(Content note: reproductive rights, creepy Purity Balls.)
Sometimes we hear an opinion referred to as “the hill that person will die on,” indicating an opinion that is so dearly held that no matter the cost, even if the battle is impossible to win, the person holding that opinion is going to cling to it and fight for it to the bitter end. Moreover, the saying indicates an opinion that has eclipsed most if not all other opinions that person holds. Today we’re going to talk about the two hills that I see Christianity dying on, and how those battles relate to the indoctrination of male shame and male identity formation.
It’s no secret at all to anybody outside the Christian bubble that the two hills, of course, are women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. It’s downright astonishing how serious Christian leaders are about fighting these two battles. A recent Barna Group survey of young people discovered that the vast majority of their very own young-adult members thought their own religion was anti-gay (as well as hypocritical and judgmental, also not surprising). And while one sometimes runs into non-Christians who vehemently oppose abortion access and buy into debunked pseudoscience about contraception, that fight is owned by Christians–who have made it very clear that they’re not even vaguely interested in atheist volunteers. As my fellow ExComm contributor and friend Neil’s pointed out already, his old bronies at the SBC have made anti-gay bigotry all but a central platform of their ideology by this time.
Jesus certainly never told his followers to wage these wars. He didn’t mention a single word about either abortion (and actually the Bible seems all for the idea, which we’ll get to in a moment) or LGBTQ people. He did tell his followers to love their neighbors, give generously to the poor, forsake their families to follow him, and comfort the mourning–but not a peep about the two issues that many Christians consider so hugely important.
Strangely, not all Christians even agree on these topics. Alas, they’re not the Christians who are carrying the conversation the loudest right now, though their voices are growing in volume and I join them in hoping that they eventually rescue their religion from these toxic elements.
Let me say now: I don’t really care what someone’s personal view on either subject is. As long as that person respects other people’s rights and privacy, they can think whatever they want in the privacy of their own minds. People are allowed to think what they want and to decide what they think best for their own lives and bodies. This post is looking at the context of how these issues intersect with Christian teachings about gender roles and sexual identity.
Whatever someone thinks of either subject, the things that American Christians are doing to try to roll back those rights has been categorically shown as ineffective or worse in lowering the numbers of either abortions or LGBTQ people.
That’s because their stated goal is not actually their real goal.
I know they say that’s the goal, but it isn’t. It can’t be, not with the tactics Christians are pursuing. I know that there’s a certain amount of magical thinking in the religion, and some Christians may very well think that, for example, criminalizing abortion or making it easy for employers to fire gay people will lead to women having fewer abortions and gay people wanting to “choose” to be straight or something. But it’s impossible for me to survey the tactics they’re using and the language they’re using in the process (“consequences,” “ramming it down our throats,” etc) and think anything but this:
The goal is actually to control people’s lives and force everyone to comply with the narrative for men and women that these Christians think everybody should follow, and to horrifically punish non-compliance.
That’s why the twin hills Christianity is dying on are women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. They are both actually outgrowths of the same utter rejection of Christian gender roles and life scripts, as well as a rejection of what Christian leaders really want men and women to be and do.
Looking solely at women’s rights (we’ll cover LGBTQ equality in the next post), I can easily see how both of those things fly in the face of Christian concepts of how women should live their lives. The narrative is that women are “pure” before marriage, only marry men and only have sex with the men they’ve married, and any babies that happen are the “blessings” of a deity, to be welcomed no matter how mistimed or life-destroying that blessing might seem on the surface. Women are meant to be wives and mothers, to focus on their families and husbands, and to devote themselves to serving others. Their sexuality is dangerous, and must be carefully corralled by the men around them for everybody’s own good; they are supposed to dole out sex sparingly in exchange for goods, services, or favors from their husbands, who get trained in turn to use romantic gestures as a negotiation tactic. Women are meant to find fulfillment in negating themselves and sacrificing their own needs and happiness for others’ sake, and to feel guilty for being “selfish” whenever they don’t instantly negate themselves the second someone else needs something from them.
A woman who decides to move outside that narrative is a dangerous creature.
Remember, men get indoctrinated their whole lives to think of themselves as not-women. They express their masculinity by doing non-womanly things and by controlling women. A woman who does not define herself as a man’s sidekick is a problem, but a woman who refuses to be controlled is dangerous. A man can’t sit comfortably at the top of the heap unless everybody around and underneath him cooperates with the fantasy. Society–both men and women–will do everything they can to force women into line so that the narrative is preserved.
