(Content Notice: Talk of rape and assault. Also, yes, I slightly edited the title because I thought it sounded flippant in retrospect.)
A bunch of seemingly unrelated scandals and gaffes broke out in the Christian community around rape this week. I want to talk about them today and why they’re very related to each other, and what they mean for the religion as a whole as it lurches onward toward irrelevance.
First, let’s talk about emotional abuse as it relates to Christianity. My friend Deanna’s written a gorgeous, well-crafted, beautifully introspective post about Christian narcissism over at the Godless in Dixie blog, and I encourage every single person here to go read it. If you hang out around here, then you’ve demonstrated that you like long posts if they say something useful, and Deanna’s saying something supremely useful. I noticed stuff like this too when I was growing up both in my family and in the churches I attended–from Catholic to Pentecostal. We’re going to talk about this topic in bits and pieces over time, but I wanted to concentrate on one aspect of emotional abuse today: threats.
One major theme running through Christianity as a whole is that when authority figures in the religion can’t get their way, then they start using emotional manipulation and even outright abuse to sway those they want to control. That’s where I think the entire doctrine of Hell came from–it’s a way to control people with fear and get them to comply when nothing else can do the trick. This threat’s useful because it can’t be proven at all, especially when it’s imprinted on very young, vulnerable, trusting minds; sometimes I run into ex-Christians who still are a little scared of going to a Hell they know can’t possibly exist. Their fear speaks less to the plausibility of Hell or their “secret belief” (something most Christians erroneously think non-Christians have) than it does to the power of childhood indoctrination. If you walked up to an adult and said “Hey, if you don’t believe in this invisible being who is all-powerful and all-knowing except nobody’s ever seen him or verified his existence, then you’ll go to a place nobody’s also ever seen that disobeys every rule of physics and you’ll suffer for infinity for your finite thought crimes,” that adult would rightly tell you to take a long leap off a short pier. It’s so obviously absurd–but also so stupendously successful thanks to a whole variety of cognitive biases that the human mind evolved over many years.
As conjobs go, you can’t get better than threats of a fate you can’t prove or disprove. At least, that’s what the conventional wisdom was once.
The problem is, as more and more people deconvert from Christianity or grow up not being indoctrinated in its various threats, that absurdity is starting to seem more and more ridiculous to outsiders. Hell just doesn’t make a good threat if the person being threatened says “Okay, so prove that this is a valid fear for me to have” and refuses to entertain the possibility that the threat is valid without having some evidence for the threat. Threatening me with Hell makes about as much sense as a Zoroastrian threatening that same Christian with being found unworthy at the Chinvat Bridge. I wish Christians would think this through a little more before presenting this threat to themselves and others; the way they utterly dismiss other religions’ afterlife predictions is the way more and more people are dismissing their own. Not even all Christians buy into this once-near-universal fear anymore, and why should they? What, is this the one unverified afterlife prediction that’s actually totes for realzies true out of all the other unverified afterlife predictions, just because some Christians insist up and down that it is? I don’t think so.
The upshot is that now Christians need a new threat–something more palpable, something more immediate, something that everybody (not just religious folks) can get behind in condemning, something so horrifying and so far past socially unacceptable that people will just immediately concede to them and let them have their way again without examining the claim of a threat to see if it’s really a threat or not.
And they seem to have found something they obviously think will work. It’s so incredibly tactless, so incredibly buffoonish, so incredibly hamfisted and obvious, that I as an outsider just have to goggle in sheer amazement that they even went there–but they did, and they are, and we’re going to talk about it right now.
Welcome to the new age: the age of the Christian rape threat.
I’m seeing a pattern now of Christian leaders insinuating and sometimes outright saying that if people keep defying Christian overreach, then women will be raped more often. If people allow Christian overreach to occur, by contrast, then women will be safe from rape.
Think I’m stretching? Then check this stuff out:
Rape Threat 1: Believe in Creationism or You Gonna Get Raped
A Creationist very famously asked this week, “If evolution is true . . . is rape wrong?” to some astonished Creationist talk-show hosts. That British site in the link very ably skewers and ridicules the claim, but they didn’t notice what he was saying here (they may not realize exactly what Creationists buy into). Oh, but that’s okay. I did. Creationism sees itself as fighting against atheism; they position their efforts as a battle between good and evil, not between shoddy science and real science, or even between “a certain very narrow-minded, ignorant group of Christians and everybody who understands and embraces science,” a group that does actually include a lot of Christians and other religious folks. What this incredibly ignorant asshole is saying is that if people start embracing real science, then nothing’s going to stop them from raping everybody in sight.
