Monday, August 27, 2007

Dirty White Shoes: How Televangelism Turned Me into a Smut Writer

Anne Tourney

There are still some parts of this country, mostly in its biblically belted waist, where your mother will yank you out of town once you get your white shoes dirty. It doesn't matter what you tell her, if your rosy lips were made to spill the truth. That old rule about wearing white shoes before Labor Day doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. You don’t want to wear those Sunday school shoes, you never wanted to wear those shoes. Anyway, those white shoes will be filthy the moment they touch your slutty feet.

Back in the Reaganite 80’s, when I was a teenager, late August was the sweltering armpit of every Bible Belt summer. Outdoors, the air sizzled with the whir and whine of bugs; indoors, tired air conditioners leaked a cool, thin trickle through the density of heat. Sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the television, my thighs sticky with juice from the plate of watermelon I held in my lap, I spent way too many hours watching TV as I brooded over the encroaching First Day of School.

Yes, I watched soap operas in those days. And sitcoms. And family dramas. But my secret obsession was The Christian Broadcasting Network, a channel that filtered the news of the world, and the news of the soul, through a lens of Christianity, specifically the 20th-century, neo-conservative, Reaganized version of the faith. I spent hours with my eyes glued to CBN, not for the news broadcasts or the more mainstream talk shows, but for the electrified, revival tent contingent of preachers and singers, saviors and sinners. The soap stars had nothing on Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker of The PTL Club, and the dramas played out on Days of Our Lives or All My Children were yawn-worthy compared to the visions of impending apocalyptic doom (the year 2000 was right around the corner, and the Book of Revelation was getting a workout).

Then there were the dirty rumors that started cropping up in the secular media about Jim Bakker’s financial and sexual excesses, and Jimmy Swaggart’s soft spot for hookers. When the rumors proved to be true, the tearful public confessions that followed were equally lurid, and way more difficult to believe.

I haven’t thought about them in years, those smooth-talking, impeccably coiffed men of God, with their manicured hands and chunky rings, their pricey suits and their bulging real estate portfolios, their tenderly supportive wives and surgically enhanced secretaries. When Tammy Faye Bakker died last month, photos of her before and after cancer brought that world back into my consciousness. The emaciated, sallow woman of July 2007 was a specter of the buxom, unapologetically tacky televangelista who belted out Gospel songs while batting eyelashes that do a tarantula proud.

Though my family didn’t practice an evangelical version of Christianity, my childhood was steeped in a culture shaped by a Fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. Even as a teen, I was never able to understand how the Son of God, supposedly the tangible manifestation of an incomprehensibly vast divine love, could be held up as a wrathful homophobic, or how the Gospel could be used as a stick to beat sinners with, by men who did some pretty hefty sinning, themselves. Salvation is at your fingertips, the televangelists declared, redemption is just a few crocodile tears away, and yes, eternal life can be yours—if you’re a clean-cut Christian with a clear complexion and a bright n’ shiny heterosexual lifestyle.

Over time I’ve tried to write my way through those violently mixed messages, not so much to reach an understanding of the spiritual life of the Religious Right, but to reach my own reconciliation of Christianity—the faith I still identify with—and my ever-overactive sexual imagination:

In your dirty white shoes, you stroll out to the edges of town, out past the shoulder of the highway, up toward the hills. It's one of those dream-walks. Your panties are soaked, and the heels of your shoes sink into the earth. Cars edge you onto the dark side of the road, alarming you with lights and horns, but you don't stop walking. You squat down to relieve yourself, and you know that your hot pee is going to yellow those heels the way it used to stain the snow behind your back porch (your brother could write his entire name in urine; it wasn't your fault that your physiology allowed only a dribble).

But it wasn’t just the sleaze, the sensationalism, or the outright lies that fascinated me. Quite the contrary—somewhere, in my timid adolescent soul, fed on a crunchy blend of secular skepticism and Episcopal doctrine—I was drawn to the idea of giving myself to Jesus, with some preacher as my intermediary, holding me underwater, shaping my transformation, helping me come to Christ. I longed for that climactic surrender, and the afterglow of acceptance that would follow.