And nothing says “uncontrollable” quite like a woman who has lots of unapproved sex and enjoys it.
If I said the words “sinful woman” right now in your earshot, you’d be thinking of a woman who has unapproved sex, wouldn’t you? There’s a reason for that. Worse, if she’s not getting punished for her disobedience, that flies in the face of the entire Christian ideology of sinners getting their just desserts. I’ve heard more Christians than I want to think about who’ve whined that easy abortion access ruins the punishment that these women have coming to them and that contraception access makes it too easy for women to sin with impunity. Oh, they pretty up their nastiness with words like “consequences,” but what they really want is the ability to punish women who they think deserve it.
That desire to control and punish gets downright ghoulish in its naked greed.
Right now, there’s an idea percolating around society that “girls who just got in trouble” should be able to access abortion care. Rape victims and victims of incest typically get a free pass to have abortions by all but the most hardline of Christians. They didn’t have voluntary sex, you see. They didn’t sin. So they do not deserve the punishment of a forced pregnancy, which a sinful woman totally deserves. The fetus inside is, presumably, still just as much a person as if it were conceived with voluntary sexual intercourse, but the fetus isn’t actually the focus. The sex is the focus. The same goes for contraception. Even most hardline Christians are comfortable with women taking otherwise-unapproved contraception for medical reasons–because those women aren’t doing it to sin by having unapproved sex, so they don’t deserve the risk or punishment of a forced pregnancy.
These free passes preserve the narrative Christians want to impose on women while punishing women who step outside the boundaries by making unapproved sex hugely risky and terrifying, which they mistakenly think will reduce the numbers of women having unapproved sex. When women simply can’t have sex without taking the huge risk of an unwanted pregnancy, the thinking goes, they’ll all get married to big, strong, square-jawed provider men (who will marry them because if no women are having unapproved sex, then the only way to get sex is from within a marriage). Then they’ll have babies, be too busy to be uppity, and then eventually they’ll learn to be content with their lot and society will magically become a Happy Christian Society again and everything will go Back To The Way It Was.
But if women refuse to accept this control and keep having all this unapproved sex without being punished, then the whole paradigm falls apart. Christians wring their little hands over all these women not being punished for their sins. If women aren’t being punished hard enough, if the risks aren’t terrifyingly high enough, then they’ll never get back into line. Not for nothing do Christian extremists recognize that abortion care and contraception access are the very centers of women’s rights–and that women can’t get ahead while they are chained to their biology.
The question really is this: who owns and controls women’s bodies?
Remember we talked last time about the umbrella that Christians are taught forms the perfect model of both family and society? That model isn’t just suggesting that whoever’s above in the diagram protects and cares for those below. The teachings of the churches who use that model explicitly spell out that whoever is above owns the bodies of whoever is below. That ownership is quite literal. Boundaries are not just omitted from the equation but actively trampled wherever they are tentatively erected. When I was Christian, I literally sang songs with a joyous heart about how I was a slave to Christ, and thought of myself as owned by my husband Biff, with us both owned in turn by our pastor and our god. We literally said that freedom was slavery and slavery was freedom in Christ, all without a hint of irony.
If anything, that teaching has only gotten weirder, more abusive, and more creepy over time, manifesting now in part as “purity balls” in which fathers take their daughters to fancy formal events, give their little girls rings to symbolize their ownership over the hypersexualized bodies of their daughters, and make the girls promise to let their fathers control their bodies till they marry. It also manifests in laughably-ineffective “abstinence-only education” that teaches girls that if they ever have unapproved sex, they will be ruined and will destroy whatever chance they might have otherwise had to have a happy, healthy marriage. For their entire young lives, girls are taught that their only definition relates to the men who own them, and that their only hope of success and happiness is to make those men happy by conforming themselves to those men’s expectations and desires. (Men, meanwhile, get taught that their sexuality is a dangerous monster that can destroy women’s lives, making many Christian men afraid to hurt those women–leading to heartbreaking cases of loneliness, depression, and crippling social anxiety.)
