“Straight” White American Evangelical Masculinity looks a lot like Jerry Falwell Jr.

A really long exploration of sexual shame culture in church and personal history.

(The now deleted photo from Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Instagram post)

Having placed the blame of sexual indiscretion squarely on his wife’s shoulders, in a stunning display of “Straight” White American Evangelical Masculinity, Jerry Falwell Jr. has resigned his position as President of Liberty University.

I don’t know Jerry Falwell Jr. Or, rather, I do not know Jerry Falwell Jr. specifically. My entire childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood was shaped by and in the presence of “Straight” White American Evangelical Masculinity so it is safe to say I know his type.

Growing up in Northern Kentucky during the rise of home school legal defense and the Quiverfull movement, imprinting of certain ideologies began at a young age. My parents were well intentioned and bright young people — with a desire to “raise up a child in the way they should go” and a promise that “like arrows in the hands of a warrior, so are the children of a man’s youth.” Five children, a handful of future weaponry against the forces of evil, the destruction of Family Values, and the sexualization of schoolchildren gave my parents purpose and camaraderie as they sought a church and a homeschooling network. Lessons, as a pre-teen, included in-depth studies of scriptures such as Proverbs 31, which makes the case for submissive and “delighted” wife-hood — the epitome of being a woman. This text was taught to me as instructional, but in further reading, at a later age, I realized it was given in scripture to a man as a list of goal qualities for his mate. “A wife of noble character who can find?” the proverb asks. The challenge of my adolescence was to become this particular shade of desirable, so I would be married and able to support the work of a man doing the work of the Lord.

Purity Culture was the cornerstone of Evangelical teaching in the late 80s and 90s. Books like Joshua Harris’ “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” fueled a victim-blaming, slut-shaming mentality. Women, including girls as young as 8 or 9 (wait, not women, children) were taught to ensure modesty so they would not “cause their brothers to stumble.” Many times I was reminded of these lessons and expectations, as a ten and eleven year old. The shame that I carried, as a victim of in-home sexual abuse, was never noticed or addressed. Despite my baggy t-shirts and knee-length skorts, I’d found myself the victim of an older brother’s sexual exploration at a young age. And in my hope for holiness, not wanting to appear “damaged goods” or immodest, not able to fully understand abuse and not willing to take the blame for seducing him, I was silent and sure of my own sin.

During the years after my brother was removed from my home, I never spoke of my abuse. I began to act out in scandalous ways — holding hands with boys at the skating rink, writing letters to a boy I’d met at camp, and sneakily kissing a boy I’d met through a Christian youth group. The secrecy of sexual interactions and flirtations set up a pattern of deception. Because I was a) responsible for every man’s gaze and b) not allowed to pursue romance or sexuality I became adept at lies and manipulations. Sexuality lived and thrived in secrecy — and this inability to grow and explore as a healthy young person, while living with shame and sadness from unaddressed childhood abuse — spilled over into my adulthood in myriad ways.

Attending Christian camp was a highlight of my highschool summers (where I was often the youngest person in attendance and nearly always the youngest person in my grade — the result of a fast-paced academic upbringing that left little time for the silliness of childhood with the always-present goal of Biblical Womanhood — I graduated highschool five months after turning sixteen) At camp, street-smart female college counselors would extol the virtues of quiet leadership — that women could ask questions and support the work of male pastors and writers and teachers and leaders — but that the gentler sex was called to this submissive and descreet posture. Many of these camps culminated in a powerful night of Purity pledges. A “Straight” White American Evangelical Man would jump on the stage wearing distressed jeans and a graphic t-shirt, flannel unbuttoned, and call to a young man near the front of the audience. “Hey, you ! Yeah — you! With the blue shirt and the gum in your mouth — come here!” When the teenager jumped onto the stage, the pastor would ask him to spit the gum into the palm of his hand and then, dramatically, would hold up the chewed wad of bubble gum before turning to another young man in the crowd. “Hey! You! Come up here.” The second teenager would be asked to put the gum into his mouth and chew it. Of course, this was met with groans of disgust, fake gagging, and a horrified, “no way!” A third or fourth boy would be asked on stage and offered the same gum to the same reactions and responses. The lesson? If you have sex before marriage you’re like a piece of used gum. If you have sex with a girl who is not a virgin, it is like passing gum from one man’s mouth to another. In five years of attending and leading such camps, I never saw this demonstration with the binary genders reversed.

