(Content notice: Misogyny, sexual abuse, domestic violence.)
This last response post is probably going to be the most difficult one I’ll write about the “Male Shame” post that Dr. Darrel Ray wrote.
We’ve talked about how men get indoctrinated to define themselves by how not-womanly they are and to see being womanly as the worst thing a man can possibly do. We’ve looked at how they get trained to regard women as their sidekicks and inferiors and to view women’s bodies as male property. We’ve discussed how this training makes men insecure and ashamed of themselves whenever they come close to stepping out of conformity with their peers–or when women don’t cooperate with their self-conceptualization. We’ve discussed, too, how men see the control of women as a mark of their own superiority and fitness to rule–and the loss of that control as something to fight tooth and nail, even to the point of stripping human rights from anybody who dissents. We’ve also discussed why opposing LGBTQ equality has become such an important fight for so many Christians.
Now we’re going to talk about the inevitable outgrowth of this indoctrination: that it leads inexorably to abuse. I’m going to share something with you that told me on the deepest level possible what this indoctrination is really meant to accomplish. And we’ll end with a note of hope.
One of the darkest secrets of male indoctrination into shame is that this training makes certain promises to men and women alike, but it does not keep those promises.
When I was Christian, my body and life were under the control and ownership of first my father, and then my husband, and in all cases my pastor and my god. In return for my obedience to this divine hierarchy, I was promised a lot of things in return. I’d be happy, for a start–and safe. A good Christian man would be divinely sent my way, and once my god had dropped him into my lap we’d get married and have a Happy Christian Marriage. He’d put Jesus first, of course, which meant he’d “serve by leading.” He’d be strong, responsible, disciplined, conscientious, loving, appreciative, and sensitive to a woman’s needs (mrrowr!). Every marriage needed a leader and a follower just as a church needed a pastor and parishioners; if nobody was the leader, then chaos would ensue. It wasn’t my fault that our god had decided that Biff was to be that leader; I wasn’t allowed to even question our god’s wisdom. So while my husband might ask my opinion, and it was a wise husband indeed who sought the opinion of a wife who was smarter than him at a particular topic, in the end he’d do as he saw best. I was taught that I’d been created to be a “help meet” (and yes, I know; the phrase makes me grit my teeth now), so obviously I’d be “in charge” of all the housework; men just didn’t care about that stuff, and they were needed for all the heavy lifting work like jobs outside the home, car repair, and lawn care.
We’d work together like a finely-tuned engine, each handling our half-sphere, and together we would make a whole. I could see the vast sea of Christianity rippling out from my own marriage, where each family operated that way to make a vast society where men and women functioned and contributed and a god at the center of it all kept people honest and true.
My husband Biff–who, you might recall, converted in early adulthood–was taught that by virtue of his identification as a man, he was divinely-equipped to rule over women, particularly me. He regarded the having of a wife as a divine reward for good service. He was my master and leader, and he was taught that if he put me on a pedestal and complimented me from time to time, if he led me in a compassionate and caring way, then he would assuredly get a live-in nanny, maid, chef, surrogate Mommy, and sex doll. He was promised that if he led, I’d follow. If he ordered, I’d obey. If he demanded, I’d comply. And every man in our church–and to an extent our entire religion–was made a promise that they were entitled to rule over women and that they were supposed to get this benefit by virtue of their sexual identities as men, even if they had no personal qualifications for leadership. Biff–like every man in our church–was trained to expect female obedience and compliance. He was taught to fear female power, to stifle any semblance of feminine behavior or thought in himself, and to consider women’s bodies, attention, and time his entitlement–and control of women’s bodies an outright necessity for the proper functioning of society itself as a whole and his own family in particular.
As visions go, it was a truly ambitious and comprehensive one.
Unfortunately, it was a false vision.
If you start hanging out with ex-Christian women, it won’t take long for stories of abuse to start bobbing to the surface of the conversation like tortellini in simmering water. It seems like most of us have stories of abuses that either happened to us or to friends of ours. Mine’s actually pretty mild compared to some of the ones I’ve heard. Sure, Christians could make a case that the men involved here weren’t TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (whatever that phrase happens to mean to the Christian making the accusation), but there are just so many overwhelming stories that the heart gets sickened and even a stone starts to wonder how it is that Christian organizations and churches seem so singularly incapable of recognizing “bad Christian” men before women marry them, and why these churches don’t seem focused at all on preventing and stopping abuse against women once it starts.
