A few days ago, some amazing women I know–Emily Joy and Hannah Paasch–started the #ChurchToo hashtag on Twitter. It’s picking up steam fairly quickly and has already been featured on Time, Vox, and Bustle–to name just a few places. The campaign is, obviously, a riff off the #MeToo movement with the intent of showing that sexual harassment and assault are as prevalent in religious communities as they are in entertainment, media, and politics–and precisely for the same reason: men are in positions of power over women who are dependent on them.
The difference, however, is that in these fundamentalist patriarchal religious communities, women being in subjection to men isn’t just a matter of the way things have played out culturally; it’s explicitly built into the very doctrine of these churches. Imagine it being a matter of official policy in these production companies, news rooms, and state houses that women have to submit to the authority of men–how much easier it would be than it already is for these women to be taken advantage of. Well, that is precisely the way it is in these fundamentalist Evangelical Churches.
Read through the hashtag and you’ll find some truly heartbreaking stories and startling remarks. Many of us have been taught to see the church as a warm and welcoming place. For many girls growing up in Evangelical Christianity, though, it is a prison for shame and abuse. Here are just a few that I think are worthy of calling out…
Hey so. This is me being brave. This is me being brave as a result of so many women in the world being brave right now. This is me standing on your shoulders. I’m so thankful for all of you. — Emily Joy (@emilyjoypoetry) November 21, 2017
Seven years ago, during a church service, I was on the receiving end of a public confession from a close male friend who admitted to having fantasies about molesting and raping me.
He was immediately praised for his bravery and holiness.
A member of my family was molested by our pastor repeatedly when she was 2-4. When my parents told the church leadership, they told my parents to forgive rather than press charges. #churchtoo— (@CarolHoward) November 22, 2017
I was raped when I was 9 by a member of my church. The pastor, and my parents, told me I needed to forgive him, as that is what Jesus would do. They made me hug my rapist and tell him I forgave him.#churchtoo—(@darcorina) November 22, 2017
A male friend told me he couldn’t pay attention to a word I was saying b/c he was too distracted by my chest and insisted that as my brother in Christ it was his responsibility to let me know when I was causing another to stumble. #metoo#churchtoo—(@lacydanderson) November 22, 2017
That and, questions like “what were you wearing?”, “did you lead him on?”, “are you sure it was actually rape- did he *actually* penetrate?” from my Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru) leader #churchtoo—(@redemptivehope) November 21, 2017
Growing up in purity culture, I was taught that men were “visual creatures” that couldn’t help feeling aroused at the sight of slightly revealed ankles or knees, and that all men were imagining me naked 24/7. The entire system shamed women for even existing. #ChurchToo—(@sarahrlacour) November 22, 2017
Here’s the thing about #ChurchToo: nearly every woman who has experienced life in the Evangelical church was taught from a young age that they were to submit to men, not talk back or ask questions, and bear the responsibility of modesty for the men around them /1— caity (@caitynicole) November 23, 2017
#ChurchToo exists because if you put Christian survivors of partner abuse in a room together and ask “who here was told by their pastors to forgive their rapist or God won’t forgive you your sins?” all the hands go up. I’m not exaggerating. I sat in this room and raised my hand. — Mandy “Indy is Judging You” Nicole (@TenaciousMandy) November 23, 2017The irony in all of this is that leaders in these conservative churches often push back against these stories by insisting that women could protect themselves from from abuse by becoming more like they are raised to be in these Evangelical churches, not less. In case you are unfamiliar with purity culture, let me try to define it for you: purity culture is a set of expectations within Evangelical Christianity that males and females refrain from sexual activity of any kind until marriage, with emphasis placed on males avoiding temptation toward sexual activity and emphasis placed on females avoiding being temptations for males toward sexual activity.
Setting aside the heterosexist implications of this ideology, this culture has disastrous effects on how boys and girls come to see each other (and themselves). Girls grow up seeing themselves as objects of desire for boys, and that they are responsible for not tempting those boys to give into those desires–thereby managing to save themselves for their future husbands who will come along to provide for and take care of them after marriage. Boys grow up seeing themselves as lustful beasts who can only restrain themselves by controlling the appearance and behavior of females–who they see as beings put in their charge by God to rule over.
It isn’t very difficult to see how this culture can lead to the systematic exploitation of women in these circles–attracting men in particular who are prone to predatory behavior. The culture is structured in such a way that, if a woman is sexually abused in any way, it is almost always her fault. She caused the man to stumble and, while the man may have transgressed as well, she is fundamentally responsible and still needs to seek forgiveness from her abuser.
This kind of thinking lies behind the argument that following the “Mike Pence rule” (aka “Billy Graham rule”) can reduce the likelihood that men and women would end up in compromising situations that lead to sexual abuse. If men just determine not to meet alone with women, unless their wives are present, then they will never be tempted to take advantage of women, right?
Well, there are a few problems with this. First and foremost is a fundamental misconception about why men sexually abuse women. Rape, assault, harassment, and sexual exploitation of any kind are not about sexual desire; they’re about sexual dominance. Men in positions of power don’t take advantage of women because they’re seductive; they take advantage of them because they’re vulnerable. It has nothing to do with what women are wearing; it has everything to do with how dependent they are on these men for the success of their careers, their validity as human beings, or the salvation of their souls. Predatory men don’t lust after women’s bodies; they lust after the power they can have over women’s bodies. As a great leader once said, “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything…”
Another problem with relying on the “Mike Pence rule,” is that it completely disregards the possibility of sexual abuse occurring within marriage. Many fundamentalist Christian leaders either discourage or downright forbid wives from refusing the sexual advances of their husbands. Add that to the fact that, since divorce is typically forbidden, Evangelical women in abusive marriages have no way of getting out of those harmful relationships.
At the end of the day, it all boils down to this: there is simply no discussion on consent in sexuality within conservative Evangelical culture. A friend of mine recently called my attention to this post (including the image above) that makes a profound distinction in the sexual ethics of Evangelical Christians as compared to broader society. For fundamentalist Christians, there are no limits to sex as long as they are within the confines of heterosexual marriage. This means that, as long as a man is married, he technically owns the body of his wife. To the rest of humanity, sexual activity is wrong to the extent that it is non-consensual–whether the people engaging in it are married or not.
Here’s the bottom line: purity culture does not protect women from abuse; it prepares them for it. It sets them up to become objects for men to possess. Yes, sexual abuse happens in Evangelical churches. Of course it happens in Evangelical churches. The system is structured in such a way that it is almost guaranteed to happen. So, if we want to save the girls from abuse in the churches, we can’t reinforce the system that set them up for abuse in the first place.
The system has got to change.
The theology has got to change.
We have got to change.
Who we truly are as a church will depend upon how we answer these charges going forward. This is our defining moment, church. If only for once in our entire history of existence, let’s own our crap. Let’s own the sin of patriarchy…so we can finally set about on the hard work of repentance.
Some better responses:
I’m so sorry that happened to you.
It was not your fault.
They were wrong.
You are precious and loved.
I believe you.
— Shannon Dingle (@ShannonDingle) November 23, 2017