Lynn Beisner explores the Evangelical Christian purity movement and its impact on mainstream secular culture.
ne controversial story making the rounds on the Internet is that of a 17-year-old girl, Clare, who was forced to leave a Homeschool Prom in Richmond, Va. Although her dress complied with the event’s dress code, a prom organizer objected to its length but allowed Clare to enter the ballroom. The prom had many chaperones, including a group of fathers who watched from the balcony above. Within 15 minutes, Clare was asked to leave because one or more of the fathers complained that her dress and dancing were overtly sexual. Clare and her friends were escorted out by security.
Clare’s story originally appeared on her sister Hännah’s blog. Clare and Hännah are two of nine siblings whose parents were members of the Quiverfull movement, a Christian homeschooling subculture which encourages families to have many children (“arrows”) so they may shoot them out into the world to win converts and maximize the number of Christian voters.
The prom in Richmond was held at a church, but it was not officially a Christian event. Not all homeschooling parents are religious. The majority of parents, however, still cite “a desire to provide religious instruction” or “a desire to provide moral instruction” as reasons for their choice. About half of Virginia homeschooling families received religious exemptions for the 2012-2013 school year.
Many girls and women encounter problems similar to Clare’s every day in one form or another, with or without religious undertones. If a woman is perceived as looking “too sexy,” she is judged for drawing attention to herself. I was once kicked out of a class for having a slit in my skirt that a professor found unseemly. I felt, as Clare did, that someone should have questioned the man to determine if perhaps the problem was his rather than mine.
While I’m encouraged to see the prom story getting attention, I am disappointed with the direction the conversation has taken. Most people have focused on the superficial and obvious problem—the outcome—rather than digging deeper to examine the underlying causes.
First, this conversation assumes that the fathers’ lustful feelings caused them to complain. But what if it wasn’t lust they felt? What if they felt a fear of lust or even revulsion because they assumed the girl was trying to create lust? Reflexively blaming men’s sexual desires is a mistake. It is too simple. Men are humans and therefore far more complex than their most basic urges.
If we do believe this situation was caused solely by lust, how do we explain those dads’ reactions? Many men would have stood quietly, storing away images for later, but these men complained. If we assume simple lust was the culprit, the men would have 1) seen a girl looking overtly sexy, 2) felt lust for the girl, 3) felt guilty about their lust, and 4) decided the girl must go.
That is so shallow and illogical, one can picture a thought bubble above the head of a caveman named Thog. I don’t know many people, men included, who operate in such simplistic ways. The problem lies not in the outcome of this logic, but in the premise upon which it is based, which is fairly nebulous and crude. It makes knee-jerk criticism too easy, and easier still for the object of that criticism to brush it off. Any father at the event would think to himself, “I was not lusting after that young woman! How dare they assume that I would lust, simply because their secular perversity would cause them to lust? ”
When we assume we know these fathers’ motivations, we abandon our curiosity and our desire to understand the bigger picture. I cannot know what was going on in those fathers’ heads, but I have spent a great deal of time both living in and researching the culture of highly conservative Evangelical Christians. So I can shed some light on the logic of the Evangelical purity movement both as it applies to women and to men. It looks something like this:
The more complicated truth is that these men may not have been lusting. Rather, they have been conditioned to think a woman who looks sexy is dangerous to them, to other men, to their sons, and to herself. So the story of the young woman kicked out of the prom must be contextualized within the Evangelical doctrine.
Evangelicals take their lead from a passage in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells his followers that if they hate someone, curse a person, or call the person a fool, they have committed murder in their heart. Few Evangelicals take that seriously. What they do take seriously is Matthew 5:27-30, which states that if a man (and it is quite clear about gender here) looks at a woman and feels lust, he has committed adultery in his heart.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”
Most non-Evangelical scholars of the Bible insist that Jesus did not intend us to police our thoughts so rigidly. Instead, he was calling out people who reveled in self-righteousness. Yet Evangelicals have taken this passage at face value, creating a purity culture that is blatantly oppressive — to men.
Despite the fact that a huge emphasis is placed on male purity in Evangelical culture, it has been almost entirely ignored by the press and by the culture’s critics. One of the better selling books in Evangelical culture in the last several years has been Every Man’s Battle: Winning the War on Sexual Temptation One Victory at a Time by Stephen Arterburn. The title reflects the belief that all men struggle with lust, and it deals with the issue head-on. It calls on men to be accountable for every sexual thought, every episode of masturbation, every time they orgasm in their sleep.
These men are not taught to simply feel guilty for these transgressions. They are also required to confess them, either to a small group of men or to an “accountability partner.” In one sociological study of Evangelical men’s communities , a man talked about how difficult it was for him to deal with female customers in his auto repair shop because of the danger that he might look at their breasts, and that thoughts of them would recur throughout the day. Yet it wasn’t God frowning down upon him that frightened him. He feared having to confess his thoughts to his accountability partner.
