Rolling in the Deep: Dialogue about Gender and God

Cristin Cotton, USF communications major and Chapel Center resident, recently organized a panel discussion event at St Anselm’s as a directed studies project.  “Rolling in the Deep” was designed as a dialogue on issues of female spirituality and sexuality.  Over 50 students and community residents attended the event, validating Cristin’s premise that this was indeed a topic worthy of study and discussion.  The following is the paper she submitted for class detailing her experience organizing the event and lessons gleaned from her research and the evening’s conversation. 

Gender and God

by Cristin Cotton

            “You can’t wear that dress on your date. It doesn’t show enough cleavage,” my roommate Kelly said between mouthfuls of Oreo cookies.

Kelly Davis was one of three roommates I had last year. It was while living in that dorm with those three girls that I experienced firsthand the blinding power of sexism and its effects on the shaping of  female identities. My roommates were all smart with GPAs ranging in the 3.8 zone, and they were all beautiful, that is, according to Cosmos and Glamour standards.  The problem, though, was that each one of my roommates equated their worth with the affirmation bestowed upon them by the various men in their lives.

I tried various times to burst their pre-conceived ideologies regarding female behavior. I can still remember the time I showed them the documentary “Killing Me Softly,” a movie illuminating distorted media portrayals of women and the violence it does to females in shaping their identity. I had wanted them to jump up and down, scream, fist pump feminism, and go burn their push up bras. None of that happened. In fact, the four of us went to Olive Garden where the conversation continued to revolve around appearance, sex, and being subservient to their boyfriends.

It was after that year of feeling like I was living in a reality TV show—where all the girls in Cypress A become Victoria Secret robots—that I became dedicated to connecting spirituality and sexuality in sustainable and meaningful ways in order to revision female fullness in accordance with God, and God’s ways.

Last spring I lived with three girls who considered Cosmo their Bible. This spring, I held a panel discussion on female spirituality and sexuality in hopes that young women know another Bible, the real one, where God speaks life into authentic female fullness, complete with sexual wholeness. Furthermore, I hoped my panel discussion would provide young women with the firm idea  that it is okay to care about their bodies, looks, and sexuality; in fact, crucial. Though, by caring, may they need not fall into finding exclusive value in their appearance and male attention,  and, instead see their bodies as good and therefore, requiring good stewardship.

I began putting my panel discussion together in March. I knew the topic would cover female spirituality and sexuality. I knew I wanted the panel to be open to everyone on and off campus, and, as such, I felt the topic needed wide-ranging religious worldviews. I decided to have the speakers span across religions, and I proceeded to contact a Catholic Priest, a Jewish Rabbi, and an Episcopal female priest from St. Mary’s House of Prayer.  Each declined for various reasons. However, I was not about to give up.

By now I had discovered through a variety of conversations with older women as well as with my contemporaries that the subject is rarely broached. Furthermore, I became keenly aware of intergenerational female experiences that contained a lifetime of examples where women felt silenced, devalued, and marginalized as a result of pressure exerted mostly by male church leaders, past and present. One older woman at a book study I lead on Tuesday night said she had a problem with female spiritual leadership and didn’t think women could do as good of a job as a man in leading a congregation. A twenty-two year old in my Christian Ethics class said she found her purpose in being a wife and having babies and that she plans on being a stay-at-home mom after college. In that same class, a young male said he would be offended if his wife made more money than him. My own boyfriend, who has been of upmost support throughout this project (i.e., he did create the flier for my panel) emitted a resounding no when I asked him if he would get a vasectomy instead of me having to take the pill. He followed his guttural response with, “That wouldn’t be natural. It’s natural for you to be a mother; therefore you should be the one responsible for birth issues”. I wasn’t exactly offended by his comment; however, my conversation with him as well as the others fueled my drive in hosting the panel. I knew I was going to discuss this subject in one way or another.

