God, Masturbation, and Other Mistaken Beliefs in Rural Oregon

I considered that maybe faith was more personal than I’d been led to think.

 Rebecca Cairns

Rebecca Cairns

BY MADELINE STEVENS

At 12, the only one I could talk to about masturbation was God. I’d been masturbating since I was a child, before I had any idea what I was doing or that it was at all related sex. I thought of orgasm as a personal discovery, a quirk of my body, and though I took pleasure in it, I also felt scared, as we’re all trained to feel scared about difference. There was a moment of relief when I made the connection that my discovery had a name and that anybody could do it, but this was quickly followed by a new, more pressing sense of shame when I also learned it was a habit that God found abhorrent and unnatural. "Just don’t start," one youth group leader urged us.

I can’t help but feel boys had it easier on this front. Even if they came from families that openly disparaged the habit, it was culturally accepted, it was joked about at school, on Saturday Night Live, in movies. It was generally understood to happen anyway, but I had no sense of the same understanding for women. This was before we all had regular access to the internet, before Sara Silverman, before Amy Schumer, before MTV’s Awkward, before Rookie.

Leafing through an issue of Seventeen Magazine with a friend once in the school cafeteria, we came across a little blip in response to a reader’s question. I’m not sure they went so far as to print that masturbation was normal. I know they said, "Probably some of your girlfriends do it too, though don’t expect them to talk about it."

"You don’t, do you?" my friend asked.

"No," I replied, tentatively, hoping to sound just non-committal enough, in case she wanted to confess something.

"I just don’t understand how anyone could do that," she said, flipping the magazine page.

***

As a child I’d said prayers at night like a superstitious person will turn a light switch off and on a certain number of times or avoid cracks in the sidewalk—as a ritual to ward off bad-luck. I was taught the Lord’s Prayer—and I repeated it without concentration. I recited "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep," though it frightened me. ("If I should die before I wake" made sleep and death feel connected, which is why I fought it off every night, lying in bed, making up stories for hours at a time.)

I tried, at the end of that prayer, to ask God to bless those around me, but I would overanalyze this, and as the actual names piled up exhaustively, in the interest of time, I changed my prayer to say instead, "Bless everyone I love," then, "Bless everyone I’ve ever met," then finally, "Bless everyone in the whole world."

Once I asked God, after viewing a series of popular nineties action movies, to save me should a natural disaster occur. I listed them all—tornado, hurricane, tsunami, volcano, earthquake. Finally, perhaps strangest of all, I regularly called upon the Lord to spare me from meeting my guardian angel, a concept I’d learned about from television. Despite knowing that angels were good and God-related, I was scared of them as if they were any other supernatural being—ghosts or vampires. "Just not tonight," I said, every night, like a magic spell.

It’s clear to me now that I prayed not out of any kind of faith or devotion, but because I feared death—for myself and those around me, and I saw God as a superstitious means of protecting myself from it, not in the sense that he was the path to eternal life, but in the sense that he might grant favors if you asked for them, so long as you did it often enough.

I’d been taught about Heaven, but I didn’t think of it very deeply. I did, however, cry inconsolably when Anne’s adoptive father died in the Anne of Green Gables mini series, and when Wilbur gave Charlotte a tearful goodbye. Heaven was no consolation in the face of death for me. I didn’t care where people went, all I knew is that they were suddenly, devastatingly gone. And I felt naturally, instinctually, that I did not want to follow.

In bed at night at 12, I still prayed as I had as a child, but instead of my lists of blessings and natural disasters, I began asking for the strength to control myself, and, when that failed, I would bargain for forgiveness. I offered up whatever I could think of in order to relieve my sense of guilt. People were sure to tell me masturbation was wrong, but no one ever told me you weren’t suppose to bargain with the Lord. My version of him was more like the witches of fairy tales, or the dealer of a high-stakes poker game. I reasoned that misbehaving would weaken my hand, making God less likely to protect me against death. 

One day vaginal fluid appeared in my underwear. I’d been warned about my period (something I am thankful for. My grandmother, I was told, was never warned and thought she’d fatally injured herself), but no one had ever warned me about this. It amazes me still, how little we think to tell girls about their own bodies. I became convinced that God had taken me up on my bargain, and cursed my reproductive organs in some mysterious way.

