Browsing Tag

rape culture

Feminism

why aren’t Christians outraged by sexual abuse?

Because I wrote an article for Relevant a while ago (“What Christians Get Wrong about Sexual Abuse“), every so often I get e-mails from their editors asking for pitches on specific topics. This week, they asked for an article titled “Why Aren’t More Christians Outraged by Sexual Harassment Scandals?”, referencing the recent firing of Bill O’Reilly for sexually harassing women at Fox News. I pitched them something, and they published it yesterday.

You can read the whole thing here. I’m a little annoyed at Relevant‘s habit of sanitizing my writing. They removed me quoting Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” line, as well as the word rapacious and various other things. But … considering my first draft included the line “women are just supposed to be animated sex dolls that occasionally do the dishes” (which I cut in later drafts, upon reflection) I may be just a little out of touch with what an evangelical audience can tolerate. Possibly. Have I mentioned lately how much I love you all for reading me even when I’m horrifyingly honest?

The comments so far have been, ehm, interesting. There’s lots of lovely people saying surprisingly lovely things, and a few people who are … goddess bless them they’re just so clueless.

The semester is really close to wrapping up– my last item is due May 5, and then I have the summer off. Sticky notes for post ideas are piling up on my desk, and I’m excited to get back to that. For now, I’m going to enjoy a lone day off and play some Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited.

Feminism

Purity Culture Itself is the Problem

I got back from my short jaunt to  seminary this weekend, and I have my first massive paper of seminary due tomorrow, so that’s been what’s keeping me occupied. I did take Redeeming Love with me and was able to read a little of it, but I was somewhat preoccupied with an article I was writing for Rewire, which went up today!

It’s titled “How We Teaching Purity Culture isn’t the Problem: Purity Culture Itself is the Problem,” and I’m pretty excited about it. As always, if you think this is valuable reading, please share it generously with your social media circles.

This weekend is my big Halloween bash, so after that life should settle back down to something resembling more routine and I hope to return to at least a weekly blogging schedule. For now, enjoy my post over at Rewire and you can always find me on Twitter and Facebook ranting about things.

Photo by Noee
Feminism

Redeeming Love Review: Angel’s backstory

For this review series I’ve decided to split Redeeming Love into twelve sections, around forty pages each, instead of splitting it up by chapters– since the chapters all have varied lengths. Today’s post covers the prologue and the first chapter, which gives us Angel’s backstory. To make things a little easier for those of you who haven’t read the book at all, or in a while, I’ll give plot summaries at the beginning of each post before digging into the themes and imagery I’d like to discuss.

  • Mae, her mother, is a mistress.
  • Alex, her father, paid for Mae to have an abortion, but she refused because of her Catholicism.
  • Sarah/Angel overhears her father saying how her existence ruined both their lives.
  • Mae sends Sarah/Angel away with Cleo, the nanny, to have a weekend with Alex without Sarah/Angel present.
  • Alex stops supporting Mae and Sarah/Angel; Mae tries to return to her parents, but is refused.
  • Eventually, Mae becomes a prostitute. Falls ill and dies.
  • Rab, Mae’s love interest at the time, sells Sarah/Angel to “Duke” and is murdered in front of her.
  • Duke renames Sarah “Angel.” Rapes her.
  • Angel, at eighteen, goes to California; she’s mugged by the other prostitutes on the boat.
  • Meets Duchess, moves to Pair-a-Dice with Duchess as her madam.

If you read over some of the negative reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, you’ll notice that there’s a fair number of people who found the dark opening to the book incredibly off-putting and somehow an ungodly thing to read about. The sort of person leaving that review is probably coming from a similar background as my childhood: Philippians 4:8 was our guidepost for all our entertainment decisions, and the opening to Redeeming Love probably doesn’t qualify as something “pure” or “lovely.”

In that sense, I’m somewhat grateful that Francine was willing to explore something dark in her book. Christian culture has a tendency to sugarcoat reality, and it drives me nuts– so at least here that’s not happening. While Angel’s backstory is probably darker than her average 1850s counterpart, it doesn’t stretch the bounds of credulity even by today’s standards.