Instead of becoming disheartened by the previous speakers’ unavailability, I was simply ready to expand on my idea. Considering the topic was, after all, female spirituality and sexuality I thought it would be meaningful to have females from various religious backgrounds speak. I went to work contacting Susan Lattimer, an Episcopal priest at St. Catherine’s, Anat Valdman, the director of Jewish programs at USF, and Sharon Mucci, a practicing Catholic female. All but Ms. Mucci said yes. Fortunately, the same day that Ms. Mucci declined, Leslie Tod, my academic advisor at USF, told me she and her friend, Geri Carter—a Presbyterian Sex Therapist, were planning on attending my panel. I immediately asked Ms. Tod if I could invite Ms. Carter to serve on my panel. Ms. Tod said of course and I went to work forming an email to the Presbyterian Sex Therapist. She gave me the thumbs up and less than twenty-four hours later I had a full panel of speakers.

The two weeks before my panel were two powerful weeks in the development of my own spiritual and sexual identity. In preparation for the big night, each female speaker wanted a list of questions that I was planning on asking. I sent them my list and expected them to prepare on their own and simply show up with hearty, profound answers. I was wrong. Each woman had questions about my questions and, as a result, I became immersed in a two week dialogue over religious  rhetoric on sexual views, actual sex, cultural patriarchy, sexism in the Bible, and deceptive Victoria Secret advertisements. Moreover, during those two weeks I was also advertising for the event I titled, “Rolling in the Deep” and, as such, women’s personal stories about their spirituality and sexuality came out of the woodwork.

It might have been during my third phone call with Susan Lattimer, previous to April 17th, in which she observed, “Cristin, it sounds like you want to point out how patriarchal interpretation of scripture affects the female religious experience and how, in turn, that affects a female’s sexuality. Is that right?”

I responded, “Yes, Reverend Lattimer. That is right.”

On April 17th at 7:30 the USF Episcopal Center hosted over fifty audience members for “Rolling the Deep: Interfaith Dialogue on Female Spirituality and Sexuality.”

The questions I formed were gleaned from my reading as well as conversations with peers and, surprising to me—my mom. Dialoging with my mother throughout this process was one of most meaningful gifts this project provided. Hearing her personal experiences in regards to spirituality and sexuality put my own standpoint into perspective and it brought my experience into a wholeness that wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for her openness, mercy, and support.

While each question is different, they each share in the reality of being difficult to answer.  I asked the questions in the order below in hopes of creating a funnel, the end point being that of grace. The first two questions pertain to scripture and how religious patriarchy interprets the female experience for them as well as without them. The following questions dive into sex both in and out of marriage. The last question—is also about grace and the role it plays in regards to sexual desire.

Below is the set of questions with my personal commentary on them as an exploration of the subject matter.

 Question # 1: What does the Creation account teach woman about their bodies? About sex? Why has it been disempowering to women traditionally?

An even deeper question underlying the first would be “How has a patriarchal interpretation of the Creation story languaged female sexuality?”  When answering the latter, it becomes undeniably clear that the main points of the Creation story preached to females (by men) are: The man is made first and the woman second. The woman is created for the sake of the man; she a helpmate to cure loneliness. The woman comes out of man and is made from his rib. The man names the woman. It is the woman who falls victim to sin and eats the fruit and, in turn, causes Adam to sin as well.  God punishes the woman and says that she will desire her husband and he will rule over her. Lastly, God prescribes pain for her in childbirth. 

This recurring narration of the Creation account is disempowering to women. First, the rib is often related to female inferiority and subordination. Moreover, it is suggested, almost mandated, that by Adam naming the woman, the male has power and authority over the female. In addition, patriarchal perversions of Eve’s sin twist the story into depicting  women as weak insofar that they are allured and tempted more easily than man.  To make a bleak picture even darker, women are taught that their bodies are bad, objects of sin, and, as such, they are warned to cover up as too not make their brother fall.

            Feminist author Mary Daly, in her book Beyond God the Father, suggests that the creation story, in which Adam names the animals and woman, is the paradigm of false naming in Western Culture (8).  Sue Monk Kidd, in The Dance of Dissident Daughter, echoes Daly, “For eons women have accepted male naming as a given, especially in the spiritual realm. The fact is, for a long time now, men have been naming the world, God, sacred reality, and even women from their perspective” (38).

