By Lauren J. Barnhart
We all struggle with complicated issues around the human body. Much of our culture is informed by patriarchal religious views, which teach people to transcend the body rather than be fully within it. This has resulted in systems of control and repression. By examining fears of the physical in all of us, and finding presence in our existence, we can not only strengthen our relationships with each other, but also with life itself.
The Problem with Purity
After my mother had my sister, she was told that she probably wouldn’t be able to have more kids. What the details are of this, I’ve never been told. But years later, after she became a Christian, I was conceived. In this mythological narrative, I was known as the “Miracle Baby.” I was sent to Christian schools, and even went to a small Christian college. My parents had high hopes for my spiritual life. So, it was quite a shock to them when I left the church as a young adult, and later came out as an Atheist. Isn’t it ironic, that I don’t believe my own origin story?
So, what was it like growing up in the Fundamentalist Christian Church? I had a vivid imagination, and the spiritual warfare between God and Satan seemed very real and very frightening. They were in a tug of war for my life. On one side, there was sacrifice and transcendence, while on the other, there were bodies. There were bodies having fun, and somehow fun always led to vice, which led to sex, which led to heartbreak, addictions, disease, and death. It was a full package deal. Body equals sex equals death. So, I did everything I could to avoid my body entirely. Its impulses and its desires were secrets that I couldn’t share with anyone. I lived inside my head. And when my imaginary worlds failed me, I struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts.
At the age of twenty-one, I began to explore the playgrounds of the embodied. For the first time in my life, I was truly awake, alive, and exposed to the magnitude of all five senses as a sexual being. Intent on finding a way to express all that I was feeling; it was the beginning of my life as a writer.
I left the church because everything they said about sex outside of marriage, was not true to my own experience. They said that I would feel guilt, but I didn’t. They said that sexual love was finite; that if you gave love it would soon run out, and you would become bitter. But instead, I found that sexual love is expansive, and the more I gave, the more I grew in empathy. They said that as a woman, premarital sex is something that you can never recover from, an almost unforgiveable sin that destroys marriages. But much later on, when I finally did marry, it only made me stronger as a wife. I can appreciate my husband in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
My memoir, No End of The Bed, recounts the struggles of coming from extreme repression, to then exploring the sex-positive movement. If I was going to be a full sexual being, I wanted to understand all sides of that. But honestly, I was not fully equipped for that environment. In the Church, I was taught to be drawn to charismatic and powerful figures; to not ask questions; and trust fully. In a sense, I went from one cult to another. But my new leaders broke through the layers of my religious upbringing, and taught me how to find who I am. Yes, there was abuse. But for the first time in my life, there was also genuine honesty, a lack of judgment, courage, and fearlessness. I would not be who I am today without these valuable experiences.
For ten years, I avoided everything to do with religion. It was a time of disassociation, where even picking up my childhood Bible unnerved me. Not long after my memoir was published, I began to have constantly recurring dreams that I was stuck back in Christian School being forced to go to chapel every day. My old classmates kept popping up and chiding me. I felt like I was in a prison, being forced to believe something that I didn’t believe at all. I could no longer avoid my roots. I would have to dig in so that I could conquer my fears.
I opened my Bible. At first, it literally made me nauseous. But I kept reading. And as I read, I realized it was an entirely different book than the one I had read as a child. It was violent and bloody. Women and children were property. Men were abusive to their families and to each other. The entire theme seemed to be “us versus them,” and outsiders were automatically viewed as “evil” and not fit for life.
For a while, I was extremely angry. I began to write. And as I wrote, I needed to read more books to understand what I was writing. The project grew, and soon my research extended as far back as the Paleolithic era, to the earliest religions, which were not patriarchal at all. I began to see the big picture, and how all the belief systems had grown in layers throughout time, and how they are all connected. The matriarchal beliefs are grounded in earth, while the patriarchal beliefs strive for transcendence.
So, we might think of purity culture as something specific to Fundamentalist believers who teach abstinence, wear purity rings, and abide by strict rules of courtship. This is one extreme aspect of it, but this story is much larger than that. In order to understand it, we have to go back to the very earliest sources to understand how ideas about purity affect all of us. It is the basis of our entire culture.
