The NYT has an article out today about the challenges of being black and atheist. I’m more agnostic than atheist, but the experiences the article describes really resonated with me. It especially captures the double isolation black nonreligious people face in the U.S. – isolation from often highly religious family who assume that you believe as they do unless you explicitly say otherwise, and isolation within the atheist/agnostic/humanist community, since high levels of black religiosity mean that a disproportionately low percentage of black Americans identify as atheist.
African-Americans are remarkably religious even for a country known for its faithfulness, as the United States is. According to the Pew Forum 2008 United States Religious Landscape Survey, 88 percent of African-Americans believe in God with absolute certainty, compared with 71 percent of the total population, with more than half attending religious services at least once a week.
…With the assumption that African-Americans are religious comes the expectation that they are Christian. “That’s the kicker, when they ask which church you go to,” said Linda Chavers, 29, a Harvard graduate student. The question comes up among young black professionals like her classmates as casually as chitchat about classes and dating. “At first,” she said, “they think it’s because I haven’t found one, and they’ll say, ‘Oh I know a few great churches,’ and I don’t know a nice way to say I’m not interested,” she said….
Given the cultural pull toward religion, less than one-half of a percent of African-Americans identify themselves as atheists, compared with 1.6 percent of the total population, according to Pew. Black atheists, then, find they are a minority within a minority.
This is something I’ve been struggling with a bit in recent years, as I’ve simultaneously left the church and also been consciously working on building relationships and community with other people of color, especially other black people (relationships that the white evangelical culture I grew up in actively discouraged and prevented me from forming). On the whole it’s an amazingly positive, affirming experience. It’s both exciting and a relief to finally be part of a community where there’s a common vocabulary and shared experiences around race and racism, where we have similar political and ideological values and commitments. Given all that it can be very jarring to hear, in a space that feels so much safer and welcoming, people invoke language and beliefs that in my personal experience have been really toxic and damaging.
I know part of that is an implicit expectation on my part that people who share certain values I hold will probably not be all that religious. That’s definitely a holdover of fundamentalist thinking – that if you believe X, you must also believe Y, or that if you believe X you can’t possibly be a “real” or serious Christian. That’s a mindset I need to work on ridding myself of.
And I definitely see that a big part of the role Christian faith plays in so many black communities is that historically, the black church has played a huge, central role in organizing and shoring up black resistance and struggle against racism. The church has been an amazing source of strength and cohesiveness in that respect. And for some, the story of the black civil rights movement is one of divine providence and intervention, perhaps because the black church played such a prominent role.
Jamila Bey, a 35-year-old journalist, said, “To be black and atheist, in a lot of circles, is to not be black.” She said the story the nation tells of African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights is a Christian one, so African-Americans who reject religion are seen as turning their backs on their history. This feels unfair to Ms. Bey, whose mother is Roman Catholic and whose father is Muslim, because people of different faiths, and some with none, were in the movement. The black church dominated, she said, because it was the one independent black institution allowed under Jim Crow laws, providing free spaces to African-Americans who otherwise faced arrest for congregating in public.
Recognizing the role of churches in the movement, Ms. Bey still takes issue when their work is retold as God’s. “These people were using the church, pulling from its resources, to attack a problem and literally change history. But the story that gets told is, ‘Jesus delivered us,’ ” Ms. Bey said. “Frankly, it was humans who did all the work.”
At the same time it’s difficult to deal with the assumptions that I see coming from a lot of black people that if you’re black, you believe in God. And Christian faith is so intertwined with many aspects of black American culture that invocations of God and the Bible can come up in unexpected settings, with little warning. A fairly trivial example of this is the BET awards, which can go from rather sexy performances to feeling like a gospel church service in no time flat. Religion and faith in Jesus specifically are just liable to pop up at any moment. And while it’s not outright triggering for me – I don’t get panic attacks if someone quotes a Bible verse at me or tells me if I just trust God everything will be alright – it can feel…not safe or welcoming. It can be jarring.
