Sexual Ethics and Southern Belles By Amanda Pumphrey


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.

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Categories: Christianity, Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue, Gender and Sexuality, Sexual Ethics

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18 replies

  1. A wonderful post! It sounds like you’ve traveled considerable distance in your thinking about the ethics of sex, gender, and sexuality! A publicly-sanctioned garter ceremony where the teenage boys would hang-up the garters like trophies the morning after? Wow!

    I especially enjoyed hearing how you are enjoying Cahill’s (new) classic book and that the Marilyn Friedman piece moved you to examine your own needs and where you are at. Good stuff!

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  2. Dear Amanda,

    This is very well-written. As someone raised in California (your professor and I went to high school together), transplanted into the south for 13 years, married a true Southern gentleman, and then moved progressively further north, I wonder what you say about your graduate work when you visit your family and friends from your youth. What is the response when you say that you are interested in queer theologies?

    Thank you for allowing me the privilege of “eavesdropping” on your class., This is one of the many areas I wish I had had more opportunity to study.

    Carlin Miller

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    • Hey Carlin – so lovely of you to join the conversation and how nice to know that our class dialogue is meaningful to more than just the class participants! :)

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    • Thank you for reading my blog and your comment Carlin. It is quite interesting what I talk about with my friends and family when I return home. I have to “tip-toe” around certain topics – especially sexuality, gender, religion, politics – because mostly everyone I know is on a completely different page – and that’s okay. Honestly, I find it very hard to relate to my old friends, especially those from highschool. Out of my highschool graduating class of about 100 students only about 15 of us have college degrees and only about 8 of us went to graduate/professional school. I’m only in contact with most of them via facebook these days. I’m also the only one of my friends who lives outside of the South (except for those that joined the military) and usually when I go home for the holidays we will talk about what’s been going on around town and gossip of course. I can’t really talk about the details of my studies with my family because we disagree so strongly about mostly everything. I’m tired of trying to explain myself and arguing with them. Basically their response is they think I’ve drank the California Kool-Aid. ;)

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  3. Amanda. Thanks for sharing. I lived in the South for four years and was often shocked by the overt expectation to be a “non-sexual girl in an overly sexualized culture” that you describe. Your description of the garter ceremony reminded me of purity balls (or purity weddings), where girls make purity pledges to their fathers who promise to protect their virginity until marriage. The similarities to wedding ceremonies are also quite eerie. Often girls will even wear purity rings on their left hands in place of wedding bands. These create bizarre (and even unhealthy) relationships in which daughters “give” their virginity to their fathers to hold onto it until the girl’s wedding night when her husband will be able to take it, as if girls cannot be trusted with their own virginity. I knew more than one of my Southern friends who had made this pledge. I agree with you that these traditions signify that a positive discussion of sexuality is much needed, as it is missing not only in the South but in most other places as well. I am wondering if you could clarify what you mean by your final statement, “I’m not ready to abandon ethics yet in order to have that discourse.” I’m not sure what you mean, are you not ready to give up your studies and go have this discourse or you would have to compromise your ethical position to create a reformist perspective? Great post, thanks for bringing your Southern perspective.

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    • Thank you for your comment Katrina. I haven’t heard the name “purity balls” or purity weddings” used where I’m from but we did have the “true love waits” rings and father/daughter Valentine’s Day dances where basically the same thing happened – the girls get the ring from their fathers and make the promise to remain a virgin until their wedding night. I had some friends who participated in “Christian Courting” and “True Love Waits” programs through their youth groups, but my youth group didn’t have any type of program like that. Agreed – it is so problematic and creepy and weird. And sorry if I was unclear, I was trying to relate back to Frye’s reading on the abandoning of ethics as a freeing/creative model for lesbians. She was stating how often she observed that a certain type of woman – Christian, white, educated – wants to remain within the academic ethical discourse but she was suggesting – why is there a need for ethics? Is it really helpful for lesbians? I was suggesting that I recognized her argument and I have been reflecting upon it but I want don’t want to move beyond ethical discourse yet – not in the context of sexual ethics anyway. I think that Christianity and sexual ethics have to be connected in order to make a change in my community. I don’t think I would have to comprise my reformist position at all. I’m saying the opposite – that I would have to be a reformist working from within a Christian framework to reach out to my community in order to have a dialogue around sex, gender, and Christianity. Unlike what some of the radical lesbian feminists as Daly would do. I think feminist Christian sexual ethicist’s like Farley, Cahill, etc. are quite helpful for positive transformation in my own context.

