Andrew Richardson on Porn, Sex and America

I interviewed one of my favorite people in the world and my personal hero, Andrew Richardson, publisher of the sex magazine Richardson, for Amuse (a new site from Vice). We talked about sex, style, America, our overly-PC shame culture, and the new American female body.

Read it HERE :)

Islam and the Politics of Looking Sexy


This is Part 3 of Religious Fashion: a series of interviews with people who grew up in strict religious communities about clothing, sex, and how those two things sometimes overlap. If you haven’t read Part 1 you can do that here, which also includes a paragraph introduction to the series.

Part 3: Islamic Fashion

Aminah is a 28 year old academic, currently getting her masters in gender and development. You might recognize her as one of the ladies from the viral Mipsterz (Muslim Hipster, duh) music video. The Mipsterz are a group of young women proving that it’s possible to be stylish while still covering up, aiming to break the stereotype of the hijab as a symbol of oppression. Aminah was born and raised in Toronto to Muslim parents who immigrated from Pakistan. As an adolescent she never wore traditional Islamic dress, however when she turned 18 she made the independent decision to start wearing hijab, and continued to wear it for 10 years. Last year, she made the difficult and complex decision to take it off again.

It’s no secret that the appearance of women is a major issue in Islam. Muslims around the world have differing ideas about what constitutes an appropriate female dress code; while the most extreme believe that all women should wear a veil that covers the entire face and body, most commonly, it’s preferred that a woman completely cover her hair, but not necessarily her face. Muslim men are also expected to dress simply and modestly–as a minimum requirement, a man must always be covered in loose and unrevealing clothing from his navel to his knee.

Hijab is the general name for the head covering worn by Muslim women after puberty, and also refers to modest Islamic styles of dress in general. In the West, there’s an assumption that wearing hijab demonstrates a woman’s inferiority to men, whereas Islam states that a modestly dressed woman commands respect and rejects sexual objectification. According to Islam, the “liberated” Western woman, obsessed with looks, figure, and youth, is the one living a life of slavery.

I recently spoke with Aminah about how wearing hijab has affected her life, the male gaze, and the politics of looking sexy in Islamic culture.

Why did you decide to start wearing hijab at 18?

Aminah: Well, first of all, a lot of people would assume that because my dad didn’t make me wear hijab growing up that he must not be conservative, which isn’t true. He’s very conservative, and he definitely had an obsession with telling us how to dress. But simultaneously, as a new immigrant, he didn’t want to ostracize our family and prevent us from assimilating. For a lot of Muslims who grow up in Western countries–and I’ve heard this from people in Orthodox Jewish communities, too–we grow up embracing the identity of our country–so we feel very Canadian, or very British, or American or whatever–but we also have this alternative identity because we were raised being told that we’re Muslim, and are therefore different. You can’t do everything everyone does–maybe you can’t go camping with the opposite gender, or go to the prom, and so you kind of feel like you don’t belong. But then, after 9/11, I noticed that a lot of Muslim women started wearing hijab. And then I went to university, and suddenly I was around way more Muslim women. St the beginning of the school year almost no one wore it, but then one by one girls started wearing it, and by the four year almost all of us wore hijab.

So you think the trend was about unity?

I do. Obviously covering is a tenant of that faith, but in my opinion, in a lot of cases, it’s more about identity politics. It’s sort of like how goths have their place in society. If you’re in hijab, other Muslims will be like ‘Hey, I get that girl, she’s like me.’ When I was younger I would have said wearing hijab was about God, but looking back I’m like, ‘Wow, maybe there really is a crowd-psychology, sociological reason that pulls people in.” There’s a comfort that comes along with feeling like you’re in a group of people who relate to each other.

I recently spoke with a Hasidic girl who said that the hardest part of leaving her religious community was taking off the outfit, because even though she no longer followed all of the rules, it was primarily the clothes that established the group mentality.

It’s good to hear that, because there’s a lot of Muslim girls who wear the outfit, and then people get shocked–especially non-Muslims–if they see her smoking a joint or kissing her boyfriend. And yeah, those things are taboo within our community, but they obviously still happen, but it’s just not talked about. So you can wear the outfit and be part of the group, but you might not be following all the group’s principals.