Another part of the problem, I think, is that there’s so little room to even have an open conversation about not believing in God (and obviously this is an issue in the U.S. in general, not just in black communities). As the article points to, for some people, atheists are far scarier and harder to relate to than people who have engaged in concrete actions that are clearly harmful to others. People who don’t believe in God can be seen as so completely other or foreign that we’re basically less than human: “It scared some men to hear me say I don’t believe in God the way you do. I’ve heard people say, ‘How can you love somebody if you don’t believe in God?’ Or if it’s not that extreme, it can simply be an inability to participate in certain conversations where faith is taken as a given, or where there’s little or no room to be open about one’s experiences as a nonreligious person, both of which are really marginalizing and silencing.
I don’t think there are any easy answers to this. As with many things I think it’s an issue of people being able to listen to and embrace a variety of perspectives and experiences, which can be uncomfortable and difficult in the process. It can mean facing things – facing people and ideas – that are scary, or upsetting. From my end I just wish there wouldn’t be the automatic assumption that everyone believes in God, or believes in the same sort of God. And it would also be nice if there weren’t the assumption that people who don’t believe or believe different are somehow inherently defective or meriting suspicion just because of that fact.
It’s really telling to me that, while laziness and hypersexuality are stereotypes are applied to black people in general, so many of the evangelicals Emerson interviewed for Divided by Faith singled out black mothers as specifically embodying and being the root cause of what they saw as black individual, family, and cultural dysfunction. This circles back to the gendered double standard discussed in the previous post: under the complementarian view of gender and sexuality, the responsibility for sexual and reproductive gatekeeping outside marriage is placed almost entirely on women. So again, though “promiscuity” and having “too many kids” are behaviors that require at least one man in normative heterosexual pairings, these labels stick to black women in different ways than they do to black men: the women sit home and have babies while collecting welfare checks, the mothers send the fathers away, etc.
I think this is worth noting because criticisms of racist narratives about black laziness or the failure or demise of the black family often overlook the fact that these stereotypes are fundamentally and profoundly gendered. They’re implicit statements of what gender roles “should” be, based on white, heteronormative, classist measures, and statements that black women and men as a group fail to live up to these measures in gender-specific ways. There’s a reason the prevailing stereotype of black people on certain forms of government assistance is that of the “welfare queen.”
It’s a critique of black femininity as a failed or less-than. The welfare queen is not only wanton in her sexuality and reproduction, she is also negligent in her attentions to her children – in effect pawns conceived for purely mercenary purposes (to get money from the government). The welfare queen is not bound to one man, doesn’t have her reproduction limited or controlled by one man, uses and neglects her children rather than nurturing them, and is therefore a bad mother. She stands as the foil to the “angel in the home” – the romanticized, infantilized image of the “true woman” and “keeper in the home” (a carry over of Victorian and other Western european notions of idealized, non-threatening, non-sexual femininity), whose only concern is for husband, children, home.
One of Emerson’s interviewees argued that the government perpetuates black inequality by “[making] it easier for somebody [read: black women] to sit home and collect welfare and have baby after baby.” There’s quite a bit of irony in that statement when you juxtapose it with the fact that for many evangelicals, the highest display of femininity is precisely to “stay home and have baby after baby” after marriage and be a “keeper of the home,” while the husband acts as unquestioned leader and sole income earner (“provider” – as though homemaking and child-rearing aren’t “providing” for one’s family).
So in effect, when the welfare queen stereotype is leveled at black women by white evangelicals who believe that women shouldn’t work outside the home and should reproduce frequently, the criticism is really of black women for supposedly being “dependent” on the government instead of being properly dependent on and submissive to a patriarchal husband. Again, recall another one of Emerson’s interview subjects claiming that “we have paid their [black children’s] mothers to have their fathers stay away from home.”
And by extension this is a critique of “the black family” as failed or in crisis, in implicit contrast to white families. And it’s specifically a criticism that black parents are not living up to their proper gender roles in the presumed heterosexual partnerships and heteronormative families. White evangelical attachment to the caricature of the absent black father who due to custom or culture doesn’t “provide for” or “lead” his family is an implicit statement about the superiority of white fatherhood and white family culture. So too is the attachment to the caricature of the negligent, unattached black mother, often also depicted as loud, violent, and contentious, an implicit statement of the superiority of white womanhood and motherhood – by the standards of white evangelical conservative culture – characterized by a “gentle and quiet spirit” and a self-negating submission to the sexual and emotional ownership of one man and a likewise self-denying level of devotion to children and the home.