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      • Thanks Amanda. I have heard of the true love waits as well, same idea i think. and thanks for the clarification, I was confusing Frye with Hoagland (oops), which makes what you wrote make much more sense. And, I agree in terms of using these concepts within most of our communities, Farley, Cahill seem much more applicable.

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  4. Amanda – Thanks for a great post! It’s amazing to think about the ways that our childhoods shape and form us. In my own experience, even when I have distanced myself or traveled ideologically further away from the Christian beliefs and ethics of my childhood, some of their vestiges certainly still remain. It’s hard to exorcise all of these deeply-felt experiences. At many of the youth rallies that I attended in middle and high school, sex was associated intrinsically with shame and with mystery. To know to much about sex was to trend towards sluttiness and sin. I spent a lot of years paralyzed by guilt and fear about engaging in any sort of romantic overtures with boys.

    I agree with your assement that Cahill and Farley might be more helpful for Christian contexts like the places where we grew up. They represent a sort of middle way, that may not shock people, but gently nudge them towards change (which seems to always move slowly in the church). I wonder if there might also be a middle way with ethics — where they don’t need to be bound by hard and fast rules (like the form of ethics that Frye is rejecting), but that can help to sketch the frames of a broad scaffolding that we can use to help give shape to our actions, etc….Thanks for the post!

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  5. Amanda,
    Your blog entry inspires me. You have a way of taking “normal” and showing how easily it is not “normal.” In regards to ethics, I too, like you was drawn to the statement made by Frye about abandoning ethics. Like you, I struggle with being or being viewed as what society dictates as normal. More importantly, I struggle with attempting to stay in specific traditions in order to “change from within.” I am more of a fan of separation: starting again and working within a community to create a unique voice free of oppression.

    Should we abandon ethics? To me it is a personal question. Should we abandon ethics because they ultimately stem from white, patriarchal norms? Is ethics the only thing that we will abandon? I wonder if in abandoning ethics to create a unique voice within particular communities we open a new type of Pandora’s box so to speak. All these questions came up for me as I read your blog post and although I am a fan of “separating,” your post made me want to come back.

    Thank you Amanda. You inspire me every day both within and outside of class. I’m happy to call you a friend, ally, advocate, and fellow queer scholar.

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  6. Amanda,

    You are such a great storyteller. After reading the other post about the Vagina Monologues I thought your post could be a great monologue in that same tradition.

    It wasn’t surprising to hear that you have to tiptoe around your friends and family in South Georgia now. You are spot-on when you say, “I think that Christianity and sexual ethics have to be connected in order to make a change in my community.” I hope you continue your work in the world of gender dynamics and religion and are able to find a way back to your community in order to propose a different lens through which to see the world.

    Those girls in South Georgia need to hear you. There must be other girls lurking in the high school bathroom who yearn to hear someone like you in the another stall give voice to their longing for a different way of experiencing the world. Perhaps, the culture there is too strong, the desire to have one’s garter hanging in the rear view mirror of a boy’s truck too great, to allow a voice like yours to penetrate that fairy tale? I hope not.

    Have you ever considered writing a novel or memoir? Your voice is so distinctive, compelling, and fun. Plus, your experience is rich. Your ideas and your voice combined is a powerful mix. (I’m thinking your book would be banned in South Georgia, and then of course everyone would buy it and hear what you have to say.) Rock on.

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  7. Amanda,

    Your post really touched me.
    Thank you for your sharing with thoughtful experiences. To tell the truth, the situations of girls in South Georgia are very much similar to our girls in Myanmar. Girls are taught since their junior years to maintain the “virginity.” It is accustomed to use “white sheet” in every wedding bed to check whether the bride is virgin or not. So, in the Wedding night, after having sexual intercourse, if some red spots are found on the white sheet, the bride will be honored as “Virgin Bride or Purified Bride.” If not, she will be disgraceful among the people for life.

    Yes, I totally agree with you that in order to transform this traditional norms of devalue or dehumanize girls in our culture, it is very important to approach with a positive and constructive way of sexuality.