Women’s sexuality was to be cloaked in modesty and shame. My much-purer-than-I older sister pulled me out of groups, more than once, and begged me to “stop flirting!” I was dishonorable in my interactions — and she was ashamed and concerned for my future and sanctification. My sister was holy and consistent — her first kiss was with her husband on her wedding day, at the altar, after committing “til death do us part.” I don’t share that in judgement of her personal commitment to purity — she just celebrated her 16th anniversary — but rather to paint a picture of how wide-sweeping the pressure was to perform a certain virtue and value purity — something I felt I’d lost before I’d hit puberty.

I was damaged goods. I was a piece of chewing gum. My abuse was a secret of shame I would carry from one boy’s arms to another boy’s lips, sometimes in the same week, always under the cover of secrecy and tearfilled confessions in my bunkbed to the “Straight” White American Evangelical God I thought I was failing.

When I went to college at sixteen, I was suddenly thrust into a world that wasn’t as structured or safe. Sure, I was still involved with the Christian group on campus, where I was known to be “leading on” multiple boys at once. One day, to my embarrassment, a blog post built a flowchart of flirtatious escapades. No names were mentioned but initials were used and mine appeared linked to multiple young Christian men on campus. And yes, I’d had K over to make out in my childhood bedroom when my family wasn’t home, snuck into M’s dorm room to “nap” midday, and let J’s fingers under the waistband of my pants on a ministry bus ride. I felt caught and dirty — even though the flowchart didn’t account for the boys who weren’t a part of my Christian inner-circle — an inexplicable grace to my shame of numbers.

At sixteen — I was a virgin. My greatest “crime” was kissing and fingering, tongues and lips and hands colliding in restrained passion and timid exploration. I’d keep my virginity intact, I figured, so that I could still become a Proverbs 31 Woman someday. I’d keep what really mattered intact and I’d live in secret thrills and constant shame so I could please the “Straight” White American Evangelical Man I’d marry someday soon.

The boys? The men? They were more than happy to participate in this lie and secrecy alongside me. Many had girlfriends. Others were “maintaining a pledge of purity,” and committed to not dating until they were focused on marriage. And I was the opportunity to explore without repercussions. I learned to expect very little from the men with whom I’d flirt. I wasn’t valuable enough to be claimed in public. And I was high on the thrills of secret encounters, late-night languishing in cars and public parks, and maintaining a public appearance of discretion and purity that passed my parents’ and most church leaderships’ litmus test of Biblical Womanhood — with occasional reminders that I was responsible for protecting mens’ purity and gaze. I had bought the lie about expectations and expressions of self and sexuality that would keep me performing purity in public and sinking deeper into self-shame and sadness alone.

This is a long story to get to Jerry Falwell Jr. but bear with me.

By the time I transferred my sophomore year, to a private Bible college not unlike Liberty University, I had begun to collect similar stories from sisters across the country who had experienced similar abuses and similar secret sexual expolorations as I. Though much later, in 2015, when the Duggar family’s molestation scandal rocked American news, a certain familiarity was apparant to me. Many of the young Evangelical women I met were sexual abuse victims. Many had been molested by brothers, fathers, cousins, fellow homeschool students, or church leadership. Almost every girl I encountered had a story of being inappropriately or abusively violated by a “Straight” White American Evangelical Man. In some cases, the abuse came from women who ostracized, called out, publicly punished, or shamed these young women for what they wore or for their actions. A girl was spanked by her father when found masturbating at the age of four. Another was put outside, on her front porch, for over 24 hours in below-zero weather, because she’d had a flirtatious instant message conversation with a stranger on the internet, discovered by her dad. Another girl had never heard of masturbation and had no idea, as a college freshman, that sex could be pleasureable at all. She’d been terrified of the picture her Dad had painted of men overpowering and stripping her of her dignity if she so much as showed a shoulder. The girls I knew who had been raped questioned if it’d been their fault. A heavy silence was present, but my curiosity extended into every corner. Perhaps I was less of a pariah than I’d always believed.

