Guest post: Is feminist analysis of child sexual abuse lacking?

Trigger warning: child sexual abuse, rape culture.

Over at Tumblr, Toranse raised some important questions about whether child rape and sexual abuse have been adequately addressed in feminist discussions of rape culture. As she points out, much of feminist discussion of rape centers issues of consent that don’t apply to children. Similarly, feminist critique of the relationship between patriarchy and rape culture doesn’t often look at the role of patriarchy in abusive family or domestic contexts when children are the victims (as opposed to spouses or intimate partners).

I think Toranse is absolutely right that there’s a real need for feminist analysis of child rape and sexual abuse as product of patriarchy and rape culture distinct from rape and sexual assault of adults. I know of only one book, Christianity and Incest by Annie Imbens and Ineke Jonker, that talks about the relationship between patriarchy (and Christian patriarchy specifically) and child sexual abuse. I’m sure there are other books and articles on the topic, but my impression is that there aren’t many. It’s certainly not a topic I’ve seen specifically addressed much on many mainstream feminist blogs.

Toranse has given me permission to share her thoughts here. Please read and share them.


In all of the feminist discussions surrounding rape and rape culture when is there an examination of child sexual abuse?

Heck, in feminist discussions, when is there an examination of child abuse in general?

I feel like this is still a subject that not even social justice circles pay attention to at the same critical level as other topics. And I can’t help but wonder why that is.

Think about it: in discussions of rape culture, feminism tries to center the discussion on the rapist and on society at large.

But in discussions of child abuse, there is still far too much emphasis on training children on how to avoid those situations. Hell, not even that – most of the literature I’ve seen aimed at children is about how to deal with it as and/or after it has happened.

How messed up is that? Children – with the least amount of power – somehow have to figure out how to handle child abuse all on their own.

And I wonder how much ageism – that dreaded -ism that is so well-mocked when it comes to children – is at play here. Because talking about the things that cause child abuse and the ways to prevent it – that don’t involve blaming the child – mean that we have to talk possibly about ourselves. How we contribute to it. We’re the adults, right? We’re the ones in power over children.

This will sound mean, but I’m including myself to – I wonder how much is is that children are not us. Discussions of rape and rape culture; these are things, that as a group of older teenagers/adults…we go through. These are personal and close to us. But some seven year old abused kid is probably not going to come on to an online forum or any place for discussion and talk about the abuse they’re going through.

I’ve seen discussions on child abuse as it relates to class. I’ve seen arguments on child abuse that are classiest while saying they’re not, because they argue that bringing up child abuse is inherently classiest; as though we can’t talk about child abuse for free of offending the poor people who obviously abuse their children.

I’ve seen discussions on child abuse as it relates to unemployment. Cold, clinical ones, as though it’s just something that “happens.” “Oh hey, lose your job, smack your kid, whatever.”

I’ve seen discussion on child abuse centered on how the child can prevent it. The only thing good in discussions like those is the possibility of equipping children with vocabulary to describe their experiences. But rarely is there anything out there of any worth. Most of the books I’ve seen (of course, this is only based on what I’ve shelved in the library) are walking a line between “how to tell children while still keeping them innocent” and failing miserably at telling anything of any worth.

I’ve seen discussions on adults complicit in child abuse – family members, teachers, etc. But where is the discussions on the abusers themselves? On how we structure our families, on the way that the patriarchy and ageism affect this? Where is the serious look at child abuse and the ways to combat it?

Do we not have the answers to these questions? Because I feel as though everything is structured for discussions on the aftermath of child physical and sexual abuse. Like everything out there is only places to help you patch up the wounds while we don’t even think about even just considering how we might discuss the causes and ways society needs to change to at least lessen abuse. Is all there is just fixing it up and turning a blind eye when it happens?

Are there no answers or have we just never started looking for them?

Because those are discussions I’d like there to be more of. The abuse of children – all of it, physical, mental, emotional, sexual, all of it – that’s something I think the feminist and social justice circles should focus a lot of attention on. Far, far more than there currently is.

(Child abuse and feminism)

Toranse follows up on these thoughts here:

I don’t fault feminism for focusing on rape. I just want my experiences to be included in these discussions as well.

