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Many years ago, I was in a Bible study with a bunch of older married women one rainy, dark weeknight. Or rather, I was running late to a Bible study. I still don’t know what possessed me to get into this group; I think I was feeling it out for possible future participation or something, because I don’t think I ever attended many of this group’s meetings. Either way, when I got into the church classroom where we were supposed to be assembling, I discovered the women there (all about double my age, into their 40s and 50s, many grandmothers) were exchanging a recipe with excited murmurs. This was well before laser printers, so they were all jotting it down on paper in their notebooks.

Of course I asked for a copy of it, though I was still learning my way around a kitchen as a newlywed. It looked pretty easy–it was a basic yellow cake mix with pudding, pineapple, and Cool Whip slathered on it, plus maraschino cherries just in case you weren’t diabetic enough yet from all that tooth-achingly sweet stuff. The title of it was cryptic, though: “Better Than… Cake.”

I remember staring at the recipe. The ellipses indicated a word was missing and I couldn’t even imagine what it might be. “Better than what?” I asked, all innocently.

The women darted looks at each other. Finally, one leaned forward and stage-whispered the shocking name of this cake: “Better than SEX.” And then they all tittered.

"Better Than Sex" cake
“Better Than Sex” cake (Photo credit: She Who Shall Not Be Named)

I was floored she’d said the s-word, but even more floored that they’d think a cake was better than sex. Obviously I baked it immediately that week, and was even more surprised to discover that actually, it was a lot better than the sex I was having. If you want to try making it, here’s a basic recipe, though the one I remember used Cool Whip rather than homemade whipped cream. It really isn’t bad if you like this kind of way-whoa-processed kind of thing, but if it’s better than actual real sex to you, then you’re probably from my old church.

We’re going to talk about some of the scariest words Christianity knows today, starting with “sex” and moving on up to the scariest word I personally knew as a fundamentalist (no, it wasn’t “sex”). Can you guess what it is before you finish this piece? I bet you can’t.

Sex can be scary. It’s easy for me to see why religions have, all through history, tried to control human sexuality and its expression. It’s also easy for me to see why, out of every other liberty humans are starting to claim for ourselves, sexual freedom is the one most bitterly opposed by religious authorities and even by rank-and-file believers alike. It’s one of the most intimate and breathtaking experiences two people can have together. It’s got all these wild associations with procreation and with sensations that take us clean out of our skins–not for nothing was orgasm called “the little death” long ago (and it’s not surprising that some people, upon experiencing their first orgasm, actually think they’re dying of a heart attack).

You control a human being’s sexuality and outlook on sex, and you’ve pretty much got ’em by their mental and emotional short-n-curlies. So much of our general outlook gets determined by how we think about sex, doesn’t it? From our attitude about female empowerment to our ideas about masculinity, sexual attitudes cover a lot of very deep ground.

I don’t know if there’s much that frightens a Godly Christian Man as much as the idea of a woman who has sex, likes sex, insists on good and frequent sex, doesn’t put up with awful sex, and laughs at the idea of sex having to have “consequences.” He’s got no hold on a woman like that–he’s got nothing to threaten her with, no way to coerce her into behaving again, nothing to hold over her head. I saw this AlterNet piece today wherein was quoted the following regarding abortion-access rights:

People come out whenever they try to pass legal restrictions and say it’s for the health of the mother … and they tone down their message. But when you are there on the street you actually hear people praying to break the curse of independence that has afflicted women. You hear people praying and being open about how women should submit to their husbands as they do to the lord, which is in the Bible.

And some stuff pinged into focus for me. I realized how very frightening it is for Christians that women are “independent” now and refuse to “submit to their husbands as they do to the Lord.” And what is the way that women are showing their independence? Why, they are having completely unapproved and unsanctioned sex without even “paying” for it with unexpected and unwanted forced pregnancies–without even the threat of them! Without being scared that they’ll frighten off insecure, mewling Christian men who want virgin wives! Without being terrified of the specter of ending up in a trailer park alone with five kids and nobody to help raise them (as popular Christian victim “self-help” author Debi Pearl repeatedly mentions in her books). Without even considering how their sexual pasts will look to future partners! Oh the humanity!

We’re going to talk more next time about toxic Christians’ use of completely disproportional threats to get their way regarding women’s sexuality, but today we’re just going to focus on the scary, scary sex that women are having without Christians’ permission, because this is already getting long enough and even I have my limits.

