Stumbling Along Together: Purity, Assault, and Why We Need to Change.
For those who grew up in the church, particularly during our adolescent years, we can all knowingly smile when someone brings up the topic of purity, or keeping yourself pure before the Lord so that you please your future partner, and more importantly, God. As teenagers, we were duly informed every spring and summer to not wear revealing clothing, to not cause our brothers or sisters to “stumble” in their spiritual journey. We were told to never be alone with a member of the opposite sex so that we could avoid temptation and, again, the desire to “stumble”. We were enlightened by the adults in our lives to the dangers of watching films with explicit images, or listening to music with suggestive language, or reading books with sultry scenes.
But when we step back, just for a moment, and really take a look deep into our memories, what do we find? This might not necessarily be the case for every single one of us, but for most, the aforementioned messages, warnings, and pleas were generally directed towards women, implicitly if not explicitly. I spent my entire life in Evangelical/Baptist circles, and during all those years, I was never once told to change my shirt because someone might be lusting after me. I was never told to wear longer shorts because my thighs were too prominently displayed. My gender has never been singled out from the pulpit to “help protect the purity and holiness of our sisters in Christ”. I was never gently rebuked or chastised for showing too much of my chest region, or my butt, or my legs.
Why was this the case? Is it because women don’t lust? Is it because they’re not equally as hormonal or sexually curious as men? Is it because they’re not as desiring of sexually intimate encounters as their male counterparts? That was not, and is not, and never will be, the case. Having a background in studying the sociological underpinnings of societies, and particularly the Evangelical one, a number of elements have become increasingly clear to me, with respect to the issues of chastity and purity: men are considered to be moderately incapable of controlling their sexual urges and desires, women must help them fight these desires because women themselves are sexually neutral, and that the best way for men to help fight these lustful thoughts is for the women to dress and conduct themselves in such a way that the men be slightly relieved of their burning passions.
There are a number of obvious errors in these assumptions. The assumption that women don’t have the sexual drives or desires comparable to men is simply untrue. The belief that men are moderately incapable of controlling their desires is equally incorrect. When we view this situation from an objective lens, it becomes very clear that the Evangelical church is still operating within a patriarchal system of belief, and while this hurts men to a certain degree, it is much, much more detrimental to the lives of young women. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been inundated with stories I’ve read of women who grew up in the church, were assaulted at some point, and spent years wondering what exactly they did wrong, fully blaming themselves for the attack. Year after year after year, the church puts forth a message that they think is best, and Godly, and proper. I can’t blame them for their intentions. But what has happened over time is that the young women in the church have had every bit of the blame placed squarely on their shoulders. Why? Well, you know, “Boys will be boys, after all”.
Maybe you think I’m being too dramatic, or I’m blowing things out of proportion. If that is the case, I encourage you to research the sexual assault cases that recently came to light at Bob Jones University, Pensacola Christian College, and Patrick Henry College. Every one of the women involved, without exception, was grilled on their version of the events, asked if they were being seductive or wearing tempting clothing, and were told that the men accused were “good guys” and wouldn’t do such a thing. The men accused all went on to graduate and some married shortly after. The women were left in a position where their stories were not believed, with some being eventually ignored or being accused of being unforgiving to their assailants.
It’s certainly not too late for the church to move in a different direction in regards to purity. It needs to recognize that women are sexually autonomous beings, that women have sexual agency and control over their own bodies, and that men have no claim to do whatever they wish to women. As long as men are bombarded with the message that they’re essentially sex machines who can barely restrain themselves, and women shown (via recent events) that they will not be taken seriously when they bring charges against their assailants, the church will continue to inadvertently create a cocktail of sexual abuse and trauma that affects these young women long after the actual attack. We need to change, and we need to change now.