Aminah recently

So what’s the consensus on the recent rise of Muslim fashion bloggers–girls who are pushing the boundaries of hijab, most of whom look undeniably sexy, right?

Totally. There are some bloggers with like 100k readers, and some have makeup and fashion lines, and they do look sexy, and it’s sparked a conversation within the community about what is hijab and what isn’t. In certain ways, hijab can be seen as celebratory, because it separates you from the mainstream’s obsession with beauty, which is why a lot of women don’t like that hijab has become more pop culture and mainstream and fashionista. They would argue that if you’re wearing hijab you should be saying to the world, “I don’t give a shit. I’m being radical. I’m not going to do my hair.”

But surely these girls are being radical in their own way, right?

Yeah, I think these girls are challenging lots of things. They’re challenging the patriarchy within the Muslim community that says that a good Muslim women wears no makeup, averts her gaze, hides from the public, and is shy, humble and doesn’t laugh loudly. These girls are reconfiguring that and instigating a dialogue. I think a lot of Muslim women want to be pretty and fashionable and current, and maybe even sexy, but not in a way that’s overt. Many Muslim women are pulling from the Quran and saying, ‘Actually, it’s not my problem if a guy is looking at me, I can look good if I want to.’

So it’s not true, as we sometimes hear, that it’s the woman’s job to make sure men don’t look at her?

Not in Islam. In Islamic law men and women are both supposed to be modest. Muslim scholars wouldn’t say that the reason for a woman covering herself is to avert the male gaze. Because really, you can go to a Muslim country as a woman and be fully covered in black garb and men will still hit on you. And covered women get harassed in this country, too. If someone wants to sexualize you, they’re going to sexualize you. So the problem isn’t about women covering themselves, it’s about men who have been constructed to behave in a certain way, and that behavior being considered acceptable.

So if it’s not about deflecting the male gaze, especially in the case of a burqa, then what is it about?

Well the burqa isn’t something that’s common globally. Islam is a global religion–you have Muslims in Africa, in Saudi Arabia, in the West, etc., so there isn’t one monolithic practice, and that’s why a lot of people don’t understand us as much, because we come in very different colors and with different ideas. You will see women in Africa wearing hijab, and it will be tied in a turban, but she’ll be wearing a sleeveless dress, and that’s considered modest. But to achieve modesty in Saudi Arabia a woman will be wearing a full black veil, but it will be Christian Dior or Versace or whatever. So context is very important. So if you want to know why women cover that way in Saudi Arabia, well, I would say that it’s a lifestyle, it’s very bourgeois, a lot of the women there don’t work, it’s an oil country… but then the reasons why women cover in Afghanistan are different. And of course, there are examples of women being forced to cover.

How do you feel about that?

Well, I’m reluctant to talk about it because I don’t want Muslims or any religious people to be perceived as though they need to be saved by another ideology, or by secular humanism. In order to understand each other we really have to see where the other person is coming from, and to deconstruct and be critical of what we’ve been taught in our own culture. I live in a society where I was privileged enough to grow up with choice, so I can’t fathom what the life of a woman with no choice is like. But I do think the obsession around womens bodies is unfair, and that women are at loss when they have to cloak in such an extreme way, and aren’t allowed to participate in the public sphere or get an education, or even drive in Saudi Arabia. And those laws are usually not taken from the Quran. It’s just men at the top deciding what level of strictness fits their needs.

So earlier this year Lady Gaga wore a see-through neon burqa, and her song “Burqa” erotisizes Islamic dress. I’m sure she probably meant well, but many Muslim women have spoken out against the song, saying it evokes the worst stereotypes of Muslim women, painting them as submissive and sexually repressed.