This idea may seem farfetched, but I’ve heard this sentiment before from a “logical Christian” type who quite literally posted something like that to a dear ex-Christian friend of mine. It’s one of the incidents that birthed this blog–this TRUE CHRISTIAN™ told this moral, good atheist husband that without Jesus, he might as rape his wife as give her roses. This “logical Christian” conflated willingness to rape with disbelief in Christianity. It shocked me beyond all reason at the time (I seriously think I got just as offended by this disturbing and weird accusation as the atheist being told that bit of rubbish), but I’ve begun noticing this sentiment getting more and more play in toxic-Christian circles, this idea that disbelief equates to suddenly deciding rape is perfectly acceptable and that only their belief in Jesus holds TRUE CHRISTIAN™ men (and by extension the society they control) back from raping everyone in sight.
So there you go, according to this Creationist author: believe in Jesus and accept a literal reading of the Bible’s Genesis account even though there’s no logical reason whatsoever to accept anything it says about the coming-about of the universe and humanity, or else it will be total rape city, y’all. Rape everywhere. Without an unquestioning belief in fundamentalists’ conceptualization of Creationism, rape suddenly becomes totally fine, so we need to get the public on board with indoctrinating children with total nonsense. Apparently, Creationists never, ever, ever rape anybody. Oh wait, they totally actually do.
I know that the problem here is that Creationists genuinely believe that if one single thing in the Bible is categorically refuted, like Creationism has been, then the whole Bible suddenly becomes suspect in its reliability. They view the Bible as the divinely-handed-down authority over people’s lives, a document given to humanity from a “loving” god who also set up all the rules by which humans should live. If the Bible isn’t actually divine, then maybe the god they think wrote/dictated it doesn’t actually exist either. And if that’s so, then morality suddenly becomes alarmingly culture-specific and subjective–which they don’t actually understand isn’t actually subjective at all, since morality in the Bible is shockingly subjective in and of itself. Morality’s not nearly as subjective outside of the Bible as Christians quiver to consider.
I’d go so far as to argue that if a Christian tells you that without a particular god’s error-free, literal dictation of a document that there is nothing stopping people from harming others, then that Christian’s showing you a glimpse of what is stopping him or her from harming others. True morality isn’t handed down to us from a document; someone’s not really being truly good or moral if the behavior’s only done out of terror of divine punishment one day. Morality is inborn inside us. It’s expressed because it’s the right thing to do.
Forcing someone to do the right thing is sometimes the best that we can get, but there are a lot of problems with the idea of forcing people to do the right thing. If you’ve ever tried to train a toddler, you know that a child who doesn’t grasp the concept of morality will behave–while being watched. The second the caretaker isn’t watching, that child will do whatever is desired. Punishment (especially when it involves violence, like spanking), as a training tactic, isn’t effective at all with making people moral. When that punishment is erratic, as Christians themselves often observe happening around themselves, things get even worse. All the threat of unguessable, unverified, inconsistently-applied punishment does is teach people to sneak around to do the immoral stuff they were already going to do. The worse the punishment is and the more extreme, inconsistent, and disproportional it is, the sneakier the child learns to be. Punishment like that just isn’t a deterrent to immoral acts. So when I find out that someone’s claiming to be moral only because the Bible told that person to be moral under threat of Hell, I know to avoid that person because I know that this threat is simply not consistent, fair, or proportional–and so does the Christian, I bet.
That’s why Creationists can say out one side of their mouths that only the Bible makes people moral, but out of the other side they can say and do the most horrible and vile things. They’re still going to insist up and down that they’re right and that anybody who doesn’t buy into Creationism like they do is at terrible risk of suddenly, at the drop of a hat, deciding that rape is awesome, because rape is actually absolutely terrible and it’s one of the scariest things that anybody can experience. It’s the punishment they’re threatening will happen to a society that rejects Biblical literalism.
And they sound downright giddy about the idea of rape becoming more common as literalism fades into irrelevance. Take a look at the Creationist in this article, at his picture; does he seem in the least horrified or upset? No, he seems quite excited to me.
So y’all, think about that for a second. Rape is being used by zealots as the shorthand for what will–without question in their minds–happen if people keep rejecting their paternalistic control. As a strong-arming manipulation tactic, I can’t imagine a more disgustingly odious one than this one. Notice, please, too, that Creationists still haven’t presented a single coherent, plausible, believable, testable theory in their many decades’ existence. All they have is a threat: reject our claims and you will get raped. Accept them and you will be safe.
