Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Dating, dressing up, and the Church meat market

This post begins with a true story. I was sitting at Church last Sunday, alone, and a little dolled up in response to the What Not to Wear marathon my mom and I indulged in over winter break. I was pumped to spend some time with God, get my focus back, all that jazz. To make a long story short, a man thought it would be a good idea to pass me a note in the middle of the sermon asking me out on a date. I was caught off guard, and more than a little annoyed, but I did consider (for a moment) saying yes. He was awkward and not all that bright (from what I could gather of our pre-service chit chat), but I've been told by more than a few friends and family that I have to work on being more approachable and less judgmental, about dating that is. And then I remembered, the man passed me a note in the middle of the sermon. Even minus the creepy vibe and lame comments before church began, passing a note in the middle of my time with God earns you a big no. A quick question after the service might have earned a must-be-open-minded yes. When picking up a girl at church it's important to remember that she might be there for God and might find such a note more than a little inappropriate, and certainly not the mark of the sort of man she'd actually like to date...

The real question was, do I say no (and interrupt everyone else's focus), do I condone the note passing with one of my own, or do I shift in my seat awkwardly until the the service comes to a close? Pen please! To my dismay, he didn't have one. Wait, how did he write the note to begin with? Was this planned? Was he a church crasher? Well I found a pen and wrote back, sorry, I'm dating someone already (lies, during church, oh my). He managed to persevere, however, and wrote back a few minutes later (holding it up for all around me to see): do you have any sisters? Seriously?? Any guilt I had vanished then and there. Ridiculous. After my second no it wasn't much longer before he just got up and walked out with the sermon still in full gear. And I'm left wondering, what just happened? Am I at a bar? Or back in 5th grade? I'm bewildered.

I tell that story to make a few points. The first is this: it's not at all flattering, to me at least, to be asked out based purely on physical appearance. That's not my strong suit, to be sure, and it hasn't been a big problem. But even so, I've had my fair share of awkward moments like this. It's enough to start singing Knock Em Out. And it makes me doubt the advice of Stacey and Clinton. Come to think of it, it's awfully unfair that the pressure seems to always be on women to dress nicely and look our best. And I'll be honest, as awkward and unattractive as the culprit was last Sunday, if he had been someone who had gotten to know me, or if we were already somewhat friends, it would have been worth a shot. After all, at least then I would have known that he was interested for the right sort of reason. I'm not saying nothing can ever come out of a random number exchange, I'm just saying that it can be a real turn off. Though I suppose that if this had happened at a bar I would have been less weirded out, and I probably wouldn't have thought much of it at all. Anyway, there's no way this would happen to a man, certainly not at church. So my main complaint is that women, despite our mighty feminist gains, are still subject to creepy approaches, to being objectified, even in church. That annoys the crap out of me. Not new, I realize, but still. Ugh.

Now, I think my "even in church" clause is misleading. This brings me to my next complaint: the church is a meat market, especially youth and young adult groups. There is serious pressure in Christian circles to pair off and marry. What better place to shop for a mate than church? I was briefly involved in a Christian organization during college, and many of my cohort there are now either engaged or married. Some, I'd say they did the right thing. Others, well... I worry. The joke is that if you're dating, and if it's senior year, then the gal better get a ring sometime between Christmas and Valentine's Day, or the relationship has been a waste of precious time. The pressure to marry early is insane, and it makes it hard to be a genuine participant in a young adult gathering. If I go, will anyone really believe that I'm there just to make friends and have fellowship? Will the guys be measuring me up for my wife potential? Hint: my potential is low. That is, I have low "good Christian wife" potential, where my independence, sarcasm, and career ambitions (okay, this is a stretch, but I love my job/school, and won't easily give it up) are seen as threatening. Do I mind? Kind of. I mean, I mind in that the standards by which I'm measured (or that it feels like I'm measured) are outdated and not in line with what I really believe God has in store for many women. But I don't mind in the sense that I don't regret not having a ring on my finger from any of those guys, because any guy threatened by my independence is not the guy for me. But yeah, in the Church frustrations mount as the pressure rises and the standards just don't fit.

