Today my friend Grace Biskie and I are doing a co-blog about using strong language to tell authentic stories. A full explanation of why we’re co-blogging this is in the post itself, but I just want to tell you before you keep reading that Grace Biskie is one of my favorite storytellers. She tells it true and she tells it hard and she tells it good, and every time, it wakes me up to something I didn’t understand before. We found each other online about a year ago, but of course, the world is so much smaller than that – we realized not long after we connected online that her husband was raised in the same Baptist church as me, and that I had seen Dave and Grace speak at my church about a decade ago! It’s been an incredible blessing to get to know her through her writing. Click here to read her post of for this co-blog.
Okay so, a little backstory to get us started : Grace wrote a post a couple of weeks ago for A Deeper Story, “Come Hither Young Men for I Have Sex Demons.” Catchy title, eh? Her post chronicles her experience as an abused young girl growing up in Detroit, and how it influenced the ways that she expressed herself sexually. Grace also references this post by a now infamous Mrs. Hall which shames teenage girls for posting “sexy” selfies on social media.
I love this part of Grace’s post,
“Love us, Mrs. Halls. Love us at 8 yrs. old. Love us at 11. Love us at 26. Love us at 36. Give us second, third, fourth, fifth chances. Teach your boys to love us too. Light switch theology doesn’t work here. If I could have flipped the magic switch to un-confuse myself, I would have done it eons ago.”
Like the powerful writer that she is, Grace’s post invites me into her reality. She helps me, a white girl that grew up in a rural Michigan farmtown, better understand what it’s like to be a prematurely sexualized young black girl in Detroit. She invites well-meaning but conservative, naive Christian women like the Mrs. Halls (and Bethany Suckrows) of the world to step outside our privilege long enough to understand why young girls sexualize themselves. And in that context, we no longer have the right to shame young girls for their behavior. The only right response is to love and affirm their inherent worth.
So I share Grace’s post on Facebook, and not long after, I get a private message from a friend from my hometown in Michigan, questioning the language that Grace uses to tell her story of sexual abuse.
“That’s not how A Good Christian Girl talks,” my friend tells me, and I think she means it both in terms of Grace using the explicit language and in terms of my willingness to share it. This isn’t the first time that I’ve been confronted about the language in the posts I’ve shared on social media. In fact, it’s not even the first time someone has confronted me about sharing one of Grace’s posts. Go read her guest blog for Micah Murray and you’ll understand why.
In her piece for A Deeper Story, Grace uses explicit language to describe the extreme sexualization and abuse that she experienced. It is as painfully honest as you would expect a post on childhood sexual abuse to be.
She reconstructs the eleven year old girl she used to be,
“This is the one Mrs. Hall would have blocked. This is the little girl who knew how to give a damn good blow job. This is the little girl that says, ‘Come hither boys, because I know what I’m doing.’”
She repeats the things that men have said in their pursuit of her,
“They look with greed and edge and a face that reads, ‘I want to fuck you,’ with an anger that’s frightening and disconcerting.”
But my friends want to know why Grace isn’t using polite language of a “Good Christian Girl.”
They want to know why she’s not using euphemisms to talk about her sexual abuse.
I’ll be honest, I cringed when I read those posts and I cringed when I shared them. True to my white, Baptist background, I’m shocked that young girls just like Grace live this reality every day. I’m uncomfortable because her language has snapped me awake to my own privilege. There’s no question that the language in that post is terrible, but it serves a very important purpose of clarifying what our culture wants to obscure. This is what language is for. This is what a good writer does.
And this is exactly what Grace is calling out in her post:
“The first time a boy came out directly to ask for sex, I was 8. He was 14ish. I believe my face went red and my cheeks hot with embarrassment […] Truth is, I’d already had a lot of sex by then. My Dad and I had not called it ‘sex,’ and given my age it was not consensual, though – at the time – I believed it was.” (Emphasis mine.)
Euphemisms have no place in telling stories of abuse. Talking about it openly and honestly is what helps many victims heal from the shame and secrecy that kept them captive to their abusers. Not talking about abuse in a realistic way only perpetuates further abuse. My friend Dani Kelley explains this perfectly in her comment on Grace’s post today,
“There simply weren’t Christian words to describe the horror & rage & confusion I felt over so many betrayals, big and small. Profanity gave me the force of language I needed to name the evil, shine light in the darkness that seemed like it was going to devour me whole.” (Emphasis mine.)
This is why I asked, after responding privately to my friend’s questioning, if Grace wanted to co-blog about this with me. I wanted to her to talk about why using explicit language matters to her story, and I want to talk about why readers, no matter their opinion of swearing, should respect stories’ like Grace’s and Dani’s, raw and true and redemptive and messy as they are.
We in evangelical culture were raised to believe that there was such a thing as a “Good Christian Girl” and that we achieved this characterization by avoiding certain topics and certain language for discussing those topics. Explicit language was a sin. Politeness was prized, as was our modest dress and demure countenance. We do this because we think this will protect us from sin. But often times, the things that we believe will protect us are the very things that harm others. We create a culture in which it’s not safe for girls like Grace who don’t fit our mold to tell her story without being criticized for how she tells it.
It’s not bad enough that she lived through hell? Now she has to be polite and make everyone comfortable with her story as she talks about it? We get to criticize how people cope with and heal from abuse? Are we really not smart or wise enough to take language in its context? Can we not really discern the difference between using explicit language to accurately describe stories of abuse and using explicit language to abuse? Is our ability to respect others’ stories really contingent on how they tell them?
The reality is that abuse isn’t polite. It’s not a euphemism. It’s as ugly and filthy and scary as life gets. Explicit language keeps us awake to these explicit realities. Polite language, then, is a tool of the privileged.
Sometimes our discomfort over language use is a signal that the book we’re reading or the movie we’re watching is garbage. But sometimes, our discomfort over language is a signal that our “Good Christian” lives are being wrecked for a radical story of redemption. We need to have better discernment for this, because stories of abuse and sexism (and all the other awful isms) should make us uncomfortable. If our knee-jerk reaction is to clean up someone’s language before they tell us their story, if our goal is to keep ourselves comfortable in the face of childhood sexual abuse, we’re not honoring God.
Our polite language is a means of obscuring our hard-heartedness and apathy towards justice, and God isn’t fooled by it.
The fact that we’re more concerned with someone’s language than their story of sexual abuse should be a signal to us that we have completely missed the point.
So love the storytellers. Love us at 8 years. old. Love us at 11. Love us at 26. Love us at 36. Give us second, third, fourth, fifth chances. Love us when we tell it messy. Love us when we tell it clean. Love us when we’re cynical. Love us when we’re filled with hope. Love us when we’re hurting and when we’re healing. Tell our stories with us, too. Polite language doesn’t work here. If we could have picked peaceful, safe stories, we would have done it eons ago.
Please be respectful in the comments. You can have all the opinions you want about explicit language, but any comments that veer into victim-blaming or personal attacks will be moderated. I’ve never had to do that before here, but I’m not afraid to start. This is an invitation to listen to each others’ stories. Thank you.