Hell, there’s still way to much of lumping all childhood sexual abuse as “molestation.” Have you seen that? Cause I’ve seen that far too much and I think it’s an attempt to sanitize it. I wasn’t just ‘molested’ I was raped. And being raped was part of the whole experience of sexual abuse.

I feel like what’s expected of me is to just fit myself into current discussions of rape and rape culture. But sexual abuse is different, it doesn’t function in the same way and I feel like those things need to be addressed.

For instance: grooming. There is no way there is any room to discuss grooming in current feminist contexts. At all. And hell, I needed the “coercion is not consent” conversation LONG before we ever had it because seriously, “yes means yes and no means no” things just DON’T mean ANYTHING when you were a toddler when it started.

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About Penn State

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.


How SGM’s Covenant Life Church and Fairfax Covenant Church deal with sexual abuse

Extreme trigger warning: child sexual abuse, details of child molestation, spiritual abuse, victim blaming, and enabling of abuse perpetrators. 

I don’t really know where to start with this, so I’ll just cut to the chase. In the past week, two more accounts of sexual abuse of children at SGM churches – this time at Covenant Life Church (CLC) – have been made public. In both cases, CLC pastors were primarily concerned with the preserving the comfort and reputation of the perpetrators, as well as the reputation of their own church. In both cases the pastors put pressure on the victims’ families to handle the abuse “internally” – i.e., within the church and without the involvement of the police – and, when charges were pressed in both cases, to make statements in support of “leniency” for the perps. In both cases the pastors pressured the victims and their families to forgive and pursue “reconciliation” with the abusers.

Both accounts are at SGM Survivors. I’ve linked them below and have also posted, below the jump, excerpts that highlight the most egregious abuses of pastoral authority in these cases.

  • ExCLCer’s account of her mother’s husband’s sexual abuse of his 11 year old daughter (and ExCLCer’s half-sister) in the late 1980s.
  • SGMnot’s account of a teenage boy’s sexual abuse of her  3 year old daughter, 1993.

In one case, the perpetrator, a man who abused his preteen daughter and went to jail for it, is now out of jail and back in membership at CLC. He’s remarried in the church and has regular access to children and teenagers – his children with his current wife, and teenagers in a band that he manages. In the other case, the perpetrator was a teenage boy who is now an adult and, as of a few years ago, was still a member of CLC as an adult.

In other words, there are at least two child molesters who are/have recently been in membership at CLC without the informed consent of the congregation. One of them has regular access to teenagers who most likely have no knowledge of his history of abusing children.

Additionally, this whole time, SGM leaders have been “preaching into people’s lives” and “modeling godliness for them” – i.e., lecturing people about how they should live their lives, down to the last detail, and manipulating and terrorizing people with teachings that turn the most harmless preferences, emotions, and actions into horrible sins. This whole time they’ve been disciplining people and making people feel like crap for the smallest infractions, in the name of “pastoral care.”

And over the same time, they’ve been concealing knowledge of sexual abuse in their church. They’ve imposed gags and forced forgiveness on victims and their families. They’ve exposed their congregations to unbelievable risk by hiding the presence of rapists and predators in the church. They’ve decided that when it comes to sexual abuse, the reputation of the church and the perpetrators are what need protecting, not victims, not their families, not the congregation.

They’ve been keeping people under fear and control with their bullshit on living holy lives the whole time they were working hard to make rapists feel more comfortable in their churches.

These incidents took place around 20-25 years ago. Cue the defenses from SGM leaders that they happened “a long time ago” and were “mistakes,” but now they’ve changed. No. This is bullshit.

First off, 20 years is NOT that long ago. Secondly, time is not a defense for evil actions when the perpetrators have never willingly acknowledged their actions or that they were evil. Most importantly, these “long ago” incidents are part of an ongoing pattern of pastoral victim blaming and abuse enabling in SGM. The responses of the pastors at CLC are very similar to incidents as recent as 2007 of pastoral mismanagement of abuse cases at SGM’s Fairfax Covenant Church (FCC): Noel and Grizzly’s story, 1998 and Happymom and Wallace’s story, 1998 and 2007.

Once again, after years of pretending the ex-SGM blogs didn’t exist in public while smearing them as lies, gossip, and slander in private, SGM pastors have now been forced to admit that the blog’s accounts of sexual abuse at the Fairfax church are substantially true. Mark Mullery, the senior pastor at FCC, recently “confessed” to his congregation that the pastors did, in fact, isolate victims and their families and fail to provide them with support, treat them as being in a “conflict” with the perpetrators that needed to be “reconciled,” and pressure them into concealing the identity of perpetrators and even that someone perpetrated any abuse in the first place.

