Mujer Non-Grata: An Ongoing Series on Life in a Cult, Healing from Religious Trauma Syndrome, and Navigating Life After Religion.
To read more posts in this series, click here.
I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a woman in the resistance lately. With the #metoo movement finally roaring loudly and so many cases of sexual abuse and power misconduct coming into the light, I can’t help but notice that the discussions around why assault happens are still lacking a fundamental discussion.
Yes, what we are seeing is fundamentally about an abuse of power. We need to talk about power.
But we also need to talk about who gives power.
Where does our fundamental imbalance of power come from?
Who authorized this imbalance?
We are just now starting to talk about institutionalized racism as a society and we already know the struggles that come with those discussions. Privileged and non-privileged white folks bristle and feel personally attacked when presented with the concept of white privilege and internalized bias. The same thing is happening when women talk about toxic masculinity, rape culture, misogyny, and patriarchal oppression. The concept of toxic masculinity has both men and women (yes--women can and do perpetuate all these things) screaming incoherently about how "we all hate men now". The #metoo movement has men and women sounding an alarm because, "This is a witchhunt!"
As I have sat and wondered why it is so hard for people to talk about the these things, I keep going back to the fact that most of the institutions and foundations which have fundamentally laid the groundwork for imbedded misogyny and oppression are so foundational—so woven into the fabric of our identities and the core of our understanding of western culture—even at an intersectional level—that critically addressing the issues feels like a personal transgression towards “good people” and still feels like a huge risk for those trying to break through. If you say religion--especially Western religions--are a problem, you are asking for a huge bullseye on your back.
So here it is: The biggest sources and perpetrators of toxic masculinity, rape culture, oppression, and misogyny (along with homophobia, transphobia, racism, etc.) are religious institutions. Before anyone shoots at the bullseye on my back--take a deep breath. First, it's not about you. Actually--please sit with that for a second.
For the sake of friendly conversation, obviously not all religious folks are bad. Not all religions are bad. But we have to, as a society, be able to talk rationally about how religions and some of their theologies are fundamentally failing both men and women and then we must work towards fixing this. Some actions that religious institutions are taking and some of their teachings are creating and perpetuating harm. Most of the oppression we are coming up against as a people has biblical foundations and is being defended through this lens. Certain mainstream interpretations of religious traditions and theology are complicit in a multitude of oppression.
Men and women are taught inequitable power dynamics from the pulpit. From the pulpit to the parent to the teacher to the priest to the professor to the CEO, we as women (and men! toxic masculinity hurts everyone) learn our place and internalize our unjust power dynamics from institutions that we trust--from institutions that are part of our identity. Religious institutions, academic institutions, the press, the media--these are the purveyors of power. And for most of us, the first to hand us our place in this world is God (God here being the men who speak in his name--priests, pastors, and fathers/mothers).
We learn at a very early age that there is a power imbalance between the sexes. We just don't understand what this imbalance means for us yet.
Boys are strong, girls are sweet.
If a boy likes you, he hurts you. If you like a boy—you keep it to yourself because only whores are forward.
Boys who raise their hands are smart, girls are pushy and bossy.
I remember the first time I realized that I was not a boy—and more importantly that boys were granted different privileges than girls. I never wanted to be a boy (though it would be totally cool if I did!)
As you know, I grew up in a very Catholic family. My family is full of religious—both the lay kind and the ordained. And so, naturally, my idea of a leader was a priest. And like any little girl who looked up to someone in leadership, I wanted to be just like them. I, too, wanted to be a priest. I also wanted to be president #neverthelessshepersisted.
Imagine my surprise when, after vocalizing this, I was told, “Well, you can be a nun like your aunts. Priests are only men.”
Now, with a theological background, I know the reasoning behind this exclusion and why, in a Catholic worldview, it holds "true". But for a child—untainted by patriarchal theology—it was not only upsetting but unjust. I had never considered that God could be an oppressor. God had never been unjust. How was this possible? And so, the next obvious question was, “Well, why?”
And the response I received was quite simply, “because that is the way it has always been and that is how God wanted it.” And that is still the response most women get when trying to break through oppressive barriers and glass ceilings. I didn't even realize that I was playing in a different lane until someone pointed out an invisible societal line that I was not allowed to cross.
As the years went by, like so many other women, I became hyper aware of my body and my place as a female in a male-led world. Internalizing the reasons for why women were not fit for leadership and also constantly sidelined in almost any field, I came to resent my body and eventually feel shame that I was a woman. I was young, so while I did not fully grasp what was happening or that this was purposefully preached from the pulpit to the dinner table, I was already showing signs of how gender roles (complementarity theology) and power discrepancies hurt those who internalized them day in and day out.
