Commentary Religion

Purity Culture’s Racism Robs Women of Color of Their Reproductive Agency

Dianna Anderson

One of the most popular and prevalent examples of purity culture's racism is the critique of the pop singer Beyoncé’s life and work by conservative white politicians and pundits, who have gone so far as to wonder aloud if Jay Z had not crossed the line from husband to exploiting “pimp,” thus reducing Beyoncé’s talent and ambition to a sexuality that is not under her control.

The purity movement of the evangelical church is frequently focused on preserving the virginity of women. Modesty teachings, in particular, maintain that women must cover their bodies in order to prevent lust and potential “consequences.” These teachings do not apply to all women equally, however—those speaking on purity and gaining popularity in evangelical circles are consistently white, heterosexual, thin, able-bodied women like Elisabeth Elliot, Leslie Ludy, and Stasi Eldredge. Even the bloggers who go viral for writing on the subject are all cut from the same cloth. By contrast, those entrenched in white evangelical culture frequently imply that women of color are innately impure—particularly Black women, whose perceived sexuality is seen as both worthy of punishment and pity. This is a bigoted, racist stereotype that robs women of color of their agency and emerges on a number of fronts, including with regard to politically powerful white conservative approaches to reproductive rights.

In conducting interviews for my upcoming book, many women of color told me they felt ashamed and burdened by modesty teachings, too often on the receiving end of “jokes” or stigma about their alleged promiscuity. One of the most popular and prevalent examples of this kind of racism is the critique of the pop singer Beyoncé’s life and work by conservative white politicians and pundits. The evangelical Mike Huckabee, for example, recently wondered aloud if Jay Z had not crossed the line from husband to exploiting “pimp,” thus reducing Beyoncé’s talent and ambition to a sexuality that is not under her control. The idea that she could have her own motivations didn’t come into the picture for Huckabee—instead, he likened Beyoncé to a trafficked woman, a role that he clearly sees as deserving of condescension and derision.

And when it comes to the battle for reproductive rights, this sexualization of Black women lends itself both to victim-blaming and white savior narratives. A couple of years ago, a white-led, conservative Christian, anti-choice organization hung a billboard reading, “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” Such a statement at once demonizes Black women who choose to get abortions—who, by extension, have taken control of their own sexualities—and suggests that there is a need for a white organization to come in and “help.” Overall, the message of these campaigns is clear: Agency and decision-making must be taken out of the hands of Black women and placed instead in (white, conservative) legislators’ hands.

In the minds of many evangelical Christians, people who “deserve” abortion access, if any, are those whose purity was forcibly taken from them—in other words, through rape. Of course, those same groups continuously support maneuvers to deny abortion access to poor women of color, implicitly suggesting that their purity (and safety, health, and well-being) matters less. This sentiment has real-world ramifications: Abortion restrictions, such as Texas’ infamous HB 2, frequently manifest in the shutdown of clinics that serve these communities.

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Furthermore, the ongoing birth control coverage fight—federally in discussions over Hobby Lobby and the Affordable Care Act and statewide in places like Texas and Missouri—disproportionately restricts birth control access to people of color with lower income. While the right has framed the debate about religious liberty, the underlying stereotypes about women of color as sexualized and immodest have aided in the battle. Because women of color are “innately” sexual, evangelicals or conservative Christians see it as more important that they’re abstinent rather than they have access to things that will keep them safe and healthy when engaging in sexual activity because access would encourage sinfulness. Additionally, with the “bootstraps” politics that pervade the white American conservative party and church, women of color are often portrayed as lazy and relying on government help, somehow “unworthy” of taking control of their own bodies.

At the same time, these stereotypes also work to undermine women of color’s agency from a “benevolent” perspective. Even as they deny them birth control or abortion access, evangelicals uphold the sexualized stereotype of women of color as an example of brokenness, a need for white suburban ministries to “set them right.” The mostly white women’s purity ministry, Secret Keeper Girl, for example, spent much of 2013 raising money to take their Secret Keeper Girl tour into “the inner city of the Bronx” to spread the gospel of modesty there and a woman’s worth there.