I felt the discharge signaled a serious problem, and that I would not be getting my period like all the other girls. I also thought this was my own fault, and thus, did not want to tell anyone. When my period came, in gym class later that year, I did not feel annoyance or shame. I was relieved at my body’s naturalness despite my years of masturbation. I thanked God. I vowed a fresh start. Then I agonized, gave in, vowed again.

***

Around the time I started middle school there was a general shift among my peers. Some became more stridently religious as they began to actually understand the theology they’d been entrenched in since birth, and others began to rebel. I lump us all into these two groups because in rural Oregon I was about as close as it came to being raised without some form of Christianity.

At this point, I was painfully shy around boys and badly dressed. In other words, I was not cool enough to fit in with the rebellious crowd. These were the kids who, at least according to rumors, began making out at 12 or 13. There was one pointed rumor about the son (tall, tan, football player’s build) of a Lutheran Pastor "having sex" with a girl in our class in the backseat of his father’s car as they drove.

Of course, I understand now this probably meant he managed a hand up her skirt if he did anything, but at the time it boggled my mind, trying to figure out how such a thing could be possible—not just the basic logistics of how they managed to do it without his father noticing, but how anyone my own age could advance so rapidly in territory I had yet to enter at all.

My friends in middle school were the sort to judge this type of behavior, certainly not treat it with the sort of curiosity and intrigue I felt but kept quiet about. We traveled in packs together, protecting each other, always the same people. We went to movies, attended youth groups (I was constantly being invited to other people’s churches), and had sleepovers where we dared each other to sample disgusting concoctions of soda and juice and ketchup and whatever else happened to be in the family refrigerator that night.

The closest we ever came to any sort of rebellion was when I brought out my family’s camcorder. This gave my friends permission to inhabit other points of view under the guise of parody. I will never forget my staunchly Mormon friend Lucy*, wearing my sister’s old bohemian skirt printed with butterflies, acting as a guest on The March Maheese Show’s "I Am Beautiful Special." In front of the camera Lucy explained how she didn’t believe in any particular religion, but rather, "You know, trees, and dirt, and flowers."

It was a remarkable choice of character, since, of all of us, Lucy probably turned out the most devoted to her beliefs later in life. Alternately, my character was the slut. I shoved balloons under my shirt and sagged my pants enough to reveal my cotton panties. This was probably the most telling of how I would end up as an adult, at least in their eyes. At the time, though, boys and sex were still entirely fantastical. 

My friends and I existed purely within feminine spaces, our own experimentation safely coded in character, acting, layers of satire—all well outside the realm of reality. Boys scared me. Drugs scared me. Even my own dad’s nightly beer scared me. I was sheltered, and I believed the rhetoric the public school system fed me about AIDS, teen pregnancy, over-dose, about the easy slide of experimentation to addiction. The fact that religion re-enforced these fears compounded them. What is morality but fear?

***

My father was raised Catholic by devoted parents of Irish heritage. He’d attended mass as a child, back when it was still in Latin. My siblings and I had been baptized in the Catholic Church despite the fact that my mother was not a member, and did not choose to become one. 

She’d had a more ambiguous upbringing. My grandfather refused to take part in any form of organized religion. Even when the rest of the family went to church on Christmas, he stayed home. We never discussed it. My grandmother had occasionally taken my mother to Lutheran services, and when my mom started high school she began going, by herself, to a Methodist church. It is not lost on me that the regular attendance of church coincided with the loss of her virginity, though she has never put it that way.

In baptizing us Catholic, sending my two older siblings to Catholic school and confirming them in the church—my brother in a clip-on tie, my sister in a lacy white dress—I assumed she’d simply been less convicted about denomination than my father, or that she’d lost an argument. Later, I learned the decision had more to do with distrust in the inner-city public school system than any sort of devotion. As I grew, I noticed her skepticism more and more, if not in the dogma of Christianity, than in the imperfect practice of it "among men" (as she put it).

Directly before the year I should’ve started Catholic school we moved from the suburbs of Portland to a tiny town in rural Oregon, a good forty minutes away, so I wound up at public school instead. Subsequently, my family’s attendance at St. Ignatius, which had already been sporadic, tapered off even more. When I asked my mom about confirmation, she said, "Do you want to be confirmed?"

