“This is the dress.”
I breathed the words barely above a whisper, just loud enough for my mom and best friend to hear. As I stood in front of the bridal mirror mesmerized by my reflection, I heard my mom break the awe of the moment with a quick clarifying question: “But we can get this dress in white, right?”
Although the ivory tone of the chiffon looked more expensive to me, I immediately knew why she was asking. It was important for my mother to have her daughter walk down the aisle in white to represent my chastity. Society has long symbolized the purity of the bride with a white dress. In Jewish custom, it is the father of the betrothed who gives an oath of his daughter’s virginity, but in Western Christianity, it would be my charismatic Catholic mother who would swear to my virginity with the whitest fabric she could afford.
White. What does a woman in white represent? White has historically been associated with freedom, innocence, omnipotence, and most commonly, purity. Long before the purity movement in Christianity, there was a demand for chastity; an expectation of sexual innocence placed on women that was not expected of men.
Women have come to bear the weight of wearing white.
Sexism and patriarchy have wielded shame and stigma, demanding a woman’s worth be tied to her virginity. These two evil agents of destruction have seeped into the church and ravaged its women. Anyone who allowed herself to be shamed into remaining pure until marriage was promised a happy, healthy sex life, yet psychological research shows us that a significant percentage of marriages from the purity movement are now in couple’s therapy, seeking help navigating their sexual health.
Sexual shame is the culprit.
Male Christians typically grow up learning about sex through hidden pornography use while female Christians squelch their sexuality, ascribing holiness to a lack of sexual desire. When I asked 400 of my Christian female clients how often they orgasm in heterosexual relationships, they said 10-15% of the time; and when I asked how often their male partners orgasm, the answer was 95-100% of the time.
Dr. Noel Clark defines sexual shame as internalized feelings of disgust and humiliation towards one’s own body and identity as a sexual being. For church-going women, these issues have often been narrated through patriarchal theologies, resulting in a skewed understanding of body image and sexuality. How have we allowed our bodies and our spiritual health to be defined by men? How has shame stolen our healthy, God-intended sexual arousal? Women who identify as lesbian or queer may receive a potential double dose of shame from the pulpit—first, due to their sexual orientation, and secondly, due to body image and general issues related to sexual activity.
On my wedding day, I was the only person wearing white. I felt the need for the color of my dress to symbolize the bride of Christ. My wedding day was everything I could have dreamt of, short of the cold temperature, but when we cut the cake and someone went to prepare the getaway car, I began to panic. I was crying with my bridesmaids as I changed into my exit dress. My tears were hot as I confessed my fear that losing my virginity might make me less holy in the eyes of God and others.
There is a sexual state that sexual shame from the pulpit also encourages, but it is less often spoken: asexuality, a lack of sexual attraction. It is highly common for me to hear complaints from my male clients of a significant decline in sex after the wedding night. I have heard partner after partner say, “My wife was all over me when we were dating, and now she never wants to have sex.”
That was my story too. The safety of dating meant I could do everything but have sex, and therefore, I felt safe to explore my arousal because I knew we would never consummate it until the wedding night. On the wedding night, my sexuality shifted. It has taken eleven years of marriage and therapy for me to approach sex differently, with uninterrupted eye contact with my partner and a curiosity towards my own body and pleasure rather than focusing solely on my partner’s arousal.
Every day in my counseling practice, I witness clients attempting to untangle their sexual shame. Often shame has a powerful hold on the psyche. While trauma can lessen in the brain, shame entwines itself around one’s self-esteem. Our God-given arousal cycle does not flourish in places of shame. Whenever we enter a covenant, I believe God dresses us all in white, shameless and holy.
Christy Bauman, LMHC is committed to helping women come into their true voice. She offers meaning-making and storywork consulting. She is the author and producer of three works: Theology of the Womb, A Brave Lament, and Documentary: A Brave Lament. She is a psychotherapist, supervisor, adjunct professor who focuses on the female body, sexuality and theology. Christy co-director of Christian Counseling Center for Sexual Health and Trauma with her husband Andrew – they live in Seattle with their three kids: Wilder, Selah and River.