There I was in the bathroom, peeing on a stick. “It’s a rite of passage,” my friend Kelsey told me. She was the one wishing me luck from the other side of the door; she was the one who brought me the pregnancy test—and a pound of chocolate—after my panicked tears suggested I could not buy one on my own.
I came from a world of virgins with pregnancy scares. Growing up a girl in a conservative evangelical church, I was taught that all sexual sins—from kissing in the dark, to “petting” (whatever that was), to oral sex, to intercourse—were equally bad, were just as likely to risk my salvation. So many of us began imagining that the consequences were all the same too, that we might become pregnant by unconventional means. Lying naked together. Making out.
Of course, this was a fear only us girls had to bear. Somehow getting a girl pregnant did not have the same moral consequences as being the one to get pregnant. As a girl growing up in the church, an awful lot of responsibility was placed on me to keep boys from touching me. Yet no one was asking whether I wanted to touch—or to be touched.
Sitting in my bathroom, waiting on the three-minute pregnancy test to make its annunciation, those adolescent fears came rushing back. I have since learned how pregnancy works—thank God. I have learned how to take ownership of my body, to make choices that are right for me, not just for the boys I was expected to protect. But in the panic of the moment, the fear and the baggage it bore came back to me. I caught myself thinking, if I get pregnant, then it must be God’s will.
My pregnancy scare came a few weeks before Advent, a season where my evangelical friends find an out-of-wedlock pregnancy glorious, full of hope. At an Advent service last week, I could hear the panic in Mary’s voice, the same as mine on the phone with the nurse practitioner. “How can this be, since I have an IUD!” Of course my Advent miracle was not a virgin birth but one line, not two, appearing on my pregnancy test.
In my evangelical church, Mary’s choice in bearing the Christ child was a given. Rape was not a thing that God did, even though it might have seemed like it. (Read your Bibles, my pastor would suggest, just not too critically.) There’s good reason to be skeptical of Mary’s ability to freely consent to her pregnancy. Delores Williams, for example, questions how Mary could have possibly said no to an archangel. Margaret Kamitsuka suggests that Mary was confused by the whole “overshadowing” matter until she confided in her cousin Elizabeth. Only then did she sing the Magnificant.
But for those who must believe that Mary had freely consented, I wonder if they can still bear the complexity of her choice. When Mary finally understood the weight of what she was agreeing to—perhaps much later as Kamitsuka has shown—did she cry? Did she make a pro/con list or consider Joseph’s involvement? Did she have to convince herself, like I had to, that only she knows what’s best for her body? And of course, if we imagine her as having a choice like this, we must also imagine her saying no. I wonder how my evangelical friends might handle that.
Decisions are hard to make when you are not taught to use your moral agency for you, rather than in service to the boys. I wonder how my own pregnancy scare might have been different if I had believed for so much longer that my body was my own to take care of, which included learning if, how, who, and by whom I liked to touch and be touched. If anything, I hope it would have made me brave enough to drive with Kelsey to CVS and buy my own pregnancy test—and chocolate—knowing that whatever decision I would have to make, it would be the one right for me.
Lauren D. Sawyer is pursuing her Ph.D. in Christian Social Ethics at Drew Theological School. Her work engages youth and young adult sexual ethics and the development of moral agency, through a feminist theological lens. She pays special attention to sexual harm perpetuated by spiritual leaders (and their problematic theology), especially within evangelical purity culture. As a creative writer and bookworm, she is additionally interested in how literature can be engaged as an ethical framework. Between paper-writing and impressive amounts of coffee, she works as submissions editor for the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. You can read her work at laurendsawyer.com.