The oldest religions, almost worldwide, viewed feminine energy as the life source. These cultures operated through mother-right, in which the line of the mother inherits property, and the brother of the mother plays a more prominent role in her family than her partner or partners. Proof of paternity was not necessary for establishing property ownership and inheritance. In many regions, women not only held property, but they were also active in business and public life. The last of matrilineal cultures are fading out, such as the Mosuo in China, and the Khasi and the Garo in India. Many, such as the Basque in Spain, were targeted in the 20th century under the name of nationalism.
This process of cultural conquest has been occurring for the last 6,000 years. It all began with tribes of herdsman who originated from modern-day Ukraine, north of the Baltic Sea. It was a harsh region, and in order to survive, herdsman had to raid the livestock of their neighbors. These groups were known as the Kurgan cultures, or Proto-Indo-Europeans. They were the first to domesticate the horse and invent the chariot. And as we’ve learned from our patriarchal history, whoever has the best weapons, wins.
These advancements gave them an enormous advantage. They could travel great distances, and have an edge against people wherever they went, whether it was through warfare, power, or assimilation. In the third wave of migrations, various groups split off, and established themselves as elite priesthoods over native populations—the Mitanni and the Levites in the Levant (evidenced by DNA); the Vedic people in India; the Magi in Persia; and the Enarei in Eastern Europe. They all shared an obsession with purity—both purity of their race, and purity of the body.
Purity culture is against equality. In its history, it has not just been used to discriminate on the basis of sex, but also on the basis of race, as evidenced through history by caste systems, colonialism, and apartheid. The early Indo-European groups viewed themselves as racially superior from the people in the regions where they assimilated. Within their ideology, light was good and dark was evil. Their god was of the light and of the day, while the goddess was of the dark and of the night.
As the years progressed under this leadership, women slowly began to lose their standing in society, and became increasingly devalued and viewed as impure, or leading men to impurity. To rise above this, a man must transcend his physical body, to become pure. All of purity revolves around the fear of women and the fear of death. Mothers have the power to give life, but they also have the power to take life away. There is a tremendous amount of vulnerability in this process. Rising above the body, is also an avoidance of being a body—a body that was once a baby and will one day grow old and die.
The devaluation of women and bodies was not natural. It was very much against all that is natural. In the Bible, it is clear that for women, the situation was at its worst within early Hebrew culture. Women were excluded on the basis of their bodily functions, which were viewed as unclean. They were “impure” for 40 days after the birth of a son, and for 80 days after the birth of a daughter. Other exhortations on the clean and the unclean, include anyone with a skin disease such as leprosy, a child born out of marriage, eunuchs, outsiders, and women that were sexually active outside of marriage.
As soon as a girl was able to produce children, at the ages of eleven to thirteen, she was betrothed for one year. Once married, her husband took possession of her body and a certain amount of property offered by her father. At this time, if she was not a virgin, it was commanded that she be executed. He, on the other hand, was allowed one wife or several more for legitimate heirs, with avenues devoted solely to sexual pleasure such as concubines, prostitutes, and even harems depending on his position of power.
“If a priest’s daughter defiles herself by becoming a prostitute, she disgraces her father; she must be burned in the fire (Leviticus 21:9).” Since husbands and fathers controlled the bodies of women, the daughter who “defiled herself” by becoming a prostitute, infuriated the father as she literally staked claim on the economic gains of her body—a claim that was normally only allotted to men. Outside of sex work, there was little opportunity for a woman to gain an income.
In the patriarchal system, a woman’s body is a commodity to be leveraged by the father, the husband, or the outsider. Each uses her body in order to gain power; whether it be to gain ties, wealth, offspring, or new territory. Protection and commodification extends to the demand for virgin girls. It provides proof of paternity, which is a vague thing to establish without systems of control.
One of the oldest goddesses in matrilineal cultures was the Serpent Lady. She was the universe, and the source of knowledge and wisdom; holding the world in balance through a cosmic egg—which was equal parts masculine and feminine energy. This prehistoric mythology sheds light on the story of Adam and Eve, and how the new myths were used in order to demean the previous value system.
At the time of Adam’s creation, the woman doesn’t even exist. He is given the role of the life-giver, as Eve is birthed from his rib—the one and only time that a man gave birth. “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man (Genesis 2:23).” Eve is an aspect of Adam, and an afterthought, made to relieve him of his loneliness and amuse him. She does not exist of her own accord, and they are not in balance.