The culture takes as truth that any thought can enter your head, but entertaining the thought is a sin. Many have adopted the arbitrary standard that any sexual thought lasting longer than six seconds is voluntary. (This is taken from 12-step groups for sex addicts.) Even if a man has a sexually impure dream, he must assume that it came from his latent sinfulness, and therefore confess the dream. This sets the bar pretty high, even for the most devout man.
My husband once participated in this culture. He went on a mission trip to Fort Lauderdale on spring break with a group of young men. Every time a sexily-dressed woman walked by, a member of his group called out, “Boat check!” That was a cue for everyone to look out at the ocean so none of them would be tempted by the sin of lust should they catch sight of a pretty woman.
That is how frightened these men are of lust, and this is the context in which the incident at the Richmond prom occurred. In an environment in which men are terrified of having anything more than a fleeting thought of sex, the problem is not their raging libidos, but a fear of natural human sexuality. And this environment doesn’t create unreasonable standards just for women’s modesty or purity. It also perpetuates unreasonably high expectations of men and their ability to achieve sexual repression.
Another concern about the discussion of the Richmond prom incident is that those of us in mainstream, liberal, or secular communities speak of it as if we are never guilty of similar behavior. We hypocritically perpetuate our own version of a purity culture with denouncements of sexual behavior that is none of our business.
Many people take pride in their liberal stance on LGBT issues. Yet our willingness to accept other people’s sexuality often does not extend to heterosexual men who eschew monogamy. We use pejoratives such as “promiscuous” or even “man-whore” to describe them. Men who monogamously date but don’t marry don’t fare much better. They are portrayed as flawed in some integral way. Even George Clooney, a man respected for his social justice work, came under scrutiny for his years as a bachelor.
When John Edwards and Bill Clinton were discovered having consensual sexual relations with women other than their wives, we joined the chorus of their critics while clutching our pearls. I wonder why it never occurred to us that either of them might have had a consensually non-monogamous marriage. Neither could have defended himself by admitting that publicly. Telling the truth would not have exonerated them; it would have simply spread the shame to their wives. We adopted conservative assumptions that their marriages were monogamous, and that their sex lives outside of it were our business.
I don’t believe we are willfully hypocritical. Instead, we react out of vicarious pain, or maybe morbid fascination. Many people felt sympathy for Clinton’s and Edwards’ wives. Either through personal experience or the experiences of friends and family, we know what it feels like when a partner is unfaithful. Here, we have allowed ourselves to be pushed by the religious right into condemning non-traditional forms of male sexuality, and that cannot continue. If we believe it is not our job to police other’s consensual sex, we need to be consistent in applying that standard. The principle we teach women to protect themselves from slut-shaming should apply to men as well: One’s sex life is no one else’s business as long as it is consensual.
The culture of judgment plays out in private lives as well as public. I have a friend, a man I have known for more than 15 years. He occasionally talks about how uncomfortable he feels when he sees his friends’ teenage daughters—girls he knew as toddlers—all grown up and running around in bikinis. Whenever the topic comes up, I think to myself, “Oh God, please stop talking.” I react that way because I assume he has sexual feelings toward these young women. In reality, he’s an open guy who is able to acknowledge his discomfort in awkward situations. But discomfort and awkwardness do not imply sexual desire. In fact, I liken it to my husband’s difficulty in knowing how to cope with our daughter growing into a very beautiful young woman. That discomfort is a result of witnessing the transition from gangly tween to a young woman coming into her sexuality, complete with breasts and hips and revealing clothes. It’s paternal, protective.
The purity culture that has permeated America is not just oppressive to women. It damages men as well by shaming them for natural and healthy thoughts and feelings. While this phenomenon is most prevalent in conservative Christianity, it is found also in liberal and secular circles. And the shame heterosexual men feel is then projected onto its proximate cause—the women who aroused uncomfortable feelings.
Should women be held responsible for feelings they arouse in men? Of course not. Are there countless men who disagree with that? Absolutely. But should we assume that all men’s feelings are sexual in nature? Could some men—even the fathers at the Richmond prom—experience feelings that are more protective than sexual? Should we condemn a religious culture that informs not just its followers’ actions, but also the behavior of non-religious men and women, people who should know they can’t control their feelings, only their actions? Have we really become such a country of prudes?
A culture that shames people for consensual sex hurts everyone, not just young women in sexy prom dresses. If we want men to start accepting women’s sexuality, we would do well to start encouraging them to accept their own. We should consider the possibility that if men were not overwhelmed with shame every time they felt a twitch in their pants or a twinge of discomfort, they might stop blaming women.
It is time to make our message clear: The only sex truly worthy of shame and scandal is that which is non-consensual.
 Armato, M. and Marsiglio, W. (2002), Self-Structure, Identity, and Commitment: Promise Keepers’ Godly Man Project. Symbolic Interaction, 25: 41–65. doi: 10.1525/si.2002.25.1.41