The particular situation that Francine sets up for both Mae and Angel is a particular form of sexual abuse: it’s called survival sex and can appear both inside and outside prostitution. Many of the people who enter sex work– both today and in the 1850s– did so out of extreme duress. Like with Mae’s character, they considered it a “last resort,” but eventually circumstances deprived them of other viable options. However, it is extremely important to note that people can be forced into survival sex and not be prostitutes. I’ve known several women over the years who had sex with their significant others for no other reason than that if they refused they’d be homeless and starving. Survival sex is coerced sex, and y’all know my feelings on that subject.

A common myth about prostitution– one perpetually reinforced by every Christian anti-sex-trafficking organization I’ve encountered– is that all prostitutes are engaging in survival sex, or were forced into it as a form of slavery. There’s this belief that only incredibly desperate people would enter sex work ‘voluntarily’ … which is not the case. I’d also like to highlight that Mae was having survival sex with Alex long before Francine started describing her as a prostitute– her house and their food would only be provided as long as she was capable of satisfying Alex’s lust.

There are some historical details that Francine is getting right about prostitution during the California Gold Rush, like a Chinese woman being the only one of Duchess’ prostitutes who is there as an actual slave, but I’m already sensing some anachronistic over-writing. Due to the scarcity of women in California at the time, there wasn’t a lot of social stigma surrounding prostitution in places like Pair-a-Dice; but, given what I know about some of the events that happen later on, I don’t think Francine is going to stay true to that.

Getting into the details, though, there is one particular scene worth highlighting:

[Cleo] pushed him away. He reached for her again, and she dodged him–but even Sarah could tell the effort was half-hearted. How could Cleo let this man near her? …

Merrick caught hold of her and kissed her. Cleo struggled, trying to pull away, but he held her tightly. When she relaxed against him, he drew back enough to say “More than that’s [the sea] in your blood.”

“Merrick, don’t. She’s watching–”

“So what?”

He kissed her again, and she fought him this time. Sarah sat frozen in fear. Maybe he would just kill them both.

“No! Cleo said angrily. “Get out of here. I can’t do this. I’m supposed to be taking care of her.” (28)

Merrick than tosses Sarah/Angel out into the hallway with strict orders to stay there or he’ll cut her up and feed her to the crabs, and him and Cleo “have sex.” Then we get this:

She stretched out her hand, but Merrick was gone. It was like him. She wasn’t going to worry about it now. After last night, how could he deny he loved her? (29) …

She put Sarah to bed early and went back down to the bar, hoping he would come in later. He didn’t. She stayed a little longer, laughing with other men and pretending she didn’t care … She hated him for breaking her heart again. She had let him do it to her so many times before. When would she learn to say no to him? Why had she come back? She should’ve known what would happen, would always happen. (30)

This scene bothers me because men like Merrick who laugh at women who are actively fighting them are going to get what they want regardless of whether or not she gives her consent. It does seem that Cleo wanted to have sex with Merrick and stopped resisting once he’d thrown Sarah out into the hall … but the fact that her consent was inconsequential to Merrick in this scene isn’t a part of the tension. She only gets mad at Merrick the next evening when he doesn’t show up at the bar, and the fact that he’s probably overridden her objections in the past isn’t a part of the speech she gives Sarah.

Then there’s the line that Francine puts in Sarah’s head: how could Cleo let this man near her? Considering that she’s spent five whole pages of a 34-page prologue doing nothing but establishing how frightening a figure Merrick is, that thought jumps out to me as decidedly out of place. It’s clear that Sarah is terrified of Merrick, is doing everything he says because he’s threatened to cut out her tongue out and kill her, and is also convinced that he’d kill Cleo, too. That doesn’t jive with “how could Cleo let this man near her?”

I think that particular line is Francine slut-shaming Cleo. It’s not a part of Sarah/Angel’s character, and it does nothing for the plot. It’s authorial manipulation, trying to get us to see Cleo the way Francine sees Cleo. We’re also supposed to see the lecture she delivers through this slut-shaming light: Cleo’s problem isn’t that men are truly terrible, it’s her bad decision making.

I think this is going to play out in Angel’s storyline. At the end of the prologue we get this:

He smiled again as he removed his tie and slowly began to unbutton his shirt.

