Witches and Witch Trials

Witch Burning
Witch burning. Illustration from a mid 19th century book.  Photo Credit: Mullica

I’m doing some research for the book I’m writing. The research is on witches and witchcraft and the book I’m studying (in addition to others) is called The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England¬† by Carol F. Karlsen. It’s a Norton Edition written in the late 80’s and filled with many great chapters. The one I’m currently stuck on is called Handmaidens of the Devil, describing religion’s role in the witch hunts. Religious rituals and symbols strictly guided gender roles, as they do today. Then, as now in fundamentalist Christian sects, women weren’t supposed to dissent or speak up against church leaders. For them to vary away from the norm in their gender roles was to call themselves into suspicion. If they varied from the norm and challenged the beliefs of God, they were suspect to being called a witch. However, certain factors had to be in place–typically the woman was unmarried, usually older and sometimes extremely poor or extremely wealthy.

If you can pick up a copy of this book, or something similar, I highly recommend it.

Bullshit of the Day

The more [sexual] experiences teens have, the more likely they are to be depressed and commit suicide…this is particularly true of girls.

The above is a quote from Wendy Shalit, author of Girls Gone Mild (an abstinence and modesty book). 

The modesty and abstinence movements are geared towards making young women feel guilty about having sex.They want young women to “lock up their carnal treasure” until marriage and give it as a “gift” to their husband. Why? Because obviously we are men’s property and we owe them a gift when we marry them. [Sarcasm]

I know all about the abstinence movement. I “saved myself for marriage” at one point and I even preached this ideology to young women. After “committing my purity” to God, I didn’t date, kiss or even consider anything sexual for years.

After I left the church, I started questioning the whole abstinence thing–seriously wondering why the hell I was saving myself for marriage. It just didn’t make sense, especially since every man I knew had already “lost their virginity.” What was the point of me being a virgin if they weren’t?

In The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti explains that the entire abstinence movement is focused on bringing back traditional gender roles and making women feel badly for having sex. Sex isn’t pleasurable when you feel guilty for having it. Sex isn’t pleasurable when you feel like it’s only for procreation, either. Sex also isn’t pleasurable when you think that you’re a “bad girl” for having it, thinking about it, “giving in” to it, as if you’re too weak to say no.

What Valenti argues in her book is that the abstinence movement depends on making sex feel dirty and those who have sex feel immoral. This might scare some youth into not having sex, but what happens when those people get married? They still feel immoral and dirty. Those feelings don’t go away just because you’re “officially” able to seal the deal for most people, especially women.

I’ve talked openly about sex to a lot of women friends of mine–ranging in age from 19 to 40–and I was surprised to hear how many of them don’t experience orgasms ever. A woman’s pleasure can depend on a lot of things, but quite often, it’s mental [Side Note: I’m not a doctor but I have talked to doctors about a woman’s orgasm.]. If a woman doesn’t feel relaxed or comfortable or turned on (for various reasons which don’t necessarily depend on her partner) she can’t come. Many of the women I know who’ve admitted they don’t orgasm have a strong religious background. Could this be part of the reason? Could they feel tense just because they feel sex is dirty or they’re a whore for having sex outside of marriage?

Valenti says, “Sex for pleasure, for fun, or even for building relationships is completely absent from our national conversation. Yet taking the joy out of sexuality is a surefire way to ensure not that young women won’t have sex, but rather that they’ll have it without pleasure.”

My friends who are religious have told me that they sometimes wish they hadn’t had sex because they feel it’s wrong to do before marriage. Regardless, they’re having sex and like Valenti said, they’re having it without pleasure. What’s wrong with this picture? The problem is you’re not immoral if you have sex, for fun or otherwise, but we all lean toward thinking that way and some of us absolutely fear we’re whores or going to hell for having sex. Like my friend Chris says (and I’m paraphrasing), Even the rhetoric in sex talk emphasizes that you’re bad or immoral for having sex. We say things like, ‘You’re a naughty girl.’ Or, ‘You bad boy.which plays off those stereotypes of the virgin/whore models.

Chris is right. In our conversations with each other (in bed or otherwise) we associate dirtiness with sex. Sex is dirty. Sex is harmful. Sex can kill you.

But can it?

I’m going to call bullshit on the purity/abstinence movement. Sex isn’t dirty and a woman isn’t a whore for having sex (with or without pleasure). Purity and abstinence are nothing more than a call to bring back the 1950’s traditional gender roles that tell women to get back in the kitchen and get knocked up as soon as they get married. There are few other options for women in the false world Shalit is trying to create. If you’re not married to a man and pregnant, you’re probably a whore.


Religious Containment of Women’s Sexuality

“…The containment of women’s sexuality was a huge priority to emerging patrifocal religious and economic systems.”

From Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio


Has it changed much with the modern patrifocal religious movements? No. Give me a Bible and I will point out to you the many ways it contains women’s sexuality, women’s power, and women’s choice.

Alternate Endings to Marriage

Yesterday I spent the afternoon with my lovely soul sister, Abby. We did the LA thing–Los Feliz, Weho and the Grove. We went to Palermo’s for pizzarosa and wine and wandered next door to Skylight Books. Of course we ended up in the Gender Studies/Erotica section, because I’m convinced all surviving cult members are interested in these subjects. Or, maybe just us.

We found a really helpful salesperson who actually recommended two books to us. One is Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio. The second book was The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women by Jessica Valenti. I bought both of them and put a few more of her recommendations on my list of books to buy. She said we both needed to read The Ethical Slut, and I was really intrigued by the book. It seemed like a guide to being honest, respectful and healthy while still being able to get the pleasure you want out of life.

Do you see a correlation between all these titles? Sex and the young woman.

Sexual women are often labeled whore, tramp, slut by men and other women. But as Abby and I had dinner later, we talked about how our culture really pushes people into marriage, deeming it important, but marriage is just an exchange of property. Women have always been considered the property. Sexual women who don’t need to be married to have healthy, fulfilling relationships aren’t really accepted in our culture. And if we do carry out these relationships as satisfied people, we still find ourselves getting caught up in societies pressure to get married or to be the norm.

Lately, I’ve been going through this “I want to get married” stage. I feel like it’s the one last Christian trait that’s holding on for dear life. Marriage is definitely pushed by the Christian church. Alternative lifestyles or stories are discouraged and banished from the church. You can’t be say bi-sexual or transgendered without being banished from the church. Or in an open relationship. Or an ethical slut.

I’ve left the church and Christianity, though, and I’m just waiting for my mind to catch up. I’m ready to embrace some alternate paths for happiness besides marriage and babies. I’m embracing that now, in a way, but my mind hasn’t quite made the leap. There’s still the big “What will people think?” question that always stops me temporarily. It’s a struggle for me to dismiss that, but I eventually do because I’ve found it’s more important to be myself and be happy than it is to impress people I don’t give a shit about.