Purity culture slut-shame blues: Everything I know about sex I learned from Bob Dylan

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This article originally appeared in Salon October 2016, right after Dylan had been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m happy to finally be able to share it with you here!

I was 10 years old when I sat through my first abstinence series at church. My parents had discussed its age-appropriateness, but had decided that my relative youth was a good thing. It meant my first introduction to sex would come within the safe, godly confines of our church. So I sat in the church sanctuary dutifully every week as various pastors took turns stressing the dangers of things like necking. I didn’t have any idea what necking was, but I made a mental note to avoid it.

Those first lessons in abstinence were downright confusing. I wondered why the French apparently kissed differently than Americans, and why their methods would be so much more provocative and potentially sin-inducing. To a 10-year-old, or at least to a 10-year-old who hadn’t even been allowed to watch kissing scenes in movies, kissing just seemed like slamming your face against someone else’s mouth; I couldn’t imagine there was a whole lot of technique involved.

Once I hit middle school, as others preteens were taking sex ed, beginning to learn about their developing bodies and eventually how to stick a condom on a banana, my mother assigned me to read books with titles like “The Bride Wore White,” “Passion and Purity” and “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” My home school sex ed curriculum sounded like one of the D.A.R.E. commercials I’d seen while watching Saturday morning cartoons: Just say no.

Even masturbation could lead to your virginity (AKA your worth as a person) being devalued. So when I was much older than I care to admit, I asked my mother: “How do women even have orgasms? How is that possible? What’s happening?” and “Why do people move around so much when they have sex? Can people have sex without all that moving?” Her reply: “You’ll find out when you’re married.” Even learning about my own anatomy was off limits, apparently, until I’d signed my name on a marriage license.

Meanwhile in church, my youth pastor, after pulling a slimy pink glob of bubble gum out of his mouth, asked: “Does anyone want this piece of gum?” The teens all gagged. “That’s what it’s like to marry someone who has already had sex,” he warned.

Other classy youth group metaphors involved comparing teens who’d already cashed in their V-cards to soiled snow, a licked candy bar, a white sheet dropped in mud, duct tape that could no longer stick, and a glass of water a bunch of boys had spit in that no one in their right mind would drink. Eventually, I would learn to recognize this kind of talk as slut-shaming, but at that point I just called it “God’s design for sex.”

Sex outside of marriage was dirty, depraved and sinful. Words like “perversion” were applied to sex out of wedlock. But what was worst of all was the attitude that if you went to bed before you were legally wed you’d become dirty, unwanted, a disgrace. As my youth pastor and the purity books my mother gave me liked to say, “There’s nothing more valuable than a girl’s virginity.” Sex was a dangerous force; it had the life-ruining power to snatch your very worth as a person right out from under your nose.

The message was clear: No Nice Christian Boy would want to marry a girl who had already done the nasty.

Throughout high school I wore a purity ring my mother had bought for me at the local Christian bookstore. I did this partly out of a desire to fit in (everyone else at youth group was doing it) and partly with the hopes that it might scare away any ill-intended men. Losing my virginity was one of my biggest fears, so I wanted to keep anyone who might pose a threat to it at bay.

However, once I graduated from high school all the silver band reading “True love waits” really did was bring up my lack of a sex life in awkward settings with strangers. “Are you married?” a guy would ask. Or, “What does your ring say?” I felt like with that neon I’ve-Never-Had-Sex sign strapped to my hand I was announcing that I was really just a child.

“I’ve decided not to wear my purity ring anymore,” I told my mother one day when I was 18. I’d gone swing dancing and in the course of one night had had two guys ask what my ring said, and I’d had enough. I didn’t want to talk about my lack of a sex life anymore. I didn’t want it on display. I took my ring off and shoved it in a box in my closet.

Mom tried to talk me out of it. “Maybe you could get a different ring if you don’t like that one anymore,” she’d suggested. She was worried. Maybe she feared this marked the beginning of a change. But taking off my purity ring wasn’t the beginning of my sexual revolution.

That started with Bob Dylan.

The same year I took off my purity ring I discovered Jack Johnson. But the fact that I’d mostly traded in my Christian praise-pop for “secular music” was no sign that I was now the wild tart I’d been warned against becoming. I mean, I still deleted all of the more blatantly sex-themed songs by Johnson so that they wouldn’t even accidentally show up if I was listening to my music on shuffle.

Jack Johnson was a gateway. I began to investigate more singer-songwriters, working backwards through music history until finally, luckily, I found my way to Bob Dylan. “Lay, Lady Lay” was one of his first Dylan songs I heard, and the sensuality of the song was far from subtle: “Lay, lady lay / lay across my big brass bed.” But I didn’t delete this one. Instead, I hit repeat.