There was no room for female pleasure in the patriarchy. While I’d learned the basic anatomy of sex and reproduction, I didn’t even connect the self-pleasure I’d engaged in as a child to sexuality at all until I was in my late teens. The release of orgasm was never extolled as important or necessary or normal or natural. I didn’t even know the female orgasm existed — and so my own fingers on my own body felt full of shame and symbolic of another way I was broken or not enough.

As I continued to ask question of my collegemates, I began having sex. Nearly immediately after meeting the boy I’d “go all the way with” I felt intense pressure and guilt to marry him. There was no turning back, I told myself. That clear-drawn line I’d always had for myself had been breached and now the course of my life was set in stone. When I found myself pregnant at 18, I married that man. But our relationship was wrought with secrecy too. I lived in the constant thrills of connection — and my frequent emotional infidelity rocked our early years as a married couple. Physical infidelity would follow, born of the patterns we’d cultivated and performed. We didn’t speak of fantasies or explorations or my pleasure. He was cut from “Straight” White American Evangelical Masculinity and it wasn’t his fault he’d been taught no other way. We were both tired and angry and sad at our lack of connection — but completely without tools on how to address or attend to one another’s desires.

Employed at a church, as a young mother, in the office, I was privy to the secrets of parishioners who came in to confess or ask for guidance. So I was made aware of the adult woman in our church body who was sleeping with her father, and always had been. But because “she claims she isn’t going to stop,” she was seen as disgusting, dirty, and vile instead of the victim of childhood sexual abuse and grooming, a life-time of violation, that she was. Concern was voiced for her own daughters, living in that household, but to my knowledge nothing was “done” and no authorities were called to protect her own girls from the cycle of abuse she was living.

A youth group volunteer was found to be fraternizing with a seventeen year old during a late night youth party that happened in his home. This adult man was removed briefly from his leadership role, but the predatory sexual assault was not reported to authorities or brought into public.

A children’s pastor and a worship pastor engaged in an extramarital affair on church dollars. We’d paid for a cabin for one of them to have a “prayer retreat,” unknowing that the two of them would meet and share a sexy weekend together. When this was discovered, it was dealt with swiftly. Both were removed from their positions but less than a year later that man was on stage telling the congregation the story of his fall from grace and his glorious rise to reconciliation. He was leading in the church again soon, while she was condemned and basically cast out — sent to work on her marriage with a man who expected her submission and penance for her sins.

There was punishment, in the patriarchy, but not for “Straight” White American Evangelical Men. The bulk of the blame rested on the shoulders of the wives and women who led men on, seduced them, dressed immodestly, pursued pleasure for themselves, and denied the structure of patriarchal family righteousness.

I left the church over myriad issues as I wrestled with my own faith and deconstructed my childhood. Notably, I was bothered by the willingness to extend grace to male pedophiles and adulturers while denying upstanding LGBTQ+ members of the community membership or leadership in the church. As I began unpacking my childhood and my sexuality and my own desires and pursuits of pleasure, I was uneasy with this separation of truth and identity from God and His Church.

The truth is, there are people in every church body in Evangelical Churches across America who are exploring themselves, their pleasure, and their identities through sexuality. Linked deeply to our experience of self is our experience of others. And a culture that extols a performance of virtue but disallows safety of exploration and an honest conversation about what happens behind closed doors is a culture that appeals to predators and pastors alike — people who thrive in knowing and being secret-keepers.

Jerry Falwell Jr is no different. Caught in the wheel of performing the life his father left him, he likely built his own identity in the shadows. The first time he watched porn was probably, like mine, full of shame — and that shame turned into what turns him on. When you’ve always attached secrecy and shame with self-pleasure and self-preservation, it becomes harder and harder to get off in the light.

