Monday, February 5, 2018

Welcome to Purity Culture, Today We are Overanalyzing Hugs

A group of people standing in a circle, holding hands and praying. Image source.
Well here's an interesting article: 11 Questions to Ask Before You Hug Him (by Paula Marsteller). And by "interesting" I mean it gives us some fascinating insights into the weird world that is purity culture.

It's an article about the morally-questionable territory of "as a girl, is it okay to hug guys that are your friends, or not?"

Yes, really. These are the sorts of huge moral issues we need to grapple with, in purity culture.
A hug can be as pure—or as impure—as your heart.

That’s probably because there’s nothing inherently sinful about a hug. It’s just that behind our arms, we house a sinful heart that can pervert even something good into something not good.
That’s why it’s important to examine your heart before you reach out for that hug.
This is exactly how I thought, too, back when I believed in "purity." I "examined my heart" SO MUCH, about EVERY LITTLE THING related to attraction. It was EXHAUSTING.

Now, I believe it's good and healthy to examine one's emotions and desires and be honest about how you feel. Accept that your desires are fine, and figure out a healthy way to handle them. But what's being described in this article is a completely different thing. When I was in purity culture, I overanalyzed every little feeling I had related to attractive boys, because I believed certain desires were sinful and it would be very very wrong to take any action that was (at least partly) motivated by any of those "sinful" desires. I had to "fight against" my desires, instead of acknowledging them as normal and learning healthy ways to deal with them.

Here's a hypothetical example of how this would have played out, back when I believed in purity: Let's say I'm in a bible study group, and the leader is an attractive boy we will call Ralph. And I really like to look at Ralph and talk to Ralph, and when he looks at me with his big eyes and focuses all his attention on me and talks and laughs at my jokes, it gives me wonderful romantic feelings. (Note: In this hypothetical scenario, I'm single.) So maybe I think, I should arrive at bible study early to see if Ralph needs any help setting up. And I've led bible studies before; I know how a leader might be nervous. I can encourage Ralph, and sometimes he asks me for advice. So then I have to very very carefully analyze all these desires. Yes, it's true that by arriving early, I will be able to help him. But that's not really my main motivation- my main motivation is that I LOVE to talk to him alone because I have a crush on him. But see, I'm not allowed to be doing stuff like that, because in "God's plan," I am only supposed to experience romantic pleasure with the man that God picked for me to marry. Yeah, but since I have experience leading bible study groups, isn't it a good thing that I would volunteer to help the leader? So I shouldn't help him, just because I'm attracted to him? Well that doesn't make sense.

All of it would get so incredibly complicated, back then. Layers and layers of "I want to do A, because of B, and because of C, but C isn't really a good thing to desire, so I need to be very careful that C isn't the 'real reason' I'm motivated to do these things." And all of it was because I truly believed it was wrong for me to ever "act on" my feelings of attraction. And "act on" could include something as simple as looking into his eyes and marveling at how beautiful they were and how good they made me feel. Allowing myself to feel pleasure instead of shutting those thoughts down immediately.

Okay, show of hands: How many of you tried to strategically sit next to an attractive person during prayer time because sometimes the group would all hold hands in a circle while praying?

That's the kind of stuff I'm talking about. I wasn't allowed to date. (To clarify: The version of god I believed in did not allow me to date. My parents were fine with me dating though.) I wasn't allowed to take active steps to have physical contact with an attractive boy. ("Physical contact" is not a euphemism for sex or anything. I literally mean I wasn't allowed to touch my skin against an attractive boy's skin unless there was some kind of external reason- like we are climbing a steep hill and he is grabbing my hand to pull me up.) So all I could do was scheme like that, trying to engineer situations where the social rules would dictate that I should talk to the boy or touch the boy. And then overanalyze my thoughts and my motivations about ALL OF IT and try to figure out if I was sinning. And then pray that God would make me just not have crushes.

So here we are in this article about deciding whether or not it's okay to hug a boy (in the context of friendship, not dating). Is the writer asexual, like me? Because this is the asexual version of "battling against lust." Or is the writer just really repressed? (Lol that is a fun game to play when you get out of purity culture: Am I asexual, or just really repressed?)

