I debated about offering a trigger warning on this post because, while it does not go into explicit content, we do gently go into the subject of sexual assault. But I want to respect the autonomy of my readers and and give you the opportunity to make an informed decision for yourself about whether or not to read on. I hope you all have a lovely day.
My friends—do yourself a favor. Get up, go get a cup of coffee—maybe put on a pot of tea. Kick off your shoes and get yourself into a comfortable state because what we have for you is a big, juicy edition of Feminist Friday and I just know that you’ll be able to absorb more if you’re feeling really good and unhurried. Oh! We’ve got a giveaway happening, too! But just hold on. Put on your cozy socks and come on back.
Okay, hi. Hello. You’re back! So my friend Sarai is a brilliant general human and author. Last year she wrote a memoir called Letters to Boys: Misadventures in Life and Love. I’m going to be giving away a copy of this book for your consumption. I will tell you that if you make it to the end of this post, odds are very good that you’ll probably be interested in the content of this book. Also if you make it to the end of this post, you’ll find out how to enter this give away. And we’re off!
What does Feminism mean to you?
Feminism means that it’s desirable and amazing to live in one’s own power. I believe we all have power, we all have an essence of strength and greatness – and we all ought to have the ability to use it. That means we have ownership over our bodies, our destinies, our relationships and our work. It means that people of all genders are equal and wonderful, that we all get to celebrate who we really are without shame or fear, and that we can make anything happen that we want to make happen because we are brilliant and powerful. Power. It’s so much about power. It’s also, dare I say, about fighting abuses of power. It would be so awesome if we could just have our power and be happy about it, but in reality, we are facing millennia of really fucked up power structures, and the reality is that these ways of operating and thinking have to be dismantled in order for each of us to fully use our own power. A huge part of feminism’s role in the world is to do that work of deconstruction and rebuilding.
So in the beginning of Letters to Boys, you mention that this all started out as letters to a single person which morphed into letters to other men whom you have known in your life. So why did you think it was important publish it for public consumption?
The first and most honest answer is that I’m a chronic over-sharer. I love to tell everyone things that I feel like telling them, and usually I find that it’s liberating and useful for them and me both. Just yesterday, a woman complimented me on my bangs, which I had freshly cut, and I explained that I like them too, and that usually I think I look like a little kid when I have bangs, but right now I feel really good about them, and that really, when my bangs get too long, like they were before I cut them, it’s annoying because they get hung up on my glasses and do this weird flippy thing that makes me look like Mallory Keaton from Family Ties…all to say, “thanks, I’m glad you like my bangs.” I also found it to be a very cathartic High-Fidelity type moment – where I sent the book (with a very few exceptions) to the men it was about. It was a beautiful way to say “hey, remember when we were kids and did all this weird stuff. Sorry it got weird” or, “you’re beautiful and I love you no matter what, and I hope there’s an afterlife so we can hang out again” or “I had a secret crush on you for five years, and now you know.” That part of it was the most amazing thing. A lot of very healing, gorgeous conversations with people I’ve loved or tried to love or wished would love me.
Aside from that, and in a more deep and serious way, I truly wrote that book to exorcise my own relationship demons and examine the nature of sexual power as it had played out in my life. That wasn’t just about sex itself, but more about the ways in which I had always related to men. I had to understand why I had fallen into patterns of experiencing abuse in my relationships. I needed to end that cycle. I figured I wasn’t the only one who had problems like these. See, I have this undying belief – I’ve shared it with you before, in fact, when you share vulnerable things that you’re scared to talk about with your readers – that every time you peel away a layer of fear and shame about something serious in your life, you make it safe for other people to do the same. You make it a little better for everyone, because we can all finally realize we’re not alone. And when we realize we’re not alone, we realize we’re not horrible freaks and we can be OK with ourselves. And from this place of self-acceptance and understanding, we are able to make something change. Make it better. Move the whole world forward. (Ahem, I make no small plans. The whole world moving forward is kind of the thing I focus on with everything I do).