Indeed, there was no protection for me at all. I endured as best I could my husband’s constant unfair treatment and completely bizarre outbursts, picked my battles as wisely as I could regarding his truly off-the-wall demands, and fled to the pastor when nothing else worked. I was told to pray a lot and “God” would improve my husband’s skills at leadership and make him less of an abusive, dishonest twit. But wasn’t Jesus supposed to make him better when he got saved? Ah yes, you see, yes, but he still has a “sin nature.” Then why did you tell me it was our god’s will that I marry him if he was so imperfect? You’re meant to help him on the journey to self-improvement. But who will help me on my own journey? He will, once he’s been fixed. But he’s supposed to be my leader now…? Yes, yes he is.
It went on and on like that. The pastor reined in Biff’s worst impulses and to be fair, he tended to back my horse rather than Biff’s when things got out of hand. He spent a lot of time adjudicating these sorts of squabbles in our church. That this pastor’s help was needed at all by so many Christians speaks to a serious disconnect between our expectations around gender roles and how those roles played out in reality.
I began to think that if this hierarchy was really so intuitive and so completely divine in nature, then it seemed awfully odd that so many couples had trouble putting it into action. For something presented as simple common sense and obvious Biblical wisdom, a lot of resources existed (and more exist now!) to help people align themselves to the teaching and contort themselves to it.
My own difficulty with compliance was blamed, of course, on feminism. My Catholic mother had tried to indoctrinate me into the principles of self-ownership, autonomy, and relationship fairness. I was regarded as tainted because I’d absorbed those lessons. But I was a sincere and committed Christian who genuinely wanted what I thought was my god’s approval and blessings. I tried my very hardest to adhere to principles that seemed more and more designed to serve the men above me, not to perpetuate Christian society or do what was most godly and good.
Yet the harder I tried to push to become more committed and live more fully according to those principles, the worse I seemed to get abused and taken advantage of. And the harder I saw people around me trying, like me, to obey what they thought was a divine mandate, the worse they got abused and taken advantage of. My earlier learning about feminist principles jostled very uncomfortably with what I came to see as a hugely unfair and one-sided arrangement. If this was really how our god wanted his people to live, then it sort of looked like he valued unfairness.
Just because I was a woman, I was stuck doing every bit of drudgework around our home. I didn’t actually like keeping house, I had a job and Biff didn’t, and I had a heavier school workload than Biff did. This lopsided arrangement seemed totally unjust, and more and more I began thinking that a just god couldn’t possibly value this arrangement.
Liberal and progressive Christians are already nodding in agreement. Well, duh, I hear them saying. And I agree, for what it’s worth. But I’d left liberal Christianity behind. Whatever feeds people in those denominations–and if someone is fed there then that’s fine, obviously–I’d already eaten there and was left too hungry to stay at that table.
When I deconverted, Biff’s control was totally lost and he knew it. The only reason I’d ever had to tolerate his domineering and grandstanding was my belief that my subservience was divinely-ordered. Once that belief withered away, I had no reason to put up with his behavior.
But his indoctrination meant that his loss of control over me threatened his entire self-image. He had to regain it. He tried cajoling, pleading, strong-arming, even grabbing at my arms as if he meant to physically drag me out the door to church and yanking covers off my body to make me get up on Sunday mornings. He threw away my makeup at one point; he spent hours trying to argue me back into faith or guilt me into at least acting Christian again.
When nothing else worked, he began threatening me physically.
He had never laid a hand on me, not in our entire association, so these threats were startling. When I told him to stop doing it immediately, his response was to make more of these threats–and they got increasingly violent in nature. He admitted later that military chaplains–and his pastor–had advised that he should “do whatever it took” to get me back into church and into line again. He was a pathological liar so take that nugget with whatever dipping-sauce of advisement you think best. Either way, my mother hadn’t raised any idiots; I knew that there is only a hopscotch jump away from making a threat to carrying it out. After a harrowing week of planning, smiling, and pretending all was well, I fled in the dark of night with the clothes on my back and a suitcase in my hand while he was out. It felt like being in a movie. I went to a whole other country to escape from him, aided by friends I’d made online. Later he’d admit that I’d made a good decision, because had I gone to my parents’ home, that was geographically close enough to where we’d lived that he had planned to drive there to “drag me back home by the hair.” (My dad–a proper Southern redneck daddy with a Jackalope head mounted on his wall, a bookcase full of military histories, wall maps of Antarctica everywhere, a collection of beer cans, and a rack full of well-kept guns–only grunted when I told him what Biff had declared, saying with a toothy grin that did not quite reach his stone-cold eyes, “You should have come here anyway. I would have loved to have seen that asshole show up on my doorstep.” And yes, I understood a little then of how I’d gotten drawn into that sort of marriage.)
