Up until my freshman year in high school, I never had a boyfriend before. So, as you can imagine when my first boyfriend asked me out and we changed our Facebook status from "single" to "in a relationship" I was ecstatic because all of it was a new feeling for me. We met at the church he went to regularly and half the time we spent together was at that church during weekly youth group meetings.
One day one of the leading women in the congregation saw my then-boyfriend and I sitting beside each other, holding hands, and she discreetly pulled me to the side, so she and I could talk to me one-on-one. I remember her face immediately going from a bright smile to a solemn expression. She didn't waste any time beating around the bush and told me to be mindful of the way I present myself in the church as a lady and continued verbatim saying "Think about what others would say. I mean if that's what y'all do in public then what kinds of things do y'all do in private?" Nothing, actually, I thought. At that point, I still hadn't had my first kiss so there definitely wasn't much going on in private. Part of me tried not to take things personally because I wanted to believe that this conversation was her way of helping me out and looking after me as a woman giving solid advice to the young girl I was at the time.
However, I couldn't help but feel ashamed in a way. I felt like less of a girl just for holding hands with my boyfriend at the time. And to make matters worse, I don't recall my ex-boyfriend getting pulled aside the same way, so I internalized the thought that maybe it was my duty as a girl to be the embodiment of modesty and match the church's standards for purity.
Now that I'm much older, I wonder how many other women felt the same way I did. Little did I know, I wasn't alone. In a recent appearance on comedian D.L. Hughley's radio show, actress Meagan Good opened up about facing the same kind of judgment with her husband, pastor, and Hollywood producer DeVon Franklin.
"If I'm being completely honest, my experience with some church folks has not been that positive. It's unfortunate because we're supposed to be the biggest losers. And it's like even if you disagree with someone or you don't think what they're doing is right, you're supposed to mind your own business and pray for that person. Other times, you're supposed to correct in love if that's what God told you to do. And there was no correction in love. It was like a complete assault."
In my own experience, I can relate to what Meagan Good says about corrections in love by the church coming off more like an attack, especially toward the girls. On the rare chance that the discussion of dating was shifted toward the guys, the conversation centered around their capabilities and strengths as leaders more than anything else. I even remember when the youth pastor went out of his way mid-service to address the whole crowd of students to stand up and re-arrange our seating so that the boys would sit in the first few rows of the pews and the girls would be behind them. A rumor had gone around that most of this was done so that girls wouldn't be a distraction to the guys when they sat together.
Further in the interview with Meagan Good, D.L. Hughley recalls an incident in which he remembers a woman telling Good to "cover up" during a live interview with her and her husband. And once again, some of the misogynist undertones she experienced within the church are things I've experienced myself.
For example, the middle school I went to was affiliated with a church, so I didn't have high expectations when it was time for my homeroom to receive puberty, sex and dating talk. However, I was still hoping for more than just our health teacher addressing the women to be pure and modest while the boys could talk to the principal of the school about anything they wanted. I'll never forget the day the boys came back from their talk laughing and giggling, saying "Yeah, we talked about everything. The principal didn't hold anything back! How was your talk?" All the other girls and I could say was that it was OK, but the main focus was our contribution as ladies or girlfriends in terms of how sexually pure or modest we are.
And don't get me wrong. I'm not taking away from the lesson of abstinence because I still think that's important to discuss with everyone, but overall, the church does a lousy job when discussing sex, dating, and relationships. According to a study on sexual activity in the Relevant, a Christian magazine, it was reported that 80% of unmarried Christians between the ages of 18 and 29 have had sex. I'm not Albert Einstein, but I think it would make more sense to prepare Christians with accurate and realistic information about sex and dating so that when that they don't adopt so much shame in the future, be safe if they decide to have sex and at the very least, not feel as though the only thing they have to offer in relationships is the way they present themselves to public.
And don't get me wrong. Not every church I've been to was like this. As Meagan Good stated in her interview "At the end of the day, for me, I still love Christians. I will always love the church. I love my Lord and Savior, period point blank. That's first and foremost over everything. But even though I love some of those people, I have to love them from a distance." And I resonate with that. I believe what I believe and there are some churches I've been to that have gone above and beyond with their support and love. However, I'm not ignorant to the fact that many of the ways institutionalized religion has interpreted the Bible's views on sex and dating have done more harm than good.