When my first period came, I was horrified. I felt unclean and broken. I was also woefully unprepared because bodies were not something we talked about in my house. Bodies were indecent. I didn’t have words for it, but I felt for the first time a lack of control and autonomy over my body. As we whispered in hush tones about pads and blood, I learned that my body was something to be ashamed of and that it needed to be hidden--especially from men who would be grossed out by what my body was doing. As my painful periods eventually led to an endometriosis diagnosis that still plagues me today, I grew to resent and fear my own body, disassociating from it slowly. If I could not control it, and it could turn against me or others, I wanted nothing to do with it.
When I wanted to join a sport in school, I remember those closest to me teasing that I would never make a team and that I was better off doing theatre and music. At my first and only sports try out—even though anyone could walk on the team regardless of skill, I was so behind in skill from everybody else I left the field never to try a sport again. I believed my body was weak and that strength was for other people. My family had learned gender binaries so fundamentally from their religious tradition that they would never have thought to challenge them---and in not challenging them they became my own. I was never going to have a strong body. My body was for other things.
As I grew older, the messages became more and more sinister. After joining the Catholic Student Union at Florida State and becoming a radicalized Catholic, I did what most of the students did after joining CSU. I dropped my major (Poli-Sci and theatre) and became a religion major ( I would love to know the numbers of how many of us dropped our majors for a fundamentally useless undergrad degree). In a miracle turn of events, the major actually suited me—mostly because no matter how much I tried to approach my studies from a devout Catholic theological perspective (trying to avoid dissent but also learn), I inevitably always ended up back at a sociological approach that became social critique (I can thank my relatives who were Jesuits for maybe instilling dissent as a form of practice).
And then the comments from my community came in—mostly from the men who were studying to eventually go to seminary--men who I considered close friends. Men who considered themselves chosen:
“Why do this degree? What is the point if you cannot really do anything with it?”
“Oh, so you are going to be a youth minister or CCD teacher?”
“This background in secular theology will help you raise future saints and priests for the Church because you will know how to do great apologetics.”
This lead to growing internal friction. Was I not in the same classes as them? Was I not getting the same grades (or better) than them? When we would all sit outside of the Church to just “shoot the shit” and talk theology, was I not an equal participant? I wondered if they were just humoring the women--especially the vocal ones in our group-- because they felt they needed to be communal (so, not from a place of intellectual respect as peers). At the end of the day, the "holy" club was a boy's club. Women could be admired for their faith and knowledge, but always through the lens of either "future mother" or "future silent sister". Anything else was outside the virgin complex and veered into the whore dilemma. Eventually most dynamic women became a "threat".
As I have dug back into this, conversing with other women who managed to leave our orthodox circle, we keep going back to women’s bodies being intertwined with our intellectual capacity. Our entire beings were constantly under attack, all under the guise of paternalistic misogyny.
At every purity talk in our youth group, the ever-present warning was, “Women, guard men’s hearts.”
This is such a toxic statement—as if men could not control themselves around women without women being accountable for men's actions. The permanent talking points were that men were visual creatures that needed to be protected from themselves and their sexual drives and that women were not sexually driven but emotional beings that needed to be protected from being overly emotional. With the #metoo movement, how much of the backlash has consisted of shaming women for putting themselves in positions where the men could not help themselves? Sound familiar?
I laugh at this now, knowing the sexual frustrations of friends from my former life—uncomfortable in their own bodies and with their own sex drives in extremely heteronormative relationships that leave then not only unfulfilled but resentful of their bodies and how within their narrow views of bodies, sex, and pleasure, they feel left out or left behind. This is even more traumatizing for those who long to be sexually empowered, but as mothers of multiples (contraception is a big NO-NO) who feel less and less called to pregnancy, feel trapped and unable to avoid it without becoming celibate (I won't even entertain a discussion that NFP--a rebranding of the rhythm method--is empowering anyone). Here we see a really clear example of slowly handing over body autonomy to someone else. There is also significant trauma for those women who do get married and are unable to conceive--stuck in a perpetual cycle of a virgin/whore self-imposed moral failure that they struggle to ever come out from underneath of. Without motherhood--who are they? What does that say about their bodies? What does that say about their relationship with that body and pleasure? Even the most devoted Catholic women in my group who understand that infertility is not something they can control struggle with their identity post-motherhood. We all were either going to be mothers or we were going to be mothers. There was never anything else. Tell someone you are infertile and they tell you a biblical story about an old woman who conceived when God chose for her to conceive (right--handing that over to another man to decide when he stops torturing you as a barren woman).
When you are told that a sex drive is only natural for a man (though they too are shamed into disassociating with it until it is either given up to God or used to procreate), you internalize both the purposeful whore complex that underlies the entire conversation and your ability to connect in a healthy way with your body and the bodies of others. The power paradigms get distorted.
I vividly remember leadership at CSU and from the diocese speaking to the men in our group about having religious vocations, and there was a "theological selling point" that came up time and time again. Most women from my time in CSU cringe when you mention it:
"The priesthood is a PLAN A. Not everyone can answer the call, but it is a higher calling for men. Marriage, while "equally noble" is a PLAN B."
