Religious Fashion: So Sexless It’s Almost Sexy (Pt. 1)

I recently interviewed a series of people who grew up in strict religious communities about clothing, sex, and how those two things sometimes overlap. Over the next week or so I’ll be posting the interviews one-by-one. Here’s part one!

Sex and religion have both been around for a pretty long time, and since the beginning they’ve had a love-hate relationship. At certain times their marriage has been more civil than others–the pagan orgies of ancient Rome come to mind–however for the most part, almost unanimously, religions have viewed modesty, in both behavior and appearance, as inextricably linked to holiness. And modesty isn’t generally thought of as being super sexy.

But then again, sometimes covering-up has its own perverse appeal. Clearly, a primary objective of religious dress–particularly that of women–is to strip away any notion of sexuality–to “hide the goods,” so to speak. But in doing so, the wearer can become a symbol of the forbidden, or the hidden, which has its own allure. It’s a catch 22: the ambition to negate the body puts the focus on the body. It’s about having what you’ve been told you can not have, eating the apple you’ve been forbidden. It’s for precisely this reason that religious clothing has become so widely fetishized and appropriated in the secular world, from Lady Gaga’s translucent pink burqa, to Jean Paul Gaultier’s collection inspired by Hasidic apparel, to Madonna’s entire career.

Thirty or so years go, the religious blended far more seamlessly into society, both in their philosophy on sexuality and in fashion. Even in the 80s, a decade of sexual provocation and excess, there was still the implicit understanding by society at large that lewd or promiscuous behavior was “naughty,” and not done in polite company. However, as the Western world becomes increasingly secular, modesty is beginning to look a lot more alien. Miley publicly masturbates in latex underwear; Rihanna gives lap dances in a leather harness onstage; the average girl on the street wears either a Kim-Kardashian-inspired microdress or an American Apparel see-through crop top… and no one bats an eye. In a world where skimpy is the norm, our gaze naturally shifts to the most covered-up person in the room, thus isolating those in religious dress more than ever before.

I recently interviewed a series of people who grew up in strict religious communities about how their religious clothing has impacted both their sexual development and their personal identities. We also discussed the various ways that certain people bend the rules of their religion, in order to look more attractive or fashionable–from Muslim fashion bloggers creating stylish ways to wear hijab, to Saudi women wearing designer dresses under their abayas, to the special wigs Orthodox Jewish women wear when (almost) no one’s watching.

Part 1: Amish Fashion

Saloma Ferlong

The Amish like to think of themselves as humble pilgrims passing through Earth on their way to eternity, and therefore don’t get attached to the things of this world, like Louboutins and Instagram. Most of us know the Amish as the guys in the plain clothes who drive around in horse-drawn buggies and refuse to accept the greatness and convenience of modern technology. But for the Amish–a group of traditionalist Christians–plain dress is a symbol of their humble way of life. Although individual Amish communities differ in accepted dress, the style in each community is uniform, generally hand-sewn, and never flashy. Most sects believe that even buttons are too decorative, favoring plain, functional hooks or pins.

Amish women and girls wear conservative long dresses, and must cover their hair in public. Their hair should never be cut and is usually worn in a braid or a bun and covered by a white prayer cap, and sometimes with a bonnet as well, if they’re married. Amish men wear dark shoes and pants, and use suspenders instead of belts, as they’re considered less flashy. They wear practical straw hats in warm weather, and dark-colored felt hats during the winter. Single men shave their faces, while married men must grow an untrimmed beard, although mustaches are never allowed (they associate mustaches with military officers, and the nonresistant Amish refuse to perform military service).

Saloma Furlong grew up in an Amish community in Ohio, in a family of seven children. At age twenty she escaped her community, seeking freedom and higher education (the Amish tradition is to stop formal schooling in 8th grade). However, she was soon found and brought back against her will, only to leave again nearly three years later. Now in her fifties, her memoir Why I Left the Amish was published in January 2011, and the sequel, Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds, was released in February of this year.

When you’re young, what are you taught about the significance of Amish clothing?

