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Complementarianism’s ugly relationship with rape

[Trigger warning: rape apologism]

[Update: I’ve changed some mentions of “evangelical leaders” to “complementarian leaders” to clarify that I am referring specifically to complementarians in this post. I have a habit of using the two interchangeably because of my experiences in evangelicalism, but there is a growing number of awesome feminist evangelicals out there who don’t deserve to be lumped in with complementarians]

Over the past few months, I’ve called out evangelical Christian leaders and bloggers like Douglas Wilson, Jared Wilson, and Mark Driscoll (all of whom made Church Relevance’s list of Top 200 Church Blogs, by the way–these men are extremely influential in evangelicalism) for using rape to control women. Some commenters understood exactly what I was trying to say. Others became extremely offended. I’m still getting feedback on those posts that accuse me of slander, hatred, and lies.

But I stand by my words.

In fact, I’ll expand them to say that most complementarian evangelical Christian leaders use rape to control women. I’m aware that this is a serious accusation, but I stand by it.

I don’t believe that most complementarian Christian leaders actually rape women (although, I hear stories all the time that make me question that belief). I don’t believe most of them approve of rape or like rape. Here’s what I believe and what I am claiming: complementarian leaders, despite their personal feelings about rape, need rape to exist and for it to be a serious threat. 

Many of my critics mentioned that the leaders whom I accused of using rape to control women were totally against rape. That these men had written or preached elsewhere condemning it. I believe my critics. But I want to ask two questions:

1. What does the word “rape” mean to these leaders?

2. How do these leaders propose we solve the problem of rape?

By answering these two questions, I will reveal how rape becomes an extremely useful tool for complementarians. Whether they are themselves rapists (and, again, I don’t believe most are), any group of people who wish to control women and keep women in certain gender roles benefits greatly from rape.  

First, let’s look at what rape means to complementarians.

I will argue that most complementarians have an extremely narrow definition of rape. What is rape, according to a complementarian?

If you want to know the answer to this question, consider what they say about women who have been raped. Consider one rockstar of the evangelical world, Donald Miller (who, as far as I know, is not even a complementarian but certainly reinforces patriarchy in the church with his writings), who once told women to stop trying to claim victim status because “nobody gets drunk and accidentally sleeps with a hamster.” Though the legal definition of rape would say that penetrating a woman who is too drunk to consent to sex is rape, that definition of rape does not meet complementarian standards.

Or, consider Mark Driscoll’s recent introduction to his sermon series on Esther, which set off a firestorm on the internet a few weeks ago. According to Driscoll, Esther should have resisted being taken into the king’s harem, even though doing so probably would have cost her her life. Though the legal definition of rape would say that forcing a woman to “have sex” with you by threatening her life is rape, again, this definition does not meet complementarian standards.

So, who can be raped, according to complementarians? What hoops must a woman jump through in order for complementarians to believe that her experience “counts” as rape?

In Jessica Valenti’s book The Purity Myth (which is problematic in some ways but still an important exposition of the evangelical purity movement), she states,

Under the purity myth, the only women who can truly be raped are those who are chaste–and given how limiting the purity myth is, and how few women actually fit into its right mold, the consequence is that most women are seen as incapable of being raped.

Yes, complementarians will vehemently claim that they are against rape. But listen more closely, because when they say they are against rape they don’t mean all rape. 

The woman who got drunk and woke up in a strange man’s bed or the teenage girl whose boyfriend wanted more than just the makeout session she had consented to. The woman in the mini-skirt or the wife who tried to tell her husband no. The woman who shouldn’t have been alone with that man or in that bar or that hotel room, who shouldn’t have been wearing this or doing that. These women can’t be raped because they are already impure, therefore, have nothing to lose according to complementarianism.

If complementarian leaders even admit that these women are victims of rape (which they likely won’t), these leaders will make sure this admission mentions that the victim was not “totally innocent.” The victim did something to “provoke” rape and therefore needs to apologize for her sin.

Secondly, let’s discuss how complementarians suggest going about solving the problem of rape.

Drawing conclusions from the answer to “What is rape?,” we learn that, according to complementarian evangelicals, “real” (shall we say “legitimate?”) rape can only happen to a limited group of women. Other women who claim to be raped are either lying to avoid owning up to their sin, or they need to take responsibility for “bringing rape upon themselves.” 