I want you to think right now about this phrase: “sinful woman.” Think about it. What kind of woman are you thinking of right now?

She’s a sexual woman, isn’t she? She’s a femme fatale–a Mata Hari type. She dresses provocatively. She has sex. She probably has a whole lot of sex. She’s good at sex. She likes sex.

“Sin” obviously covers a lot of ground, though. Why aren’t you thinking about an axe murderess right now? Why aren’t you thinking of a thief or an embezzler? Or a child abuser, or a firebug, or a liar?

English: Jezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Na...
English: Jezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth’s Vineyard Giclee. Print by Sir Frank Dicksee. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because especially in Christians’ minds, the scariest kind of woman there is, the most sinful kind of woman there can possibly be, is one who is in full control of her sexuality and makes no apologies for it. There’s a reason why Jezebel–that powerful queen from the Old Testament–(mistakenly) stands high on the list of terrible women in Christians’ minds, and it isn’t her astute political mind or her military power. Out of everything about her, what Christians take home from the myths about her is her rampant, uncontrollable, un-reined-in sexuality.

When someone says “a sinful woman,” that person is almost certainly thinking of a sexual woman, not a woman committing any other kind of sin. Sexuality is a shorthand for everything else, and it is the litmus test for a woman’s worthiness. So yes, that ish needs to be reined in and it has to be done STAT!

There was a time when women followed the life script, and part of that life script involved a rigid gender line that puffed men up at women’s expense. “Giving” men sex was a big part of how women did that. Men stalked; women succumbed. Men took; women gave. Men conquered; women submitted. Of course, this scenario is just one more piece of the Mayberry 1950s fantasy-land that Christian leaders think existed once; it wasn’t actually reality for all but the most privileged of women. For every Betty Draper, there were a hundred poor or minority women on the fringes, and dozens of gay and trans men and women trying to find lives of dignity and courage. It’s very important to remember that when Christians pine for the “good old days,” they’re really pining for days of segregation, vicious sexism, and a level of homophobia and trans-hate we’d find downright evil today. But such Christians concentrate on straight cis women now, because those are the women they’re most likely to come into contact with. They don’t really mess with transwomen or gay women, because that ship’s sailed and even the staunchest of Christians realizes that. (And let’s remember not to be normative here–there is an incredible diversity of experiences in sex way beyond one mixed-gender pair of cis male and cis female having penis-in-vagina intercourse–though it’s kind of funny to imagine Pat Robertson’s head exploding at the realization.)

In this manner, it becomes glaringly apparent that the Christian vision of sex (carefully corralled within a loving marriage between one man and one woman, of course) really only works for privileged women. It doesn’t work at all for poor women, who not only face a far greater risk of physical or emotional abuse at the hands of their partners but who also face a far tougher time accessing the contraception and abortion services that privileged women have the freedom to take for granted even in the most restrictive areas. Poor women are far more likely to marry young, have too many kids for their incomes and have them too early to access the best educations they can, stay in poverty, face untreated sickness or mental illness, divorce, and remarry men who are even worse than their first husbands (and in turn, just because the universe can be a bastard sometimes, remarried women are far more likely to divorce again than women who are still on their “starter marriages”).

When I was a Christian, I perceived this vision as a dance script–like footstep outlines on the floor that I was supposed to use to direct my steps. But while I’m a very good ballroom dancer, I’m not very good at following those outlines. I struggled and tried my best, but I just could not do it. It wasn’t me. I wasn’t a quiet little docile submissive Christian wifey-poo who just wanted to stay home, crank out babies, and bake cookies. And if someone else is, that’s great, good for her and I hope she finds a partner who shares her vision. But I couldn’t do it. The more I struggled to fit into that mold, the worse my life got and the more havoc I wreaked on my emotions and mind. The worst part, really, was being told over and over again, implicitly and explicitly, that I should be able to handle this life, that it was the best possible life, that there wasn’t any other sort of life that would make me happy or please my god.

The script just doesn’t work for most women, but that sure doesn’t stop Christian leaders and politicians from pushing the script at them as if it was some attainable goal that every woman should be able to hit if she just tries hard enough.

And every single bit of that script depends, completely and utterly, upon women not realizing their own sexual power. Let’s restate that another way: Christian leaders’ power depends upon keeping women ignorant and ashamed of themselves.