Extreme trigger warning for details of child sexual and physical abuse and cover ups; racism. Please consider carefully before reading this post.
I hadn’t been following the Penn State child abuse cover up case closely until tonight, when the university announced that the long-time coach of the football team, Joe Paterno, and the president of the university, Graham Spanier, had been fired over the case. Paterno, Spanier, and others failed to report to to any law enforcement officials that a team assistant witnessed Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coach who had free access to Penn State facilities, raping a 10 year old boy in the locker rooms.
Paterno and university officials above him claim to have only been informed that Sandusky had been engaging in vaguely “inappropriate contact” with a minor. But they knew or suspected enough about his behavior to decide that he should be told he could no longer bring children with him on campus. [Grand jury report – goes into specific detail about assaults and grooming of victims. Extreme trigger warning.]
Tonight hundreds of Penn State students have swarmed the campus to protest Paterno’s firing. Overturned a media truck. Chanted for “Joe Pa” to have one more game, one more year. Screamed that he “deserves to be treated better than this,” and that he’s “done so much for the university.” They’ve demanded that he remain coach for life. They’re shouting school cheers and “We are Penn State.” They’ve had to be disbanded by tear gas and riot police.
Meanwhile a brave but tiny group of 50-75 Penn State students have gathered in a vigil in support of the victims.
Think of how the victims feel tonight, how they’ll feel tomorrow, watching a crowd riot in defense of a man who did nothing to inform police that his colleague was a child rapist. Think how the victims’ families feel. Think how many other people who survived abuse were triggered last night watching this display of rape apologism.
As many people have said tonight, this is just one example of why so many survivors of abuse do not come forward with their stories. Because this is what happens. People rally in defense of those with the most power in the situation – institutional power, power to report abuse, power to stop abuse, power to prevent future abuses. And the people who have actually been abused, the ones who are the most vulnerable, are at best erased, and often attacked.
People are calling this a “sex scandal.” Talking about sad it is that such a sports legend and great man has been felled by a “sex scandal.” Because even when the people being raped are 10 year old kids, rape culture still doesn’t recognize that rape is not sex.
The athletic director and other officials who knew about the “inappropriate contact” felt it was serious enough to ban a man who ran a children’s charity from ever bringing kids on campus, but not serious enough to inform campus police, or any police at all. They only took steps needed to move the abuse off campus. That’s it. And they admit even that restriction was completely unenforceable.
It’s all so familiar. I can’t help but read that and think of SGM pastors declaring that “no abuse ever occurred on church property,” as though that’s a point in their favor. As though that’s a defense for harboring and covering up for abusers.
All they cared about was protecting their own and protecting the reputation and interests of the university.
Also familiar: the way adults who I want to feel should have known better repeatedly responded as though telling a child rapist to just stay away from children would be sufficient to address things. The police officer who HEARD Sandusky admit to showering naked with an 11 year old child and “maybe” groping him, later simply “advised Sandusky not to shower with any child again.” ADVISED him.
The Penn State officials who only told Sandusky not to bring kids on campus, as though that was the root of the problem.
The SGM pastors who tell known abusers not to be alone with kids at church events, and think that’s enough.
Who are far from the only pastors who think they can manage pedophiles by telling them to just say no to being around kids.
And then there are the racial and class aspects of this case.
Apparently most of the boys Sandusky is known to have abused are black. He found his victims through a charity he founded to serve “troubled” and “underprivileged” children, many of whom were foster kids and from single parent homes. Like most abusers he looked for opportunity and vulnerability. It’s not a coincidence that he targeted and groomed kids who were economically disadvantaged, were in rough and perhaps abusive family situations, or were being raised by single parents who probably had to work constantly and might have seen Sandusky’s organization as a safe space for their children when they couldn’t be there. He took them to NFL games. He gave them gifts. He gave them the attention and time that for various reasons they didn’t get at home, or their parents didn’t have to give.