Right, and that’s problematic. Like, when the women in the Mipsters video are wearing hijab in fashionable ways, that’s not submission, that’s power. They’re not just fighting against patriarchy in their own community, but in the West, too. The West is constantly saying that Muslim women are backwards and anachronistic, that we don’t contribute to culture, we have no art, we’re not intelligent–these are ideas that go back to colonial Africa! It’s the saving discourse, and some Muslim women resent it, and so in response they’re like, “No, actually, I like wearing it, I like covering my hair, it saves me time and makes me feel comfortable.” And ultimately they want to wear it because they believe in God. And as the world becomes increasingly secular and atheist, it becomes harder for the public sphere to grasp the religious community. But I think that goes both ways, and some Muslim women can’t understand why people like Lady Gaga, or someone like the feminist artist Petra Collins, for example, does what they do.

Why did you recently make the decision to take off your hijab?

Well, that’s a heavy and complicated question. I was comfortable in hijab, but then I started dating, and some of the guys weren’t Muslim, and people would literally stare at us in the street. Also, I felt like I was constantly being fetishized. I found that a lot of white men–and a lot of hijabis say this, actually–will fetishize you in this orientalist way, like they think you’re so exotic and want to take care of you, and treat you really peculiar, and that started to aggravate me. Especially in the work place. Or I would be riding a bike and people would literally point like, ‘OMG Muslim girl on a bike!” and sometimes I wouldn’t care, but other times it would just be like, ‘Ugh, fuck off, just let me ride a bike and drink coffee and play guitar and not have to answer to all of these politics.’ Ultimately, I just wanted to know what it would be like to blend in for once.

Religious Fashion: So Sexless It’s Almost Sexy (Pt. 2)


This is Part 2 of Religious Fashion: a series of interviews with people who grew up in strict religious communities about clothing, sex, and how those two things sometimes overlap. If you haven’t read Part 1 you can do that here, which also includes a paragraph introduction to the series.

Part 2: Hasidic Fashion

The Hasidic dress code is one of the most extreme of all religious fashions, and often considered to be the most peculiar by outsiders. Hasidic style has evolved throughout the years, and different sects can be distinguished by subtle differences in attire. Jewish law requires women to dress with extreme modesty–they’re expected to wear loose fitting clothing, thick stockings, and to cover the collarbone, elbows, and knees. Once married, a woman should stop showing her hair in public, and begin covering her head with a wig, hat or head scarf. Some women go as far as to cut their hair off entirely.

Hasidic men traditionally wear a white shirt covered by a dark vest, dark pants, a long dark coat and a black hat. The preference for black goes back to the 18th century, when it was thought to be very gentlemanly to dress all in one dark color. For men, the beard and peyot (sidelocks) are never trimmed or shaved. (As an ex-Hasidic friend of mine once put it, “To shave your beard is to shave the grace of God off your face.”) The Hasidic look is constant all year round, which must makes summers in New York–home to the largest population of Hasidic Jews in the world–pretty darn brutal. Oh, and by the way, that whole thing about Hasidic people having sex through a hole in a sheet is actually a myth. In truth, that was an old Puritan practice that was somehow transposed to the Hasidic community, whereas Hasidic people are meant to have sex completely unclothed, in total darkness.

Lazer and Raizy (cool names) are a couple and filmmaking duo from New York, both in their 20s. They grew up in separate Hasidic communities in and around NYC, and both made the decision to leave their community at the early age of 15. They’ve been dating for two years.

Why is Hasidic dress so distinct?

Lazer: It’s about segregation. Each piece of the Hasidic wardrobe has its own traditions and reasons for being worn, but the philosophy behind the extreme outfit as a whole is that the world should see us as a group. It’s like a suit of armor, making it impossible for you to assimilate. And that, of course, includes sexual separation, too.

You’d never get away with sliding unnoticed into a bar to casually hit on a girl, basically.

Lazer: Exactly–everybody notices you. And it happens within the community, too. For example, once a woman is married she can’t show her hair in public. Some women, like my mother and sisters, cut off their hair and wear a hat, whereas others just wear a wig on top of their hair. And that in itself is another form of separation–if a woman walks down the street in a wig, you know she’s married and belongs to someone, and therefore and you can’t connect with her.

Is it true that some Hasidic women have special, sexy wigs that they wear at home for their husbands?