Because of pressure to be a “Straight” White American Evangelical Leader, Jerry Falwell Jr set himself up to live in a dishonest and uncomfortable darkness. He is both wholly responsible for his actions and wholly victim to the culture and expectations that the churches of his childhood enacted and enabled. Because of his warped view of womanhood and identity and value, he is comfortable with his wife taking responsibility for her indiscretion and being the “Jezebel” in this news headline. He has a “few small things” to “work on,” but Jerry Falwell Jr. doesn’t have the ability to shape the words, “I have a cuckold kink,” with his mouth or the voice to say that out loud. It’s easy to think “there’s no shame in kinks,” until you’ve lived in Evangelical culture that has told you, loud and clear, every waking morning since you can remember, just how shameful any sexual expression actually is.

Jerry Falwell Jr is a vile, disgusting, and deplorable human being. But he isn’t vile for his gut, hanging exposed over his underwear in that now-deleted photo on that yacht last month. And he isn’t disgusting for his enjoyment of watching his wife engage in sex with another man. And he isn’t deplorable for exploring sexuality and pleasure with others while staying committed to his primary partner and wife of many years. He’s vile because he insisted on young women in his charge practicing purity and modesty. He’s disgusting because he preached a standard of virtue performance and perfection that no one could or should obtain. He is deplorable because he has victimized young people who have looked to him as a leader.

In my adulthood, I have had to contend, over and over, with what “turns me on.” A childhood steeped in shame and abuse, with a constant need for affirmation and consideration of “am I enough?” “Do you like me?” has created challenges as I’ve navigated intimate relationships of my own. Boundaries are a struggle for me. The thrill of secrecy is still the easiest route to climax. I don’t want to be told what I can or cannot do. I am quick to reject male authority and to question motives. I assume everyone is holding secrets and shame. Mostly, I’m right. Often, I forget to extend the grace that I wanted, so badly, as a young woman coming into her own, to others.

So here’s this. Jerry Falwell Jr. — I hope you radically examine the depth of your desire. I hope you modify your behavior to take no victims but to explore intimacy and sexuality in safety and compassion. May you live authentically in your kinks. May you tell the truth about yourself, not insist on your wife’s blame. And may you never preach an oppressive sermon of shame to young people again.

And here’s this. To the sisters who lived and loved in secrecy, unsure of their own power or pleasure — may you rise. Throw off the expectations of your fathers or “Straight” White American Evangelicalism and kiss the boy or the girl. Eyes open — may you discover the path from your soul to your clitoris and enjoy whatever journey that opens for as long as you shall live.

And here’s this. To the pastors and leaders of American Church — may your eyes be opened to the chains you are shackling to the sisters and brothers of faith as you extol a public performance and leave in secret the personal struggles of people of faith. In the image of God we are formed — and our sexuality and pleasure is uniquely part of our humanity and our sacred souls. Celebrate the safe expressions of sexuality in the light. Hold abusers accountable within the law and set the victims free.

And here’s this. To you — there is no shame in your exposed shoulders or kinky soul or your sexuality. Created fully to pursue intimacy with other human beings, may you enjoy an exploration of pleasure and fantasy. May you find a safe place to land in yourself — time to understand the hows and whys of satisfaction. May you reach the climax of your identity and find safety in being fully turned on in any consensual adult way that you are.

And here’s this. When the light crosses your path and you find yourself looking at yourself, in a mirror, may you find the courage to fully appreciate the gift of yourself. You are not chewed gum. You are not used up. You are indescribable in your beauty. You are stunning in your potential. And you are already exactly as you are meant to be. Kink on, motherfuckers. Amen.

If you connected with this story, consider following me on Instagram at @OhNatSlack or on Facebook at Natalie LaFrance-Slack. You can also check out my website at natalielafranceslack.com or find me on most other social medias, attempting to engage in civil conversation with people very like and unlike me — fellow travelers seeking the light. As always, may you carry on with clear eyes, soft shoulders, and a strong chin. ❤

Telescope, microscope, vision. To the moon. www.natalielafranceslack.com and www.verbstorytelling.com

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