spectacle. I can feel in my gut the ways being a spectacle endangers our ability to be a human.
I mean, is anyone’s dream romance story to find someone on Bumble? Tindr? Coffee Meets Bagel? Is it the thing your soul has ached for your whole life?
Some part of me came here today thinking I would make a strong case for why dating apps are possibly the devil. Yet in the end, it would just heap on the shame, and Jesus, don’t we have enough? And besides, apps are in the end not the problem but a symptom of the fact that we are a whole generation of human beings who are struggling deeply to know what it means to (and how to) meaningfully connect.
And that fact is amplified for those of us who came up in the church during a season where the church was hellbent on sexual restriction.
Here’s a metaphor which will be probably problematic if stretched too far, but I think in some ways it works.
Purity culture is in some ways like diet culture. And diets, in the end, become cycles of restricting and binging, if we’re honest. For those of us who are single and trying to be holy somehow, I wonder if our sex lives, whether we’re doing it or not, are like this. We tell ourselves no, no, no, and then our soul breaks and we end up in situations that feel ironically both liberating and like compromises of integrity, just to then shame ourselves and move back toward suppression of our appetites and restriction. And it’s confusing, and painful, but we don’t know what else to do.
But practitioners who work with eating disorders often talk a lot about “intuitive eating” in which we listen to our appetites and eat accordingly. It’s our native orientation to food, how we would have eaten from infancy onward, but then diet culture gets in the way, and re-forms us to ride the restrict/binge cycle in service to bodily performance of culture’s perfection ideal.
I wonder, honestly with a bit of terror, what an “intuitive sexuality” could look like?
Like, was there once in each of us from birth onward an orientation toward sexuality that was innate and healthy and good, which if we had listened to it, would have changed everything? And how has purity culture formed it out of us?
And what now?
What if we listened to our bodies, really listened, down beyond the noise of American spectacle culture, Christian culture, and the cycles of indulgence and desperation, to see what it is our bodies want and truly need?
What could that even mean? What if it could change everything.