And by morning, Sarah knew that Cleo had told her God’s truth about everything. (44)

… which shows up in the first chapter as a baseline for how Angel views the world. Cleo had told her the truth about the world, about men … but the reader is supposed to see Cleo’s “truth” as being born of her sinful and oh-so-slutty decisions. The book is, after all, titled Redeeming Love, and it’s going to be Angel’s future sinful and oh-so-slutty decisions that she’s going to need God’s grace and redemption for.

Bonus prediction: Francine is going to juxtapose Mae’s Catholicism with an anachronistically-evangelistic Protestantism at some point, and illustrate that the Catholic faith is inherently lacking and deficient.

Feminism

Redeeming Love review: Introduction

I had a root canal this morning and my copy of Francine River’s Redeeming Love hasn’t arrived yet, so today is just going to serve as an introduction. In case you’ve never heard of the book before I mentioned it as an option for me to review a while ago, here’s the summary from the back:

California’s gold country, 1850. A time when men sold their souls for a bag of gold and women sold their bodies for a place to sleep.

Angel expects nothing from men but betrayal. Sold into prostitution as a child she survives by keeping her hatred alive. And what she hates most are the men who use her, leaving her empty and dead inside.

Then she meets Michael Hosea. A man who seeks his Father’s heart in everything, Michael obeys God’s call to marry Angel and to love her unconditionally. Slowly, day by day, he defies Angel’s every bitter expectation, until despite her resistance, her frozen heart begins to thaw.

But with her unexpected softening come overwhelming feelings of unworthiness and fear. And so Angel runs. Back to the darkness, away from her husband’s pursuing love, terrified of the truth she no longer can deny: Her final healing must come from the One who loves her even more than Michael does … the One who will never let her go.

Seems like a fairly typical Christian historical romance novel, although probably slightly darker than most of the ones I read growing up. In those, women could have abuse in their background, but it was pretty much only ever alluded to in vague ways, and never dealt with it directly. Like in Lori Wick’s The Knight and the Dove — the main character, Megan, suffered abuse and neglect from her mother, but it all happened in “the past” (mostly. I think her mother slaps her once). The book never really knows how to deal with it, expect that she sleepwalks when she’s upset, something most of the characters seem to find adorable for some reason?

I’ve never read Redeeming Love before, but I’ll bet you anything that Francine probably doesn’t know the first thing about trauma, recovery, and the healing process. Notice how we’re already being set up to expect Angel to be “bitter“? I imagine Angel’s recovery will be set in terms of forgiveness and bitterness, which y’all can already guess how well I’ll react to that. Given that Redeeming Love exists in a culture that has fundamental misunderstandings of sex trafficking, there’s also going to be some myths that I’ll have to deconstruct.

Given that we’ll be talking about sex trafficking for the first bit of the book, I have to let you know that I don’t have a solidly formed opinion about this topic. Sex trafficking is clearly evil, and I think this is something we all agree on. However, there are many arguments about how to go about solving this problem, and I don’t think there is any sort of silver bullet or perfect solution.

I will say that conversations about sex trafficking in the American Christian context are muddied with our tendency to see all non-heterosexual-married sex as innately sinful. I also lean in the direction of protecting sex workers while avoiding paternalism and condescension; this means that while I find certain arguments about “sex work can only exist in a misogynistic system that views women’s bodies as consumable commodities” somewhat compelling, I also believe that all bodies and our labor are consumable commodities in a capitalistic system, and if I can consent to selling my labor at a bookstore, what’s the real difference between that and selling my labor from a bed?

I’m still not completely sold either way on whether or not there’s some quality to sex work that makes it wholly and significantly different from other forms of physical or emotional labor, but what I do know is that many sex workers find their work enjoyable and aren’t any more coerced into it than anyone else trying to put food in their mouth and roof over their head by flipping burgers or brewing cappuccinos.

Obviously this is an extremely complicated conversation, with many valid viewpoints and arguments, and I think Redeeming Love will be a good entry point into that discussion since it’s not one we’ve really had on the blog.

