Lesson #3: It’s sometimes right to do “wrong.”
As I’ve stated before, Bob Jones University habitually created spiritual mountains out of circumstantial molehills. We were to strive for perfection in every aspect of life, and anything less than that was an offense to God and the administration.
There’s a saying from the founder of the school…well, I mean, there’s honestly a bajillion sayings from the founder of the school. They’re so revered that they are literally engraved in plaques in every classroom across campus, and you can even buy a book filled with his quips of wisdom. But one saying in particular was quoted quite a bit when I was there: “It is never right to do wrong in order to get a chance to do right.” On the surface, and especially when I very first arrived on campus, I agreed with this 100%.
Again, I’m faced with the difficulty of explaining a subculture when some of my audience has never experienced it, and some of it may think there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s difficult to know where to begin or how to explain things that I intuitively learned through various circumstances, other than to talk about the various circumstances that taught me that sometimes, it’s good and right to do “wrong.”
When I arrived on campus, I was given a student handbook and told that I’d be required to turn in a statement saying that I’d read it.
It was pretty thick, about 80 pages, full of the various rules and requirements that came with being a student at Bob Jones University. Honestly, this had been one of the things I was most looking forward to: reading what I was sure would be absolutely ridiculous rules. At this point, their student handbook wasn’t available online, so in many ways, I didn’t quite know what I was getting into.
To my surprise, the statement I was to sign was a sheet in the back of the book that essentially said, “By choosing to enroll as a student at BJU, I agree to submit to the administration and follow all of these rules.” You know. All. 80. Pages. Of them. Including rules that stated we couldn’t share the handbook with anyone outside the university and rules that apparently governed how we were “allowed” to act off campus in our own homes and required us to spy on our fellow classmates and report back to the administration with our findings lest we be punished as severely as they.
Curious, I asked my prayer captain what would happen if I didn’t sign it.
“You’ll be sent home.”
I was absolutely floored. Having actually taken the time to read it, I knew that I couldn’t in good conscience agree with everything in the book. And that phrasing, “by choosing to enroll as a student” — how duplicitous! It’s not like I’d been allowed to view the handbook before I enrolled as a student. When you withhold critical information, you make informed consent impossible.
Yet I was stuck on campus now, 500 miles from home. What choice did I have?
As I signed the statement to be turned in, I wrote in the margin that I was doing so under duress, that I was committed to following Scripture rather than and over the student handbook. I expected to be punished somehow, but surprisingly never was. I don’t know why, or if they even really checked what I’d written. But I never quite forgot the underhandedness involved in not allowing enrolling students to know the rules until they were already on campus with no real choice to leave.
In the first couple of weeks of school, I noticed something strange about one of my professors. He stared at me an awful lot, and took to making small talk with me before and after class. When it came time for a seating chart to be finalized, I found myself seated directly in front of his desk, which seemed to make me the go-to class helper whenever he needed technical assistance or any other kind of help.
It wasn’t until it was time for my first society meeting, when I walked out of my dorm to see him standing there, waiting for me, that I realized something was…really not quite right.
It was the first Friday after Rush, therefore the first Friday I as a new student would have a society meeting. My society, Alpha Gamma Tau, was meeting across campus. And my professor decided that he should walk me to my meeting. Because that is totally appropriate.
At one point as he was trying to make personal conversation, he mentioned that he liked my necklace. I glanced down at the choker I was wearing, a brass medallion hanging from it, and smiled, remarking, “Thanks! I bought it because it reminded me of the headpiece of the staff of Ra.” His expression was so comical that I didn’t bother to clarify that I was referencing my love for Indiana Jones, not any worship of a false god.
I hoped that this interaction would ensure that his attention towards me would cool off, but if anything, it became so regular and focused that I started to worry for my safety. I stopped participating in class, stopped acknowledging him as best as I possibly could, did everything I knew how to do to minimize my contact with him. I told no one on campus about any of it, intuitively realizing that I’d be told that I was making things up and just trying to ruin a godly man’s reputation. It was necessary for me to be a “poor steward” of my grade in an attempt to be a good steward of my safety.
Perhaps in no greater way did I learn that sometimes doing something “wrong” was sometimes good than in my relationship with Michael, my BJU college boyfriend and current spouse.
I’ve stated before that my mental health was pretty abysmal when I was at BJU. I had slipped back into anorexia, I severely depressed, and quickly became suicidal.
So when I first started hanging out with Michael, it was mostly to make sure that I didn’t hurt myself. We soon fell in love, much to my surprise. (More on that at a later date — it’s a lesson completely unto itself.)
One afternoon, I walked into my dorm room to find a friend excitedly telling one of my roommates, “I’ve never seen her so happy and at peace.” I asked who she was talking about, and she grinned and said, “You! Ever since you started dating Michael.” I was startled that our relationship apparently was making such a difference in my life, but she was right. I was happier, healthier, eating more often, feeling more stable. He was good for me. He made me feel safe, understood, loved and protected. And that was a big deal.
A big enough deal that we had sex over Christmas break. The Great Transgression.
One of the things about purity culture is how it seeks to suppress women’s sexuality. We’re not supposed to look sexy, and we’re certainly not supposed to feel sexual things. In general, that hadn’t been a huge problem for me. I liked the idea of sex, but didn’t trust anyone enough to actually want to have sex with them. After so many violations of my body, I thought that I’d never be able to trust anyone that way.
I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel the heartbreak that purity culture told me I’d feel after having sex with Michael. In truth, I was actually suicidal again. Despondent. In complete and utter despair. But — please hear me on this — it wasn’t because of the sex. It was because of 21 years of purity culture telling me that if I had sex, I was a broken rose. A cup with spit in it. A used car. Inhuman. Worthless. To be despised. As I’ve said before, stories are so important. And when you tell someone a story for decades that if they transgress, they are evil…how else are they to feel but evil? What else have you done but create a self-fulfilling prophecy?
I remember being so very confused. Before the realization hit that I was now going to be considered utterly defiled, I was…happy. I felt whole. I felt hope. Sex was so very different from rape. Sharing such an intimacy with someone I loved and trusted with my whole being, someone who would never hurt or use me…it was healing. It was wonderful. It was home.
It took me years into my marriage to realize that what I’d been told about sex and purity was all wrong. Michael didn’t see me any differently after sex. He didn’t love me any less, he didn’t respect me any less, he didn’t leave me. (How horribly purity culture taught me to view men!) We were adults, sharing a moment together that we’d enthusiastically consented to share. And it was good.
Despite everything that followed — from the counseling we were given from our church to being expelled from BJU — despite what we’d been taught to believe about the nature of sex without a wedding ring and how it would break us and make us dirty and unclean and defiled before God and despised by our fellow Christians…despite it being considered so very wrong, it was right for us and it was good.
It was good.
Be sure to check out the No Shame Movement, a platform to share stories about unlearning purity culture, and stay tuned for Lesson 4 from Lessons Learned at the Fortress of Faith!