So what's a girl to do? Well, for starters I've made my feelings known to friends, family, and fellow church goers (well, at my old church). I think it's important that the new generation of Christian women rise up and speak up against traditional gender roles, and against the supposition that they must be in want of a husband and 2.5 children before the age of 30 (or at all). Believe it or not, there is a large number of deeply religious young women that are embracing the change I think we need. Sure, older generations frown and fuss, but we can be the start. Yes, yes the church is historically/currently patriarchal, and some say that's enough reason to ditch the religion all together. But I think it's better that women work within the church for change, if they still believe, because they need to be the ones to make the church a better place for their sisters, daughters and friends. It is possible to be true to your faith and maintain your equal worth in God's eyes and in the world. I think Jesus would be all for it. Remember Mary and Martha? Mary chose what was better by stopping the "woman's work" to spend time with the son of God. At church, women should feel like they are equals, like they aren't be objectified or being measured up. It only takes a few.


Wilson said...

I recall complaining bitterly about the MRS major in (evangelical) college. But let me play devil's advocate a moment.

Where and when, exactly, are young evangelicals supposed to find each other, if not in church? Where exactly can young evangelicals (maybe 2% of the general US population, I would guess) go where they can really get to know each other as thinking individuals? Sure, a lot of churches are light on the "thinking individuals" part -- but they're probably better than most of the alternatives in that respect. It's hard to think of any other situation where a significant concentration of people with very similar religious beliefs can actually get to know each other well.

Forget the pressure to marry young. That's probably mostly a combination of (a) lingering effects of evangelicalism's association with rural life and (b) the late 20th century movement's obsession with premarital abstinence. How do propose that single evangelical young adults begin doing what all young adults are designed to do?

Lindsey said...

So my main complaint really is with the marriage pressure, because I'm not all that averse to meeting and dating someone from church. Actually, where I am now, I expect my best odds are there (minus, of course, last Sunday's incident). The problem comes not so much in the mingling, etc, but in the expectations that sort of hover overhead. Sure, get to know and ask out someone from church, but there needn't be a dating ethos there. It's an additive problem, I think. People pairing off here and there, no problem. But when everyone starts to pair off and quickly marry, that alters the atmosphere from one of fellowship to that of a market. It doesn't help that the Church is still riddled with outdated gender norms which themselves make the whole situation (I think) worse for women. Though perhaps I'm wrong about the asymmetry. It depends on which acquaintances I call to mind. My friends tended to be less on the hunt for a husband than some girls I knew, but whether or not the guys were actively looking for wives, it certainly felt like they were. And not just wives, but wives of a certain variety. All of this ruins, I think, the potential for excellent fellowship and growth together in spirit. It's hard to go to such events and not think that they haven't turned into this whole other thing, which is itself a shame.

Wilson said...

People pairing off here and there, no problem. But when everyone starts to pair off and quickly marry, that alters the atmosphere from one of fellowship to that of a market.

Believe me, I understand. But are you sure this isn't largely sour grapes? I mean, that's sort of what 20-somethings do, isn't it? In another context, they might not be marrying so quickly, but they'd be establishing bonded pairs just as much. And not everyone has such arcane standards as I imagine you might. You're different, and you're different in ways that this poor sod you've mentioned probably can't understand. That's not his fault.

Not that he isn't pathetic for other reasons, mind you.

Furthermore, I entirely sympathize with your complaint about gender roles. But for most evangelicals most of the time, those shared expectations actually seem to make life easier. It would be nice for the consensus to be different, but for most people, it's apparently enough that it's a consensus, as long as it's one they can live with. But you are different, and that makes life difficult for you.

Anyway, from my perspective, it looks like you should be counting your blessings. At my church, I'm virtually the only single person anywhere near my age. Even the young married couples are several years older. Strange how quickly one misses the meat market.

Lindsey said...

