CC image courtesy of Flickr, MadisonElizabethx.
The following is an excerpt from R.L. Stollar’s “Facing Our Fears: How the Voices of Homeschool Alumni Can Help Homeschooling,” originally prepared for the 2014 Great Homeschool Convention in Ontario, California. You can read the presentation in full here.
When we consider modesty and purity as a dialogue and not simply a monologue, we will realize what has often been communicated to homeschool children about modesty and purity has tied directly to abuse they have experienced and mental illness they struggle with. So, in fact, the dominant monologue about modesty and purity is a great example of how everything I’ve been talking about is all inter-connected. There’s this vast web of issues and no one issue is itself the “problem.”
If you follow homeschool news, you’ve probably heard a lot of homeschool “problems” as of late. Maybe those problems involved specific people, like Doug Phillips or Bill Gothard. Or maybe those problems involved specific ideas, like “Patriarchy” or “Legalism.” Over the last year, for example, homeschool debate coach Chris Jeub declared that “Patriarchy Has Got To Go,”[i] Presbyterian pastor Shawn Mathis claimed one of the “root problems” in homeschooling circles is Legalism,[ii] and HSLDA’s Michael Farris drew “A Line in the Sand,” denouncing both Patriarchy and Legalism as “damaging” and “threatening” to homeschool freedoms.[iii]
While I do think both Patriarchy and Legalism as systems of thought need to be called out, I want to point out that you are more than two-thirds of the way through this paper about issues homeschooling communities desperately need to address and this is the first time I have mentioned Patriarchy and Legalism. And I only mentioned them in the context of what homeschool leaders have called out thus far.
What I hope to communicate in highlighting this fact is that is that there’s no singular problem. While it is convenient to target certain systems of thought like Patriarchy and Legalism (especially since their most outspoken advocates, Doug Phillips and Bill Gothard, recently came under fire for sexual assault and harassment allegations[iv]), we cannot content ourselves with thinking that as long as we reject those two systems of thought, homeschooling will suddenly be healed. As Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer has stated, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
The wheels of abuse and neglect in homeschooling are driven by much more than Patriarchy and Legalism; those systems are but a few of the wheel’s parts. All these problems are connected. They involve valuing ideas over children so much that we don’t stop and ask how our children experience those ideas. We neglect dialogue.
Modesty and purity.
I want to make this simple. Let’s talk about a phrase, a phrase that you have probably heard many times. This phrase goes something like this:
The greatest gift a young Christian woman can give her future husband is the gift of her purity.
Now, some of you might hear that phrase and think, “Amen.” Some of you might instead think, “That’s not true.” What I want to focus on is not whether you agree or disagree. I want to focus on interpretation. In other words, I want you to think about how this phrase gets interpreted by children.
Let me tell you how children — and by that, I mean almost every homeschool alumni I have talked to — has interpreted that phrase. That phrase means:
If a woman is no longer a virgin, she’s worth less.
One of the clearest examples of both this teaching as well as how it has been interpreted comes from a book that was wildly popular among homeschoolers when I was a teenager: When God Writes Your Love Story by Eric and Leslie Ludy. (In fact, it continues to be popular today, even to the point of being a recommended resource in the context of sexual abuse prevention.[v]) The Ludys’ book, marketed as “The Ultimate Approach to Guy/Girl Relationships,” claims to be “for anyone searching for the beauty of true and lasting love, for romance in its purest form, and is willing to do whatever it takes in order to find it.”[vi] In one of the final chapters of the book, entitled “Too Late?”, Leslie Ludy discusses “sexual sin” and “moral compromise” — in other words, “lost virginity.”
There are two issues I want to highlight from this chapter about lost virginity: The first is the story Leslie tells about a 12-year-old girl named Rebecca. Leslie says that Rebecca — again, a 12-year-old — was lured by a 16-year-old boy from a church youth group into his house one day. Leslie says that Rebecca “left as a used and defiled sex toy” and was “forced from childhood into womanhood.”[vii]
From Leslie’s description alone, Rebecca’s story reads as a straightforward account of a 12-year-old girl being raped. The words “used” and “forced” indicate a lack of consent. Yet Leslie puts Rebecca’s story in the same chapter as stories of willing sexual encounters of individuals who chose to have sex before marriage. All these stories are then discussed as “sexual sin” and “moral compromise.”[viii] At no point does Leslie identify Rebecca’s story as a story of child sexual abuse, sexual assault, and/or rape — and at no point does Leslie then relate it to the importance of children and teenagers learning sexual consent and safety. The message to young women reading this would be and has been clear: you being “forced from childhood into womanhood” is you sexually sinning, even if you were “forced.”