Saloma: The Amish have a very humble and quiet faith. People don’t moralize about things, or even say, “women should have their head covered because the Bible says so.” It’s more about tradition–you learn what’s expected of you based on what people have been doing for generations. And if I questioned it growing up, I would hear, “Oh Saloma, that’s just the way it is.” That’s a very common way the Amish explain things. You never get any satisfactory answers, so eventually you just stop asking, and that’s really what those answers are designed to do–to shut down a child’s desire to be informed or curious. But as a child you do understand that your clothes set you apart from the rest of the world. When I was five I entered public school because there wasn’t an Amish school near us at the time, and I became keenly aware of the beautiful dresses and patent leather shoes that I couldn’t have.

But did you understand, to some extent, that the look was about modesty?

Well, even though Amish clothing is meant to be modest, that doesn’t prevent someone from stripping you of your clothes with their eyes. For the Amish, a primary element of the clothing is that it removes any element of individuality. A big emphasis in the Amish community is on humility–they believe that individuality equals pride, and to be proud is selfish and wrong, and therefore everyone should look the same. In the dominant culture, being an individual is valued, but in Amish culture being a good person is equated with fitting into the group.

Right, but it seems to be a natural human instinct to define oneself. It’s like when girls in Catholic school wear accessories even though it’s against the rules. Do you find that in Amish communities at all?

Yeah, it sometimes feels like there’s a competition of who can be the most different while still keeping within the rules. Like some girls open the necklines of their dresses more than others, or wear shorter, more form fitting dresses, or lighter colors. That’s more common when people are young, in the rumspringa years. Rumspringa is when you start dating, and sometimes during those years parents will get more lenient, and will look the other way if you have a radio or something. Some parents don’t, and would certainly smash a radio or bury it if they found it. There tends to be a hierarchy in Amish communities, and people at the top get away with a lot more than the people at the bottom.

What were you taught about sex when you were growing up? Is it similar to most other forms of Christianity–basically, “Don’t have it until you get married”?

No, it’s literally just never even talked about. At all. There have been stories of young women who left the Amish and knew absolutely nothing about the facts of life. They would know that babies appear, but not why or how, and once they were out in the real world they were raped, and they had no idea what was happening to them. That same thing also happens within the community, which is even worse, because the predator could be you brother or father or cousin, etc. And sometimes sexual knowledge is used as a way to get close to you, by saying, “Do you know how babies are made?” As if it’s some kind of a secret that’s being passed around. And then it becomes, “Well, may I show you how it’s done?” In many Amish families, if girls weren’t sexually abused, they may not know the facts of life until they’re married.

So is sexual abuse more prevalent within the Amish community than outside of it?

I’ve been asked that question many times, but it’s hard to say. There’s so much secrecy that shrouds abuse, and in a culture like the Amish, the secrecy that shrouds abuse becomes so thick, you can’t penetrate it at all. The only thing I have to go by is that if you talk to people who have left the Amish, usually, not only can they tell you their own abuse stories, but they know of many other victims as well, and they often talk about how rampant it was in their communities. There’s research showing that the more male dominated a culture is, the more prevalent abuse is. In that regard, I would say that the way Amish girls are taught to obey their brothers, fathers, uncles, and elders of the church, which makes them vulnerable to abuse.

Are there occasionally people who learn about sex, or the ways of the outside world, through secretly having a radio, like your mentioned, or through conversations with an outsider?

Well nowadays some people have technology on the sly, like smartphones, and some Amish will actually have a TV in their basement that they rig up with a car battery. So some people are very well versed in sexual stuff. The people who don’t know anything about sex come from the strictest of the strict–the Swartzentruber groups. They wouldn’t dare have a cell phone, even on the sly. People can be really in the dark. There are a lot of young women who don’t know what’s going on when they get their period for the first time.

And you allowed to wear tampons?

Well when I was young, we had homemade pads made from cloth. Today, some Amish women may wear tampons, but in the strictest groups they still wear homemade cloth pads.

I guess a homemade pad is not that much worse than a regular pad, though.

I disagree. I’ve tried both, and believe me, having to wash your pads is way worse than throwing them out.

You win. Is it common for Amish people to have sex out of wedlock?

