Commentary Religion

Purity Culture as Rape Culture: Why the Theological Is Political

Dianna Anderson

By failing to equip women to understand their own agency and bodily autonomy, the evangelical purity movement creates an environment that is ripe for rape.

When I was 14 years old, I stood in front of my 800-member Baptist congregation with my parents as they handed me a small diamond ring we’d bought together at Walmart. Before the church body and before God, I pledged that no man shall touch my special places until after we had said “I do.” I pledged to keep pure.

Thirteen years later, I still wear the ring on my right hand, but now it is simply out of habit. It doesn’t mean anything to me anymore besides being the nicest piece of jewelry I own. I grew up in evangelical purity culture, and like many of my fellow millennial Christians, I’ve left it behind.

In evangelical America, a woman’s potential relationships and sexual choices are of paramount importance. Relationship guides and purity pledges are a cottage industry in evangelicalism, but the influence reaches far beyond just evangelicals. During the recent government shutdown and the ongoing battle over the Affordable Care Act, we’re seeing the far-reaching effects of a theology in which a woman’s purity is the most important part of her life.

Purity culture kicked off in response to two events in the mid-20th century: the sexual revolution that characterized much of second-wave feminism, and the 1973 ruling of Roe v. Wade. The return to conservatism in the 1980s saw the beginnings of a resurgence of interest in womanly purity and “biblical” gender roles. With the set roles of the 1950s forever upended, many conservative evangelicals scrambled for a foothold—and they found it in the concept of purity pledges and balls.

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The first purity ball was held in 1998 in Colorado. Today, such balls are a staple of a conservative evangelical girl’s life. Fathers and daughters dress up in their nicest outfits, and the daughters make a pledge of purity to their father and to God. In the most extreme examples, the daughter is considered under the authority of her father until the day she marries, at which point she transfers that authority to her husband.

If she remains invested in the purity movement throughout her teen years—which would mean regularly attending a typical evangelical youth service—she will be exposed to an abundance of narratives about how keeping oneself pure is a fight that must be won, that it is what God wants, and, most importantly, that her body does not belong to her, but rather to her future husband, and a lapse in purity is a betrayal of her future relationship.

That last part is an extremely important one, and one that many secular students of evangelical purity culture miss—it’s the backbone to the entire concept of purity, the theological underpinning that makes conservative evangelicals such a unique breed. Until we understand just how deeply this “You are not your own” theology is intertwined within purity culture, we will not be able to truly understand the politicians who discuss rape in horrific terms, or the reasons Christian employers see fit to interfere with their employees’ access to birth control.

Purity culture, in the evangelical world, is nothing more than an elaborate form of rape culture. But it is rape culture embedded so deeply that rooting it out requires challenging the very forms of Christology upon which many evangelicals have built their beliefs. In other words, making the change to believe in bodily autonomy and unassailable agency of the individual means changing how one views all aspects of faith. This conflict, naturally, is why traditional feminism and Christian evangelicalism are often so at odds. The challenge of bodily autonomy is, for many conservative evangelicals, anathema to their very belief structure.

To understand purity culture as rape culture, we must understand why bodily autonomy is such an issue. For the evangelical, “dying to self”—or sacrificing one’s selfishness for the greater good of the Gospel—is one of the highest honors one can have. This is often interpreted as subsuming one’s desires, one’s individuality, into the will of God. Cobbling together ideas like “God’s ways are higher than our ways,” and the Apostle Paul’s assertion that what looks like foolishness to the world is wisdom for the Christian, evangelicals lay claim to life in an “upside-down kingdom,” where being last means they’re really first.

In response to what is seen as a sex-saturated world in which women are asserting their sexual agency and exploring their sexual identities through their experiences, evangelical purity theology seeks to remind people that self-sacrifice—giving up one’s selfhood—is a Christian duty. Unfortunately, they take this so far as to believe that a wife’s body is not her own, that a woman cannot say no to her husband, and that it is sin to withhold sexual gratification from one’s partner.

You can see where this comes into conflict with a feminism that preaches enthusiastic and continued consent.

Purity culture and rape culture are two sides of the same coin. Prior to marriage, women are instructed that they must say no to sex at every turn, and if they do not they are responsible for the consequences. This method of approach—“always no”—creates situations in which women are not equipped to fully understand what consent looks like or what a healthy sexual encounter is. When the only tool you’re given is a “no,” shame over rape or assault becomes compounded—because you don’t necessarily understand or grasp that “giving in” to coercion or “not saying no” isn’t a “yes.”

