Just the Beginning: What #MeToo is Really Doing

If there ever comes a time when the women of the world come together purely and simply for the benefit of mankind, it will be a force such as the world has never known.—Matthew Arnold

It would be easy to see the stories of people being charged and convicted of crimes as a result of #MeToo and breathe a satisfied sigh that the movement has done its job, that the world is a safer place because some victims were able to connect the dots, connect with each other, and stand up for their right to be treated like valuable human beings. Lesson learned, awareness raised. Let’s dust off our hands and let #MeToo join the ranks of hashtags past alongside #IceBucketChallenge.

It might also be easy to see #MeToo descending into a witchhunt. If what #MeToo delivers is only (or even mostly) a platform for pointing out offenses that have occurred, it is true that it would not be hard to abuse it. Inertia (or the vast, as yet unplumbed scope of a real problem) could take us to some dark places.

But I don’t think we’ve seen the real end results of #MeToo yet. What happened wasn’t just a moment in time where women felt enabled to speak out. It wasn’t even just a recognition of the pervasiveness of the problem of sexual assault and abuse. #MeToo was the worldwide, public confirmation of our instincts.

For most women, #MeToo wasn’t a revelation. It was a validation of that quiet voice that not only said, “This isn’t right,” but also, “I bet I’m not the only one.” We’ve suppressed it for a long time, because if that voice is right… oh, the implications. There are times when I hear my intuition and ignore it because to believe it means that my world will be turned upside down. I deny it because, if I don’t, it means I’ve spent my life in a fog of lies. Sometimes it feels easier to stay in the fog… We are built for love. We will take whatever excuse we can find to not tear apart our world with our own hands, even if silence comes at the price of our rights and our dignity.

#MeToo tells us that our instincts are right.  It makes that small voice inside us impossible to ignore. Look carefully, and you’ll see that women everywhere are starting to listen to our inner voices when they tell us something isn’t right. Watch, and you’ll see us following our own stories instead of the ones we’ve been told. We are starting to confirm our instincts. Again and again, stronger and more confident every time. #MeToo has given the world cause to believe us. But more than that, it has helped us believe ourselves. And believing ourselves is just the beginning.

Abuse: It’s Not Only Where the Bruises Are

This particular topic has come to me three completely unrelated ways in the last week, so I decided to write an open letter to church leaders. I hope it’s helpful.

Dear Church Leader,

If you’re like me, you grew up in the church and heard many teachings about the sanctity of marriage, about what’s an acceptable reason for divorce and what is not. Guidelines. If we stay in them, we’re safely in God’s will. To start with, I don’t think that’s the best way to read the Bible. I agree 100% with my pastor, who preached recently that “It (the Bible) is not nearly as good at telling you want you can and can’t do as it is at telling you what the heart of God is.”

That said, what I heard over and over was the divorce is okay if there’s been adultery (Matthew 19:8-9), if there’s a non-Christian spouse who wants to leave (I Corinthians 7:15), or if there’s been physical abuse. Note that I did not list a scripture for that last one. Because there isn’t one. Have you heard or even taught that? Christian teachers throw that one in because… we love the people we’re teaching and we know in we hearts that some behavior is just not okay, whether you can find a passage in the Bible that spells that out plainly or not. But that’s as far as we’ll go outside the lines that are clearly drawn in scripture. If there are no bruises… well, we’re in a gray area there. Marriage is sacred and we absolutely need to press into the pain and difficulty, fight for our relationships.

But…

Consider that you may have a blind spot. That physical abuse may not be the Most Awful Thing that should push us past the boundaries of Bible-based guidelines, but simply one manifestation of something more insidious. It’s a blind spot I had myself until I went through my own divorce and started hearing the real stories behind other people’s divorces, the stories that they’re often reluctant to voice to counselors or church leaders, the brutal truths they’re shy to bring to the light. The stories whispered to me accompanied by a “I’ve never told anyone this, but…” Consider that by not really seeing these situations, we may be unintentionally burdening people with relationship guidelines.

