This post is the second in a series where I describe the obstacles I overcame during my journey toward becoming a sex-positive blogger (and owner of an ever-growing dildo collection!). Trigger warning: My story continues to describe my anorexia, and how my sad-but-true religious experience affected it. See part 1, Body Image and Depression, here. If you’re looking for fun times, see my Reviews category instead.
Let me start out by saying here that the point of my post isn’t to attack religion as a whole. IMO, religions are made by people, for people, and a side effect of that is that some religious principles are dangerous and oppressive, just like some people are narcissistic assholes. However, there are also people who do lovely, kind things in the name of their God(s), and the more power to them.
I also don’t intend to delve too deep into any theological doctrines, even though I could go on at length about how harmful are the Augustinian idea of “sex for procreation only” and Christianity’s general glorification of the “mind”/”spirit”/”soul” as superior to (and separate from) the “body”/”flesh.” These doctrines certainly have created fearful, repressive sexual attitudes throughout the centuries, but my main goal here is to tell my own story—most importantly, how I came out on the other side and learned to love my body and my libido.
How I Got Sucked In
As described in part 1 of this series, I became anorexic as a teenager and therefore really depressed. I didn’t believe that I could pull myself out of the hole I had created, so I started looking for other solutions. The most obvious one was that God would give me the strength to overcome my problems. I had already left Catholicism because I knew even my staunchly Catholic father didn’t support papal infallibility, the church’s denunciation of birth control, and the lack of women’s ordination, so why should I? My newfound Christian belief was useful for a time, but then I started reading the Bible, and I wondered, for one, why the knowledge of good and evil was such a bad thing for Adam and Eve to want. My new evangelical friends offered excuses about how God was mysterious or about how that’s just the way things had to be.
Luckily, I didn’t have enough time before college to get really into these fundamentalist, evangelical type circles, but I knew that “purity culture” was a big goddamn deal for them. The idea was basically that any type of sexual contact before marriage was evil and shameful, that a person’s virginity (especially a woman’s) was something that was only to be shared with one other person, her husband. The adherents of this doctrine even wear “purity rings” that they exchange with wedding rings when they get married (often very young, not surprisingly). They even believe that kissing is wrong, and that teenagers who are dating should never, under any circumstance, be alone together. As you can imagine, educating teens about birth control is strongly discouraged in this type of abstinence culture, and making sure that teens don’t see the “wrong” movies or TV shows is also a big thing. (I once got purity-shamed for liking the Red Hot Chili Peppers, for example.)
Still, because I didn’t know what type of Christian to be as I was searching for answers post-anorexia, I looked here, there, and everywhere. My university was the typical big university: very liberal. But because it was in the Deep South, evangelical ministries abounded. I joined one my first semester while I was looking for people to fit in with—but then I managed to get kicked out when I argued that the Old Testament God could be downright cruel. (The members of this group weren’t theologically sophisticated enough to argue that the cruel actions of God, like the Psalms encouraging people to “dash [infants] against the rocks” [Ps 137:9], were meant to be symbolic, or “typological.”)
After that, I drifted for a little while and probably would’ve become a liberal Episcopalian if I hadn’t met my future husband, who had recently converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is an ancient Christian tradition that’s enamored with the past and with monastic elements, like frequent super-long church services, extended prayers, and fasting. Like most traditional religious groups, it opposes homosexuality, is clueless about pansexuality, and thinks that trans/bi persons are confused and possibly deviant (but being asexual is A-OK, because celibacy gives you more time for God!).
In the Mire
Like all good converts, my husband and I were eager to spread this church’s particular version of the gospel. But, lo and behold, no one in this liberal university milieu was terribly interested in our version of the truth (that is, The Truth™). Still, we soldiered on, trying to advance our own “spiritual progress.”
Converting to Orthodoxy was a disaster for me as a former anorexic with perfectionistic and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. The religion teaches that one grows in the likeness of God through specific acts: particularly prayer, fasting, and reading the scriptures. So I had to be the best at this, so that I could be more like God, who’s knowledge and truth and light and life, blah blah blah. This is the worst possible thing you can tell a former anorexic: that cutting out certain foods from their diet will make them a better person. The Orthodox Church has four different fasting periods throughout the year, during which times believers are called to be vegans. This means that you’re not eating meat, cheese, dairy, seafood, and maybe not even oil for about 40 percent of the year. A liberal/compassionate priest will lessen these restrictions for health reasons (or psych issues), but the underlying assumption is that deprivation leads to holiness—that physical pleasure is something to be avoided, or at least something to be very wary of.
