[content note: sexual violence]
When I was in high school, I had a very particular vision of what my first sexual encounter would look like. It would be in the back of a car, and I would be trying to fend off an animalistic assaulter. I’d look at my hand and see my purity ring and remember my commitment and that that – and only that – would be enough to get this man to stop. I had utter and total faith that my commitment to purity would keep me from losing anything I didn’t want to have happen. A commitment to my virginity and purity would necessarily fend off an attacker.
It is interesting to me that my fantasies – and that’s what they were – always involved sexual violence. I didn’t picture myself wanting anything; instead, I was the queen defending my castle, my own honor. The man I was with would necessarily want to move further and faster than I. I would have to put on the brakes, and my commitment to God and my purity would be the thing to stop it.
My purity culture upbringing completely dehumanized men to me. I had good guy friends, close friends, who would never touch a woman without her consent. By all accounts, I should have understood that men were not all animalistic rapists. I should have understood that what I was picturing was not a loss of purity but sexual violence. But all the emphasis and teaching about purity resulted in a cognitive dissonance of the worst kind – I imagined sexual violence at the hands of men as an inevitability, and that my purity would be my saving grace in such a situation.
These imaginings came from a very specific place – we were taught that men who dated women were only after one thing; they only wanted to take our purity. Women who “gave in” to coercion had handed over a very important part of themselves. Women, of course, were the sexual gatekeepers – it was our responsibility to say no, to keep things in check.
Men, naturally, are blameless in such situations because they have a God-given strong libido that confuses their decision-making process. No, really, this is how I was taught to see men – animalistic, out of control, after sex because their boners took away their ability to make decisions. This is a common trope in how we, as a culture, talk about men. Purity culture has taken this animal nature of male lust and baptized it into a God-given understanding of male sexuality and the male struggle.
We see this characterization show up over and over again in Christian books about relationships and discussions from pastors about sex within marriage. Pastors tell their female congregants that men need sexual release or they will go looking elsewhere – a message that tells wives they cannot say no to their husbands. Christian dating books tell single women that dating a non-Christian means they will be putting their purity at risk, because naturally, he’s only after one thing.
I’ve dated one evangelical Christian in my life. We met at a coffee shop on Good Friday and went out that evening for a drink and a walk around town. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy, and I liked him – even if he was a little handsy. Even if he did make me uncomfortable when he walked me back to my car. Even if he seemed a little, how shall we say, eager about physical connection. Even if he’d perked up and asked weirdly personal questions when I told him that my book is about sexual ethics.
I agreed to a second date with him, which he canceled and postponed and then stood me up for. I told him I didn’t want to date someone who couldn’t bother to call to cancel when he texted me the next morning saying he’d been called into work. That was that. Or so I thought.
Two months later, at 10pm on a Friday night, I got a text from an unknown number, saying “my work schedule’s changed and it’s more regular now! Want to get coffee?”
I texted back “Who is this?” and got no response. I looked up the number, saw the area code, and realized, “Oh! That guy. Weird.”
Two weeks later, I had a missed phone call from the same number. Again in the late evening.
Three weeks later, I was at a friend’s rehearsal dinner and had two missed calls – again, from him. No voicemail, just calling.
Another couple weeks later, the same thing. The calls continued until Apple updated the iOS to a system where we could block calls from an individual number from our phone. I changed his ID in my contacts to “Creepy McCreeperson” so I could just glance at my phone and know not to answer. I don’t know what he would have done if I’d picked up – by the time he called me for the tenth time, I’d moved back to Sioux Falls and was caring for my ill mother.
This man was the only self-identified evangelical Christian I’ve ever dated and he’s the only one who left a truly bad taste in my mouth – and this is including the one who actually assaulted me.
I can’t paint the entirety of evangelical culture based on my encounters with this one man, and I’m absolutely not doing that. But I can point out that purity culture contributes to this treatment of women by encouraging men to think of themselves as animals who need to be satisfied, who are helpless in the face of their own lustful nature. Entitlement toward female bodies is encouraged and understood as “part of a man’s nature” throughout purity culture. This view results in some truly horrific behavior. In interviews with a number of women who have come out of purity culture, many have had abusers from within the church who cited their “lustful nature” or “sinful nature” as the reason the abuse kept going. It wasn’t them, you see. It was their uncontrollable lust, and if you just weren’t wearing that clothing or that smile you know gets me going…
This is the legacy we leave Christian teenagers with, and when they become adults, it becomes hard to shake this idea that animal lust is “just a part of who men are.” But we must change this dynamic if we hope to stem the tide of sexual violence that is the result of “out of control” men.
[Photo by Samantha Celera, Flickr Creative Commons]