Commentary Religion

Don’t Just ‘Reframe’ Purity Culture—Rethink the Whole Concept

T.F. Charlton

Despite numerous popular critiques of purity culture in recent years, increasingly from Christians themselves, I rarely find my experience as a queer Black woman reflected.

When I was in eighth grade, the tiny Pentecostal church school I attended announced it was closing. My family was about to move two counties and an hour’s drive away. My classmates, all seven of them, would still be able to see each other at church, but I was leaving for good.

In the absence of the real thing, we used our class photos as makeshift yearbooks, scrawling poignant and juvenile final messages for each other in the narrow borders of the cheap paper frame our photos came in, or on the backing underneath.

As I got my picture back, I noticed a classmate, a white girl, behaving in a nervous, almost embarrassed fashion around me. She’d made some effort to cross out some of what she’d originally written to me. I could still make out the words, though: “Don’t come back pregnant.”

This may have been an ignorant attempt at humor; I had quite a reputation as the class prude. Or maybe that’s just what she expected of me.

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Between being a recent immigrant and attending a predominantly white church actively invested in racism denial, I rarely recognized racist behavior. But in that moment, it was crystal clear to me that she’d written this because I was Black. We both knew it.

There was more to her original note—some more pleasant sentiments of which I have no memory. The one sentence she hoped I wouldn’t see, I remember.

I also remember our white pastor announcing before the entire church his suspicions that another Black girl in our congregation was having sex. I remember how church folks presented “godly” and “natural” femininity as chaste, quiet, and submissive, in the same breaths that they stereotyped Black girls and women as hypersexual, domineering, belligerent.

These are my recollections of growing up in white Christian purity culture. But, despite numerous popular critiques of this culture in recent years, increasingly from Christians themselves, I rarely find my experience as a queer Black woman reflected.

I find, instead, frustratingly predictable laser focus on women who are white, cisgender, straight, middle-class, able-bodied—and an unwillingness to truly question assumptions shaped by these experiences, and often even assumptions of the very purity culture critics are trying to change.

Emerging Evangelical Critiques of Purity Culture

Abigail Rine explores these tensions in purity culture critique in a May 2013 piece for The Atlantic on how women are creating a “revisionist evangelical view of sexuality.” Leading voices in this conversation hold a range of “post-purity perspectives”: some center consent, health, and pleasure, while others “seem reluctant to relinquish the abstinence ideal entirely—which creates an interesting tension.”

That a sustained evangelical critique of purity culture exists at all is remarkable. Evangelical women online have single-handedly created this conversation, breaking powerful taboos against discussing sexual histories, sexual violence, and the harm done by fetishization of female modesty and virginity. Healing, productive conversations about misogynist teachings and how to counter them are taking place between women who often disagree sharply on sexual ethics. This welcome development shouldn’t be taken for granted.

But as Rine observes, these differences of opinion also pose obstacles to creating “fleshed-out alternative[s]” to abstinence and marriage-focused sexual ethics. I would go further: A critique of purity culture that doesn’t explicitly reject the premise that sex outside of marriage is de facto sinful can ultimately only contradict and undermine itself.

“Single Stories” of Homosexuality?

Take a recent blog post by author Rachel Held Evans, one of the women Rine profiles, on “Homosexuality, Evangelicalism, and the Danger of the Single Story.”

Evans is a prominent critic of marginalization of women in evangelicalism. She’s drawn the ire of conservative leaders for this, and for supporting marriage equality and LGBT inclusion in the church. Yet in her blog post, Evans challenges stereotypes of hypersexual and “drug-fueled” gay people, not by examining how they objectify and dehumanize, but with examples of gay people who are upstanding Christians saving sex for monogamous marriage: her lesbian friend whose “gay agenda” consists of mundane routines of nuclear family life, and Justin Lee, head of the Gay Christian Network, whose distaste for people in “[p]ride parades … dressed in outrageous outfits or wearing next to nothing at all” led him to deny for some time that he could be gay, because he was so unlike that. (He expresses similar sentiments in a 2011 Q&A on Evans’ blog.)

Evans contrasts stories of gender conforming and married monogamous gay Christians to unfavorable portrayals of “promiscuous,” flamboyant queers. When she says, “Not all ‘gay lifestyles’ are the same,” it comes off as, “Not all gay people are like that. Some of them are just like you.” Gay folks, too, can be uncomfortable with gender nonconformity and apparently excessive displays of queerness. They too “[form] faithful partnerships with one another and remain committed Christians.”