The genesis of this exorcism (sexorcism? no, that’s terrible) journey all started in February of 2015 when I was sexually assaulted. It was a crazy experience because I didn’t know I was assaulted until later. And that realization revealed to me that I had been sexually abused by a previous partner long ago, when I was a freshman in college. The understanding I gained from this experience made me want to talk about it to everyone and anyone who would listen. Because you know what? Sexual abuse and assault happen all the time, way too often – and unlike we make it out in popular culture – it sometimes happens accidentally. That is to say, men and women follow cultural scripts that are handed down to us, and that we play out. The script goes like: Men want you to have sex with them. As a good woman, you probably say no. They don’t believe you. You say no again. But it’s coy and flirtatious. It’s a thing we pretend is just the way sex works. And in reality, that’s disgusting and it degrades the power of our desires. End scene.
I realized after that assault, that not only did he not allow me to say no, but I also didn’t allow myself to even think about whether I wanted to say yes. He made me invisible, but I made myself invisible first. I think it’s that murky, confusing, weird thing about what is and is not sexual assault that intrigues me. I want to have conversations with people about that – I want to talk to men about how sexual assault works – and it’s hard, because we villainize everyone who is associated with perpetrating assault. It’s not OK to sexually harm anybody, ever, of course, but we have a bad habit of assuming people are what they do. That one act defines them. It’s the same as the victim. Who wants to be a victim of anything?? Nobody. So, having this mantle of “Oh no! Now you’re a victim and it’s weird because you were sexually assaulted and I don’t know what to do about it so I’m going to argue about it and tell you this wasn’t an assault because there was no kicking and screaming…” or what have you…it’s further disempowering. We are not defined by what we’ve done nor by what has happened to us. We are defined by who we are deep down, that little light that keeps holding out no matter what – and we can choose how we move forward, what we do to change ourselves, our circumstances, our message.
This guy, the one who took advantage of me, he tells himself what he needs to believe to not feel like a horrible criminal. I have empathy for that. In many ways, I’m the same. It doesn’t downplay what happened to me, that I wasn’t able to say what I wanted to do with my body and have that respected, but it changes the tone of the conversation. It also takes it out of a legal setting, which is how most people want to talk about sexual assault. I want to talk about how we can learn to respect ourselves and each other, to stand in our own power, and have sex like we mean it, because we do.
And, just one more thing about this – when I was no longer willing to be subjected to sexual abuse, I was also no longer capable of receiving or tolerating the emotional abuse in my marriage. So I left. Abuse of all kinds stems from an imbalance and misuse of power. I got mine back, and nobody can take that from me again.
You grew up in the conservative Christian culture, much like I and so many others did. I know you wrote a whole book about this topic but if you could boil it down just a little bit, what do you think is one thing that culture is getting wrong about the subject of sex and sexuality? Is there anything that’s being done right?
Shame is what’s wrong with it. Shame and double standards.
Sex is a normal thing. Some would say it’s a wonderful, incredible thing. So, when we create an entire structure that makes sex 100% bad until the second you get married, we crush an essential, normal part of people. When we crush essential, normal parts of people, they do weird things. Some of them shut down their sexuality entirely and have no recollection that they ever had any inkling of it. They let that part of themselves die. Some of them get addicted to porn. Sex is not OK, and masturbation is pretty bad too, but it’s just you and you in the second scenario, and who’s gonna know? Let’s not even get started on the exploitation of the sex industry, and all that goes along with it. Healthy sexuality with not outlet easily turns into something pathological and compulsive. That’s definitely not great.
The fact is, we are psychologically and physiologically damaging people by shutting down sexuality. Most of my life, I was filled with horror and shame at myself, blamed myself for all my sexual feelings, bargained with God over being forgiven for touching myself or thinking sexual thoughts. Not to mention, I wasn’t supposed to even BE sexual like that because I was a girl! Only boys have those kinds of thoughts and that struggle! Boys in youth group could joke about masturbation. Girls never said anything. I don’t know if any of the girls I knew were masturbating or not. I just thought I was a weird freak, and kept it to myself. We never talked about it.
In youth group, I was charged with “not causing my brothers to stumble.” I had to control the sexual dynamics of all those relationships, while the boys could pretty much behave however they pleased. If I failed to drain all the sexuality or attraction out of a relationship and accidentally gave a dude a blowjob, it was probably because he was just being a boy and I was weak or a slut, but either way, it was my fault and mine alone. That double standard in Conservative Christian culture is one of the most damaging things I can imagine. Being responsible not only for my own terrible sexuality, but also that of ALL THE BOYS I KNEW was a burden I was never meant to carry. And the weird sex issues I was handed as a Christian kid carried over into my marriage. My ex-husband was…let’s use a fun 50’s housewife word, and call it “frigid.” Our sex drives didn’t match up, we weren’t sexually compatible, and that part of our marriage was pure drudgery for both of us. I think, honestly, that a lot of that is because we didn’t have sex before our wedding night. How would we know just how bad that would be? And there we were, saying we’d be together until we died, and I was, in all truth, dying inside about this (and other things) from the start. I thought he was just weird about sexual expression before that because he had a conscience about it, but really, it was so much deeper than that. There was porn, there was guilt, there was nothing that could really be healed or salvaged there. Do I fully blame the teachings of the church for that? Probably not, in all fairness – but I certainly don’t think it was helpful.