Lazer: Sure they do. Some women will spend 3 or 4 grand on a wig, maybe one that’s long and blonde, whatever. A friend of mine told me that a Hasidic woman came into a hair salon in Williamsburg and asked for a short, pink haircut to look like Rihanna, and afterward she went to the bathroom, put on her wig, and left. She couldn’t be seen in public like that, but her husband wanted her to look like Rihanna at home.

A friend of mine, who grew up Hasidic, told me that the pockets of a Hasidic man’s coat angle just slightly backward, ostensibly to prevent his hands from coming into contact with his penis. Have you heard of this?

Lazer: Yeah, there’s lots of stuff like this. For example, after your bar mitzvah, when you’re 13, you have to start wearing different underwear–it’s longer and more baggy, because you shouldn’t have any tight fabric around your penis, because the friction could stimulate you sexually. For the Hasidic community, everything is about protecting you from sexual thoughts, because improper actions always begin with improper thoughts.

So, because you were constantly reminded not to think about sex, did that just result in you thinking about sex all the time? It’s like saying to someone, “Don’t think about an elephant.”

Raizy: It definitely creates a sexual tension, and that tension can keep sex on the brain. Like if your principal says, “Why are you wearing this tight outfit, is it to make the men like you?”, you’re going to start evaluating your sex appeal, ya know? Did you know that in Jewish newspapers there’s no images of women at all? They’re all blurred out, even if it’s a photo of a little girl, which obviously is sending the message that a photo of a female child is too titillating to be seen, and in doing that you’re forcing people think about sex in association with the image of a kid, even if that wasn’t the intention of the person looking.

Lazer: The schools actually hire people, whenever the new textbooks arrive, to cross out all the pictures of girls in the textbooks for the boys schools, in order to eliminate temptation.

So if there’s no contact, do you end up becoming terrified of the opposite sex?

Lazer: Basically. When boys are young we go to Yeshiva, where we study the Talmud, and girls aren’t allowed. So basically from when you’re 12 until you’re 18, or really until you’re married, you don’t have any contact with girls. Like even at home my sister wouldn’t come close to me. So in Yeshiva a lot of the guys started to hook up sexually with each other, because everyone’s young and developing sexually, and the natural desire is to fool around and experiment. But for us there wasn’t even the choice of “should I pick a boy or a girl?” or “should I be gay or straight?” because at that age your only option was to be with a guy. I think most of the guys who were in Yeshiva with me fooled around, and the girls did the same thing in the girls schools. It’s basically like being in jail–it’s obvious why so much homosexuality goes on in jail, because you can’t force people to shut off their sexual desires, and so naturally people experiment with what they have available to them.

Raizy covered, and Lazer and Raizy now

So did both of you have gay experiences before being with someone of the opposite sex?

Lazer: Yes, I fooled around with lots of guys before I was with a girl. It took me years to be comfortable even talking to a girl. The concept was just so foreign to me.

Raizy: My first experiences were with girls. It would happen when my friend’s and I were hanging out at each other’s houses, or when a bunch of girls would get together over a long Shabbat, because literally there’s nothing for you to do except sit around with a bunch of girls the whole time. Sometimes girls would hook up on the staircase to the roof at our school. But since I left I’ve basically only been with men, aside from a couple makeouts. Girls weren’t really for me. When I was 14 I had my first boyfriend, which wasn’t allowed so I was always sort of a troublemaker–I always thought differently and was really curious. I told my whole class about sex when I was 8.

You’re together in a heterosexual relationship now. Do you think you’re younger experiences made you more sexually fluid, or was it ever confusing?

Lazer: Well, that’s the thing–when you finally start hanging out with girls, you’ve had so many experiences with guys that you don’t even know what you are anymore, and it definitely leaves you feeling really confused. I know a lot of Hasidic married men who are still very attracted to guys because of the experiences they had in Yeshiva, because those sexual experiences were really fun, and it felt secretive and exciting and dangerous, whereas with your wife everything is so controlled and premeditated–for example there are strict laws about what days you are allowed to have sex, or even touch your spouse, based around the woman’s menstrual cycle–and because of that it never feels as exciting as back when you were young. So maybe it’s less that they’re attracted to men, and more that they’re attracted to the mindset they were in during those first sexual experiences. I remember, there was one guy in school–I don’t know if I would call him my boyfriend, but he was a boy I hung around with a lot at the time–and he had the keys to all the little closets at school where they kept the books, so we would sneak in and hook up between the bookshelves, and that was really exciting. And that’s why married men still crave it–they want something sexy and exciting and free.