Christians do everything they can to keep women from realizing the power they hold. They fight all forms of comprehensive sex education, so young women don’t even know what their bodies are capable of doing. They make masturbation totally off-limits, to the point that many young women have no earthly clue how that’d even work for them. They stigmatize the use of sex toys–when they’re not trying to make them illegal to buy or sell or have in great numbers (I think legally my toybox qualifies as a “novelty shop” in Texas at this point). When all else fails, Christians try to convince each other that bad sex is just “a cross that some couples bear”, as one writer puts it, and certainly women shouldn’t demand great sex because great sex just isn’t important anyway.

If they just keep saying it, maybe women will start believing it. If you repeat a lie often enough, it magically becomes the truth. Except it just isn’t anymore. You can just about see these Christians’ heads explode with mystification over why women just don’t seem to be cowing under like they used to.

It’s all about making sure women know way less about sex than men do. From their earliest years, boys are taught to regard self-aware, sexually-powerful women as scary. Parents teach them to show “respect” only to women who behave themselves. Scary sexual women are called derogatory names and considered damaged goods.

By the same token, girls are taught to be “princesses” who should patiently wait to be rescued by their “princes” and “knights”–one entire dating-education curriculum even hinges upon this conceit and repeatedly drills home the point that boys are meant to be sexually superior, while girls are meant to remain ignorant. Later on, this course talks about men who feel emasculated by their more-experienced female partners–insecure and uncertain about how they measure up. As one review of Choosing the Best SOULmate puts it,

Unfortunately for this knight in shining armor, his princess is not one to sit back and allow herself to be rescued. Instead, she has ideas about how he might best slay the dragon. When the second dragon attacks, she suggests that instead of the sword he uses a noose. This works and “everyone is happy, except the knight who doesn’t feel like a hero this time. He would have preferred to use his sword.” The princess’s continuing suggestions (for the third dragon she recommends poison) make the knight doubt his own instincts and feel ashamed despite the fact that he continues to slay dragons. Then one day he hears another maiden in distress. Though he initially doubts himself, at the last minute he remembers how he used to feel “before he met the princess” and uses his sword. He never does return to the princess. Instead, he lived happily ever after with the maiden, “but only after making sure she knew nothing of nooses or poison.” The moral of this story: “Occasional suggestions and assistance may be all right, but too much of it will lessen a man’s confidence or even turn him away from his princess.”

(One should note that the reviewer correctly and thoroughly disapproves of the gender roles described in this course, so obviously this viewpoint, while common in Christianity, is far from universal.) Women should not ever make suggestions to men or look more knowledgeable, especially about sex, because then their men will get a sad, and you can get forgiven for a lot of stuff in Christianity, but you will never get forgiven for making men get a sad. For a man to feel proficient, the message seems clear: his partner must be very non-proficient. If she can be a childlike virgin, like that little girl Empress from The Neverending Story, so much the better.

It’s not a good thing when inexperience and ignorance are considered virtues in a person, but then again, we’re dealing with a whole religion that turns adults into children and makes them rejoice in being childlike. And of course none of us would be facing the potential eternity in Hell that most Christian denominations threatens for non-believers if Adam and Eve hadn’t wanted to mature and understand adult concepts like good and evil. I don’t know what else Christians expect from this kind of teaching except sickness; “having sexual experience is bad” gets drilled into women’s heads so hard that even they sometimes face heartbreaking emotional struggles over their partners’ sexual pasts–pasts which don’t even involve them and which don’t impact their partners’ choices in being with them. I’ve talked to all kinds of Christian men, too, who feel tortured over their own sexual histories because they think it “takes away” (one man’s words) from what they share with their beloved wives. That’s just heartbreaking to me–so sad and so utterly unnecessary. People are torturing themselves over this stupid stuff that doesn’t even matter, because they’re getting taught by their churches and by society that love is some kind of zero-sum game, that what gets given to one person is by necessity something that cannot be given to someone else, that once a sex act is done, then that’s one less sex act for someone else, that you only have so much love in your heart and once it’s spent, it’s all gone-gone.

So you can imagine when I moved outside those bounds, after my deconversion, a lot of interesting things happened in my head.

The first thing that happened was that I learned how to say the word “woman.”

Did you guess that “woman” was the scariest word I knew back then? Because it was.