Having no real knowledge of what it all meant other than being able to receive the Eucharist instead a blessing, I was probably non-committal in response. She explained that it would require studying. She also told me I’d already been saved, since I was baptized, so it was nice, but not necessary. I don’t remember really answering her question, but evidently I did not press her on it, as I’m still not a confirmed Catholic. When I asked her about our attendance record she told me, "Catholics only have to go to church on Christmas and Easter, anything else is optional."

I took this excuse, which she’d obviously offered just to get me off her back, to elementary school, where I knew no other Catholic children—just non-denominational Christians, Mormons, and a few Seventh-Day Adventists. Because these children had not yet been fully indoctrinated, I was met with envy.

"You’re so lucky," Lucy told me. She would later say, when I admitted I’d made out with a boy at sixteen, "That’s bad, Madeline."

***

During the summer between sixth and seventh grade, my friend Kara* goaded me into joining her at Trout Creek Bible Camp. My mom was hesitant to allow it, though she couldn’t explain why to me in any terms I could understand. I knew nothing of cults, of groupthink, of brainwashing. I had not grown up in the age of Manson, like her. Eventually, she gave in. I packed my things and she dropped me off at a rec. hall deep in the Oregon woods.

She slept ten campers and two teenage staff members in a cabin. We played Red Rover and Capture the Flag. We swam in the pool on site and waded in the nearby creek on hikes. We scaled the rock-climbing wall in the rec. hall. We ate overcooked spaghetti at dinner and candy bars from the "Snak Shak" which we purchased with our parents’ money. We braided each other’s hair. We danced around our cabin in the dim light of lanterns, singing into hairbrushes and asking the French girl how to say "nice underwear" in her native language. 

She also went to chapel every morning, and Bible study every evening. Our teenage cabin leaders led Bible study. The theme that year was something about the treasures of our relationship with Christ. It was meant to send a positive message. We didn’t talk about punishment or guilt. We didn’t talk about Hell. We talked about the joy Christ put in our hearts, and the glories of Heaven we all had to look forward to. We read Revelations, which I was afraid to admit confused and frightened me. It seemed more like a psychedelic acid trip than an idealized paradise.

One day, we talked about how humans were the only living creatures with souls, and thus, the only ones capable of entering the Kingdom of Heaven. This was obviously supposed to make us feel special and uplifted. The cabin-leaders conducting the Bible study talked about it as proof of God’s love, as we were jealous lovers and needed to know he chose us over everything else.

"Wait," I remember one girl from my cabin saying. She was small, skinny, with perfectly straight dirty blond hair cut into a bob at her chin. Her teeth were still a little large in her mouth. "My dog isn’t in Heaven?"

We were clutching our Bibles on wood floor of the chapel, in a circle, Indian-style (as we used to say). I hadn’t actually owned a Bible before camp, my mom had to buy one for me, and I’d tried to make it look worn-in, folding over pages and highlighting random passages. Now it smelled strongly of the bug spray we coated ourselves in before campfire each night.

The cabin leader paused, but answered simply, "No." Then she added a cursory, "I’m sorry."

The girl didn’t say anything else, but I watched her body edge slowly out of our sacred circle. Later, walking the dirt path that led back to our cabin, she touched my arm and said quietly, "I don’t think I really believe that. About my dog."

It strikes me now that it was me she thought to tell, and that it was me she sat next to at meals and me she followed out to the water spigot in the woods to brush her teeth with after that. I felt no sympathy for her. I thought it was a shame her parents had lied to her. I did not yet think about why God would fail to grant a well-loved animal eternal life when he supposedly had the power to do whatever he wanted. I did not yet wonder why love had to be in the form of a hierarchy—why it couldn’t extend to all creation.

***

Our last day in chapel was a big production and I was unprepared for it. The pastor was unusually passionate in his sermon. We formed a big circle, moving the folding chairs aside, and sang the same songs we usually sang, but this time they didn’t end. We kept circling around, starting them again. The pastor talked over our singing on a microphone, about accepting Jesus into our hearts as our personal savior. Told us if we hadn’t said those words we were not yet saved, told us he wanted every one of us to be saved, offered us the chance to say them then and there, with him, with everyone.