So, according to complementarians, the most efficient way to stop rape is for women to change their behavior, their lifestyles, or their clothing. 

How convenient that many of these changes women must make in order to “prevent being raped” line up perfectly with complementarian goals and values. 

Complementarians would say that immodest dress causes rape, therefore women should dress according to complementarian standards. They would say that women who express their sexuality are making themselves vulnerable to rape, therefore women should be passive and chaste when it comes to sex–another complementarian idea. They would say that women who spend too much time in the public world are risking rape, therefore more women should stay home, etc.

Some complementarian evangelicals go beyond this to actually blame feminism for the very existence of rape. Douglas Wilson, for instance, believes that when feminists deny men the opportunity to practice “godly” authority over women, men react by taking back the authority that they deserve using violence.

“When we quarrel with the way the world is,” Wilson says, “we find that the world has ways of getting back at us.”

Whether or not complementarians approve of rape, the fact is that many women adhere to complementarian gender roles because complementarian leaders have told these women that these women will be raped if they step outside these roles. Rape is a tool that rapists use to control women, and complementarian leaders (along with many other people in powerful positions) benefit from the fear that rapists create. In fact, they harness that fear in their books, blog posts, and sermons and use it as a tool to keep women in their place.

Complementarian evangelicals rely on rape to keep their systems of power firmly in place.

It’s an ugly, ugly truth, but a truth nonetheless.

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Happy International Women’s Day and Feminist Coming Out Day!

March 8th is an exciting day! First of all, it’s my wonderful partner’s 28th birthday (Happy Birthday, Abe!). Second, it’s National Colon Cleansing Day (Remember! A clean colon is a happy colon).

And then, it’s International Women’s Day and Feminist Coming Out Day!

As much as I love Abe and colons, this post is going to focus on the latter two.

Image via Macaulay.cuny.eduWhen I first “came out” as a feminist about a year ago, I got a lot of responses. Some positive, some discouraging. But, I think, by far the most popular response I’ve received is this:

“Well, women are equal now. Why do we need feminism anymore?”

At first, I struggled to explain my answer to this question. A lot of sexism is so subtle and ingrained in our minds that it’s hard to get people to notice it unless they’ve had an experience that brought it to light.

My experience was when a Sunday School teacher looked me in the eye and told me I shouldn’t be going to college because it was selfish of me to waste money on a degree if I wanted children someday. He told me I couldn’t be a good mother and have a career. After that in-yo-face encounter with sexism, I began to notice other ways that patriarchal Christianity holds women down. And then I began to realize that such behavior wasn’t confined to the church.

Now-a-days, I don’t get this question as often, however. You only have to turn on the news for five minutes, or scroll through your Facebook timeline to experience some in-yo-face sexism. I think a lot of us are starting to realize that feminism is, indeed, still a necessity.

If feminism is dead, then we feminists need to start our own zombie apocalypse, because patriarchy and sexism and other forces that keep women down are very much alive.

The events we’re hearing about on the news and on our radios and in our churches and Christian blogospheres may be awful, but they’re waking us up.

But feminism is still a word with baggage–some of it earned, much of it loaded on by defensive patriarchy.

So, this International Women’s Day, I want us to redeem feminism. I want us to redeem the idea of women identifying with each other, sticking up for one another, investing our time and energies and relationships to one another, fighting for our rights. I want us to redeem the idea of women (and men too!) working toward a world of gender equality.

So, if you’re a closeted feminist, consider taking advantage of National Feminist Coming Out day to share your feelings about feminism with family and friends!

If you’ve considered feminism but are hesitant because of the past mistakes of the feminist movement (mistakes which you are right not to ignore!) or because of the stereotypes, I encourage you to read Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks for a strong defense of feminism (and an enjoyable read–hooks is a fabulous writer). It’s cheap on Amazon and only about 100 pages long, and reminds us that, “A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving…”

And, if you still don’t want to identify with feminism because of it’s baggage, but still want to fight for the rights of women, awesome! It doesn’t matter what you call yourself–you can still stand up for the rights of women this International Women’s Day!

That’s what it’s all about, really. Patriarchy tries to divide us all. Men vs. women. Feminist vs. non-feminist. Black vs. white vs. Asian vs. Hispanic. Housewives vs. “career women.” Straight women vs. lesbians. Rich vs. poor.