I don't need some dramatic story to get across what this said, both indirectly and directly, to every woman in the room that was labeled at best a PLAN B ( or the men who just didn't feel called to be celibate or priests or both). God’s plan for men--the ultimate plan--was for them to forsake women, sex, and body autonomy. If all else failed, sure, get married. Go have sex, but make sure it is for procreation because if not? If you are not creating future saints and priests, why fuck?
Well, the implications there are simple.
I want to be blunt here. The god of this theology thinks women (and/or men) and sex (companionship and human intimacy) are what a "good man" will give up for holiness.
There is no ethic of care here for anyone. For women, they are second class followers of Christ. At best, women could forsake sex to become silent followers in habit-hijabs (because we haven't figured out virgin births yet) or give birth until their bodies give out. For men, there is no need for companionship that isn't a moral failure and a step down in seeking holiness. Bodies, apparently, are what god wishes everyone didn't have (maybe he did intend on virgin births and forgot). Good people give up all body autonomy to the being that supposedly gave it to them. I won't even go into what this does to folks who are queer--leaving them in a dark limbo regardless of what vocation they choose--either choosing to hide who they are and how they were made or, if they can/must, choosing the be cast out by those who claim to "love the sinner, hate the sin". No one who is queer gets to stay. No one. Anyone who says otherwise is lying to themselves.
In our group, if a man did choose marriage and partnership, especially if they were originally considering the priesthood, it was an absolute moral failure of the highest kind. It was a betrayal of his brothers. It was an act of forsaking God. It was a communal disappointment. The horror stories in my community from the women who dated men who had left seminary (or worse, those who were the "reason" that men left seminary) are so common they have become inside jokes to be traded like medals of honor. They called them chalice chippers. They called them vocation vampires. They become outsiders almost immediately, branded with a scarlet letter that they never asked for and would have to leave the community to get rid of.
As a woman who is married to someone who discerned the priesthood (#chalicechippers say what?) and is close friends with others in this reclaimed #vocationvampires survivors group, you live with untangling the lies from the community almost every day. You eventually forget the community. It eventually becomes a past season in your life, but the lies planted in that time stay with you. The guilt creeps up on you. You live with a shame that you did nothing to deserve. You spend a lot of time ripping off that Scarlett letter, only to some days find it right where they planted it. For many women, the sting of being a scapegoat for internalize misogyny (and don't forget homoeroticism) is haunting.
At such a young age these messages, even if we didn't realize we were internalizing them, created long lasting scars. They become truths that you spend a lot of time undoing because they rear their ugly heads when you least expect it.
My body is dirty.
My body is sinful.
My body leads others to sin.
My body leads me to sin.
I am unworthy of love.
I am unworthy of being chosen.
Dissent is dangerous.
Obedience is love.
Silence is humility.
Self-Sacrifice is the ultimate sign of commitment to others.
For women, the consequences are obvious. We internalize failure. We internalize our second-class status. We are easily startled. We spend days apologizing for non-offenses. We accept when men are promoted before us. We accept a world where we never feel safe and where we are told time and time again that we are at fault for the transgressions committed against our own bodies. We accept silence as safety. We accept and accept and accept. We make ourselves smaller and smaller and smaller. We become thin and frail hoping to take up less and less space. We communicate in looks instead of proclamations of truth. We become whoever we need to be at any moment, regardless of the cost to us. We are silent with lousy lovers because our bodies are not for our pleasure, but theirs. We leave our reproductive rights in the hands of men who could never understand what it means to make the decisions we all make because if we are too loud we are silenced even further. We accept men who use us for their own emotional labor. We refuse to ask men to choose us--to advocate for us--because it is unfathomable that they would.
And men, who have also been indoctrinated, never realize their participation in our/their oppression. They wonder why they are emotionally stunted, simultaneously lonely but also unable to authentically connect because they were purposefully taught that human connection and emotions are weakness. They rage against an internal rip-tide they were never taught to swim in but are expected to survive alone. Their sexual repression and shame turns to rage and self-hatred--their inability to integrate body, heart, and mind leaving them fractured person . Their understanding of their place in this world, uncheck, creates ripples of harm and destruction they struggle to understand--including how they have hurt themselves and the ones they love.
What does resistance look like to me? It means saying #timesup. It all connects. We need to realize that all of this--from the pulpit to the White House--it is a system we were always set up to participate in.
We become what we are taught.
And what we have been taught is fundamentally flawed.
It is killing us slowly--some more than others—#blacklivesmatter #metoo #loveislove. It is stealing our humanity right out of our hands and it has to stop.
It can stop. We can stop it. No matter where we have been, who we believe ourselves to be, how far deep we are, who we have become-- we can always turn back. You can turn it back. You can become someone else that believes and advocates for others radically. No season in this life is permanent. You can move into a new one.
Anyone can resist (I was rooting for you Kylo Ren).
Good men and women do awful things. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But what if we all grabbed a paver we ourselves have laid and instead decided to crush it and turn back.
I'll see you on the walk back, friends. #wearetheresistence