Kids started doing it, saying, "Jesus, come into my heart" on the microphone while the rest of us kept singing, our hands up in the air as a sign of praise. My friend Kara started crying, her voice cracking.

I was swept up in the theatrics of the scene, of course, but I also think I stepped up when the pastor came to my end of the circle and spoke into the microphone for the same reason I prayed in the first place. I was scared. Scared of the fact that I’d grown to like the girl whose dog died more than anyone else in my cabin. Scared of resuming my habit of masturbation as soon as I returned home. Scared that I wasn’t feeling nearly as much as Kara, who grasped me, wailing, with a terrifying urgency when I stepped back in line.

Then my parents came to pick me up later that day, and I told them I’d asked Jesus into my heart as I’d been instructed to do by the camp pastors. My mom scoffed a little. 

"I think you already did that," she said. 

"I’ve never really said it out loud," I replied.

"But you still believed Jesus was the Son of God, right?"

"Yes," I replied.

"Well, that means the same thing," she explained.

This brief exchange sullied the experience, though at the time I couldn’t have told you why. Now I see that she understood, at least in part, what I didn’t—that churches use theatrics and ceremony in order to produce a feeling of transformation. I’d been watching the Catholic Church do it my whole life with the gold-trimmed robes, incense, stained glass, the lines of little white candles. It had never felt artificial until that moment.

***

I had one last taste of theatrics before I began to seriously reconsider willingly participating in organized religion. It was Kara’s fourteenth birthday and she invited five girls to sleep over at her house. Kara was a floater at school. She swung between reserved and loud-mouthed at unexpected times, and when she was loud she would say strange, borderline-insulting things. She was one of my friends who probably considered me very close to her, and yet I felt a vast gap between us.

She’d invited me over to her house often since we were children, and I’d gone when politeness required it, but we didn’t play the role-playing games of imagination I played with my other friends. Though I tried to initiate them, she clammed up, unsure how to escape herself even at eight years old. We usually ended up just doing crafts or watching television. 

A few years later, Kara moved down the street from me, and when I was bored I accepted invitations to paint our nails and call radio stations repeatedly until they finally gave in and played the song we wanted. Hanging out with her was always a brain-dead girly time. Though she was not among the girls I invited to my own birthday, I felt obligated to go to hers. I knew she didn’t have very many friends.

The other girls who showed up probably felt the same. They were not my regular crowd, but an assortment of random outliers from a variety of cliques. We had the house to ourselves while her parents were at the movies. I brought a disposable camera and, from the evidence, I apparently convinced everyone to line-up, looking sad with a balloon under their shirt as if they were pregnant teenagers and then, in the next photo, pull them out, looking happy. I don’t know how late into the evening it was when Kara brought up Jesus. I did what I always did when she talked about God—smiled and nodded, vaguely agreeing, but without anything to contribute. 

One of the other girls, Jenny*, was not so quick to agree, however, and a full-blown argument quickly ensued. I had never witnessed really any kind of disagreement over religion, only comparisons between denominations. Jenny admitted that she felt unsure about Jesus being the Son of God, and maybe about the existence of God in the first place. I remember her calm demeanor in sharing this intimate internal struggle.

Kara, however, was far from a safe confidant. She became impassioned, as if called to arms, and used every tool in her wheelhouse to try and convince Jenny of this thing she was so certain about. 

"How do you think the world got here, then? How could all of this just exist for no reason? What do you think happens after we die?"

Jenny, for her part, answered every question with a simple, undemanding, "I just don’t know."

Kara went on to preach about how strongly she felt God, in her own life. How many times prayer had calmed her, comforted her. She was crying now. Jenny, visibly frightened by Kara’s emotional state, said, "Listen, I’m not even saying I don’t believe, I’m just saying I don’t know."

That meant nothing to Kara. "You have to ask Jesus to come into your heart," she said, and then repeated it, many times, not unlike the pastor at Trout Creek.

That’s when Jenny left. She escaped the only way she could, by dashing upstairs and locking herself in the bathroom. I now felt the whole thing was far out of hand. The other girls and I tried to tell Jenny it was all right to emerge, even though, Kara, her tools having failed her against every bit of logic she’d been raised to consider, sat in the carpeted hall in front of the bathroom door, tears streaming down her face, screeching, "I don’t want you to go to Hell!" over and over.