I’d always known, from the time I was a child, that I was “bad.” Or “dirty.” I wasn’t sure why, but in the televangelists, I found confirmation that yes, human nature was intrinsically sexual, craven, lustful, and downright filthy. I’d always known that to be the case; I just wondered why bad had to be equated with wrong. I wasn’t quite sure what “sodomy” entailed, at the age of sixteen, but I had an uneasy feeling that I might have inadvertently done it, and that I should probably confess to it, just in case. Though I was drawn to the idea of being relieved of my sins through confession, conversion, and salvation, I always suspected that the relationship between sexuality and divinity was far too deep and vast to be reigned in by the moral fences of the Religious Right (did you ever notice that those white picket fences are reinforced by concertina wire?).

You don't feel Jesus glaring down on you when the boy's two fingers make you wriggle and scream, or when he scalds your thighs with his hot milk. But somehow, in your own backwards vision of the way salvation works, you feel Jesus arrive on the scene when your boyfriend hunkers down under the car seat, shoves your panties to one side with his thumb, and lovingly begins to chew your pussy. You hear the church choir singing "Nearer My God to Thee" when your thighs start to tremble, and your hips thrust up the pelvic offering plate of their own accord, and your clit peaks to steeple height.

What was it about those evangelical preachers that made me squirm with an uneasy mix of revulsion and teenage lust? I have to admit, I was seduced the easy tenderness of their emotions, their cloyingly mellow voices, their willingness to bare their hearts, whether it was in responding to the testimony of some wayward convert, or in confessing their own sins. With all the intimacy of the bedroom, they confessed and prayed and shared and felt in front of millions. They raised their hands to the sky, they closed their eyes in ecstasy, they moaned, they writhed. The ultimate in evangelical emotionalism occurred during the conversion experience, through the great spiritual release of “being saved." Coming to Jesus . . . really, can that choice of words be a coincidence?

According to the sweaty preacher in the tight polyester slacks, salvation was as simple as having Jesus Christ belly up to the local ice-cream bar and pay for your pineapple sundae before you even know you want it. But would Jesus still buy your sundae if he knew that your best friend gave you a crashing waterfall of an orgasm with the eraser of a Number Two pencil? You tend to suspect Jesus might have had more painful things on his mind than the orgasms of a girl who wouldn't be born for a couple of thousand more years, what with the Philistines berating him and his disciples denying him, and a crucifix bearing down on his shoulders.

I was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal church, and in my observant phases, I spent my Sunday mornings in the cool, classically beautiful chapel of Trinity Episcopal. Episcopalian men didn’t cry, not because they weren’t emotionally liberated, but because any emotions experienced in a worship setting were usually too subtle, or were contained by a pressed, three-piece suit. (“Oh! Was that an epiphany I just experienced? Why yes, I do believe it was.”) With our sedate general public confession and our careful progression through the sacraments, we weren’t in any danger of experiencing orgasmic, ecstatic revelations of divine magnitude.

There was a certain sensual tenderness about the televangelists that attracted me, too. Trembling lips, silky waved hair, soft chins and hands . . . something intrinsically feminine about their personae. Yet at any time, they could call on the hard truth of Fundamentalism, the rigid dichotomies between right and wrong, good and evil. Counterbalancing that effeminate tenderness were the harsh, self-righteous wrath, the heat of the apocalypse, the dramatic eschatology of the Book of Revelation. Yet that fire and brimstone often seemed to fizzle down to a cold core of hypocrisy. The men who raged most vehemently against sin, who cried out the most passionately for repentance, seemed to be the most skillful at covering up their own crap.

Years later, when I first started writing erotica, I tried to put those Bible Belt memories behind me. It wasn’t so much that those threats of damnation made me feel guilty, but that they threatened my creative freedom. That televised Bible-thumping belonged to my past; I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area, getting my feet (and other parts) wet with sex-positive feminism, and conservative Christian morality wasn’t part of that new identity.

