Teenage Boys and Pedophilia: Evangelical Purity Teachings Blur the Line

Last week I briefly mentioned Debi Pearl’s suggestion that working mothers should worry that the babysitters they hire to watch their kids might have their boyfriends over for sex on the job. I pointed out that if you’re worried that your babysitter isn’t trustworthy, you should find another, and that there are plenty of responsible teenage girls out there. One reader responded with this comment:

Geneder essentialism alert! Boys can babysit as well.

Yes, yes they can, but not in Debi’s world, and not in the conservative evangelical community where I grew up. I think this is an important issue to understand, because it sheds light once again on how purity teachings harm boys and men as well as girls and women.

Growing up, I babysat all the time, and was in very high demand. When I wasn’t available, they usually asked for my next-in-age sister. Once they struck out there, they sometimes asked for my next-in-age brother. But my parents didn’t allow him to babysit—even when people asked for him specifically, and some did. Why was this? Because he was male. It wasn’t because they saw childcare as a female thing (though they did) that they turned down requests for my brother to babysit. It was because . . . here, let me let James Dobson explain:

I think it is relatively safe to leave children with mature adolescent girls, although they should be told they cannot invite their boyfriends to come over. I would not recommend leaving kids of either sex with teenage boys since there is so much going on sexually within males at that age. Although there might be no problem most of the time, you must do all that you can to make sure that the devastation of child abuse does not occur even once in your children’s entire childhood.

The idea that teenage boys are more sexual than are teenage girls (and of course that men are more sexual than women) pervades the evangelical subculture, and within evangelicalism it not infrequently translates into a concern about leaving young children in the care of teenage boys. Of course, the extent of concerns varies, and even conservative evangelicalism is not a monolith. Sometimes these concerns show themselves merely in a reticence to let a teenage boy watch young children alone (i.e. without the presence—and thus “accountability”—of adults or other teens), and other times they go further and result in, for example, a blanket ban on males working in the church nursery (as was the case in the fundamentalist church in which blogger Sarah Moon grew up).

To get an idea how far these fears over male sexuality can at times extend, though, take a look at James Dobson’s response to a question about letting a child sleep over at the home of a friend who has a single father:

I would not suggest that you allow your daughter—or your son—to spend the night in a home where there is not a mother you trust.

Within evangelicalism, the idea that females are more nurturing than males and thus better able to care for young children is augmented by the belief that men are both highly sexual and easily tempted into sexual sin. Taken together, the result is reticence to put teenage boys—or even males in general—in positions of authority over young children to whom they are not related without the presence and accountability of another adult—preferably a female adult.

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Now of course we who are parents should be careful about who we leave our children with. I wouldn’t leave my kids with any sitter, male or female, whom I didn’t either already know or hadn’t had personally recommended to me. But this automatic aversion to male babysitters stems from the idea that men are highly sexual creatures easily given to temptation while women are, well, less driven by their sexual urges. And setting up this female-babysitter-safe/male-babysitter-dangerous dichotomy also risks making parents feel they don’t need to be as careful in vetting female babysitters. Once again, gender essentialism means people look at your gender to see if you’re qualified rather than looking at your character, your skills, and your interests.

Further, this isn’t just about the statistics of who is more likely to abuse. It’s about the idea that teenage boys (and men) are unable to restrain themselves from raping unless they are carefully surrounded by protective boundaries. It’s not just about protecting children, it’s about protecting teenage boys (and men) from themselves. It’s about the idea that inside every man and teenage boy is a monster longing to get out and go on a rampage, a monster constrained only by the careful rules and restrictions of society, and of the evangelical subculture.

This is also about the way evangelicals’ single-minded focus on whether or not a sex occurs within marriage blinds them to the vast difference between consensual sex and rape, and to the difference between healthy sexual relationships and unhealthy sexual relationships. Think back to Dobson’s concern about having teenage boys babysit because “there is so much going on sexually within males at that age.” Dobson appears to think that the fact that many (most?) teenage boys would give their right hands for a girlfriend and the chance to have consensual premarital sex means that these same boys would just as readily channel their sexual energies into sexually molesting children. When the only thing you tell teenage boys about sex is to say “no,” and when you also view teenage boys as under a constant barrage of fire from colossal sexual urges, you lose the ability to see that the fact that a teenage boy would gladly have sex with a willing teenage girl if given a chance does not mean he would also gladly sexually abuse a child if given the chance.

Evangelicals cannot teach their sons a healthy sexual ethic because their sexual ethic revolves around nothing more complicated than saying “no” outside of marriage and thus places consensual sex with a girlfriend in the same box with child rape with little differentiation or distinction. When combined with the idea that men are sexual beasts who are only kept from wanton rape by the constraints of civilized society, you end up unwilling to leave a teenage boy alone with young children for fear of what that boy might do to them—and to himself.

I am so very, very sick of all of this. Not angry sick, not right now. Just, sad sick. No one wins here—everyone loses. Everyone. File this away as reason #357 that patriarchy—and purity culture—harms guys too.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Christian feminist blogger Dianna Anderson has started writing about evangelicals’ need to develop a healthy sexual ethic, and she’s not the only one. People are finally starting to wake up to the nightmare that is evangelical sexual ethics—or rather, their lack of an actual system of sexual ethics—and to demand change. It’s about time.

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