Sexual Assault in Christian Patriarchy

In the last few weeks, there’s been a rash of stories about sexual assault at Christian colleges and ministries. It’s worth putting them side-by-side to highlight the common elements and show how they’re all rooted in the more pernicious teachings about gender that are pervasive in conservative Christian theology.

In the New Republic, Kiera Feldman writes about sexual assault at Patrick Henry College, the ultra-right evangelical school in Virginia that was a pipeline to government jobs during the George W. Bush administration. Like many private Christian colleges, Patrick Henry enforces rigid gender roles – the so-called “complementarian” view where women are expected to be the submissive servants of men – and sets strict rules controlling contact between male and female students. Quotes like this one give you a good idea of what the school’s view of sexual assault is:

Last September, the school chose Dr. Stephen Baskerville, a professor of government, to deliver a speech that the entire student body was required to attend. He argued that feminism and liberalism have transformed the government into “a matriarchal leviathan.” The result, he said, according to a copy of the speech, was a society plagued by politically motivated “witch hunts” against men – while “the seductress who lures men into a ‘honeytrap’” was really to blame. “Recreational sex in the evening turns into accusations of ‘rape’ in the morning, even when it was entirely consensual,” Baskerville explained.

With hostile anti-feminist views like this holding sway, it’s absolutely no surprise that female students who are raped or assaulted run smack into a stone wall of victim-blaming. Feldman’s story has several examples of PHC women who tried, in good faith, to report sex crimes perpetrated against them by men on campus, and are invariably told it was their fault for being alone with strangers, for drinking, or for wearing supposedly too-revealing clothes. One student who came forward to report being drugged and assaulted got this shocking response from a school dean:

Sarah says Corbitt grilled her on certain details: What was she wearing? Had she flirted with him or given him mixed signals? “The entire line of questioning was basically like, ‘Did you make it up? Or did you deserve it in some way? Or was it consensual and now you’re just lying about it to make him look bad?’ ” recalls Rachel Leon, Sarah’s roommate who had accompanied her to Corbitt’s office for support.

Listening to Sarah from across her desk, the dean was as polite as ever. But she didn’t seem to believe Sarah’s story at all. “If you were telling the truth about this,” Sarah remembers Corbitt saying, “God would have kept you conscious to bear witness to the abuse against you.”

…Corbitt told Sarah and Rachel to forward all of Ryan’s e-mails to her and delete them from their inboxes. The dean then asked them to pull out their phones and show her Ryan’s text messages. Corbitt said to delete those, too. The dean explained that they weren’t allowed to speak of this matter outside of her office. She also forbade Sarah from seeking outside counseling.

There are near-identical stories at Bob Jones University, another ultra-conservative Christian college that’s infamous for banning interracial dating until the year 2000. As at PHC, the victims of assault are told they’re harming the Christian community by speaking out, accused of tempting their abusers to sin and put under extreme pressure to forgive them:

“Nearly everyone at Bob Jones grew up in a fundamentalist environment, so if you were abused, your abuser probably came from inside that bubble, too, which is what happened to me,” she said. “The person who supposedly counseled me told me if I reported a person like that to the police, I was damaging the cause of Christ, and I would be responsible for the abuser going to hell. He said all of my problems were as a result of my actions in the abuse, which mostly took place before I was 12, and I should just forgive the abuser.”

…Erin Burchwell said that when she accused a university employee of sexually assaulting her in the late 1990s, “their idea of an investigation and counseling was to ask me what I was wearing and whether it was tight, and to tell me not to talk to anyone about it because it wouldn’t look good for me.” She said university officials alternated between “saying it never even happened and saying I was a willing participant.”

What makes this especially egregious is that BJU’s administration knew they had a problem: in 2012, they hired a Christian consulting group called GRACE to investigate and advise them on their handling of on-campus sexual assault. This month, with the report nearly complete, BJU announced that they had fired GRACE, giving no more than a vague explanation as to why. It’s not a big leap to conclude that the report would have revealed more sordid facts that BJU wanted to keep secret. (This is a trend: according to fellow Patheos blogger Libby Anne, a missionary group called ABWE hired GRACE to investigate allegations of child molestation by one of their employees, then fired them before the report was finished.)

There’s also Bill Gothard, a major figure in the Christian homeschooling movement, who’s been accused of sexual harassment by literally dozens of different women over a period of decades, with some accounts supported by multiple witnesses. As Libby Anne points out, this was an open secret: the leaders of other evangelical groups knew of the allegations and chose to say nothing, potentially putting more women in harm’s way.

Stories like these make a joke of essays like one by a Ken Ham lackey who sneers that only immoral atheists need harassment policies at their gatherings, because good Christians would never do such things. But this sneer is hollow; the evidence that good Christians do these things is right in front of his face and he’s pretending not to see it.

Nor is it the case that the predators are a few malicious people concealed among blameless ministries. To the contrary, their behavior is encouraged and condoned by the theology of these Christian groups they belong to. This theology preaches that sexual assault isn’t a deliberate act that some men choose to commit, but a quicksand of temptation that blameless men can be dragged into by the merest glimpse of an unchaste woman. This belief both degrades men by teaching that they can’t be expected to control their own behavior and shames women by laying the blame for men’s transgressions at their feet. And as a result, it lets predators commit the same crimes over and over, while denying both justice and compassion to women who seek help after being victimized.