All that said, Christianity can, and sometimes does, have a lot to offer by way of healthy sexuality. It warns against willy-nilly sex all over the place, which has health risks, so that’s smart. And I think, if it’s taken the right way and taught respectfully and equitably, there can be a great message of self-respect and love as it pertains to sexuality. Sex is best applied in relationship with people you love and respect, and who have the same esteem toward you. That’s a godly message. Sex can be cheap and it can be sacred. I’m not going to say I don’t think both ways are fine, as long as you are choosing it…because I’ve done both, and they have both had a role in my life. Ultimately, I think Christian teachings about sex can help teach balance and respect, love, sacred honoring, and the transcendent joy sex can facilitate. I want that to be true. I hope and pray that there can be a shift on that front.
And straight up, I will never, ever tell anybody to wait until marriage to have sex, ever again. To all the kids I counseled at camp, or in youth group, yeah – wait until you can be safe, in a trusting relationship, and mature enough to understand how sex bonds you to someone. Be sober and make a clear choice to do it or not do it. Know what you want and what is OK for you, and speak up about it. Make sure it’s a mutual thing – no pressure, no coercion. But don’t wait until you’re married and it’s all complicated just because someone said you’re supposed to do that. If you are one to wait like that, you probably also don’t think it’s a legitimate reason to leave someone because the sex sucks or doesn’t happen. And frankly, in my book, that’s a pretty good indicator that the relationship isn’t working. For me. It might be different for other people, but I’d say in general, sex matters. If it matters to you, then be with someone who cares about it too.
So, I know you’re working on a new book that I’m really excited about. Do you want to tell us about that a little bit? Where did the idea come from and how is it developing?
My new book is SUPER EXCITING, yes. All caps-worthy, really. It’s called Leave in Love, and it’s all about leaving. How to leave well. How to leave before you want to die because you didn’t leave. How to leave before other people want to die because you were dying from not leaving and making them all sick too.
The idea of quitting is anathema to so many of us in American culture. In fact, I was driving around town a few weeks ago, and a sign on a church reader board – no joke – was this quote from none other than Mike Ditka, as if from on-high: “You’re not a loser until you quit.”
This pretty much sums up everything I was taught, or that I picked up in pop culture, about quitting all my life. You stick it out, work hard, put your head down and shovel through, and don’t give up. If you give up, you’re a loser. If you give up, you failed. Nobody wants to fail!
So, we never quit. We languish in bad relationships, trudge along with shitty jobs we hate with terrible bosses who abuse us (at least until we can find a differently shitty job with a completely other terrible boss who abuses us in newly horrific ways), participate in religious communities that shame and judge us, and sit through movies that bore us. We equate quitting something with failure. This leads to either the aforementioned languishing, or worse – the Homer Simpson ethos, oft repeated by my dad (only partially in jest): “Never try.” We don’t get started in the first place, because we’re afraid to fail – and when something as benign as quitting is considered a failure, it’s no wonder we are so often paralyzed and stuck and unable to move forward in our lives. Nothing is worth a risk. What if I try and I don’t like it? I can’t quit. Quitting is failing.
But really, quitting is not a failure. Quitting is a normal thing. Leaving is natural. We all change, things change all around us. Life moves forward, it progresses. And when we fail to progress with it, when we choose to stay in one place at all costs because once, long ago, we said we would, we start to choke ourselves out. We cut ourselves off at the root when we stay long past the time when it was healthy to be there.
It’s a little funny, but I want to help people leave. I want to help people take a look at their life, assess their situation, and make some decisions. I want them to ask themselves: Do I really want to be here? If I do, what needs to change to make this a place I can be healthy and content? Is it really possible that, if these changes were to occur, I could be here wholeheartedly? What if the changes don’t happen? Will I be able to stay then? Do I really want to risk staying, given what it is doing to me now? If I don’t want to be here, what do I need to know before I can make a change? If I can’t know those things, can I take the risk and go?
