If you brush off Trump’s disgusting comments, you are condoning rape culture and sexual assault

Like many, I’m disgusted by Donald Trump’s comments about women, particularly the ones that just came to light in which he bragged about his ability to sexually harass and assault women because he’s “a star.” I’m even more appalled by people–including Christian leaders–brushing off these comments as nothing more than idle private talk between men.

If you haven’t figured out yet that rape culture is a real thing, it’s time to wake the hell up. Donald Trump is a prime example of male entitlement over women and their bodies. In addition to his numerous degrading comments about women, he has been accused of marital rape, of sexual harassment, and even of raping a 13 year old girl while hanging out with a guy who is now a Level 3 registered sex offender. Yet even after recorded comments in which he basically describes sexual assaulting women just because he can, some of his supporters are unfazed. Why? Because they are steeped in the rape culture that permeates our country.

Because here’s the thing: the kind of disgusting entitlement expressed by Donald Trump is not in any way limited to misogynist billionaires who think they can get away with it because they are rich, famous, or powerful. It’s the stock-in-trade of way too many boys and men, and it’s so routine that even some women brush it off as being no big deal.

One-fifth of women will be raped in their lifetime, but even that awful number is only part of the problem. I suspect that nearly ALL women are sexually harassed, coerced, or assaulted at some time in their lives. 

Why would I make that claim?

Because I grew up and still live in a culture of male entitlement–in rape culture. I am only one person, but I have dealt with multiple instances of sexual abuse and harassment in my life, and from listening to other women, it is clear that my experience is quite common. If you brush off Donald Trump’s comments, then you are telling me that everything that I and countless other women have experienced at the hands of entitled boys and men is perfectly fine. Here is my (partial) list of the consequences of male entitlement and rape culture in my life:

Because of rape culture and some men’s sense of entitlement over women . . . 

  • When I was a child, a deacon in my church (probably in his 70s) tried to sexually molest me in a Sunday School room. Fortunately I was able to run away and hide in the women’s bathroom before he got too far. I was too young and afraid to ever tell anyone this. This is not the only such experience from my childhood, but I’ll move on.
  • When I was in middle school, I was repeatedly sexually harassed by two boys who would put their hands in my lap under the table in our reading class. Like Donald Trump, they thought it was acceptable to “grab her pussy” and do whatever they wanted to a girl without her consent. In fact, one of them threatened to tell on me when I used a pencil to stab his hand, which happened to be up my shorts.
  • When a male teacher was told about one instance of this harassment by me and a male witness, the teacher did nothing to punish the harasser and only moved him to a different table, near other girls. The groper in that case later harassed a friend of mine, and was also accused of rape a few years later although he was never charged.
  • Another boy harassed me for months during my freshman year despite my attempts to evade him and the fact that I complained to teachers about his incessant and unwanted attentions.
  • When I was in college, one of my boyfriends thought it was fine to push me into types of sex-play that I did not want, and to try to coerce me into compliance through emotionally manipulative behavior. Fortunately, I got out of that relationship, but its emotional consequences lasted quite a while.
  • At one of my first jobs, a male coworker thought it was okay to play pornography on office computers and to cozy up and touch me without my consent in order to make another coworker jealous.
  • When I was at a club with female friends one time, a young man ignored me when I said I had a boyfriend and was not interested, and tried to french kiss me and put his hand down my pants. Apparently he and Donald ascribed to similar ideas about women. This is only one of several memorable times when I’ve been subjected to unwanted touching, especially in crowded places.
  • When I was traveling alone once and had attended a musical performance, I hid in a bathroom to avoid a man who had attached himself to me despite my clearly expressed lack of interest in his company. When I came out of the bathroom, he tried to follow me to my room, and when I stopped to tell him to leave, he grabbed me and touched himself sexually in the middle of the street. I extricated myself from this assault by screaming at him and gouging him with my large room key (cliched, I know, but effective nonetheless). I am firmly convinced that if I had not made a scene that caused him to stop following me, I would have been forced into my room and raped.

Despite all of this (and even what I have omitted because it is too personal to talk about), I count myself lucky not to have suffered rape or serious sexual abuse, and if you think about that for a minute, you may realize how ridiculous it is.

