Illustration by Rose Wong

'She Didn't Say Vagina': Sex Ed in Fundamentalist Christian Homeschool

Parents who homeschool their children are not required to follow any curricula, which can make lesson plans for sex ed particularly fraught. Girls raised in fundamentalist Christian homes are especially vulnerable, often taught to consider their bodies...

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Jun 21 2016, 4:15pm

Illustration by Rose Wong

Elizabeth Joy Burger had still never heard the term vagina when she got her first period at age 11. "I just lumped it all in as 'privates' or 'my bottom,'" she tells me over Skype from her bedroom in Atlanta, Georgia. "I didn't have words for it."

Raised in a large, conservative Christian family and homeschooled all her life, Burger's sex-ed curriculum resembled that of many fundamentalist Christian homeschool households: vague, cursory, nearly non-existent. "Until I was 11, I didn't even know guys had different anatomy to girls," she says. "I knew nothing at all."

A week after she got her first period, Burger and her younger sister Ruth sat down with their mother for a sex talk. "She didn't say penis, she didn't say vagina, she didn't say any of the words. It was just like, guy body part fits into girl body part, and she was really awkward about it. It was really short and didn't explain anything," she says. "After that conversation, I was still really confused."

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Due to a lack of government oversight, it is difficult to estimate how many children in the United States are being homeschooled. Further, because, in many states, parents of homeschooled kids are not required to follow any curricula in particular, nor to submit test scores or progress reports to a supervising body of any kind, nor to even hold high school diplomas themselves, there is among the homeschooling contingent an overwhelming problem of educational neglect. Though proponents of homeschooling in this country like to point to high test scores to support their cause, such evidence of success is specious; when you consider the fact that fans of homeschooling will be motivated to report only high scores––and only parents who are already organized enough to test and report their kids' scores will do so––it's easy to see how the so-called statistics are really quite meaningless.

"If a child's scores aren't good, and their parent cares about homeschool advocacy, they aren't going to send in that kids' scores," says Rachel Coleman, a homeschool graduate herself who founded the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE) in 2013 to advocate for homeschooled children and "raise awareness of the need for homeschooling reform, provide public policy guidance, and advocate for responsible home education practices."

A few years ago, Coleman and other homeschool alumni were talking about the lack of organizations advocating specifically on behalf of homeschooled children; most of the related organizations exist for homeschool parents. "A lot of the bills, when they come up in the legislature, it's about what's most convenient for the parents," she says. "It's not about what's best for the kids." CRHE, whose board is made up entirely of homeschool alumni, is interested in representing the best interests of the homeschooled children. "Something like 10 percent of homeschooled children do not have a parent with a high school diploma," she tells me. "But these [self-reported] studies, of course—it's almost all parents with bachelor's degrees [who report], and then they compare [those scores] to the average public school score, which also makes no sense." All of it, Coleman says, is propaganda to preserve the parents' right to educate their children however they wish, without recourse.

You have to keep your kids completely in this controlled environment, and you don't let them out.

Beyond educational neglect, homeschooled children are also at greater risk of dying from physical abuse than traditionally schooled children, Coleman says. Though alarming, this grim truth is not all so surprising: When a child who is being physically abused at home has no interaction with anyone outside of his or her family––no teachers, non-family peers, or coaches––who will notice and report the abuse?

According to homeschool alumnae interviewed, Christian, faith-based homeschooling compounds the problem of educational neglect by introducing dogmatic and restrictive attitudes toward gender and human sexuality: Often, they say, women raised in fundamentalist Christian homeschooling families across the country are taught to consider their bodies as both their greatest vulnerability and their only asset.

Twenty-year-old Claire* grew up in semi-rural Georgia, in a similar situation to Burger. "We were Southern Baptist through and through," says Claire, whose pastor touted abortion as being one of the most major evils of our time (the other being homosexuality). Until her junior year of high school, she received a decidedly religious homeschool education, using print materials and CDs from a hodge-podge of Christian curriculums, including one called Alpha Omega.

"There was one lesson on reproduction in humans," Claire remembers. Claire's sex ed curriculum, like Burger's, was rudimentary and faith-based. "There were no diagrams of the vulva or the penis, and certainly [it was] abstinence-only," she says. "I don't think that it mentioned birth control at all."

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Allison*, 26, describes a similar situation. When she was a young child, Allison remembers her mother becoming increasingly conservative and enamored of the fundamentalist lifestyle. When she and her brothers were of school age, her mother began to homeschool them. "The only thing I was told about birth control was that it causes you to have abortions," she recalls.

By 18, she was desperate to leave home and go to college, but her parents wouldn't allow it. "My parents believed super strongly that girls should live at home until they get married," she says. In the fundamentalist world of the Christian Patriarchy Movement, these are called "stay-at-home daughters" (SAHD). Stay-at-home daughters train alongside their mothers and sisters, keeping house under their father's supervision, until they are married and have a husband and home of their own to tend to. "I had planned, like, 87 ways to escape," she says. "Instead, what I ended up doing was: I married my pastor's eldest son, and we left fundamentalism together." Knowing nothing about birth control, Allison and her husband had welcomed their first child into the world before even celebrating their first wedding anniversary.