The second issue I want to highlight from Leslie’s chapter on “lost virginity” is how accounts of losing virginity are described. Leslie describes a number of young women’s first sexual encounters in the following ways: Karly, for example, “made the mistake of giving [her boyfriend] her most precious gift—her virginity, but now he was distant and cold towards her. She was full of guilt.”[ix] An unnamed 25-year-old from Australia is described as saying she had “given away the most precious thing I had—my purity. There’s nothing left of my treasure… Now I have nothing to offer my husband.”[x]
While Leslie does state that God can “forgive” each of these women for their sexual impurity and “can give us a ‘second virginity,’ spiritually speaking,”[xi] at no point does she question whether a young woman’s virginity (or “purity”) is “the most precious thing” one has. At no point does she question whether virginity is “the most precious gift” one can give one’s husband. The Ludys, in fact, endorse this idea — hence the importance of God granting a spiritual “second virginity.”
The Ludys are not alone in fixating on a person’s virginity as all-important. Another essential reading on relationships for homeschool teenagers was (and continues to be) Elisabeth Elliot’s Passion and Purity. While Elliot’s book is more contemplative than the Ludys and focuses on Elliot’s personal story of her relationship with her late husband Jim Elliot, Elisabeth states upfront that her book “is, to be blunt, a book about virginity.”[xii]
The message that homeschool students and alumni have received from books such as these is pretty clear: that if you are not “pure” (in other words, if you are not a “virgin”), then you no longer have “your most precious gift” that you can give your spouse. I want to take issue with this because I believe that not only is it a damaging message, I also believe that it is an unbiblical message. Marriage is a covenant of love: individuals deciding to commit and give themselves to one another, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. And the greatest gift within the context of marriage is not one’s “purity” or “virginity” but one’s self.
In the Book of John, Jesus declares to his disciples that, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” And to make clear what it means to love another, Jesus adds that, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[xiii] According to traditional Christian theology, Jesus himself demonstrated this greatest act of love when he sacrificed himself on the cross for humanity. And what Jesus sacrificed was not any one part of his body, or his virginity, or his “purity” of heart. Rather, he sacrificed himself — he gave the totality of his being for humanity.
Traditional Christian theology also tells us that marriage is to look like the relationship between Jesus and the Church. One must conclude, therefore, that the greatest act of love, the greatest gift, within the context of marriage is not any one part of one’s body or one’s virginity or one’s “purity” — but rather, in similarity with Jesus’s greatest gift, the giving of one’s self to another. You — not your virginity, but all of who you are, your body, heart, and soul — is your greatest gift to your spouse. This doesn’t mean virginity cannot have value; the problem is the message that it’s the most important thing when it comes to romantic relationships. You are such much more than whether you are a virgin or not. And that you — being an amazing and beautiful individual made in the image of God — want to give your life to share the journey of life with another human being? That is the ultimate gift.
But homeschool students and alumni learned otherwise. They learned that the greatest gift was not their selves but rather their virginity. And it is so important to see how this unbiblical teaching has led to great damage. Because when students and alumni are taught to value their virginity over their selves, their self-worth becomes inherently linked to their “purity.” Hence the idea young women have absorbed — that, If a woman is no longer a virgin, she’s worth less. Kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart spoke of this idea last year when she said that after being kidnapped and abused it was “easy…to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value.”[xiv] Smart directly related this feeling to the purity teachings she had imbibed.