This isn’t the defense of queer humanity and diversity Evans probably intends. Nonjudgmental recognition of different ways of embodying queer sexualities would be more in keeping with the “single story” concept, which Evans appropriated from a TED talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie. In the talk, Adichie discusses how stereotypes of people and places (specifically Africans and Africa) are created by the repeated telling of the same, monolithic stories about them—for instance, Africans are “poor” and listen to “tribal music.” She notes that sweeping generalizations of groups usually happen along lines of power, so being able to tell “single stories” about a group is about who has power and how it is exercised.

But Evans implies a moral hierarchy of queerness. Her offhand conclusion that “progressives” shouldn’t “dismiss stories that suggest sexuality may be more fluid in [rare] cases”—referring to “ex-gay” testimonies—only reinforces this impression.

Beyond “Reframing” Purity

Evans is far from alone among evangelicals in implicitly shaming people for their sexual behaviors while simultaneously indicting purity theology for inculcating shame. In June, blogger Jamie Wright touched off a firestorm when she argued that churches, rather than emphasizing virginity, should teach that waiting until marriage to have sex “empowers and prepares people to choose wisely for a lifetime.” Her conclusion (emphasis hers): “Why wait? … Because you need to learn some freaking self-control. That’s why.”

Wright’s sentiments reflect commonplace “post-purity” disapproval of “promiscuity,” “commitment-free sex,” and lack of self-control. “Inclusion” in this discourse means shoehorning LGBT people and people of color into a “reframing” of still harmful theology created by and for white, straight, cis people. (And look how well it’s worked for them!)

The most visible evangelical critiques of purity culture themselves tell “single stories” about what purity culture means, and how to counter it. Lola, a Black woman whose family attended white evangelical churches between stints abroad as missionaries, observes, “Many evangelicals lamenting purity culture are still enforcing it. They’ve reframed abstinence as a ‘choice,’ but there’s only one right choice.” Some “recovering conservative Christians” feel frustration over being “shamed for sexual desires” by evangelicals who denounce shame-based theology.

Lola (not her full name) has channeled this frustration into the No Shame Movement (NSM), a “platform for people to share stories of ‘unlearning’ purity culture without judgment or condemnation.” What began in June as the #NoShameMov hashtag has grown into a Twitter and Tumblr community. Lola envisions it creating space for people to “relearn” alternatives to purity theology, “get to know their bodies and be comfortable with themselves,” and share “practical information” on “contraception, reproductive health,” and more. An added bonus: “When another ‘well-meaning’ blogger says, ‘Gosh, purity culture is awful, but shouldn’t you want to keep your legs closed for Jesus?,’ I have a feed full of personal stories about how this mentality is harmful.”

NSM illustrates how this conversation has broader scope and impact when critics radically rethink, not just repackage, purity culture.

Similarly, centering the voices of women who are trans, queer, and/or of color highlights the limitations of popular critiques that reduce purity culture to images of girls and women as naturally chaste, delicate, and in need of patriarchal protection. Many white evangelical women, Lola says, “assume all women are held up to the same virginal ideal,” though women of color, Black women especially, “have historically been left out of it.” Jennie Kermode, a Scottish trans and intersex activist who grew up evangelical, writes that purity culture casts trans and intersex people as incapable of modesty or chastity. Their mere existence is “immodest,” she says, and their bodies are viewed as indecent.

Nor does white purity culture universally insist that “women” are inherently nurturing and maternal, created to be “keepers of the home.” Queer and transgender women, mothers included, are cast as deviants, predators—deadly stereotypes, especially for trans women of color. Black women are demonized as perpetrators of “Black genocide,” the greatest danger in existence to Black children. Black mothers are government leeches who need to be put to work—preferably the sort that requires endless labor for minimal pay. We are, as writer and activist Monica Roberts puts it, threatening “unwomen.” So much so that white people scramble for reasons to explain why white, 54-year-old Theodore Wafer was justified in shooting Black, 19-year-old Renisha McBride—“bleeding and disoriented” after a car accident—in the face, through a locked screen door, in supposed “fear for his life.” Protection is the last thing we are seen as worthy of.

To present purity culture as monolithic expectations of quiet, submissive virginity universalizes patriarchal ideals of white, hetero, and cis femininity into the story of all women. Can such a narrow understanding of purity culture really succeed in pushing back on it? Women of color, queer women, and trans women are already creating our own critiques of purity culture in which our experiences are centered. Rather than looking to make purity theology gentler and kinder, mainstream evangelicals who truly wish to see an end to the violence this theology does would do better to listen to and engage with our stories.