Though Elizabeth Burger, Claire, and Allison were raised in different parts of the country and educated using a wide array of Christian homeschooling curricula, their stories reveal an important through-line: Girls raised in Christian homeschool households are being deprived of adequate and essential sexual education, growing up isolated from and at odds with their own bodies.

"I call it 'the box,'" says Burger. "It's a term a lot of us who have left fundamentalism call fundamentalism. Sort of like the Rapunzel story, that ideology of, 'You have to keep your kids completely in this controlled environment, and you don't let them out.' It's really messed up."

Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, from TLC's "19 Kids and Counting." Photo via Wikimedia Commons

One of the more prominent and controversial Christian homeschooling curricula in use today is the Advanced Training Institute (ATI), an arm of a nonsectarian conservative ministry organization called the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP), founded in the early 1960s by a man named Bill Gothard.

IBLP-ATI families practice modesty in all aspects of life, from the way they dress––button-up collared shirts and slacks for men and boys, long skirts and arm- and chest-covering tops for women and girls––to the way they interact with membes of the opposite sex: side hugs only, lest a fully developed female chest inspire lustful thoughts in your brothers in Christ.

The most famous proponents of this conservative curriculum are the Duggar family, of TLC's reality docu-series 19 Kids and Counting. Last summer, when news broke that eldest son Josh Duggar had, as a teenager, molested four of his younger sisters and a babysitter, fans of the family's wholesome, conservative Christian program were shaken. Advertisers and sponsors swiftly cut ties with the TLC program, including General Mills, Choice Hotels, and Payless Shoe Source. Soon after, TLC pulled the profitable show from its programming lineup and released a statement about their decision not to move forward with the 19 Kids series; instead, they would film specials with the sisters, and "other survivors and families that have been affected by abuse."

Ostensibly in an effort to regain control of the conversation, sisters Jill and Jessa Duggar sat down with FOX News anchor Megyn Kellyto explain that they had forgiven their brother. "Did you get the chance to express that anger to him? Did you fight?" asks Kelly, at one point. "No," the sisters say, laughing, as if that would be a ridiculous way to behave in this context.

If I'm wearing tight jeans or a low-cut shirt, that could cause other men to lust after me, and that's disrespectful to my husband.

To many, the content of their interview sounded sadly more like a naive perpetuation of their own victimization. "Our situation is very different from most girls'," said Jessa Duggar. "He was very subtle... he was very sly, the girls didn't catch on." It wasn't a horror story, she said, because they, as children, did not know that they were being molested by their brother, both awake and in their sleep.

For those who didn't grow up in a conservative Christian household, the Duggar family's response––both years ago at the time of the crime, and last summer in the media coverage––was shocking. But for many young women who grew up in fundamentalist Christian homes, Josh Duggar's actions, and the family's attitudes towards him and his victims, are far from surprising.

"Bill Gothard's teachings center on victim blaming," says Carmen Green, a Christian homeschooling alum who now works as a lawyer at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State."If you are a victim of abuse, there is a part of Gothard's teaching that asks the abuse victim, What was the sin in your life to bring this on?"

Never married and childless, Gothard, now 81, has himself been accused by no fewer than 18 women of sexual abuse and harassment while employed by or studying under IBLP-ATI. The number of accusers, at last count, hovered around 30 individuals, including both men and women. The 200+ page amended legal complaint describes a sickening pattern of victim grooming perpetuated by Gothard, including allowing his victims use of his credit card, bringing them along on his travels, lavishing praise and confessions of love and affection, and repeated inappropriate sexual touching of the very young girls placed in his care as a spiritual leader, counselor, and authority figure.

"It's very difficult for that community to conceive of the woman as not being at fault," says Green. "There is so much burden placed on women not to ever tempt the men around them." Even when that woman is still just a little girl.

To an outsider, that logic may sound extreme––and extremely unfair. However, to those who practice Christian fundamentalism, it is simply a matter of obeying God's wishes.

The Duggar family. Screengrab via Fox News

Shelly Paulsen, 23, goes by the online moniker @quiverfullmommy and vlogs on YouTube about life as a young Christian mother of three homeschooled kids in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Paulsen didn't grow up in Christian fundamentalism, but rather was born again as a teen. The term "quiverfull" is a reference to a Bible passage many fundamentalist Christians hold dear, Psalm 127:3-5: "Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one's youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them."

"At its core, [the Quiverfull ideology] is not abusive, but it's very strict," Paulsen says. Followers of the Quiverfull movement, including the Duggar family and their TV friends the Bates, famously abstain from contraception in order to have as many children as is biologically possible—their quivers are full. "We believe that people are blessed through having children, which is what the Bible verse says," Paulsen tells me. She and her husband, a carpenter, are open to letting the Lord decide how many children they have––as many as the family's finances and Paulsen's health will allow. They currently have three.

