Purity Culture, and Male Entitlement to Women’s Bodies


“You’re so thin!”

My fellow youth group member grabbed my wrist and linked his fingers around it. He yanked my arm upward to show my bony arm to his friends. “Guys, did you realize how small these wrists are? I can touch my thumb and pinky!”

One by one, like an animal in a petting zoo, my arm was pulled this way and that as several different people tested their hands against the size of my wrist. “Gosh, you need to eat more!” “Look at that!”

I was 16 years old, 5’8″ and 110 pounds. I’d always been skinny. I was used to people commenting on it, but this act of grabbing my body as though it was an object was a new experience for me. It was as though the wrist they were holding wasn’t attached to a person, but an oddity all on its own.

Later that same day, the boy who’d grabbed my wrist instructed another girl that she needed to sit more like a lady and pull her skirt down over her knees.

I didn’t realize it then, but my experience in church youth group was training me to see men as entitled to my body, to place myself in the position of “object.” I didn’t know how to set boundaries, and I grew used to the idea that men were allowed to touch me in small, subtle ways. So a year later, when the boy at church camp pulled me into his lap and held me there, I simply continued the conversation as though nothing had happened—because he was the strong man and I was a woman who must listen.

Male entitlement has been on the tongues of every feminist from here to Miami since a man took to the streets of Isla Vista, California, killing six people and injuring 13 others. The gunman, Elliott Rodger, had posted videos online talking about how he was rejected by women who instead favored “obnoxious brutes.” His 140-page manifesto named specific women in denouncing the “harm” they’d done him by failing to notice that he existed.

Rodgers felt so entitled to women that he murdered them when he didn’t get what he felt he deserved.

And it is precisely this attitude of entitlement that the modern evangelical church deems holy and good.

Purity culture is a function of the larger culture of male entitlement. In many ways, purity culture is more dangerous because it bathes entitlement in holiness and God-given gendered roles. Women exist to marry men and to continue the propagation of Christianity via their children. Women are first the property of their fathers, and then their husbands.

Such entitlement starts early. When young people hit puberty, the divide begins. Men must protect themselves from lust. The only way to do this is to ask women to dress in modest ways. Such instruction is given as part of the holy Christian duty—we must take care not to make our brother stumble into sin, so cover up that cleavage, ladies! Men are told to restrain, but the burden for men’s thoughts rests on the bare shoulders of ladies. Women are instructed to ask the men in their lives—their brothers, their fathers—to judge their clothing before going out. This method trains women to respond and adjust to male commentary on their bodies as a natural part of their lives.

Boundaries and consent never enter into the lessons of male entitlement to women. Women are not trained that they can say no—any discussion of consent is given in the same breath as “boys will be boys.” This teaching has had and will continue to have disastrous consequences for men and women alike.

Last month, one of the former pastors at Maryland’s Covenant Life Church, a former church under the umbrella of conservative evangelical Sovereign Grace Ministries, was convicted on several counts of childhood sexual abuse. Nathaniel Morales abused several young boys in the church from 1983 to 1991. Morales is just one of many pastors named in an ongoing civil suit against Sovereign Grace Ministries, alleging that pastors covered up and ignored many allegations of childhood sexual abuse.

The Christian Post reports the following about a former member:

[A]s a 2-year-old, her daughter was abused by a male teenager, and suggested that the church had its issues going to the authorities after hearing child abuse allegations.

“One of the pastors told us, ‘don’t go to the police.’ They had a lot to protect. They had money, power and prestige,” she said, before ultimately going to authorities herself.

Indeed, when testifying about Morales under oath, fellow pastor Grant Layman admitted that the church had withheld incriminating evidence from the police, the Christian Post reports.

According to T.F. Charlton, who wrote about the civil lawsuit for Religion Dispatches last year (currently unavailable online):

It’s no accident that so many allegations of serious abuse have arisen across SGM’s churches. The combination of patriarchal gender roles, purity culture, and authoritarian clergy that characterizes Sovereign Grace’s teachings on parenting, marriage, and sexuality creates an environment where women and children—especially girls—are uniquely vulnerable to abuse.

The attitude of male entitlement to women’s bodies, embedded in the uniquely conservative gendered roles prescribed by many churches, opens the door for abuses of the worst kind. In researching these topics over the past few years, I’ve come across a number of women who found themselves at the mercy of church discipline for failing to give in to their husband’s entitlement. Women who “withhold sex”—a phrasing that, in itself, exudes entitlement—are said to be failing in their Christian duties as wives. In theory, writes Sarah N. Moon, you could say no, but you’d be a bad wife if you actually did.

Similar entitlement extends into cases of childhood abuse committed by male authority figures. Children whose parents confront the church about their abuse are instructed to follow the lines of authority in the church, to obey what the Bible says, and, in the worst scenarios, to give their children over to God. Children do not exist as human beings in the eyes of the conservative church—instead they are pawns in the larger cosmic game. This dehumanization allows entitlement to young, female bodies to flourish.