Mullery, of course, doesn’t quite state things in these terms. He doesn’t touch the allegations that the pastors pressured victims into avoiding legal recourse or being character witnesses for the perpetrators. He glosses over the real implications of the actions of the pastors. He puts on a performance about how sad and full of regret he is – and before anyone calls me judgmental or a cynic for saying his sadness is insincere, please keep in mind that FCC pastors and other SGM leaders have, for the past two years, been telling members who raised questions about these cases that the victims’ families were lying, and that the blogs were slander. Please keep in mind that Mullery is only “confessing” some of the truth at a time when SGM is in the middle of a scandal that has countless members angry, seriously questioning their leaders, and ready to leave their churches en mass. Please keep in mind that not only all of SGM, but much of the evangelical blogosphere is now aware of the ex-SGM blogs and reading accounts like SGMnot and exCLCer’s stories – and aware that these blogs have far more credibility than SGM leadership has claimed.

This is the context for this “apology.” SGM and FCC are being forced by internal pressure from members and negative external  publicity to finally acknowledge these issues. Confessing “mistakes” when you no longer have a choice but to address them is not a sincere apology.

This is an apology and promise of change that is forced by negative pressure and attention. Two questions: How can anyone know the pastors actually believe they did anything wrong? How can anyone know the pastors actually understand why what they did was wrong?

The answer to both is that we can’t know. But I would bet money that they don’t believe they did anything terribly wrong, and they don’t have any clue why anyone would think otherwise. There’s nothing in Mullery’s statement that indicates anything beyond superficial understanding that they finally got caught, that people are angry and want to hear that they are sorry and will change.

This is not good enough. Not by a long shot.

Here’s the thing. Pastors have real power, influence, and authority over their congregations, and this is especially true in authoritarian and hierarchical organizations like Sovereign Grace. People look to their pastors for support and guidance in getting through difficult periods in their lives. People trust their pastors to tell them how to live in general, how to relate to others, how to raise their children and relate to their spouses and families, how to make huge life decisions. And they trust that their pastors aren’t just like any old friend they’d go to for advice, but people who have knowledge of higher spiritual truths, knowledge of God – and therefore to some extent speak FOR God.

This is a HUGE amount of power. It’s a virtually unparalleled level of trust.

So when pastors deal with victims of sexual abuse and their families, they’re coming into a situation where the things they say and do have incredible power and influence behind them, and have incredible potential to either support and help victims, or further traumatize them. By the same token, their actions can weigh powerfully in favor of bringing perpetrators to justice and whatever rehabilitation is possible, and keeping other members of the church safe from them, or in favor of protecting rapists and predators, enabling their abuse, and preserving their access to unwitting future victims.

Here is what pastors at FCC and CLC have used this power to tell victims and their families:
– Keep abuse secret and protect the identities of abusers.
– Naming your abuser is gossip and slander and unforgiveness.
– Don’t go to the police. Don’t pursue legal recourse.
– The legal and personal ramifications for the abuser are more important than the damage the abuser did to you.
– You are obligated to forgive abusers, and do so virtually instantly.
– You are sinning if you remain angry about their abuse for more than a matter of days.
– Sexual abuse doesn’t really cause long-term psychological trauma (and therefore you don’t really need care or help from us and you might even be sinning by still experiencing flashbacks, nightmares, and other effects).

Again, this is coming from people who victims and families have been taught to believe speak on behalf of God. That they are men of God. When pastors say all this, the implication is that God is saying this. Some families will believe this and accept it. But even for families who don’t accept that God, e.g., cares more about an abuser’s reputation than about their trauma, these messages add to their trauma them by forcing them to choose between their faith (as presented by people they have trusted to instruct them in the faith) and their healing and wellbeing.

This is spiritual abuse. It is a real form of abuse. I can’t state strongly enough that it is a real form of abuse to tell people who have invested unbelievable levels of trust in pastors as their spiritual leaders that their trauma doesn’t matter to God – not as much as the comfort of their abusers or their ability to “get over” the trauma, anyway. This is actual abuse and it causes further trauma to people who have experienced abuse.