In Dateable, a Christian dating guide, authors Justin Lookadoo and Hayley DiMarco reinforce the idea of women as sexual gatekeepers. Throughout the book, we read that “guys will lie to you to get what they want,” and that all guys ever want is to have sex. So it is up to the girl—as discussed in faux-feminist “girl power” terms—to say no. Which is all well and good, until you realize that, in the authors’ estimation, a girl has the power to say no up until the moment she sends the wrong signals, because men are animals who can’t control themselves. Yes, the guide literally says that:

Don’t tease the animals. Have I mentioned that guys are visual? They get turned on by what they see. … So listen: please, PLEASE don’t tease us. To show us your hot little body and then tell us we can’t touch is being a tease. You can’t look that sexy and then tell us to be on our best behavior. Check yourself – if you’re advertising sex, you’re going to get propositions. … A guy will have a tendency to treat you like you are dressed. If you are dressed like a flesh buffet, don’t be surprised when he treats you like a piece of meat.

I was raised with the idea that I didn’t have a right to my own body, and that I didn’t have the right to say yes until I was married, at which point I didn’t have the right to say no. My body was never my own, but rather the property of whatever man happened to ask me to marry him. My virginity was the most precious thing I had to offer, and it was my responsibility to protect it, and if I was coerced into “giving it away,” I would have to repent.

The purity movement not only robs women of their agency by not allowing them to say yes, it robs them of the ability to understand what it means when a “no” is not respected. By failing to equip women to understand their own agency and bodily autonomy, the evangelical purity movement creates an environment that is ripe for rape.

Sarah Moon, a blogger at the Patheos spirituality channel, has written extensively about the acceptance and promotion of rape within conservative evangelical relationship guides. She studied four different Christian dating guides, examining their treatment of consent and rape while promoting purity. She published her findings on her blog (which are being turned into an article for the Journal of Integrated Social Sciences this spring). She writes that Christian dating guides often claim to be against rape while promoting concepts and ideas that contradict this stance (emphasis hers):

the lack of consent in these books isn’t outrightly stated [sic]. It’s subtle and mixed in with language that gives the illusion that a full range of options is available to people. The book Real Marriage shocked me by including (what? no way!) some relatively healthy discussion of the issue of marital rape. The Driscolls condemn marital rape strongly (pg. 202), state that any intercourse forced on someone without consent is rape (pg. 121), and tell husbands that they should never coerce their wives into having sex (pg. 163).

There’s a catch, though.

Husbands, maybe you can’t coerce your wives into sex, but Mark Driscoll, Cage Fighting Jesus, and the Bible sure can! Women can say no to marital sex, sure. You can. But according to Real Marriage, that doesn’t mean you should or that it’s really okay for you to do so.”

A woman asserting her right to say no after the bonds of marriage have been fixed is viewed as an affront to a solid marriage. Within the evangelical church, women who assert any bodily autonomy outside what is ascribed to them by gendered theological roles are to be avoided. If they say yes before marriage, they are tempting Jezebels, luring men off the path of glory; if they saying no after marriage, they are frigid, selfish wives who will be at fault if their husband strays.

This is what many of our elected Republican officials believe. This is why we get statements about “honest rape,” or arguments that women who use birth control are sluts. This is the motivation behind several Protestant Christian colleges and Catholic hospitals suing the government in order not to provide birth control to their employees. This is why, when a rape exception to abortion bans is proposed, Christian politicians are quick to imply that women may “cry rape” to get abortion access.

Fundamentally, evangelical, right-wing politicians do not believe women have a right to their own bodies, whether that control be related to purity or rape or birth control or abortion. This is beyond simply a political issue—it is, at heart, theological. And this fight is far from over.

Commentary Contraception

For Students at Religious Universities, Contraception Coverage Isn’t an Academic Debate

Alison Tanner

When the U.S. Supreme Court sent a case about faith-based objections to the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate back to lower courts, it left students at religious colleges and universities with continuing uncertainty about getting essential health care. And that's not what religious freedom is about.

Read more of our articles on challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit here.

Students choose which university to attend for a variety of reasons: the programs offered, the proximity of campus to home, the institution’s reputation, the financial assistance available, and so on. But young people may need to ask whether their school is likely to discriminate in the provision of health insurance, including contraceptive coverage.

In Zubik v. Burwell, a group of cases sent back to the lower courts by the U.S. Supreme Court in May, a handful of religiously affiliated universities sought the right to deny their students, faculty, and staff access to health insurance coverage for contraception.

