Woman as “Temptress”: Deconstructing Evangelical Gender Roles

Woman as “Temptress”: Deconstructing Evangelical Gender Roles October 22, 2018

In a recent post on Ed Stetzer’s Christianity Today blog, Mary Lederleiter posed this question:

If sex comprises only a small percentage of time in any given week within a marriage, why are we allowing that topic to so shape and overshadow our work environments?

Lederleiter spends much of her post deconstructing the “temptress” metaphor, which she says shapes women’s ministry within evangelical Christianity. It was her question above, though, that struck me most.

I grew up in an evangelical church. As a teen—and even before then—everything was sexualized. What I could wear was governed by how it would affect my male peers. Would my clothes make them think of sex? Cross-gender friendships were for all intents and purposes verboten. I learned that “boys are only interested in one thing” before I even knew what that one thing was. I got the message—stay away. 

The irony is that I often heard, as an evangelical child and teen, that mainstream American culture and become unduly sexualized. Evangelical leaders backed up this claim by pointing to advertising, to Hollywood, to Victoria’s Secret. Having now lived outside of the evangelical bubble for a decade, though, I have concluded that outside is less sexualized than inside.

Outside, I don’t worry that it might be inappropriate for me to have a one-on-one conversation with a married man that I am not married to. Outside, I don’t think about whether my clothes will make a man think about sex, every time I get dressed. Outside, I don’t spend time obsessing over whether I’m keeping my husband sexually satisfied, or worrying about whether he’s going to cheat on me with a female colleague at work.

Outside, I think about sex a lot less than I did—and would have—as an evangelical.

Don’t get me wrong—I do think about sex. Sex is fun, and an important part of life. I appreciate movies with particularly good-looking actors, I enjoy intimacy with my husband, and sometimes, I just like dressing sexy. But by not obsessing over sex, I actually spend less time thinking about it now than I did as an evangelical.

Lederleiter suggests replacing the “temptress” metaphor with a “sacred siblings” metaphor—men and women as fellow children of God the Father and fellow younger siblings to Jesus. I support Lederleiter’s efforts and I wish her all the best in achieving this. However, I don’t think evangelicals’ obsession with sex can be solved without challenging the complementation beliefs so many evangelicals embrace so stubbornly.

As long as men are expected to lead and women to obey, sex is going to be an issue. As long as women belong to men—coming under their authority rather than forging equal partnerships—sex is going to be an issue. As long as leadership is male and narratives are shaped predominantly by men who have a stake in maintaining this division—crafting narratives for why women are ineligible for leadership—sex is going to be an issue.

Growing up, I came away with the impression that having women in the workplace was dangerous. It tempted men to sin. Having women in the workplace led to unfaithfulness and adulterous affairs. There was a very real feeling that women should be at home, carefully safeguarded by their owners husbands, active only on areas appropriate to women, such as in socializing with other women, or attending female Bible studies. While often dressed up in less offensive language, the idea of ownership cannot be ignored.

Combatting the “temptresses” metaphor that so often stalks women in the churches requires convincing those in the church that women are human beings equal to men in both a vague spiritual sense and in lived reality. And given the number of times I heard it claimed, growing up that women are especially emotional, and that men are hardwired to lead and women to support their men, that’s going to be a hard sell.

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