Both Daly’s and Kidd’s comments provoked me to look deeper into the silencing of women. Throughout my reading it became clear to me that women’s voices are missing in symbol-making circles.  Even with more women becoming doctors, lawyers and even CEOs, there still lacks a significant presence of the female voice within religion. The answer may lie, as the question suggests, in the fact that historically the Eve’s of the world have been silenced and placed in oppressive situation where their agency is unable to blossom.  Jungian analyst Sylvia Perera writes, “What has been valued in the west in women has too often been defined only in relation to the masculine; the good, nurturing mother and wife; the sweet, docile agreeable daughter; the gently supportive or bright achieving partner” (12).

I found this to be particularity true in the church. Women reign in nurseries and social meeting halls but are absent from the pulpit and settings where theology, policy, and spiritual meaning are forged. As a result, women in church coordinate church dinners, arrange the flowers, sweep the floor, look pretty, and are expected to be supportive. In other words, women have frequently functioned, “more as church handmaids than religious symbols creators” (Kidd 53).

Where do women go from here? I began to wonder. Author Sue Monk Kidd left the church because she found that the answer lies in leaving the institution completely. She felt that her true self was suffocated in relation to religion and the only way for her to come into fullness was to get out from under, what she saw to be, an oppressive “Boys Club.”

Although I found Kidd an invigorating read, I believed there were ways to stay within religion without falling victim to its patriarchal standards. In fact, I found that my personal relationship with God provided even more meaning, and certainly perspective, in the shaping of my identity.  Yes, I recognized the seemingly endless amounts of “Texts of Terror”, to borrow from a Trible title, but that there was also a handful of scriptures voicing mutuality, equality, and wholeness. For example, the verse in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28); I found this to be religious and spiritual wholeness in its fullness.

Moreover, I saw feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s book She Who Is as a beautiful rendition of female empowerment within religion. In a section of her book titled “Experience of Self, Experience of God,” she writes, “A central resource for naming toward God, the very matrix that energizes it, is the breakthrough of power occurring in women’s struggle to reject the sexism of inherited constructions of female identity and risk new interpretations that affirm their human worth” (62). This foundational experience, according to Johnson, can be explored through the lens of conversion: the transformation of mind and heart that sets life in a new direction.

Johnson is suggesting that women’s awakening to their own human worth can be interpreted as conversion insofar that they begin to see, think, and act in accordance with their authentic self, that is, imago Dei. This conversion, moreover, brings with it a “…concomitant judgment about the positive moral value of female bodiliness, love of connectedness, and other characteristics that mark the historical lives of women in a specific way” (62), so that speech about the mystery of God is given new shape.

In light of the question previously posed—that is, a female’s conflict in forming her identity in relation to oppressive scriptures—I saw a sustainable foundation for female empowerment within Johnson’s empowering paradigm insofar as the female religious conversion happens when the woman turns away from things that diminish, distort, and deny her a life of fullness in God. Could Johnson be suggesting that it is okay, even crucial to a female’s religious identity, to turn away from oppressive scriptures? Arguably yes. I saw Johnson to be encouraging women to say no to sexism in all its capacities and yes to the integrity of women.

 Question # 2 Casual sex, is there such a thing?  How does culture’s perversion of sex hurt females’ shaping of identities?

The answers to such a question are painfully difficult to form, especially when juxtaposed to popular culture’s portrayal of casual sex. Take for example, the new show airing on HBO titled Girls. The show not only romanticizes casual sex by leaving out emotional consequences but also associates casual sex with female empowerment and choice.  This poses an immediate and obvious conflict for females trying to reconcile their spirituality and sexuality. Still, casual sex is deceptively freeing insofar that the act of sex demands a “casting off” of insecurities and personal boundaries. There is a significant difference, though, between the artificial empowerment the girls on Girls find and authentic empowerment found in a personal relationship with God.

Real sex, that is, sex sanctioned by God within a marriage, is narrated as a unifying experience where each individual feels safe, secure, and comfortable with themselves as well as with each other. Arguably, those same feelings are possible in casual sex as well. But casual sex is a contradiction in terms. Sex—even sex that does not feel intense or meaningful, even sex with someone you don’t love—is never truly casual.