***

I’ve pointed you in the direction of Lindsay’s in-depth review already, but I always try to situate these review series in the larger context of how the book’s been received and what it’s meant to people, so I read a few more reviews today. There’s this one by Wife, Mom, Superwoman and another by Mike Duran here, and something popped out to me in those reviews: they both describe Michael Hosea as relentless, and both of them clearly think of this as one of his best traits.

As a Christian I understand the beauty that can be found in God’s grace, and how we can be comforted by its endless depths. I return to Christian theology again and again — despite all my doubts and struggles– because I love how it can articulate a deity of boundless love that crosses all boundaries and boxes. However, it’s interesting to me that so many people think of God as relentless, a word that conveys things like zombies and Jubal Early from Firefly. My conception of God’s love is more like sunlight and moonlight. Always there, always beautiful, but certainly not something that chases me down and drags me, desperately kicking and screaming, back into his house.

Hmm. I think we might end up talking about Christian culture’s violence-centric depictions of God, too.

Many of the 1-star reviews on Goodreads make a lot of good points, but 86% of the ratings are 4 or 5 stars, and almost a hundred thousand people have given it a 5-star rating. Phrases like “I couldn’t possibly do this book justice,” “extraordinary,” and “flawless,” are littered everywhere. Most of the reviews are essentially different wordings of “this book has deeply affected my view of God and romance,” which I find troubling. Fiction and literature are powerful things, but there’s a Twilight-level fervor in these reviews that me wonder about the connection between abusive, controlling, agency-stripping “romances” and how popular they can be.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to launching into this with y’all.

Artwork by Mick Austin
Feminism

things not even tolerated by the world: Christians and hypocrisy

A little while ago I read “All Christians are Hypocrites” by Jayson Bradley. I don’t really disagree with him or any of the points he makes, but I want to highlight something.

Jayson opens his article musing that many people associate “Christian” with “hypocrite,” and I don’t think he’s wrong. However, he spends the bulk of his article pointing to behaviors that are frequently condemned by Christian culture: drinking, going to move theaters, secular music, affairs, drug addiction, liberal politics, etc. Part of his argument is “Feeling forced to hide these things from our Christian neighbors is part of what makes us look like hypocrites to The World,” and that’s where I disagree with him.

Sure, I knew people growing up who believed that Christians didn’t drink alcohol and would be judgmental if they saw me tossing back a pumpkin ale, but Jayson’s focus on movie theaters and rock music is downright laughable because those things are not why “The World” views us as hypocrites.

It’s because we condone things that “not even the pagans” would tolerate (I Cor. 5:1).

Josh Duggar molested his sisters and girls from his church, and I personally knew people from previous churches who defended his actions as “normal.” More than one Christian told me I was wrong for daring to talk about it.

Saeed Abedini– who pled guilty to abusing his wife and now has a restraining order against him— was handed a massive pulpit by Christianity Today to call his wife a liar and say she’s in league with Satan. That’s not even the first time they’ve done something that despicable– their Leadership Journal published a piece by a convicted rapist where he referred to raping a minor as an “affair.”

Baylor University administration and staff has spent years covering up rapes and assaults committed by not just football players, but debate champions and other students. They threatened retaliation if the victims went to the police, they rewarded rapists with staff and coaching positions. What they’ve done is an order of magnitude worse than what happened at Penn State and they’re facing practically no repercussions at the moment. It’s hardly unique for a Christian university to do this, either. Patrick Henry has done it, as has Bob Jones, and Pensacola Christian … at this point I’d be shocked if there’s any conservative Christian university that hasn’t spent decades retaliating against rape victims.

The New York Catholic Conference spent 2.1 million dollars making sure it would be impossible for pedophilic priests to ever face justice. Pope Francis, who is being hailed as some sort of progressive icon, won’t reverse Benedict’s decision to make child sexual assault allegations a “pontifical secret” and the Church explicitly told priests that they’re under no obligation to report child sexual assault if they know of it.

And just in case you think that this sort of massive cover up is isolated to the Holy Roman Catholic Church and college campuses, it’s not. The Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE) has spent several decades hiding the fact that several of their missionaries are habitual child rapists. After hiring GRACE to investigate, they fired them weeks before they were about to release the report. Years later they eventually got around to releasing a report compiled by Pii (which you can find here), but when Christianity Today posted something about it, they happily went with ABWE’s position of “oh, that will never happen again even though we’re not really admitting we did anything wrong and we’re doing absolutely nothing to make sure it won’t happen again,” as if a mea culpa could ever be enough. Only a handful of Christians are even talking about this, and when we do it’s mostly to make sure ABWE escapes any serious consequences for being complicit in the rape of children.