In the year and a half of traumatic stalking that followed, which his church and military superiors did not stop despite my repeated pleas for help and which local law enforcement seemed curiously powerless to end, Biff blamed me for the loss of his preaching license, for his catastrophic drop in esteem in our denomination, and for his seriously Hell-bound soul because now, you see, he had to masturbate and didn’t I feel guilty that I was no longer there to sex him up in lawful marriage? When one night I cried out to ask why he was threatening me, why he thought what he was doing was going to convince me to return to him and our broken marriage, why he felt so compelled to dig deeper and stoop lower every time he managed to contact me, he whined in reply something that I will never forget for my entire life. “Well, I have to try something, don’t I?”
Strangely, his god–my onetime god, the being who had promised to keep me safe and to protect me, the entity I had worshiped my entire life up to that point–never “convicted” him of anything he was doing wrong or told him to stop doing it.
Eventually Biff got remarried, and when his wife-to-be mailed me an invitation (I will never know why) and I found out what his address was and that he’d ensnared another woman who he was apparently courting while stalking me, I threatened to go to the cops if he ever contacted me again, since I now knew exactly where he was and that laws stateside had changed since I’d fled, and also and more importantly I’d tell his pretty little
victim bride-to-be the truth about what he’d been doing to me while reeling her in. That ended his campaign of terror immediately. Ain’t heard from him since.
As I said, my story’s pretty mild compared to some you’ll encounter. My godly preacher husband didn’t do more than make repeated, lurid threats and terrorize me via phone and email. And obviously Biff was a horrible Christian. He still is. You knew without my telling you (right?) that he’s still preaching, though with another denomination; remember, our old church deep-sixed his preaching license and jettisoned his entire ambition toward ministry–not because of what he had done to me or what kind of person he was, but because of my rebellion against his authority. That at least I can verify as true because my onetime pastor told me that’s what happened.
I’m deeply uncomfortable sharing this much about the end of my marriage to Biff. But I think it’s important to say that despite Biff’s categorical, constitutional inability to rule another person, he got that privilege and with it all the protections a predator could ever need to allow him to prey upon those who were powerless to stop him–and those he lorded it over were systematically stripped of their ability to resist him or stop him.
Don’t you wonder why you only ever hear about a serious sexual abuse scandal in a church that really stresses rigid gender roles and women’s subjugation? Catholics and fundamentalists don’t seem like they have much in common, but there’s a reason why these groups just can’t get away from accusations of pedophilia, rape, cover-up of sexual assault, and other offenses. In the same way the former group shuffles priests from parish to parish to cover up their crimes, the latter group is strangely reluctant to even acknowledge their own crimes. I’ve heard many harrowing stories of women who tried to bring their abuse to their elders but got told they’d sinned somehow and invited their own abuse. I’ve heard of children blamed for their own victimization; I’ve even heard of molestation victims forced to apologize to their congregations for “leading on” the pastor who’d impregnated them as barely-teenaged girls. I could recite an endless litany of sickening abuse–and when it occurs, the victims themselves are blamed for somehow moving outside of compliance with the life script, and the congregation prays not for the victim of the abuse, but for the person who committed it.
It’s so important to my onetime religion’s (male) leaders to keep their dominance intact that they’re perfectly willing to face scandal after scandal and story after story of victimization because looking squarely at the level of abuse inherent in churches that buy into this “umbrella” hierarchy of relationships would bring about the end of male dominance and the end of those gender roles. The hierarchy is holy and pure; it cannot be wrong. So therefore, if a couple just can’t make a marriage work under it, the couple is probably the problem here. Indeed I’ve seen a great many Christians whose marriages break down who blame themselves for being unable to conform to the model they were taught.