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  8. Amanda,

    Thanks for such an insightful post. Your opening story ironically reminds me of a conversation I had several years ago with my very liberal, very well-educated aunt when we were in Mexico. She was one the chaperones for our youth mission trip. We had about ten female youth on the trip. The youngest was about 12, and I was the oldest at 17. However, of those ten young women, no fewer than eight were on their period during that one week in Mexico! This led to several trips to the local store for the purchase of pads and tampons. One night after we returned from the store, my aunt took me aside and asked if it was safe/possible for these girls to be using tampons, since they hadn’t yet had sex. I remember being flabbergasted that she thought that. She went on to explain that when she was young, she was told she couldn’t use tampons until she was married because a tampon would interfere with a woman’s virginity (potentially breaking the hymen), and she still assumed that was true. While I informed her that tampons did not rupture anything internally, I remained amazed that she had retained such a view. Even within my own household, I was the older of two girls. I had to learn how to use tampons from the instructions on the box, and it fell to me to teach my sister. In light of my experiences from within my youth group (particularly as the oldest female and representative leader, since our youth group leader was male), I especially appreciate your insight that “[i]nstead 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.” I know the youth (both male and female) at my home church would benefit from such discussion. Thanks again for sharing your story!

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  9. “I was expected to be a non-sexual girl in an overly sexualized culture.” This resonates with me as a Mormon as well. Mormon young women have to walk a very tricky tightrope. On the one hand, they are expected to be feminine and attractive (it’s common for teen girls to get lessons on makeup, fashion, hair, etc. in their young women church youth groups), but they are also expected to be virginal and not too sexy. Girls who choose not to conform to these expectations of female beauty by not wearing makeup or dressing more androgynously are often ignored by their male Mormon peers — which puts their whole eternal future at risk, since marriage and motherhood are central to Mormon women’ identities. So the pressure to conform to these standards of beauty are extreme.

    A couple of years ago I read Margaret Farley’s book on Christian sexual ethics called Just Love. It was terrific. I remember thinking, much as you did about Cahill, that I should ship that book off to Church leaders so they could encounter some new ideas about how to think about sexual ethics. Her emphasis on mutuality and equality were ideals that Mormon young women should be taught about more explicitly, and her emphasis on the importance of commitment would naturally mesh with Mormon ideas on the subject.

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  10. Amanda, all I could think about when reading your post was the documentary “The Education of Shelby Knox,” about a high-school girl who was outraged at the abstinence-only sex-ed teachings offered by the public schools in her town (Lubbock, Texas). As a result of this uninformative and delusional attempt at sexual education (in combination with the conservative religious culture of the community), this town had the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the country. In some of your responses to others’ replies, you have commented on how few of your classmates from high school have moved away (and fewer who have attended college or graduate school). I’m curious to know if you noticed a similar phenomenon in your town and if you think it contributed to the prevention of the spread of the travel-bug.

    Regardless of this, I wonder what your take is on the ideas of “equality,” and “commitment” in regards to sexual relationships. I tend to think that that ‘equality’ is a difficult term to apply to such relationships as a result of the fact that only females can become pregnant (even when utilizing safe-sex practices). And if that does occur in the context of a relationship, so many believe that there should be a 50/50 say in choosing whether or not to keep/abort the fetus. As for “commitment,” many people are/have been/will be after sex with no strings attached. In such instances, why and to what extent, if any, do you think “commitment” is important?

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  11. Amanda,

    Thank you very much for your post and storytelling. To me it is absolutely fascinating that there are so many different cultures around sexuality within our country.

    I find myself from a sexual culture of extremes. On one side there is the “Save yourself for marriage” narrative that dominates the non-denominational Christians and the LDS women in Washington state. The other side is the fact that OKCupid has listed Seattle as the second most promiscuous city in the country (behind Portland). As a mainliner, I find myself in an odd middle. I grew up in a context that has relaxed many of the sexual taboos outside marriage, yet still holds that sexuality is a sacred aspect of ourselves and should be treated carefully. Instead of being welcome in both contexts, I find myself making others uncomfortable with either my “sexualized nature” or my “holier than thou-ness.” Often I find myself using the description “You’re allowed to make your own choices about sexuality, if that is virginity or activity, go for it,” but rarely is that acceptance of other’s sexual choices ever able to be described.

    Therefore, when you suggest that for women in the South to feel comfortable with a reform on the inside of Christianity, I couldn’t help but translate this for my context as well. I wonder then if I could ever be seen as a reformer, but always an outsider in this context?

    Thanks again for your post. It has given me a great deal to ponder.

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Trackbacks

  1. Modesty Codes in Pentecostalism and Mormonism by Amanda Pumphrey « Feminism and Religion
  2. Códigos de modestia en el pentecostalismo y el mormonismo | Amanda Pumphrey | Natanael Disla

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