And it’s not just Baptists, just in case you’re the sort of person who hates on Baptists. The PCUSA (that’s the liberal one) and New Tribes Mission have both issued “apologies” for the dozens of children who were raped by their missionaries.

This is why Christians are hypocrites.

Not because we drink when we’re not supposed to. Not because some of us get tattoos. Not because we have the occasional affair (which is clearly always the wife’s fault anyway, have you seen how she’s let herself go?).

It’s because when our pastors, college administrators, celebrities and missionaries rape our children we shrug and call it “normal” and we call those children adulterers. We make girls who have been impregnated by their rapists stand in front of their church and confess. We write letters to judges begging them for leniency when our “preacher boys” turn out to be rapists. We scream and scream and scream about predators in bathrooms, but when there are actual predators raping our children, we do something worse than nothing. We call the victims liars, we make sure their abuser can do it again, and when those rapists say “oh, oops, I’m sowwy” we publish long think-pieces on forgiveness.

Jesus said to let the little ones come unto him, that only people who become like a child will enter the kingdom of heaven. Seems like we’ve forgotten that.

Photo by Will Beard
Feminism

my church says I’m dirty, my mother says I’m awesome: lessons on sex

Today’s post is a guest post from Mara.

I grew up in a very average, white, suburban Evangelical church. My church was not extreme or controversial in any way. But what I learned from church about gender, sex, and relationships has ultimately hurt me. Some of these lessons were explicitly taught; some were insidious undertones, assumptions, or cultural norms that I absorbed over the years.

These are the lessons I learned from church about sex and relationships:

  1. Your purity is valuable. If you have sex, you’ll disappoint God and harm your relationship with him, and harm your relationship with your future husband.
  2. What you want is irrelevant. All that matters is what God wants. What you want is probably sinful.
  3. You can’t trust yourself. You aren’t capable of good judgment when it comes to sex.
  4. You are not in control. If you ever find yourself alone with a guy, the mere proximity will cause the two of you to spontaneously combust. All people want sex all of the time, and men are ruled by this desire.
  5. Listen to your guilt. Guilt is the Holy Spirit convicting you of sin.
  6. Women shouldn’t be in charge. My church paid lip service to gender equality while excluding women from leadership and exclusively using male language for God. Subtly, the way gender roles were played out in the church conditioned me to believe that it was weird (and maybe wrong) for a woman to be in charge – and by extension, weird for me to be calling the shots or in control.
  7. Sex is wrong outside of heterosexual marriages. The only thing worth discussing about sexual boundaries is, “How far can I go without damaging my purity?”

Fortunately, my parents acted as a buffer to many of the destructive messages I was absorbing from “purity culture” at church. As I was growing up, they told me constantly that I was loved, smart, beautiful, good, and competent. My mother also gave me the best relationship advice I have ever gotten. She looked me in the eye and said insistently,

Listen. This is important. Never let a guy talk down to you, because you are awesome. If any guy ever says differently or puts you down, punch him in the face. I mean it. You are awesome. Don’t believe any guy that says differently. And if you try to tell a guy something and he doesn’t understand, he’s the crazy one, not you. You are awesome.

But all of their affirmation wasn’t enough to undo what I had learned from church. I sincerely wanted to be faithful; I wanted to do the right thing. My naïve sincerity worked against me.

The first time these lessons failed me was the first time I was kissed, in high school. I turned to say something to the guy sitting next to me and found his mouth suddenly on mine. I froze. I knew I didn’t want his tongue in my mouth, but it never occurred to me to push him away. I didn’t know I had that option. In matter of seconds, a debate went on in my mind about what I should do.  The conclusion I came to in those seconds was that if it was a sin, I should pull back and do what God wants. But most people I knew didn’t consider a kiss to be “too far”, so it probably wasn’t sinful. And I felt guilty about “leading him on”: since I had flirted with him, I felt he had a right to expect I would kiss him. Therefore, I decided I should let him kiss me because my guilt told me it was the right thing to do. I was very uncomfortable, rather confused, and wished he would stop. True to the lessons I had learned from church, I didn’t trust myself, I wasn’t in control, and what I actually wanted was never part of my decision-making process.