But there’s so much to be done. We can’t do it unless we’re willing to work together in the areas in which our needs intersect, and unless we’re willing to be supporters and allies to other “groups” who have different needs than us.

So, this March 8th, let’s cleanse our colons of feces and toxins, and let’s cleanse the world of forces that hurt women!


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Tell us we’re not strong enough. But you’re wrong.

Some people out there say that Christianity is for men, because our God came to earth as a man. He was brutally executed on a cross and there was blood and guts and other bad-ass manly things. Some people think that, if the church gets too “feminized,” we might replace Jesus with a Disney princess and the cross with a field of dandelions and the broken body and blood of Christ with chocolate milk and cupcakes.

Yeah, some people think that way.

I don’t think those people know a lot about women. 

A few weeks ago, I put out a call for all women to challenge the mainstream definition of a “feminized” church.  To share our stories and show our intelligence and our strength and our importance in the body of Christ.

I did that because I know a lot about women.

I know we are strong.

And those who don’t believe that? Well, they need to look around…

How about the women who have birthed children–who sacrificed their bodies and shed their blood so that another human being might live? These women went through excruciating pain. Some of them (especially those who lived before the age of modern medicine or who live in developing countries) died.

Tell these women they aren’t strong.

Tell these women that you, in your manliness know more about the suffering of the crucified Christ than they do.

Or how about we travel back in time. How about we visit the black slave women who were, according to Angela Davis, “required by the masters’ demands to be as ‘masculine’ in the performance of their work as men.” Who performed the same back-breaking work alongside male slaves, often while several months pregnant, or carrying infants. Or even the white women of the working-class in England around the same time who, also according to Davis, were used in place of horses or mules to haul canal boats.

Tell these women that did the work of horses, that to be “effeminate” means to be weak.

Tell them that they are the weaker vessel.

Tell them that you in your manliness are more suited to do the work of the church than they.

What of the women of the suffrage movement who organized together, facing backlash and imprisonment, and gained the right to vote at a time when women were not even considered to be adult human beings? 

Tell them they don’t have leadership skills.

Tell them that they are too emotional and “wishy-washy” to get anything done.

Tell them that you in your manliness would have done better.

Yes, tell us women, who have overcome slavery and oppression and objectification that we are not strong. Tell us who have been raped and beaten and silenced, yet survive to stand and speak, that we will break under the pressures of fighting injustice. Tell us women who continue to make progress and continue to use our talents to improve this world, despite ongoing oppression that has been around for centuries that the church would be better off masculine. 

Go ahead and tell us.

But we won’t stop proving you wrong.


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How does inequality hurt men?

My previous post was a release of all the sarcastic comments that I have been holding inside since I became a feminist. It was a response to every negative comment that I received because of making that decision. I wanted to express my frustrations that so many people don’t believe feminism is relevant, that so many people think that women are now equal to men or even the new oppressors of men. That so many people believe equality is a zero-sum game.

And I think some people missed the point.

I won’t blame them for that. I will blame myself. I probably could have accomplished my goal using a better vehicle than a sarcastic rant.

I apologize. For those of you who thought that my post was an attack on any and all men’s rights movements, I am sorry.

The truth is, misandry (sexism toward men) is closely related to misogyny. We cannot successfully eradicate one without successfully eradicating the other. They are often both results of rigid gender roles.

And because of this, both women and men suffer.

We suffer in different ways, but oh, we both suffer.

Since I am a woman who hasn’t had to experience being a man, I don’t have much insight on this issue. But I want to end the “oppression wars.” I want to stop the fighting over who is “more oppressed.” I want to acknowledge the fact that both men and women have been hurt by gender inequality.

So, let’s have a conversation! Men (or women who have observed men being oppressed), how does gender inequality hurt your kind? How can we feminists assist you in fighting that inequality?

I’ll start the conversation with my partner, Abe Kobylanski’s thoughts on the subject: “[Gender inequality has hurt me] by assuming I should be a leader just because I’m a man and then me feeling inadequate because of that. [Also,] Christian women assuming I should be a leader if I want to date them, and then me not living up to that standard.”

Also, I have personally witnessed a relative, who is a junior high boy, open up to his immediate family about being sexually harassed by girls at school, only to be told that “When a girl harasses a boy, that’s GOOD sexual harassment!”

It hurts me that these people that I care about have been hurt by rigid gender roles in this way. Let’s end inequality. Join the conversation!