Practitioners of the Quiverfull movement also stress strict female modesty as a means of deterring male sexual advances. Paulsen, for instance, has dedicated not just her heart but her body to the Lord by wearing skirts full time. "Skirt-wearing," as she calls it, "is to prevent others from stumbling in their faith."

"If I'm wearing tight jeans or a low-cut shirt, that could cause other men to lust after me, and that's disrespectful to my husband," she says. Independent research led her to a portion of the Old Testament that describes wearing clothing cut above the knee as equal to nakedness. She's pretty strict in her faith, she adds.

Women need to not tempt men; women need to please their man.

I ask Paulsen if she thinks it's an unfair burden placed on women that they are, in effect, responsible for men's actions.

"I don't think men are mindless drones. However: We all know that women are much more love- and romance-driven, and men are more visual; that's just how we are," Paulsen tells me. "If I can prevent him from looking at me by dressing in a way that's not drawing excessive attention to myself, than I feel that that's helpful and obeying what God wants for me."

The restrictive attitude toward gender roles and gender presentation that Paulsen describes as being central to her life as a godly wife is the same mentality that many other women who grew up in Christian fundamentalism blame for the fear and shame they have felt around their own sexuality.

"Sex is not meant to be an egalitarian pleasuring party," says Caitlin*, quoting a man named Doug Wilson, an evangelical theologian and pastor at Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. Caitlin, now 24, was raised in a very insular, fundamentalist Christian household, which she says was quite similar to the world of Bill Gothard's IBLP-ATI. A woman's sexual experience, she explains, was always regarded as an afterthought in the kind of circles she was raised in. The general outlook, according to her, was: "Women need to not tempt men; women need to please their man, or else he's going to end up in adultery because he's not being sexually satisfied."

When your husband or father is the head of the household and the spiritual leader of your family, commanding strict and steadfast adherence to a literal interpretation of biblical gender roles, it can be a quick trip from sexual submission to the normalization of sexual abuse. Caitlin remembers one female friend who was raised in a physically and sexually abusive household and had no recourse, since she was kept at home and denied access to comprehensive sexual education.

"A lot of people that I know had absolutely no vocabulary for what was being done to them," Caitlin says. "And sexual abuse at home was prevalent enough that it's become a significant discussion amongst homeschool alumni."

A lot of people that I know had absolutely no vocabulary for what was being done to them.

Caitlin herself had a limited anatomical knowledge and no frame of reference for understanding different types of sexual acts until she was 21, which is when she finally located a copy of a graduate-level textbook on human sexuality. "I didn't know what else to do," she says. "I actually asked someone, 'How do you learn about sex?'"

Allison, the young woman who escaped life as a stay-at-home daughter by marrying her pastor's eldest son, says that since she and her husband left fundamentalism, her family has grown even stricter in their literal interpretation of the Bible. Though her relationship with her husband started out as an extremely strict courtship, Allison admits they got lucky that it worked out.

Her parents, however, disagree. "My parents have since felt that courtship isn't biblical enough, and that if they really wanted to use an example from the Bible, they would use arranged marriage, where there is no emotional attachment," she says.

Last year, her sister was placed into an arranged marriage with a young man from a family Allison's parents met at the new church, one they had joined after their previous one was starting to feel too liberal (the pastor was allowing his daughters to get jobs). Her step-dad reached out to the father of another family in their new congregation; he felt that "the temperament of one of his sons would be a good fit for my sister." Allison's sister, 22 at the time, wrote letters to her unidentified suitor for a few weeks before his identity was revealed to her and they were wed.

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The fundamentalist Christian idea that daughters are the property of their father, and later of their husband, is something CRHE founder Rachel Coleman, who was homeschooled on what she describes as "the fringes of ATI," is well familiar with.

A PhD candidate in history at Indiana University, Coleman says that when she was a teenager preparing to go off to college for her undergraduate degree, her mother's friends were highly critical of her family's decision to allow their daughters to seek higher education. "They said it was hedonistic and that I would never be a good wife and mother," Coleman says.

Although Coleman's family allowed her access to higher education, they still held radically restrictive views about female autonomy. "When my sister got her first tattoo, she was 18. She had just completed her first year of college, and my mother told her that she should have asked our father's permission, because her body belonged to our father, and said once she gets married then her body would belong to her husband and she'd have to ask her husband's permission before getting a tattoo," Coleman recalls.

"Another aspect of owning your own body is validating your emotions and feelings; we learned to hide them in the box," says Elizabeth Burger, who has started seeing a guy she really likes in the few weeks since we first spoke. "It's terrifying and exciting to be dating now."

In purity culture, you're taught that even with hand-holding or slow dancing, you're giving away a little piece of your heart, becoming less whole for the person you end up marrying, a lesser commodity. You're supposed to avoid all sexual or romantic activity; then, on your wedding night, you're told you must switch over to doing everything physically possible with another person.

"I think a lot of times people marry just so they can have sex, but that's not a healthy way to have a relationship," she says. "Life is a lot better outside of the box, but it's also a lot scarier: There's no rules for how to behave. You can't just read a book about it."


*Names have been changed.