The article is titled "11 Questions to Ask Before You Hug Him", so how about we take a look at some of those questions. Here's the first set:
When You Hug Him:
  1. Is there a guy(s) you want to hug more than others? If so, why?
  2. What message are you hoping to send him with your hug?
  3. Are you purposefully trying to arouse him with your body contact?
  4. Do you hug him just as you would any guy? Like you would your dad or brother?
  5. Would you be ashamed if people could read your thoughts as you hugged him?
  6. Are you hugging him in public or in private? If the latter, what are you trying to hide?
  7. If he’s married, would his wife be comfortable with you hugging him like this?
These questions are very weird to me. 1, 4, and 5, I understand. These are about analyzing one's own thoughts and motivations and what feelings you're getting out of the hug and whether or not those feelings are "sinful." But what on earth is going on with questions 2, 3, 6, and 7? These questions seem to assume that hugging someone in a "sinful" way is something that other people would be able to detect.

(Also, back when I was in purity culture, I definitely did not know what "arouse" meant. I would have understood it as "catch his attention" or "inspire him to have a crush on me." Turns out "arouse" means one's genitals are having a tangible physical response. Who knew. But I still have no idea how one can deliberately "arouse" someone by hugging. Especially since this article seems to just be about hugging friends- we're talking about just a quick friendly hug to say "hello", not sitting around cuddling for extended periods of time.)

Also, here's a revolutionary new idea I just thought of: Maybe it's totally fine to enjoy physical touch with one's friends- yes, even friends who share a gender with someone you're attracted to. In purity culture, I always refused when guy friends wanted to give me a hug. Then when I got out of purity culture, I became okay with hugging boys in certain situations- I decided it was okay because I was just being polite and "it doesn't mean anything." But what if it does mean something- would that necessarily be bad? What if I like to press my shoulder against a friend and pat their back for half a second- what if that really makes me feel a loving, friendly connection? It doesn't mean anything romantic, it doesn't threaten my relationship with my husband, but it does give me pleasure and it matters to me. That's totally fine. Enjoying physical touch with a boy doesn't mean I'm attracted to him or interested in "more." That can just be a totally normal part of friendship.

I still don't know how to have a healthy ideology about all this. I often ask my husband increasingly-convoluted questions: "Is it okay if I notice some guy is attractive? Is it okay if I not only notice he's attractive, but choose to keep thinking about him? Is it okay if I hug a guy that I think is attractive? What if I hug a guy as a friend, but also I am attracted to him so I have feelings like oooOOOOooo when I hug him? Should I hug him while ignoring those feelings or is it okay to let myself feel those feelings and enjoy them?" I think my poor husband is tired of trying to explain it.

(And did you notice, that article assumes everyone is straight? How strange and unrealistic. By the way, this kind of thinking makes everything way worse for LGB people who grow up in this culture. If you follow their logic, then if straight people shouldn't have close friends of the opposite gender, then bi people should just never have any friends at all.)

One more thing I want to say about this article. Look at this part:
If his hug makes you feel uncomfortable, depending on the seriousness of the situation, here are some ways to stop it:
  1. Leave some space between you as you hug and quickly pull away.
  2. When he reaches out to hug you, turn and give him a side hug rather than a front-on hug.
  3. When he reaches to hug you, give him your hand instead. It might be awkward for a second, but he’ll get the point.
  4. Tell him you’re not comfy hugging him.
  5. Tell a trusted authority that you’re not comfy hugging him.
It's good that the writer says you're allowed to not hug a man you don't "feel comfortable" hugging, but I think it should be framed in a different way. I would have said it like this: "You are in charge of your own body, and you have ABSOLUTE, 100% veto power over who is or isn't allowed to hug you. You TOTALLY have the right to refuse a hug, and everyone MUST respect that. All right, that's the basic ground truth we're working from. Let's move on to practical things: Different situations may call for different levels of politeness and directness in asserting your right not to be hugged. Here are some suggestions along those lines."

Because the way it reads now, it sounds like "If you don't want to be hugged, you can try some of these suggestions and see if they work. But, like, if none of them work then, *shrug* oh well. I mean, you tried your best, but people only need to respect your bodily autonomy if you can do the dance of being polite and nice and subtle while still getting your message across."

In summary: The very "purest" girls overanalyze every thought and desire and motivation they have related to attraction. I did that, back then, and I did it because I truly believed it would be a sin to "act on" any desires I had for attractive boys. It was exhausting to always question my motivations and try to stop myself from having completely normal feelings that most people have. But that's what you have to do in purity culture.

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