I’d say any expletive without hesitation, but “woman” was such a dark, scary word to me. I realized toward the end of my time in Christianity that I genuinely feared that word. It felt bloody–in the best way, meaning blood-filled and vital, as opposed to the very non-threatening, non-challenging, rather bloodless “lady”. No, it was a word that was full of life, pulsing with implication, full of mysteries, ripe with unrestrained sexuality. I called people of my gender “ladies” or “girls,” but never, ever, ever “women.” That was too much.

Just saying it filled my mouth with the strangest taste of power and freedom. Woman. A woman was free. A woman was independent. She was an adult with her own power. A woman did her own thing and was not the slave to any man. If I called men “men,” then it seemed odd to strip women of their own power by calling them anything but “women.” So I began using the word. I still remember the first time I did, too–it was toward the tail end of my marriage to Biff, after my deconversion, and we were in a grocery store. I don’t remember why I even did it now, just that I did, and Biff was with me at the time and turned to look at me when I said it. He seemed surprised. He probably wasn’t as surprised as I was. It was a milestone as significant as any other we’d faced, but I don’t think he realized it at the time.

It would still be another year before I figured out what an orgasm was, long after dumping and leaving my Godly Christian Husband. It’d be another year still before I learned that I had power of my own in relationships and didn’t have to put up with terrible sex from anybody–and that no, actually, people aren’t “oh-so-evolved” that they can just forget about good sex. I learned to value sex and consider it part and parcel of a successful relationship–not icing on the cake, but more like the sugar in the cake itself. Without sugar, it isn’t a cake! Not everybody cares that much about sex. But I do. Denying my own sexuality had brought me nothing but heartache before. But I was on the right track. I was learning to embrace my humanity and show honor to my own needs, and sexual satisfaction was one of my needs.

Notice I haven’t really talked here about whether or not Christians have the right to force their ideas about sex onto me. They don’t, obviously. But more than that, they don’t have the right to tell me what I will and won’t like sexually, what consenting adult I will or won’t have sex with, exactly what kind of sex I’ll be having with those consenting adults, or what I will choose to do with my own personal body to prevent conception or to deal with any accidents that come my way–be they STDs or accidental fertilizations or extremely amusing ER visits. They don’t have the right to tell me what will and won’t “insult” me (as Mike Huckabee did the other day) or what kind of relationship or life will make me the happiest.

I’m an adult, and I get to decide that stuff for myself. Nor are my personal life decisions up for anybody else’s adjudication or consideration. If I want advice, I’ll ask for it. Until then, if I’m not affecting anybody but myself, then that’s my right. In the end, only I live my life and have to deal with the fallout of my decisions. If it bugs Christians that I have sex and don’t feel compelled to have it the way they think I should have it, maybe instead of trying to shame me or force me to dance to their footprint-script, they ought to mind their own damn business.

But it can be hilarious to see them try to find some way to rein me in. “It’s so selfish!” Yeah, that works great–because I was Christian once and know exactly how selfish Christians can be. “It’ll make society fall apart!” and other threats which we’ll examine next time. “God thinks you’re a slut!”–which makes me wonder which god these Christians worship, whether he’s really someone whose opinion I value, rather than sounding much more like MRAs and other misogynists, who also think I have to “behave” according to their conceptualization of what women should act like to be found worthy of having the right to decide my own path or make my own decisions. Their approval isn’t really required for my life to work just fine, and I don’t really care what they think their god would or wouldn’t like to see me do. My rights are not contingent upon their approval or happiness with the choices I make with those rights.

The genie is out of the bottle at this point. Sexual freedom is here to stay. It’s almost tragic to see Christians trying so hard to penalize women for having sex and not being ashamed of their bodies. It’s kind of funny, yes, but then you realize they’re clamping down even harder on the women they can clamp down on, and it isn’t so funny then, is it? Reminds me of that old joke about polygamists–“Relationship broken! Add more people!” In the same way, Christians are saying: “Clamping down on women is broken! Clamp down harder!”

As long as they don’t have the trump threat to play on me, they know they can’t force me to accept their life script. All they’ve got is scary words, like British cops in that old joke–“Stop! Or I’ll say ‘stop’ again!”

And I want to make this clear: I know some way scarier words than they do.

But we’re going to talk next time about some of the threats they use to try to force compliance when nothing else works. I hope you’ll join me!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...