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“Progressive” Christianity and Premarital Sex

Almost exactly one year ago, I read an article on Relevant Magazine that made me realize that I had absolutely no personal convictions to remain abstinent.

I had grown up in the dead-center of the purity movement. I’d worn the silver rings, made the pledges, condescended to the teenage mothers, read the Joshua Harris books, and all the other lovely rituals that seem to be involved in that movement. However, after an abusive partner coerced me into sex and eventually raped me, I had to let go of the basic tenets of the purity culture. The purity culture functions on the idea that virginity is the greatest gift a woman can give her husband. She is a used toothbrush without it, or a crashed car. It holds the idea that every time you have sex, you give away a part of yourself that you can never get back, and therefore you will necessarily enter into future relationships broken–your only value coming from the benevolent grace that God has on your insufficient self.

I gave up that idea and replaced it with a new “ethics of abstinence.” In these new ethics, which are often promoted in evangelical Christian circles that claim to be progressive (but usually aren’t), premarital sex was just the same as any other sin. It didn’t ruin me for life. I wasn’t broken or scarred.

But premarital sex was still universally wrong, and there were reasons. Several of these new reasons were listed in that Relevant Magazine article I read in November, 2011. According to the author, Ally Spotts (who I really appreciated during my earlier years of blogging. I don’t know that we’d agree on much now), we should wait for sex because waiting builds friendship, because “physical boundaries speak to the value you place on your sexuality,” because relationships should be about wholeness–not just happiness, and because we need to practice managing our lust.

She listed these as the real reasons God asks us to wait for sex. She talked about how other reasons–namely those held by the purity movement–didn’t satisfy her, and recognized that they weren’t satisfying the 80% of young Christians who had had premarital sex, either. So she attempted to come up with some new reasons, as many other Relevant writers and pastors and Christian bloggers (including myself) have tried to do.

But I realized something reading that article on that day.

Like Ally, the reasons the purity movement had given me didn’t satisfy me. But neither did Ally’s reasons.

Image via David Hayward

So I started asking questions in the comments section (advice: never ask questions in the comments section of Relevant. In fact, avoid that place like a cat avoids the vacuum cleaner. Your sanity will thank me). In asking the questions, I learned that no one seemed to have the answers. Instead of answers, I either got harsh judgement or other people who admitted to being just as confused as I was.

But in every comment that told me I was “abusing grace,” that I “must not be very familiar with the Bible,” telling me to “get married earlier, genius!,” to just find a fraternity house where they can set me up with a goat if all I want to do is get laid (FOR REAL), or comments that just listed every verse in the Bible that mentions sexual immorality (while failing to define sexual immorality), all I heard was “I don’t know the answers, and your questions expose that. I don’t know, and that makes me afraid of you.”

While I applaud evangelical Christians who move away from the blatantly destructive teaching that a woman’s (or a man’s) worth lies in her virginity, these new teachings that emerge in its place don’t stand up to the questions. They fall apart at the simple, honest questions of a confused recovering Fundy.

So why do Christians keep scrambling for these new reasons? Why do Christians accuse anyone who dares question these of perverting the grace of God or wanting to sleep with goats? Do these Christians who claim the label “progressive” not realize that they are just repeating the same patterns that they condemn in their more conservative brothers and sisters? Patterns of judgment, close-mindedness, denial of reality, and fear of the unknown?

Let’s get this straight, Christians. Choosing to wait until marriage is a personal choice that you can make for any number of reasons. It’s a good choice. But it’s not necessarily THE good choice. The values we place on sex can’t be universalized. Neither can interpretations of the Bible. Even the definition of marriage and of sex is fluid throughout history and culture.

We would do far better to throw away these paper-thin universal arguments against premarital sex. There are better things to focus on, like affirming one another’s humanity. Like not treating the people we are attracted to as sex objects. Like respecting the physical boundaries of other people without question. Like fighting the rape culture that’s so prevalent in the church.

We can’t universalize sexual standards. But we can treat each other well, so let’s start with that.

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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.