Purity Culture, Grooming, and Sex Offenders: A Guest Post

Today, I'm excited to bring you the first of my guest posts for the month of July, where we examine purity culture in depth. Maureen Farrell Garcia has researched sexual abuse dynamics for over a decade after learning that her Christian (ex)husband was a sex offender. Mostly she reads, writes, teaches, researches, and drinks copious amounts of tea. She is the mother of three brilliant valiant muppet-like daughters, and she is married to an awesome bear-like New Testament scholar who loves naps. She would love for you to connect with her on Twitter @mfarrellgarcia.

If you are interested in guest posting for this series, shoot me an email with a pitch.

Amidst the ongoing discussions of purity and modesty within Evangelical circles there is a significant and dangerous oversight. While I have no doubt those involved sincerely seek to create a safe and godly environment for their daughters and sons, many inadvertently are advocating a culture which set ups children and teens, specifically females, to be sexually abused.

Christian purity culture emerged from a desire to create a Christian counter culture, one that pushed back against our sexually saturated broader culture. The focus was on advocating for modesty, courting, and sexual purity, as opposed to the sexualization of females, casual dating, and sexual activity without commitment.

Yet, while noble in intent, it has failed in application. The failures of purity culture are evident in the parallels between it and the grooming techniques of sexual offenders.

According to Dr. Anna C. Salter, sexual offenders use a process, referred to as “grooming” to evaluate and set up potential victims and to perpetrate abuse with the least risk of exposure.

Elsewhere I described the purpose of grooming as creating, “an environment where the abuser can control and abuse with the least risk of exposure, and in case of exposure, ensure others will defend them.” 

One of the ways the offender gains control is through the presentation and enforcement of their worldview. As Dr. Salter explains, sex offenders “implant” their beliefs in the victim. The problem with this is that the sex offender’s worldview is filled with cognitive distortions and erroneous beliefs.

In effect, an internalized purity culture worldview makes it easier for a sex offender to abuse because the worldview is so similar to the distorted worldview an abuser grooms a potential victim to internalize.

Let’s unpack this a bit. Below are examples of distorted beliefs common to both purity culture and sex offenders.

A note about gender: Because purity culture organizes itself along gendered lines I am using words that reflect perpetrators as males and victims as females, however any gender can be victimized by sex offenders and any gender can perpetrate sex offenses. 

Distorted Belief #1: Females (Victims) are Worth Less than Males (Perpetrators):

The majority of purity culture adherents would never claim explicitly that men are worth more than women but this belief is communicated through various subtle channels. For example, purity culture, like rape culture, highlights and emphasizes male perspectives, emotions, desires, thoughts, experiences, and theological concerns, often to the exclusion of female equivalents. One expert notes, “Traditionally…women are not socialized to value themselves, their insights, their opinions, or their questions.”

While this is common in our broader culture and within the history of the church, it is taken to an extreme within purity culture. Indeed, when women acknowledge and act on their needs, wishes, and desires they are often accused of being selfish or worse. This communicates that men are valuable and women, well… not so much. 

Consider the book Every Man’s Battle that seems to suggest that all men experience struggles with lust. However, instead what the book actually portrays is a frighteningly misogynistic objectification of women that is supposedly shared by all men. And this struggle framed as a “battle” implies the battleground and/or the enemies are female bodies. 

Margaret Guenther, claims in her experience providing spiritual direction for women, that Pride, traditionally understood as everyone’s greatest sin, is not most women’s. Instead, “women’s distinctive sin is self-contempt” and “this self-hatred is symbolized by and centered on the body.” How much more so is this true of a purity culture that reduces our humanity and our bodies to food to be consumed, enemies, battlegrounds, chewed up gum, and/or spit in a cup.

Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s one striking example from Every Man’s Battle:

When you starve your eyes and eliminate ‘junk sex’ from your life, you’ll deeply crave ‘real food’- your wife. And no wonder. She’s the only thing in the cupboard and you’re hungry!

The author compares his wife to food to be consumed. Even though this is a troubling explicit statement of female objectification the book was so popular with evangelicals within purity culture that the authors wrote a whole series.