It took a few years of writing, finding a voice, before I was able to plunge into the well of the past, and when I dove in, I brought up a big dipperful of the Gospel. Strangely enough, I didn’t want to write against Christianity. I wanted to rewrite those experiences, giving them new endings, in which spiritual redemption was a matter of self-discovery, not self-denial. In stories like “Sex in the Pre-Apocalypse,” “Dirty White Shoes,” “The Book of Zanah,” and “Come for Me, Dark Man,” I fumbled around trying to articulate the idea that our sexuality—in whatever form it takes, whatever voice it speaks—is the physical manifestation of our divinity, and because of that, sex is good.

The wonderful thing about being a woman, a slut, and a perpetual child with unclean shoes is the way these act repeat themselves; you can hear the echo of those repetitions across acres of time. An anonymous screw remains as filthy and as joyous as ever; the fornicators of the world still constitute a rebel nation. You can wear your white shoes, in utter defiance of fashion, all the way to February, and some lady in the grocery store will still reprimand you for it. You can live like a whore, baring your tits and pussy to a tired world, and bask in the ancient light of damnation.

I wouldn’t say that the explosion of televangelism in the 1980’s turned me into a smut writer, though the prospect of burning naked over an eternal barbecue pit ignited a few fantasies. The sideshow tableaux of Hell and damnation didn’t offer me enough meat to feed any serious rebellion. What those TV preachers gave me, with their honey-coated condemnation of anyone who didn’t fuck members of the opposite sex in the missionary position within the bonds of holy matrimony, was motivation to cling to the fragments of Gospel as I understood it, and to live out that word according to my own twisted interpretation.

And I have to give thanks to Tammy Faye, a woman of God who was never ashamed to live out her vision of cosmetically challenged glamour, for inspiring me to take my fantasies public. Even in my shy, self-conscious adolescence, I felt a kinship with the outrageously overpainted Tammy; she clearly oozed something, but it wasn’t that cloying hypocrisy that seemed to taint so many of her cohorts. It was more like . . . sexuality. Raw, flamboyant, sluttish sexuality. And compassion. And strength. She was strong enough to survive the public scourging that followed the collapse of the Heritage USA empire, strong enough to survive marital infidelity and divorce, even strong enough to survive a makeover, and bounce back with her eyelashes thicker than ever. Though her soul had been saved by Jesus, she retained the design sense of a ho and the generous heart of a sinner:

You can be part of that breed of gloriously misguided sinners who never could match their shoes to the seasons, one of those women who could never touch their lips to a teacup or a cock without leaving a ring of sticky scarlet lipstick. You can be one of us, if you're willing to be yanked out of your comfortable town. Remember, honey--it ain't the shit on your toes that matters, it's the height of your heels.

Thanks, Tammy Faye. I’ll miss you.

* * * *

Fiction excerpts from “Dirty White Shoes,” by Anne Tourney


Gwen Masters said...

Remember, honey--it ain't the shit on your toes that matters, it's the height of your heels.


This whole post is brilliant, Anne. Kudos!

It brings to mind watching Ole Jimmy confess, and my grandmother sitting in the chair in front of the television, a thin smirk of disdain on her face.

"I wish he would stop blubbering," she said. "He wasn't that saintly before he got caught with his pants down."


Alison Tyler said...

Hey Anne,

I must confess to being quite delighted by the juxtaposition of the Bakker photo next to the LoveHoney coupon and Swaggart sobbing next to Best American Erotica. But do you think the cross next to Kristina Lloyd will manage to save her?


jothemama said...

Have you read 'Skinny Legs and All' by Tom Robbins? Your post reminded me of it, it captures what you're talking about really well.

angell said...

God rest Tammy Faye. The woman knew what she was talking about.

Brilliant entry today Anne. I love it.

Madeline Moore said...

Wow. You broke your Lust Bites post cherry with a vengeance, girl. This is a terrific post, with all the ingredients of our best LB posts - thought provoking, steamy excerpts, wonderful words-not-often-used,ie.
'...somewhere, in my timid adolescent soul, fed on a crunchy blend of secular skepticism and Episcopal doctrine—I was drawn to the idea of giving myself to Jesus...'
am I the only reader that tingles at the phrase 'secular skepticism and Episcopal doctrine'? I think not.