Men are animals, purity culture tells us, unable to control themselves. Women must at once control the men around them by dressing modestly and then examine their own behavior if they are attacked. Men who rape are condemned in word and praised in action—women who refuse to have sex are withholding, heartless, cold, and to blame if they are raped. Such is the message of evangelical purity culture.

For women, the modern church is a series of pitfalls and microaggressions. A woman’s body is offered up as the sacrifice to the altar of men doing God’s work. Protecting the pride of men, the pride of a male God, the pride of a male-led church is more important than the sanctity of a woman’s body. If a woman does not have sex with her husband, if she does not allow her clothing decisions to be controlled by men, if she does not “endure [abuse] for a season,” she is not acting in loving Christlikeness.

It is under this entitlement that women in the church live; it is by this sword that we die. The church may not yet have an Elliot Rodger, but the number of people sacrificed for the cause is already too great.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

To schedule an interview with contact director of communications Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.

  • purrtriarchy

    There is a christian poster on patheos who believes that it is a woman’s duty to “spread her legs” for her man, but uh, the dirty s1ut can’t get an abortion if she becomes pregnant because she is then guilty of refusing to take responsibility for her “actions”.

    Its an unwinnable catch 22!

    On a related note, youth pastor rapes 16 year old, blames her..
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2014/06/evangelical-narratives-sexual-predators-and-safe-places.html

    • fiona64

      That article with the youth pastor made me want to smack someone. He kept acting like the whole thing was a consensual affair … and it was quite obvious that his only regret was in getting caught.

      • purrtriarchy

        Yep. What a sleazeball.

    • http://www.diannaeanderson.net/ Dianna

      I actually did several pieces on that over the week on my Tumblr – diannaeanderson.tumblr.com. I’m glad they took it down.

      • purrtriarchy

        It should have remained up, with all of the negative comments that they received for their lapse in judgment aka promotion of rape culture.

        • Elisabeth M

          I disagree. I’m glad they listened to the outrage and took it down… and followed with a really solid apology.

  • TheBrett

    What I especially hate is the defensive, “Oh no, you’ve got it all wrong! We love and respect women so much that we put that burden on them, because we know they can carry it blah blah blah” react that they trot out when called upon this. And of course, the “men are beasts” narrative rationalizes away adultery as the wife’s fault for not sufficiently “cleaving unto her husband”, as opposed to the husband being a dishonest, lying scum bag.

  • expect_resistance

    I really hate the saying “boys will be boys.” It only reenforces the male entitlement they are taught. Whenever I hear this I think of the judge that sentenced three teenaged boys to a light sentence for sexual assaulting my friend, The judge said, “boys will be boys.” My friend killed herself after the trial. This was 20+ years ago and it still haunts me today.

    • JamieHaman

      That’s horrible. Sorry for the loss of your friend, and any faith you may have had in humanity or the judicial system

      • expect_resistance

        Thank you.

    • Suba gunawardana

      That’s an unfortunate scenario that repeats itself over & over again, throughout time and all over the world….

  • Jessica Murlock

    Reminds me of the LDS Church. (Or I should say, the Mormon religion in general.)

  • Suba gunawardana

    Can’t they say anything without contradicting themselves? Men are too weak to control themselves, but women are somehow the “weaker sex”.

  • SSINTENSE

    I believe that no man is entitled a woman. Similarly, I believe that no one is entitled a “living wage.” I only say this because it seems like the vast majority of those who believe the former are of the liberal mind set.

    Why is it fair for more attractive men have an unfettered advantage in attracting the most attractive women yet talented men who command a high salary have to have their advantages limited because of the entitlements of others?

    • purrtriarchy

      That does not even make sense. Not even as a troll.

      • A. T.

        o_O Agreed.

  • A. T.

    Men and women are supposed to dress modestly for each other. The first part just gets magically left off and ignored. Weird.

  • Martin

    I agree with this article, religion is the problem.

  • Michael

    This is the most distorted view of Christianity and purity I’ve seen. All of your evidence for your claims are anecdotal and most are over dramatized (grabbing your wrist without asking = rape culture?). Sure, there are many examples of mishandled abuses by Christian churches and people. But to take anecdotal, individual-based shots against such a large group holds no water as an argument against the wholr. You’re so intellectually dishonest. And to say that Elliot Rodger, that murderous, arrogant, twisted psychopath, is Christian in nature is the most damning.
    I’m sure you had a rough history with the Church, but you have an outrageously distorted worldview as a result. That lens you look through has obviously resulted in this article.

    • Suba gunawardana

      OK in your opinion what is the CORRECT view of Christianity and purity? (“Purity” in its current context is an obscene word :)