Commentary Religion

Purity Culture, and Male Entitlement to Women’s Bodies

Dianna Anderson

Elliott Rodger felt so entitled to women that he murdered them when he didn’t get what he felt he deserved. It is precisely this attitude of entitlement that the modern evangelical church deems holy and good.

“You’re so thin!”

My fellow youth group member grabbed my wrist and linked his fingers around it. He yanked my arm upward to show my bony arm to his friends. “Guys, did you realize how small these wrists are? I can touch my thumb and pinky!”

One by one, like an animal in a petting zoo, my arm was pulled this way and that as several different people tested their hands against the size of my wrist. “Gosh, you need to eat more!” “Look at that!”

I was 16 years old, 5’8″ and 110 pounds. I’d always been skinny. I was used to people commenting on it, but this act of grabbing my body as though it was an object was a new experience for me. It was as though the wrist they were holding wasn’t attached to a person, but an oddity all on its own.

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Later that same day, the boy who’d grabbed my wrist instructed another girl that she needed to sit more like a lady and pull her skirt down over her knees.

I didn’t realize it then, but my experience in church youth group was training me to see men as entitled to my body, to place myself in the position of “object.” I didn’t know how to set boundaries, and I grew used to the idea that men were allowed to touch me in small, subtle ways. So a year later, when the boy at church camp pulled me into his lap and held me there, I simply continued the conversation as though nothing had happened—because he was the strong man and I was a woman who must listen.

Male entitlement has been on the tongues of every feminist from here to Miami since a man took to the streets of Isla Vista, California, killing six people and injuring 13 others. The gunman, Elliott Rodger, had posted videos online talking about how he was rejected by women who instead favored “obnoxious brutes.” His 140-page manifesto named specific women in denouncing the “harm” they’d done him by failing to notice that he existed.

Rodgers felt so entitled to women that he murdered them when he didn’t get what he felt he deserved.

And it is precisely this attitude of entitlement that the modern evangelical church deems holy and good.

Purity culture is a function of the larger culture of male entitlement. In many ways, purity culture is more dangerous because it bathes entitlement in holiness and God-given gendered roles. Women exist to marry men and to continue the propagation of Christianity via their children. Women are first the property of their fathers, and then their husbands.

Such entitlement starts early. When young people hit puberty, the divide begins. Men must protect themselves from lust. The only way to do this is to ask women to dress in modest ways. Such instruction is given as part of the holy Christian duty—we must take care not to make our brother stumble into sin, so cover up that cleavage, ladies! Men are told to restrain, but the burden for men’s thoughts rests on the bare shoulders of ladies. Women are instructed to ask the men in their lives—their brothers, their fathers—to judge their clothing before going out. This method trains women to respond and adjust to male commentary on their bodies as a natural part of their lives.

Boundaries and consent never enter into the lessons of male entitlement to women. Women are not trained that they can say no—any discussion of consent is given in the same breath as “boys will be boys.” This teaching has had and will continue to have disastrous consequences for men and women alike.

Last month, one of the former pastors at Maryland’s Covenant Life Church, a former church under the umbrella of conservative evangelical Sovereign Grace Ministries, was convicted on several counts of childhood sexual abuse. Nathaniel Morales abused several young boys in the church from 1983 to 1991. Morales is just one of many pastors named in an ongoing civil suit against Sovereign Grace Ministries, alleging that pastors covered up and ignored many allegations of childhood sexual abuse.

The Christian Post reports the following about a former member:

[A]s a 2-year-old, her daughter was abused by a male teenager, and suggested that the church had its issues going to the authorities after hearing child abuse allegations.

“One of the pastors told us, ‘don’t go to the police.’ They had a lot to protect. They had money, power and prestige,” she said, before ultimately going to authorities herself.

Indeed, when testifying about Morales under oath, fellow pastor Grant Layman admitted that the church had withheld incriminating evidence from the police, the Christian Post reports.

According to T.F. Charlton, who wrote about the civil lawsuit for Religion Dispatches last year (currently unavailable online):

It’s no accident that so many allegations of serious abuse have arisen across SGM’s churches. The combination of patriarchal gender roles, purity culture, and authoritarian clergy that characterizes Sovereign Grace’s teachings on parenting, marriage, and sexuality creates an environment where women and children—especially girls—are uniquely vulnerable to abuse.

The attitude of male entitlement to women’s bodies, embedded in the uniquely conservative gendered roles prescribed by many churches, opens the door for abuses of the worst kind. In researching these topics over the past few years, I’ve come across a number of women who found themselves at the mercy of church discipline for failing to give in to their husband’s entitlement. Women who “withhold sex”—a phrasing that, in itself, exudes entitlement—are said to be failing in their Christian duties as wives. In theory, writes Sarah N. Moon, you could say no, but you’d be a bad wife if you actually did.

Similar entitlement extends into cases of childhood abuse committed by male authority figures. Children whose parents confront the church about their abuse are instructed to follow the lines of authority in the church, to obey what the Bible says, and, in the worst scenarios, to give their children over to God. Children do not exist as human beings in the eyes of the conservative church—instead they are pawns in the larger cosmic game. This dehumanization allows entitlement to young, female bodies to flourish.

Men are animals, purity culture tells us, unable to control themselves. Women must at once control the men around them by dressing modestly and then examine their own behavior if they are attacked. Men who rape are condemned in word and praised in action—women who refuse to have sex are withholding, heartless, cold, and to blame if they are raped. Such is the message of evangelical purity culture.

For women, the modern church is a series of pitfalls and microaggressions. A woman’s body is offered up as the sacrifice to the altar of men doing God’s work. Protecting the pride of men, the pride of a male God, the pride of a male-led church is more important than the sanctity of a woman’s body. If a woman does not have sex with her husband, if she does not allow her clothing decisions to be controlled by men, if she does not “endure [abuse] for a season,” she is not acting in loving Christlikeness.

It is under this entitlement that women in the church live; it is by this sword that we die. The church may not yet have an Elliot Rodger, but the number of people sacrificed for the cause is already too great.

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