[warning: I am going to be talking about sensitive, sex-related issues today, including rape and sexual assault. ]
First, let me share my rationale for talking about this. When I started this blog, my intention was to leave a lot of what I’m about to say unsaid. I wanted to discuss, mainly, more of the philosophies and ideologies entrenched in the IFB movement and conservative evangelicalism at large, instead of some of my personal hang-ups.
But, I’ve been doing an incredible amount of reading recently, and her.menutics at Christianity Today has announced they’re going to be talking about some of these things, and they have been under heavy discussion by many writers, including Dianna Anderson and Sarah Moon. However, there is one area of this discussion that I’ve noticed is missing, and that’s what I’m going to be contributing today.
Essentially, I will be arguing that the modesty/purity/virginity culture, especially in more conservative areas, is one of the main reasons why Christian young women stay in abusive relationships.
Many writers have already made the connection between the purity culture and the rape culture, and they have done a much better job establishing that than I ever could. I encourage you to read their arguments. You can find more links on my “other dragon fighters” page. What these men and woman are arguing for is incredibly valuable, and they’re establishing a healthy, productive rhetoric; what I’m offering here is merely a subset to that discussion.
When I was fourteen, I went to a month-long summer camp at the college I would later attend. Like most Christian summer camps, this one involved going to a chapel service twice a day. Most of the time they were fun, lighthearted– until one evening they split up the girls and the boys. Great, I remember thinking, because I knew exactly what was coming. Segregation can only mean one thing– they were going to talk about sex. I sighed when they made the announcement. Again? I thought wearily.
That evening, when the camp counselors had shooed all the men and boys out of the building, the speaker got up to the podium. She didn’t even beat around the bush, but launched right into her object lesson. Holding up a king-size Snickers bar, she asked if anyone in the audience wanted it. It’s a room full of girls– who doesn’t want chocolate? A hundred hands shot up. She picked a girl close to the front that wouldn’t have to climb over too many people and brought her up to the stage. Very slowly, she unwrapped the Snickers bar, splitting the package like a banana peel. She handed it to the young woman, and asked her, very clearly, to lick the chocolate bar all over. Just lick it.
Giggling, the young lady started licking the chocolate bar, making a little bit of a show of it. At fourteen, I had no idea what a blow job was, so I missed the connection that had a lot of girls in the room snorting and hooting. The young lady finished and handed it back to the speaker. As she was sitting down, the speaker very carefully wrapped the package around the candy bar, making it look like the unopened package as possible.
Then she asked if anyone else in the room wanted a go.
No one raised her hand.
My sophomore year in college, another speaker shared a similar object lesson– ironically, in the exact same room, also filled exclusively with women. She got up to the podium carrying a single rose bud. At this point I was more familiar with sexual imagery, and I knew that the rose had frequently been treated as a symbol for the vagina in literature and poetry– so, again, I knew what was coming.
This speaker asked us to pass the rose around the room, and encouraged us to enjoy touching it. “Caress the petals,” she told us. “Feel the velvet.” By the time the rose came to me, it was destroyed. Most of the petals were gone, the ones that were still feebly clinging to the stem were bruised and torn. The leaves were missing, and someone had ripped away the thorns, leaving gash marks down the side.
I could go on. I imagine many of you have heard similar object lessons. These “object lessons” aren’t isolated to evangelical culture, either– Ariel Levy writes about one she saw involving packing tape in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs.
However, all of these object lessons contribute to one message: your identity and value as a woman is tied to your sexual purity. If you surrender your virginity, you are worthless. Disgusting. Repulsive. Broken. Unwanted.
My generation has gotten that message loud and clear. Our virginity is the “greatest gift a woman can give her husband.” My own father, who was a virgin when he met my mother, on repeated occasions has told me that my mother having sex when she was in highschool bothers him — to this day, and they’ve been married twenty-six years. Mark Driscoll, in his new marriage-advice book, tells his readers that if he had known of a single sexual encounter his wife had at nineteen, he would not have married her. Finding out about it, over a dozen years into their marriage, sent him into a self-admitted emotional tailspin (however, we’re supposed to completely ignore the fact that he had sex, too).
There are so many other examples I could cite, both factual and fictional. The ultimate message is that if we give up our virginity, or even our “emotional purity,” which I’ll get to in a minute, makes us completely repulsive to “good Christian boys.”
I know a young man who told me, point-blank, that finding out his ex-girlfriend had sex made her unattractive to him, and that he would no longer consider “getting back” with her, even though until that point he had been relentlessly pursuing her.
He is not a virgin.
But what if your sexual purity, or your virginity, is stolen? What if you are sexually abused, or raped?