Let me tell you about what a hard heart in a relationship can look like. Whenever I read that passage, I think of Pharoah, whose heart was hard. Who used and abused the Hebrews until they were empty shells of people. Who paid a high price to keep them with him because he could not bring himself to relinquish power. Do not discount that even though Christ has come, some hearts can still be hard like his, even hearts of people in the church…

It comes down to this: there are spouses who will use their partner’s willingness to sacrifice themselves for the relationship to destroy the person and destroy the relationship from the inside. There are people who are in the marriage with no intent to honor their spouse. Not just in the heat of the moment, but as a state, as a trajectory. Often, they get something out of preserving the marriage (respect in the community, free child care, or maybe divorce will cause them to lose their business or a lot of money–I see that one a lot). Sometimes, preserving the relationship is just about enjoying the power of it. They mistreat their spouses verbally but convince the abused spouse that it’s the victim spouse’s fault they’re not being treated honorably.

So you have a hard-hearted spouse who knowingly causes pain with no intent to rectify or repair the relationship and an abused spouse who leans into the relationship in spite of pain because when you’re married that’s what you do. The spouse who leans in may not know the pain-causing spouse is lying to them. (Sometimes to the extent of leading a double life.) The abusive spouse USES their goodwill and desire to work on the relationship in spite of the difficulties to get what they want.

The really insidious thing is that if the abused spouse doesn’t know the facts about the situation, doesn’t realize the abuser is lying, the relationship problems look on the surface like normal relationship dysfunction. One sermon I heard talked about yelling at each other, and that if you think you’re emotionally abused because you’re being yelled at, you’re mistaken. The fact is, sometimes it isn’t abuse, but sometimes it IS. If it’s being used to cover lies and cover patterns of behavior that are incredibly damaging to the abused spouse and to the relationship, it’s probably abuse. If it’s being used to control someone it IS ABUSE. Abuse is about power, about using whatever tool is available to maintain power in the relationship for selfish ends. Even physical abuse is about power. There are marks and bruises, but the real toll of it is that the physical beating hammers home lies in the victim’s mind that enable the abuser to maintain control.

Think about the Hebrews under hard-hearted Pharoah again. Imagine giving the Hebrews conventional boss-employee relationship advice. “Sometimes a job will require you to sweat and strain in the sun. That’s just what it takes sometimes to do right by your employer, to do your job. Man up and do what needs to be done.” It’s not untrue. But applied in the wrong situation, it could be incredibly damaging.

Be careful when you give blanket relationship advice. Of the people in these situations I’m describing, who do you think is listening to your teaching? Really hearing it with their hearts? The people who use marriage to get what they want while dishonoring and tearing down their spouses? Or the people who desperately want the relationship to work and keep trying anything they can find to make things better, who are willing to sacrifice themselves for it and do it again and again? It’s the latter. Emotionally abused spouses (often not aware they’re being abused) read all of the books, go to therapy (often by themselves), listen to the sermons–they try EVERYTHING. And all the while the abuser is telling them the dysfunction is their fault. So they’re trying everything and blaming themselves for failure when the relationship is actually failing because the abuser is tearing it apart. Conventional relationship advice given to abuse victims can actually enable the abuse by layering shame on top of the psychological power the abusers already hold. 

The worst part about this situation is often that it ends up being the abused spouse who has to pull the trigger on the divorce. Abusers are in the relationship for a reason, and they aren’t looking for a way out. Why should they? They’re having their cake and eating it too. This is particularly awful in the church. Abuse victims already feel bad because they think the relationship problems are their fault. They stop being able to cope–sometimes without really understanding why–and feel compelled to divorce. Since the abuser is good at appearances and lying, they shame the abuse victim for seeking divorce, often using the church leadership or teaching as a weapon.

There is unfortunately not an easy way to discern when this is going on. There’s no set of rules you can apply that will magically root out when someone is abused and when they’re simply tired of dealing with the difficulties that everyone encounters in marriage. I wish I could provide some. I will simply suggest the following:

1. Don’t be quick to judge or assume. Unless you know the person really well already, is HIGHLY unlikely you know enough to give practical advice. Remember those “I never told anyone this before, but…”s? In my experience, those almost always come out AFTER the separation or divorce.