This topic has long been one that has come up in conversation with friends and loved ones. The most common themes we cover are leaving jobs and careers, leaving relationships (romantic or otherwise), and leaving religions or religious communities. I think people started talking to me about it because I left a job that I absolutely loved and adored for years and years…until it became a toxic place for me to be, and I realized it was rapidly killing my soul and ruining my life. That’s not hyperbole. I’m serious. I was angry, exhausted, trapped in a ruinous relationship with my otherwise brilliant and wonderful boss, scapegoated for everything, stripped of my authority and autonomy and continuously met with criticism and resistance. One day, after several years of this daily run through the wood-chipper, I finally realized – after a week-long vacation, after which I returned to office gossip that immediately filled me with so much rage I had to leave the building within 45 minutes of arriving on Monday morning, walk to the river and seethe for an hour – that I had to go.
I had known for at least 18 months before that day that I needed to leave that job. I knew. I saw what was going on. I knew what was going to happen there. It was clear to me that my boss had turned against me, and when she did that with people, I knew they were not long for that job. However, I was in a position that was not easily removed…and I had to remove myself. Removing myself was actually HARDER than just being fired. I had to question everything about myself and who I thought I was at that time. My job, I thought, defined me. I liked the status. I was truly proud of the work I had done, but I also over-identified with it, to the degree that I honestly believed that if people didn’t know what I did or who I was, I wouldn’t matter anymore.
In the end, leaving that job made my whole life change. It was the beginning of a journey over the past two years that took me down a path toward self-acceptance and love. It was something I desperately needed to do. And, as it turns out, leaving my career was only the first domino to tip over.
Eventually, I also left my marriage, after 8 long, difficult, painful years. I walked away from emotional abuse and power struggles that had eroded my sense of self and belittled me. As I left my marriage, I also had to leave my church (for the second time in my adult life), letting go of my role as a worship leader – work I cherished and loved.
Leaving isn’t always easy. It can be painful. It can be exhilarating. It can be liberating. It can feel claustrophobic. All told – leaving is something we need help with in our culture. We need to learn how to let go of situations that are hurtful to everyone. All of the scenarios I left in the last two years are two sided – my organization needed me to go. Things changed there when I left, and shortly thereafter my former boss left. It cleared the air. It was a cluster-fuck, but it was a necessary cluster-fuck, and they’re doing a lot better without us now. My marriage not only held me in a pattern of abuse and victimization, coupled with responsibility abdication and weird coping habits like online shopping addiction (yikes! Those “buy now” buttons are soooo irresistible when you’re miserable!), but it also held my husband in a pattern of perpetrating, criticizing, blaming and enabled him to continue patterns that needed to be disrupted. My church was rigid in its belief that “God hates divorce” and therefore, I couldn’t be in a leadership position during that time. In turn, I chose to let go of my previous need to be judged (aka “held accountable”) in that community. I let go of that because I realized that making the right choice for myself was going to fill the congregation with cognitive dissonance and possibly make their heads explode, so I let go of my desire to correct them about that too, and instead chose to love them from afar.
So, yeah. I’m pretty excited about this project. I’m collecting stories for the book, because I want to hear from people who have left, who have a hard time leaving and desperately want to leave, but can’t yet, and who have been left by someone else. I want to understand the experience from as many angles as possible so I can find some patterns and help write a guidebook for how to healthily leave in love. People can anonymously share their stories at www.leaveinlove.com – and if you want to get in touch and tell more of those stories to me in person, use the contact form at that website to get in touch, and we can schedule a time to talk. I’ll be working on the research and story collecting part of the book from May-July, so I’d love any contributions I can get!
Thank you so much, Sarai! I love your vulnerability and your passion and the way that you still have so much more to say. I hope people go over to http://www.leaveinlove.com to help out!
To enter the giveaway—leave a comment on this post. Also, for additional entries, share about this post and giveaway! Just leave an additional comment on this post to let me know how you passed the message along: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, e-mail, whathave you. We’re going with the honor system, here. But I trust you because you’re all awesome, brilliant friends. We’ll leave the giveaway open for a week. It will close at midnight on April 22. Make sure that you’ve included your email address so that I am able to contact you if you’ve won!
Thank you for everything! You’re all awesome