A lot of my childhood revolved around the church. I was commonly at the church building three times per week--twice on Sunday and once on Wednesday night. My high school was a few blocks away from church, so I would hang out at the church building after school several days a week.
When I was seven, my church changed the location of our Wednesday night Bible study from the church building to the homes of several of our members. Our small group consisted of five or six families, all with both parents married and kids around my age. We met for dinner, sang songs, and prayed for people in our church.
In my denomination, men led the prayers and songs, read the Bible Scriptures out loud, and taught and preached. Women were told to "keep silent in the assembly". My father worked longer hours, so he seldom joined us. For that matter, most of the fathers worked longer hours, and seldom joined us. All of the other kids in this small group were girls. I was often the only male.
You would think that our church would make adjustments to its practices and bend the rules in special situations. Not in this context; in fact, our church leadership's attempt to diversify gender roles in the church ten years later catalyzed the splitting, and eventual close of our church.
"Jeremiah, you're the only male present. You have to lead the songs and the prayers," I remember the women of the small group saying. As a responsible oldest child, I obliged. This happened at least twice a month over the course of the year.
I learned early that owning a penis means that you run things. That you take charge. That women will hand power over to you. That if you say no, you disappoint people. The last fifteen years of my life have been a process of healing from these experiences with church. Therapy and supervision have helped create awareness of my tendency to take charge and practice the courage of saying no, be willing to collaborate with others, and develop healthy relationships.
I am by no means the only person with a story of how religion has impacted expectations on our bodies and sexuality.
Next month, Linda Kay Klein is releasing the much anticipated Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free From It. Reverend Beverly Dale has developed a training center for therapists and church-workers called the Incarnational Institute of Sex and Faith, a series of workshops and videos about how Christians can reclaim their bodies from sex-negative messages from the church.
Bobby Britton, a graduate student at Emerson, has written a one-man play about the impact of Evangelical roots on his body and sexuality. I invite you to "Revival: A Southern Gothic Gospel Cabaret" on Friday, September 28 at 7:30 at the Old West Church.
It's one thing to read one's narrative of navigating through the shaming messages and double binds that religious institutions place on one's sexuality--it's a completely different experience to see it acted out.
After the play, I will be participating with three others (including Linda Kaye Klein) in a panel discussion about the impact of religion on sexuality and gender. I'm excited to hear the stories of the other panel members, as well as experiences and questions from audience members.
Seating is limited for Revival, so please request your tickets early.
And if you've found the religious messages of your upbringing impacting the way you practice gender, sexuality, and relationships, feel free to give me a call at 617-750-0183. Your story is valuable, and therapy can be a wonderful space to unpack these anxiety-provoking, shaming messages, and to provide healing for your relationship with your own body.
Jeremiah Gibson is a couples and sex therapist who specializes in issues of religion and sexuality.