Why in God’s name should I feel lucky–grateful even–to have only been repeatedly groped and harassed, and only semi-assaulted in the street? BECAUSE RAPE CULTURE IS REAL AND EVERY WOMAN IS ITS VICTIM. Some of us are victimized more, some of us less, but NONE OF IT IS OKAY. Trump’s words are not okay. They are not jokes, or idle chit-chat. They are not simply lewd. They are the language of dehumanization, assault, and rape. They should be intolerable and indefensible to anyone, male or female, with even a shred of decency and respect for women.

If you brush off Donald Trump’s comments or any similar language from anyone else, then you are actively condoning a rape culture that allows and even encourages all of the behavior that I described above, and much worse.

If you “don’t give a rip” about Trump’s comments, you are telling me that it isn’t a big deal that some boys and men have always felt they had a right to grab me sexually or to try to force themselves on me, and you are telling your mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and female friends the same thing. If you’re a woman, you are justifying both your own victimization and the routine abuse of your fellow women at the hands of men like Donald Trump.

I for one, won’t stand for it. I consider myself and my fellow women worth more than that.

We deserve better.

We deserve dignity, respect, safety, and ownership of our own bodies.

We deserve better than to feel lucky because we’ve never been raped. 

#NeverTrump  #EndRapeCulture  

 

 

On Being Created and Constructed, Part 1

This semester I am teaching my international cinema class, which I enjoy because it gives me a chance to delve more deeply into topics that interest me but that don’t exactly fit into most of my Spanish courses. The course is focused around the themes of gender roles and identity  (both masculine and feminine), gender disparity, and sexual orientation. We talk about gender stereotypes, the oppression of women, the treatment of LGBTQ folks, and the way that standards of masculinity harm men as well as women. It’s a fun class, but it has the potential to become a minefield of sensitive topics.

Early in the semester, we read an essay on the social construction theory of gender. For those of you who aren’t up on feminist thinking, social constructivism opposes the idea of biological essentialism: that our identities as men and women are biologically determined by little more than our anatomical sex. Or, to put it another way, biological essentialism means that if you know which type genitals a person has, you can also assume a great deal of other things about them: their dominant personality traits, their potential skills, their suitability for certain careers, their role in a family unit, their rights and responsibilities, etc.

Social constructivism (not a new idea) claims the opposite: that biology doesn’t have much to do with our gender identities. Instead, this theory claims that from the time we are born, we are socialized into certain behaviors and beliefs according to what our society deems is appropriate or ideal for a man or a woman. This starts with our obsession with gendering infants (just do a Google image search for “baby girl clothes” and “baby boy clothes” and see the predominance of pink vs. blue, flowers vs. baseballs, etc) and then progresses to the differing behavioral standards and expectations that we often set for boys and girls (again, you can see some confirmation of this with a quick image search; this time, try “toys for boys” and then “toys for girls” and think about how nearly all of the items fall into clear categories of active/violent vs. passive, mobile vs. stationary, outdoor vs. indoor, beauty/appearance based vs. skill based, domestic/maternal vs. career-oriented, etc). Thinking of this always reminds me of a day when I picked up my then four-year-old son from day care and the new teacher apologized to me because when I walked in, my son was playing with the baby dolls. Clearly, she felt uncomfortable being caught allowing this subversive behavior that was so ill-suited to my man-child!

This semester, I’ve had one student who has repeatedly challenged me on the “truth” of social constructivism, which is fine by me. I have seen enough evidence of it operating historically (especially in my area of expertise/favorite pigeon hole, which is 19th century Spanish gender ideology) and in my own life to be quite convinced that much of our gender identity is shaped by our socialization. I have seen how women in different times and places were expected to be and how that formed their identities. Why, if I had lived 150 years ago, instead of writing this, I might be writing in a women’s magazine about how a woman shouldn’t go to university because 1) women aren’t capable of abstract thought, and 2) all that intellectual rigor might affect her delicate nerves, irritate her uterus, and make her less fertile, and 3) everyone knows that women are divinely ordained to be wives and mothers! Fortunately for me, my uterus survived my PhD, and I came out of it buying into the social-constructionist view of how we become manly men, feminine women, or (thank God), sometimes another category entirely.

However, I have also carried, birthed, and nursed two babies and I know from those experiences and others that our biology and our hormones certainly can influence us as well. I remember that during the hormonal onslaught of my first pregnancy, something seemed to change in the way my brain worked, and I felt like I couldn’t process and speak my second language as well (fortunately my students did not seem to notice!). As a result, I think that the source of our identities lies somewhere in the middle of biology and construction. I suspect that there are biological/genetic/neurological factors that tell us from deep inside whether we are men or women (or neither), and whether that perception matches our physical body or not, as may be the case with transgender or intersex individuals.