I was baptized plain ol' United, so I'm not familiar with this way of life, but that doesn't mean I haven't pondered 'the passion of Christ'or the idea of nuns 'married to Jesus'. I've wondered if the passion of loving Jesus would make the passion I've felt for 'man' look like a girlie crush...

This post speaks to that consideration. And it follows one woman's journey from sin-filled teen to hot and happy erotica writer. Welcome, Anne!

Deanna Ashford said...

A great thought provoking post Anne.

Isn't it strange those sort of god v hellfire preachers never existed here in the UK, I wonder why. Maybe because we Brits are considered rather more tight lipped and restrained.

I find the visions of them on the TV fascinating but I've always found myself wondering what make of mascara Tammy Faye used rather than listening to what her husband preached.

Janine Ashbless said...

Thank you for that superb post Anne - on a subject close to my black and sinful heart. You expressed the appeal of Giving Yourself to Jesus so well...

I was brought up in a charismatic Christian family (liberal Anglican wing of the Born Again) and I can tell you Deanna, these preachers certainly do exist in the UK, they just don't appear on TV. I went to a bunch of bible camps, and Spring Harvest, and Greenbelt. If the Church of England had been ordaining women vicars at the time there is a very good chance I'd have done theology at university and gone on to ordination. Instead I did philosophy, lost my faith and took Another Path. And ended up writing porn.

And that, Archbishop, is why you shouldn't exclude women from the church.

I have no complaints about my upbringing. It gave me a sound moral conscience and an abiding interest in theology (there are weird religions all over my fiction) and almost everyone I met were decent, good-hearted people - much more Ned Flanders than Pat Robertson.

I've never personally met a Christian who'd have us stoned or imprisoned for what we do on Lust Bites. They undoubtedly exist though. And I experience such schadenfreude when I see them take a public nosedive.

My short story The Temptation of St Gregory (in Cruel Enchantment) is my revenge on misogynistic evangelicals.

And one of my fave erotic stories of all time is Saving Julie by Catharine McCabe - you can find it in More Wicked Words (along with my story Midsummer Madness!). It's such a great treatment of the fine and porous dividing line between awareness of sin and wallowing in wickedness.

Alison Tyler said...

I've never personally met a Christian who'd have us stoned or imprisoned for what we do on Lust Bites.

I have.
I've met them, been preached at by them, and been told I am going to hell.

But I'm sure quite a few of you lot will be there with me. And the heat? Just one more reason for me to take off my clothes again. (Sommer! That's your cue to strip down, too!)

Janine Ashbless said...

Don't forget, in the Christian worldview most of us human beings are going to hell whether we write porn or not, whther we're gay swingers or celibate.

Just so long as they don't attempt to speed up our departure, or make the wait in this life unbearable ...

Kate Pearce said...

First off, what a brilliantly written post-I savored every word of it and read it twice just for the fun of it.

What is it with the white shoes? I still don't get that one despite 9 years of living here in the U.S. Of course, being an Ex-Essex girl, white shoes have a totally different meaning to me and I would be horrified if I couldn't wear them every day :)

I was brought up as a Roman Catholic in the UK so I understand all about guilt and the stiff upper lip. I'm also fascinated by the American Evangelists and do take a peek every so often to hear what's going on. I get the urge to confess my sins and be punished, who doesn't?

Alison Tyler said...

I get the urge to confess my sins and be punished, who doesn't?

It's a bit long for a t-shirt, but I'm willing to choose a smaller font. I'm thinking the "Who doesn't?" could go on the back right above

Jeremy Edwards said...

This post is really fascinating, Anne (and I'm not just saying that because it resulted in Alison getting undressed again). You write so beautifully, and with such lucidness. Where does/did/will "Dirty White Shoes" appear?

Karl Friedrich Gauss said...

There's a related post here

Here's an excerpt:

Sundays were the day that drag queens and Baptist picketers were most likely to cross paths. The day that I was most likely to be told by the Baptist picketers that I would burn in hell for peddling smut and pornography. It was also the day before the former Baptist picketers would come into the store shopping for smut and pornography, dressed incognito in rain coats and sunglasses looking more like flashers than former Baptist picketers. It was a day that required extra caffeine and an economy sized sense of humor. A couple of good stiff drinks after the store closed didn’t hurt either.