And it’s rampant in Christian churches. It’s endemic in Sovereign Grace Ministries. It’s not an accident, and it’s not a mistake. This keeps happening because this is what the pastors really believe about abuse. This is the culture they have fostered – one where survivors of abuse are hounded out of the church, and abusers are perfectly happy staying.

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John Piper on sex and “masculine leadership”

Trigger warning: rape/sexual assault, transphobia.

So I was listening to a podcast (disclaimer: not feminist, LGB or T friendly, or sex-positive in any way, and only referenced as a source of information and not as an endorsement of the content) about John Piper’s teachings on sexuality in marriage, which discussed the passage below from Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the complementarian bible edited by Piper and Wayne Grudem, a prominent reformed evangelical and complementarian theologian.

This excerpt on what “mature masculinity” looks like in “romantic sexual relations” (what a quaint term) manages to be rapey, hetero and gender normative, transphobic, misogynist, and damaging to female, male, and non-binary sexuality all in one go. I’m not sure I have the strength or stomach to unpack it in full, so I’ll just make some brief comments on the dangerous falsehoods about gender and sexuality in this passage.

Mature masculinity expresses its leadership in romantic sexual relations by communicating an aura of strong and tender pursuit.

This is very difficult to put into words. But sexual relations are so basic to human life we would be delinquent not to at least try to say how masculinity expresses itself here.

It is the mingling of tenderness with strength that makes the unique masculine quality of leadership in sexual relations. There is an aura of masculine leadership which rises from the mingling of power and tenderness, forcefulness and affection, potency and sensitivity, virility and delicateness. It finds expression in the firmness of his grasp, the strength of taking her in his arms, the sustaining of verbal adoration, etc. And there are a hundred nuances of masculine pursuit that distinguish it from feminine pursuit.

What exactly does Piper mean by “forcefulness” here? It’s a very dangerous word to leave undefined when talking about sex, especially given Piper’s insistence that forcefulness, power, strength, etc., and “strong and tender pursuit” are absolutely necessary to “mature” masculine sexuality. The idea that a “real man” forcefully pursues a woman for sex, and that his masculinity is expressed in grasping a woman firmly and taking her strongly into his arms undermines the importance of the woman’s consent – of mutual consent – in a sexual relationship.

It is important to say that there is, of course, a feminine pursuit in sexual relations. This is why the word “initiate” is not an exact way of describing masculine leadership in sexual relations. The wife may initiate an interest in romance and may keep on initiating different steps along the way. But there is a difference. A feminine initiation is in effect an invitation for the man to do his kind of initiating. In one sense then you could say that in those times the man is responding. But in fact the wife is inviting him to lead in a way as only a man can, so that she can respond to him.

Again, there’s a lot of dangerous vagueness here. How does a woman “invite” a man to initiate sex with her? With the clothes she wears? The way she walks? A look? Piper doesn’t say, and his later comment that “mature femininity” means being “sensually receptive (vs. prudish)” gives no more clarity on the question. Without any specifics given, the idea that ‘real men’ pick up on subtle cues that women want to have sex with them veers dangerously close to the misogynist trope that women solicit sexual contact – “ask for it” – in ways that don’t involve, you know, actually asking for or explicitly consenting to sex. To put it bluntly, these are the kinds of assumptions that perpetuate rape culture: that all women want men to “pursue” them sexually; that women want sex even when they don’t say so; a woman would rather leave it up to a man to figure out if she wants to have sex than say so herself.

No amount of semantic gymnastics can hide the fact that Piper is saying “real women” don’t ask for or initiate sex. Women are being taught to be ashamed of wanting to initiate sex, or wanting to be explicit about what they want sexually. Men are being taught to be threatened by female expression of sexual desire, and to be threatened by wanting to be desired. You become less than a “real man” if you want your wife to be explicit about finding you sexually desirable. In effect, any sexual desire not expressed by men for women is to be denied and suppressed. Such arbitrary limitations on the expression of human sexuality are very damaging both to men and women in heterosexual relationships, completely deny the possibility of legitimate non-hetero sexual expression, and erase the existence of people of non-binary gender (i.e., neither or not completely male or female).

It will not do to say that, since the woman can rightly initiate, therefore there is no special leadership that the man should fulfil [sic]. When a wife wants sexual relations with her husband she wants him to seek her and take her and bring her into his arms and up to the pleasures that his initiatives give her.