But, once we are labeled with a gender (by society or by ourselves) there are a host of socially-constructed expectations revolving around that gender that we either accept or rebel against–from who gets to wear fingernail polish to who gets to speak up first at the meeting. Some of these rules are stricter than others, and transgressing them has a variety of consequences: the girl who doesn’t cave to feminine standards might be labeled a tomboy, or a bossy bitch, or a butch dyke, or the girl who just needs a good f—, or the wife who needs to be ‘put into her place’ with her husband’s fists or a gun. The boy who doesn’t measure up to masculine standards might just be the sensitive guy, might a sissy, might be a fag, might be the kid who gets beat up in the locker room or left to die on a fence post. Because no matter how we arrive at it, this shit is real.

I joke sometimes about being the liberal college professor out to corrupt the youth, but the truth is that I have little interest in turning any of my students into clones of myself by pushing a particular ‘truth’ or agenda on them. I’m still getting to the ‘truth’ of things myself, and I find that there are very few things in this life that don’t deserve some critical scrutiny or that should not be subject to revision now and then.

If there is anything that I do want to model for my students, it is the ability to hear other people’s stories with openness and compassion and to revise our own understanding of ourselves and others when needed. We can debate academic theories or religious beliefs all day long, but in the end it comes down to how we react to the people who challenge our expectations for what is ideal, normal, acceptable, or even comprehensible.

It’s okay to not ‘get it.’ If you are straight, if you are comfortable in your body and with your assigned gender roles, and perhaps especially if you have been taught that certain ways of being male or female are wrong, it’s okay to not understand why that girl wants to look edgily androgynous, why that guy is attracted to other guys, or why that other guy at the office now wants to be called “she.”

There are things that I don’t understand about identity and about the choices that some people make to live into their identities. There are topics that once made me uncomfortable, and a few that still do, but I have learned the value of listening to the experiences of others through forming relationships with people who are different from me and through resources like TranspeopleSpeak.org. I have yet to regret engaging with someone else’s story; in fact, the stories of others–in person, on screen, online–have been sources of growth, surprise, wonder, and beauty in my life.

It’s okay to not understand, but it’s not okay to try to force someone else to fit into your understanding of the world, whether that means chiding a little boy for playing with a doll, telling a little girl that she isn’t being ‘ladylike,’ or something much more drastic like yelling profanities and threats at a transperson on public transit (as happened to an acquaintance of mine recently). We need to realize that our expectations of people are just that–our expectations–and that they are neither absolute nor universal truths.

People face unkindness, ostracism, discrimination, and even death because of the ways that we as a society understand and enforce expectations of gender. It would do us all a great deal of good to realize that these expectations are not only constructed, but that they may need to be deconstructed and reconstructed in a ways that let all of us be our most authentic selves–the people we were created to be–without shame and without fear.

So, for any of my students who may stumble across this–as well as anyone else who may be reading–here is the best lesson I can give about when questions of gender identity or sexual orientation get confusing or uncomfortable:

Listen, try to understand, and if even if you can’t, remember to be kind. 

 

Why I am Pro-Choice (and Pro-Life, and a Whole Bunch of Other “Pros”)

Last week I hosted Isabel Montoya-Minisee’s essay about how she considered terminating an unplanned pregnancy–and even visited Planned Parenthood for information–and how that experience transformed the way that she related to women who face hard choices about pregnancy and abortion in their lives. She realized that instead of preaching against abortion, her time would have been better spent helping women in difficult situations bear their burdens.

Like Isabel, at a personal level I am decidedly pro-life. I have an unplanned kid as proof of that position. Finding out that I was pregnant again, while still nursing a ten-month old and on the tenure-track in a full-time university position (and without the benefit of grandparents nearby) completely freaked me out, even as a married woman with a stable income. It took me about three months to chill the &^#@ out. It took me even longer to get over the guilt of not being happy about the pregnancy in those first weeks. That’s part of the reason that Isabel’s story, with its intense feelings of shame, affected me deeply.

Of course, despite his unexpectedly quick arrival, I wouldn’t trade my second son for anything. However, the circumstances of his arrival did push me, a Christian feminist sitting the pro-life/pro-choice fence, over into the “pro-choice” camp. If I experienced so much stress over an unplanned pregnancy in my relatively privileged position, how much more difficult is a similar situation for a woman who has trouble feeding the children she already has? Or for a teenager who made a bad choice about sex?