eta (11/9): The race of Sandusky’s victims has not been confirmed. However, I’m leaving the rest of the post as written for the sake of transparency and because 1) Sandusky still targeted poor kids, kids with single parents, foster kids – demographics that are disproportionately black and brown – and “underprivileged” and “disadvantaged” youth, labels that are frequently applied as shorthand for being black or Latin@. There’s a strong likelihood that his victims were disproportionately children of color. 2) Relatedly, the point about institutional privilege and power being linked to whiteness and wealth still applies. It’s hard to imagine this going on for as long as it did if Sandusky had been a black university employee at a mostly white institution like Penn State (and a black university employee would be much less likely to have the high position and access that Sandusky did, or the capital to start a charity like The Second Mile). Original post resumes below.
eta (11/17): The New York Times reports that Sandusky “tended to choose white boys from homes where there was no father or some difficulty in the family.” As I said in my previous eta, even if Sandusky only targeted white boys (which isn’t clear from the NYT report), his own race privilege remains a factor here. It’s a factor in his being able to found a charity like The Second Mile, a factor in his being able to present himself as a mentor and role model to children of any race (men of color are not often held up as role models for white boys), and a factor in his status and position at Penn State. Again, the original post resumes below. (thanks to John for leaving a comment that brought this to my attention).
This is how privilege works. It’s how whiteness and wealth as privileged classes work. Sandusky was a wealthy white grown man who used his socioeconomic, racial, and age privilege to procure and groom black kids to rape.
Let’s be clear on this. We understand that adults who rape children are exploiting the privilege, power, and authority they have as adults over children in our society. We need to understand that whiteness and wealth are similarly constructs invested with privilege, power, and authority. Recognizing this is no more an indictment of all white people or all rich people than recognizing the reality of adult influence over children as a factor in child molestation is an indictment of all adults.
It’s not that it’s worse that Sandusky targeted black boys. It’s that it shows who the most vulnerable youth are in our society. It shows how lines of power fall in our society.
Sandusky is not the only white person who has exercised his privilege to abuse children of color. Recall the case of Frank Lombard, a white North Carolina man who adopted two black children, apparently for the purposes of raping them:
In the chat transcript, “F.L.” is asked how he got access to a child so young. “Adopted,” he replied, and said that the process was “not so hard … esp (sic) for a black boy.”
Recall the cases of Lydia Schatz and Hana Williams, two black African girls adopted by white American fundamentalist Christian families, only to be beaten and neglected to death.
And these are very specific cases of white individuals abusing black children, just one part of a much broader pattern of the systematic devaluing of black and brown children, evidenced by the shunting of black and Latin@ (Latino+Latina) children into the juvenile and adult detention systems, the way black children are funneled into and then become stuck in the foster care system, where again, there are racial imbalances in terms of who has the power, and where abuse is endemic, the underfunding and understaffing of majority black and Latin@ schools, the willingness of society at large to believe children of color are thugs, criminals, or deviants in waiting (and therefore not worthy of investing in or helping).
Yes, it matters that someone who has the capital to create a program for underprivileged kids is more likely to be white, and the kids in such a program are more likely to be children of color.
Yes, it matters that people who have the resources to adopt interracially or transnationally are more likely to be white people adopting children of color.
Not because all white adults will abuse children of color that they have access to or authority over.
Because institutional and cultural racism makes disproportionate access by white adults to children of color or non-Western children possible (the same goes for rich adults and access to children from poor backgrounds).
Because while all children are vulnerable to abuse, racism and classism make children of color even more vulnerable and defenseless.
We get that rape and other kinds of abuse are about power. We get that we have to talk about sexism and misogyny and gender inequity to talk about rape and gendered violence. We need to start getting that racism and classism are also about power and privilege and inequity and we can’t fully speak truth about violence against poor or brown people without addressing these forces.
But I have this sinking feeling that the fact that the victims were targeted because their race and class made them more vulnerable isn’t going to be part of the public conversation about this case.