Nothing in my religious education taught me that it was wrong for him to touch me in a way I didn’t want.

I didn’t really start dating until my junior year of college. The first time I met him, I awkwardly blurted out that I didn’t want to have sex until marriage. I was deathly afraid “leading him on,” and I feared that talking to him at all without an upfront caveat would be deceptive. I fully believed he would walk away, since church had taught me that all guys always want sex. But he didn’t care. I was shocked that he actually just liked being around me. We kept seeing each other, and I liked hanging out with him, and I liked kissing him – some of the time.  Once when we were kissing his hand reached behind me for my bra clasp, but he paused, looking at me to see what I wanted. My mind froze, torn between what I thought the church expected of me, and what I thought he expected of me. I didn’t know I was allowed to make decisions based on what I wanted. I didn’t know what to do, so I kissed him to end the panic. And the bra came off, even though I was definitely not ready for that. The next time I saw him, I wore a tricky front-clasping bra, hoping it would deter him without my actually having to communicate with him. It was ineffective.

Throughout the relationship, he would ask me if I was comfortable and what I wanted, but I didn’t know how to answer those questions, and my voice would stick in my throat. True to his word, he never asked for sex. But still, after some encounters where paralysis from my underlying beliefs left me unable to communicate my discomfort, I would start shaking and shivering uncontrollably, exactly as I had after that unwanted kiss in high school. Trying to make decisions based on guilt was disastrous. I felt guilty for telling him no (because by flirting with him or kissing him, I must have been “teasing” or “leading him on”), and I felt guilty for doing anything physical and damaging my “purity.” I ended the relationship after a couple of months because I couldn’t handle the anxiety from the conflicting guilt messages, or the resulting paralysis. I had no concept of what a healthy dating relationship looked like or what consent meant.

Eventually, as my beliefs and understanding around sex evolved and I dated other guys, I learned (slowly and painfully) how to communicate, how to ignore guilt, and how to make decisions based on what I actually wanted and what was right for me. I finally learned that no man ever has a right to touch me. I remember distinctly the first time I was able to actualize this newfound insight. After a date, a guy walked me home, and kissed me at the gate. Then he tried to put his hand down my pants. I pushed him away and told him no, clearly and firmly, and I didn’t feel guilty. I walked away and laughed. I celebrated that night. I celebrated belonging to me, and to no one else. I was 21 years old.

***

Experience has taught me that just about everything I learned about sex and relationships from Evangelicalism was wrong, unhelpful, or dangerous. I’ve discovered that it’s a complete myth that men unilaterally have stronger sex drives than women or that they are controlled by such an imperative for sex. The only guy I’ve gone out with who actually believed that was one who tried to rape me. It was how he justified the assault.

In that situation and many others, I may have been able to protect myself better if I had been taught to trust myself, to trust my instincts when they sense something is going wrong. But the church’s message that I can’t trust myself has been the most insidious, the hardest to root out. It’s an issue beyond just sexual situations. I was recently in a serious relationship with a man that I loved and adored. He was a good guy in every measurable way. But something felt off, and it bothered me. He always felt distant; I felt like I couldn’t get close to him, even though he said he loved me and he called me every day. I explained it away as being the result of a long-distance relationship. But the feeling grew over time, to the point where I felt like I wasn’t a priority to him, like he took me for granted. I told him how I felt, and his response was that I was overly sensitive and I was imagining it or that he already does enough and it was unreasonable to expect anything else. Eventually, when I was miserable enough, I remembered my mother’s advice: he must be the crazy one, not me. My emotions were legitimate, and deserved to be taken seriously.

A few months after we broke up, I found out he had been in love with another girl since high school. He told me that if at any time she had become available, he would have left me for her. He literally said I was his “second choice.” My instincts had been dead on: he was distant and emotionally unavailable, and I was not his priority. I’m not about to be anybody’s second choice. I’m too awesome for that.