And then there are other situations that are more troubling: what about the woman who is raped or abused, or the one who wanted the baby but then learned that it has a defect that is incompatible with life? All of those women have stories, like mine and like Isabel’s, that deserve to be heard on their own terms, and all of those women deserve to have a say in how their story plays out. It is not for politicians or preachers (or me, or you) to make or to be responsible for their choices, or to heap shame and condemnation on top of the burdens that they already have to bear.

So, while personally I am pro-life, politically I am pro-choice. But really, it is much more complicated than that.

My pro-life/choice stance is made up of a bunch of other “pros” that deconstruct the hard boundary that some people draw between these two positions. Ironically, many pro-lifers hold stances that actually lead to a higher rate of abortions, such as an insistence on abstinence-only sex education or a resistance to easy access to birth control or other programs that support women and children. If we are serious about preventing abortions and the unfortunate situations that lead to them, we have to do better than that.

That is why in order to be “pro-life” in multiple and meaningful ways, I’m also . . .

– Pro-Sex Education: There were things I did not know about my body and fertility until I was thirty years old and reading up on how to maximize my chances of having an academic-calendar friendly pregnancy. That is unacceptable. Studies have shown the positive effects of comprehensive sex education (not abstinence-only education) both in terms of teenagers delaying sex and using contraception. Smarter sex choices = fewer unwanted pregnancies = fewer abortions = A win for the pro-life camp.

– Pro-Contraception: And more than that, I’m pro-cheap and easy access to it, because access to reliable contraception radically reduces abortion rates. This is a no brainer, right? As many other critics of the pro-life movement have noted, putting barriers in the way of access to contraceptives shows that some pro-lifers are really more concerned with policing the bedroom activities of other people than they are with preventing abortions.

– Pro-Empowerment of Victimized Women (and Pro-Prevention of Intimate Partner Violence and Rape): I strongly feel that women who are raped or abused should not be further disempowered and violated by being forced to carry a pregnancy to term against their wishes. Women who want to end a pregnancy are seven times more likely to be abuse victims than other women, and denying them access to abortion can hinder their ability to escape further abuse. On the flip-side of this topic, to be pro-life and pro-women, we need to be advocating for better prevention programs for rape and domestic violence–and not just avoidance-advice for women, but programs that teach boys and men to respect women from the get-go.

Pro-Economic Empowerment of Women (and other disadvantaged groups): – 69% of women who have abortions are economically disadvantaged, with around 40% living below the poverty line. In one study, three-quarters of women having abortions gave financial reasons including the need to work to care for children or other dependents. For these women, going through with a pregnancy can mean slipping deeper into poverty. If we want to decrease abortion rates, we need to support increased educational opportunities, better wages, and a social safety net that ensures that parents can feed their kids. So that part of my stance is also . . .

– Pro-Children: As in, taking care of the children who have already been born (over 15 million of whom live in food-insecure households here in the US). A complete pro-life stance must take into account the lives and well-being of children who have already been born, not just those in the womb. In addition, a true pro-life stance must be . . .

– Pro-Women’s Lives: The lives of women are no less valuable than the lives of the babies that they carry. This is probably the central reason that I cannot support the political pro-life movement. It devalues women at the expense of babies, or worse yet, fertilized eggs. Pro-life advocates may disagree, but the thrust of pro-life political machinations is clear: the lives of adult women are more disposable than the life of a fetus or even a fertilized egg. Consider that for some women, becoming pregnant is medically dangerous, yet some pro-life groups seek to limit access to contraception. Consider that for some women, pregnancy complications can become life-threatening and require the termination of a pregnancy, yet in multiple states, pro-life politicians have put forth legislation that if passed, would allow medical staff to refuse care for a woman in that situation. Any true pro-life stance should value the life of mother, unborn child, and existing child at least equally. Sometimes hard choices have to be made, and sometimes there are tragic, no-win situations. I believe we need to leave those choices to the families and doctors who are directly involved with them.

– Pro-Choice(s): To sum up several of the “pros” above, I support empowering women and men to make and implement good choices about sex and contraception. I support the availability of safe and legal abortion because sometimes it is the best, or only choice. I choose to not force my ideological views on women in difficult situations and to trust them to make and be responsible for their choices. I am not pro-abortion, but I know that making abortion illegal or highly restricted is not the answer.