2. If you don’t have a close enough relationship with the person coming to you for advice, build one. Speak life into the person, speak God’s truth, be kind. If her heart needs softening toward her spouse, God will do it. If her spouse’s heart is open to softening, God will do it. If there’s abuse that is hiding like I described, being reminded of her value in God’s eyes will help her recognize it and speak up about it. Love and truth will eventually push everything that is not love and truth to the surface.

After all, the heart of God is relationship, isn’t it? Draw near to Him and to each other. All of the other laws hang on that. 

Fat and Happy

I had an epiphany today. I am an emotional eater, and more often than not that means I eat because I’m happy. That’s right. It’s a GOOD thing. I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been, but when I look in the mirror, I see French cheese and dinners with people I care about. I’m not saying it’s phsyically healthy or even the best way to deal with happiness, but it’s not the way I’ve been thinking about food.

I was processing that epiphany and what it means for all of my posts where I’ve compared sex and emotional eating when a friend texted me:

“I made 5:15 [fancy special occasion steakhouse] dinner reserverations. Tonight. You in?”

“Hell yes. What’s the occasion?”

“I fucking need [fancy special occasion steakhouse] is the occasion. And you.”

Now, this friend… This will not be the last time he shows up on my blog, so I’ll give him a name—Bernard. He’s quite possibly the least Bernard-y person I know. I figure if I’m going to give someone a fake name, it should be REALLY fake. I’m tempted to call him “Not Bernard” or simply Bernard, but for the sake of my sanity and yours, I’ll just stick with Bernard.

Now, this friend Bernard has had one of the most horrific years I can imagine. And the last week has been kind of the brimstone icing on the cake from hell. When he says he needs [fancy special occasion steakhouse], that is not a throwaway statement. He’s had a horrible year, and he is a man who feels deeply. All the feels. Grief, joy, love, pain—he is not afraid of them.

I thought to myself, “what is it when a person who’s hurting deeply wants [fancy special occasion steakhouse]? I know this person, and I know that for him, this is not a distraction, it’s not a few moments of reprieve from grief. He will bring grief with him to dinner—I don’t think he’s capable of doing anything else. So what is it, then?” And something clicked in me. Something I never understood about joy in the face of grief, about whistling in the dark or the band playing as the Titanic sank or doing a happy thing because it’s what a deceased loved one “would have wanted”. It is this: that hopelessness is not our ally, that sometimes doing battle with wrong in the world means hanging onto joy with every ounce of strength. In the face of suffering (or, worse, the suffering of people we love), it is tempting to feel like I’m countering the Bad Thing by wallowing in sorrow, by taking the hopelessness of the moment and extending it into the foreseeable future. We embrace the reality of our grief and other feelings by letting them become everything.

Joy can feel inauthentic and disingenuous in the face of suffering. And certainly embracing distractions or numbing the pain can rob it of meaning. This is not the place for platitudes. But there is a place where real grief and authentic joy live alongside each other. Where solidarity with someone hurting or lost means that I grieve with them but hang onto hope when they can’t any more. When I own hope and joy and do not let the bad thing take them away from me even if my friend may have lost sight of them for himself. Sing and cry. Hold the light of hope in the face of darkness and loses its power to overwhelm. Weaponize joy.

I don’t know how to do this. I think… for it to be effective, I have to have one foot firmly planted in grief and one in joy. The thing is, I’m not great at either. I’m so accustomed to stuffing feelings away where they’re less disruptive. Bad feelings, good feelings, any feelings. I’m happy to draw them out in other people. But damned if I’m going to show them myself. I don’t have either foot firmly planted in any emotional space—I dance on top of feelings like hot coals. I don’t touch them any more than I have to.

When Bernard and I went on our first date, he got me crying (and cried a bit himself). We cried over life, the universe, everything. When you’re our age (around 40) and dating, there’s a lot of life to talk about, and a lot of it is emotionally moving. But having someone I barely knew SEE me—understand where I was and reflect it to me in such a powerful way—freaked me out. This was not the first time crying has happened on a first date, but it is the first time I was the one doing it. I’m happy to push and prod other people into vulnerability. But I’m not so happy to have someone else do that to me. I’ve gotten so adept at avoiding it by directing the conversation to the person I’m talking to that it is rare for someone to get past my armor. It was scary. I’m glad Bernard pursued a second date even after I turned him down a few times.