As I have come to believe more firmly that I’m awesome and valuable, I have also come to see the value in having sex within a committed relationship. I didn’t always see this value. I felt secure having sex with a guy I felt safe with and who treated me well, as long as we always used condoms and I was on the pill. Then came the unfortunate week in which a condom malfunction coincided with a missed birth control pill – which was followed by a missed period.

During the ensuing panic, three things became very clear to me: I wanted to keep the baby, but having a baby would make graduate school (which I wanted more than anything) very complicated, maybe impossible; and I was horrified at the thought of having this guy be the father of my child, and being tied to him for the rest of my life.

Even after finding out I wasn’t pregnant, the impression of the riskiness of sex stuck with me.  Around this time, the logic of my father’s theory on sex began to sink in. He always said that it was best to keep sex inside marriage (even common law marriage) because it was protective against some of the consequences of sex. I now saw his point: I decided I wasn’t going to risk that kind of sex again until I’d finished graduate school and I was with someone I at least wouldn’t be horrified about being connected to for the rest of my life.

While a serious relationship with someone I know and trust can be protective against the risks and dangers of sex, I’ve realized this is a guideline, not a rule. It makes it less likely I’ll get a sexually transmitted infection, less likely a pregnancy would be unbearable, less likely the sex is exploitative or harmful. There’s value in that.

But it’s also true that some sex outside of committed long-term relationships could be beneficial, and some married sex is extremely harmful.

This is the reason I would not marry someone without having some kind of sex with him first.  You can’t tell for sure how a guy is going to behave or how he communicates or what he prioritizes about sex until something physical starts happening. There are certainly signs to pay attention to before that; if he treats you poorly outside the bedroom, you can be pretty sure he won’t be any better inside. But I’ve been with guys who are respectful, considerate, good guys, but don’t communicate or behave in a way that I’m comfortable with when things start to get physical. Before I agree to spend the rest of my life with someone, I need to know for certain that I’m as safe with and respected by him with the bedroom door closed as I am when we’re at dinner with my parents.

Looking back, these are the lessons I wish I had learned from my church as a teenager, lessons my church would have been well equipped to teach:

  1. You are valuable. Not your purity, not your vagina, you – the person made in the image of God – are valuable. No matter what happens to you or what decisions you make, you are valuable.
  2. What you want is extremely important. If someone touches you in a way you don’t want, that’s called sexual assault. That’s a crime that person perpetrated against you. It is not your fault.
  3. You have good instincts. Trust your instincts. You can sharpen your instincts even more by learning about red flags of abuse to watch out for so you can keep yourself safe.
  4. If you don’t feel in control in a situation, something is wrong. Take a step back. Are you in danger? Do the two of you need to communicate better? Are you not sure yet what you want, and need to pause until you are?
  5. Guilt is a terrible measure for decision-making. You will feel guilty for telling a man yes. You will also feel guilty for telling a man no. Don’t listen to the guilt. Listen to your own, God-given wise mind. Check in with your emotions and your reason. Are you feeling any outside pressure to make a decision one way or the other? Do you actually want the sex itself, or do you want to have sex because you want to make him happy or to be closer to him or because you think it is expected of you? Make sure you know why you are making whatever choice you are making. Double check if this is really a good idea, if this is really what you want. Is this right for you? Is it safe? Are you sure you can trust him? What will you think about this decision three months from now?
  6. Women are equal partners in sex and relationships. Both parties should be benefiting. Both parties have a say in what happens. If you’re not enjoying it as much as he is, do something different. Communication is always necessary, always good.
  7. Sex is wrong when it is exploitative. This is true no matter what type of relationship you have, from strangers to spouses. This means that sex is wrong if:
    1. There is not clear, enthusiastic consent, every time for every act (and continuing through each act).
    2. There is a power differential (employer/employee; adult/minor; sex trafficking; etc.).
    3. There is coercion, force, or manipulation of any kind.
    4. It’s used as a weapon to control, harm, or humiliate.
  8. Make informed choices. Make sure you understand human anatomy, the way birth control works, how to have safe sex, and how to get tested for STDs. Make sure you understand the risks and possible consequences of sex, including pregnancy, HIV, other STDs, and potential changes in the dynamics of your relationship.
  9. You are awesome. Remember you are awesome when you’re making decisions, especially about sex and relationships. Remember how awesome you are before you take unnecessary risks. You are awesome.
Photo by Tall And Ginger
Feminism