Rape Threat 2: Buy Into the Purity Myth or You Gonna Get Raped
You probably heard already about the explosion of sexual assault allegations against fundagelical Christian colleges. My friend Samantha has been blogging about her experience at one of these, Pensacola Christian College, but certainly that’s not the only college getting accused. What you might not know is that Bob Jones University, which is like the Walt Disney World of fundagelical colleges, apparently told rape victims that they’d obviously committed some heinous sin that had led to their own rapes, and the news of this utterly inappropriate response broke this week as well. This whole scandal might be the ultimate undoing of these colleges in the same way that the pedophilia scandal is finally breaking the back of the Roman Catholic Church. It is the dismantling of the entire Purity Myth–and it’s about damned time.
The Purity Myth is a big societal construct. It’s a term coined by Jessica Valenti, who wrote a book by that name. The term means a bunch of things: that women’s “purity” is important and is measured by their sexual behavior, that their virginity is exceedingly important, that women are elevated through their sexual purity, that women’s sexuality is dangerous and must be contained properly, that women are responsible for men’s reactions to them and so must safeguard themselves by behaving properly and dressing properly, that society must do all it can to protect the “purity” of its thusly-corralled women, that women’s bodies are largely public property and their actions up for debate and discussion among strangers, and a host of other myths that quite a few people–even non-Christians–believe about women. The Purity Myth tells society that nothing a woman says or does matters compared to what’s between (or more importantly what’s not between) her legs.
There’s an even more insidious side to the Purity Myth, though, and it’s one that Christianity takes ruthless advantage of to excuse its overreach in women’s lives. If women can be elevated by sexual “purity,” by which Christians mean properly corralled and restrained sexual expression (only within marriage to a partner of the opposite gender and sometimes only for pre-approved purposes such as procreation), then she can certainly be devalued by sexual “impurity,” meaning any kind of unapproved sexual expression. If “purity” is what makes a woman valuable, then loss of “purity” makes her non-valuable. And if society must protect women who are “pure,” then it certainly doesn’t need to protect women who’ve already lost the one and only thing that made them valuable. One doesn’t guard a henhouse with no chickens in it, after all.
There’s also a savagely barbaric side to the Purity Myth, which is that it propagates and excuses Rape Culture: a culture wherein rape is normalized and under certain circumstances even acceptable, a culture that blames victims, believes the accused over their accusers, and puts the responsibility for ensuring rape doesn’t happen on victims rather than on rapists themselves. In Rape Culture, a woman who is “impure” in some way somehow merits getting raped by the men around her who just can’t control themselves around her dangerous sexual expression–it is the woman’s job entirely to ensure that the men around her never, ever have an urge to violate her body; she is responsible entirely for their behavior and thoughts. That’s why I usually think of these two concepts as being twined together; people who wholeheartedly buy into the Purity Myth genuinely think that “purity” is a way for women to protect themselves against rape.
But it’s not really protection at all. Women who buy into the Purity Myth are only making themselves into victims; men who want to prey upon women will seek out these victims. They belong to a culture, after all, that excuses predation and places considerably less value on women than it does on men. Such women might not even recognize what happened to them as rape; one of the young women in these tragic cases was a teenaged Mennonite (that’s like being Amish) who had no idea what “consent” even meant in the sexual sense and had never been taught about it at home. If these victims do actually gather the nerve to report the rape, they very well may not even be believed–and may even be blamed for their own “part” in “tempting” the rapist, such as happened at Bob Jones University. Horrifyingly, these rapists may well go on to serve in leadership capacities or face only the lightest of punishments–if any punishments at all–for their crimes. Many churches, confronted with a minister caught sexually assaulting someone in his care, just shuttle the fellow to another church without a word as to why, without a single warning to the new church about the monster walking through their doors with a big ole Jesus smile on his face and a warm handshake. I’m not honestly sure how else anybody expected things to work under this system other than oodles of sexual assaults. If I wanted to write a recipe for how to encourage rape in a culture (which obviously I do not), this would be the one I’d go with.