When I was going through my divorce, I learned a lot about vulnerability. I cried—openly—in just about every coffee shop in the city of Anchorage. Crisis got past my wall, and it was a good thing. But crisis and vulnerability have faded a bit, and with them my capacity to feel things. Not that the emotion isn’t there, but when I don’t express it, it comes out sideways. And I get scared and hide it.

Apparently I also eat emotion, bad and good. Which raises the question, what if I’m not eating to suppress emotions, but because for me it’s an acceptable emotional outlet? Eating quesadillas is easier than crying. Eating fancy steak dinner is easier than feeling… happy? I consume to express something that needs to come out, and eating is a way I know how to do it. It’s not so much that I am getting rid of the feeling, but that it needs to come out and eating is the way I know how to do it. In a nutshell, I’ve always thought of emotional eating as letting emotions have too much territory. I’m beginning to wonder if I got it backwards, if I eat emotions because I’m not letting them have enough presence and power.

I’m not sure where to go with it yet, but I’m going to chew on it awhile. And maybe next time I feel like eating a mid-afternoon quesadilla, I’ll find a way to let out the Amy who sings and cries instead.

Under His Voice: Obedience Beyond the Law

My quest to find the sweet spot in sex is not the only place I’m doing what I’m doing. In fact, it’s informed by other areas of my life where I’ve experienced the lifechanging power of the presence of God. A lot of what I’m doing for myself (and trying to make transparent to you, my dear readers), is trying to tear down things I encounter on this topic that don’t seem like they’re infused with His presence.  I’ve seen how unexpected and radical His impact on my life is in other areas, I want more of Him in all the parts of my life.

Now, if you’ve heard about the presence of God your entire life, I need to ask you to set aside your assumptions about what I mean for a minute. This is not the “I met God and turned my life around and now I’m happy behind my white picket fence” stories we’ve all heard. This is something far more radical.

I was baptized when I was ten, and I’ve gone to church my whole life. But there is something decidedly different about the last few years of my walk with God. I’ve always known how to follow His law, and I thought that was the goal, the end point. I thought that Christ died to enable me to follow the rules because my sinful heart was unable to do it on its own. But as I’ve let go of my ability to follow the rules (legalism) or lack of it (shame) to take ahold of the Person of God, as I’ve run hard after His presence in every aspect of my life, I’ve begun to see my life operate with a beauty, an elegance, an ineffable efficiency that I never would have thought possible.

I’ve realized that laws are just a way to see symptoms that I’m setting something else in a place where God’s presence should be. God doesn’t tell us things like “don’t commit adultery” so that we can just stop. He tells us so we can recognize a lack of Him in that particular area of our lives. It’s not for behavior modification, it’s for return to relationship with Him. If a good friend and I keep arguing over the same thing over and over, the way to fix it isn’t just to stop it already. It’s to find the relational breakdown and repair it, to  find the path to draw closer to each other. Obedience doesn’t satisfy the law, Christ does. (Matthew 5:17-25) And life with Christ is so, so much more… alive than what we get from just following rules.

His sacrifice on the cross doesn’t zap me with power to go and follow His laws. It helps me know where to bring my life to Him to fill it up. And when He’s there, when His reign is present… wow. When God and I have worked together to clear away misconecptions and idols, it’s like those areas of my life operate in a whole different universe. Time works differently. Money works differently. Relationships work differently. The pieces of my life fall into a breathtakingly elegant orbit around Christ at the center. And it is about as far from feeling safe in a cushy, satisfied life as I can handle.

Discipline and law are just a beginning, not an end in and of themselves. Discipline helps me get rid of the junk that’s been in the way of God’s work in my life. It clears the cobwebs from my vision so I can see Him work and join Him in it. And when He does step in, hang onto your hat. There is abundant life like I’ve never seen it before.

