Purity Culture is Rape Culture: A Case Study

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[Trigger warning: rape, intimate partner violence] A few months ago, the feminist Christian blogging world had a collective shaking of the heads over Secret Keepers, a modesty movement aimed at girls 8-12 years old. The movement is founded by speaker and author Dannah Gresh. Those of you involved in the complementarian world will recognize her as a “moderate, mainstream” complementarian name – usually pointed to in order to balance out the extreme examples of Driscoll and Piper or even Debi and Michael Pearl.

I have to admire Gresh’s heart for young girls and people. She is really, truly passionate about what she does, and is clearly a good, strong woman, who has benefited from feminism in many ways.

But, I cannot see her work as benign, mainstream complementarian. Because if this is what mainstream looks like, complementarianism and purity culture have a real problem on their hands.

Dannah Gresh’s chastity movement is designed so that it can take a person all the way from childhood to puberty to adulthood firmly ensconced in purity teachings. Her Secret Keepers foundation speaks to girls as young as eight and explains to them the virtues of being modest. On their website (and, according to this video, at conferences on tour), the girls are instructed to conduct a “Truth or Bare” Modesty Test.

The test is framed in such a way as to make young girls hyper-aware of the masculine sexual drive years before they even know what sex is. Granted, the FAQ on the Secret Keepers website states that sex is never directly mentioned from the stage on the tour and though you can’t find a mention of actual sex on the website, this is a technicality. One doesn’t need to talk about intercourse in order to frame the discussion in a way that enforces and supports the male sexual gaze as prime.

Take, for example, these instructions from the Truth or Bare test:

Bellies are very intoxicating and we need to save that for our husbands!

Lean forward a little bit. Can you see too much chest or future cleavage? Your shirt is too low.

It all depends on whether God has chosen to bless you with breasts or not.

The Secret Keeper movement doesn’t even have to mention sex for it to be clear to these young girls that they do not have say over their bodies – at eight years old, these girls are already being told that they do not belong to themselves, that they are a threat merely by existing, and that their private parts belong to a future man. The language and framing within this set function to disempower these young women before they can even understand what bodily autonomy might mean.

As I said last week, the ownership of one’s body, one’s bodily autonomy, is vital to developing a healthy sexual ethic. By telling these children that their bodies are not their own and should be hidden, Secret Keepers – and Gresh, as founder – are reinforcing the idea that women’s bodies are provocative, seductive, things that are threatening (and “intoxicating!”) to men. They literally say they should hide themselves.

The implied consequence of this, as has been discussed ad nauseum in the feminist world (and will continue to be discussed until people get it) is that sexual violence is then, quite possibly, the fault of the woman assaulted.

Think that’s too big of a leap? Consider, then, Gresh’s sermon (audio file) to college students at Grove City College in Grove City, PA, this past Valentine’s Day (yes, Valentine’s Day).

First, she discusses the Hebrew “ahava” – slightly misinterpreted as dangerous, lustful, love-at-first-sight kind of love, though still close the original meaning of romantic love. She seems to be setting up romantic, sexually-tinged love as a dangerous type of love that should be avoided. She has this to say about the story of Dinah in Genesis:

We find in the Bible several instances in-where there are stories where people fell in love. See if some of these are familiar to you. Um, there’s Hamor the Hivite who fell in love with Dinah. The Bible says he was deeply attracted to her and he loved – ahava – her. Well if you know how that story ends, he ended up raping her, which promoted her brothers to seek revenge and started a terrible war.

[Editor’s note: Dinah was raped by Schechem, son of Hamor. And love – ahava – is spoken about after the rape occurs in Genesis, which is sketchy. You can find her story here.]

Within Gresh’s framing, sexual violence is a natural consequence of awakened lust. While she does not blame Dinah, it is not a hard leap to victim blaming here, as Gresh later cautions in her sermon that women are needy and looking for love and will often settle for ahava when they really need agape.

She sets up ahava and agape in contrast, even though in Proverbs 10:12, we see ahava used in a way that is similar to agape. But that’s a minor point, because the illustration Gresh uses to demonstrate agape love – ie, the type of love she wants men to have for women, the type of self-sacrificing love she believes God has for us – is violently abusive (forgive the long quote):

And here’s the thing, as I was looking over my dating years with my husband, as we were college students. I remember one very distinct time. I was thinking ‘when were the times that he expressed agape love to me?’ I could think of a lot of really neat ones, but I thought of one that was probably harder for him than all the rest. You see, we had recently gotten engaged and I was living in an apartment and going to summer school so I could finish up a little early – not that I was in a hurry to get married or anything. And he came to see me. And we hadn’t seen each other for months and we missed each other very much. And it probably took one fifth of a second when he was inside of that apartment for us to realize we were really in love. And we found ourselves horizontal on the sofa. And it really wasn’t okay. You get the picture. But it  lasted about a second and before I knew it, my fiancé picked me up off the sofa, threw me against the wall, and ran outside of my apartment.

[laughter]

Yes, I felt horribly rejected.

[more laughter]

But I brushed myself off and I walked outside and I said “What was that?”

And he said, opening the car door, “Get in, we need a chaperone. I can’t be alone with you. We’re going to Professor Haffy’s house.”

[more laughter]

and we spent the weekend in one of our professor’s homes.

That’s agape.

Taken as a whole, from Secret Keepers up to what she tells college students, the violent, abusive, disempowering vision of love that Gresh presents is truly frightening. It is a culture wherein women are told that their bodies do not belong to themselves, and that sexual and physical violence are both their own fault and part and parcel of romantic, sacrificial love.

This is deeply, deeply problematic. This type of speech - from little girls to college students - is evidence of a rape and abuse culture. It is the kind of culture where women feel like they cannot escape, where they feel like taking abuse is their duty. It is the kind of culture that promotes abuse and rape by telling women that they must think of themselves only in relationship to men, and not as autonomous beings who own their bodies.

Gresh is not some fringe. Gresh is frequently pointed to as an example of a moderate, mainstream complementarian. It appears that even mainstream, moderate complementarians cannot avoid the inherent problems in much complementarian thought – when you disempower women, love starts to look an awful lot like abuse.

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Note: you should read this Grove City alum's take at Wine and Marble. I also recommend this post by Shaney.