Bristol Palin, you are not a disappointment

Bristol Palin, you are not a disappointment June 29, 2015

My Patheos colleague (if I can call her that), Bristol Palin, is pregnant again, and I don’t like any of the reactions I’m seeing. I loathe the choruses of schadenfreude from my fellow atheists and ex-Christians, jeering her hypocritical advocacy for abstinence, for which she reportedly earned close to $1 million. I hate the rush to judgement from those who think she’s a sinful slut, and I hate the head-in-the-sand wilful stupidity of those purity culture advocates who will not see that this is a symptom of a problem in their ideology.

Announcing her second pregnancy, Bristol wrote “I do not want any lectures and I do not want any sympathy.” I doubt very much that everyone has respected the first part of that wish, and I find myself unable to entirely respect the second. When I read about Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, I can only think about all the good Christian girls I’ve known who fell pregnant. I can only hear the hushed tones in which Christians spread their judgemental gossip. 

Bristol Palin in 2011. Photo by Gage Skidmore.
Bristol Palin in 2011. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

I see Bristol Palin as a victim in all this, and that’s why I can’t feel much apart from sadness. I don’t expect many people to agree with me. Bristol herself, if she read this blog (which she won’t), would doubtless feel patronised, and both she and my usual supporters would doubtless point out that she is 24 and capable of taking responsibility for her own actions. And when she says:

Tripp, this new baby, and I will all be fine, because God is merciful.

I’m sure you—like me—want to scream no Bristol, you will be fine because you are rich

Even so, it’s mostly not her I’m angry at.

We are all partly shaped by the social structures that surround us, and Bristol is a product of indoctrination into evangelical purity culture. This  was the single most damaging teaching I encountered in a childhood that also included belief in demon possession and the prosperity gospel. Indoctrination’s many tentacles go extremely deep. It took me years to wrestle my way out of it, and I wasn’t in the public eye with a parent vying for political office.

For Bristol to admit that abstinence-only is wrong at this point, she would have to realise that her entire life has been built on an ideology that is irredeemably flawed. She would have to admit that her most trusted elders have been teaching her things that are untrue from her childhood. Her own mother’s values are wrong and damaging. And everything she herself has stood for in public is not just false but harmful. She’d have to look at herself in the mirror and face the fact that she has been sold a lame duck and she’s been selling it on at a profit. Years of her life have been wasted, and there are an unknowable number of pregnant teenage girls who didn’t use birth control because they listened to Bristol Palin.

Or she could just say that abstinence was right all along, and this is just her mistake.

This appears to be what she’s doing. It’s easy enough to do, but it involves a cost. The cost is shouldering all of the blame, and it’s a heavy one. So when Bristol writes this:

I know this has been, and will be, a huge disappointment to my family, to my close friends, and to many of you.

I can’t point and laugh. I can just feel the weight of all that unreasonable expectation, of a culture that can’t admit that our actions are shaped by our environments. The whole evangelical doctrine of redemption is premised on the idea of individual responsibility for sin. We each, individually, deserve punishment for our sins, and we must each, individually, choose Jesus if we want salvation. This is only justice if you think we can act as though all decisions are made in a vacuum.

I am not particularly surprised Bristol Palin has had sex at least twice in her life. It is equally unsurprising that she didn’t use a condom, because that would require some forward planning. It would require her to admit to herself in advance that she was going to have sex. But sex is a sin, and she is a good girl. Good girls do not sin. Therefore, she would not be needing any birth control. I use this phrase a lot on the blog, and for once I’m not being sarcastic—the logic is flawless.

It feels like a huge number of girls from my Christian school who got pregnant outside of marriage while they were teenagers. Actually, it’s only four that I know of, but since the entire school had fewer than 15 teenage girls at its largest point, that was significant (imagine a third of your high school’s girls having babies). There were two main discourses used to talk about them—girls who had gone off the rails and rejected God (for those we shunned), and good girls who were taken advantage of by those evil non-Christian boys (for those we clutched to the church’s bosom).

I had one friend who got pregnant twice, and each time the church talked about those awful unsaved boys who pressure Christian girls into sex. Now, if that’s really what happened, that’s rape and we should be doing something about it. With hindsight, I find it impossible to know what happened. Girls who grow up in purity culture aren’t taught about consent. They are taught to be submissive, and they are taught the bare minimum about the facts of sex. Given that combination of circumstances, it’s entirely possible that my friend just didn’t know how to say no. It’s also possible that she just really wanted to have sex. And whichever of those is true, purity culture gives her an unmanageable burden of guilt. Like Bristol Palin, she was “a huge disappointment”.

I sincerely hope that my friend and Bristol Palin each got pregnant following nights of mutually enjoyable sex. But given that pleasure was never a substantial part of what they were taught about sex, it doesn’t seem likely. The Washington Post even discusses the possibility that Bristol Palin is a rape survivor:

While Palin does not accuse former boyfriend Levi Johnston of rape in [her memoir] “Not Afraid of Life: My Journey So Far,” her account of the night she lost her virginity certainly sounds nonconsensual. Palin writes that she got so drunk on wine coolers provided by Johnston during a camping trip with friends that she has no recollection of having sex. Afterward, she was distraught.

“Levi wasn’t even there to help me process — or even confirm — my greatly feared suspicions,” she writes. “Instead of waking up in his arms . . . I awakened in a cold tent alone.” Palin realized that she had lost her virginity only after a friend told her what happened.

She doesn’t use the word “rape” anywhere in her book, but what she describes seems to be just that.

She writes that she felt her virginity had been “stolen” and that she “tried not to vomit” when she found out what happened.

Bristol Palin’s account of losing her virginity has a chilling number of similarities to mine. I’m not going to talk about what happened to me now. No, I’m not sure whether to use the r-word in relation to my experience either. I do know that the week after I had sex for the first time was the worst in my life. I felt a constant sense of utter blackness. I was emotionally numb, and I didn’t believe I could ever be happy again.

By turning virginity into this mythological prize, that’s what purity culture does to young people. Before we ask whether Bristol Palin needs to apologise, we should talk about who needs to apologise to Bristol Palin.

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Postscript: After I wrote this but before it was posted, Bristol added this barely-coherent post, which makes me feel considerably less sympathetic to her but doesn’t change my point.

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