This isn’t just a legal debate for me. It’s personal. The private university where I attend law school, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., currently complies with provisions in the Affordable Care Act that make it possible for a third-party insurer to provide contraceptive access to those who want it. But some hope that these legal challenges to the ACA’s birth control rule will reverse that.

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Georgetown University Law Center refused to provide insurance coverage for contraception before the accommodation was created in 2012. Without a real decision by the Supreme Court, my access to contraception insurance will continue to be at risk while I’m in school.

I’m not alone. Approximately 1.9 million students attend religiously affiliated universities in the United States, according to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. We students chose to attend these institutions for lots of reasons, many of which having nothing to do with religion. I decided to attend Georgetown University Law Center because I felt it was the right school for me to pursue my academic and professional goals, it’s in a great city, it has an excellent faculty, and it has a vibrant public-interest law community.

Like many of my fellow students, I am not Catholic and do not share my university’s views on contraception and abortion. Although I was aware of Georgetown’s history of denying students’ essential health-care benefits, I did not think I should have to sacrifice the opportunity to attend an elite law school because I am a woman of reproductive age.

That’s why, as a former law clerk for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, I helped to organize a brief before the high court on behalf of 240 students, faculty, and staff at religiously affiliated universities including Fordham, Georgetown, Loyola Marymount, and the University of Notre Dame.

Our brief defended the sensible accommodation crafted by the Obama administration. That compromise relieves religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations of any obligation to pay for or otherwise provide contraception coverage; in fact, they don’t have to pay a dime for it. Once the university informs the government that it does not want to pay for birth control, a third-party insurer steps in and provides coverage to the students, faculty, and staff who want it.

Remarkably, officials at the religious colleges still challenging the Affordable Care Act say this deal is not good enough. They’re arguing that the mere act of informing the government that they do not want to do something makes them “complicit” in the private decisions of others.

Such an argument stands religious freedom on its head in an attempt to impose one group’s theological beliefs on others by vetoing the third-party insurance providers’ distribution of essential health coverage to students, faculty, and staff.

This should not be viewed as some academic debate confined to legal textbooks and court chambers. It affects real people—most of them women. Studies by the Guttmacher Institute and other groups that study human sexuality have shown that use of artificial forms of birth control is nearly universal among sexually active women of childbearing years. That includes Catholic women, who use birth control at the same rate as non-Catholics.

Indeed, contraception is essential health care, especially for students. An overwhelming number of young people’s pregnancies are unplanned, and having children while in college or a graduate program typically delays graduation, increases the likelihood that the parent will drop out, and may affect their future professional paths.

Additionally, many menstrual disorders make it difficult to focus in class; contraception alleviates the symptoms of a variety of illnesses, and it can help women actually preserve their long-term fertility. For example, one of the students who signed our brief told the Court that, “Without birth control, I experience menstrual cycles that make it hard to function in everyday life and do things like attend class.” Another woman who signed the brief told the Court, “I have a history of ovarian cysts and twice have required surgery, at ages 8 and 14. After my second surgery, the doctor informed me that I should take contraceptives, because if it happened again, I might be infertile.”

For these and many other reasons, women want and need convenient access to safe, affordable contraceptives. It is time for religiously affiliated institutions—and the Supreme Court—to acknowledge this reality.

Because we still don’t have an ultimate decision from the Supreme Court, incoming students cannot consider ease of access to contraception in deciding where to attend college, and they may risk committing to attend an university that will be legally allowed to discriminate against them. A religiously affiliated university may be in all other regards a perfect fit for a young woman. It’s unfair that she should face have to risk access to essential health care to pursue academic opportunity.

Religious liberty is an important right—and that’s why it should not be misinterpreted. Historically, religious freedom has been defined as the right to make decisions for yourself, not others. Religious freedom gives you have the right to determine where, how, and if you will engage in religious activities.

It does not, nor should it ever, give one person or institution the power to meddle in the personal medical decisions of others.

Analysis Human Rights

Activists Seek Justice as Verdict Looms for Officer Involved in Freddie Gray’s Death

Michelle D. Anderson

Freddie Gray, 25, died from spinal cord injuries in April 2015, a week after police arrested and took him into custody. Last year, Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby brought criminal charges against six of the officers involved with his arrest. Since then, three officers' trials have been completed without convictions.

The bench trial of Lt. Brian Rice, the highest-ranking Baltimore Police Department officer involved in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, began on Thursday, July 7. Rice faces involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, and reckless endangerment; the state dropped a misconduct charge after acknowledging Rice was not directly involved in Gray’s arrest. The closing arguments in his trial are scheduled for this Thursday; the judge is expected to share his verdict Monday.