How “bad” is homosexual behavior considered to be in the Hasidic community?

Lazer: Well, for a guy, cumming in itself is a sin, and penetrative sex with a man is not allowed, but fooling around is fine. And girls getting with girls is never mentioned in the Torah as being bad.

You mentioned that there are laws about when you can and can’t have sex. Are there also laws about what you can do–like banned sex positions or something?

Raizy: There are varied ideas about what is and isn’t allowed sexually, and it was even agued about in the Talmud. Like there’s one crazy statement in the Talmud that says if you give oral sex it will make your children blind. Another commentator suggested you should have sex very quickly, like the devil is pushing you.

Up until 20 or so years ago, if you were a religious person, your general views on sexuality wouldn’t have been too far off from the views of society at large. But now that’s we live in such a hyper sexualized society, the strictly religious stand out even more. How does that weigh within the Hasidic community?

Lazer: I would say that the community definitely has to put up a stronger fight now. You hipsters coming into our community is definitely fucking everything up, because young kids can’t even walk outside of their house in their own neighborhoods, because there’s girls walking around in all sorts of skimpy outfits.

Raizy: I see some people in the community getting a little bit more lenient, too. Like they’re starting to get more fashionable, and try to learn about trends. If you’re a Hasidic woman, there’s not a specific type of shirt or skirt you have to wear–as long as your clothes cover the right parts of your body, you’re ok. So a lot of women will go to really expensive stores, like Bloomingdales, and buy designer dresses, and then go to the Hasidic tailor to make it kosher–they make the sleeves longer, extend the length, etc.

Do some girls want to look sexy?

Raizy: Definitely. They just make sure they follow the rules, but that they look hot within those boundaries, and of course you can cover your elbows and your neck and still look sexy. But then there’s other people who make sure they don’t look provocative in any way. We’re taught that the Torah says it’s the woman’s job to make sure a man doesn’t look at you. Basically, the worst thing you could do in your life is to make a man cum, so if you end up walking down the street terrified that a man might look at you and get turned on, and then go home and cum thinking about you.

Sounds stressful.

Raizy: In Israel, there’s a group of women who started covering their whole face, with just a piece of lace around their eyes to see, and they wear a giant black cape, so they basically look like Muslim women. I have an aunt who does this, and we went to dinner recently and I said to her, “Do you really think men don’t look at you because you’re dressed like that? You look like an alien–everyone is looking at you!” And she goes, “Yeah, but when they look at you they go mhaw!, and when they look at me go ugh!” And that’s what makes her happy.

Do Hasidic girls ever wear sexy lingerie under their clothes?

Lazer: When I met her she still dressed very Hasidic, and then when she undressed her underwear would say “kiss my ass” in rhinestones. When she was naked she looked like some LA girl, and when she was dressed she looks like your perfect pious Jew.

Do you think that within the community the religious clothing ever becomes fetishized?

Lazer: Totally. There’s a lot of men in the community who only want a Hasidic woman. Bring them the sexiest woman on Earth, and they don’t want her unless she’s wearing a spiuzel [head scarf]. They want their woman to speak Yiddish during sex. And some men start having fantasies about married Hasidic women too–it’s sexy because it’s not allowed.

I imagine it must feel like a drastic change to stop wearing your religious dress once you leave the community.

Lazer: Leaving is a long process, with many steps, and losing the clothing is usually the last step. You can change the way you think, you can stop keeping Shabbat, but as long as you’re still wearing the clothing, you feel like you belong to the group. It’s a hard step to make because you’re really saying, “I’m different now,” and It makes it hard to go home to your family.

Raizy: Usually, the first rules people break have to do with sex. When I was 14 I first “broke the rules” by hooking up with a guy, but at that time I never imagined that I would later stop keeping Shabbat. Even if you believe in your religion and want to be part of the group, sexual desire is just something so natural, and it feels like only a matter of time before you give in.

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.