Okay, now you’re getting into the area of Amish culture that’s one of the biggest secrets. Some Amish communities, including my home community, still practice something called bed courtship. This was practiced back in Switzerland, where our ancestors came from. They were being prosecuted for their faith, which meant that sometimes young people would hide in the attick of their home, and in Switzerland it’s very common to have a haymow above your living quarters. So they would lie up there in a bed and talk, and they would place a board down the middle to separate the man from the woman and that was basically a “date.” Today, some Amish still do this, except the board has long disappeared. And even though you’re supposed to remain chaste until you’re married, it’s very common for girls to get pregnant beforehand, partially because of this practice. I personally think the reason bed courting is still done is because it traps the woman if she does get pregnant. Entrapment is one way of maintaining the culture.

What about the clothes Amish men wear–are they intended to desexualize, and convey modesty, in the way the women’s clothes are?

Kind of, yeah. There’s nothing really attractive about their baggy pants suits. I mean, they look like grizzly bears because of the shaving restrictions, and their hair has to be long. And Swartzentruber men don’t bathe often. Men get more privileges though, like they’re allowed to have buttons on their shirts but women have to use straight pins.

Are there variations in the way women dress in different Amish communities?

Yes, in the most conservative communities they’re not allowed to wear underwear with elastic at the waist, and it has to be homemade, so the only choice is cotton bloomers with a button at the waist. They’re not allowed to wear bras, and they have to wear these long, baggy slips underneath their dresses, even in the heat of summer.

When and how did you leave the Amish? Was it a hard choice to make?

It was hard, because for the Amish, the ultimate judgment is against those who leave. They don’t condemn anyone else to hell, not even murderers. But my life had become really unbearable. My family was dysfunctional–I had a mentally ill father, a mother who did not protect us, and an abusive older brother. I felt I had two choices: I could commit suicide or leave the Amish. And I thought, “Well, if I commit suicide I’m going straight to hell, and if I leave I’m told I’m going to hell too… but at least I’ll get a whole lifetime on Earth before that happens.”

Very rational.

I know, right! I was twenty when I left the first time, and I escaped in secret. But after four months I was blindsided when a van load of Amish came from Ohio to Vermont, where I had moved, and took me back. The bishop was in the van, along with my uncle, who is a minister, and his wife, my sister and my older brother, who had a great deal of influence over me at the time. I didn’t trust that if I refused to go my brother wouldn’t physically grab me and put me on the van. There are many stories of people being surrounded and physically prevented to leave. But the second time I left, I told my mother and my sisters what I was about to do, and I left with a lot more confidence, so they let me be.

Now that you’ve left, do you think any of the Amish philosophy has stuck with you?

Well, now that I’m part of the dominant culture, I kind of resent the modern fashion that is shoved down our throats. In the Amish you have to conform, yet in the dominant culture, if you don’t keep up with fashion, there’s a stigma that goes along with that too. We think we’re so free, yet who’s to say we’re not as conditioned as the extreme religious people? And it’s largely not even women who are determining what’s in style for women, which today tends to be very revealing. I have a Catholic friend whose theory is that the new fashion of showing so much skin is like giving someone a gift without the wrapping on it, and I kind of like that image. And if you look at it from a slightly different angle, you could say that actually, the Amish are the one’s who are refusing to comply.

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Jamie Bell: Talking Sadism and Growing Up

Long time readers of this blog may remember my previous years of obsession with the actor Jamie Bell, which begun after I first saw Hallam Foe, in which he plays an emotionally unstable, cross-dressing late-teen who becomes sexually obsessed with a woman who looks like his mother (aka my ideal man). My obsession eventually faded (for the most part), but then peaked again after seeing him with a whip in his hand in Nymphomanic. As a result, I was definitely too excited when I recently got the chance to interview him IRL for the cover of Rollacoaster mag. You now can read the article below:

To say that British actor Jamie Bell has range would be an understatement. Since launching his career in 2000 with his Bafta-winning performance in Billy Elliot, Bell has had an incredibly dynamic career–he’s worked with big gun directors like Steven Spielberg (The Adventures of Tintin) and Peter Jackson (King Kong), while maintaining his indie cred with films like last year’s Filth (based on the Irvine Welsh novel), in which he played a cocaine-fuelled rookie cop. Earlier this year, he could be seen giving Charlotte Gainsbourg’s bottom 40 lashes (and then some) as a sadist-for-hire in Lars Von Trier’s sex epic Nymphomaniac. More recently, Bell made the jump to TV, playing the lead in Turn, a new American drama about a farmer leading a team of secret agents during the Revolutionary War. And he’ll soon add “superhero” to his diverse list of characters, with the forthcoming film The Fantastic Four. And to top if all off, Bell recently had his first child–a baby boy with his actress wife, Evan Rachel Wood. I recently met up with Bell in his home of Los Angeles to talk about S&M, the internet, and becoming a full-fledged adult. 