In church and at home, sex outside of marriage had always been chalked up to rampant hormones, a lack of self-control, and lust. “Don’t be friends with non-Christian boys,” my youth pastor had once informed the girls at church. “All they want out of you is sex.” Unless a guy offered a ring and his last name, his desire for you was deplorable. But even if marriage was part of the package, sex wasn’t seen as all that important. “People put too much emphasis on attraction. Just don’t marry anyone who makes you go ‘ew,’” had been my mother’s advice.

One line in particular from “Lay, Lady Lay” I wanted to hear again and again, until it began to echo in my brain: “I long to see you in the morning light / I long to reach for you in the night.” It took my breath away. I’d always imagined a guy expressing his desire to sleep with me sounding more like: “Hey, baby, I want in your pants,” like random strangers rolling down their car windows to call me a bitch or a whore and yell that they wanted to fuck me as I walked down the sidewalk.

But Dylan inviting a woman to come lie down next to him so that he could see her in the morning light wasn’t harassment and it wasn’t crass; it was art.

To my surprise, I realized that if a significant other ever said something similar, I’d be flattered.

I privately continued to listen to Dylan in college, keeping my ear buds in to prevent my mother from hearing. I created a special playlist called “sexy songs.” It was the first time in my life I’d written the word “sexy” and meant it positively.

Every time I listened to “I’ll be Your Baby Tonight” I’d close my eyes, imagining the scene and taking in every word.

Close your eyes, close the door
You don’t have to worry anymore
I’ll be your baby tonight
Shut your eyes, shut the shade
You don’t have to be afraid
I’ll be your baby tonight

One by one Dylan’s songs taught me about sex. While he might not have given me IKEA-style instructions, complete with stick figure illustrations regarding the mechanics of sex or how to properly use a condom or when to apply lube, Dylan taught me the thing I needed to know more than anything else about sex. He showed me sex was something I’d never known it could be before: beautiful.

In “Tangled Up in Blue,” Dylan sings about how a woman opened up a book of poems “And handed it to me / Written by an Italian poet / From the thirteenth century / And every one of them words rang true / And glowed like burnin’ coal / Pourin’ off of every page / Like it was written in my soul.” Every time I replayed my scandalous, secret playlist I felt like every word Dylan sang was being written in my soul, healing the broken parts of me and slowly eroding the negative, shaming things that I’d internalized about my sexuality.

I was 23 when I finally got the chance to see Dylan perform live at Seattle’s Bumbershoot music festival. It was originally going to be a date, but my mother had invited herself along because as she’d put it, “Seeing Dylan is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” And I hadn’t had the heart to deprive her of such an opportunity by pushing back.

At one point during the show I leaned against my boyfriend Ian and he slid his arm around my waist, pulling me in closer as we watched what looked like a miniature Bob Dylan performing up on stage. In response, my mother stood up dramatically to go watch the show from somewhere else. She was clearly angry—the dagger eyes were a dead giveaway—and the next day she locked herself in her bedroom for hours to sob about how her daughter had gone astray. “I don’t even want to think about what you’re doing when I’m not around!”

Seeing Dylan live was one of the most romantic moments of my life. After my mother stormed off, Ian wrapped his other arm around me and we swayed together among a sea of humanity and the glare of stage lights. The guy I’d fallen in love with was holding me close as I sang along with every word of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”

Eventually Ian would tell me in his own way that he longed to see me in the morning light, to reach for me in the night. And eventually he would. Dylan may have won the Nobel Prize for Literature “for having created new poetic expressions,” but I would give it to him for showing me the beauty in one of the oldest poetic expressions of all.


Pike Place Market: A Love Story

Flickr CC Travis Wise

Flickr CC Travis Wise

It was fall 2010 and it was raining — a light misting rain. The tourists pulled out their umbrellas undoubtedly feeling as if they were getting the full Seattle experience, while the locals pulled their hoods up and hunched their backs to protect their newly purchased treasures and others walked on completely unfazed. We strolled down the street, a busy and tangled mess of cars and tourists darting into traffic in an attempt to get the perfect iconic shot in front of the glowing red Pike Place Market sign. Just below the sign a gathering watched the men in white aprons at the seafood stall tossing fresh salmon the way a street performer tosses juggling pins.

Just a few shops farther down on the right side of the street a women’s-restroom-sized line waited to set foot inside the original Starbucks, money for lattes and coffee-themed memorabilia likely already in hand.

As we continued swimming upstream, pausing to listen to a busker here and there, some of the people we passed were carrying brown paper bags in various sizes containing home-made jewelry, fresh Washington apples, expensive kitchen gadgets, and previously loved books; many of them juggled bouquets of freshly cut flowers, some of which sported bright, chubby sunflowers.

