When I was a Christian, I realized that my consent didn’t matter in the least about anything that happened to me. I didn’t own my own body–my father did until I got married, and at that point my husband would for as long as we were married. I never belonged to myself. I had no rights. And why? Because I identified as a woman.
Oh, my church leaders tried hard to make slavery look like the BONUS PLAN–oh, what drudgery it was to be male in their view! Men had it so much harder doing all the heavy lifting of leading Christian families! It was just sooo harrrd to unconditionally “love” and “serve” their wives! Weren’t we gals lucky to have big strong men around to take such wonderful care of us! Naturally, my offer to help shoulder that burden was not exactly met with overwhelming gratitude. And, too, I couldn’t help but wonder about all the Christian women I saw at church who seemed to have so much trouble finding a husband–did God want them to be eternal, perpetual children under their fathers’ care? It seemed so strange to me. As Sappho wrote long ago about death, if being a woman was so incredibly awesome we’d know it because our masters would be doing it.
It was an uneasy slavery, though. My modern idealism about women’s rights jostled uncomfortably with what I and my girlfriends were being taught about the Biblical model for womanhood. That model of submission at all costs and meek, quiet servitude was held up to me as an example regardless of my unsuitability for it, as if it were some universal role that all women should be able to slip into like a pair of comfortable and well-worn slippers. There was no room for argument, deviation, or especially innovation within that model. There was no individuality either. We all looked alike, acted alike, and talked alike. No wonder we thought that all a marriage required was just two opposite-gendered people who were Christian!
“Woman,” therefore “slave.” The idea permeated my life and my culture; pastors preached about it as if it were as done a deal as the idea that humans require oxygen to survive, and these same preachers constantly railed against women who bucked that system. Madalyn Murray O’Hair was more reviled for being a rebellious woman than for being an atheist; Ayn Rand was considered far worse for being a rebellious woman than for anything specific she said (trufax: yesterday a man told me in all seriousness that I had gotten a pronoun wrong, as Ayn Rand was male–weird, huh?). Any crime might be justified or explained away except the crime of not accepting slavery. That was the supreme sin. That was the one thing that could not be overlooked. Any slave who rebelled had to be suppressed immediately.
No wonder so many women are convinced that they are complicit in their own victimization. No wonder so many women labor under the myth that if they just dress just right, act just right, behave themselves just right, they’ll be safe from predation (yeah, because Muslim women in burkhas never get raped; look up “this is what I was wearing” on Google Images and take a look at what many women say they were wearing when they were raped). I used to think that way too. I was responsible for the reactions of the men around me. If they did something to me that was bad, clearly I’d done something to spark their behavior. Purity wasn’t just a spiritual mandate but an attempt to control the world around me, a desperate attempt to force the world to treat me like a human by lowering myself enough that I might not be as big of a target. And it didn’t work.
The purity myth is a loser’s game the whole way through. If we just appease the rapists and abusers enough, if we just make ourselves as minimally feminine as possible, if we make ourselves as non-threatening as we can, we might just scrape through without being one of the one in six American women who will be raped in her lifetime. Any woman who even dares to suggest that we look to the men who are raping women rather than the women who are getting raped for blame for male-on-female rape receives brutal and savage suppression for her efforts–much of it from women who have bought into the slaveholders’ propaganda, and I am ashamed to say sometimes even by people who think they are more evolved than those pitiable religious types.
Instead of putting the burden on men not to rape women, since that’s an idea that is so viciously opposed, women instead try to make ourselves as generally inoffensive as we can. But the problem is one that any woman in an abusive marriage knows very well: the more inoffensive you try to make yourself, the less room you take up in your abuser’s sight, the more things he will find to use as an excuse to hurt you.
After I deconverted, Biff began a concerted effort to “win me back”–both for God and for our swiftly-disintegrating marriage. I firmly believe that religion only has to be a problem in a relationship if the people involved make it so, and he was definitely making it so. First he blustered and tried to out-logic me, which failed spectacularly. Then he tried to lower himself to my new level by listening to “worldly” music and going out to “sinful” places and even (*GASP*) drinking a beer with me sometimes. He made his position very clear with pouty, hangdog, petulant behavior and by making sure I knew every five minutes how much he was suffering for me. So that bit of manipulative effort, too, failed spectacularly–and disgusted me.
By this time he’d joined the military and we’d moved to Texas. Thankfully we lived in a real apartment and not on-base housing; I was somewhat older than the usual military wives, and had little in common with them. He worked in the chaplaincy and considered the entire base his new captive audience; I can definitely trace a lot of his later fanaticism to the influences he encountered there. His hold on me grew more and more tenuous the further away from religion I grew. The arguments began to come faster and get louder at this point.
I’m not going to tell you I was a perfect wife, either as a Christian or a non-Christian. I had a lot to learn to undo the programming I’d experienced. But nothing I ever did could ever justify how that marriage ended up finally dissolving–in a ghastly mess of arguments, injustices, and eventually, when all else failed, threats of physical violence.
There was a dark side to my husband, a very dark side, and religion had only given him an excuse to let it grow by convincing him he had a divine mandate to dominate me. The military had made things even worse by putting him in an environment full of manly-men evangelicals who were apparently (at least according to him, and let’s remember he was a pathological liar) telling him constantly that he was the boss of his wife and should make her behave by whatever means possible. My disobedience had already wrecked his standing in the local Pentecostal church; now it was apparently affecting his work prospects. And while my apostasy might be bad just by itself, the illusion of the happy Christian couple that I was destroying was even worse. By this time I flat refused to even attend church; I saw no reason to go at all, having completely rejected all of its demands and claims, and didn’t like sacrificing what little free time I had going to church (I was working full time and doing every bit of the housework, so you can imagine how little personal time I had and how resentful I was getting about any encroachment on what little time I did carve out for myself).
