(This post is not explicit but does discuss elements of rape culture and the normalization of sexual violence in the church. It may make some uncomfortable, especially those with histories of trauma. If you feel this applies to you, there’s no pressure to read it.)
Research identifies rape culture, or a space where rape or sexual violence is normalized, by a few things: acceptance of myths about rape, victim blaming, traditional gender stereotypes, and hostile and benevolent sexism. Purity culture embraces many of these elements.
Rape Myth Acceptance
Rape myths are false beliefs about the definition of rape as well as the victim and rapist. Unfortunately, these myths can create an environment where perpetrators are often protected rather than victims/survivors. To my surprise, I found both men and women believe and promote these false beliefs.
Common rape myths:
- “They were asking for it.”
- “She could have resisted if she wanted to.”
- “Only bad girls/boys get raped.”
- “Rape only happens at night.”
- “Your spouse can’t rape you.”
Myths in purity culture can be included in subtle themes or direct messaging. These false beliefs are not exhaustive, nor are the examples, but cover a broad range of purity culture’s doctrine.
- Girls/women are responsible for boy’s/men’s sexual urges.
- The double standard of modesty between males and females.
- “A guy will have a tendency to treat you like you are dressed. If you are dressed like a flesh buffet, don’t be surprised when he treats you like a piece of meat.” (Lookadoo and DiMarco, Datable, p. 118)
- Heterosexual marriage is a reality for everyone and will always result in amazing sex.
- Almost all forms of purity culture literature and media convey this “foolproof” assumption about their audiences.
- A woman’s worth or status is tied exclusively to her virginity.
- Abstinence-only spaces refer to girls/women who have had premarital sex as second hand gum, dirty tape, a disheveled, unwanted rose, etc. Have you heard these examples?
- Martial rape does not exist.
- Spouses are often viewed as and spoken of as property.
- Consent is rarely, if ever, defined clearly.
- Women who say “no” are considered “selfish lovers” according to Mark and Grace Driscoll in their book, Real Marriage.
- Victims of sexual violence are at fault and should repent.
If you’re interested in finding more specific examples of these messages in Christian literature these articles are helpful and straightforward:
- “You are not your own:” Rape, Sexual Assault, and Consent in Evangelical Christian Dating Books
- Nobody Wants to Date a Whore: Rape-Supportive Messages in Women-Directed Christian Dating Books
- In Their Own Words by Dianna E. Anderson
Traditional Gender Stereotypes
(Gender roles, commonly referred to as either complementarian or egalitarian, are not clearly defined in the Bible. While inconclusive, both perspectives have scriptural merit. However, research has found traditional or complementarian gender stereotypes create a friendly environment for abuse and oppression. My goal is not to completely dismantle traditional ideals, but encourage all family structures to evaluate if the power dynamics in their home are helping each member of the marriage/family flourish in a safe and healthy space.)
Gender roles, according to purity culture, are different but complementary. According to this train of thought, men and women have “biologically hardwired” mental/physical/spiritual differences at birth that serve different purposes in society. If you remember the fairy tale message, men are the rescuers and women are to be rescued. (Cue stereotypes.) Especially in conservative religious circles, men may be assumed to have primary responsibility outside the home, they are strong and natural leaders, they are to protect their family. Women may have primary responsibility inside the home, they are meek and gentle, and nurture their families. Church may also assign “different, yet complementary” roles. These are very, very broad and not universally bad, yet not universally good. Stereotypes can easily restrict men and women’s engagement within their community. This provides ample space for religious legalism and abuse.
Evangelicals and fundamentalists have used these stereotypes to in efforts to protect their communities from the perceived danger of sexual immorality. John Piper advocates for patriarchal authority over women and argues #MeToo has been caused by the lack of male protection over women. His statements and sentiments have caused controversy over the years. If we believe these gender stereotypes apply in our context, we must also be aware of the increased potential to practice sexism, even with those we love. The pursuit of “protection” can result in an imbalance of power.