Sexualized stereotypes about black women are not isolated to my former church or denomination, but rather representative of beliefs about black sexuality and family life that remain common among white evangelicals. Michael Emerson, a white sociologist of religion, writes of encountering these same attitudes in his (highly recommended!) book Divided by Faith, an examination of racial segregation in American evangelicalism and of factors in the white evangelical church that contribute to and perpetuate such segregation. [The following quotes and paraphrases from Divided by Faith can be found on pp. 100-104; emphases are mine]
For example, Emerson notes that white evangelicals often see “bad choices” on the part of black people as being primarily to blame for racial disparities between U.S. blacks and whites; among these choices are “having too many children.” He writes:
In their use of these cultural reasons [for racial inequality], white conservative Protestants do not mean patterns of behavior rooted in values (e.g., blacks have many children because they highly value large families), but rather that blacks are making poor choices (e.g., black individuals do not exercise responsibility in child-bearing, faith, or speech).
White evangelicals interviewed by Emerson repeatedly linked welfare to “bad choices” with respect to sex and family life that produce racial inequality. One woman saw unrestrained black reproduction as the problem:
So many black people have beaucoup [large numbers of] kids. I only had two because I feel as though that’s what I can afford. And, I mean, sometimes I think they just don’t use the brains God gave them.
Similarly, a Baptist woman argued that black women have children to collect welfare payments:
[She]…linked welfare to family dissolution: ‘I think ultimately it goes back to the fact that they have a lot of single parent homes. [When asked by authors why this is] Well, in a lot of instances there was no family to start with…I mean the AFDC payments. A woman gets money for each child she has and there is never a husband involved. In this area it is very common for a black girl in her late teens to be having her third or fourth baby, unmarried. My daughter works in OB (obstetrics), that is how I know. Very common, because they get their AFDC payments.
Other views offered in these interviews:
- One woman described government programs to address [black] poverty are “no different from slavery.”
- Another “was not shy in implicating the government, even while making welfare recipients seem less than admirable: “It has to be blamed on the government. The government makes it easier for somebody to sit home and collect welfare and have baby after baby.“
- Still another woman claimed that under welfare, “we have paid their [black people’s] mothers to have their fathers stay away from home.“
Emerson also found that some white evangelicals saw a feedback loop relationship between black poverty and welfare. On the one hand, “it is blacks who, perhaps because they are seen as having less initiative or moral fortitude, are more likely to receive welfare” (despite the fact that the majority of Americans on welfare are in fact white). But at the same time “it was common to link welfare directly to the demise of individual initiative and responsibility among African Americans.” In other words, there’s circular reasoning at work here: black people are more likely to be on welfare because of lack of initiative, and welfare creates lack of initiative in black people.
As the quotes above show, most white evangelicals Emerson interviewed cited “choice” rather than natural lack of ability as the reason for racial disparities between blacks and whites. Yet these quotes also show that “choice” is framed in such a way as to be almost indistinguishable from “natural” racial inferiority. When you see an entire race as habitually “not using the brains God gave them” or habitually choosing “the easy way out” of “taking” government support (which, again, is really not so easy as some imagine), and habitually choosing not to provide for their families, make “moral” decisions about family life, or exercise sexual or reproductive self-control – when you see an entire race as suffering because of habitual “bad choices” you’ve framed “choice” as something that so completely characterizes a group of people that it’s not much different from a natural trait.
Bringing this back to the notion of “true womanhood,” then, the implication of the attitudes Emerson describes is that black women flout the norms of “real” femininity so regularly and to such a degree that we are basically not real women. Or at the very least, the “realness” of our femininity is always in question in the cultural context of predominantly white evangelicalism. We have to prove, in a different way and to a different extent than white women in the same contexts, our sexual “purity,” our competence and maturity as mothers and wives in a patriarchal (and white privileging) system, and our ability to show a submissive, “gentle and quiet” spirit in a context where black women are stereotyped as loud, unruly, and uncouth. The bar for showing ourselves to be “real women” is higher (and as other commenters have pointed out, similar stereotypes and double standards apply to Latina women in the white church).
More thoughts on the interviews in Emerson’s Divided by Faith in the next post on this topic.