The answer, terrifyingly, is the same.
I met “John” at the tail-end of my sophomore year. He was handsome, charismatic, an excellent musician, talented, popular, and respected. He was running for student council president, was a part of the “in,” crowd, and… I was not. That had never particularly bothered me. Growing up IFB kinda means you get used to being a weird outsider. But, I could still appreciate those qualities. The night we met, he basically ignored me, which, I assume you can imagine, felt pretty typical.
My junior year, though, we were both percussionists in my college’s symphony orchestra, and the conductor asked us to be a part of the school’s major production that semester– The Pirates of Penzance. Rehearsals were four nights a week, from 6 pm to 1 or 2 am. As percussionists, we didn’t have a whole lot to do, except occasionally whack the cassa bass or the triangle. That left a lot of time for bonding… and, by the end, we were “talking,” the evangelical intermediary between “acquaintance” and “monogamous relationship.” We were official by February, and he proposed in August.
For my own emotional stability, I will be brief. The relationship was emotionally, verbally, physically, and sexually abusive. Like countless other stories, the abuse slowly escalated– I had no idea what was happening until it was too late.
Women in, or who have recently escaped from, violent relationships typically get asked “why do/did you stay?” Very frequently, they don’t have a solid answer to that question. There are a host of common reasons– daddy issues, economic stability, shame.
I know exactly why I stayed. I was crippled, paralyzed, and overwhelmed by fear. Fear that he would abandon me. Fear that, if he left, I would no longer have any value. John had literally ruined me, in my mind, for anyone else.
Long story short: he did leave me, breaking our engagement two months before the wedding. His reasoning: I was not “submissive” enough. One month before he broke it off, I had cut off anything sexual. I would no longer participate in the degrading phone sex where he referred to me exclusively as “bitch” and “whore.” I shied away from his touch. And I had the audacity to tell him that he couldn’t call me a “God damn fucking bitch” anymore. Yup. Definitely not submissive-wife material. I was certainly not Created to be his Helpmeet.
It’s been three years since then, and I’m now married to the most amazing, loving, gentle, tender man I couldn’t have even dreamed to ask for. But, I’m still healing from a lot of the abuse, and there are a few things I still violently struggle with, mainly that:
my internalized “purity” narrative tells me that what John did was not rape.
The first “sexual” thing John ever did was to put his hand, facing palm-up, on my percussionist’s stool. I was standing to turn the page, and when I sat down, he grabbed my ass. I found this titillating, exciting. I didn’t protest, I didn’t correct him. I coyly asked him what he was doing, and he said “oops.”
I wore v-neck sweaters that just barely showed off my cleavage, because he liked it. I wore a skirt that showed off my ass– because he liked it.
By the time he had become fully abusive, these behaviors continued, largely because I was terrified of what he would do if I didn’t. At one point our relationship was long distance, and he bought me a webcam. The first time he told me to take my shirt off, I told him no. I even shut my laptop. He spent the next two hours screaming obscenities at me, and he was violent the next time he saw me in person. The first time he raped me, I fought him– for one brief second, until he dug the band of his watch into my knee– leaving a cut so deep I have a long, puffy scar. It was a warning.
I have to constantly fight against the oppressive lie that an outsider looking in would think that I had consented. Geez, just because you never had an orgasm doesn’t mean he violated you. C’mon. You’re just frigid.
I have to constantly fight that lie that because I didn’t “fight enough,” because I didn’t choose to immediately leave the relationship, that it meant that I deserved what happened to me.
I have to constantly fight against the lie that says because I wasn’t pure enough, that because I had “dressed provocatively,” because I had allowed myself to be alone with him, that I invited it. That I had allowed it to happen.
I have to fight the lie that says that maybe I’m making all of this “rape” stuff up to make myself feel better about allowing it to happen.
He didn’t actually rape you, you’re just saying that because you’re blaming him. You didn’t keep yourself pure, that’s all. You just know that if you really allowed yourself to face the facts, you’d see the truth. You’re a disgusting piece of shit. You’re worthless.
That last one is why the modesty/purity culture can be so incredibly damaging. Many girls and women I’ve talked to have it so deeply ingrained into them that it’s virtually inescapable. When it comes between choosing what’s worse– staying in abusive relationship, or facing the “reality” that you’ve “surrendered your purity,” guess which one we choose?
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Samantha grew up in the homeschool, patriarchy, quiverful, and fundamentalist movements, and experienced first-hand the terror and manipulation of spiritual abuse. She is now married to an amazing, gentle man who doesn’t really get what happened to her but loves her anyway. With him by her side and the strength of God’s promises, she is slowly healing.
NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce