This post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium, Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.
Amanda Pumphrey is a first year Ph.D. student in women’s studies in religion at Claremont Graduate University. She received her MA in religion from Claremont School of Theology and her BA in religious studies from Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Georgia. Amanda enjoys studying Christian sexual ethics and feminist and queer theologies.
It’s 8th grade. I’m in the girls’ bathroom during lunch time and I ask my friend in the stall next to me if she has a tampon that I can use. “Amanda Brookins, I didn’t know you wasn’t a virgin nomore!” screams another friend who is waiting on me. I was confused by her comment, but I later learned that her mother had explained to her that girls could not wear tampons unless they had had sex. Which translated into only married women should be utilizing tampons. This is the context in which I grew up: South Georgia where there is virtually no comprehensive sex education in the public school systems. In this small southern town, I learned about sex through my youth group at a country, Pentecostal church. What I learned was that sex was sinful and it was not something that I should even think about until I was married. Christianity and southern culture go hand in hand within my hometown, so as a born again Christian and a girl I was expected to “save myself for marriage” and my future husband, and to uphold my status as a polite and proper southern belle. The norms were already established: sex is for marriage which is a Christian institution between one man and one woman.
I was expected to be a non-sexual girl in an overly sexualized culture. An example of this aspect is derived from a tradition at my high school. During prom night there was a garter ceremony that was held during the dance. While the actual dance was strictly regulated by the faculty because boys and girls could not be too close, somehow a public garter ceremony was deemed appropriate for 16-17 year olds. The ceremony is eerily similar to the traditional removal of the bride’s garter by the groom during the wedding reception. All the girls line up across the dance floor and their dates kneel before them, lifting up their dresses and removing the garters from around their thighs. Afterwards, the guys typically hang their date’s garters from the rear view mirror in their trucks. At the time, this was an exciting experience that all the girls looked forward to. We were not allowed to officially date until our junior/senior years or even call boys because we are not supposed to take initiative in dating. I would later realize how problematic these traditions and norms were.
I was immediately drawn to philosophy, religious studies, women’s studies, and ethics courses in college. I was especially attracted to ethics courses. For once in my life, I felt legitimized as a female and as a Christian. I finally had the language to articulate my own experiences and way of moral reasoning. Most of my academic work has been centered around Christian sexual ethics because of my upbringing. I would identify my work as reformative, as in I want to continue to remain within a Christian context. Beginning to read through Lisa Cahill’s Sex, Gender, and Christian Ethics, I find myself wanting to ship copies of this book to Donalsonville, GA. Even though Cahill is working from within the Catholic tradition, surely her notions of a Christian ethic of sex and gender are applicable to South Georgian Protestants. The type of sexual ethic Cahill presents promotes equality, commitment, and responsibility. These are all good things, right? Instead of sexuality being portrayed in a negative, sinful, and shameful way, discussions within youth groups could be more constructive, open, honest and closer to the realities that teenagers face – especially the southern belles.
In conclusion, reading Marilyn Frye’s article this past week was very challenging for me. I realized that I am exactly who she was speaking of – that white, Christian, educated, woman who has to have a need for ethics. Put into the context of gender and sexuality in the South, I feel like there is a lot at stake. By remaining within a Christian context and discussing issues of sexuality and gender, I believe a reformist perspective would be better received by my community. In order to transform the traditional norms of what it means to be a southern girl and Christian, a positive discussion of sexuality is much needed. I’m not ready to abandon ethics yet in order to have that discourse.