Have I mentioned that it’s extremely disempowering for women (for anyone, really) not to be able to enthusiastically and vocally express a desire for and right to pleasure? And that it’s also disempowering to have to wait around for someone else to figure out how to bring you “up to” pleasure instead of being a full participant in making that happen? Yea, it is.

Consider what is lost when women attempt to assume a more masculine role by appearing physically muscular and aggressive. It is true that there is something sexually stimulating about a muscular, scantily clad young woman pumping iron in a health club. But no woman should be encouraged by this fact. For it probably means the sexual encounter that such an image would lead to is something very hasty and volatile, and in the long run unsatisfying. The image of a masculine musculature may beget arousal in a man, but it does not beget several hours of moonlight walking with significant, caring conversation. The more women can arouse men by doing typically masculine things, the less they can count on receiving from men a sensitivity to typically feminine needs. Mature masculinity will not be reduced to raw desire in sexual relations. It remains alert to the deeper personal needs of a woman and mingles strength and tenderness to make her joy complete.

Oh dear god. First off, super creepy. Secondly, there’s so much wrong here it’s difficult to know where to start.
– Women should decide what exercise to engage in based on what it makes men want or expect from them sexually. Right. Not self-absorbed or misogynist at all.
– Being muscular = being masculine. Implicit assumption: whether or not you are a real woman (or a real man) depends on how you look. This is gender essentialist and extremely transphobic. Gender is a personal identity, it’s not dependent on the presence or absence of muscles, or genitalia, or any other physical characteristic.
– (Real?) Men are constitutionally incapable of having romantic relationships with muscular women, apparently.
– No (real?) woman could ever possibly be interested in having sex with someone without any expectation of or desire for romance.
– Romance is a “feminine need.” Women who want sex without romance are not real women. Men who need romance are not real men. Men who don’t need or want sex, well, they don’t even exist.

Pro tip, John Piper: lots of women are quite fond of sex.


Brandon Davies and BYU’s strange definition of “honor”

LDS (Mormon) owned Brigham Young University just dismissed Brandon Davies, a key player on their #3 ranked men’s basketball team, for violating the school’s honor code. Davies was apparently dismissed because he and his girlfriend had premarital sex. Amazingly, a number of otherwise liberal bloggers and mainstream media figures who are applauding BYU for “sticking to their principles” in this case (including Jon Stewart, for heaven’s sake). Many are also castigating Davies for breaking a “contract” and “letting his teammates down.” Um, no. Fail.

BYU’s right to define its own rules doesn’t make those rules or how they’re applied inherently right, or exempt them from criticism and scrutiny. There are undoubtedly quite a lot of sexually active, unmarried students at BYU. The honor code holds up standards the school must know a large proportion of the student body won’t be able to meet, and the vast majority of people will get away with breaking. According to one BYU alum, the rules are unevenly applied; Davies may be subject to a double standard because he’s part of a nationally prominent team.

As for claims that BYU showed “integrity” and “courage” by giving up potential wins for its principles – I’m sorry, but that’s utter bullshit. It doesn’t take “courage” to turn a 19 year old into a national spectacle. It would take more courage for such a conservative institution to acknowledge that not everything is black and white, and to take a nuanced, non-judgmental approach to the situation. Or to acknowledge that maybe there’s more than one way to deal with offenses, and the harshest way is often more self-righteousness and legalism than it is thoughtful adherence to “principles.”

In order to maintain their “integrity” as a religious institution, BYU showed appalling disregard for the welfare of two young people and their families. But even if Davies were a grown man, “rules is rules” would be a shitty excuse for throwing context, nuance, or basic human decency and compassion out the window.  Is the purpose of a religious code of conduct to weed out anyone who doesn’t behave perfectly? An excuse to expose anyone who makes a mistake to national scrutiny and humiliation? Or to help people make better choices and live well? Insisting on rules for their own sake lacks compassion – it makes being human itself into a sin and a failing. Is this what passes for pastoral care at BYU?

Davies now feels he owes his teammates an apology for having consensual sex, which is just sad and awful. Funny how some churches claim to believe sexuality is an incredibly private thing but still put it on such public display. Apparently that’s only bad if someone chooses to express themselves sexually in a not entirely private context; exposing someone’s body or sex life to public scrutiny without their consent is just fine. One wonders if the famous BYU alums who are defending the school would be willing to have their sexual histories laid out for public consumption and examined to see if they held up the honor code as students. Somehow I think not.