In fact, making abortion illegal does not lead to lower abortion rates. It simply makes abortion less safe and puts more women at risk. What lowers abortion rates is education, availability of contraception, and social and economic empowerment. If the pro-life movement is serious about reducing abortion rates, it needs to stop over-simplifying the issue and get down to addressing the underlying problems. It needs to stop vilifying the people involved–patients and providers–and work to alleviate the conditions that back women into corners where there is, as Isabel wrote, no easy way out. 

And finally, my last “Pro.” I am . . .

– Pro-Love and Grace, Rather than Shame and Condemnation: When women do find themselves in positions where they need (or require) an abortion, we need to be willing to hear their stories, withhold judgment, and support them in the best way that we can. That may mean helping them see–like Miss Julia did for Isabel–that there is a way forward without terminating a pregnancy. But it may mean something very different: supporting a victimized woman as she leaves an abusive relationship or recovers from rape; mourning a baby that was wanted, but that could not survive or have any quality of life; helping a mother who is struggling to care for her existing children, or helping a woman forgive herself for making mistakes or hard decisions so that she can move on with her life.

 As I mentioned above, Isabel’s story resonated with me in part because of the shame and condemnation that she felt. An online friend of mine, John Berry, read what Isabel had to say and commented, “It is staggering the burdens we put on people when we should be helping them during the difficult times in life.” Both Isabel and John are onto something: Instead of heaping shame and condemnation on women, we should be helping them to bear the burdens that are already on their shoulders.

And we can start simply by listening. 


Here are some places to begin:

“Congressman Tim Ryan Changes Position on Abortion after Talking to Women”

John Shore: “From a Christian Woman who Chose Abortion”

Shauna Armitage: “Abortion: A Choice I Never Knew I’d Have to Make”

“Stories about Abortion”

“Women who had Abortions after Twenty Weeks Explain Why They’re Necessary”

Lynn Beisner: “I Wish My Mother Had Aborted Me”


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Branches of the Same Vine: Women, LGBTQ Christians, and my Dream for the Church

After two posts on LGBTQ stories, I had planned to take my series on stories and how they can be powerful agents of transformation in our lives in a different direction. However, since the ban on same-sex marriage was overturned in Alabama, events have put my church in the news and in hot water with our local Southern Baptist association. As a result, I have a little more to say on the way I have come to see my own story mirrored in the situation of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

If you click over to the “About me” page of this blog, you’ll quickly see why I no longer fit into Southern Baptist churches where I was raised. I am progressive, feminist, and pro-equality and inclusion. I am anti-legalism and pro-individual freedom and responsibility. As a Ph.D. in language and literature in I am also rather competent at reading, studying, and reaching my own conclusions about issues of belief and practice. But when you get right down to it, the main issue is that I am a woman who refuses to be treated as anything less than an equal, adult, contributing, and responsible member of a congregation.

The Southern Baptist Convention has pretty well drawn a line in the sand against people like me. Decades ago the SBC voted to limit what I believe is a central tenet of the Baptist faith, priesthood of the believer, in a move that reflected a concentration of power at the top and less freedom of conscience and belief for those below. Since then, the SBC has sought to enforce more specific scriptural interpretations on its members (like when it doubled-down on eternal conscious torment in hell–something not mentioned in the original Baptist Faith and Message–in the wake of Rob Bell’s influential and scripturally based book Love Wins).

More to the point here, in recent decades the SBC has also put forth specific statements to try to limit the participation of women in higher church leadership. Interestingly, before the year 2000, the Baptist Faith and Message did not exclude women from the pastorate, but in that year it was amended to limit the role of pastor to men. Sure, individual churches have the autonomy to decide if they will ordain women as deacons or ministers, but that doesn’t make up for the sexism of an organization where female seminary students are trained to be pastors’ wives or to minister only to other women

One of the reasons that I do not consider myself a Southern Baptist anymore is this position on women. At some point it dawned on me that I had grown up watching women do what seemed to be the majority of the work in the church, yet be denied a place in church leadership. In the churches that I grew up in, there were no female pastors, no female deacons, no women called on to pray, no female ushers. (I still wonder what could be so gender specific about handing out church bulletins and passing the offering plate?)