A few years ago, would you have imagined yourself staring in a Revolutionary War TV drama?

JB: I probably wouldn’t have doubted it. I always find myself in period pieces, which is weird, because I don’t even particularly like period pieces. But when I look back at the stuff I’ve done, I’m usually in a different century.

KS: “Turn” shoots in Virginia, and you brought your family out to live with you during filming. How was that?

JB: I was very grateful that my family were with me, for sure, but it was also difficult at times–you know, you’re shooting like 17-hour days, almost every day, and then you go home and you’ve got the family to take care of. It’s a magical, incredible juggling act, the three roles: father, husband, actor. It was the first time I did it.

KS: So when you have a kid, do you suddenly start asking yourself questions like: Do I want to be “cool dad,” “strict dad,” or “artistic dad”? Do I give my kid a baseball bat or a guitar?

JB:  It’s strange–my son is only eight months old, but I’m already having thoughts like, ‘I want him to be like this,’ and ‘I don’t want him to be like that.’ But I think when you become a parent you suddenly realize that every parent did the best they could. You stop judging your own parents so harshly, and you accept that you’re going to make some mistakes–it’s inevitable–and you just hope the mistakes aren’t big ones. And beyond that, love is the most important thing. I would never tell my kid he couldn’t do something, or couldn’t act a certain way.

KS: Right, as a liberal person, it seems obvious that you would be accepting of whatever your child’s chosen lifestyle may be. Like I would never care if my kid was gay, or dressed weird or whatever. But then I’m like… wait, what if my kid is a homophobic jock? I would not be OK with that.

JB: Right, but I feel like if your kid is homophobic then there’s clearly something or someone influencing those feelings. Like if my son was homophobic I’d have to step back and evaluate myself, like ‘Fuck, when and where did something go wrong?’ Ya know? If he was a jock I guess that would just be his personality, and I’d accept that. Although I’d admittedly think it was kind of odd, having been raised by my wife and I. But that stuff happens–we rebel. You’re raised a certain way and you want to push back against it–sometimes the rebellion is just to piss your parents off, but sometimes it’s because you’re genuinely interested in something different, or because you see flaws in the values of the people who raised you. I think pushing against authority is a good thing. Although I personally never really had that whole ‘Fuck you, Dad’ mentality.

KS: Speaking of rebellious behaviour, you’re amazing in Nymphomaniac. You play K, a “Dom” who’s hired by masochistic women looking to be physically abused. There’s no backstory to your character, so part of the intrigue is wondering ‘Who is this person and how did he end up doing these deviant things?’ So in playing that character, did you create those answers in your head?

JB: Not particularly, actually. The idea was for my character to be a bit unexpected: I’m sort of the last person you’d imagine to be doing what K does. The only thing I was really thinking about during those scenes was, ‘What happens if I fell in love with one of these women?’ Like what happens if K starts to feel sympathy? But other than that, the abuse was just something he did–it was his version of playing squash on the weekend. And he was really good at doing it.

KS: But not everyone could do what K does–I think most people would have moral or philosophical issues with physically harming other people, even if they wanted it.

JB: Right, but I think there’s a disconnect. I don’t even think he gets sexual arousal or excitement from it. I think he maybe didn’t understand why these women wanted him to do it but he had the clientele, so he just did it. It’s like a performance almost–you’re being someone else for a while. You’re providing the fantasy.

KS: Before Nymphomaniac were you familiar with the S&M world at all, or did you do research?

JB: I did research which included watching a lot of pornography. Also, a friend of mine owns a sex shop and I just spent a lot of time there, but that was about it. I’m not incredibly well-versed in it, but of course I think it’s fascinating–anything to do with sexual expression, or sexual repression, is very fascinating. And I think Lars Von Trier is making a commentary on that.