Baptist picketed Sundays were always a lot of fun. The picket parade materialized about the time I would be relaxing into a potentially slow day, which is to say, about mid-afternoon, after church, of course. I would be lulled into a stupor by boredom yet humming along from the vast quantities of coffee I had already consumed.

Suddenly a flurry of activity in front of the store would catch my eye; a potential shopper was scuffling with Baptist picketers protesting in front of the store. A desperate lingerie shopping scab was trying to cross the picket line. YES! The day had suddenly picked up! How those sneaky Baptist picketers assembled so quickly without me noticing, I’ll never know. But there they were in their conservative Sunday picketing attire of polyester pants and collared shirts primly buttoned to the neck carrying handmade picket signs which read: SMUT PEDDLERS BURN IN HELL and JESUS LOVES PORNOGRAPHERS. For some reason I never connected the dots enough to realize they were referring to me with those signs. I think it had something to do with the vast majority of them shopping at the store the following day. They used the picketing as a scouting mission for tomorrows purchases. On their Monday shopping excursions they never tried to close down the store. I appreciated their financial support even if I didn’t receive their moral support, on Sundays anyway. It was nice to know they held back a little of their Sunday beneficence for the benefaction of keeping their local lingerie store in business. Mighty Christian of them.

Portia Da Costa said...

Fascinating post... as if from a different world. As Deanna says, we just don't have those kind of preachers over here.

rachelr said...

Your post reminds me of a co-worker I knew. She believed all those televangelists were angels here on earth, and was saving for a family trip to Jim Bakker's Heritage USA park. She was crushed when she learned of Jim and Jimmy's indiscretions. She had actually believed all their claims of saintliness. I, on the other hand, am such a cynic that they only confirmed my misgivings about the whole electronic church. I did enjoy the programs for the entertainment value. Jimmy Swaggert was a good singer, and had sung some rock'n'roll with Jerry Lee Lewis and some of the other southern rockers of the day.

Smut Girl said...

{ (Sommer! That's your cue to strip down, too!) }

Damn the internet to hell! (oh, that's fitting). I finally get in to find I have missed yet another strip cue. Fah!

Love this post. Absolutely. I love sex and religion and the fact that they're not supposed to mix. It makes it that much better. And I won't requote...but yeah, what Gwen quoted. Genius!


Kate Pearce said...

Ooh Alison, my first T-shirt!

I'm honored...

kristina lloyd said...

Wow, what an amazing post, Anne. Really evocative, twisted, kinky and smart! And congrats on posting possibly the scariest pics ever known to Lust Bites. Heck, we just don't do telly and religion the way you guys do. Songs of Praise doesn't quite cut it.

It's bank holiday here in the UK so I've been at the communion wine. I may be getting my saints' days mixed up.

I am godless. I am now going to move myself away from that cross and put Anne's arse up top.

Alana said...

Anne, definitely one of my fav posts here on the LB. Thanks for your insight and honesty. Awesome.


Alison Tyler said...

I would have thought you'd just string a rope of garlic 'round your neck instead, KL.

Just Craig said...

First, I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Anne.

I was raised by parents who did not believe in forcing their kids to a certain denomination. Both had an abiding cynicism about organized religion, and so the few times I went to church were as a guest with friends.

Looking back, I'm pretty sure their parents invited me because they thought my soul needed saving.

But I digress.

Anyway, my dad certainly had strong beliefs, but he retained that disdain for organized religions to his last days. Back in those fervent '80's he watched the Evangelists late at night kind of like watching a sporting event. It fascinated him. One night while watching one of the Evangelists, and I don't know which, he called the number on the screen.

Dad: I've got my checkbook out, and I'm writing a check for $1000

Operator: Well bless you sir

Dad: But I have one request

Operator: Yes, sir?

Dad: That >Evangelist's name here< take off just one of those rings and put it in the pot with my check.

Operator: Um...

Dad: How about that one on his index finger

Operator: Uh, thank you for calling sir

Dad: Okay, just the one on his pinky will be fine, I'm not picky

Operator: Thank you so much for calling, sir...