Growing up, I had to make sense of two divergent messages I heard about female sexuality. On the one hand, there was the constant refrain about “Women” as a monolithic, universal category, utterly separate and distinct from “Men.” This idea was pounded into our heads through every possible means: in sermons and books, at conferences and bible studies, in magazines and constant exhortations to the “ladies” about the importance of modesty and to “the men” about fighting lust.
And of course it pervaded church culture and family life in less official but also powerful ways: the joking-but-not-really comments from boys and men about whom they would “allow” to court their female relatives, and the dire consequences awaiting any man who dared to touch their sister or daughters without prior approval. The warnings to girls and women that we must withhold sex from men in order to lure them into marriage. The pervasive refusal to even consider the possibility that women might want to have sex – even, horrors, outside of marriage – and the complementary assumption that men were always and only really interested in straight sex.
The message was pretty clear: the bedroom for men, the altar for women. End of story.
Except the story wasn’t so simple for me. At the same time that I was being taught to equate “true” femininity with chastity and sexual reticence, I was also learning that many people I went to church with saw black women as having a habitually unchaste and voracious sexuality. A similar disconnect existed between the notion that “women” are nurturing, warm, oriented towards family and the home, and on the other hand, pernicious stereotypes of black mothers as neglectful, irresponsible, unfit parents who either lacked or rejected “normal” maternal sentiment and behavior.
Offhand comments from pastors and church members alike, snide asides, jokes in which black female sexuality was a frequent punchline, and widespread willingness to pontificate about the moral and cultural failings of black communities made it unmistakably clear that the prevailing assumptions about black women stood in sharp contrast to everything I was told came naturally to “Women.”
These are some of the messages I heard about black female sexuality (hopefully unnecessary disclaimer: this is a description, not a statement of agreement on my part with any of the moral judgments that follow!):
– Black girls and women are sexually active early, often, and with multiple partners.
– Corollary: black girls and women can usually be assumed to be sexually active, or soon to become sexually active, with no information or evidence for this apart from their blackness.
– Black girls and women are unrestrained and irresponsible with both sexuality and reproduction, e.g.: black women become parents at a very young age, are usually single or unmarried parents, have large numbers of children, fathered by different men who are seldom involved in parenting their kids.
– Corollary: black girls and women in public with children can be assumed to be single parents of those children, with no information or evidence for this apart from their blackness.
– Black mothers do not adequately provide for their children, are often unemployed by choice and on public assistance.
– Corollary: older black girls or women with children in public can be assumed to be unwed parents of those children supported by the hard-earned money that the government steals from hardworking, white, married people pay in taxes. In other words, black women suspected of being unwed parents are also lazy mooches (never mind that the majority of people on welfare are white Americans, never mind that being on welfare is hardly the primrose path conservatives seem to imagine).
– Black mothers are neglectful, lazy, and abusive in their parenting.
In short, I was left to reconcile the following contradictory messages:
“woman” = “natural” and “God-given” sexual reticence, “natural” desire for marriage and “the home” as boundaries that contain sexuality and reproduction, and “natural” desire to submit to male “leadership.”
“black woman” = hypersexuality, reproductive excess, parental neglect, and the absence of husband/father figures (in other words, the absence of patriarchal covering and authority).
On top of all that, these negative stereotypes were so strongly associated with blackness as to make them seem almost like an innate racial trait. People widely assumed that these behaviors could be taken for granted as characterizing random black women they saw in public, or on TV. Unsurprisingly, these assumptions also affected how black girls and women who weren’t strangers, but part of the church community, were perceived and treated by the white majority of the congregation and even by other black members. These stereotypes so strongly shaped how the church viewed black women inside and outside the community that they rose to the level of “just how black people are.”
As I’ll discuss in the next post, these stereotypes were not isolated to my church or my denomination (or to Christians in general, to be fair); rather, they were representative of beliefs about black people and especially black women that are still quite common among white religious conservatives.
I came across this video by Jamilah Lemieux, aka Sister Toldja, on how cultural assumptions about race and gender shape the way we respond on a societal level to teen pregnancy. My comments are directly below; click to jump to the transcript.
There’sa lot to be unpacked in this clip, but it particularly brought to mind a similar and consistent racial double standard in how white conservative Christian culture generally frames the relationship between gender and sexuality. “Real” femininity is often defined in a way that almost inherently excludes women of color – and indeed, all women fall outside an extremely narrow and privileged ideal of what “true womanhood” is.