And it really seems like the model fails more people than it works for. Despite these leaders’ inability to make institutionalized misogyny succeed in their own organizations–which are ostensibly populated by divinely-inspired people filled with “God’s” spirit and eager to live as TRUE CHRISTIANS™–these leaders would absolutely love to impose their vision of the Happy Christian Marriage on society itself, which is not populated by Christians eager to embrace that model. I fail to see how men who aren’t even Christian (which in Christian minds means “men who aren’t moral at all, are incapable of love at all, and probably eat their own babies in garlic butter”) can be hoped to take the model and do anything with it but victimize women even worse than Christian men do despite Christians men’s supposedly constraining values of self-sacrifice and serving others.
If this model of marriage actually worked–as in, it produced overwhelming percentages of happy spouses with dramatically lower rates of divorce and domestic problems–then that’d be one thing. But unfairness doesn’t work. Christians divorce just about as much as (or maybe more often than) anybody else, and there is absolutely no way anybody could truthfully claim that Christian marriages are safe from the threat of domestic violence. “Separate but equal” doesn’t work on the small scale in a family, and definitely doesn’t work on the large scale in society either. When one gender is put above the other and inequality is declared to be GOD’S OWN BONUS PLAN, then I don’t see how anybody expects anything else to happen but for predators to leap gleefully into a field of awaiting victims.
It’s almost as if Christian leaders have left absolutely nothing to chance here. And after having tried my best to live under their hierarchy and having had my life all but destroyed by it, and after having heard all the stories that I have from people who have suffered similarly, I’m now convinced that this hierarchy is not only not salvageable but that it works pretty much as Christian leaders want it to work. This model serves them. It perpetuates their power. So by wild coincidence, it is what their god wants them to keep doing. That’s why, when I was terrified for my life, not only did my church not help me but is still actively promoting an even more hardcore version of the policies and teachings that led directly to my abuse.
I’m just glad to be away from that whole circus.
That note of hope I mentioned is this: many men are throwing off the shackles of this indoctrination.
Some years ago, when I was active on a forum populated by ex-Christians, I made an offhand comment about how I’d never met a Christian man who didn’t really like the power he had over the women around him.
Well, I immediately heard from many ex-Christian men who, while they were Christians, had not liked that power at all.
You could have knocked me over with a feather!
I asked about it. They told me about how uncomfortable they’d been about being, in essence, slave-masters over their wives and children; they told me about how they’d spoken up in defense of women being treated poorly. Many mentioned that they had even as true-blue Christians rejected male gender roles as too constrictive and abusive. Some talked about how they’d tried to get women installed in positions of real power in their churches and how they had sought to join denominations that welcomed female clergy. A few told me that a big part of their deconversion had involved questioning gender roles. Some even mentioned with a chuckle how their Christian wives had been quite unsettled by being given an equal say in their relationships.
I am grateful to those friends for opening my eyes.
Now it thrills me when I read a powerful piece of writing supporting women’s rights and notice a male name attached to it. At this point it seems like there’s an even-Steven chance that it’ll be a male name. That’s amazing to me. For so long I felt like women were slogging it alone–and now suddenly there are all these people fighting alongside us who I once thought were as a group antithetically against women gaining equality. There’s still a long way to go. Women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, they all stem from the same rejection of male power and constrictive gender roles–so yes, Christian churches are going to fight it all the way to the end. I know that. But my eyes are open to the full range of people who are speaking in support of those who have been marginalized.
We’ll beat this monster–together.
And now I look at the vast sea of Christians–especially Christian men–and I wonder how many of them have privately told their partners, “No. This is not how we have to do things in our home. I don’t want this; I don’t deserve this.” I wonder how many of them cringe and shrink away from the idea of being slave-masters and never being allowed to look or act like anything less than the manliest-man who ever donned a suit or grabbed a hatchet. I bet it’s a lot of them; I bet it’s more than Christian leaders would like to think about.
And to me, that’s the most ringing note of hope that I could ever barbarically yawp across the roofs of the world. Society is changing. Not even Christians themselves are totally on board with how Christian leaders want to strip women of their rights and enforce an unfair regime that not even the indoctrinated can handle without constant and endemic eruptions of abuse. The hierarchy is doomed–and it’s doomed because people are struggling free from that indoctrination into shame and control.
We’re going to turn the page here, and start a new chapter. We’ll talk next time about one of the biggest issues with religion: its superfluity. I hope you’ll join me.