If women reject that teaching by refusing to define themselves in relation to men, and if they insist on doing things that Christians don’t approve of them doing, and they are not punished and brought into line, then how are Christian men to feel comfortable in their own identities? How is society to work if women don’t accept their subordinate position in the hierarchy? Men can’t control their property if that “property” doesn’t even acknowledge their ownership. Christians can’t punish non-compliant women if those women have the ability to slip out of their grasp. That doesn’t mean they stop trying, though.
Christians’ stated solution to the problem of unwanted pregnancies is “well, just don’t have unapproved sex then.” They’re not actually focused on tactics that lower the rate of unwanted pregnancies, like increasing the ease of contraception access, providing girls with comprehensive sex educations, increasing the size of the social safety net and extending workers’ rights for poor women and women of color, and better protecting women from abusive partners (since many abusive relationships involve contraception sabotage–which, by the way, my husband Biff tried to do to me). Those measures have been shown to work wonderfully in reducing the numbers of unwanted pregnancies, which in turn dramatically lowers abortion rates.
But those measures also take into account that women often have unapproved sex.
I’ve heard many Christians say that they can’t possibly do any of that because then they would be giving permission to women to “sin”.
They think that they actually have the right to approve or disapprove of other people’s private bodily decisions and sex lives and that acknowledging people’s bodily rights is “condoning” that sometimes people do things with those rights that Christians don’t like. More to the point: they don’t want to lower abortion rates if it means implicitly acknowledging that unapproved sex is being had. Even if it means more fetuses get aborted, they can’t be seen as condoning unapproved sex. That’s because the unapproved sex is the problem here, not the pregnancies. If the pregnancies were the problem, then they’d be doing stuff that actually worked to reduce those numbers. They’re not. They’re focusing on making sex terrifying and risky. And if there were a better way to punish women for their willful disobedience than forcing them to bear pregnancies they don’t want or to more demonstrably exert control over women than violating them in such a brutal and definitive way, then you can count on this: Christians would already be doing it.
And they do it because they desperately need women to step back into line and go back to their previous way of defining themselves, so that men can continue to define themselves the way they do and thus so society can continue to operate in the way they are most comfortable with seeing. That’s why Crisis Pregnancy Centers and Creationist museums alike don’t want atheist volunteers. Their efforts are meant to re-indoctrinate people into Christianity and return everybody to a Happy Christian Society; forced pregnancy and pseudoscience are just the means to the end.
And abortion especially is a stark reminder that Christians do not, in fact, control the bodies of women and that they do not, in fact, have the right to approve, disapprove, alter, override, or veto another person’s consent to the use of his or her physical body, which is why abortion rights often are the spearhead to the entire war Christians wage against women’s growing equality in society.
The abortion/contraception fight is really about who owns whom, not about babies or fetuses or women’s health or whatever else opponents are saying it’s about. It’s about who gets to violate whose body, under what circumstances, for how long, and in what way. It’s about who controls women’s bodies and makes intimate, life-altering decisions about and with those bodies: the owners of those bodies, which are women themselves? Or the men who thought they owned those bodies? It’s about just how high of a priority women have in the diagram, and when their bodily rights can be stripped away from them to benefit others.
So yes: Christian zealots are going to fight women’s rights all the way to total irrelevance if need be. I think deep down they know that
if when they lose this fight, then their entire way of life will change dramatically. And the funny thing is, I think they’re actually right.
For their entire paradigm to work, someone’s got to own someone else. Even the Bible, when it talks about abortion, encourages forced abortions as a way of controlling women and ensuring sexual compliance, or as a method of terrorizing and punishing male opponents in battle. Forcing women to endure intimate violations is a way of affirming ownership, of ensuring women know they are second-class citizens and subordinate to every other entity that might possibly demand their bodies’ use. If women reject that mindset by refusing to endure that unfairness, they threaten the whole paradigm.
And it was realizing this truth–waking up to what the fight about abortion and contraception really was about–that formed a big part of my own deconversion from Christianity. See, I’d been a forced-birther myself. Biff even volunteered as a fake counselor for a Crisis Pregnancy Center, deceiving and manipulating women for Jesus. I really thought that we were fighting for babies. When I realized that what I was really fighting for was the stripping away of my own human rights so that the men around me could continue to dominate and control me, that made me look very critically at my entire religious ideology, which (unsurprisingly) used many of the same tactics and methods to keep people in line.
We’re going to talk a bit more next week about LGBTQ rights and that second hill, and why fighting those rights is so incredibly important to so many Christians.