To fully appreciate how this idea has manifested for homeschool alumni, let’s look at a few examples of their experiences:
The first is from a young woman named Laura. She wrote,
“I had to go through the True Love Waits program. The ‘activity’ I remember the most was a wrapped present. I held the package and stood at the front of the room. Then, the youth leaders lined up the guys and each of them tore off some of the paper. Then I had to read some paragraph about how virginity is like a gift – no one wants a present that was ‘meant for them’ to have already been opened by someone else. Because of that one activity, I never told anyone I was raped at 15 until years later.”[xv]
The next story is from a young woman named Cora. Cora says,
“Having been told all of my life that my worth was in eventually being someone’s wife, serving him, and having children and that my virginity essential to attracting a husband, I naturally informed my [boyfriend] that I wanted to wait until marriage. He agreed. Then he started pushing. And pushing. Until he held me down in the bathroom one day, and forced himself on me… I told my friend. She told me it was because I was teasing him. I believed her. We both lived in a world that demanded that women be responsible for a man’s desire. The mere fact of existing and causing a man to want you means you should expect to be violated… I never told anyone else for a long, long time. I knew my parents would also tell me that it was my fault.”[xvi]
Another story, from another young woman named Auriel:
“When I was 9 years old, [my mom] told me that having my hair down made me look like a ‘lady of the night.’ Even though I was a shy, modest girl, Mom constantly told me that something I did or wore was sinful, displeasing to God, and might turn on my dad or my brothers. I was so scared that I was going to lead my brothers or dad into sin for lusting after me.”[xvii]
I know these stories are difficult and troubling to hear, so bear with me for just one more. This last one is from a young woman named Christine:
“When my boyfriend [in college] raped me, I felt horrible but thought it was sex. I thought to complain about it to a friend would be to say that sex was wrong… I had not been taught about ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’. As a child, I was taught that I must always put my own interests and feelings aside and serve other people, and not argue. My body had never been my own – not when my parents coerced me to hug someone or when they’d told me to pull down my pants so that they could give me more spankings… I was unused to being in touch with what my body told me… So, ironically, the teachings that my parents thought would keep me abstinent and make me a ‘good girl’ actually ended up putting me in unwanted sexual situations.”[xviii]
I think Libby Anne, a formerly homeschooled blogger, summarizes these stories in an importantly precise way. She says,
“Presents, chocolate bars, roses, chewing gum, packing tape—these sorts of metaphors abound in circles where what I call ‘purity culture’ is strongest, and each one is used to illustrate how having sex before marriage will ruin you, rendering you dirty and potentially even unable to bond or form real relationships for the rest of your life. In the effort to keep young people from having sex before saying marriage vows, Christian leaders, pastors, and parents resort to threatening their youth… in the process, these very teachings have led young women…to leave their rapes unreported, remain in abusive relationships, and stay with their abductors. This is not okay.”[xix]
Libby Anne is right. This is not okay. What young women — and young men, too![xx] — heard about modesty and purity is nothing less than cruel.
Now, you might agree with that. When you hear these stories, you might also have a kneejerk reaction like, “But I never said that!” Or, “I would never say that!” Or, “If my children asked me, I would let them know I don’t think that.” All of these reactions bring us back to the importance of dialogue.
See, communication is a two-way street. Though honestly, sometime it’s more like a traffic-jammed freeway in Los Angeles. Through my decade-plus experience with speech and debate, I can confidently tell you that communication is so, so much more than what you say. In fact, communication experts often say that what you say is probably the least important aspect of communication. Far more important than what you say is how you say it, your body language when you say it, the mindset of your audience, and — probably most important for our current discussion — what you don’t say.
All of these factors go into the turbulent mixture of communication. And sometimes? Sometimes you have no control over some of the factors. You can’t mind-read your audience and thus know their mindset. You can’t prepare in advance an entire list of things you are not saying but you unintentionally communicate.
This is directly relevant to the homeschooling conversation — both in general and about the modesty and purity aspect of that conversation in particular.
It’s relevant in general because your lived experiences as homeschool parents are completely different and distinct from the lived experiences of homeschool children. Things that you might take for granted, aren’t taken for granted by your kids. I was struck by this fact when blogger Libby Anne wrote a piece about finding out her mom didn’t actually believe everything in a homeschool magazine that their family regularly received. Here’s an excerpt:
“My mother subscribed to Above Rubies and read each issue thoroughly. The ideas contained within the magazine aligned at least generally with beliefs I heard my mother espouse. When my parents disagreed with a religious leader, they were quick to say so. In fact, I grew up hearing James Dobson described as too wishy-washy and soft. Yet, I never heard my mother call Nancy Campbell or her magazine into question, so I assumed that the messages contained therein were approved, and that it was something I should read, take to heart, and learn from. And read, take to heart, and learn I did… I’ve talked to more than my fair share of homeschool graduates who grew up in this culture and took to heart things they later found out their parents never even realized they were learning…. Parents may not realize the toxic ideologies their children taking in through osmosis from the Christian homeschooling culture around them… ‘You need to tell the girls, mom,’ I said. ‘They read Above Rubies just as I did at their age. You need to tell them you don’t agree with all of it, because if you don’t, they’ll think you do.’”[xxi]
I was blown away when I read this interaction between Libby Anne and her mom because, wow, I can so relate to it. I remember hearing all sorts of messages from my friends, my friends’ parents, from the magazines that were in our home, from the leaders who spoke at conventions — and I, too, just assumed that we were supposed to agree with what they said. I assumed my parents agreed. Years later, after all sorts of fear and anger and fights between my parents and I, we realized that (1) I thought they thought things they didn’t and (2) they had no idea I thought they thought those things. I was living in a shadow of misunderstanding and fear because my parents did not publicly express dissent about certain prevailing ideas and they never bothered to ask me what I was hearing from the homeschool culture around me.