One example of this is the ideas the abstinence movement puts forward about what women “naturally” want when it comes to sex and relationships. Abstinence advocates argue for a binary, complementarian understanding of gender, sexuality, and intimacy. Men, they argue, want sex (with women) and women want relationships (with men). Women don’t really want sex – certainly not compared to how much men want sex – and are thus more capable of resisting sexual temptation than men. See, for instance, one church’s guide to a popular complementarian book on sex and relationships which claims that “sexual purity [is] easier for women than for men.” [source: Study guide to Doing Things Right in Matters of the Heart by John Ensor]
Women have sex outside of marriage, the story goes, not because we want to, but because we are either pressured into it, or tricked into believing that sex will bring what all women really want – emotional intimacy, commitment, and security, all provided by a man. None of these things, of course, can really exist outside the commitment (read: contract) of heterosexual marriage, because a man who’s already getting sex has no reason to provide a woman with any of that stuff. Or, to cite a charming quote from the aforementioned complementarian relationship manual: “If it’s harder to drag men to the altar today than it used to be one reason is that they don’t have to stop there on the way to the bedroom.”
Marriage, under this model, is basically an institution divinely designed as an exchange of commodities between husband and wife, to allow them to both get what they really want out of each other. The husband gives relational love and commitment to the wife in exchange for her giving him sex. It’s all very romantic.
The story continues that true women need to be protected from men’s voracious sexual appetites until marriage, so we’re not roped into sex we don’t really want without getting anything for it in return. True, godly men therefore have to exert herculean levels of self-control to shelter women from male sexual desire – to keep us from being “defrauded” and having our purity sullied: “If a chaste man is protecting women, what is an unchaste man doing?” Incidentally – if the idea that men have to work really hard not to have sex with women sounds like it borders on rape apologism to you, you’re not wrong. The very next sentence in the guide: “Does it make any difference if the woman is willing?” Implied answer: no.
Yet somehow women are still far more to blame if premarital sex does occur, because, after all, men can barely control their sexual passions to begin with. The burden is more on women to exercise sexual self-control because they are “naturally” more capable of such self-control: “How is a woman’s sexual self-control a powerful force in society? What happens to a society when its women do not exercise sexual self-control?” [Study guide]
This is the dynamic that produces the gendered double standard that Lemieux describes. Teen girls and unmarried women are overwhelmingly the focus of moral panic and concern trolling about out of wedlock pregnancy in the abstinence movement (as in mainstream culture) – not boys or men – because the idea is that as the ones more capable of sexual self-control, women shoulder more of the responsibility for (it’s assumed) agreeing to the sexual contact that led to pregnancy. Because it is believed that boys and men almost can’t help but act on their sexual desires (for women), male heterosexuality is unquestioned and unchallenged; we erase men from the picture of teen pregnancy even though they are equal participants in sex.
The focus is instead placed on women as the ones who could have prevented sex from taking place – who should have acted as gatekeepers. Because real women don’t want sex, any evidence of female sexual desire or activity must be challenged and punished. So it produces a situation where the same action on heterosexual desire is completely understandable and gets a pass for the male partner, but is condemned, interrogated, worried over, and punished for the female partner.
Accordingly, much of the policy the abstinence movement advocates disproportionately seeks to punish girls and women for being sexually active – opposing HPV vaccines for girls, opposing access to condoms, birth control, abortion, and other family planning information and services, opposing social programs that help young and/or single mothers to provide for their families, that provide their children with vital educational and after school services, that allow them to manage their fertility and plan their family size as they see fit. Underlying all of this is the mindset that women need to face consequences for choosing to be sexually active – and a mindset that refuses the acknowledge the reality that many women, including many teen girls, are coerced, assaulted, or raped and that these all factor into teen pregnancy and other issues conservatives claim to be so concerned about.