Whether you have instilled traditional or egalitarian roles (or neither!) in your home or church, you may want to ponder the following:
- Does this relationship/doctrine value mutual submission or exclusively female submission?
- Are my God-given talents and gifts welcomed and utilized in the home, church, and workplace or am I expected to engage with activities/responsibilities perceived to better suit my gender?
- If I am not physically/emotionally/sexually safe at home/church is there a space where I will be heard and helped without being blamed or questioned?
You might not actively believe or promote a prejudice against or distrust in women in the workplace, politics, or at home. (This would be called hostile sexism.) It’s still possible you may believe in a hierarchy between men and women. Subjectively, benevolent sexism has a positive view on women. This type of sexism respects the role of wife and mother and believes women deserve (or require) male protection. Women are often romanticized as sexual or love objects. Families and churches who promote this variation of sexism aren’t always obvious since they’re usually perceived as likeable. Both forms are dangerous as they each insist upon male power over women.
Let’s look at some brief examples/myths from evangelical leaders in the 1970s-2000s. Emphasis added.
- If God is like my husband, my husband is like god.
- “God begins a husband relationship with us. He provides wisdom where we lack it. He is our protector. He fulfills our deepest desire… Yet as I submit to God, so must I submit to… my husband.” (Mom’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1996, p. 154, 745)
- “As heads of household wielding God-give authority, husbands are responsible to discipline, in order to protect their wives who “can’t — by [their] own power — change [their] lives.” (Women’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1994, p. 842)
- Men are uniquely equipped to be the provider and protector.
- “One of the greatest threats to the institution of the family today is the undermining of this role as protector and provider. This is the contribution for which men were designed… If it is taken away, their commitment to their wives and children is jeopardized. (Focus on the Family brochure, 1994)
- “Little boys are the hope of the next generation.. Little girls too, will benefit because they’ll grow up with a clear vision of the kind of men who will make godly husbands.” (Men’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1993, p. 651)
- Selfless service is a virtue of the best wives and mothers.
- “With unbounded joy and enthusiastic effort I have poured my life into home and family, putting aside professional pursuits and personal ambitions.” (Women’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1994, p. 889)
- “This is how God created you and it is your purpose for existing. You are, by nature, equipped in every way to be your man’s helper. You are inferior to none as long as you function within your created nature, for no man can do your job… You were created to make him complete, not to seek personal fulfillment parallel to him.” (Pearl, Created to be His Help-Meet, p. 21, 42-44)
- Husbands initiate and benefit from intimacy, women surrender.
- “…a man is able to attribute a spiritual meaning to sexual union, indeed a metaphysical experience. The woman’s story is entirely different… Her spiritual surrender is directed far more precisely at the person of her husband, perhaps at the hoped-for child. (Men’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1993, p. 710)
- [Author describes initiation of sex between spouses by detailing a position a wife should assume.] “The husband finds this voluntary act of cooperation very exciting…” (LaHaye, The Act of Marriage, 1976, p. 102)
These examples are a select few from countless other Bible devotionals, books, sermons, and other forms of evangelical or fundamental guidance from this time period. The implications of these elements are incredibly dehumanizing, especially for women. Without proper evaluation, some conservative churches have been systemically normalizing sexual violence and blaming or silencing those who courageously speak up. The most recent example can be found in the Southern Baptist Convention, among other ministries and traditions. Yet, it doesn’t require 700 victims for these similarities between rape culture and purity culture to be considered a disaster. Arguably, it only takes one.
Have you heard or believed any of these myths or sexist statements?
Read more in this series:
- Impure: Taking the Next Step
- Impure: #ChurchToo & US Politics
- Impure: Harmful or Healing Liturgy?
- Impure: Female Sexuality in Purity Culture
- Impure: Purity Culture is Rape Culture
- Impure: A Fairy Tale
- Impure: In Defense of the American Family
- Impure: A Reading List on Purity Culture
- A Reading List for Relationships