Oh, but it gets even worse. Women are–under the pretense of de-objectifying them–objectified even more by the Purity Myth, which sees them as things that can be devalued by sex, things that can tempt good clean godly TRUE CHRISTIAN™ men, things that must be neutered before they can be interacted with in any civilized fashion. Women who choose to have consensual sex with equals are compared to chewed-up gum and spat-in glasses of water. Rape victims are seen as “damaged goods.” Their accusations may be viewed with skepticism; the myth of false rape accusations still thrives in our culture. They may be scrutinized to see just how much culpability they bear for their own victimization: what were they wearing? how were they acting? how much had they had to drink? did they at one point have consensual sex with their attackers? All that this finger-pointing and blaming serves to do is discourage victims from speaking up and coming forward and also it serves to excuse away and negate the crimes of their attackers.
Christians tend to overwhelmingly believe in the Purity Myth. It allows them to maintain a shockingly misogynistic culture and to keep their female adherents well in line. These women (as I once did) are constantly guessing at what the men around them will think is too sexual or too impure, constantly wondering if they’re monitoring themselves well enough, especially since that line between “pure” and “impure” shifts by the man–some will find tank tops and bikinis impure, others will find a full-body burkha impure. And when a woman gets victimized, there’s usually some way for the rest of her community to blame her for that victimization.
So we have columnists like George Will, who has obviously never been raped, blathering about how he thinks women are lying about all these rape charges when really they’re just drunken bimbos who regret having had sex and just want the “privileged status” that claiming rape gets women (WTF? Does it? In what universe?). And we have a prestigious Christian journal running an article from a onetime youth pastor (seriously, WTF is it with youth pastors?) now incarcerated for sexual assault of a minor; he who wrote a hugely self-pitying article for them about how he just couldn’t help himself because his underaged charge was just sooooo flirty with him and his wife was sooooo inattentive, and now he wants to warn all the other youth pastors out there because he’s just that awesome and helpful of a guy. The links go to outraged people’s columns about the articles in question; the original article from the youth pastor is already gone and almost entirely scrubbed from the internet, and good riddance to it; I can’t even imagine how it would have hit me as a sexual abuse survivor myself, but I can definitely see a Rape Culture man seeing it and feeling validated in his own predation of women.
This stuff is Purity Myth and Rape Culture stuff to the nines, folks. When you see this sort of thing you should be perking up and looking twice to see what’s really being said here. That Christian blog, called Leadership Journal, and George Will are so steeped in this stuff they can’t even see that they’re engaging in victim-blaming and rape-apologizing. And it was only after a lot of people rose up in outrage that Leadership Journal pulled the article–with not one but two attempts at notpologies that still don’t sound like they really understand what the problem is here. And George Will’s done one or two interviews and follow-ups on his inane statements drilling down on the stupid by insisting that we just don’t understand what he was trying to say (and are possibly idiots to boot).
Remember we talked last time about how I feel like humanity is moving forward? These rape threats are absolutely dismaying in many ways, but I’d like to draw your attention to something interesting about them. You see, the most dangerous period of an abusive relationship is when the victim has finally gathered courage to leave. That’s when an abuser is going to pull out every single stop to get that victim to stay. When being lovey-dovey doesn’t work, when promising to change doesn’t work, when all of it proves utterly ineffective, the real horror show begins. The abuser will start laying into the threats, and after that, perhaps even violence if need be.
The Christians who are making these sorts of veiled (and not so veiled) threats still don’t have a single good reason to allow them to control everybody else’s lives, nor do they have a single good reason for anybody to buy into their religious claims.
What they do have are plenty of threats. Threats are what worked on them, and they are what they think will work on others. Threats are the very last tool in the toolbox.
This means we’re getting closer, folks.
We’re almost free.
We just have to keep refusing to bow under. We just have to keep calling attention to the horrifying things they keep saying. We just have to keep rejecting their attempts to control us. We’ve gone past all the other stuff and now we’re almost out the door–and they know it. This is all they’ve got left.
Abusers only know how to abuse. They may be very charming and very sweet sometimes, but when push comes to shove, there is no bridge too far, no low too low, no gruesome threat too gruesome to unleash with a giddy Jesus smile on their faces.
We just have to keep moving forward. Meanwhile, let me close with this simple chart that anybody, even a toxic Christian, should be able to understand.
So in summation, my fervent recommendation to Christians is that they quit making these threats. It’s painfully obvious what Christians are trying to accomplish by issuing them, and all they’re doing is making the religion look more and more barbaric and evil. Either they’ll refuse to quit doing it and make their religion fall apart all the faster, or else they’ll learn to quit doing it and maybe stave off their religion’s utter disintegration for a while longer.
And, uh, not to keep repeating myself, but either way, humanity wins.