To understand that sex can never be casual and therefore never identified with spiritual empowerment as understood in God, women must understand what sex really is. Consider 1 Corinthians 6:15-17 in which Paul tells the Corinthians to avoid prostitution. Underlying Paul’s instruction to avoid fornication, there is a positive view of sexual intercourse insofar that it involves two people in a life-union; it is a life-uniting act. It may seem casual, but in fact, it is always profound. Regardless of how two people view sex, the act is uniting in the creation of “one flesh.”  Lauren Winner, author of Real Sex, comments that in the act of perceived casual sex, “your body makes a promise whether you do or not” (88).

Furthermore, sex, as sanctioned by God through marriage, stands at the intersection of nature and grace. The bodily experience might say, for example, that sex feels good, that nerve endings have been stimulated, and it feels good emotionally being held. But that kind of sex must be read as a limited experience of a fallen person—and, when sex is rightly ordered by the honor given it by a Godly marriage, it changes into a full experience of nature infused by grace. Therefore, casual sex is grossly insufficient. And it is in its insufficiency that deems it an inadequate model for religious female empowerment.

Question # 3: Can sex be separated from procreation?

Another problem with casual sex is that it toys with the idea that sex can be wholly separated from procreation.  Christian tradition teaches sex as unitive, procreative, and sacramental. The unitive aspect is hinted at in Genesis 2:23 when Adam says that Eve is “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”  The procreative link is also highlighted in Genesis when God commands his people to be fruitful and multiply.  The sacramental part of sex is implied in Ephesians 5:32, when Paul, having offered a set of guidelines for how husbands and wives should relate to one another, says, “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” Paul is explaining that marriage, as well as marital sex, is meant to reenact the covenant that God makes with us and that we make to one another in the marriage vow.

Openness to children reconfigures how a couple experiences and understands sex. Winner suggests that sex without the possibility of procreation “quickly becomes part of a romantic two-ness, wherein the couple simply becomes more and more deeply interested in another” (66).   She continues by saying, “The prospect of procreation reconfigures unity, forcing the couple out of themselves, out of a potentially suffocating and selfish oneness, toward another” (66).  With Winner’s thoughts on procreation, along with the previous analysis of casual sex, it is possible to affirm the connection between procreation and sex without stepping over into a Roman Catholic position in that the whole of a couple’s sex life should be open to procreation, but each and every sex act doesn’t have to be. Moreover, it is possible to be concerned with the misuse of contraception out of wedlock insofar that it does violence to what sex is ultimately about, an act made meaningful in relation to the marriage covenant as sanctioned by God.

Question # 4: Is the desire to have sex a reason to get married?

This question too often receives a resounding yes from Church culture. Popular religious discourse states that the reasons for delaying a marriage, i.e., wanting to know ourselves, establishing some savings, finishing college, or graduate school, are impulses that speak to a distorted understanding of marriage. In agreement with this language, Lauren Winner says that, “The anxious parent who recognizes and wants her college-aged daughter to postpone marriage rightly recognizes that people change a lot on their early twenties. But what the parents fails to recognize is that there is no point at which we can be sure of ourselves” (69).  Winner further supports church discourse by agreeing that there is no age at which we truly know ourselves, and “there is no length of courtship after which we really know our sweeties” (70).

While I saw the truth behind Winner points, I was and still am hesitant to jump on her bandwagon. The section in Winner’s book where she discusses Paul’s words, “It is better to marry than to burn with passion”—I feel, leaves out multiple hard truths about marriage. For one, women who grow up being shaped within patriarchal society become disillusioned when their husband fails at mirroring the chivalrous prince charming marketed to them by the church as well as society.  Both Winner and the church fail at providing a platform for the female perspective to come to voice on the topic of marriage. Conversations within women’s groups, female Bible studies—these do not count because they take place outside dominant culture, at the margins, and are not wholly accepted for the dominant public conversation.