The bottom line is what Brandon Davies and his girlfriend have or haven’t done sexually, assuming consent, is NO ONE’S BUSINESS BUT THEIR OWN. It’s no business of the coach, the team, or the university. It’s damn sure not the country’s business. This is an inexcusable violation of the privacy and dignity of Davies, his girlfriend, and their families. They are owed an apology. Davies didn’t let his teammates, his fans, BYU, or anyone else down. The adults and the institution who are supposed to be looking out for him let him down. The awful irony is that Davies is implicitly praised for apologizing for consensual sex in the same culture where Ben Roethlisberger and myriad other athletes with a history of rape or sexual assault are under little or no pressure to apologize for their behavior (thanks to @FearlessFemme for pointing this out).

Davies is a young black man at a predominantly white institution; he belongs to a predominantly white religion (in the U.S.) with a long, documented history of institutionalized racism and white privilege. The holding up of a young black Mormon as a national example of sexual transgression has to be understood in that context, and in the broader hypersexualization of black men and other men of color in U.S. culture. Rumors that Davies’ girlfriend is white have also fueled comments, which one doesn’t have to look hard to find, speculating about her judgment, self-esteem, and even body image and weight because of her decision to date and have sex with a black man. Such comments indicate the persistence of old, ugly attitudes about racial “miscegenation” in the U.S.. It’s worth noting here that the 100+ years ban on black men in the Mormon priesthood, lifted only in 1978, is thought to have been a response to an interracial marriage between a white woman and the son of a black elder in the early years of the LDS church.

There’s also a concerning pattern here of male athletes of color coming under university scrutiny over the honor code – now at least three in the past year. Harvey Unga, a Tongan football player, and Keilani Moeaki, a women’s basketball player, voluntarily withdrew from BYU in 2010 for honor code violations presumably sexual in nature, as Moeaki gave birth to their son three months later. Michael Loyd, another black basketball player, left BYU for reasons reported by the school and its supporters to be related to discipline problems and possible honor code violations. It’s unclear at this point whether Davies will remain at BYU – whether he will be expelled, as is reported to be a possible penalty for an honor code violation of this “seriousness,” or transfer elsewhere. If he is expelled, it will raise further questions about the disposability of young black men in higher education and athletics.

I find it telling that very little concern has been expressed for Davies’ girlfriend. She’s entirely out of the picture as a stock figure and sexual objected implicitly blamed for luring Davies into making a “mistake.” We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this young woman has had her sex life turned into fodder for national debate overnight. If, like Davies, she’s also a member of the LDS church, the scrutiny may be even more damaging; in cultures like conservative Mormonism, a man might be forgiven the “indiscretion” of premarital sex or even an affair because that’s just “how men are.” Women in such cultures, by contrast, are simultaneously constructed as asexual and as natural objects of male desire, especially if they are white (women of color are often depicted as naturally hypersexual and inclined to promiscuity).

In addition to being extremely misogynist and racist, this view of gender and sexuality is also extremely heteronormative. It’s as obvious that even a “good” young man would want to have sex with a young woman as it is that any “good” young woman wouldn’t want to have sex unless she were deceived or susceptible in some way. If she wanted to have sex, she must have been bad in some way. Obviously these ideas aren’t limited to religion, and they’re some of the ideas that constitute and perpetuate rape culture. Still, they’re more explicit in patriarchal religions like Mormonism, and even codified into official teaching.

There are rumors that Davies was found out because his girlfriend is pregnant; who knows if that’s true. This certainly seems to have been a factor in Unga and Moeaki’s departures from BYU, however, and it points to incredible hypocrisy on the part of a supposedly pro-life institution. Given the school’s past behavior, unmarried student athletes who find themselves pregnant must face external pressure to terminate in order to avoid losing their scholarships. If abortion is really and truly murder – the LAST thing a pro-life religious institution should do is punish someone for getting pregnant and and not terminating. People who make the tough decision to continue an unplanned pregnancy in a context where they will be vilified and potentially lose their reputations and jobs for being sexually active should be applauded by pro-life institutions as courageous and honorable by their own internal standards, not punished and shunned.

