Five Reasons Not to Flirt: How Fundamentalism Taught Me Not to Talk to Boys

Author's Note: This post deals largely with the lessons I learned from evangelical culture. As such, it makes use of heteronormative and gender-binary language that may rightly be considered simplistic. This post is simply an initial critique of evangelical teaching on male/female interaction; it is in no way meant to diminish the even more deep-seated issues of the erasure and oppression of LGBTQIA people by fundamentalist religion.

"Ok, ladies! Time for a very special hall tradition – get excited! You have fifteen minutes to change into something EXTRA cute and meet outside on the front steps. Go, go, go!”

It was freshman orientation week at my university. I was a gawky 18-year-old, fresh out of 12 years of homeschool education in a conservative evangelical Christian community. I was just barely settling into the third floor of the women’s honors dorm, and college already felt like a whirlwind of overwhelming social situations and worldly temptations: a place where people watched R-rated movies, went to dances, and made occasional “That’s what she said” jokes.

Thankfully, I had my roommate Liv, with whom I shared a hometown, a values system, and a common cluelessness about fashion trends.

Liv and I pulled on (modest) skirts and blouses and headed down three flights of stairs to reach the exit to the dormitory driveway. As we stepped outside, the aura of excitement enveloped us as completely as the sticky August humidity. Girls flitted from group to group, Target sundresses fluttering. Wasn’t it exciting? What was going on? Omg, that dress – precious!

I stood on the steps, feeling vaguely nauseous. Whatever was going to happen, I knew one thing:

It had to have something to do with boys.

At 18, I’d never had a one-on-one conversation with a boy I wasn’t related to. Let alone been on a date. Let alone … well, anything else.

My homeschooling, Bible-believing community had taught me several compelling “lessons” about the rules of interaction between sexes – and, as I waited in front of that hall on that warm Texas night, facing the male unknown, those lessons had me shaking in my sensible, good-girl shoes.

Lesson #1: LOVE IS A LIMITED RESOURCE – So Don’t Use Up All Your Feels

I got my purity ring at age 16, a token of my oath not to have sex until I was married. But in the uber-conservative circles I moved in, sexual purity in itself was not enough: church leaders and mentors also insisted on something called “emotional purity” for young folks. Our hearts, we learned, were just as fragile as our virginity: once you gave certain feelings away, your heart was indelibly marked, lessened, or even defiled.

Josh Harris (author of that classic travesty of a relationship guide, I Kissed Dating Goodbye), compared crushes and short-term romances to “giving pieces of your heart away.” The more I allowed myself to feel attracted to boys, I believed, the less heart I would have left to present to my husband on our wedding day. Love, it seemed, came in limited supply. No wonder 13-year-old me felt compelled to confess my crushes as sins and beg God for forgiveness.

Lesson #2: MARRIAGE IS THE END GOAL – So Always Take Dating Extremely Seriously

A heavy-handed emphasis on marriage within the evangelical community made every half-step toward romance a phenomenally big deal. Oh, so you’re thinking about talking to that cute guy at your co-op? Are you sure he’s a mature and committed Christian? Are you both old enough to consider marriage? Do you know if he can support you and a future family? Are you willing to spend the next year or so getting to know him exclusively (closely chaperoned by your family and church), since dating more than one person at a time is not allowed? If you’re not sure about the answer to any of these questions, be careful: you might be “leading him on,” pretending you are willing to explore marriage with him when you’re really not. And that’s just cruel.

Lesson #3: MEN ARE GOD’S MOUTHPIECE – So Shut Up and Wait

Within fundamentalist Christianity, an overwhelmingly male view of God predominates. God is referred to solely with male pronouns, and Biblical feminine images of God are dismissed as “merely symbolic”. In this context, since God is male, only men are considered worthy to lead in the church and in marriage; as the symbolic representatives of God, their gender qualifies them to wield authority over women. In the context of dating, this means that any romantic initiative on a woman’s part looks like an attempt to undermine her future husband’s authority. “If a man is interested in you,” my elders told me, “he’ll take the first step. And if he doesn’t – well, he’s unfit to be the spiritual leader of your future home. Don’t waste your time.”

Lesson #4: YOU MIGHT HAVE SEX ACCIDENTALLY – So Beware the Slippery Slope

If Christian dating advice books were to be believed, it was incredibly easy to have sex without meaning to: eye contact across the room before long might turn into to late-night chats after youth group, and all of a sudden – whoops! – you’ve got yourself an accidental pregnancy. The Church taught me a profound distrust, both of myself and of men. The repetition of the cultural “men are visual” and “boys only want one thing” tropes taught me that I couldn’t trust a boy not to take what he wanted, especially if I accidentally “led him on” or wore something that immodestly “made him stumble.”

As for myself, verses like “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” and “the heart is deceitful and wicked” shackled me with the certainty that I had little to no control over my own actions. The Bible seemed to conflate desire with action; after all, wasn’t lusting after someone as bad as committing adultery with them? And since everybody seemed to interpret “lusting after” as “being attracted to someone”, didn’t I demonstrate my own powerlessness to that sin every day? In that context, flirting seemed about as safe as bicycling down Lombard Street without handbrakes. Best not to risk it.

Lesson #5: GOOD BOYS LIKE BORING GIRLS – So Remember Modest Is Hottest (But Don’t Say “Hot”)

I remember a story in one of the collections of cautionary tales meant to teach me good morals as a child. In this story, a woman became a little too friendly with her male coworkers, laughing and joking with them in the breakroom. When she eventually developed an affinity for one man in the group, he rebuffed her advances: “The women men joke with,” he sniffed, “are not the women men marry.”

My tiny homeschool community agreed. Even talking to boys was considered forward. We all gossiped judgily about the teens who dared to chat after Keepers of the Faith and Keepers at Home (the homeschool version of Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts. I’ll let you guess which group belonged to which gender.)  Mr. Right was looking for “a meek and gentle spirit.” He wouldn’t want me to be friendly or active or interesting. He would be looking for the girl quietly waiting in the corner.

In summary, fundamentalist religion taught girls like me that if you want a good Christian husband, you have to take purity culture’s mantra, “True love waits,” quite literally.

You wait. And you wait. And you wait.

You don’t just wait for sex:

You wait to speak until you are spoken to.

You wait to risk acquaintance before you are ready to commit.

And you might just wait to indicate interest for – well, forever.

For us good evangelical girls, passivity was a virtue, risk was a sin, and intimacy was a liability we couldn’t even begin to want. No wonder anything young and attractive and male sent us hightailing it toward safety. The stakes were just too high.

Which brings us back to 18-year-old me, standing disconsolate on the concrete driveway in my too-long skirt, my too-big blouse. I made up my mind. Whatever was going to happen that night, I wouldn’t be part of it.

“I’m going back inside,” I told Liv. I swiped my key card and made my way back up the three flights of stairs, my steps echoing on the treads. Our hall was silent. Back in my dorm room, I flipped on the light and changed into my PJs.

A few minutes later, I heard Liv’s key in the lock.

“I decided you’re right,” she said, letting the door click closed behind her. “I didn’t come here to flirt.”

We heard the boys arrive in the driveway below. Group after group came and went, one for each male residence hall. They rolled up to the curb, packed on flatbed trailers, belting showtunes and cheesy pop music mash-ups to the accompaniment of blasting speakers. We watched them serenade the delighted girls, men and women mixing and mingling and introducing themselves, swapping roses for names and cell phone numbers.

Liv and I turned off the lights and went to bed.
But the music kept playing. For a long time, it kept playing, even through the earplugs I stuffed in my ears to drown it out.