Sexual desire is profoundly important within the marriage. But is it a reason to get married? I say no because I don’t see its sustainable link within a Christian marriage, not when there are so many larger factors contributing to a healthy mutual marriage. Shared sexual desire between two people does not showcase long-term honoring of one another, respect for each other, pivotal valuing of one another, a couple’s team spirit, one person’s listening skills, etc., the list goes on. In fact, marriage in the past has reflected an oppressive construct to female identity. For instance, As Carol Christ, in her introduction to Woman Spirit Rising, points out,

If marriage has always included the notion of female subordination, then perhaps marriage is not the only or the best way to organize sexuality and the rearing of children.         If the great works of Western literacy and philosophical tradition view women as less    than fully human, then perhaps those great works do not reflect the highest human values.             And, if the Bible and religious tradition teach sexism, then perhaps those traditions are  not inspired by God in the ways their adherents claim (7).

Christ’s words shed immense truth upon rhetoric of sexual desire within a marriage in that it showcases how marriage has been, more often than not, a place of female subordination as taught by the Church. Until women begin to see clearly the ways in which they have been silenced, sexual desire—while an important aspect—is certainly not worth a female ordering her life around.

Question # 5:  How does our culture’s objectification of women contribute to problems in the bedroom?

            The objectification of women transforms sex into a product-oriented act. It is when magazine articles “guarantee” following their advice about how provocative moves will provide both persons with explosive orgasms that sex becomes a pathway to achieve the highest amount of pleasure. No longer is the emphasis on sex as a meaningful connective process between a couple but, now, sex’s role is a means to an end.  Furthermore, the guarantees of pleasure confront larger problems when in relation to differences among individual bodies. Individual female and male bodies may not, and most likely will not, respond the way the article guarantees it will. This leads to disappointment between partners as well as a sense that something must be wrong with their bodies. When, in fact, nothing is wrong except that God created each and every one of us different, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.

In addition, sexualized images of females are not real and only enhance males’ ideas that women are objects meant for their satisfaction. Or, females take on the belief that their ultimate purpose is fulfilled in sexually satisfying a male.  Moreover, there is an overarching narration that showcases eating high calorie food as an act of sin or even an act of “giving in” to temptation. This idea rears its ugly head at events like Christmas parties, where individual women surrounding a table lavished in goodies, purse their lips and say, “I’m trying to be good this year” and proceed in avoiding the chocolate truffles.

The problem is not that advertisements reflect things of the body. The problem is that dominant media portrayals of things bodily are, more often than not, a misrepresentation of reality.  This matters, because the way female bodies are perceived affects how males and female alike think about the relationship between sexuality and sex.

Question # 6: Rosemary Ruether, in her book Sexism and God Talk, states that scripture is the plumb line of truth and untruth, justice and injustice. She continues to say that scripture must also adapt to changing social contexts. How do Ruether’s thoughts apply in a conversation about female spirituality and sexuality?

            I felt like Ruether struck a good balance by stating that scripture is “the plumb line for all truth,” but then following that statement by warning against viewing scripture as static.  One perfect example would be verses saying women cannot be leaders in the church. For years, Church tradition took this literally and, as a result, women have been barred from religious leadership positions. Fortunately, Ruether’s second instruction has found a foothold and female spiritual leaders are becoming more accepted. While seeing a female preacher is “normal” to me, my mother, on the other hand, still reminds me that this was unheard of when she was my age. And to this day women are often relegated to peripheral roles within the Jewish and Catholic tradition.

Moreover, contraception and its ties to religion is a topic seen most recently in the news, especially within conservative political discourse. Republican presidential candidates talk of contraception as if the issue was one-dimensional. In reality, these policy makers (men making decisions regarding the female body) are behaving as if scriptures on childbirth can be wholly discussed without including a female’s biographical and cultural background. In today’s world, I feel that you cannot generalize issues surrounding female spirituality and sexuality. Like Ruether said, our scripture reading—and political policies—must adapt to changing social situations; that is, a woman’s cultural and economic background, education, class, and race must be part of the conversation.

 Question # 7: How should grace be fit into a conversation about sexual desire?