KS: You explored somewhat similarly “deviant” ground in 2008’s Hallam Foe, about a teenage voyeur whose obsession with his dead mother verges on the sexual.

JB: Yeah, it’s about sex being incredibly ambiguous. Hallam Foe is like, “I don’t get it”–sex is connected to being born, it’s connected to your mum, and that’s not so sexy… but then it also kind of is, weirdly. It’s a Freudian problem. Sex is a very odd thing. It’s intriguing, and it’s something that everybody fucking does, but it also shuts a lot of people down. Sex is a scandal. 

KS: The fact that sex is still so scandalous is so strange. Like the huge media scandal now of the Duke University pornstar–she was outed for acting in porn and now she can’t be on campus, where she was studying law, because she’s getting so many death threats. Everyone watches porn, but being in porn is a crime worthy of death, or at least public disgrace.

JB: But I wonder if it was a man who was doing porn and wanted to be a lawyer—I wonder if he would be kicked off campus. I feel like a big part of that scandal is the lingering double standard. For women it’s “If you’re a porno actress then you’re a whore, and if you’re a whore then you shouldn’t be a lawyer.” But if it was a guy it would be like, “You shouldn’t be doing that but… secret high five?” For women, sex usually has some moral consequence, but it’s different for men, which is wrong. My wife’s very uppity about it as well. And rightly so.

KS: A couple years ago I was in a serious relationship with a guy who was also a writer, and if felt impossible to avoid a competition between us. Do you and your wife ever feel that competition?

JB: Yeah, we do, honestly. Like, “Oh, you got that job?” But you’re supportive because of course you want the other person to do well. And I think a healthy measure of competition is a good thing, because it means you’re pushing the other person to achieve and do great work. It’s not so much competing as always  wanting to do better. I was raised with competition from a young age, because I begin dancing competitively when I was six–it was always win, win, win, win.

KS: So I know you’re 28, and so am I. I guess it’s slightly different because I’m not married and don’t have a kid yet, and that sort of fast-tracks you into adulthood, however these past couple years—27, 28— have felt very different for me. You can’t use the crutch of youth as an excuse for stuff anymore.

JB: Oh, so true. And especially when you have a kid you can’t. I used to manage to get away with so much shit, like not responding to emails, misbehaving, or not doing my job properly. And sometimes I still think I can get away with it, but then my manager will be like ‘What the fuck you doing? You’re not like 13 anymore.’ That behavior no longer seems “cute”–now it just looks bad. 

KS: Yeah. And also, when you accomplish something big at the age of 25–like writing a book or making a movie or whatever–it seems really impressive, like you’re special. But when you’re 28 it’s expected that you should be doing great things.

JB: Right, and then there’s people like Tavi Gevinson… fucking hell, what’s going on there? The younger generation is so much more entrepreneurial than we were. Like ‘I recorded an album; I have my own magazine.’ It’s like, you’re fucking 12! Whereas our generation—well, I can only really speak for myself, but I wasn’t like that. When I hear about these kids who achieve so much so quickly, it kind of blows my mind. 

KS: But what’s different is that teenagers now had the internet–like the full-fledged, information boom, social media version of the internet–from when they were in single digits, whereas we were already in college when that happened. When Tavi was 8 she had access to the history of everything that was ever cool or influential at her fingertips–the fashion of every subculture, the music of every underground band, every decade’s most important films..

JB: Yeah, technology is a huge part of it, but I also think we now live in a world where “dreams are possible.” Maybe it’s something to do with reality shows, or the phenomenon of internet celebrities, but today there’s just the sense that if you want to do or make something, you can do it by yourself. You don’t even need to go anywhere–you don’t need to move to LA and get an agent, or be signed by a record label, you can just put something on YouTube and if it’s good someone will find you.

KS: True… although I suddenly feel self-conscious that this conversation is making us seem really old. Like, ‘There’s this thing called the internet that makes dreams come true!”

JB: “All these kids out there… using YouTube!” It’s sad.

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Do Gurls like Toys More than Boyz?

This was originally written for VICE.com

On the most recent episode of VICE’s People Who Just Had Sex, I interviewed a dominatrix named Samantha and her longterm boyfriend about bondage, love-making and masturbation. What didn’t make it into the edit was our conversation about how, judging from our own sexual experiences, women tend to be more comfortable using sex toys than men, both during sex and masturbation.