He thought he owned me like a bully owns a smaller child’s toys, and he wasn’t liking the incredible gall I was displaying in not behaving myself properly. The further I drifted from what he wanted me to be, the more out of hand he was getting. He was using any and all power at his disposal, including force and threats at this point, to strong-arm me into compliance. The last of these threats shocked me; I don’t wish to go into sordid details, but the most memorable one involved him threatening to cut me to pieces with a butcher knife. Very Old Testament! The mere fact that he’d used such a gruesome threat was enough to make my blood run cold when I heard it. I knew there wasn’t a big jump between threats and action.
I was beginning to remember half a dozen incidents over our marriage when I’d come face to face with that side of him and always before I’d laughed it off or rationalized it away. Often he’d scared the shit out of someone–a professor at college, a friend who’d tried to talk me into calling off the wedding, various people who had opposed him–and I’d always thought that no, they just didn’t understand, they were just seriously misconstruing something he’d said. He was such a charming fellow, such a puppy of a little boy, clumsy and frequently boorish but so good-hearted and sweet-seeming that it took something this dramatic for me to realize that all that lookitme charm was nothing more than a mask he wore to trick people into overlooking the monster wearing his flesh.
Suddenly I was the heroine in my very own horror movie. But my mom didn’t raise any idiots. I began taking secret measures to get things in order so I could flee without getting hurt. And I did. I got away. I’m shaking like a leaf thinking about that daring and (if I may be so bold) dramatic escape two decades later; I’ve been in tears for a few minutes already. I usually read these entries aloud to see how they “sound,” but I can’t this time. I can’t. I can’t. Let’s go get a coffee, shall we? We’ll come back in a minute.
The whole incident gives me what I suspect is an entirely-too-non-unique vantage point from which to view the Christian ideal of marriage and gender roles. As much as Christians would say that the problem was Biff’s inability to live up to the ideal, the brutal reality is that many Christian men are but a light-switch-flip away from the dark side of violence and abuse. Christianity’s had 2000 years to make the whole “complementarian” model work, and all it’s shown, again and again and again, is how prone to abuse the system is. I’m not the only woman who’s survived and fled an abusive marriage to a True Christian™. I’m not the only woman who’s seen the dark side to Christian gender role demands. As a feminist I read once wrote, “If your god is male, then your males are gods.” Once one gender has been assigned the thankless role of automatic servitor and its entire self-ownership has been stripped away and handed to the other gender, I don’t see any other way for that to work out other than abuse. And indeed, that seems to be how it works out so often.
What’s a proper Christian lady to do, given how well predators mask their true behavior and how hostile the Christian world is to the idea of couples becoming too intimate before marriage? Why, it’s almost as if there’s no protection or refuge at all for women who sign on to a lifetime of service to a monster. And why would there be, since admitting that monsters walk among them would absolutely defeat the entire idea of these gender roles being so awesome for the world at large? Because that’s what they’re doing by insisting that the world kowtow to their line of thought, isn’t it? They know that more and more people are leaving the religion, so by insisting that women don’t deserve the right to decide for themselves what birth control they’ll use (if any), whether or not they’ll agree to the use of their physical bodies’ most intimate functions by men or fetuses, whether or not they’ll work outside the home, use sex toys, or any one of a number of decisions that women are still fighting for the right to have, they’re more or less demanding that the world act Christian even if they’re not actually Christian. And if Christians themselves can’t even make these roles work without abuse, then I don’t see how “worldly” men would do any better.
It’s not that hard to figure out why the most toxic of Christians oppose women’s rights like they do. If they lose women as their natural slaves, there ain’t much else for them to dominate. We ruin the whole charade when we refuse to buy into the happy illusion of the strong-jawed man and his happy submissive wife and their happy submissive children. If we reject the role Christianity prescribes for us, the rest of it dissolves around us like the goblin party around Sarah’s ears in Labyrinth.
It is ironic to me that it is women’s self-ownership and demands for the right to consent over each and every use of our bodies–not how we dress or act–no, it is our reserving the right to consent and thereby our clarion call of bodily autonomy that threatens Christian men’s dominance the most. And do not imagine that this flight to freedom will come without risk and direct opposition. The further we escape from what Christian leaders want us to be, the more they are going to act out to try to force us into compliance again. The current trend of demonizing women’s rights and insisting that raped women must have “asked for it”, the new movements like “Men’s Rights Activism” that exist solely to savagely suppress women who speak out against misogyny, they couldn’t exist without women gaining at least a tiny measure of sovereignty over our own bodies. We took away their favorite toys, and we cannot expect them to just shrug and go “Oh, well, guess we shouldn’t have taken it away from them in the first place” and find something else to play with. No, they’re going to do whatever it takes to put their world to rights again.
Slowly good things are happening. The entire pro-choice movement is nothing more than a demand for self-ownership and consent, and a narrow majority in this country now supports the right of a woman to own her own body. When I was a fundamentalist, we didn’t even know about the idea of marital rape and only very barely understood date rape–but now we accept these both as an evil that must be fought. Those man-children in Steubenville who raped that poor girl were by all reports completely shocked to discover just how much condemnation they got as a response from the world. We’re finding out that we have the right to consent, and we’re getting used to it. That cannot be allowed.
I leave you with this thought: A few months after I’d fled, when I cried aloud at my husband during one of his many interminable and unstoppable calls, distraught, asking why he was stalking me, threatening me, hounding me–why he thought any of this was persuading me that he loved me and I should return to him–why he thought anything he was doing would work at all to get me back–asking why he was doing all of these horrible things to me, and I will never forget what he said in response, never, not as long as I live:
“Well, I have to try something, don’t I?”