That said, this is by no means a solely Christian problem. I wish I could say our hands are clean in the atheist community, but that isn’t the case: we know that some prominent skeptics are sexual predators and harassers and that the organizations they work for have sheltered them. There are also many similar stories of sexual predators at secular colleges who are abetted by incompetent or victim-hostile administrators. If these stories are going to stop, we’ve all got a lot of work to do in cleaning up our respective corners of the world and banishing the criminals from our midst. But I do believe that abolishing rigid and restrictive gender roles and viewing women as the moral equals of men is a necessary first step – and that, at least, is a step the rest of the world is slowly taking, while most religious groups obstinately refuse to do even that.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Naomi

    “But I do believe that abolishing rigid and restrictive gender roles and viewing women as the moral equals of men is a necessary first step – and that, at least, is a step the rest of the world is slowly taking, while most religious groups obstinately refuse to do even that.”

    I’ve been writing a similar post in my head this past week or two. Connecting these dots is crucially important, because it’s not about a particular institution, but it’s about the culture these institutions collectively perpetuate.

  • pianoman

    I’m at a loss for words on this.

    Between these instances and the catholic priest scandal, i don’t want to hear another word from any christian about sexual morality.

  • skyblue

    The internet is such a huge help in shining light in dark places. I can’t help but think how much easier it is to get this stuff out in the open, publicize it, discuss it, and provide opportunities for victims to realize they are not alone and come forward, with blogs and other online communication. (And, shame on anyone for thinking the only people who have a problem are the ones who talk about it)

    Given that this abuse has been going on for so long, at least now that it is being discussed openly, it will be a heck of a lot harder for folks like Gothard to try to sweep it back under the rug and put victims back in the position they were in the 90s and before.

  • Jim Jones

    Religion is a lever of power. Give people such levers, some will abuse them. Always.

    But religion has more reason to cover up and pretend. Religion is all about pretense. That’s how we got Ted Haggard – and hundreds more.

  • Errant Endeavour

    ‘… and provide opportunities for victims to realize they are not alone and come forward, with blogs and other online communication.’

    I recall that a short while ago Adam blogged about another Christian college. Off hand, I can’t remember its name. Anyway, Adam was talking about the Republican senator who gave the rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union speech. She had attended this college that, if I remember correctly, disallowed dancing, had almost entirely gender segregated facilities, downright bizarre fire escape protocols and the like. But one other thing, one that pertains to the discussion.

    They also severely restricted their pupils’ ability to search the internet for any ungood websites. I don’t know if that particular college also has a problem with sexual assault (and more to the point, covering it up) but if it does, then victims will have an incredibly difficult time realising that they are indeed not alone. That there is help for them. That it’s not their fault.

    I don’t know anything about these other schools, and if they have any similar protocols. It’s possible that this one school I talk about is singular in its attitude. Though that may be false hope.

  • cipher

    It’s the same within the world of ultra-Orthodox Jews: gender segregation from a young age, infantilization, an entire population never properly socialized… . They end up with developmentally stunted adults who are sexually obsessed and act out inappropriately.

    Their way of handling it is the same as well; blame the victim, tell him/her that damnation will be the consequence of reporting it to the authorities and ostracize and condemn anyone who actually does.

  • skyblue

    That’s an excellent point, and I think it shows that fundamentalists know full well that the free exchange of ideas is a big threat to their control over their flocks. I think it was this article about Pensacola Christian College. I wouldn’t be surprised either if similar schools have similar policies.

    I was wondering about how smart phones becoming more prevalent impacts this sort of control. The article about PCC says students must consent to a phone search at any time, but the school cannot control the internet connection itself.

    It’s sad to think that there are also many more young people, probably women in particular, who aren’t even allowed to leave home to attend college, and remain under the control and watchful eye of fundamentalist parents and church leaders nonstop. I would bet that most of Gothard’s victims came from such an environment, and it’s taken years for them to be able to come forward.

  • Fallulah

    Thank you for connecting the dots! I despise when people say that these instances have NOTHING to do with the institutions theology, that even secular organizations have these problems. I think it is true secular orgs have the problems, but they do not have the special privileges of dealing with them “in house” to save face, they have stakeholders to answer to and must report them to authorities.

  • unbound55

    And if they can’t get the morality about rape correct (which should be a slam dunk), why would we want to hear their thoughts about any morality?

    To put it as an analogy, if you can’t perform basic algebra, why would I listen to you discuss calculus?

  • Will S

    “If these stories are going to stop, we’ve all got a lot of work to do in cleaning up our respective corners of the world and banishing the criminals from our midst. ”
    Very well said. Sadly, as a pagan, I can’t say we are exempt from this either. Perhaps admitting there is a problem is the toughest part for many people and groups. Much like the “no True Christian” attitude, it is easier to say “it’s not my problem”

  • smrnda

    ” She also forbade Sarah from seeking outside counseling.”

    To me, this is one of the most appalling things. Seriously, after being raped and having her rape trivialized, outside counseling seems like a very necessary thing, and also one that anyone should be entitled to. The idea of denying someone the right to do that is horrifying, and shows absolutely no concern for the well-being of the student, and seems like an attempt to isolate the victim from anyone who isn’t going to blame her for her own rape.

  • JimMacafee

    Kudos! Right twice. All conservatism is about fear (see John T. Jost) and pretending (e.g. the 2012 Romney bubble). Haggard is pathetic because he actually believes being gay is a horrid sin — that’s how he was raised — and only then discovered that he was one of them. Millions have been thus cursed with self-hatred, sometimes leading to suicide. The devil’s work!

    I grew up as one of the True Believers in Wheaton, IL — the Rome of fundamentalism, home to Billy Graham’s alma mater. I can tell you stories. Lots and lots. Arrogance. Self-deception. Denial. Hypocrisy. It can’t be fixed, and should be snuffed. Dog damn them all. (I love Dog.)