Wineskins Archive

December 3, 2013

Sexualization and Christianity: How Should We Responde? (Feb 2013)

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By Jennifer Shewmaker

As the mother of three daughters and a professional educator who’s worked with children for many years, I am well aware of the fact that we live in a culture that consistently treats female sexuality as the primary value of girls and women. Sexualized media and marketing images surround us on every side. From billboards to television advertisements to video games, we are bombarded by a story that tells us that a female is valuable because of her ability to be physically and sexually attractive. The bodies of women and girls are used to sell everything from cars to Internet hosting sites. This commodification of human beings, this complete focus on women and girls as objects is far from the image that the Bible presents in Ephesians 2 of each of us being God’s “masterpiece” created to do good things (New Living Translation).

As a psychology professor, I study the sexualization of women and girls in our culture and how it impacts all of us. Sexualization is treating other people and/or oneself as an object of desire, with value primarily coming from sex appeal and physical attractiveness (American Psychological Association, 2007).

Females, both children and adults, are often depicted in popular culture as valued for their ability to attract others. This is called objectification, and it promotes the concept of being an object of another’s desire, rather than an agent of your own life. Through the use of images and narratives within advertisements, movies, television, music, and products developed for children and adolescents, the media industry has introduced girls to the importance of physical appearance and sexual attractiveness at a very young age. The complex, dynamic, God-created being of a woman or girl is lost when she is constantly depicted as an object for someone else’s pleasure. The beautiful and natural development of her sexuality within the context of her own identity, feelings, and relationships is lost when she is consistently depicted as someone whose job it is to look good for the viewing pleasure of others. At a time in our culture when we are more engaged with media than ever before, these messages have tremendous power.

Churches should be fighting against these messages of sexualization and objectification with all that we have. In our programming for children and youth, we should be teaching all of our children about the amazing individual that God made each one of them to be, with their own set of strengths and challenges. We should be teaching our children that their sexuality is a beautiful part of who God made them to be, and that it can develop in a healthy way as a component of their identity in Christ. We should be teaching them that God wants to use each one of them in small or large ways to shine the light of His love on all of those whose lives they touch. Churches should be a place where both girls and boys know that they can come and be loved for who they are inside, where they can be encouraged to grow in their gifts, where they can learn to be agents of their lives, seeking God’s guidance in becoming all that He created them to be, where nobody is suggesting that they are purely objects for someone else’s pleasure. Churches have the opportunity to be a very counter cultural place when it comes to the sexualized and objectified messages of popular culture.

And yet, if you take a hard look at some of the messages that are being sent to girls and women through church curriculum, Christian books on girl and womanhood, and mega-church sermons, I’m afraid that you will find many of the same messages. In some cases, they may be framed in terms of sexuality, with a focus on telling girls that their sexuality belongs to anyone but themselves and God through things like pledging their virginity to their fathers, putting the sole responsibility for purity on the girl in a relationship, or in only talking with our girls about modesty, rather than offering both boys and girls the opportunity to think about how to show respect for themselves as God’s children in the way that they dress.

For women we see messages about how it is their job to “serve” their husband sexually, even when the women are sick or in physical pain. These messages are not in line with 1 Corinthians 7 and its focus on the mutuality of the sexual relationship in marriage. In other cases, we see a focus on the importance of physical appearance. Women are often exhorted to “keep themselves up” for their husbands, with dire warnings about how if a woman isn’t sexy enough, her husband may wander. But as Rachel Held Evans points out in her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, most biblical references to women and beauty are warnings to men not to be distracted by youthful beauty into betraying themselves and their families (Evans, 2012).

Far from focusing on a woman’s value being linked to her sexuality and beauty, the Bible says things like, “Charm is deceitful and beauty is fleeing, but a woman who fears the Lord shall be praised” (Proverbs 31:30) and “Your beauty should come not from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self” (I Peter 3:3-4). In sharp contrast to the current popular culture push for women to maintain a youthful appearance at any cost, including obsessive diet and exercise and extensive cosmetic surgery, the Bible says, “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).

When I talk about girls and women sexualizing themselves, I’m not talking about enjoying looking nice, exercising and eating healthily, coloring hair or wearing makeup. I believe everyone can enjoy looking their best and being healthy, without obsessively focusing on their appearance as the primary source of their value. Sexualization comes into the picture when girls and women get to a point where they no longer see their own value outside of their ability to be attractive.  In my research with adolescents, church going adolescents were even more likely than non church goers to rate physical attractiveness as linked to a female’s value. When following this up in interviews, I was told by young girls, “Well, there’s nothing else for us to do at church but look good” and “It’s our job to sit here and look pretty.” Girls are learning to value themselves only as they can be viewed as attractive to the opposite sex. They begin to see themselves only as objects of other people’s desire, rather than someone who is beautiful and valuable because of the person that God created them to be.

What can Christians and church bodies do to stand against sexualization? How do we send a countercultural message? Here are some practical ideas:

We as Christians must work to help girls and women see that their value is so much more than what they look like. Churches and families can be committed to providing boys and girls with examples of women who are valued for their wisdom, their kindness, their intelligence, their integrity.

We must think and talk about women and girls differently from sexualized pop culture. All of our youth need to hear their families and church body praising the things that women and girls do that really matter, from running a business to raising a family, from science to soccer, from kindness to intelligence.

Our teens need to begin thinking about sexuality in terms of agency, identity and mutuality. For example, lessons can focus on how God created our sexuality as a component of who we are in Him. Both boys and girls need to think about taking charge of their own sexual behaviors, with both understanding that pressuring someone is disrespectful and unacceptable. Both boys and girls need to understand that when they are in relationships, they should show mutual respect and support to the other as they try to make the best decisions about sexual behaviors. Rather than being shamed and silenced about their natural sexual desires, this approach allows teens to see their sexuality as a part of a bigger picture of how they choose to live their life as a Christian, and to make plans about their behaviors rather than being pressured into something that they will regret.

As a body, these are things that we can do to make a difference, to show all of our youth that they hold deep and lasting value as God’s children. We must be willing to step up and speak out when we see women and girls being objectified both within the church and in popular culture. It’s time for those of us who care to push back on the idea that to be valuable as a female means simply to be physically appealing. There is so much more to women and girls than their sex appeal, and we must loudly and clearly call for a more complex understanding of them in all areas of our lives. Because, in the end, all of a woman’s physical appeal means nothing if she isn’t convinced that there’s more to her than that. In the end if all one accomplishes as a woman or girl is being physically attractive, forgetting to be kind, compassionate, authentic, or brilliant, then she misses out on being all that God created her to be and is calling her to be. She misses out on making this world a better place. My friends, each of us was made to shine, to pour the light of God’s beautiful love out on this world and share our authentic self whom He created. It is our job as a church to help all of our members to believe that, and to move forward into allowing God to use them to change this world, to do the good works for which He created them!

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