Commentary Race

No Sense in Slaughter: ‘Law and Order’ Policing Is About Irrational Fear

Katherine Cross

The wholesale murder of Black men and women by police strikes with a kind of caprice, often driven more by whims, bigotries, and disordered fates than any sense in law enforcement or anything meaningfully tied to the actions of the victims.

“Senseless” is our favorite adjective to describe not just mass killings but all manner of murders. To most any person, regardless of class, race, or station, there is no sense to be found in slaughter. But this depth of unreason plunges further still with some crimes. Such is the case with the mass murder of Black Americans, performed in increments measured by police shootings. No sense, logic, or order can be imposed on something so inherently chaotic, so without reason or purpose.

Yet, countless white people on social media and mass media alike try to find a reason for the murder. He wore a hoodie. She didn’t follow instructions. He didn’t drop the toy gun. He twitched his leg threateningly. They shouldn’t have been in that neighborhood. She was playing her music too loud. They should’ve fixed their taillight. This apparent desire for justification satisfies not only the racist conviction that it is somehow acceptable for a Black person to lay dead from an officer’s sidearm, but also the “just world hypothesis” that too many of us remain addicted to: the false belief in a world where virtue is rewarded and vice is punished, where “everything must happen for a reason.”

To be sure, racist systems of power in the United States have methodically propagated the idea of Blackness as a threat that needs to be controlled, which is a twisted kind of logic unto itself. In this environment, however, where so many—particularly white people—have been weaned on the notion of Black criminality, the wholesale murder of Black men and women by police strikes with a kind of caprice, often driven more by whims, bigotries, and disordered fates than any sense in law enforcement or anything meaningfully tied to the actions of the victims.

As we search for answers in the wake of atrocities—in Dallas, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and countless other cities—we can begin with this senselessness.

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This attempted analytical strategy is not a new endeavor. In writing about Nazi internment and concentration camps, for example, philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt strove to do the unthinkable: Find sense in a pit of murderous chaos. But it was precisely a lack of sense, she discovered, that was key to the experience the Nazis—and many totalitarians before and since—had tried to create.

There’s no small irony in my invocation of her to understand this epic, continually unfolding crime. Arendt’s contempt of Black youth movements toward the end of her life was breathtaking in its bitter and intellectually uncurious contempt; she, too, had revealed herself to be an anti-Black racist. But like so many people who indulge such prejudices, her more transcendental ideas—such as this one—endure even with her failings.

As Arendt wrote:

The world of the dying, in which men are taught they are superfluous through a way of life in which punishment is meted out without connection with crime, in which exploitation is practiced without profit, and where work is performed without product, is a place where senselessness is daily produced anew. (Emphasis mine.)

Her point was that the terror of the camp lay in its disconnect from logic. You might face punishment even if you did nothing wrong, either according to the rules of the camp, or a higher moral authority. Your labors were Sisyphean, their own punishment, and rarely serving some higher end. Even when they were practical labors, they were deliberately inefficient, meant to cause suffering rather than ensure the speedy production of some good. For Arendt, this was central to totalitarian life.

This was how you made human beings superfluous as human beings, as she put it. You removed all sense from their lives, rendered their labors fruitless, took the very thing that makes us human—meaningful activity and life through our work—and rendered it an engine of vile nonsenses. If nothing you do has any connection to your prosperity or well-being, then what really is the point of life but random thrashing?

Whether Arendt herself might have approved of this understanding of her theory or not, the “daily production of senselessness” has bled out of the camps of Europe and into the day-to-day practices of police forces around the world, especially in the United States. In police brutality, too, we see a world of unreason. Death has no connection to guilt or what one can be meaningfully said to “deserve.”

This is what makes the plaintive wailing of the “All Lives Matter” crowd so tone-deaf, especially when they veer in the direction of critiquing every breath of those who have been restrained from breathing freely. Consider Megyn Kelly’s unconscionable second-guessing of Lavish “Diamond” Reynolds, Philando Castile’s girlfriend, for not rendering aid to her dying partner outside of St. Paul, even as a police officer brandished a gun in her direction. Or CNN analyst Harry Houck, who said that the very fact Reynolds filmed the atrocity is cause to doubt both the sincerity of her affection for Castile and the man’s innocence. Each of these perversities is, of course racist; neither would happen if the victims in question were not Black, period. They are also attempts to impose order on what is inherently chaotic and without sense: the summary execution of innocent people, en masse, by the people whose very job is to maintain that vaunted “law and order.”

