Evangelical Exhibitionist

Your Body Is Evil

I spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about the first time I was explicitly told to be ashamed of my body. I was naked standing in front of the mirror checking out my 9 year old body in all its childish glory. “DON’T DO THAT!” roared into my ears from a whole foot away. Even though I wasn’t doing anything. I was looking at my body. I wasn’t touching myself. I was examining myself. Admiring myself.

“Don’t do what?” I asked, terrified because I was always terrified of my parents, and curious because I really had no clue what I had done that was so offensive.

“Just don’t do it!” he sputtered furiously, as he rushed to undress my siblings and get the bath started.

In my family, body shame was caught as much as taught. My parents never allowed us to see them in ANY state of undress. To this day I find it initially shocking to see my parents in swimsuits.

I have thought of the bath incident frequently as I have aged. At some point it dawned on me that my naked little body, hand on hip was an inherently sexual pose. In our criminally insane evangelical context, naked bodies are inherently sexual. No matter who owns them. No matter what context. Never mind the fact that I was a fucking child who had a right to not have my body sexualized ever. Within the context of evangelicalism, nudity is sexuality.

On its face, the belief that nudity is sexuality is disgusting. It’s objectifying. It tells little girls that their bodies are objects of shame and it tells old men that they are completely at the mercy of the whims of their sexual desires.

I was frequently told about the deep and abiding humiliation of a picture which had been taken of my mother, then a tiny child, in a splash pool in the front yard of her parents’ house. I was assured, as I sat through many lectures on sexual purity, lust, and godliness, that I too would be deeply embarrassed if I’d ever had a naked photo taken. Even as a child. This always sent my brain to a state of unfathomable confusion -- perhaps conditioning, perhaps ADHD, perhaps spectrum things -- but I learned from an early age that I wasn’t typically allowed to question godliness.

Still. Who is embarrassed about being naked? I thought. Being naked is awesome. Needless to say, my frequent requests to have my mother take photos of me in the bathtub went unfulfilled.

My parents assumed that I would follow them in their body and sex negative beliefs, and in retrospect, I have no idea why. My parents are smart and observant. It shouldn’t come as any kind of a shock to people who lived with me for 22 years that I… wasn’t fully buying into the “Modest is hottest” narrative being pushed by evangelical purity culture. But they had been promised buy a lot of powerful, rich white Christian men that a steady diet of the Bible and frequent beatings (called “spankings” because words are things that don’t always have consistent definitions) would set me permanently on the straight and narrow.

Turns out, you can’t unplug your child’s sexuality the way you disconnect a hard drive from a computer. Largely, humans are who we will be, and no amount of Bible readings and beatings can ever effectively change that.

Purity Culture and Other Abuses

It took me until adulthood to realize that I was an exhibitionist way before I hit puberty, in large part because I lacked the language. My parents and pastors certainly saw my *ahem* tendencies… and desperately tried to shame and beat them me out of it. They were convinced, and told me to my face, that I would be raped before I reached adulthood. I was told in very different language that female exhibitionism (and, for men, being queer) was the result of experiencing sexual assault. “All porn actresses have been sexually abused. All sex workers have been sexually abused. All gay people have been sexually abused.” The list of victims who needed to be blamed went on forever. (These were all statements that were explicitly made to me, not statements that I believe, just so we’re absolutely clear.)  Adults in my life worked nonstop to instill within me fear of men’s sexuality, which couldn’t be controlled, and disgust of my own sexuality, which I was told shouldn’t exist.

Within the evangelical framework, all men are hyper-sexual and all women are demisexual. Women, we’re told, aren’t sexually aroused until someone - a man, specifically, our future husband - awakens that part of us. (Pardon me while I vomit.) We are told that our value is directly connected to our sexual purity (read: virginity) and that we are torn pieces of paper, chewed up gum, water swished with chewed up Oreo cookies and spit back into a cup once we have sex EVER with someone we aren’t legally married to. (The legal part mattered A LOT for reasons no one in the church could ever explain to me.)

Exploring our bodies alone was a sin. Exploring our bodies with a partner was reserved for those who were married and copulating with a person of the opposite sex.

But with explicit instructions to never look, never touch, never explore alone, how was one supposed to have the confidence, joy, and knowledge necessary to explore with a partner. You’ve never been intimate with yourself, and you’ve been told for decades that your body is sinful, so how would you know what you liked or if it was even ok to like it?

You’re Crazy

As people who grew up in church slowly began to filter out, I would be quick to whisper that they were having a breakdown. When I left, I was called crazy by those still in church. It’s nice to know that some things never change.

But even after leaving, I never ever explored my own sexuality because I “knew” it was wrong.

It took me until now - four years removed from white evangelical Christianity, and two years removed from religion - to realize that I’m not crazy. This is exactly who I’ve always been. It brings me joy. And it brings other people joy. And it doesn’t hurt anyone. So I’m going to continue to be myself.

I frequently joke that I missed my calling as a sex worker because I am an Enneagram 2, so I love bringing other people joy, and i am an exhibitionist so I love being naked.

Since childhood, it was ingrained in me that bodies are instruments of shame and sin. That is a fundamental aspect to evangelical culture and its insistence that power be reserved for those at the top, and those on the bottom are unworthy of autonomy, agency, and dignity.

Never take a photo of yourself that you wouldn’t want on the cover of the newspaper

I have learned to love my body, even though I was taught to hate it, and I’ve never much cared about people’s opinions, even though I was taught that other people’s opinions matter A LOT. That’s the only way you can maintain power, isn’t it? To convince people that your opinions matter the most?

It was implied as a child, and explicitly stated when I was a teen that any kind of exhibitionist behavior was a sure sign of sexual abuse.

So of course I knew it was sinful that at 13 I was doing naked gymnastics in front of my open bedroom window, but also it brought me joy and I couldn’t help it.

The body negative messages continued, and I eventually was able to moderate my personal exhibitionism and accept that I had to cut off a part of myself if I were going to be allowed to stay in the club of Good, Wholesome Christians. I managed successfully to amputate that part of myself, along with essentially all of my sexuality, by the time I was about 23. I knew it was part of who I was. Just like I knew that my sexual attraction was practically limitless. But I had to submit to evangelicalism (which was conflated with the Bible) so I didn’t have any say in my sexuality.

As it turns out, I would be honored if there was a naked picture of me on the cover of the newspaper! Have you seen how great I look?!

I am not obligated to be ashamed of my body simply because Christians are or because Christians believe I should be. I am not obligated to be ashamed of my body because you see it as a vessel of sin or destruction when really it is a vessel for creating literal human life and joy and pleasure.

I have no interest in shame when there is so much goodness and joy and beauty left to be discovered. And your attempts to put your shame on me aren’t going to work. You know, the same way American dollars don’t work for making purchases in Canada. I know what it is you’re trying to give me, but I’m under no obligation to accept it.