[My book, Damaged Goods, comes out in February – just over six weeks away. Pre-order your copy now!]
When I was in high school, I waited until my senior year to take gym. We were required to take two semesters of physical education in order to graduate, and I really, really didn’t want to. It wasn’t that I was incapable – I enjoyed playing pick up games of soccer and used to be a cross-country runner. I just hated the environment of gym class. And I especially didn’t want to subject myself to classes with athletes who were at the top of their game for various school sports while I did varsity debate.
But, no one wants to have to stay in high school longer because they didn’t take gym. So I dutifully signed up for Team Sports and Dual and Individual Sports for the fall and spring semesters, respectively. First period, every day, I found myself in the locker rooms, in a part of the school I never went to normally, changing into the required gym uniforms.
One of the games in Team Sports class was Mat Ball. Four gymnastics mats were spaced around the larger of our two gyms. The mats could hold around 10-11 students at one time and the goal was to get as many students from your team around to each mat before you got 3 or 5 outs (depending on how generous the teacher was feeling that day). If you stepped off the mat, you had to either get back on or get moving to the next mat – you couldn’t, like in baseball, start scooting away while the other team was distracted by the kick. Nonetheless, many students would try the “scoot off and then run back to the mat” method in every class. They knew precisely how far they could get before getting away.
I hated Mat Ball. I was bad at it and I hated being in close proximity to my classmate’s sweaty, smelly bodies. The teacher, like most gym teachers, got away with a lot of terrible teaching and borderline harassment of students because he was the coach of a winning athletic team for the school. In other words, he had license to make things hellish for the students who weren’t athletes or who didn’t care for sports. And because of the very nature of the class – Team Sports – lack of participation wasn’t an option.
So one Friday, we were playing Mat Ball in gym class. I’d made it to the first mat and was determined to stay put for the rest of the class period if I could manage it. If I could hide in the crowd of students, I figured, the teacher wouldn’t notice that I wasn’t participating.
No such luck on this particular day. One of the more enthusiastic and yet uncoordinated male students (there’s always one in gym class) was trying to scoot off the mat when the pitcher noticed and flung the ball in his direction. He darted back to the first mat – the mat I was on and took a flying leap to get himself to safety.
Flying leaps and slides work in baseball and softball, where the chances you’ll actually run into someone else is very slim. In Mat Ball though? Not so much, especially when there’s already a crowd of teenagers on the mat. Before I knew what was happening, I was on that ground, flat on my back, staring up into the face of my classmate.
And horrified, I heard the coach yell from across the gym, “HEY NOW. AT LEAST BUY HER DINNER FIRST.”
Ten years on, this is my most immediate memory of high school. Out of all the classes I took and all the debate tournaments I attended, the deep shame and embarrassment attached to this moment have made it stand out in my memory long after facts of the American Revolutionary War and names of literary devices have been lost. It was as though, in those moments, that gym class and high school itself existed to torture me.
There’s no legitimate reason why this memory should be shameful to me. I was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, the other student did something completely rash and ill-timed, and the teacher chose to make a very bad joke in that moment. None of this was my fault and yet, I guarantee you, I remember it far more clearly than anyone else in the class that day.
There are some background facts that make this shame stand out. I was 17. Three years ago, I’d made a purity pledge to God and to my church family. I’d never had a boyfriend. I’d never so much as held hands with a boy at this point. And suddenly, here I was, in gym, in clothing I felt immodest in, unwillingly placed into a compromising position, and having the situation deemed as sexual in nature by an authority figure’s “joke.”
In those 10 seconds, I felt impure. I felt exposed and like there was nothing I could do to hide impurity from the world and from God. I had violated something important.
In those visceral, uncontrolled moments of shame, purity culture and ingrained purity talk don’t care if things weren’t consensual – because there is no framework for consent. All that matters is a violated purity, a lost commitment. In 10 seconds, my purity culture upbringing imparted a shame I dealt with for years.
And this is the lasting effect of purity culture – not a generation of holy Christians saving themselves for marriage but a generation of people – women, in particular – who are ashamed of their bodies, ashamed of things that happen to them, ashamed of being perceived as sexual beings. This is the long-lasting impact of True Love Waits, Secret Keepers, and Rebelution Modesty – that a generation of women exist in a vortex of shame and embarrassment, holding their sexuality close to their chests, tricked into believing that shame and guilt are the results of freedom in Christ.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can live free of this shame. We can stop beating ourselves up for things that happened years and years ago. We can stop this cycle. We need to start affirming our sexualities, our existence as sexual or asexual beings, our right to take up space in the world. And we need to do this by looking closely at how we approach sexual ethics in the Christian world. This is an examination that requires close, painful questioning of our motives, of our intents, of the effects of our actions. This means a dismantling of the system, a reorientation toward love, and an understanding of what it means to be God-created. It means opening ourselves up to the possibility that shame is not of God and that love and freedom in Christ mean far more than feeling convicted when you experience sexual feelings.
Love is so much bigger than this box we’ve put it in. Love is the cymbal crash that drowns out the whispers of shame. Love is that grace which frees us from the trap of rules-based holiness. And love does not traffic in shame.