In sum, the abstinence movement claims that women are naturally chaste in comparison to men, who really have to work long and hard at chastity. But as I’ll discuss in the next post, the same conservative Christian culture that pushes abstinence also frequently stereotypes of women of color – especially black women – as habitually promiscuous, hypersexual, and generally unable or unwilling to exert any sort of self-control in how we express our sexuality. When you juxtapose this idea that women of color are naturally unchaste with the notion that “true women” are naturally chaste, the clear message this sends is that women of color are not really women.
My name is Jamilah Lemieux, and I’m a freelance writer.
Tell us about your article.
My article is called “Becky’s [got a] baby.”
I’ve found that the…increase in media attention around teen pregnancy has, there’s been a change in narrative, and it’s gone from…the poor minority girl who has somehow failed society and failed her family to… the unlucky, unfortunate young white woman who’s worthy of our sympathy. And I don’t think it’s fair. I think that any young woman who’s in that position deserves the same level of sympathy and support. And you know, it’s really interesting that when the face of teen pregnancy was a Black or Hispanic young mother [clip of a black infant and a young black woman] …it was this thing for shame, and darkness, and now that it’s, you know, we’re seeing more white women in the media who are doing it, it’s something to be not celebrated, but examined more carefully.
What roles do race & gender play when discussing teen pregnancy in the media?
The media is a lot easier on young white women who find themselves pregnant as teens compared to black girls, or hispanic girls, or women from any other ethnic group. As far as gender goes, young men are largely left out of the conversation, which doesn’t make sense, because you can’t have a teen pregnancy without a boy or a young man who’s also participated. So we’re blaming the girls, or now we’re being a little bit more sympathetic, but we’re not examining the reasons that both genders have chosen to either be sexually irresponsible, or are simply misinformed, and don’t understand what they could have done to protect themselves or to prevent a pregnancy. We’re not talking about the possibility that, you know, a lot of young women are coerced by boyfriends, you know, some of whom are older than they are, not to wear condoms or to engage in sex before they’re ready. So there’s a lot of factors at hand that lead to young women getting pregnant, and unfortunately we’re only talking about a certain segment of the population now. We’re leaving out the brown girls and the boys.
How is the growing popularity via the media affecting society at large?
I think that now that the face…of the teenage mother has become white, thanks to MTV’s 16 and pregnant and Teen Mom, it has become more acceptable [clips of white infants, white teens and teen parents]. I’m not necessarily convinced that it’s…encouraging young women to get pregnant, but there have been stories of young girls who allegedly have timed their pregnancies to try to get a spot on one of those shows. I think it’s good to alleviate the stigma of shame surrounding teen motherhood, and if we have to through a white face to have that done, then there is some beenfit to it, but I just think that the conversation that we need to have about why young women across socioeconomic lines, across racial lines, and young men, are engaging in high risk sexual behavior. That conversation needs to be had.
What do you want people to take from your piece?
I hope people will understand or… be reminded that we’re not post-racial at all. Some of the things that may seem like progress, such as…ending the stigma or lessing the stigma surrounding teen mothers is also a reminder that we still have leaps and bounds when it comes to managing race in this country. Because again, if the…young women and girls on the teen mothers show were black or hispanic or asian, they wouldn’t be on the cover of people magazine [images of white teen parents in People magazine; images of Bristol Palin]. We wouldn’t be looking at them to be reality celebrities and we wouldn’t have the same level of sympathy towards them. Maybe I would or you would, but you know, people that follow those shows religiously either wouldn’t, or they’d be watching to say, “Well, look at what these black girls are doing,” and “They’re tearing down the moral fiber of this country,” and it probably somehow would become reason to discuss why Barack Obama shouldn’t be president. So I just hope that people understand that this new wave of discussion about teen pregnancy is revealing a lot more than we think, and that it’s not just about teen sexuality.
Thoughts on XhibitP?
I think the biggest thing when using art as social activism is to inspire conversation…and that conversation leads to action. So someone may watch this and totally disagree with me, or with someone else that they’ve seen interviewed, and someone may have some sort of paradigm shift, or someone may just be convinced that everything is ok and we’re just wasting our time here. But ultimately, movements like this can be…the catalyst to inspire people to action. So I hope that anyone that’s checking out XhibitP for the first time becomes a longtime supporter.
[outro of Lemieux talking and laughing]
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