I think I just approach those sorts of organizations/meetings/etc with different expectations. I really want to meet great friends, girls and guys. But I'd like for that to be the default expectation, that we're here for fellowship and growth. Maybe having separate singles mix events, or whatever, that are purely for meeting and pairing off, that's fine. I'd maybe go. But, I want that to be a different context. Sure, it's great to have it, and yes, I'm sure I'd be sad not to. But I want something else as well, an untainted time of communion with each other and God. Too much to ask? So instead of college and 20 something ministries being geared towards dating, there should just be a venue with that in mind, or something. Here's an example of what peeved me in college. I wanted to start a Bible study that was mix gendered. To be fair, it was for my roommate and I and a bunch of guys I knew from my church back home. The org I was apart of was not a fan, mainly because they looked at co-ed time as always being tainted by the relationship stuff. I don't think it has to be. So, instead of going through them, we just started it independently. That's fine, but it would be great if the default isn't that when Christian guys and girls get together, they must have something else on their minds. It's not true, and it shouldn't be true. I think I missed out on some potentially great close friendships with guys because there was no promotion of the platonic relationship building.

Maybe it is sour grapes. But what I regretted most wasn't being unpaired (plenty of my friends weren't), but I regretted the artificial wall that seemed to keep the sexes from really bonding, qua Christians, without all the pressure to be more than friends. I think my friends and I managed to get around it as best we could, but I'm sure there are people I missed out on knowing better because of the sort of atmosphere that was in place. And no, I don't think that's what 20 somethings do. 20 somethings date, but not super seriously. A 3 week relationship here, maybe a year relationship there, but Christians take it to a different level. If you pass the year mark, wedding bells are in the not so distant future (at least in the bubble culture of college christian orgs). And again, that's way different than people dating without an all-or-nothing attitude. It's why people pairing off at school doesn't seem to affect the way I see the atmosphere there. Yeah a lot of students start dating, but it doesn't change how we all interact. It's just different. Believe it or not, I'm not all that different from the other girls, I'm just more vocal. I know too many girls who feel like they have to be a certain way, or come off a certain way, but don't really identify with that. I just wish more of them would stand up to it. And I did manage to have a good deal of similarly minded friends in college (including some amazing guy friends), but what was bothersome was that it always felt to me like we were rebelling, against the org, against the norms. That's what felt wrong.

Jury is out on this Church. I think this guy was just a nutter, but I haven't been to anything other than Sunday service yet. So things could be different. He just reminded me of what I hated so much about my college group.

Wilson said...

Eloquently put. Now I'll drop the devil's advocacy to say that I don't think I've ever been in an evangelical Christian setting that actually encouraged healthy friendship among people of different sexes.

Like you, I've seen the results of the pressure of premature romantic seriousness. Life in a Christian college was ugly. I had a few promising friendships with girls, during my freshman year or theirs. Most of these friendships virtually ended as soon as these girls had a DTR with whatever acquaintance of mine they decided to get attached to first. A lot of people seemed to miss most of their education, and certainly to neglect most of their social life, for being preoccupied with one person who usually didn't last to senior year.

I've also seen, in many cases, an absurd level of intellectual deference in evangelical women. Playing dumb is common in the church. A lot of women, at least where I come from, think it's scripturally mandated in 1 Timothy 2. (And I wish never to hear the expression "Proverbs-31 woman" again. Hot damn.) There's definitely a male counterpart, especially in the better sort of youth group: a kind of masculine superspirituality, an obsession with being a godly male leader. In both cases, the roleplaying usually seems to accomplish what it's supposed to. But you can't have actual conversations with these people, at least not when they're around each other.

University said...

This was an excellent and insightful article, although the title was not as uplifting and the article. I did not realize how challenging dating on campus could be. I have a feeling that after writing this article Myrtie may not have much trouble finding new dating opportunities
Its a huge distraction. Its a huge moral boost. No prob the pros and cons really even this one out. Time you spend thinking about her would have just been spent moping about being alone so really their is noting to lose here.

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