Davies and his girlfriend shouldn’t be ashamed of having consensual premarital sex. But BYU should be ashamed of violating their privacy, making their sex lives into a spectacle, and failing to show compassion. And BYU’s defenders need to learn that “rules is rules” isn’t actually a “principled” stance at all.


Losing your virginity is like drinking spit, apparently

Trigger warning: rape/sexual assault.

You know, sometimes I feel like I’m exaggerating the awfulness of what I was taught about sex, like it couldn’t possibly be as bad as I feel it was.   After all, in addition to all the warnings about premarital sex, I did also hear a lot about how sex is a beautiful gift from God to married couples, and how married people have the best sex (in retrospect, this is kind of a weird thing for married adults to be discussing with teenagers y/y?).

Maybe the fact that I had trouble with sex when I got married has more to do with personal and family hangups than it did with anything I learned at church.  Maybe I’m assigning blame unfairly.  Then again . . .

h/t Jesus Needs New PR (warning for some potentially fatphobic language).

Then I watch clips like this, and remember that this bullshit is EXACTLY what I was taught.  That I’d be dirty and used up and unwanted if I had sex.  I remember, and I start to think it’s a fucking miracle that I ever managed to have sex with my husband at all.

Small bloody wonder so many evangelical couples find the transition into marital sexuality awkward and even traumatic.  How are you supposed to literally change your perspective on sex overnight?  Sex one night before your wedding makes you like a germy piece of candy or a cup of spit, but one night after your wedding is a beautiful and glorious gift from God?  What about the couples who buy into Joshua Harris’s ridiculous standard of saving their first kiss for their wedding day (seriously!)?  How can a couple entering marriage with virtually no experience with being physically affectionate possibly be expected to navigate such a transition without major issues?

These kinds of teachings set couples up for lousy sex lives, which make for not so great marriages.  Cis women in particular bear the brunt of teachings that they are being used and besmirched if they have sex, and many can’t magically shut off the effects of years of indoctrination.  They aren’t going to feel any less used just because they’re married to the person they’re having sex with.  They aren’t suddenly going to feel like their sexual desire or their husband’s sexual desire is any more legitimate than it was before they got married.

Abstinence advocates will say that they aren’t talking about married sex, of course.  Just premarital sex  – oh, and all non-hetero sex, and masturbation, and any sex involving trans or genderqueer people.  Kids just need to remember that only hetero cis married sex is clean and safe, and everything else is dirty and perverted.  Well.  The problem there – apart from the big, hopefully obvious one of treating something almost all humans do as shameful and wrong in all of its forms but one – is that it’s very difficult to make such a statement not come across as a blanket condemnation of sexual activity (perhaps because, um, it basically is).  The message people hear is that any sexual contact or activity is polluting and degrading, and the intense emphasis on maintaining virginity reinforces this powerfully.  A few words here and there about how beautiful marital sex is doesn’t dilute the impact of that message.  If virginity is a state of purity and self-control, then sexual activity – whether in marriage or not – is implicitly coded as impure and indulgent.

And as many survivors have attested, these teachings are incredibly damaging to people who have been raped or sexually assaulted.  The abstinence movement’s concept of virginity is framed entirely around the notion of “purity” or “impurity” of the body and the mind.  A virgin body is one that is untouched and unsullied: an unwrapped piece of candy, a rose with all its petals.  A virgin mind is “innocent” – which often is a euphemism for “ignorant” – of sexuality.  Whether sexual contact or knowledge is freely chosen or imposed on someone is immaterial in such a framework.  Coerced sexual contact doesn’t make one any less of a chewed up piece of gum. Survivors of sexual abuse from evangelical or fundamentalist families often feel used, guilty, and worthless because they are no longer “virgins” or “pure” – and they are often treated that way by Christian loved ones and fellow church members.  For example:

I had a good friend in college who had to gather a lot of courage to tell her serious boyfriend that she was not a virgin because she had been raped as a teenager. Her boyfriend then went on a tirade about how he thought he was getting something new but it turns out she was “used merchandise” and thus she cheated him. She went on to marry this guy. I still hate him.