A good example of this is financial discipline. There’s a difference between Dave Ramsey and the loaves and fishes or the widow’s oil. Structure and rules will benefit you in the long run. Financially, they’ll get you to a safe place (most of the time). Obedience to rules helps eliminate risk. But there’s a different kind of obedience. Did you know that the word commonly used in the New Testament for obedience or submission is “hupakoe” which literally means “under the voice”? (Strongs 5218 if you feel like looking it up). Christ fulfilled the law. The law points us TO A PERSON. Deep obedience means being under His voice. To love His laws, yes, but to love Him even more. To the point that I will move past the safety and convention of laws when He asks me to. When people are hungry, to obey immediately when He asks me to give my only food to help feed others.

I did a Dave Ramsey course a few years ago. It helped clear away the clutter in my budget. As I finished the course, I felt called to live on half my income. I’ve spent two years working toward that. I thought that was the goal. Now that I’ve gotten there, He’s moving me toward more. He’s shown me how He provided for me over the years in ways I didn’t realize, years when I was angry at Him for letting me pour my time and resources into things I felt like didn’t give me appropriate return. I’m still benefitting from the abundance I was blind to during those years—they’ve paid for my house, among other things. A few months ago, gratitude for that moved me to tell God I’d give whatever money to whomever I felt called in my heart to give. I gave away several thousand dollars. One gift saved someone’s life (although I didn’t know it at the time). And then I got my tax return back—the largest ever—for more than I’d given away. Yesterday I gave that away, too. I’m anticipating another return on that so I can do it again. I’ll let you now when and how that happens, because I have no idea. I’m eagerly waiting for that surprise.

God wants us to invest as He does—high risk investment in people. Giving to the last. That’s the kind of giving He multiplies. And it’s well outside what conventional financial wisdom would tell us to do. It’s not only about obedience to rules, but intimate obedience, being under His voice not under His thumb. Sure, conventional wisdom and laws play a role. If I were squandering money in ways dishonoring to God, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing. But that’s just the start, it’s not the end point.

What does any of this have to do with sex? I’m glad you asked. Having seen the glory of God working in my life in other areas, I want that in my romantic life. It’s hard to describe what God does, but when I started this blog series, I hadn’t seen Him working in that part of my life the way I have begun to see in other parts. It wasn’t there when I was hooking up, and it also wasn’t there when I embraced legalism. One of the big problems I have with most Christian books on sex is that they emphasize rules for their own sake. On one hand, some explain why God’s design is for sex within marriage and then scare us with all of the ways doing it wrong can hurt us. Not necessarily untrue, but also not helpful. Marginally better (but still not great) are the descriptions of why the rules work, what the benefits are. Again, not untrue, but it’s not what I’m looking for here. I mean, really? Is anyone inspired by Christian literature on sex to run out and give up everything for it (Matthew 13:44)? I’m not.

I want to see the lifegiving, lifechanging power of God in relationship and sex. I don’t want to learn how to save myself from drowning. I don’t want to learn how to tread water. I want to learn to mount up on eagles’ wings, to shoot past the surface into the air. I don’t want to just quench my thirst to avoid dying, I want living water (John 4:10). I don’t just want to survive, I want abundant life (John 10:10). I want the new self (Ephesians 4:20-24). I want to find God where the rules are fulfilled and the abundant life begins. Rules are the first step (if we understand the heart of them), but they’re not the end in and of themselves. Jesus is.

Maybe I’m blind, but this is just not something I see yet in Christian literature in sex, and it’s not something I see often in the relationships around me. So, I’m just going to go after Jesus Himself the only way I know how—keep getting rid of the things that don’t look like Him until I begin to see Him showing up more brightly and clearly. I don’t know what it will look like when He does step in, but, dear reader, I know it will be amazing.

Chips, Queso, & Sex Drive

One reader asked me to write about the male sex drive. Since I’m not male… take this with a very large grain of salt. Perhaps even a block of salt, or an entire salt mine. This is my take based on my non-scientific observations. Because you have to start somewhere… (I’m not even going to try to address gender identity or any of that. I think my brain would explode. Maybe another day.)

