Insufferable misogynist Ross Douthat is wringing his hands over sex and no-fault divorce again. If women aren’t properly terrified of the “consequences” of sex and properly reined in to marriages they can’t easily escape, then the world will end. Pat Robertson thinks that women who demand equal rights will end up leaving their families and taking up witchcraft; Debi Pearl (as relayed by Libby Anne’s excellent takedown of her books) thinks that uppity women will end up abandoned by their husbands and living in trailer parks in crushing poverty. What blows my mind is how completely out of proportion these threats are and how absolutely controlling.
I want to talk about disproportional threats today. The entire Christian religion is based on this idea, and it permeates how Christians tend to interact with others. So it’s worth a look, so when we see it happening, we can identify it and refuse to buy into it.
One thing I had to learn to do, as a Christian, was turn off my inherent sense of justice and fairness to buy into the Christian religion. Adam and Eve ate an apple–so the entire human race was condemned to hard lives and death (including untold billions of women and fetuses condemned to die in childbirth). Humans didn’t seem to be acting the way this god wanted them to act–so he drowned the whole wide world, every animal, bird, reptile, man, woman, child, fetus, insect, you name it, in his rage. Someone didn’t kowtow to my god–so that person would be spending forever and ever and ever and ever in a fiery pit of hell, suffering and burning and screaming forever and ever and ever, in pain and unable to make it stop or even apologize, all for a few decades’ worth of thought crimes.
I knew that wasn’t fair at all. I knew that it wasn’t fair to impose eternal punishment on someone. I knew it wasn’t fair to condemn people who weren’t even alive when the initial offense had occurred. I knew it wasn’t fair to punish animals along with people. But to be a Christian, I had to accept that completely out-of-whack punishments were totally fine and in fact “godly”–by definition, because my god liked them and used them.
Many years later, I’d learn that these out-of-scope punishments are actually a tactic that abusers use on victims. You can probably think of stories about little children killed by their parents–over taking a candy bar, or not using “sir” or “ma’am,” or something incredibly minor like that. I grew up with an abusive dad, so I’m well aware of how fast that cycle can escalate when a parent has no idea how to deal with small offenses. Such a parent leaps immediately to the nuclear option and when the child keeps acting out–aware that this is totally unfair and not right–the abuse can become lethal.
Oh, but more than that, these completely out-of-proportion punishments are punitive in nature, not meant to teach or rehabilitate the target. They are meant to terrify and physically hurt or emotionally claw at their victim, not to treat that person like a real person with rights and dignity. That’s why civilized societies value rehabilitative prisons over purely punitive warehouses. That’s why parenting models that train rather than terrorize are valued and why parents are slowly waking up to the idea that hitting their kids is not the same as disciplining them at all–and may do way more harm than good in the long run. Discipline that produces terror or pain is fading as a parenthood model, except in religious circles, of course, where indignant parents defend to the skies their right to terrorize and hurt their helpless children (as usual and always, right-wing zealots are fifty years behind civilized society).
In the same way, I began to see that this god I considered the ultimate in goodness was actually pretty damned abusive because of how utterly disproportional his punishments were–and how punitive. I tried so hard to justify his torrential abuse: “Oh, people choose to go to hell!” and the like, stuff we’re all used to hearing from Christians who desperately need to excuse their god’s atrocities upon humanity. The simple truth is that no contortion I could make could erase the glaring reality: this god had set up a system whereby sentient beings face endless torture and pain that they cannot escape and can never rehabilitate out of, all because they simply could not summon belief or love for this god, who certainly had never given humanity any solid evidence of his existence in the first place and certainly was not in the least loving or lovable.
That simple realization led me to consider the other ways that Christians tend to use super-disproportional punishments for themselves and those around them.
Forced pregnancy is one of the big punishments that Christians impose on women who have unapproved sex. Think about how completely out of proportion that is. One night of passion, and a woman automatically must endure nine months of what many of us regard as sheerest hell–huge pain, torturous awful horrifying pain, hundreds of life-altering complications up to and including death and psychosis, all for choosing to have sex (most forced-birthers will grant women bodily liberty if they didn’t “deserve” to be punished–and btw, the reason I tend to write about pregnancy like I do is because Christians and forced-birthers alike tend to glorify it and treat it like women are just carrying fetuses in shopping bags or something, while the reality is that for many women, pregnancy is a horrifying, painful, grueling bodily violation, and I think it’s important to present that other side of the discussion. So if you love being pregnant or know a woman who loves being pregnant, godspeed to you, but lots of other women do not).