Now take all those observations and apply them directly to the modesty and purity issue. You have a whole life of experiences. For my parents, it was experiences growing up in the 60’s and 70’s and reacting to certain expressions of love and sexuality they found harmful. And in response to those experiences, they came up with — and listened to others come up with — ideas for how to avoid the pain and heartache they experienced. They came up with ideas about modesty and purity and bought Josh Harris’s book I Kissed Dating Goodbye and we attended seminars by Reb Bradley about Preparing Your Children for Courtship and Marriage.
But my fellow alumni and I didn’t grow up in the 60’s and 70’s. We grew up in often sheltered and protective homes. So our parents’ expressions of love and sexuality — built in reaction to their culture’s expressions of love and sexuality — mean something entirely different to us than to our parents. They are heard differently, felt differently, and lived differently. So much is lost in translation.
And when modesty and purity get communicated — in our culture with our experiences — with a line like,
The greatest gift a young Christian woman can give her future husband is the gift of her purity.
…we are not thinking about Woodstock. We are not thinking about the Free Love Movement. We are thinking about holding hands or the Antebellum Dances or the swing dances so popular in homeschooling circles. We are thinking that if we lose that “gift of purity” (whether by force or willingly), our worth has been diminished.
So you need to stop and ask yourself difficult questions like, what if my child gets assaulted? You probably don’t want to, because that is probably one of the most heart-wrenching and sickening scenarios you could ever imagine. You would probably do everything in your power to stop such a situation from occurring.
But you can’t just wish away the possibility. As a parent, you have to come to terms with what we talked about earlier: that as many as 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 7 boys will be sexually abused at some point in their childhood. What are your modesty and purity messages teaching those girls and boys? How will your messages be interpreted after an experience of trauma? Are your messages going to empower them to speak up, or will they silence them into shame, guilt, and secrecy? Into darker moments? Perhaps even longer and more abusive relationships?
What I want to challenge you to do today is to go home and rethink everything for yourself. I want you to put yourself in Laura’s shoes; I want you to put yourself in Cora’s shoes; I want you to put yourself in Auriel’s shoes; I want you to put yourself in Christine’s shoes.
How are they hearing your metaphors? How are they hearing your analogies?
This is why dialogue is so important. This is why we need alumni to keep speaking up and we need to hear from you — you who are parents and leaders of our communities — that you welcome our voices. Because you actually can’t put yourself in our shoes entirely. We need to tell you what roads we walked and what words we heard from you. We’re the ones who can tell when you communicated messages that trapped us in abusive mindsets, abusive relationships, or drove us into depression or suicidal thoughts. And if you will listen, if you will open your arms and hear our words and show us you care, then we can work together to make things better for the next generation.
But we have to do it together. You cannot change this world alone.
Click here to read the rest of “Facing Our Fears: How the Voices of Homeschool Alumni Can Help Homeschooling.”
[iv] Regarding Doug Phillips, see Chelsea Schilling, WorldNetDaily, “Christian Giant Sued For ‘Using Nanny As Sex Object,’” April 15, 2014, link. Regarding Bill Gothard, see Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Religion News Service, “Conservative leader Bill Gothard resigns following abuse allegations,” link.
[v] Lisa and Kalyn Cherry, “Recommended Reading List For Parents and Teens,” Kalyn’s Secret, Word and Spirit Resources, 2009, p. 293. Also see Frontline Family Ministries, “Sexual Abuse: Recommended Reading,” link, accessed on September 29, 2014.
[vi] Eric and Leslie Ludy, When God Writes Your Love Story, Loyal Publishing, 1999, p. 13.
[vii] Ibid, p. 202.
[viii] Ibid, p. 203.
[ix] Ibid, p. 203.
[x] Ibid, p. 205.
[xi] Ibid, p. 204.
[xii] Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity: Learning To Bring Your Love Life Under Christ’s Control, Baker Book House Company, 1984, p. 11.