I wrote recently about how we often use sex to address loneliness. I honestly think a big part of our sexual culture (from any perspective—oversexed, undersexed, the rules we make, the rules we break) is not about sex, but driven by or shaped to address problems of loneliness and isolation. I think this is a bigger issue for men than for women, for two reasons. The first is that women are taught from an early age to solve problems socially, even problems that aren’t social in nature. Give us an engineering problem, and we’ll address it by building a team and talking about it. Men (for better or worse) are taught to be more independent. I don’t think either is necessarily bad—they both have advantages and disadvantages. However, when it comes to addressing problems related to social isolation, we women seem to be more well-equipped. If nothing else, we seem to be more aware when we’re lonely.

The second factor in difference between male and female sex drives is the fact that boys typically discover sexual self-satisfaction earlier in their lives and more easily. It’s just… out there and easy to find. I don’t have kids, but I’ve heard from many moms of boys how young they are when they figure out self-soothing. Disappointed? Sad? Lonely? Angry? There’s a quick fix that will make you feel great for awhile even if the problem hasn’t gone away. Again, I’m not going to say that’s good or bad. Just different. What it does, though, is open an opportunity for boys to learn to use sex hormones to address problems that could be handled differently. Girls may develop a bigger toolkit for dealing with disappointment because we typically figure out that mechanism for releasing our own pleasure hormones later in life (if ever). We have to solve social-emotional problems creatively.

Here’s another food comparison. (I make so many food-sex comparisons, I’m starting to wonder if my sexual preferences are more kitchen thank kink.) I eat emotionally because it’s worked for me my whole life. Sometime in my formative years, I learned that chips and queso make me feel better, even if they’re not solving my emotional problems. Eating gives me a shortcut to achieving my end goal of feeling better, even if it doesn’t last. It’s not the best, but it’s effective enough that I keep doing it (and I probably will until I find a more powerful alternative). I learned to do that from a very young age—it’s deeply engrained in my habits and very hard to overcome. You may laugh when I say that I NEED chips and queso, but it sure feels that way sometimes.

This is controversial, but based on my own experience I’m going to say that sex isn’t a critical need. We can live without it. People do it all the time. I’ve spent most of my thirties celibate, the majority of that time out of a choice to be faithful rather than a choice to be celibate. That was hard. I remember describing myself as a starving animal at one point. I wouldn’t have chosen the sexless years of my marriage, but I grew through them. I grew even more by keeping a celibate lifestyle by choice later on. Personal growth is not what happens when you are deprived of something you need. If you’re deprived of something you need, you don’t become a more complete person, you eventually go crazy or you die. Was it right for my ex-husband to deprive me of sex for years? No. I wasn’t happy about it, but I was ok.

Celibacy isn’t some magic that you either have or you don’t—it’s an acquired skill. I think sex feels like an urgent biological need because we’re using it to biochemically patch deficiencies in the things we DO need to survive, like love and help and relationship. That’s why, even if we’re getting sex, it can feel like a compulsion. The more sex I have and the less emotional connection, the more I’m going to feel like I need sex, regardless of how much sex I’m actually getting.

So you have a society that’s relationally starved, you have boys growing up with one powerful tool for self-soothing that is well-developed and other tools underdeveloped. Throw in porn, and discovering sex at a time when we’re just learning to function socially as adults, and it’s easy to see how sex can become a panacea for problems it may not actually be the best tool to solve. I’d be sex-crazed too if I thought it was the only way I could fill certain needs. Oh wait, I have been.

I think we (men and women) sometimes use sex as a patch for relational problems. My thought is that there may be reasons men seem to lean more heavily on it. It’s powerfully effective temporarily. So is cocaine, for that matter. But when the hormones wear off, the problem is still there. I don’t think that’s what sex is meant for. (Or, not the ONLY or even primary thing it’s meant for.) Like emotional eating, it’s incredibly painful to remove it unless it’s already been replaced with something else that will fill the same need. Don’t take away my chips and queso if I have no other way to feel better after a crummy day at work. Don’t take away sex if when it’s gone I find myself desperately, irremediably alone.