Nor do forced-birthers follow their very own reasoning through to its ultimate conclusion: “If they’d only just not have all that unapproved sex!” you can hear them lament. “Just tell them to keep their legs closed if they don’t want to get pregnant!” they cry. “I don’t want to pay for their sin!” they roar. And it all shows that the real problem here is the unapproved sex, not the pregnancy. Well, it also shows that far from being a “blessing,” nine months of horrific pain and the risk of death is actually also a very potent threat to use on women who are misbehaving. But still, the problem is the unapproved sex, and if women don’t want babies, then clearly they should “just” stop having sex, because sex is what causes babies. I suppose these same Christians don’t drive so they can avoid costly ER visits from car accidents, don’t eat red meat so they can avoid many types of cancer, and don’t swim so they can avoid shark attacks and microbes in their brains, since driving is what causes accidents, eating meat is a big cause of these cancers, and swimming is what causes shark attacks and microbe infections.
But that oh-so-clear chain of punishment gets a little cloudier when one points out that sex can’t possibly cause pregnancy for gay cis couples or trans couples who might identify as heterosexual men and women but who don’t possess the biological parts to make babies–or for over-age couples or infertile ones or ones who’ve been sterilized. We’re really only talking about pregnancy being a potential risk of sex for just cis women who have intercourse with cis men–so as “consequences” go, it’s a pretty lopsided and unfair one to impose.
An unwanted pregnancy was what these Christians were hoping would keep cis straight women from having unapproved sex. It was their “wait till your father gets home!” trump card threat. If the threat of pregnancy is removed–either by reliable, easily-available contraception (which forced-birther leaders also completely oppose women having access to, something I sure didn’t know as a rank-and-file member at the time and doubt they do now either) or by abortion on demand and with no apologies or second-guessing of women’s judgement about what they do and don’t want to endure on behalf of another entity–then what is going to stop these ignorant (straight, fertile, cis) sluts from having all that sex?!?
That’s why we can look at the methods that forced-birthers are using to try to lower abortion rates and realize that they’re not actually trying to make abortion less necessary. There is stuff we know works to lower abortion rates: making contraception way more available, putting together a way-better social safety net for poor women, seriously penalizing domestic violence, giving kids comprehensive sex education, and de-stigmatizing sex so women who have sex can plan ahead for it and make sure they’re using contraception. Just ending poverty alone and making contraception insanely easy to get would all but put a stop to abortions. But weirdly, not a single one of those things seems to be any kind of priority for any forced-birther group or any Republicans in the public eye today. Not a single one. Instead, they rely upon huge, disproportional threats to try to scare women out of having all that scary sex they keep having. Those threats do not work. They have never worked, and they never will work. But Republicans don’t have anything else in the toolbox here. They can’t start doing what works, because that’d be giving women free license to have unapproved sex, and they can’t do that without seriously alienating their core base of slavering fundie zealots, who, like them, care way more about threatening a particular segment of women with forced pregnancies than they do about lowering abortion rates.
They’ll let rape and incest victims off the hook abortion-wise, because those women got “punished” without doing the deed–which in this case was “voluntary sexing up of a man.” But women who voluntarily sex up a man? Oh, we’re open game. We get to suffer. All because we are sexual beings. And no amount of suffering is too much to inflict upon us. Our bodily rights? Our autonomy? Forget it. We chose sex. Therefore we get to deal with the “consequences,” which again, are “consequences” only for a certain range of women. I’m not sure what the punishment is for having gay sex or for being trans or something. Lynching, probably. There’s even less forced-birthers can use to threaten trans and gay women than they can threaten against straight cis women.
But women who refuse to give these Christian leaders power over their intimate decisions or to submit to their authority are a real problem. That’s why the threats get hauled out against us. If we keep this up, we’ll never find husbands. Or we’ll be dumped and divorced. We’ll never be happy. We’ll never find real contentment and peace. We’ll never have truly fulfilling sex. We’ll be ruined, damaged goods. It’s not only ridiculous, it’s crazy–because there are enough women nowadays who have unapproved sex who know that these threats are just not valid.
