What Does the Word “Culture” Mean Anymore?

What Does the Word “Culture” Mean Anymore? April 15, 2024

I’m wondering if it’s time to get rid of the word “culture” and replace it with something more interesting and true to reality, like “meme” or “miasma.” I use the word myself a lot because it’s so handy. But I am tiring of its elasticity and its ubiquity. Two weeks ago, I said something like, “no functional culture would countenance such a thing” and a lot of people became extremely angry. Then I read a book full of the terms “evangelical subculture” and “purity culture” and other words like that. And then, we must not forget the ever-present term “rape culture.” All of these uses of the word “culture” function in the same way that a personality test does. The user already knows what she thinks, looks around for evidence, and then applies the word “culture” to anything she finds.*

To illustrate how this works, I’m going to use a long tweet thread by someone called Dr. Laura Robinson on the X app. I’m not going to screenshot the posts because it will take forever, I’ll just quote the thread in one long block of text. She launches in by reacting to a post about sexual assault:

Should a 35-year-old married mother with no mental incapacity be able to tell when a brief encounter with a man who is not her husband qualifies as sexual assault? Is it plausible for her to claim years later that a trauma counselor helped her understand the encounter was not consensual?

Dr. Robinson responded this way:

First, I’m sorry to put such fungal content produced by the journalism equivalent of a plantar wart on your timeline, but–you know what always stands out to me when you read survivors’ accounts of sexual assault in church? No one ever remembers being told what to do in the event of an attempted assault. The irony is there’s literally a biblical instruction about it–scream your head off, and if you hear screaming, come running and throwing hands, in Deuteronomy. It’s what Susannah does. But again and again you see stories of people coming out of purity culture contexts who don’t understand what is happening to them, have never been told what assault is, and are aware of their discomfort but also keenly aware of the importance of never saying not to a man, ever. So if it’s so important that women take some responsibility for preventing sexual assault, why does no one in purity culture churches ever preach a sermon or tell the youth group on what to do if you’re assaulted? This is what an assault is, it’s not okay, say no and try to get away, yell for help, etc. And I think the answer is that for a lot of men who really care about these gender hierarchies just prefer it this way. There’s something gratifying about being the guy who gets to decide how much rape is in the church. You can either enjoy the gallantry of not abusing or the gratification of abusing. Either way it’s your call. We want to blame women for sexual violence but we also want rapists to have both the sole determination of how much rape happens. You can’t have both. The idea that “traditionally” girls and women would be completely sexually unaware is nonsense. Two thousand years ago in “Bible times” girls are growing up more than aware of the birds and the bees. Animals have sex. People in dense urban non-insulted [I think she means insulated] houses have sex. You don’t really get the valorizing of the girl who doesn’t know anything about sex until you get private bedrooms circa the mid-19th century. So why is telling girls about sex, consent, where someone can’t touch you, etc so are in these churches? Because it’s not sexy. The whole purity culture movement is based on the fetishization of youth, girlishness, virginity, etc. A sixteen year old girl who knows she’s supposed to do what the pastor says but not why he’s doing is is hotter to said pastor. That’s why it happens. It’s really just a fetish. It’s about maximizing the sexual gratification of the guys at the top. It has absolutely nothing to do with the Bible or traditional gener roles or whatever else. It’s because some guy thinks it’s hot. “But isn’t the whole point of purity culture that you say no to sex?” Yes, but. That’s literally correct but it’s also ignoring the fact that a lot of things come in the subculture box with it. Like “women are emotional and men are rational.” That’s a really good way to explain away the fact that a guy did something that hurt you and now you’re really upset but he isn’t. It’s because you’re really emotional and he’s not. Or insider/outsider thinking–guys in here are good while guys out there are bad. Therefore this must not have been bad. Just open any book for Christian women and look how much complaining and being agreeable is valorized. Or the “you can only use it once” all or nothing of virginity fetishizing. It doens’t all fit together. It’s not rational. That’s why it’s hard to explain. The carousel of rotating priorities mean there’s always a new way to lose. The only way to win is not to play. But also, why would you expect it to fit together? We’re talking about a forty year old fad that’s entirely born out of reactionary impulses and cultural nostalgia. Why would it be theologically coherent?

There’s a vast deal more here than I can possibly respond to, if I even had the inclination, which I don’t. I just want to ask, what do you suppose the word “culture” means in this vast sea of words? At the end, she uses the word “fad,” but throughout, she has made sweeping judgments about heaps of unnamed people who inhabited said “purity culture.”

Personally, this strikes me as completely slanderous. Who is she talking about? The recent reports about the investigation of SBC scandals show that there was barely any abuse over a long number of decades. In fact, the SBC had lower rates of abuse than the general culture. It turns out that going to church is a pretty safe bet, at least if you’re a Southern Baptist. But maybe she’s talking about Episcopalians? Heh. There might have been discussion about “consent” amongst Episcopalians back in the day, and certainly there was no “Purity” culture, but sexual promiscuity was very much a thing, and a lot of girls either didn’t feel like saying no, or didn’t know how to. Or maybe she’s talking about that horrible Vision Forum guy who cheated on his wife with the babysitter? Is that who’s on her mind? Or is she very upset about that tasteless joke [shudder] that pastor made?

I am unwilling to believe that “a lot of men who really care about these gender hierarchies just prefer it this way.” That’s absolutely slanderous. What does “a lot” mean? I inhabited many worlds full of men who cared about gender hierarchies and would never dream of raping anyone, or touching anyone, and who would not have, in a million years, ever told any woman she should not say no to a man “ever.” Likewise, what on earth is “the whole purity culture?” There were many and varied manifestations of teaching about sex and gender in almost every kind of church (except the mainlines). Perhaps some themes can be said to have emerged, but “the whole purity culture” was not “based on the fetishizing of youth, girlishness, virginity, etc.” I was there–not in all of it, of course, but neither was Dr. Robinson. Not everyone was privy to every single “cultural” iteration of “purity culture.”

And honestly, one had to be excessively obtuse not to look over at the Episcopalians and other kinds of Liberal Protestants and heed the warning, let alone the “culture” at large. Through the 80s and 90s constructive, generationally conferred culture that had given people good and timeless assumptions about the sex, family, and faith was turning, rapidly it seemed, into an anti-culture. The new anti-culture was the one that valorized youth and maligned obedience to and respect for elders. Pastors had to stand up and preach to congregations full of people who were being assaulted by consumerism, by lies about the true source of happiness, by atheism, by the decadence that has produced our current state of degradation. In this context, it is perfectly fine to observe that some communities went too far and that some pastors sinned against women and against God. But it is not ok to slander all complementarian pastors and men, or even “a lot” of them for thinking it’s hot to rape women. My gosh. Did Dr. Robinson even go to church in the 80s and 90s? Where did she go? Who was her pastor?

It absolutely doesn’t “fit together” because Dr. Robinson is gathering up a whole heap of people and attributing motivations to them without any evidence or warrant. This take is extremely lame. Though Dr. Robinson attacks the subject with heat and light, she has not “done the work.” Perhaps she should get off Twitter and search out the acquaintance of the many thoughtful, caring, wonderful pastors who shepherded their flocks through so much tumult. Who prayed for the women in their churches and counseled them. Who were there when things went wrong and when they were hurt. Who helped them navigate the cataclysms of the age.

Find me on Substack for more annoyed takes.

*I include myself in this, I won’t be hypocritical and only accuse others of the sins I commit.

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