Abusive Community

Growing up AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth) in the church meant I got a lot of messages very subtly about what my body was worth, what I was allowed to feel and supposed to feel, and how ‘we Christians’ were held to a higher standard than ‘those people’ who weren’t part of the church. Whether it was the piety of my nuclear family or the whispered conversations in the parking lot after evening prayer or Sunday worship, I internalized very early on that the female body was a high risk factor in the saint-to-sinner slippery slope that men struggled to remain in control of. Of course, not only the female body was dangerous, I heard gay sexuality weaponized as some people in my church argued against full inclusion and others wished those who argued against it would ‘get theirs’ and end up with a gay child.

I knew this kind of talk was wrong, I felt the shame in my cheeks when mom told me to look out for who might get turned on by the one-piece dance leotard I wore onstage in my high school theater. I knew it was horrible of her to call the girl across the street a slut and a whore for having a lot of boyfriends in junior high school. It disgusted me that I couldn’t sit in prayer during communion because somebody was always giving me the gossip about those who were walking up the aisle to the table. But this was the way we ‘did community’ and ‘took care of each other,’ by making sure everybody knew who was pregnant out of wedlock and who was depressed probably because of her college sexual assault. Yes, this was behavior that was considered ‘tight knit family’ life for my small church. And when I was younger, it both rubbed me the wrong way while simultaneously making me feel like at least I finally belonged somewhere enough to be privy to this kind of talking. My call story had long been wrapped up in finding the welcome at my congregation which was sorely lacking in my school environment.

Then I came out with a crush on another AFAB person midway through grad school, and my immediate gut response was coming completely unhinged and total sense of loss of my imagined future and my family church. Looking back, I wonder if I should have just gone with that gut reaction, but instead I sought out friends in my then local faith community who were gay or allies, and found a foothold again for continuing with my part in the church and see what came next. Fast forward to my marriage to another AFAB person, and I have been so disconnected from my own body and sexuality, out of fear of inherent sinfulness, that I don’t even know how to keep my partner feeling safe in bed because I don’t understand how sexual organs function. I was too ashamed of my curiosity growing up to have ever even asked my questions or done any reading. I still get queasy when I think that I own three books of very tame erotica, but they are the only insight I have ever gotten about connecting with another person sexually. The shame I grew up swimming in has infected my experience of partnered life, damaging the very relationship which this church has proclaimed ought to reflect the image of a God of loving compassion.

How did we fall this far from worship of an Incarnate God who created the cosmos and called it good, to the worship of a spiritual and intellectual ideal of disembodied ‘purity’? I am hurt, I am angry, and I have no idea how long it will take to heal. I want my church to be a safe space, and the more I meet people who have lived through trauma, the more I see the trauma my church enacts and perpetuates. We can’t even say unequivocally that my love for another human being isn’t cause for my damnation, lest we hurt somebody’s feelings about their ‘bound conscience.’ Instead we continue to teach girls that their purity is their most important asset to protect, never mind that they might have their own ideas about loving their bodies and learning how to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or even to be allowed to say ‘I want,’ because heaven forbid we are allowed to want anything for ourselves. It’s in the water, this shame, it’s internalized throughout, and even when I intellectually and emotionally knew it was wrong to do to others, I allowed it to happen to me, because I didn’t want to be thrown out of my community for being disrespectful or disruptive. What kind of community is that if it’s not abusive?

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