We stopped at some of the shops long enough to really admire their wares, but mostly we just breathed in the scent of hand-made soap mixed with the smell of leather journals and overpriced organic produce. We breathed in the relaxed yet upbeat rhythm of the city. We breathed in the colors and the sounds. We breathed in every moment together as if we were savoring the fresh, fleeting smell of rain.

We found an often completely overlooked alcove just outside the market, sandwiched between a Tully’s Coffee and something I can’t recall. The aesthetics mainly consisted of concrete and a few potted trees. But when we stood right up next to the fence, peering over a manicured bush, we could see the freeway and, beyond that, the Seattle skyline — complete with the Space Needle and a ferry on its way in. You wrapped your arms around me, and we stood together — for the first time that close together — breathing in the moment.

I fell in love with you there, standing in the rain.

As the cars on the freeway below us hurdled by and tourists hurried for shelter from the rain, as no one watched or cared, you and I became us. It happened slowly and then, when I wasn’t expecting it, all at once.

As we left our spot, forever that will be our spot, you reached for my hand as we walked towards the pier. Only a few minutes before my hand had been empty but now it was laced with yours.


I’m Not Lost

I don’t need your yellowed maps
For I’m not lost.
I left the trailhead long ago
In search of scorching magic,
Fire, and freedom.

I don’t need your midnight prayers
For I’m not lost.
I left the straight and narrow
In search of succulent beauty,
Life, and freedom.

Save those worried maps and prayers
For I’m not lost.
I’m a traveler, a wonder
And at last I’ve found my name,
My voice, and freedom.


Verbal Polaroid: Don’t be a Stranger

 

The green and yellow bus lurches to a stop, the doors swing open with a whoosh of air. “Good morning!” I beam at my usual driver as I step on the bus, monthly pass in hand. The doors close behind me. “You know, I think you’re the only person on my route who looks like they might actually like mornings,” he says shaking his head in amusement.

As the bus lunges forward I walk down the aisle with one hand over my head as I lightly finger the bar overhead. After several years as a proud strap-hanging public-transit-riding commuter I’ve earned my sea legs; the jerking and swaying doesn’t faze me as I make my way to my usual squeaky leather seat. I always sit where the rows of bus benches face each other because it provides the best view of the entire bus.

A few sleepy heads look up long enough to acknowledge me but not long enough to say anything.

The woman directly across from me is reading a well-highlighted leather Bible. Once, when she wasn’t reading she told me she worked at the Starbucks headquarters; she’ll get off at the transit station in order to transfer to the northbound commuter train. The preteen girl sitting next to her with her earbuds in—the universal bus sign for “No, I do not want to make small talk actually”— is clutching a pink backpack on her lap; she’ll get off at the middle school. Several other students are also lugging around heavy, bulky backpacks on their way to high school or the local community college. Sometimes they read their textbooks or flip through flashcards, always with their earbuds in.

The man next to me is sipping his regular morning coffee, obviously still trying to wake up. Sometimes he’ll nod a “G’mornin’” but that’s about the extent of his 6:30 am socialness. Several riders are slumped up against the windows, likely still dreaming of the pillows they had to leave too hastily. The only sounds are the creaking and whooshing of the bus doors and the occasional contagious line of yawns.

When an older gentleman steps on the regular riders audibly groan. He’s hauling his weekly recycling: a giant neon-orange cloth bag with pictures of jack-o-lanterns all over it. The person next to me mumbles, “Better pull your legs in,” as the man walks down the aisle with his scary Santa sized bag bumping along behind him. It barely squeezes down the aisle and when it gets stuck he gives it a tug, which elicits more moans from his fellow riders as the can-filled bag has a run in with several people’s knees. He sits down, and then the bus is quiet again.

I pull my black Beatle’s tote bag, complete with Bob Marley pins, onto my lap to make room for other passengers. A man in his late thirties slips a CD into my hand as he walks past. “I burned it for you because I saw your bag,” he says shyly before continuing down the aisle. The CD reads in blue hand-written ink: The Moondoggies. I’ll later find out they’re a local Seattle band. The album is entitled Don’t be a Stranger. (The title likely isn’t ironic because the next several times I’ll run into him on the bus he’ll ask for a date.)

As I slip my new CD in my tote bag everyone else is still slowly waking up. They read, catch up on podcasts or listen to their favorite songs, drink their coffee, and stare out the windows as the sun is just beginning to yawn and stretch right along with them.

They are close enough that I could touch them, but they are always in their own little worlds. So many potential acquaintances, friends, and lovers just within their reach. And they never know. I’m surrounded by people—sometimes uncomfortably close to people — but alone just the same.

As the bus rolls on I continue people watching and when I happen to chance on someone who is awake enough to visit, encourage them to not be a stranger.