I hope it’s been clear that my point isn’t to belittle people who choose not to have sex before marriage.  That’s a legitimate choice to make.  The point is that the way the professional abstinence movement frames virginity, premarital sex, and sexuality in general is deceitful and dangerous.  It relies on shaming tactics and misinformation, and promotes an unhealthy, negative attitude about sexualities and bodies.  And it’s not just wrong in the abstract; it’s not just a movement with terrible ideas.  It has far-reaching, negative consequences for basically everyone who’s exposed to it unarmed with accurate information.


The Cross and Sexual Abuse

Trigger warnings for sexual abuse/incest.

In “The Cross and Male Violence,” James Poling argues that patriarchal narratives of the crucifixion provide a kind of script for abusive relationships between men and women in Christian contexts, in which male abusers can take on a godlike role (all-powerful, all-knowing, to be obeyed), and female victims of abuse can play a Christlike role (obedient, subservient, suffering without complaint).  He cites Christianity and Incest, Annie Imbens and Ineke Jonker’s study of incest in Christian homes, in which female survivors of incest recounted how their religious upbringing led them to believe that being a good Christian meant they had to be resigned to their abuse and not speak out about it:

You must love your neighbor.  Not much attention was paid to standing up for yourself (Ellen).  You must always be the first to forgive and you must do so seventy times seventy times (Judith).  You must always serve, serve God.  Sexuality before and outside of marriage is bad (Margaret).  faith and standing up for yourself are conflicting concepts (Theresa).  You must sacrifice your own needs and wants, you mustn’t resist, musn’t stand up for yourself, must serve God, musn’t be your own person with your own ego (Amy). (Imbens and Jonker, 271)

Escaping the cycle of abuse is difficult in general, not just under Christian patriarchy.  However, Christian patriarchy explicitly labels suffering in silence as a virtuous emulation of Christ.  Further, it teaches that Christians must forgive anyone who sins against them – even that survivors of abuse must forgive their abusers.  Covering up or keeping silent about abuse is cast becomes righteous behavior, even a spiritual obligation.  Victims of abuse are taught to be more concerned about their abusers and how they respond to them than about their own welfare.  They learn that they are obligated to treat their abusers with love, kindness, and forgiveness, no matter what, without expecting or demanding any change in behavior, much less love or kindness in return.  This adds an additional spiritual and psychological impediment to speaking out about one’s abuse, and creates an environment that fosters enabling or dismissive responses to abuse.  Add in patriarchal teachings about men’s right to lead and women’s obligation to submit, and you have a culture that creates situations in which male violence against women is more likely to occur, more likely to be overlooked, enabled, or justified, and thus more likely to become an entrenched feature of church and family life.

The quotes below from Christianity and Incest (which I found here) explain further how theologies of male dominance and female submission in church, marriage, and family structures are intimately linked with male abuse of female partners and children in patriarchal Christian contexts:

Their Christian upbringing made these girls easy prey. Offenders used Bible passages or church-authorized texts in order to be able to abuse girls and to keep them quiet about it. Mothers were powerless to do anything about it. They were subservient to their husbands in everything, as was and still is requested of women marrying in Christian churches. (page xvi)

“In all of the interviews, the Mother is psychologically or physically abused by the father.” (page 121)

About the offender: “Father thinks boys are more important. He says so: “Good men father sons,” or he shows it in his attitude.” (page 123)

The girls try to keep their rapists away from them in every way possible. Screaming, yelling, or crying make little impression or are labeled “rebelling against Father,” for which forgiveness from God are required (Nell). ” (pages 127 – 128)

“Religion forces women to forgive their rapists, although those rapists have not asked for forgiveness. They are commanded to love their enemies. Moreover, Christian churches stress the love on one’s fellow human being so heavily that the words “as thyself” following “love thy neighbor” have very little meaning for these women.” (page 141)

“God the Father wants only the best for her. He is Almighty and merciful. When something happens to her and she wants it to stop, she must pray hard.” (page 141)

This to me is perhaps the most telling and tragic point, because it drives at the fundamental issue underlying all of these teachings that enable abuse in Christian homes: “Not one incest survivor had learned that it was important to love yourself as well.” (page 238)  In other words, these women had not been taught that they were worthy of love – not from themselves, nor from any one else.  Christian patriarchy teaches the exactly opposite – that we’re all completely unworthy of love, and that God loves us despite this.  And if their churches are anything like the ones I grew up in, they were probably taught that it was sinful to believe they deserved to be treated with basic human dignity.