I was eleven years old in 1982 and in the sixth grade at Gosnell Public Schools. Gosnell is a curious little community nestled just beneath the Missouri state line as you cross over into Arkansas. During the 1980s at the height of the Cold War, our rural community thrived because it was adjacent to the main gate of Blytheville Air Force Base, where numbers of B52 bombers were positioned on alert to respond at a moment’s notice should the President make the call. If you didn’t have anything else to talk about in Gosnell, speculation as to whether or not there were nuclear bombs just beyond the restricted fencing always made for a wild conversation. But in my sixth-grade year, as for most prepubescent young people, bombs of a different sort began to drop.
The Air Force Base meant that our rural school had an above average dose of diversity, not only in color but also in culture. Sprinkled in between the rural natives like me were children from all over the world, who had been born abroad and stationed in exotic locals like Okinawa or Hawaii, but now were blessed or cursed (depending on your perspective) to call Gosnell home. My classmates thought differently, talked differently, and acted very differently than many of us who were indigenous. Generally speaking this had a positive impact on my maturation, although I didn’t really appreciate it at the time. But in the sixth grade is when I really begin to notice differences in my fellow classmates, and how they had very different worldviews than my own. These observations seemed to increase the intensity and frequencies of the hormonal sorties that followed.
For instance, among the boys in my class, women’s breasts seemed to be very important, and I must admit that even allowing for my rigorous pietistic upbringing, when given the opportunity, I also had difficulty looking away. But at eleven years of age I couldn’t be sure as to the exact nature of the attraction. I overheard many conversations among the guys describing “The beautiful Tetons” but unlike Wyoming, Gosnell was located in Mississippi River Delta and most everything was flat, the landscape was generally uninteresting, except for the occasional Indian burial mound that popped up here and there. And because The Song of Solomon was an infrequently referenced text at my church, the double entendres were lost on me. Female anatomy was largely as mysterious as the content of the math classes that I was deemed too “special” to attend.
But that all changed in the second half of my sixth-grade year as the general course requirement changed from P.E. to Health class. Health class covered all the basics including hygiene, a subject many of classmates clearly ignored, along with general information about diet and exercise. But the pièce de résistance was when we opened our texts to reveal the glories of the reproductive organs. I had never before seen a vagina, little alone one labeled in such detail. Learning new vocabulary words had never before resulted in such warm feelings accompanied by the multiple shades of deep red that I’m sure were coloring my face and I dared not make eye contact with anyone in class. No doubt, the teacher gave us lots of interesting information, but I didn’t hear anything that was said, as I was mesmerized by the image before me. It struck my eleven year old eyes as much more elegant than my boring, if functional plumbing, and certainly more attractive, even if in its sterilized academic presentation. Keep in mind I was eleven, so please forgive my obviously juvenile initial impressions.
I don’t remember much chatter following the class, but I do remember seeing the world differently after that day, and I did notice that these particular pages in my health text book were often opened by myself and others in the class, seeking to further our knowledge of this part of the larger world. I don’t know for certain if there were ever atomic bombs beyond the fence at the Air Force Base, but I do know that for me, there was an explosion of knowledge that day of nuclear proportions.
Like every teenager before me and after me, the ground war would soon ensue…
All of this knowledge was conflated with information being funneled into my mind via the hyper religious and conservative culture that I swam in. Dr. James Dobson and his Focus on the Family radio program daily interrupted my Contemporary Christian Music morning show convincing me that part of my identity as a Christian included loyalty to purity culture that included as a stalwart a commitment to sexual abstinence. The only problem was that the constant refrain communicated an ambiguous message of “Sex is bad, so save it for the one you love in marriage.” As Sara Moslener points out in Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence, Dr. Dobson saw specifically “female sexuality as a commodity that reaches the height of its value on the wedding day.” Missing the larger point, that all humanity is valuable in the sight of God.
Upon reflection, it now occurs to me that the unintended consequences of these well-intentioned efforts resulted in an objectification of sexuality, especially female sexuality that was just as harmful as any objectification of wanton promiscuity. This dogmatic emphasis on abstinence ends up truncating the growth and maturity of people fettering them with an albatross of dysfunction that hinders quality human relationships. I’m not suggesting that Christianity should abandon Scriptural wisdom when it comes to the defining parameters of traditional sexuality, but I am suggesting that how we have traditionally communicated these values have, on balance, done more harm than good. Christian communities must rethink and reevaluate our methods and our messaging on these issues if we want to continue to wield influence that has any sustained impact.
As Debra Hirsch says in her book Redeeming Sex: “Every human being on the planet is sexually broken…all of us are on a journey toward wholeness; not one of us is excluded.” Unfortunately, much of this brokenness in human sexuality has come at the hands of Christian communities that should have been about the business of repairing and celebrating these beautiful gifts of God. Ultimately the expressions of our human sexuality, shouldn’t be separated from the understanding of our fully functioning and engaged physical bodies in loving, committed, healthy and flourishing human relationships. When it comes to human sexuality, Christians should be more adept at building shelters than we are at dropping bombs.
“But this precious treasure—this light and power that now shine within us—is held in a perishable container, that is, in our weak bodies. Everyone can see that the glorious power within must be from God and is not our own.” -2 Corinthians 4:7 The Living Bible