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Saturday, September 12, 2015

I remember when I was young and sheltered and afraid of the world

Image source.
So, did you hear? Some freshman at Duke University are refusing to read the book "Fun Home", because... Christianity. "Fun Home" is a graphic novel by Allison Bechdel, about issues with her family, her father's suicide, and her identity as a lesbian.

The reason for some students' objection is that it is a graphic novel. It has pictures. And some of those pictures show female masturbation and sexual experiences.

I've seen several blog posts about this, and they tend to misrepresent the situation. They say that the students are refusing to read it because they don't want to listen to viewpoints they disagree with. They don't want their beliefs to be challenged. THAT'S NOT IT AT ALL. (One post, If Duke freshmen can’t read “Fun Home,” they shouldn’t read the Bible, has some really important things to say about the bible, but it misses the point about the Duke freshmen.)

Helpfully, we have this post, which explains the students' thought process: I’m a Duke freshman. Here’s why I refused to read ‘Fun Home.', by Brian Grasso. Here's why he's not reading it:
After researching the book’s content and reading a portion of it, I chose to opt out of the assignment. My choice had nothing to do with the ideas presented. I’m not opposed to reading memoirs written by LGBTQ individuals or stories containing suicide. I’m not even opposed to reading Freud, Marx or Darwin. I know that I’ll have to grapple with ideas I don’t agree with, even ideas that I find immoral.

But in the Bible, Jesus forbids his followers from exposing themselves to anything pornographic. “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” he says in Matthew 5:28-29. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” This theme is reiterated by Paul who warns, “flee from sexual immorality.”

I think there is an important distinction between images and written words. If the book explored the same themes without sexual images or erotic language, I would have read it. But viewing pictures of sexual acts, regardless of the genders of the people involved, conflict with the inherent sacredness of sex. My beliefs extend to pop culture and even Renaissance art depicting sex.
I believe him.

It's not anything about "this book promotes an opinion that I disagree with."

It's "looking at any kind of sexual image could cause me to sin."

Yeah. It's the idea that it is actually dangerous and harmful to look at nudity. It will make you impure. It will probably make you imagine having sex with the person pictured. It could send you into a spiral of porn addiction.

(As a side note, it's really interesting to me that he talks about the "distinction between images and written words". Not everyone in purity culture would agree with him there. Some would say that even learning about sex or anatomy would be a dangerous temptation.)

Also, does anyone else think it's weird that the sexual images in "Fun Home" are about a woman discovering her own sexuality, and Grasso uses the term "lust"? (He cites the verse where Jesus says "if anyone looks at a woman lustfully".) It's all about The Male Gaze, huh? A woman talks about her sexual identity, and a man can't conceptualize it in any other way besides "would I like to have sex with her?" Right. I haven't read the book, but I'm guessing that's not the point.

Anyway, what I want to say is, I can relate to this fear of sex. No seriously, that's what it is, a fear of sex. I was in purity culture, and I believed that anything remotely sexual was a slippery slope into the worst kind of immorality. First you accidentally happen to look at a NSFW photo on the internet, next thing you know, you're addicted to porn and it's ruined your life.

I didn't even know anything about my own body. Sure, in sex ed in high school, we labelled the parts on the diagram, but it was just some abstract knowledge to me, something I learned just so I could pass the test in class. It never occurred to me that what we learned in sex ed was supposed to be useful in our lives in a practical way. To even think about my own body parts was probably the first step to becoming addicted to masturbation.

Additionally, in purity culture, if someone looks at porn or masturbates occasionally, this counts as being "addicted." The only acceptable amount is NONE AT ALL. (See this article: No, Porn Addiction Is Not Really a Thing.) And the slope was so slippery, we had to be afraid of what we might do, we had to assume we were animals with out-of-control sex drives, and even one step outside the rules of purity culture and our sin nature would take over.

He doesn't say it explicitly, but that's what I see when I read Grasso's article. He's afraid. He can't even look at the sexual images in "Fun Home" or else he might commit some kind of terrible sin. Ehhhh I don't want to speculate too much about him because I don't know him, but I can tell you about myself: I was afraid of my own desires- so much so that I believed it was sin to even determine the exact nature of what those desires were. I mean, obviously if I wasn't working so hard to "take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ" I would just want sex all the time, right? Everyone does, right? (Spoiler: no, they don't.)

Perhaps the most interesting part of this whole thing is that Grasso doesn't realize how completely unconvincing his argument is to the rest of us. You know, those of us who have looked as sexual images and lived to tell the tale. Maybe we watched porn- maybe even ON PURPOSE [oh gasp the horror], or maybe it just happened to pop up. Maybe we read a biology textbook. Maybe we saw naked people in art. And nothing bad happened. It is really not a big deal at all.

And this article got published in the Washington Post, and I have to wonder, why? What is he expecting? I think most people will read it and think "oh this is an odd quirk related to his religion" and then there's a discussion to be had over whether we should respect and accommodate odd quirky religious beliefs. But no one is going to be convinced to agree with him- not unless you're already a member of that subculture.

The subtitle on his article is "It's not about being uncomfortable. It's about being asked to do something that I think is immoral." Yes, he is trying to tell you that looking at a picture, for educational reasons, is immoral. (I actually think the reason he's been misunderstood and people think he's saying "I don't want to read anything that challenges my beliefs" is that it just comes across as such a bizarre thing. He is saying it's immoral to look at any kind of sexual picture. Context doesn't matter. Yes, really.)

And it doesn't matter what he says, or how well-written his article is. Our lived experience tells us we can look at nudity and absolutely nothing bad happens. (Within feminism, there's a conversation to be had about porn and what kind of messages it promotes, is it healthy or not, etc. And also, consent! So maybe it's not technically accurate to say 'absolutely nothing bad happens.' But this has nothing to do with a fear of becoming corrupted by just seeing a sexual image.)

I did that. I made the arguments from one step to another. Jesus says this. Therefore we do this. And sex will cause this. Therefore we do this. Everything followed logically, but I had no idea what I was talking about. Just imagine this situation: I had no real-world experience about anything sexual- because of course I didn't, I was a good pure girl (but of course I didn't believe I was pure- I was sure I had ruined that long ago, by not "guarding my heart" or whatever), and I tried explain my position to other people, tried to convince them. How well do you think that's going to go? I'm trying to tell people that I need to constantly (and in a very paranoid way) "take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ" or else I fear I'll become the worst kind of pervert- and my intention in communicating this struggle is to "set an example" and inspire others to do the same.

Like, really? Is that going to be convincing to anyone? It didn't matter how much logic I put into it, or how internally consistent my view was. People who are just "normal", who don't live in fear of their own sex drive, who have knowledge about what sex is and have *gasp* looked at porn and/or masturbated and it didn't ruin their lives at all... they probably wouldn't even understand what I was trying to say. (Or maybe they'd take the "I admire your commitment to your religion" approach, without realizing the hell I was creating/ purity culture was creating in my life, without realizing that I fully believed they should also be striving to live in that hell. Without realizing that I believed by not following purity culture, they were living every day in an even more awful hell.)

That's what I see when I read Grasso's article about not reading "Fun Home." Fear of sex, fear that a single "pornographic" image can awaken the monster that you've been taught lives in you, and all covered up in layers of nice-sounding religious language.

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