But why is that? I literally have a giant bag full of fake vaginas in my apartment right now (thus is the life of a sex writer), and I can’t even give them away. My girl friends all casually have vibrators on their nightstands, and swap sex-toy recommendations, but many of the guys I’ve dated have seemed embarrassed by the idea of sexual paraphernalia. Also, some have felt threatened by my wanting to use a vibrator during sex. I decided to consult my favorite sex therapist, June Tomaso-Wood, to ask her if it’s true that girls like toys more than boys.

So, is it true?
June Tomaso-Wood: Well, it’s true that some men find it emasculating to admit that they want or need a device in their sexual pay—even if it’s a girlfriend’s vibrator, which could potentially be stimulating to him as well—because young men want to be viewed as virile, sexually self-confident, and capable of satisfying a woman. There’s a lot of shame around sex for men in this culture, so even though masturbation is not necessarily taboo, because of course everybody masturbates, a lot of men choose to keep their mouth shut about it.

But are some of your male patients interested in toys?
Some are, yeah. I just sold an 82-year-old man a vibrator. He has a 92-year-old girlfriend, and he called me up and said, “The previous vibrator you sent me broke. Can you send me something better that’s going to last longer?” I kid you not. His girlfriend loves sex, but he can’t get as hard as he once could anymore, so to enable intercourse they use a product which decreases performance anxiety in the male, then he uses a bullet to get as hard an erection as possible, and he uses cock rings to keep the blood in his penis. During this she stimulates all her nerve endings down there with a dual stimulation vibrator, and then they have intercourse.

Wow, that’s amazing, but also seems really laborious. But I guess that’s OK because they’re old, and probably don’t have many other plans. Anyway, what about masturbation? The vibe I’ve gotten from some guys is, “I don’t need to jerk-off because I get laid all the time.”
What that signifies to me is cultural problem. Masturbation and sex are separate desires. Some men feel like it’s a feather in their cap to have many sexual conquests, and feel they need to be presenting themselves asa Don Juan and therefore don’t need to be masturbating.

When I’m having a lot of sex, I actually think I masturbate more. I always say: sex is like carbs, if you cut it from your diet, eventually you stop craving it. But as soon as I eat a bagel, all I can thinking about is eating another bagel.
Right, so often if you’re in the courting stage of a relationship, or really just in any exciting relationship, your dopamine receptors are very acute, so you’re sexually responsive, which means you’re thinking about sex all the time. And when you’re havinga lot of sex you can remain engorged in the vaginal area, so you want to climax again and again.

As a girl, what are you supposed to do if your boyfriend gets weird about you wanting to use a vibrator during sex?
Well, that’s just an ego thing. He’s thinking, “What, I’m not enough?” They feel that their penis should be the be-all-end-all of your sexual life. But in reality, a vibrator can stimulate all of your 8,000 nerve endings very quickly, which gets you very wet and engorged with blood, and your muscles down there tighten, and a penis just can’t do it all—it can’t stimulate the woman on the outside. So you just have to explain to your partners that the toy isn’t a threat or a replacement, it’s just an added bonus. Of course, nothing can ever replace the penis, or the closeness of being with a partner.

Do you ever suggest to your make patients that they should use sex toys?
I’ve had men come to me addicted to porn, whoare having trouble getting excited about intercourse, or who can’t reach orgasm during sex. See, when we watch porn, the dopamine receptors in our brains become very stimulated, so it’s exhilarating. Men know exactly how quickly and tightly to stimulate themselves while watching porn, and can reach orgasm quickly. But the problem is, when they then have actual sex, a real woman’s vagina doesn’t feel as good as their own hand, and they’re so depleted of dopamine that sex doesn’t feel as exhilarating. They’re used to holding their penises so tightly that it becomes less attractive to have intercourse than to masturbate watching airbrushed pornstars. So that’s when I transition men to male masturbator sleeves, because the sleeve is not gripped so tightly.

Yeah, Dan savage is always telling guys not to hold it so tight when jerking-off, because no vaj or butthole or throat will ever going to be as tight as your death grip.

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