The Rice trial started just as the public began grappling with the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling—and the subsequent murder of five police officers at a Dallas protest.

Castile and Sterling, both Black men, died during encounters with police in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, triggering nationwide protests against police brutality and implicit racial bias that have continued into this week.

And just like the days following Gray’s death, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook were flooded with images, videos, and hashtags demanding justice.

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Gray, 25, died from spinal cord injuries in April 2015, a week after police arrested and took him into custody. Activists and some Maryland legislators accused police of giving Gray an intentional “rough ride,” when inmates or persons in custody are transported in police vans without a seat belt and subjected to frantic driving, ultimately causing them injury. Last year, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby brought criminal charges against six of the officers involved with his arrest. Since then, three officers’ trials have been completed without convictions—and as activists on the ground in Baltimore wait for more verdicts, they are pushing for reforms and justice beyond the courtroom.

The first police trial, which involved charges against Officer William Porter of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and misconduct in office, ended in a mistrial in December 2015 after jurors failed to reach a verdict.

Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Glenn Williams acquitted Officer Edward M. Nero of all charges in May. Mosby had charged Nero with misconduct, second-degree assault, and reckless endangerment for putting Gray into the police van without a seat belt.

But many viewed the trial of Caesar R. Goodson Jr., who drove the van, as the most critical of the six. Last month, Judge Williams announced that Goodson, too, had been acquitted of all charges—including second-degree depraved-heart murder, the most serious of those brought against the officers.

Kwame Rose, a Baltimore activist, told Rewire he was not surprised.

“The judicial system of America shows that police are never held accountable when it comes to the death of Black people,” said Rose, who was arrested in September and December during peaceful protests related to Gray’s death.

During Goodson’s trial, Williams said there were several “equally plausible scenarios,” that could have transpired during Gray’s arrest. He also rejected the state’s argument that police intentionally gave Gray a “rough ride,”according to a New York Times account.

Ray Kelly, community relations director for the No Boundaries Coalition of West Baltimore grassroots group and a community interviewer for the West Baltimore Community Commission on Police Misconduct, said he was disappointed by the Goodson verdict. However, he noted that he was heartened by Mosby’s decision to bring criminal charges against the officers in the first place. “It’s a small change, but it is a change nonetheless,” Kelly said in a recent interview with Rewire.

In addition to the charges, Gray’s death eventually sparked a major “pattern or practice” investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Local activists, including the No Boundaries Coalition, which issued in March a 32-page report that detailed police misconduct in Baltimore and helped to trigger the DOJ, expected the findings of the DOJ investigation in late June.

However, the document has yet to be released, said Kelly, who is a native of the same West Baltimore neighborhood where Gray was detained.

Kelly is expecting a consent decree—similar to the ones in Ferguson, Missouri, and Cleveland, Ohio—and a continued partnership with federal officials in the near future.

For Kelly, the trials—and the lack of convictions—have proved what leaders in groups like the No Boundaries Coalition have been saying in their advocacy. One of those messages, Kelly said, is that the community should continue to focus less on the judicial process for theoretically punishing officers who have committed wrongdoing and more on initiating policy changes that combat over-policing.

Baltimore Bloc, a grassroots group, seemed to echo Kelly’s sentiment in a statement last month. Two days after the Goodson verdict, Baltimore Bloc activists said it was a reminder that the judicial system was not broken and was simply doing exactly what it is designed to do.

“To understand our lack of faith in the justice system, you must first recognize certain truths: the justice system works for police who both live in and out of the city; it works against Black people who come from disinvested, redlined Black communities; and it systematically ruins the lives of people like Keith Davis Jr., Tyrone West and Freddie Gray,” Baltimore Bloc leadership said, referencing two other Baltimore residents shot by police.

The American Civil Liberties Union, citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Illinois v. Wardlow, said in a May blog post that police had legal case for stopping and arresting Gray, but also said the action constituted racially biased policing and diminished rights for Black and Latino citizens.

“The result is standards of police conduct that are different in some places than other places. It is a powerful example of institutionalized and structural racism in which ostensibly race-neutral policies and practices create different outcomes for different racial groups,” ACLU leaders said.

Right before issuing its statement in May, ACLU released a briefing paper that said at least 21 individuals had been killed in police encounters across Maryland in 2015. Of those fatal encounters, which included Gray, 81 percent were Black and about half were unarmed.