Women are not spiritually, morally, or intellectually inferior to men. In Christ there is neither male nor female, and that should be reflected in our churches. “Biblical” arguments to the contrary are contradicted in the Bible by Paul himself, who names one woman, Phoebe, as a deacon (Romans 16.1), and another, Junia, as an apostle (Romans 16.7). Yep, an apostle – the highest designation in the early church.

It is my firm belief that women who are called and equipped should have equal opportunity to participate in the church at all levels, and I decided about ten years ago that I would not join another church that did not ordain women as deacons and support women’s right to share the pulpit and the pastorate. Women have too often been excluded from church leadership simply on the basis of their sex, regardless of their calling or talent. I won’t put up with that anymore.

I made this decision because in churches who refuse to do these things, women are second-class citizens of the kingdom of God. I would be a second class citizen. My opinions on women, if expressed, would be devalued and rejected. Excuses would be made for unequal treatment and opportunities, and the Bible would be used to prop them up. I would have to keep my head down and pretend to be someone I’m not in order to fit in. As a result, I would be disengaged, unfulfilled, underutilized, and probably bitter and suffering in my spiritual life.

As an educated and dedicated Christian, I deserve better than that. I deserve to have spiritual role models and mentors who fully respect me, and I deserve to have some who also look like me. Most of all, I deserve a church where ALL of me fits in. Where I can work on being transformed into the image of Christ, not into an antiquated image of womanhood masquerading as Christian life.

From my own story, I know what it is like to go to a church and to have to keep my head down. I know what it feels like to have to keep part of myself hidden away to avoid causing a stir and risking a reprimand.

From there, I can extrapolate and somewhat imagine what it must be like to be in a different and darker closet–one where to open the door means to risk much more than a simple reprimand or a reminder of one’s ‘place.’ Where simply being oneself entails a very real risk of being condemned and ostracized, and perhaps not only from one’s church, but from one’s home and family. Where it may even result in physical assault in the name of Christianity.

LGBTQ people have too often been excluded from the church on the basis of their identities rather than their beliefs, intentions, and actions. They have had to choose between hiding who they are and pretending to fit in, or being honest about their identities and then having to live outside of the church and the borders it has built to separate descriptors like “gay” and “Christian” or “gay” and “moral.” Unlike women, they haven’t even been granted second-class citizenship. They are foreigners, left outside of the borders drawn against them.

Despite some efforts to separate the two categories, there are LGBTQ Christians, and they deserve better. They deserve a chance to be in community with other Christians, and they deserve to be able to be themselves, without being labeled with preconceived notions about their moral and spiritual character.

Some Christians worry that inviting LGBTQ folks into the church without trying to “reform” them necessarily means we are watering down our moral standards. It doesn’t.

Inviting LGBTQ folks–just as they are–into the church, and into the sacrament of marriage, means inviting them to share in the moral ideals of the church and of Christian life. It means that the same moral standards can apply to all of us, whether gay or straight: self control, patience, love, commitment, faithfulness, and so on. We are all made in the image of God, and despite our differences, if we seek God we all have the capacity to reflect that image in our lives, our service, and our (different-sex or same-sex) relationships. 

Having the “right” genitalia is not an indication of spiritual superiority or leadership potential, just as having the “right” sexual orientation is not a guarantee of morality. On the flip side, having the “wrong” gender or sexual orientation is not a guarantee of spiritual inferiority or immorality. It’s time to leave aside those labels and value judgments and see how we as individuals can all be branches of the same Vine, producing good fruit and loving one another.

This is my dream for the church, for it to be a place where the only identities that matter are those of Jesus-follower and beloved child of God.

Irreparable Damage: The Problem of Christian Purity Culture

What we call Christian “purity culture” in America has developed in the last few decades as a reaction against loosening sexual morality, and it focuses not only on refraining from sex (and other acts like fantasizing or kissing) before marriage, but also on strict rules of modesty that are mostly directed at girls and women. It spawned the True Love Waits campaign that was a staple at the Baptist youth conferences and camps that I attended as a teenager in the mid-90s.

In conservative religious circles, purity culture has also prompted the popularity of daddy-daughter dances and dating (I’m all for dads spending time with their daughters, but over-romanticizing it as a ‘date’ is somewhat creepy, as in this video).

Purity balls are even creepier, if not downright horrifying from a feminist standpoint: in one variation of this marriage-like ceremony, a young woman stands up with her father, who gives her a purity ring and pledges to exercise his authority over her, specifically over her purity (i.e. modesty and virginity). Meanwhile, the daughter silently commits herself to remain pure. She does not even get to pledge on her own behalf. 