Here, the serpent is presented as the most devious of all the animals. Adam and Eve are supposedly immortal, but God tells them to not eat from the Tree of Good and Evil, because if they do, they will die. But the serpent tells Eve that if she eats the fruit, she will be wise like God. So she eats it, and then tempts Adam to eat the fruit, at the expense of his immortality.
We can find a similar idea of woman, as representative of death, in Hinduism. The Mahabharata offers a myth, which states, the gods feared that men would gain too much power and claim authority over the deities. To counter this, Brahma created the first woman, who happened to be Death. She resisted her task of bringing death to earth through valiant efforts. But ultimately, she made mortals of men and separated them from the gods, as her tears became disease.
Because this first woman was the source of evil, all women had to carry her curse of mortality. Women were said to wreak havoc among men as they caused desire. The Mahabharata states, “A wanton woman is a blazing fire… she is the sharp edge of a razor; she is poison, a serpent, and death all in one.”
These myths have tremendous power in shaping the way that people think. We can see this later on, in the New Testament, in words attributed to Paul: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety (1 Timothy 2:11-14).”
So how did these words affect me growing up? To begin with, I was raised by a mother with scars. As a child in the 1950’s, her three brothers were put on a pedestal, while she and her sister were treated as less than; not smart; and unclean. There was shame and embarrassment around the female body—its form and functions were seen as taboo. I grew up feeling the same, and within the Church and Christian school, these messages were ingrained in me. I didn’t realize, exactly, that these ideas were being thrust on me by the culture that I lived in. I simply thought that I had no volition, that I was stupid, and that my body was disgusting. I was not alone in my own self-hatred. The shame took many forms in the girls that I knew—hypochondria, eating disorders, depression.
It was no less unhealthy for boys and men. Yes, they held the power, and they were held to a lesser standard of purity. But this power meant that they were always living with an imbalance. They had to play a role, suppress their feelings, and struggle in silence. The idea of protecting one group of women, seemed to suggest that one should be predatory towards an outside group. On many occasions, I witnessed how certain triggers produced a lapse in “good behavior.” The rules of protection did not apply to outsiders, or to those who stepped out briefly.
Though these are extremes of the culture I grew up in, they exist in the culture at large. Throughout history, in our literature, we see the liberated woman who is punished for being a source of temptation, or for satisfying her own desires. And whether we like it or not, the culture of purity is ingrained in our language. All of our cuss words revolve around bodily functions that are viewed as “dirty.” Virginity is something that is “lost,” and apparently “claimed” by the person who takes it. A woman labeled a “slut” is supposedly fair game for predation. The most derogatory names are used for women who veer too far outside of submission or rules of purity. And one term truly harkens back to women being property, in the term, “damaged goods.”
In the culture at large, through the #metoo movement, we’ve been learning the extent of abuse that continues to occur. It is clear through the actions of these men, that they view women in just the same way that I saw myself as a youth in the Fundamentalist Christian Church—lacking volition, not smart, and not valid. These men seem to still think that women are property. Property that is there for the taking. The women they prey on are usually young, just starting out, and not yet successful. These women have a lot to lose, because they have yet to gain. Their liberty and freedom has been at the expense of powerful men. But that power is now being held in check. We are learning the lessons that bring us closer to equality.
So how do we get beyond these mental patterns that run so deep that they are ingrained in us? It takes awareness and examination—of ourselves, and of each other. If we break the myths apart, one by one, and examine the actual story of our physical bodies, apart from any spiritual ideation, we can begin to build and repair our broken culture. We can begin to repair each other.
What are we really? As Carl Sagan said, “We are made of star stuff.” We are each a universe, made up of space and atoms and bacteria—the basis of all life. Death is not something to fear. I think that the only thing that really dies when we die is our individuality. Whereas the particles of our bodies live on, decomposing to feed the earth, and provide new life. In this view, the earliest religions seem most accurate, minus the supernatural aspects. In the ensuing drama of history, we lost our way, and forgot that we are nature. Instead, we were told that we either had to protect nature, or rape nature in order to claim it. Funny, isn’t it? How in this view, nature and woman are the very same thing? We live in a culture of conquest. But I am hopeful that the culture is shifting.
Lauren J. Barnhart
May 26, 2018
Lauren J. Barnhart is currently writing a book on the history of religion and conquest. She has published essays, poems, short stories, and the memoir, No End of The Bed, which explored her transition from the Fundamentalist Christian Church. Lauren is also an artist who mainly paints abstract works in oil, examining the process of time within life, death, and regeneration.
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