Why write on this today?
I thought I was going to write on a different topic today, but I felt so much energy around these issues below (*patriarchy, misogyny, cultures of abuse*) that this post happened instead. Then I began seeing it all around me – Twitter threads arguing whether women should be allowed to preach, an article about domestic abusers in church, even the book Burnout that I’ve been diving into: addressing how patriarchy and unequal loads for men and women are contributing to women’s feelings of burnout.
I also was part of the launch team for Megan Tschanz’s (of the Faith and Feminism podcast) new book Women Rising (read the review here), in which she explores much of the Christian church’s upholding of the patriarchy and what it means to be, by contrast, a Christian feminist.
Additionally, news broke last week about Josh Duggar and the sexually abusive content of small children he was using as pornography. If you’re unfamiliar with what’s going on, I recommend this Twitter thread (trigger warnings for sexual abuse), but for now, just know that the Duggar family is very complementarian (believing in designated gender roles and women’s submission to men). Additionally, Duggar is shielded and protected from the consequences of his actions by both his church culture and the legal system, who is allowing him supervised visitation with his kids – visits supervised by his wife, who as I just indicated, has a role of being submissive to him. Okaaaay.
Just so we’re clear that gender disparity and gender roles / stereotyping are not only mild, but major issues in many parts of our U.S. culture. Did I beat the dead horse enough yet? Are we on board this is still a problem?
We still need posts like these, and we need them often. Let’s get started.
When they say things as though they’re true
There are a few “truisms” that I learned growing up in the conservative evangelical church about the nature of men and women* that I believe are not only falsisms (yes I made that word up) but are downright dangerous and contribute to cultures of abuse. I call them “truisms” with quotes because they are stated as though they were factual and self-evident, but in reality, they are not.
[*Disclaimer: This is a very heteronormative piece because that is always the assumption in the conservative church. This is no indication of my actual beliefs, as I’m sure you know!]
Perhaps these are told in general culture, too – but I was cocooned in evangelicalism growing up, so you’ll have to tell me what “facts” you learned about how the sexes relate to each other. Regardless whether it’s a religious or non-religious context, we know patriarchy still courses through the blood of our social and political systems.
So what are some of these insidious sayings contributing to cultures of abuse and harmful gender roles?
Men want respect, women want love
I heard this claim just the other day, stated as though it were a fact and a solid guide for marital relationships. I guess things haven’t changed much since I was a kid.
I think maybe on the surface, it seems basic and simple enough. Obviously women, with their caring, nurturing, soft natures, must just want love to feel affirmed in their relationship. And men, with their dominating, strong, leader personalities, obviously need respect to feel affirmed in their relationship.
Now to be clear, I’m not advocating that respect or love – especially in partnerships – are not important. They are! I’m also not saying this formula doesn’t work for some people. But to say one sex primarily needs love, and the other respect…
How reductionistic. I’m a woman, but you know what I really like? Respect. I love that my husband respects my thinking, my therapeutic skills, my writing, my mothering, my running. I like being loved too – like everyone – but without respect in my relationships (any of them, not just marriage) I would be out the door. At least, I hope I would be. Unless I was trained to believe that I didn’t need respect…🤔
Tangentially, the Christianity I grew up in thinks children should respect the parent, not the other way around (or at least that was not a high priority). But my goal in childrearing is not only to love my child, but to respect her as a unique human with independent desires, thoughts, and opinions. I know it is my responsibility to live and treat her in ways so she will respect me. Respect is earned.
The recipe “men want respect, women want love” is ripe for abuse of power. A mommy-style blog post I just read (in doing research for this post) talks about essentially stroking men’s egos to give them the respect they so desperately need. This means, according to the post, letting them drive around lost or put things together without offering to help or basically never correcting them, all in service of giving them “respect.”
Sometimes this adage will lead to mild annoyances, but other times, women being told to give their husbands respect means that they must put up with abuse – be it physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual – because their job is to not question him, to listen and obey, and to offer him respect. But then men with fragile egos blame everyone but themselves for their problems, and their wives’ ego-stroking will never be enough to build them up. Know what does happen instead?
Abuse of power.
And who is there to hold men accountable when challenging the authority is perceived a lot like disrespect?
Men give love to get sex; women give sex to get love
I heard this one a lot in my Christian dating education growing up, too. I wrote on this topic in my book as well, in the chapter devoted to purity culture. And by the way, everything I’m writing about in today’s post can fall under the umbrella of purity culture: set standards and assumptions for how men and women ought to behave in sexual and romantic relationships, from a conservative Christian worldview. Gender roles are an important part of purity culture.
