The misogyny infecting the sexual attitudes of Catholic church “father” St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) is clearly still informing American life in the 21st century.
Augustine is the guy who once wrote this startling passage in his treatise De Genesi ad literam (The Literal Meaning of Genesis), Book 11.42:
“. . . woman was given to man, woman who was of small intelligence and who perhaps still lives more in accordance with the promptings of the inferior flesh than by superior reason. Is this why the apostle Paul does not attribute the image of God to her?”
Additionally, Augustine believed that due to Eve’s seductive transgressions in the Garden of Eden against Adam (who, in fact, only shared blame with Eve), which resulted in man’s inherent sinfulness forever after, that women are thus the original cause of all sin, particularly of the sexual variety.
And — and this is the salient point in Catholic originalism — women must thus be controlled, especially their supposedly predatory and enthralling sexuality.
Augustine believed that Eve (and thus all women thereafter) were punished by God for their sins by being made to “[bear] children with pain and suffering,” according to a review of his (excuse me) seminal tome, Confessions. And, of course, pregnancy comes from sex, which he viewed as an existential hazard for the soul.
Which brings me to the actual point of this post: how such antiquated demonizing of human sexuality still very much influences American society today.
Case in point is an article in the January/February issue of The Humanist Magazine — “Shame Isn’t an Education” — which reports how a condom manufacturer (Trojan) and the activist organization Advocates for Youth (AY) have joined forces to combat the Christian Right’s continuing targeting of young women and girls with sex-shaming and -demonizing messaging.
The article begins by asking young women and girls to recall how they learned about sex. Did they learn it is a natural part of life or a sin? Did they receive objective, accurate information that would help them be responsible in sexual relations?
“Or were you told that all sexual activity is bad and that having sex makes you unwanted and dirty, like chewed gum?” wrote Emily Newman, education coordinator at the American Humanist Association’s Center for Education.
In fact, that metaphor informs the Trojan-AY partnership’s #NotChewedGum campaign (visit #NotChewedGum.org and SRAisAbstinenceOnly.org) on social media and elsewhere, including at the National Mall in Washington, D.C..
“You read that right: a gum wall on the National Mall! Trojan and youth activists are tired of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, rebranded as sexual risk avoidance programs, getting away with comparing young people who have had sex with chewed gum and other shaming, inaccurate metaphors. We confronted Washington DC with this interactive protest art to reveal the true content of these programs and demand an end to sham sex ed,” the statement leading the Advocates for Youth’s campaign website.
Late last year, the campaign erected two billboards in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. The message displayed on the signs — “You Are Not Chewed Gum. Information Is The Best Protection.” — is crafted entirely from used chewing gum.
The ongoing faith-based alternative campaign, following Augustine’s view of women as soiled temptresses and instigators of sin, tries to shame young women and girls into avoiding sex. In her magazine piece, Newman listed a few of the shaming metaphors employed:
- Sticky tape test: Students are directed to stick a piece of tape to their arms and then stick it on other students’ arms. Eventually the tape’s adhesive capacity fails. The teacher tells students that this illustrates how many you have sex with multiple partners, your “ability to experience emotional intimacy” is “ruin[ed].”
- Spit test: Students are directed to spit into a cup. After multiple students spit, the teacher asks if anyone wants to drink it. Their aversion to drinking others’ saliva, the teacher explains, illustrates why after girls have had sex with multiple partners “no one will want you.”
- Shredded dreams test: Students are directed to write down their fondest hopes and dreams on a piece of paper, which she then shreds. The teacher explains that once girls have sex “their hopes and dreams are destroyed.”
- The crockpot test: Girls are told that they are sexually like slow-heating crockpots, while boys are like quick-heating microwaves. The teacher teaches the girls that they must be more sexually responsible, to make sure the boys “don’t heat up too quickly.”
There are more, but you get the idea. Youth are getting a lot of information about sex, but in a culture where people are traditionally reticent about discussing the nitty-gritty actualities of sex, it’s generally wrong or biased information.
“We use sex to sell everything else, but as a culture we can’t talk about sex,” Trojan Marketing Director Stephanie Berez pointed out recently at the National Mall gum wall on the National Mall.”
Newman writes that this “lack of frank conversation” has resulted in the U.S. Congress spending over $2.2 billion on ineffective abstinence-only programs, and to cancelling by the Trump administration of 81 successful teen pregnancy prevention programs. Concurrently, cases of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis spiked to a record high in 2018, Newman noted.
She also stressed that the Society of Adolescent Health and Medicine, in its 2017 review of abstinence-only-until-marriage policies and programs, concluded that access to sexual health information “is a basic human right and is essential to realizing the human right to the highest attainable standard of health.” Only 39 states now have sex-ed or HIV awareness programs.
So, as young people are growing up — especially young women and girls — they not only have to navigate the natural biological realities of their blooming sexuality but also a culture of deep shame surrounding it that our society has inherited from the founders of Christianity.