So connect the dots: I started starving myself again, but this time I was reading the Bible and praying all the time while I was doing it, so surely there’d be a good outcome, right? NOPE. By this time, my husband and I were becoming leaders in the church, looking to do more to spread the word and “help” others, and I guess the strenuous fasting was just part and parcel. No one really blinked an eye, as far as I can tell, and I had to up my dose of antidepressants again. I was miserable.
I’ve mentioned my husband in the above paragraphs. By that time, I’d lost my virginity and married my one serious relationship, but sex was the last thing on my mind. I remember thinking once while he was on top of me, Is this OK? What would Jesus think? And we had icons of Christ and other saints all over our apartment, so it was like we were being watched. But in this religious worldview, God was supposed to be the third person that both spouses turned to in the marriage—except that the husband was the spiritual leader, whom the wife was supposed to obey. The Ephesians passage containing the following words was actually read at my wedding: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife…so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.” So feminism was seen as radical and possibly even evil.
Also, as I mentioned, physical pleasure is also seen with suspicion by many strict Orthodox (the true believers, I suppose I could call them). They view pleasure as irrelevant or even antithetical to living a godly life. Indeed, although there are varied opinions in Orthodoxy—most scholars, naturally, tend to be more progressive—these true believers, or “monk groupies,” as we came to call them, were ever-present. These are the people who actually believe that sex is only meant for procreation, that childless marriages are pointless, and that birth control—and any form of sex play besides PIV—are sinful. (They also have a tendency to dismiss vaccines and antibiotics as unnecessary.) These are the people who will go to confession because they masturbated or they gave their wife oral (and she enjoyed it!). And the church encourages these people, or at least doesn’t actively discourage them, because they can quote the teachings of Elder So-and-So. Luckily, my husband and I never ascribed to this camp, at least.
The Turning Point
Several years into our Orthodox experience, my partner and I went on a mission trip, and I hated it. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing on the trip, and because I was still so thin from fasting/anorexia, my body couldn’t go for long periods of time without food, which was what we were expected to do on this trip. I felt out of place in the churches, and the monasteries were like another world—one that I didn’t want to be a part of. One monastery had a policy of making women put on skirts in order to enter their church, even if they were already wearing full-length pants. I guess my baggy jeans were just too hot for Jesus.
I became incredibly depressed on this trip; I didn’t think I could go on. But I did go on, and when I got home, I finally knew that something had to change. So I stopped fasting, and then I stopped praying, because I didn’t care anymore; I had hit rock bottom, and that was enough for me. I managed to wean myself off antidepressants within the next two months, and I felt glad that I was taking control of my life. I still had a lot of issues to work out, but letting go of the eating restrictions and disciplines made me wonder what was wrong with me sexually. Why didn’t I care about sex? Everyone else seemed to think it was great, based on TV and the Internet.
So I went to a gynecologist, and she suggested that I might try getting off the birth control pill. So I stopped taking the pill, and three days later, I got spontaneously aroused for the first time since I could remember. It was great for a few weeks, but then I started feeling strangely run-down again, so I went back in to have my sex hormones tested. Surprise! my estrogen levels were low. Three months after getting off the pill, I still hadn’t ovulated; now I was just infertile from years of anorexia and body shame. It took me a year and a half of gaining weight, exercising less, and lots of Clomid1 to get me back to normal. I had my first G-spot orgasm ever, ten years after the last time I remember really enjoying an orgasm. That was four years ago, and now I’m a regular sex fiend. And I’m sure you won’t be surprised when I say that I’ve left my religion behind, and I feel much happier for it.
The Moral of the Story
As the title of this series suggests, I regret all the years I wasted torturing myself, because I could’ve been having great sex and so much more fun! But at the end of this long journey, I’ve learned to love myself. I’m just a normal person, and I don’t have to be perfect at anything. Also, I’ve learned that life is to be lived, and in so many ways, it is what you make it. You have to stand up for yourself, and not let someone else tell you what you should believe is right or wrong for you.
I know there are many others out there like me who’ve lived through religious trauma, depression, and/or the anguish of being body-shamed. I hope that all of us find a safe place where we can feel loved and accepted for who we are, without judgment.