This “truism” assumes that men are always interested in sex, while women are thought to be passive, pure, and often disinterested in sex (though willing participants for the sake of the husband). In purity culture, women are the de facto gatekeepers of purity – they are the ones told how to dress and how to act so as to not tempt the men. In the dating books I read as a teen, it was my job as a girl to be the brakes for the boy’s wild animal sexual urges (if I dated at all, since dating for fun was not recommended).
I can’t even tell you the number of Christian girls who think there’s something wrong with them when they discover they, too, have sexual urges. Or who blame themselves for sexual assault because they were told all along they were the ones who had to say no. Or who wonder if they’re not attractive or lovable because their male partner isn’t as uncontrollably after them all the time like he was “supposed” to be.
These are real stories. No exaggerations.
This claim “men give love to get sex; women give sex to get love” reduces men to base instincts whereby love is simply a means to fulfilling their sexual urge. I am so sorry that men (and women) learned this!
And meanwhile, the claim is ripe for marital/partner rape, as women submit to sex they do not want perhaps in the hope that love might be offered to them – because they were told that was the recipe. (The Bible is also used as justification for such actions as well). But how does that make any sense when the first part of the claim is saying that the love a man is offering is just in service of getting laid? That’s pretty shallow love.
What a hot mess. It’s so sad.
This phrase probably means nothing to a lot of you, so let me explain. “Sin equivalency” is the idea that all sins are equal in the eyes of God, because any sin, no matter how small, separates humans from God (something I do NOT believe, but was taught all the time in church).
It’s really a theological claim, but it gets translated to human situations and has the effect of giving many abusers a pass.
For instance, in the conservative evangelical church, thoughts are often considered equivalent to actions, using the whole thing Jesus said about “if you look at a woman with lust you have already committed adultery with her in your heart” (Matthew 5:28). This gives Christian men and hormonal teenage boys major shame complexes for having feelings of attraction towards people.
But it also has a strange effect of creating a “sin equivalency” of anything on the “sexual sin” spectrum. Looking with lust (i.e. attraction), using pornography, adultery, buying sex, sexual abuse… it’s all the same in God’s eyes, so…*shrugs shoulders*…who are we to say what’s worse?
This sort of thinking, combined with what I said above about the teaching that men have overpowering sexual urges (and women do not), leads to some dangerous conclusions. Remember the Ravi Zacharias scandal that broke last year after his death? Zacharias was a very esteemed evangelical scholar and writer who was exposed, post-mortem, to be involved in numerous sexually and spiritually abusive relationships with women he received massages from. It was a big deal. But then a weird thing kept happening: leaders kept sympathizing with Zacharias.
Religion News Service had an excellent article about the tendency of evangelical leaders to offer a sort of “there but for the grace of God, go I” line regarding Zacharias. If it weren’t for God’s grace, these pastors and seminary leaders might have found themselves in similar acts as Zacharias.
First off, YIKES! Not everyone has to be *this close* to being a sexual predator. It’s quite the admission if you think you are. But many people have wondered if the conservative church’s theology around sex truly does contribute to a culture of sexual abuse.
Second, the RNS article points out that when leaders say that, they are empathizing with the abuser instead of empathizing with and defending the victims of the abuse. Know what happens too often in Catholic, Southern Baptist, and other churches when a pastor/leader is found to be abusive? They leave that church … and quietly move along somewhere else.
Abusers are given a pass All.The.Time. in our society. We often seem more interested in protecting them than believing the victims.
Do we recognize the dangers?
To me, it seems that if you simply follow these claims out to their natural, logical consequences, it’s pretty obvious that they lead to some pretty harmful stuff. Yet they are still given in Christian settings today as truth and useful advice for marriage. Then women in these cultures are blamed for high divorce rates for not respecting or sexing or forgiving enough.
Maybe those ideas above work perfectly for some people and couples. Cool for them (but it’s not my choice for my life). But maybe it’s easy to see how abuse is going to show up from these beliefs when you’ve spent time on the underside of power and emerge to find another way. A way that offers you so much more fulfillment, trust, and empowerment.
We need to pay attention to the meanings behind the adages and beliefs and theology we throw around. These adages contain theology because they are backed by beliefs in a (male-pronoun) God with certain ideas about gender roles and using a specific way to read the Bible. Bad theology can do terrible harm. One of my life’s passions is to push back against such theology – whether IRL or by writing books and blog posts. It’s such a slow, painful process, but we must start somewhere. People are being abused while we wait.