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A Grown-Up, Not Sexed-Up, View of Womanhood


Sep 9 2013
The dialogue we missed about Miley Cyrus and coming of age.

In the overblown bluster about Miley Cyrus's VMA performance, we neglected a crucial discussion about growing up female in our culture.

CNN highlighted the point Cyrus was trying to make, declaring that "she is, after all, no longer the teen Disney star she once was." Her performance was a public pronouncement of her coming-of-age. We've seen this before: A young, seemingly innocent star throws off the yoke of childhood naiveté and announces her adult identity in a display of sex appeal and ebullient debauchery. It's become a predictable script.

That's why this article is not about Miley Cyrus, Lindsey Lohan, Britney Spears, or any ingénue du jour. I'm interested instead in what leads Miley Cyrus or the midriff-baring girl up the street to believe that in order to prove her adulthood, she must become an object of male sexual consumption. And I'm interested in how the church can offer her an alternative.

The widespread agreement that Cyrus's willingness to be objectified marks her attempt to assume the mantle of womanhood indicates a deep problem with the way we define female adulthood.

Obviously and unavoidably, part of becoming an adult woman has to do with female embodiment and sexuality. We gain the ability to reproduce with all the excitement, responsibility, and monthly annoyance that entails. But biology is not enough to indicate adulthood in our culture. Miley Cyrus had a post-pubescent body long before the VMAs.

In order to be seen as an empowered adult in our contemporary society, we can't just be mature sexual beings; we must be sexually available. As females, we often demonstrate adulthood by using our sexuality in ways that invite, in fact that practically beg for, the male gaze. It is a sort of post-sexual revolution version of the debutante coming out. Some factions in feminism even point to this kind of overt rejection of sexual boundaries or morals as an act of empowerment. I am woman, watch me twerk.

Unfortunately, defining adulthood through sex or sexual activity is not limited to secular culture but has also affected the church. We imbibe these broader messages about how girls come of age, but if our church culture does not provide an alternative way to come of age outside of marriage, young women who remain celibate and unmarried struggle to understand themselves and be understood as fully women and fully adult.

Young women in our culture use overt sexual allure and sexuality to show that we aren't kids anymore. The church instead must offer another way to attest to our adult womanhood. If we do not, when we encourage young women to remain chaste and value modesty, it will inadvertently be a message of juvenilization--to remain good "little girls." In order for celibate adults to be acknowledged as adults in evangelical churches, our understanding of adulthood needs to be clarified and decoupled from sexual activity or marital status.

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A Grown-Up, Not Sexed-Up, View of Womanhood