You don’t have to

You don’t have to be good.
You don’t need to emotionally flog your tired soul
when you don’t meet your own definition of perfection.
You don’t have to be right.
Your theology doesn’t have to pristinely answer
all of your lingering, haunting questions.
You don’t have to be certain.
Your waves of doubt aren’t going to drown you;
they’ll help you to finally begin to heal.
You don’t have to be pure.
You’re not some white gown that can be spoiled;
you’re an enchantress, a body, a soul.
You don’t have to be devout.
Your beautiful life isn’t measured in how many
holy books you chant or prayers you whisper.
You don’t have to be tame.
You’re wild like the wind and fierce as fire,
you just don’t know it yet.
You don’t have to be selfless.
You’re a creature of worth and dignity,
and you deserve your care and kindness, too.
You don’t have to save the world.
You’re not responsible for saving more than one person,
and that person is you.

***

The first line, “You don’t have to be good,” was taken directly from Mary Oliver’s beautiful poem “Wild Geese.” After reading the first few line of her poem, I felt like I wanted to make a list of what I don’t have to do or be; I so often need to be reminded.


Wild Mystic

Come,
Come into the forest
You’ve walked that dusty path too long

Come,
Come into the forest
That colorless track is not your home

You’re a wild mystic
An untamed artist
An enchantress wrapped in spiritskin

You’re a wild mystic
A fire dancer
A colorful poet drenched in danger

You’re a wild mystic
An erotic soul
A holy hellion with a hidden flame

The fire is calling
Dance, dance

The wind is calling
Dance, dance

The moon is calling
Dance, dance

Come,
Come into the forest
Put one trembling foot in the forbidden grass

Come,
Come into the forest
That narrow road is not a mystic’s path


Girl

Don’t show cleavage it’ll will make the boys stumble
Don’t wear spaghetti straps it’ll make the boys lust
Don’t bend over without bending your knees,
it’ll remind the boys you have an ass
Don’t wear prints or logos,
it’ll remind the boys you have a chest
Don’t you care about your brothers in Christ?

Don’t be too assertive or they’ll know you’re not submissive
Don’t dress too boyish or they’ll know you’re not a lady
Don’t neglect your appearance,
it’ll make the boys think you’re lazy
Don’t spend too much time in front of the mirror,
it’ll make the boys think you’re vain
Don’t you care about your reputation?

Don’t wear red dresses or they’ll know you’re not a nice girl
Don’t take off your purity ring or they’ll think you’ve lost it
Don’t go for a car ride alone with a boy,
it’ll make him think you’re the slut you’re so bent on becoming
Don’t wear bikinis,
it’ll prove you’re not really a nice Christian girl
Don’t you care about the fact you’re a Christian woman?

Don’t give away kisses meant for your future husband
Don’t have sex or you’ll never marry a nice man
Don’t hug boys,
it’ll make them think it’s okay to touch you
Don’t lean on boys,
it’ll make them believe you’re promising them sex
Don’t you care about your sexual purity?

Don’t ask boys out or they’ll think you’re forward
Don’t flirt or they’ll know you’re not a good girl
Don’t feed a crush,
it’ll compromise your emotional purity
Don’t date unless you’re ready to get married,
it’ll lead to making out in the back of a boy’s car
Don’t you care about how you handle your relationships with boys?

Don’t forget that the point of college is to find a husband
Don’t become too educated or you’ll scare off potential suitors
Don’t read too much about theology,
it’ll intimidate the boys
Don’t be too opinionated,
it’ll seem unladylike
Don’t you care about getting married?

Don’t wonder what sex is like because that’s a sin
Don’t learn about your anatomy because that’ll lead to temptation
Don’t touch yourself,
it’ll show you mistakenly think you own your own body
Don’t make out with boys,
it’ll prove you don’t value Future Husband’s property
Don’t you care about God’s beautiful gift of sex?

Don’t go too far or that white dress will mean nothing
Don’t move in together or he’ll never marry you
Don’t forget to marry a man you can rely on,
it’ll be up to him to make all of your life decisions
Don’t sleep with your fiancé,
it’ll ruin the relationship and he might leave you
Don’t you care about your future marriage?

Don’t enjoy sex because that’ll mean you’re unwomanly
Don’t say no to sex because then your husband will stray
Don’t lead while having sex,
it’ll show you’re not a submissive wife
Don’t skip the sexy bedroom attire,
it’ll prove you’ve forgotten your goal is to please him
Don’t you care about God’s gift of sexual oneness in marriage?

Don’t be like those family-hating feminists
Don’t forget that a woman always puts herself second
Don’t put yourself ahead of your children,
it’ll show you’re selfish and a bad mother
Don’t disrespect your husband even if he hits you,
it’ll show you’re unsubmissive and a bad wife
Don’t you care about God’s design for the family?

Girl, don’t you care?