I was walking ahead of my parents, making my way to our car parked on the curb. A pickup truck drove by with a young man sitting in the back of the bed. When he saw me, he perked up, flashed me a grin, and let out a whoop.
As far as street harassment goes, this was fairly mild. But it was the first of the most pervasive and consistent kind of messages I've received about my sexuality and my worth as a woman. Whether it was from pop culture or the purity culture of my evangelical upbringing, the message was one of objectification.
It was the first of the most pervasive and consistent kind of messages I've received about my sexuality and my worth as a woman.
To the external world, I was more a body or collection of body parts than a whole person. I received more attention for my smile, face, or slender frame than any personal attribute, academic accolades, professional positions I held, or convictions I carried — I learned that my looks were the most valuable and important part of me.
My body, sexuality, and beauty turned out to also have a function: to tantalize, arouse, and give pleasure to men. Even with my sheltered, Asian immigrant upbringing, Disney movies taught me how to flirt by biting my lip and playing with my hair. My favorite TV shows, like "Saved by the Bell" and "Friends", taught me how to make the guys chase you. "Cosmopolitan" magazine gave me what seemed like unlimited tricks to "blow his mind in bed".
My body, sexuality, and beauty turned out to also have a function: to tantalize, arouse, and give pleasure to men.
Simultaneously, I was taught to safeguard these powers to protect men from stumbling, because men are sexual and visual creatures. Guard your purity, not only by saving sex for marriage but by saving dating for marriage — that is, date only with the intention to marry.
But when you do get married, be completely sexually available to your husband. Sermons on marriage told me that a major component of my wifely duties was to satisfy my husband's sexual desires. In one particular sermon series on marriage, the pastor invited his wife to the pulpit, not to speak from her perspective on marriage and sex, but to corroborate his teaching and urge other wives to love their husbands by laying down their reasons for withholding sex. "It doesn't take very long," she added, to the laughter of the congregation.
The message was that my sexuality was always in relation to someone else; preparing myself for sex in marriage comprised of my appearance (object) and my performance (function) in order to meet my husband's needs. I hadn't been taught to think through what I wanted or needed, what my desires or fantasies were, or what I was and was not comfortable with, much less communicate any of these things to anybody else. I wasn't taught to have ownership or agency of my own sexuality. It was a part of me I couldn't — and didn't know — how to bring and give to God without shame or guilt for having it in the first place.
The message was that my sexuality was always in relation to someone else.
It was in marriage that I was forced to sort it out.
For my husband and I, marriage has been a constant process through which two very different people learn to navigate a shared life. Six short months after our wedding, we moved away from our community of friends and family in big city Los Angeles to a small town on the California central coast for my husband's new job as a worship pastor. Not only did I have to figure out how to be a wife, I had to figure out how to be a pastor's wife, which seemed like a whole other kind of wife altogether. It took willful effort and persistence to learn to make decisions together and support each other, through big moves and new jobs, vocational disillusionment, and career changes.
We worked through childhood wounds, insecure attachments, pressures, and expectations, and lessons on having hard conversations around cultural differences, race, gender, and differences in theology. But sex — sex seemed like the final frontier. It was not a topic we broached frequently and I felt more uneasy talking about it than any of the other difficult topics.
Part of this was because I had a better grasp of my identity in the areas of race, gender, and theology than I did with my own sexuality. Articles about diversity and faith were easily accessible, and I could find voices and stories with which I resonated. Without better models for healthy sexuality to draw upon, I felt vulnerable and at a loss.
Without better models for healthy sexuality to draw upon, I felt vulnerable and at a loss.
Another part of this was that we were not having major problems in our sex life, so there wasn't much motivation to risk upsetting the status quo — even if it could mean greater intimacy and passion for our relationship, and greater freedom for me to explore my own identity as a sexual being.
My work as a sexual assault advocate and counselor, which began two years after we got married, added to the complexity. Upon hearing stories of trauma and sexual violence, it was inevitable that I would begin to experience symptoms of vicarious trauma, which is defined as psychological and spiritual changes in the way "helpers" view themselves and the world.
Some of these changes have been positive. For example, being so close to suffering and injustice has given me a deeper understanding of the process of healing, and a keener sensitivity to the presence of God in places of darkness. But vicarious trauma also meant seeing the world as a more violent place. It meant I became hyper-aware and vigilant regarding any hint of objectification, entitlement, and male privilege. In my marriage, this meant sometimes seeing my husband as the enemy, reading objectification into his desire for me, and shutting down my own sexual desire, resulting in tension, misunderstanding, and withdrawal between us.
I became hyper-aware and vigilant regarding any hint of objectification, entitlement, and male privilege.
At the heart of it, the lessons I had gleaned from life induced questions of trust. Could I trust that my husband truly sees me and respects me? Could he trust me to see him, see his intentions, and meet his needs?
Could I trust that my husband truly sees me and respects me? Could he trust me to see him, see his intentions, and meet his needs?
If there's anything I've learned about healing over the years, it's that healing is a continuous process. We heal in layers. We learn how to heal as we heal. And we can continuously build upon past healing toward greater wholeness, if we allow ourselves to stay in the process.
Healing in the area of my sexuality could not begin until God had dealt with my perfectionism, inner critic, and internalized objectification. When I started my master's program in clinical psychology and entered into my own personal psychotherapy, I was introduced to the amazing grace I had sung about since I was a child but had never fully understood. It wasn't just the grace of my salvation, but something more.
Grace was the acknowledgement and validation of my emotions. Grace was being seen, heard, and held in a way I had not been before — by my professors, my cohort, my therapist, and then finally, myself.
Grace was being seen, heard, and held in a way I had not been before.
As I learned how to hold, accept, and love myself, I found that I could bring all the parts of me to God, even the parts that were unacceptable to me or to the world — my sin, my rebellion, my anger, my depression, and yes, my sexuality. I could look honestly at myself and my husband, and there didn't have to be anymore shame.
In the end, we risked the equilibrium of our relationship to go to those scary, vulnerable places and examine the messages we received about sex. I no longer wanted to settle for being passive, ignorant, and unaccepting of my sexuality. I also had to be able to admit how much I was being affected by my work, and learn to distinguish between the disgusted feeling of being hollered at on the street from the excitement of being sexually desired by my husband in the manner of Song of Songs:
How beautiful you are, my love Your eyes are doves behind your veil Your lips are like a crimson thread Your mouth is lovely Your breasts are like two fawns, Twins of a gazelle that feed among the lilies You have ravished my heart
with a glance of your eyes You are altogether lovely.
Steamy, is it not? One could easily read objectification into this passage. After all, the writer is breaking down his lover into her body parts. But there's something deeply powerful and passionate about this kind of desire that I want to embrace.
There's something deeply powerful and passionate about this kind of desire that I want to embrace.
I am still not very good at figuring out what I want, much less permitting myself to want and ask for what I want without the baggage of prohibitions, prescriptions, and meanings attached to these things. But these days, my husband and I laugh more. We play more. And we have this safe space to explore the fullness of freedom in what God intended for us when He created us with sexuality.
SHIRLEY WU is a marriage and family therapist who also holds a master of divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. She is also a Cal alumni, although she wonders what her life would have been like if she had gone to NYU in pursuit of an acting career. She and her husband have been married for nearly 10 years.
TERRY YANG was born in 1992 in Los Angeles, and earned her BFA in illustration from the Art Center College of Design. Terry Yang’s paintings feature hidden figures displayed in observational journalism of household diaries and outdoor expected behaviors, ruling to serve a break in the border of rejection and disbelief.