I’m sure you can think of a few ways that Christians haul out the threats in other situations too. Hell is just one of their big guns, but it’s the one they love most. If we keep this up, whatever “this” is, we’ll go to Hell. Except none of them can prove Hell exists, much less that it’s a danger to anybody. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve even had Christians who thought about this scenario so often they know exactly what will happen to me in Hell–right down to how many demons will be raping me for eternity and how long their penises will be. Christians think about this threat of Hell a lot.
I know how it is. I did too, back then. The threat of Hell kept me from questioning the love of the Hell doctrine. It kept me from wondering about the injustice of the entire cosmology of my religion. It kept me in the pew way longer than I should have stayed there. I was terrified of Hell. Of getting “left behind.” Of being found wanting at the great day of judgement. That terror propelled me and fueled me. But eventually, I was exhausted with terror and discovered, like the heroine in the movie V for Vendetta, that I simply did not fear anymore. It’d been burned out of me. The threat holds no terror anymore for me. I regard Christians who still face that fear with a detached sense of sympathy. I know exactly how it feels to be afraid like that, and I know there is nothing I can do to make it easier for those who still face that fear except to say that I do not fear it and that it is not fair–and that a god who is ultimately good and ultimately fair would never have set up a system like that, so obviously either he is evil, in which case he doesn’t deserve worship, or the system doesn’t work like Christians think it does. Or he’s totally a fiction, but you know that goes without saying.
I reject any and all attempts to coerce me through fear, threats, and violence. Those are the tactics of cowards and terrorists.
In the end, threats get used because they’re easy. They’re cheap. And they feel like they’re effective. The second someone uses a threat on you, you know that their other options are exhausted. A pity threats don’t really work, as we’re discovering with the death penalty–they’re not a deterrent; they don’t produce the behavior that controllers and terrorists want to see.
Remember that Ross Douthat piece I mentioned at the beginning up there? Do you want to know what his modest proposals are? Removing some of women’s bodily rights and making divorce harder to obtain. Yes, he thinks that increasing the threat level is going to fix everything he sees wrong with society. Not proposed: teaching men to be better husbands and giving women full liberty to decide every single violation of their bodies, because it’s so much better to threaten women with horrific marriages and bodily violations they can’t stop than it is to actually do anything to strengthen marriages and increase personal liberty. Can’t go having people having full choices about what to do with their own private lives. He says that the chances of seeing his proposals embraced by liberals are “nonexistent.” Yes, he’s right. I for one am absolutely not ever going to compromise about my private choices or my bodily liberty. Not even a tiny bit. Not even a smidgen. Not even a tad. Nor am I ever going to advocate keeping women (and men) in marriages they just don’t want. He’s going to have to find some other way to lower abortion rates and keep women in marriages than using threats on them.
I don’t negotiate with those who use threats to get their way. And I love that people are slowly waking up to the tactics that are being used here to try to control them–and we’re rejecting those threats. The problem is that abusive partners often get worse and worse the further their victims get away from them, so we’ll probably see the threats get worse before they get better. Be aware, and be ready to speak out against overreach and abuse. Be thinking about threats when you hear them, and think about this one thing out of everything else:
People use threats because that’s what they personally find compelling to use. When you’re inherently controlling and subscribe to a doctrine of completely disproportional threats, the idea of Hell as a threat to use on others becomes very appealing. The people using threats on women, on non-Christians, on children, these are people who have no idea how to really function in a society that is progressive, liberated, civil, and dignified. Their worldview is one of punishment and reward. They literally have no idea how else to get what they want, which is domination and control over others. They might know, dimly, that there are other ways to get what they want, but threats are what got used on them to such great effect, so that’s what they’ve learned to use themselves.
I don’t know what the answer is, but I still think it’s useful to keep in mind that people tend to use on others the arguments that worked on them. We need to be there to say “That’s totally unfair and won’t work to bring about the results you want” or “That’s completely out of proportion to the behavior you want to see stopped and designed only to bring back the privilege you’re sore about losing” when we see threats being deployed.
You know the old saying: all that is required for evil to win is for good people to say nothing.