Though I’ve never been one to stay out of an argument, I don’t remember my part in all of this. I have no idea what I said to Jenny about my own faith, and I certainly can’t imagine I had the courage to stand up to Kara, to tell her she might be going about this all wrong. What I do know, is that I judged Jenny in my mind, unfairly, for not giving in—not because I thought she should unquestioningly accept Christ, but because if she didn’t believe, saying she would try meant nothing to her, and she was ruining the party, with Kara crumpled on the floor there. I wanted her to accept Christ just to shut Kara up, move things along.

"Seeing somebody have faith, close up," Alice Munro writes in The Lives of Girls and Women, "is no easier than seeing someone chop a finger off."

Then Jenny finally came out of the bathroom, and it was to grab the phone so she could call her dad to pick her up.

The party was a bust, of course, though we all tried to comfort Kara after Jenny left. I felt disturbed, eating cake and watching a movie, not because our conversion had been botched, but because we’d tried to have one at all. It was my first step toward independent thinking. I was having the same moment the girl with the dead dog had at Bible camp. I no longer knew if I really believed in converting the masses. I considered that maybe faith was more personal than I’d been led to think. 

***

As if we’d been through some kind of traumatic experience together, I never really spoke with any of the guests from that birthday party again. Later that year, as I prepared to head to high school, I severed my relationship with Kara, and in the fall I sought out the punk kids, the gay kids, the freaks—drawn to their studs and piercings like a magnet. I thought, if we’re all just going to walk around judging each other, at least these people are open about it. At least they don’t preach about love and then yell, "faggot!" anytime an unpopular kid walks by.

I no longer attended youth groups and Sunday services with other people’s families. When my family went to mass at Christmas, I found myself unable to prevent quibbling with the priest in my head. Out of self-preservation, I stopped feeling guilty about masturbating. And then later, I made myself stop feeling guilty about the sexual acts that transformed me in ways Christ had never been able to. 

***

The final doubt, the one that allowed me to shuck off religion, had to do with fate versus free will. We had a variety of discussions in English class after reading Hamlet and it amazed me how few of my peers seemed to think the ideas mutually exclusive. They would say things like "everything happens for a reason." This didn’t make sense to me. After all, if that were true and God had our lives already laid out according to his plan, how could free will exist alongside fate? How could he really expect anyone to choose faith if he effectively controlled their lives? And if we did not have the power of free will, then how could he punish anyone for their poor choices?

I would’ve understood this earlier if I had bothered to think more deeply about that girl and her dead dog. Why would a God who is universally good, as we’d been taught, not treat everything with universal goodness?

I explained this all to Lucy one day, who was still very much a devoted believer and would continue to serve in the Mormon Church as an adult. Despite our differences, we were still nostalgic about the friendship we’d once shared, the movies we’d made on my parents’ camcorder, and we spoke occasionally.

Fortunately, our religious debate didn’t turn into one like Kara’s birthday party. Instead, we disputed with each other from across a great distance, but calmly, rationally, and with respect. I had more to say than "I just don’t know." Maybe that’s what I’d been waiting for, since childhood, to have more to say.

She’d understood my logic, hadn’t been able to argue against it, but admitted in response that logic had little to do with her faith. She believed in God because she felt God’s love existed. I understood her in this too—though I hadn’t felt what I’d thought was the presence of God for a long time, and had since concluded that it had been fear, not love, all along.

As our discussion concluded, Lucy marveled at me, knowing a conversion was not in the cards.

"How do you live? What is the point of life for you? Why do you get up in the morning?" she asked point-blank.

I thought about my child-body in bed at night, warding off bad-luck with prayers like incantations. I didn’t know how to explain how wonderful I felt, finally free from the crippling anxieties that had held my life in their grip for my entire childhood. Free to accept my own sexuality as harmless and natural.

I told her there were still, you know, trees, and dirt, and flowers.

*All names have been changed.


Madeline Stevens is from Boring, Oregon. She currently lives in Brooklyn where she hosts and curates the Sundays at Erv's reading series. Her writing has appeared in Blunderbuss Magazine, People Holding, Nailed Magazine, and Scribd.