The thought is this: If Black women are naturally promiscuous, then sexual fidelity and modesty will not come easily to them. They will need to be taught. And that is where the benevolent racism of white evangelicalism takes its greatest toll. By treating the Black community as an object to be acted upon, as opposed to a community with its own leaders and its own methods of confronting issues, white evangelicalism sets itself up as the savior of the Black woman. Learning sexual purity and modesty—what these leaders see as white values—become vital parts of the white gospel as told to communities of color. Secret Keeper Girl wrote on their site of the ways in which Black churches in poorer communities of color are theologically bereft, portraying pastors as having given up on the sexual health of their congregants. In their view, the Black church community had to be taught, from the outside, by white suburban women. (Thus far, the Black church in the area targeted by the modesty campaign appears not to have responded.)

And this narrative is self-perpetuating. Because the underlying stereotypes are never challenged, young Christians go into “inner cities” to minister there, and return to their cozy white existences without having challenged their institutionally enforced bias against people of color. And the cycle repeats—the solution to the perceived problems of communities of color continues to be teaching them evangelicals’ ideas of what whiteness means, including sexual purity and modesty.

Recently, the Southern Baptist Convention leaders called for more integration in traditionally white SBC churches—which is something of a progression. But until the paternalistic theologies around race change, such integration in the churches will be next to impossible; people of color will continue to be silenced, ignored, or outright attacked on matters of sexual health. There needs to be a groundswell of change from both the political and theological right in order to completely challenge and change the racism that permeates white evangelical churches today.

News Human Rights

What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”

Commentary Violence

When It Comes to Threats, Online or on the Campaign Trail, It’s Not Up to Women to ‘Suck It Up’

Lauren Rankin

Threats of violence toward women are commonplace on the internet for the same reason that they are increasingly common at Donald Trump rallies: They are effective at perpetuating violence against women as the norm.

Bizarre and inflammatory rhetoric is nothing new for this election. In fact, the Republican presidential candidate has made an entire campaign out of it. But during a rally last Tuesday, Donald Trump sunk to a new level. He lamented that if Hillary Clinton is elected president in November, there will be no way to stop her from making judicial nominations.

He said, “By the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

For a candidate marred by offensive comment after offensive comment, this language represents a new low, because, as many immediately explained, Trump appears to be making a veiled threat against Clinton, whether he had intended to or not.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) called it a “death threat” and Dan Rather, former CBS Evening News host, called it a “direct threat of violence against a political rival.” Former President Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis said it was “horrifying,” and even the author of an NRA-linked blog initially tweeted, “That was a threat of violence. As a real supporter of the #2A it’s appalling to me,” before deleting the tweet as the NRA expressed support for Trump.

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This kind of language is violent in nature on its face, but it is also gendered, following in a long line of misogynistic rhetoric this election season. Chants of “kill the bitch” and “hang the bitch” have become common at Trump rallies. These aren’t solely examples of bitter political sniping; these are overt calls for violence.

When women speak out or assert ourselves, we are challenging long-held cultural norms about women’s place and role in society. Offensively gendered language represents an attempt to maintain the status quo. We’ve seen this violent rhetoric online as well. That isn’t an accident. When individuals throw pejorative terms at those of who refuse to be silenced, they are attempting to render public spaces, online or on the campaign trail, unsafe for us.

There is no shortage of examples demonstrating how individuals who feel threatened by subtle power shifts happening in our society have pushed back against those changes. The interactions happening online, on various social media platforms, offer the most vivid examples of the ways in which people are doing their best to try to make public spaces as uncomfortable as possible for marginalized populations.

Social media offers the opportunity for those whose voices are routinely ignored to hold power in a new way. It is a slow but real shift from old, more traditional structures of privileging certain voices to a more egalitarian megaphone, of sorts.