            I have found that too often condemnation, rather than grace, is at the forefront of any conversation about sexual desire. For instance, women are warned to not let their vanity be a man’s undoing. This framing does a disservice to a female in shaping her spiritual and sexual identity. Because the church fails in taking seriously men’s ability to not lust in the presence of loveliness, the church shames women who—whatever their other fabulous qualities—also want to be affirmed for their beauty. If every man is “fighting a battle” against lust, and if few men are capable of distinguishing appreciation for beauty from carnal longing, then every woman who dresses to be validated becomes a traitor to the cause of spiritual purity. The end result is devastating for too many.

Moreover, the church misplaces shame by equating female beauty with intentional malice or deliberate seductiveness toward men. That is, the church shames women for not being better stewards of that supposed weakness. That shame doesn’t just lead to unhealthy sexual relationships (including between husbands and wives); it leaves too many women feeling as if they’re vain, shallow temptresses.

This broken religious worldview reduces human behavior down to a predictable set of gendered, inevitable physiological responses. This shouldn’t be the framework for a Christian discussion of sexuality, desire, and the longing for affirmation. If grace is real, it is strong enough to give us the capacity to distinguish between the longing to be validated as beautiful and the longing to cause another person to be overwhelmed by a desire so strong as to make one forget their commitments. The Church needs to talks about beauty and desire in ways that frame grace in its fullness.

Reflection and Conclusion

In the beginning of this project I took it for granted that female spirituality and sexuality are rarely thoroughly discussed in unison and that even individually the topics don’t receive a lot of attention, if any at all. Too many women, young and old, confessed to me that they have never heard these topics discussed in relation to each other and certainly not out loud in public.

Personally, I am blessed to have grown up in a home where female spirituality and sexuality were not only forever linked but honored, valued, and topics of fervent discussion. My parents and I never really had a “sex talk,” at least not in the traditional way that I see sex talked about in a Christian home. My parents didn’t diagram the human body, nor did they beat around the bush with silly stork tales of pregnancy. Instead, my sister and I were invited to watch adult movies and attend adult-themed plays.  We listened to smooth jazz as a family and talked about the music’s sensuality. We frequented parks, the beach, and the mountains, all the while talking about God’s beauty and majesty and equating it all with personal stewardship of the earth and our bodies, how it is all linked together.

However, while I was blessed by parents who felt it was important to provide a well-rounded worldview for both my sister and me, their way of parenting did not keep my sister and I out of “trouble” any more than a girl who had lax parents or a girl who had a sheltering lifestyle. For one, neither my sister nor I are virgins. So even I, who grew up watching sexual desire go haywire in various movies and plays, partook in sex out of marriage. But, I also have plenty of female friends whose parents sheltered them from such images and conversations who have also participated in sex out of marriage.

I don’t know if there is a right way and a wrong way in raising kids so that they don’t have sex.  Perhaps the truth is it takes more than a single family’s best efforts. But I also don’t think that focusing on the “right” way is of much importance. Not when a female’s spirituality and sexuality is, first, almost never talked about it in the first place, and second, languaged by religious patriarchy.

On April 17th I wasn’t interested in making virgins out of student listeners, but rather in providing a platform for the female religious to come to voice on a topic often painted as taboo and not wholly accepted for conversation. My panel’s audience had over fifty members. Clearly, conversations about female sexuality and spirituality need to happen more often and they need to happen across religions, across cultures, across generations, and, even more importantly, they need to happen between genders.

By understanding how patriarchal interpretation of scripture affects the female religious experience, it becomes possible to deconstruct, and then explore new ways for females to articulate their understanding of sex, sexuality, and spirituality. Furthermore, to discuss and define these dynamics is of great value and importance, for only then can the wisdom and insights be shared and the difficulties worked through and solved. The questions I asked are questions of importance, and I recognize that women today can not only ask them out loud, but they can expect answers. Answers that emerge from the fresh exploration of God’s word, by gender inclusive communities in the midst of evolving church traditions.

Works Cited

Christ, Carol P., and Judith Plaskow. Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992. Print.

Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father. Boston: Beacon, 1973. Print.

Johnson, Elizabeth A. She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York: Crossroad, 1992. Print.

Kidd, Sue Monk. The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine. [San Francisco, Calif.]: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996. Print.

Ruether, Rosemary. Motherearth and the Megamachine. New York: Seabury, 1975. Print.

Winner, LaurenW. Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005. Print.

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