Samantha Field was a student at Pensacola Christian College in 2009, when she claims to have suffered repeated physical and sexual assaults—including two alleged rapes—by her ex-fiancé, a fellow student. Thanks to the school’s strict morality code, which doesn’t allow men and women to use the same elevators, much less be alone in the same room, Samantha was reluctant to report her story to the school for fear of inviting suspicion and scrutiny, if not expulsion. Eventually, other students and faculty members noticed something was wrong, and Field was called in to meet with college administrators, including the school’s dean for women, who, Field says, told her that “confession [is] good for the soul.” When she remained silent, having nothing to confess, Field was sent to the school counselor.
“I started to tell her that my boyfriend had made me do things that I didn’t want to do, but she interrupted me and asked what I needed to repent of, and told me that I needed to forgive him, because otherwise I would have bitterness in my heart,” said Field, now a writer who blogs about her experience leaving the Christian fundamentalist movement. “I was trying to tell her that my boyfriend had raped me, and her reaction was to tell me that I needed to repent for my sins and not worry about my rapist’s sins.”
You may wonder why I have spent so much time in recent weeks writing about the mishandling of sexual assault and rape at evangelical colleges and in evangelical missions organizations, along with sexual crimes committed by Christian homeschooling leaders like Doug Phillips and Bill Gothard. It’s probably about time to explain why, because I have my reasons.
Historian Adam Laats completely missed the point last week when he suggested that the New Republic article about the mishandling of sexual assault at Patrick Henry College was simply a “rape smear” born out of progressive animosity toward conservatives. In fact, Laats went so far as to conclude that “it might seem more accurate to ask if Patrick Henry’s conservative culture PREVENTS sexual assault.” The point Laats missed was that critics are talking about something very specific here—the effects of purity culture.
It is absolutely true that the way rape and sexual assault are handled by authorities is a big problem on college campuses today. It is also true that some themes—such as the victim blaming—are common problems for both religious and secular universities. But there are also reasons schools like Bob Jones University and Patrick Henry College are worth discussing separately.
There’s really two things going on here.
First, as I’ve discussed at length here before in posts on what I have dubbed “purity culture,” within evangelical culture modesty teachings and a pervasive form of victim blaming tend to go hand in hand. Women are told to “cover up” in order to not “defraud” their brothers in Christ by sexually tempting them. These ideas both objectify women and turn them all into slutty temptresses. They also remove responsibility from men.
Yes, evangelicals will give lip service to the idea that men’s actions are still their own responsibility. However, they also teach that men are visual creatures who have so much trouble avoiding sexual sin that women have to cover their bodies to avoid offering temptation. Is it any surprise, then, that counselors at evangelical colleges would ask about what rape victims were wearing or suggest that the victims, too, must have something they need to repent of?
Second, evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity contain some ideas that seem perfectly designed to shield perpetrators—the idea that everyone sins, that you should not judge others, that he who is without sin should throw the first stone, that Christians are required to forgive and forget. I’ve written about these themes again, and again, and again, and again. I’ve written about child molesters returning to the pulpit and about Christians making excuses for horrific cases of sexual abuse. Heck, I’ve written about missions agencies forcing child sexual abuse victims to confess to the sin of adultery. And so, I’m not surprised to see these themes come up in how these schools handle rape and sexual assault.
I don’t write about these cases because I want to score points. I really, really don’t. I write about these cases because I grew up in that culture, and I recognize the themes I read about in articles on how schools like Bob Jones University, Patrick Henry College, and Pensacola Christian College. I know these themes, I remember these themes, I lived these themes—and they are toxic. And it is sad to me that an outsider like Adam Laats cannot recognize that.