Anyway, I'm embellishing here a bit, as I wasn't there at the time, but he did indeed offer $1000 if the Evangelist would put in a ring, and surprisingly, the Evangelist didn't

I still miss you, dad.

Just Craig said...

One more passing thought. A favorite t-shirt (or was it a bumper sticker?) of the '80s:

The Religious Right is Neither

Alison Tyler said...

Oooh, I saw a bumper sticker almost as good as that the other day...

"Dear Lord, save me from your followers."

Anne Tourney said...

Thanks so much, everyone, for your wonderful comments, and of course for your nudity, Alison! It's not a party till women start getting nekkid and breaking into the communion wine.

I was wondering how that Bible Belt atmosphere would come across to the UK writers. Janine, I'm so glad you were able to experience such a charismatic childhood; obviously that was fertile ground for your wildly deviant imagination :).

That was an interesting comment, Madeline. There was/is definitely something erotic about the idea of a divine being that wants you so much. Yet at the same time, I think my passion for Jesus and my preoccupation with televangelism was partly a distraction from the complexities of dealing with real boys.

Kristina -- thank you for putting my ass on top! My ass definitely needs to be lifted.

Jeremy, the "Dirty White Shoes" story was never published. It's kind of a jinxed story; accepted twice for publication, but never actually made it into print for different reasons. I always wanted to post it somewhere, so I dragged it out of the closet for this post.

justcraig, I'm sorry your Dad never got his Jesus-approved pinkie ring. But that story is hilarious, and so painfully true to my memories of those phone-slut salesmen.

Thanks, everybody. I hope you all experience some ecstatic form of resurrection tonight . . . .

Ally said...

I'm late again. Great post Anne, quite out of my league of understanding.

I was baptised United, never went to church until my mother forced me at 5 to go with the neighbours to a Mennonite church. I found it boring and frustrating, and I often found myself in the corner at Sunday school. I hated the constant threats of being a sinner and my grandmother call me such most often too, yet she was the a unforgiving woman I've known. My mother finally gave me a choice to go or not some where around 12 yrs old and my answer was "Hell no I won't Go!" I tried to read the bible, hated it, hated how boys rule and girls are damned. I don't care for any organized religion. I'm spiritual in my own way and my way celebrates sexuality as a part of the human spirit. We have the needs, urges and imagination to do what we do sexually, therefore how can it be un-natural.

Janine Ashbless said...

I do think that spirituality and sexuality are related drives. St Theresa etc.

In "The God Delusion" Dawkins speculates that religion is a facet of our biological drive to Fall In Love - we just fixate on an intangible object/person instead of a squishy human body.

You can start a riot in some circles by mentioning Dawkins, you know...

Alison Tyler said...

You can start a riot in some circles by mentioning Dawkins, you know...

Yes, but can you start a scrum?

Just Craig said...

Probably so, but not a scrum like Kristina posted.

Amanda said...

i just wanted to take the opportunity to tell you, Anne, that your story "Come for me, Dark Man" in Sacred Exchange is one of my all time favourite erotic stories. Thank you for this and your wonderful writing.

rachelr said...

Love the T-shirt/bumper sticker references. My favorite: "Jesus is coming. Look busy."

Janine Ashbless said...

Or in our case:

"Jesus is coming. Hide the porn."

Anonymous said...


Your writing bears truth and a shared reality that was indeed stranger than fiction.

I recall us children mocking those preachers (and some modeling them) and as I grew older, I truly enjoyed (and still do) baiting them in discussions and hanging them with their own twisted theology.

I also recall my mother and her friends oozing pentecostal adorations for men like these and haughtily saying, "Well, he's only human and sorry because he got caught!"

Such double messages and extreme realities framed our existence and did have some influence creating prolific writers - one of us neighborhood kids became a journalist, another a teacher, one an engineer, there is a musician, and one even writes the 'forbidden' erotica.

What living through this did for me was to cause me to see people in a different light and to make a conscious choice to see beyond the surface to the individuals within.

Continue being true, Anne, it's hard slog, but you do it well. :)