The unspoken corollary to all these excuses is always “therefore they deserved to die.” They didn’t put their hands up fast enough, therefore they deserved to die. They ran, therefore they deserved to die. They were walking in the “wrong” neighborhood, therefore they deserved to die. They made a Facebook post where they had a “thug” selfie, therefore they deserved to die. On and on and on.

It is here where discourses about “respectability politics” come into play—the idea that we as marginalized people should not treat “acting respectable,” as defined by those in our society with the most cultural capital, as a path to acceptance and liberation. Castile did everything right. He was gainfully employed, beloved at the school where he worked as a cafeteria manager—and his long history of being stopped by the police testified more to the racism of local police departments than any wrongdoing on his part. During this final traffic stop, he politely informed the policeman about his concealed handgun, as he is obliged to do by law. For doing everything “right,” he ended up dead from several shots to the chest.

This is not to suggest that it would be “logical” or “just” or “sensible,” of course, if all Black victims of police brutality were only those people with criminal records, who resist arrest or run, or who had weapons; those people are not somehow more “deserving” of death or abuse. And even if they were the sole victims of police violence, a similar senselessness would prevail—in a world where a minor infraction or a long-ago served sentence would still lead to summary execution, where police who have been able to capture even dangerous white suspects alive can only ever seem to put bullets in Black “offenders.”

This, in the end, is the reason. Black people are killed indiscriminately, no matter their job, their level of education, their erudition, their politeness, their criminal record or lack thereof, and so on.

Black Lives Matter—for all the unjust slanders hurled its way by politicians, police union bosses, and Twitter trolls—is actually an example of a profoundly dignified attempt to restore order in the best way possible. Its tactics of peaceful but highly visible protest demand better of us all, non-Black people of color and white people alike. It summons us to our better ideals, calling for the restoration of sense, and reason: the simple recognition that Black lives matter and should be afforded the full suite of human and civil rights. That requires structural change; it is not something one law can fix. It’s beyond the scope of body cameras, certainly.

BLM’s staunchly nonviolent ethic, and its humane approach to police—which unequivocally condemns recent attacks on officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, while seeking justice for the victims of police—actually makes a better claim to being about “order” than all the defensiveness of the police, and their many paid defenders in the press. “Law and order” politics and policing have always been about irrational fear and hatred, never about order in the sense of creating a safe life of sensible and predictable outcomes connected to one’s actions. The sole “logic” to be found in all of this is being seen as a mortal threat because of the color of one’s skin, and this fact produces a special kind of terror.

All victims have been rendered superfluous as human beings, to use Arendt’s phrase. Black individuals live knowing that all of their efforts can come to nothing due to the caprice of a racist police officer’s bullet.

With such senselessness ruling the day, is it any wonder some will abandon all reason in response, as with the killings of police officers in Dallas and in Baton Rouge? That some may feel murder is all that can meet murder? The problem is indeed a lack of order, but not for the reasons many police chiefs and white twitterpaters may think; the “order” police currently uphold is one of utter chaos with no rhyme or reason behind it, save the fundamental irrationalities of racism and fear tinged by racism. There can be no order when mothers and fathers must counsel their children in the nearly vain hope that “good behavior” might save their lives from a police officer frightened by the color of their skin, when no right action or a life well lived is any insurance against such an ignoble death.

So is it a surprise when “the law,” a term synonymous with the police themselves, is increasingly not respected for its own sake? As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in the Atlantic about Micah Xavier Johnson, the man who murdered five police officers in Dallas:

In the black community, it’s the force they deploy, and not any higher American ideal, that gives police their power. This is obviously dangerous for those who are policed. Less appreciated is the danger illegitimacy ultimately poses to those who must do the policing. For if the law represents nothing but the greatest force, then it really is indistinguishable from any other street gang. And if the law is nothing but a gang, then it is certain that someone will resort to the kind of justice typically meted out to all other powers in the street.

When you scaremonger about Johnson’s crimes, or about the need for “law and order,” this is all very much worth remembering. To many in this country, the police are simply the legal gang: vice by another name, tied to the coffers of the state, with only a gloss of virtue to separate it from the illicit variety. The murder of police officers remains criminal and tragic, both for all the obvious reasons, and because the realm of unreason and uncertainty they create is slowly consuming them as well, as Coates notes.

This is one of many reasons we must cease casting about for a just world and instead seek to create one—first by acknowledging the lack of justice in the one we have.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.

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