Distorted Belief #2: Females (Victims) are Responsible For Their Sexualization 

Within purity culture there is blatantly sexist rhetoric as evidenced above, but there is also a more subtle insidious blame shifting. This often happens when a well-intentioned Christian formulates a “reasonable” argument for why females should dress modestly. 

For example, last summer, Christianity Today’s women section, Her.meneutics. posted a piece titled “A Dad’s Perspective: Why I Tell My Daughters to Dress Modestly” by Peter Chin. For the record, I have no doubt that the author loves his children and wants to honor God. And, he is clear to suggest that his opinion must be “read with a mountainous chunk of salt.” 

Chin’s piece, while well written and sincere, is problematic because he explicitly states one thing while he implicitly communicates another. 

For example he explicitly states, “I certainly do not blame women for something I myself am responsible for.” But then writes a number of statements that imply the fault of females. For example, he states, “the one lusting is surely more at fault.” The phrasing “more at fault” implies that there is another who is less at fault but is still significantly deserving of blame.

Or consider his statement: “We do whatever we can to prevent other beloved brothers and sisters from being stumbled.” The passive use of language, “being stumbled” distances the luster from their trespass. It implies that another is responsible for their stumbling.

He states that it is the responsibility of the one looking to turn away or turn off the computer if “something is making them think bad thoughts.” He also asserts that some bodies cause others “to think about that person in an objectified, sexualized light.” The words “making” and “cause” subtly shift blame to the female body. But female bodies are not the cause of lust. Female bodies do not “make” one “think bad thoughts.” While a beautiful body may trigger lust, it does not cause lust. This is an important distinction. One that is never consider within purity culture because purity culture conflates attraction, desire, physiological responses to erotic or arousing stimuli, and of course, lust. 

Distorted Belief #3: Males (Perpetrators) are the Real Victims.

A common tactic of sex offenders is the manipulation of the love of their victims through presenting themselves as the real victims who should be pitied.

Through presenting females as the ones responsible for males’ impurity, Purity culture presents men as the “real” victims. Males are referred to as “weaker” because of their “visual” and “sexual” nature. They are victims of their hormones, sexualized media, female bodies, women’s clothing choices and desires. Women are admonished to care for their weaker brothers by restricting their freedom to dress in ways they desire.

Women are conditioned to be other-aware instead of self-aware. They are encouraged to always consider men before themselves. This is presented as a female manifestation of godly love but it is really a manifestation of the belief that women do not matter as much as men. We were designed to please and serve men. These are dangerous beliefs that sex offenders exploit and they have real consequences.

Dr. Salter states that victims become skilled at reading “other people’s affect but seems to be unaware of [their] own.” When purity culture shifts blame from the luster to the women being lusted after it parallels this dynamic. This is often done in a subtle and “spiritual” manner. One expert argues, “Women have consistently been taught to value only one type of religious development-self denial and sacrifice of one’s own needs for the sake of others.” Again, purity culture takes this to an extreme. 

For example, Chin explains that he desires his daughters is to dress modestly because “they love and value men.” While this may sound spiritual it re-enforce the erroneous belief that females should anticipate and respond to males’ emotions with little to no regard for their own. Instead we should be teaching our daughters to love and value themselves.

Establishing and Enforcing Control 

In order to minimize sexual offenses within churches, it is imperative that Christians become educated on sexual abuse. One thing that needs to be understood is that sexual abuse is not primarily about sex. Like rape, it is about power and control. Dr. Salter claims, “Controlling the child’s reality is the most insidious way that offenders compel compliance.”

Grooming establishes and enforces control. And, purity culture, like grooming, compels compliance to their worldview through control. 

Purity culture is all about control.  More specifically it is about control of female bodies. Purity culture attempts to sanction both male and female purity by controlling female bodies. The males abdicate their responsibility to practice self-control. Meanwhile they disempower females.

A culture that communicates that women are less valuable then men, that blames females for others’ sexual responses to them, that communicates that females are responsible to males’ imaginary weaknesses and real emotions at the expense of their own, that controls females bodies, that communicates that female bodies belong to men and not to themselves, is a culture that has already done the work of grooming for sexual predators.