The Ventriloquist

An online publication at and outside the boundary of evangelical Christianity.

Sunday

15

May 2011

The Image Game

by Whitney Muhlenkamp Wood, on Cedarville, May 2011, Relationships

I had the opportunity to serve as a resident assistant my second year at Cedarville. I expected an awesome chance to get to know 14 freshmen girls and help them transition to college life. Overall, that’s what it was. It was also, however, a crash course in Cedarville rules. I never realized how ambiguous and arbitrary many of the rules were until I had to enforce them or had fourteen other people who were being affected by them. This was particularly true in the realm of PDA.

PDA at Cedarville is an incredibly vague thing to me. Even when I was an RA, I didn’t know what the line truly was. Handholding and a “3-second” embrace were fine, but between that and making out, it’s hard to figure out what is a “public display of affection.” I tended to take a more lenient stance. Other RAs, however, would crack down on things that seemed extraordinarily minor to me. I remember one night when one of the girls came back to the dorm, angry that she had received PDA demerits. The reason: she was brushing her boyfriend’s hair off of his forehead. It was times like this where it was extremely difficult to be an RA. I didn’t believe that she should be given demerits, but I also didn’t want to undercut the RA who had given the demerits. After this and similar stories from different girls in my units, I began to think more about the “purity” system that was and still is in place at Cedarville along with what the rules were actually doing to students and their relationships with others.

Though Cedarville claims that the PDA and “purity” rules are in place so that we build up one another spiritually, cultivate healthy relationships, and honor Christ, the product that these rules produce on campus seems to be something different entirely. Both as a RA and as a student, I noticed that the rules did not promote “purity” so much as it promoted secrecy within relationship while the rules judged and punished openly affectionate behavior. Receiving demerits did not cause the girl in my unit to stop brushing her boyfriends hair off his forehead (though I hardly think this is something they needed to remove from their relationship to keep it “healthy”). It merely stopped her from doing it anywhere they would be caught. It also made her believe, and rightly so, that the PDA rules are not actually looking out for the best interest of the students in the relationship but are rather an enforcement of arbitrary rules in order to keep an image of purity on a campus advertised as “Christ focused.” It is this idea of the image that is dangerous in relationship. If there is the façade of “purity,” the Cedarville community has no reason to ask about a couple’s relationship--parents can rest easy and the couple can escape awkward conversations from others. Once a couple learns the image game, it’s much more difficult to share their relationship openly and honestly within the community. I found that as a RA, my ability to have honest discussions with the girls in my units about this topic was next to impossible, because they knew that sharing too much information could give them demerits and put me in a position of having to report them (which they knew I didn’t want to do).

This image of “purity” is not necessarily Biblical purity. Affection is a natural and healthy thing as relationships develop. As many of us have noticed, however, the Bible has no definitive guidelines for affection with dating relationships. What it does provide is a community of people with whom we practice the Gospel and who can provide support, encouragement, and advice for navigating those dating relationships.

Because students are not given the opportunity to practice healthy affection in community at Cedarville, setting the standard with this “purity” image tends to take students down one of two paths. On one hand, students attempt to live up to this image of an individual that does not need physical affection in relationship until marriage. On the other, students master (or simply scorn) the “purity” image and become very comfortable with private displays of affection. I confess that I was in the latter camp. Neither of these are the healthiest of options.

The first option leads to sexual repression, in which students deny all aspects of their sexuality and end up focused on finding ways to continue to avoid thinking about anything sexual. This explains Cedarville’s phenomena such as men requesting that women not wear pajama pants or sweatpants in Chucks to keep them from associating the women with bed and so on and so forth.

The second group of students tend to have the opposite reaction. Outside the fairly sexually repressive environment of Cedarville, students tend to overcompensate and find them selves exploring physical contact within their relationships more than they would have expected. The negative consequences of these views are significant. Neither of these provide direction for students to honestly engage with fellow Christians on this topic, nor does it remind the community at large that public affection is not something bad to see in a relationship but rather something honest.

If Cedarville truly desires for students to build up one another spiritually, to cultivate healthy relationships, and to honor Christ, there must be space for students to practice healthy affection and realize that the realm of affection and sexuality should not only be a private domain, but also a public one. “No-PDA” rules punish honest affection in community and do not allow this healthy space to materialize. As a campus – students, faculty, and administration -- we must figure out a way to open dialogue on this topic. We cannot allow the image of “purity” to be the driving force of our relationships. If we’re serious about forging meaningful relationships which foster mutual understanding, accountability, and, yes, affection, then we should carefully reexamine the role which PDA rules play in shaping campus culture.