For marginalized populations, particularly women of color and transgender women, social media can provide an opportunity to be seen and heard in ways that didn’t exist before. But it also means coming up against a wall of opposition, often represented in a mundane but omnipresent flow of hatred, abuse, and violent threats from misogynist trolls.

The internet has proven to be a hostile place for women. According to a report from the United Nations, almost three quarters of women online have been exposed to some form of cyber violence. As someone who has received threats of violence myself, I know what it feels like to have sharing your voice met with rage. There are women who experience this kind of violent rhetoric to an even greater degree than I could ever dream.

The list of women who have been inundated with threats of violence could go on for days. Women like Zerlina Maxwell, who was showered with rape threats after saying that we should teach men not to rape; Lindy West received hundreds upon hundreds of violent and threatening messages after she said that she didn’t think rape jokes were funny; Leslie Jones, star of Ghostbusters and Saturday Night Live, was driven off of Twitter after a coordinated attack of racist, sexist, and violent language against her.

And yet, rarely are such threats taken seriously by the broader community, including by those able to do something about it.

Many people remain woefully unaware of how cruel and outright scary it can be for women online, particularly women with prolific digital profiles. Some simply refuse to see it as a real issue, declaring that “It’s just the internet!” and therefore not indicative of potential physical violence. Law enforcement doesn’t even have a solution, often unwilling to take these threats seriously, as Amanda Hess found out.

This kind of response is reflected in those who are trying to defend Donald Trump after the seemingly indefensible. Despite the overwhelming criticism from many, including some renowned Republicans, we have also seen some Trump supporters try to diminish or outright erase the violent aspect of this clearly threatening rhetoric. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani have both said that they assumed Trump meant get rid of her “by voting.” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) said that it “sounds like just a joke gone bad.”

The violent nature of Donald Trump’s comments seem apparent to almost everyone who heard him. To try to dismiss it as a “joke” or insist that it is those who are offended that are wrong is itself harmful. This is textbook gaslighting, a form of psychological abuse in which a victim’s reality is eroded by telling them that what they experienced isn’t true.

But gaslighting has played a major role in Donald Trump’s campaign, with some of his supporters insisting that it is his critics who are overreacting—that it is a culture of political correctness, rather than his inflammatory and oppressive rhetoric, that is the real problem.

This is exactly what women experience online nearly every day, and we are essentially told to just suck it up, that it’s just the internet, that it’s not real. But tell that to Jessica Valenti, who received a death and rape threat against her 5-year-old daughter. Tell that to Anita Sarkeesian, who had to cancel a speech at Utah State after receiving a death threat against her and the entire school. Tell that to Brianna Wu, a game developer who had to flee her home after death threats. Tell that to Hillary Clinton, who is trying to make history as the first woman president, only to have her life threatened by citizens, campaign advisers, and now through a dog whistle spoken by the Republican presidential candidate himself.

Threats of violence toward women are commonplace on the internet for the same reason that they are increasingly common at Donald Trump’s rallies: They are effective at perpetuating violence against women as the norm.

Language matters. When that language is cruel, aggressive, or outright violent, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it doesn’t come without consequences. There is a reason that it is culturally unacceptable to say certain words like “cunt” and other derogatory terms; they have a history of harm and oppression, and they are often directly tied to acts of violence. When someone tweets a woman “I hope your boyfriend beats you,” it isn’t just a trolling comment; it reflects the fact that in the United States, more women are killed by intimate partners than by any other perpetrator, that three or more women die every day from intimate partner violence. When Donald Trump not only refuses to decry calls of violence and hate speech at his rallies but in fact comes across as threatening his female opponent, it isn’t just an inflammatory gaffe; it reflects the fact that one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence.

Threats of violence have no place in presidential campaigns, but they also have no place online, either. Until we commit ourselves to rooting out violent language against women and to making public spaces safer and more accommodating for women and all marginalized people, Trump’s comments are just par for the course.


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