I have two responses to such ceremonies: the first is “Ick!” and the second is, “What about the boys?”

Well, the founders of the same purity ball described above explain on their website how they provide a supposedly similar experience for their sons, who at age twelve have a “manhood ceremony” in which they are given a purity ring that reminds them to honor God (not the authority of their fathers) and an enormous sword to symbolize “the incredible privilege and responsibility we [that is, men] have to stand courageously as mighty warriors of God.”

So, while girls silently give up all authority over themselves and their bodies to their fathers, boys are given a (very large and phallic) symbol of their incipient manly authority at the symbolic age when Jesus began to speak and ask questions. The founders also invite boys to attend the purity ball to see how their fathers treat young women, which is essentially as passive pieces of property over whom they have authority, most particularly in matters of sexuality.


Featured image

Image: “How to Handle Your Females” by nakedpastor, in response to purity culture.


This is not surprising, considering that a great deal of sexual morality has always been aimed primarily at controlling women and their bodies. Marriage in the Hebrew Bible is essentially an economic transaction in which the wife and her resulting offspring became property of the husband. Strict sexual standards for women ensured that babies born into a family were legitimate heirs, and marriage practices sought to ensure that men had heirs to continue the family and preserve its property (i.e. levirate marriage, polygyny, divorcing a barren wife, or producing heirs using slave women). Men, especially powerful ones, had much more sexual liberty than women, and most rules regarding sexuality and marriage practices were for the direct benefit of men.

Although Jesus and Paul advocated a more gender-neutral standard for sexual morality and a more precise definition of marriage (bye-bye multiple wives, slaves, and concubines), throughout history men in western cultures have been granted much more leniency to have sexual relationships outside of marriage than women have. Thus, we have no female equivalents of popular philandering archetypes like Don Juan or Casanova because such behavior in a woman simply made her a whore.

While I am all for self-control in sexual behavior and for fathers taking an active role in guiding their daughters, purity culture is pernicious because it continues the promotion of double standards for girls and boys. It takes away any authority that girls have over their own bodies and gives it first to their fathers and then to their husbands. It also gives boys and men the idea that they have a right and a responsibility to control female bodies.

Critics of purity culture have rightly linked it to male entitlement and even to rape culture because of the way it takes away women’s autonomy. In addition to these critiques, purity culture can be extremely harmful to women’s spiritual lives (and probably men’s as well, but I’ll leave that aside for now). Here is my take on the reason why:

Purity culture takes sex and puts it into a category of its own so that it seems like the most egregious act that person can commit. It also places an undue burden on girls and women to avoid sexual desire–both their own and male desires that might be incited by their bodies or clothing. It also sends a message to young women that their self-worth is inextricably tied to their sexual purity.

Generally speaking, men have always been expected to have sexual desires, and to be sexually aggressive, while women have been expected to be pure and passive. Consequently, a young man’s sexual transgression is more likely to be seen as a slip up or a mistake that does not detract his inherent worth. This is because men are not understood to be automatically altered or damaged by a sexual encounter.

On the other hand, a woman’s loss of virginity before marriage has been understood as an irreversible alteration of her body and as a permanent stain on her character, and the social and psychological implications of these ideas are still very much with us (for instance, in gender-biased metaphors used to teach abstinence).

Sins can be forgiven, but virginity cannot be restored, which means that if a young woman makes a wrong decision about sex, the feelings of shame and guilt associated with it can become long-lasting and even permanent. The sin may be forgivable, but being forgiven does us little good if we are unable to accept that forgiveness and grant it to ourselves.

Shame hinders the holy work of grace and forgiveness and separates us from God. It can also isolate us from our faith communities because of our fear of condemnation and rejection.

Purity culture attaches so much gravity and shame to one particular act, especially for girls, that if they transgress sexual boundaries, they can end up feeling like they have done irreparable spiritual damage to themselves. Girls need to know that they are worth more than their virginity before marriage, or their purity afterwards.

Christian culture needs to teach self-control in sexual matters, but not in a way that takes away young women’s autonomy and encourages male entitlement over women’s sexuality. Girls need to be given the guidance and then the authority to make positive decisions about their own bodies without a heavy cloud of unequal expectations and potential shame hanging over their heads.


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