The ACLU said it was impossible for the agency to determine whether any officers were disciplined for misconduct in most cases because the police refused to release crucial information to the public.

The ACLU began compiling information about police custody deaths after learning that Maryland officials were not tracking those cases. In 2015, state politicians passed a law mandating law enforcement agencies to report such data. The first set of statistics on police custody deaths is expected in October, according to the ACLU. It is unclear whether those will include reports of officer discipline.

In line with those efforts, activists across Maryland are working to bring forth more systemic changes that will eliminate over-policing and the lack of accountability that exist among police agencies.

Elizabeth Alex, the regional director for CASA Baltimore, a grassroots group that advocates on behalf of local, low-income immigrant communities, told Rewire many activists are spending less energy on reforming the judicial process to achieve police accountability.

“I think people are looking at alternative ways to hold officers and others accountable other than the court system,” Alex said.

Like the No Boundaries Coalition, CASA Baltimore is part of the Campaign for Justice, Safety & Jobs (CJSJ), a collective of more than 30 local community, policy, labor, faith, and civil rights groups that convened after Gray’s death. CJSJ members include groups like the local ACLU affiliate, Baltimore United for Change, and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.

CJSJ leaders said the Goodson verdict underlined the critical need for “deep behavioral change” in the Baltimore Police Department’s culture. For the past year, the group has pushed heavily for citizen representation on police trial boards that review police brutality cases. Those boards make decisions about disciplining officers. For example, the city’s police commissioner might decide to discipline or fire an officer; that officer could go to the trial board to appeal the decision.

This spring, recent Baltimore City mayoral candidate and Maryland Sen. Catherine Pugh (D-Baltimore), helped pass an omnibus police accountability law, HB 1016. Part of that bill includes a change to Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBR) giving local jurisdictions permission to allow voting citizens on police trial boards. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan signed the changes into law in May.

That change can only happen in Baltimore, however, if the Baltimore Fraternal Order of the Police union agrees to revise its contract with the city, according to WBAL TV. The agreement, which expired on June 30, currently does not allow citizen inclusion.

In light of the current stalled negotiations, Baltimore Bloc on July 5 demanded Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young instead introduce an amendment to the city charter to allow civilian participation on trial boards. If Young introduced the amendment before an August deadline, the question would make it onto the November ballot.

Kelly, in an interview with Rewire, cited some CJSJ members’ recent meeting with Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis as a win for Baltimore citizens. During that meeting, held on June 29, Davis outlined some of his plans for implementing change on the police force and said he supported local citizens participating on police trial boards, Kelly said.

This year, the Baltimore Police Department has also implemented a new use-of-force policy. The policy emphasizes de-escalation and accountability and is the first rewrite of the policy since 2003, according to the Sun.

The ACLU has welcomed the policy as a step in the right direction, but said the new rules need significant improvements, according to the Sun.

For example, the policy requires reporting to the department when an officer flashes or points a weapon at a suspect without shooting; the data will be reviewed by the police commissioner and other city officials. However, it doesn’t require the same from officers who use deadly force.

Notably, the policy requires officers to call a medic if a person in custody requests medical assistance or shows signs that they need professional help. Gray had requested a medic, but officers were skeptical and didn’t call for help until he became unresponsive, according to various news reports.

Rose, who recently received legal assistance from the ACLU to fight criminal charges related to his arrests last year, said citizens should continue to demand accountability and “true transparency” from law enforcement.

In the meantime, with four trials—including Rice’s case—remaining and no convictions, many are looking to see if Mosby will change her prosecution strategy in the upcoming weeks. Roya Hanna, a former Baltimore prosecutor, has suggested Mosby showed poor judgment for charging the six officers without “adequate evidence,” according to the Sun.

Meanwhile, Baltimore City’s police union has urged Mosby to drop the remaining charges against officers.

The trial of Officer Garrett E. Miller is slated to begin July 27; Officer William Porter, Sept. 6, and Sgt. Alicia D. White, Oct. 13. All officers charged pleaded not guilty.

Baltimore Bloc, citing its dissatisfaction with her performance thus far, demanded Mosby’s removal from office last month.

Kelly, who counts Baltimore Bloc among his allies, has a different outlook. Calling’s Mosby’s swift decision to charge the six officers last year  “groundbreaking,” the Baltimore activist said the ongoing police trials are justified and help give attention to police misconduct.

“She should follow through on the charges ….We need that exposure,” Kelly said. “It keeps the debate open and sparks the conversation.”