I Kissed Dating Goodbye review: 87-110

“The Direction of Purity” &
“A Cleansed Past: The Room”

The bulk of chapter seven is dedicated to a concept I disagree with: any sex outside of monogamous marriage is a sin. I’ve laid out an argument for why I think sex that causes I or someone else harm should be our standard, starting here, but I am aware that my argument is not the only way to interpret the New Testament passages regarding porneia, usually translated “fornication” or “sexual immorality.” While I feel that my argument is sound, it does reflect a hermenuetic that conflicts with a more conservative understanding of the Bible and Christianity. I asked why NT writers would condemn porneia, and then based my position on the answer to that question. However, if your answer is “because God preserved penetrative intercourse for marriage,” then obviously you’ll end up in a far different place.

Personally, I feel people like Joshua aren’t taking a holistic approach to the Bible when they make arguments like “God preserved sex for marriage.” That narrow view comes out like this:

God guards [physical intimacy] carefully and places many stipulations on it because He considers it extremely precious. (94)

The only “stipulation” that (according to conservative evangelicals) God places on sex in the New Testament is “don’t have it unless you’re married,” so it seems logical to assume that when Joshua refers to “many stipulations” he’s referring to the Law. Unfortunately, the Law includes such “stipulations” as a woman being required to marry her rapist. I don’t think it’s possible to argue that a woman being forced to spend her life with the man who raped her represents sex inside marriage being precious.

However, I’m not the only Christian in the world and I believe one can make a “biblical” argument for saving sex for marriage, so I’m not going to fully address his argument. Instead, I’ll point out where I think he went wrong.

***

This chapter sees Joshua using The Quintessential Example of A Good Man Gone Wrong: and if you guessed “David,” you’d be right. As is typical, he talks about David and Bathsheba as if they had a consensual affair. There are so many reasons that interpretation is disastrously wrong– David raped Bathsheba, David is a rapist— but I think it’s important to highlight something else.

When men like Joshua talk about David and Bathsheba, they’re using David as an example of what could, theoretically, happen to anyone. You stay home from the battlefield. You indulge. You see a naked woman, and then you choose not to look away. You decide you want to sleep with her, and you figure out how to do it. You plan. And then you cover it up.

The problem with this narrative is that this is not a story about a man plotting out his affair. It’s about a man who decides he’s going to abuse his power and rape a woman. Every time this goes unacknowledged, these men inculcate rape culture in their congregations just a little bit more. They entrench, just a bit more deeply, the idea that they can kidnap a woman in the middle of the night and force themselves on her and that’s not rape. This is a total erasure of what consent is and what it looks like.

This is important because rapists are not monsters. They’re normal, everyday people. They’re our friends, our parents, our siblings, our pastors, our co-workers. They buy you coffee, they open doors for you, they preach messages about self-sacrifice and loving your neighbor … and they are rapists not because they’re so different from “normal” people, but because they believe that women are something they can just take. They believe that because we tell them so.

Because Joshua told them so.

I’ve talked some about why purity culture is incompatible with teaching consent, and it comes out here:

You can’t slow down, you can’t turn around; you can only continue speeding farther and farther from your destination. How many Christians in dating relationships have felt the same way as they struggle with accelerating physical involvement? They want to exit, but their own sinful passion takes them further and further from God’s will. (91)

Again, for this post I’m not challenging the idea that “God’s will” is to save sex for marriage. However, this section illustrates a problem because it views people as being in a default state of consent, when the reverse is true. A person’s default state is non-consenting. When you think every man, every woman, exists in a frame of mind where they simply cannot say no, even when “they want to exit,” then rape is impossible to commit. A healthy sexual ethic (even one that assumes that sex is sinful outside of marriage) must include consent as its basis. Except teaching consent undermines purity culture– and they can’t give up using fear of “being unable to stop” as their primary weapon.

***

Toward the end of the chapter he encourages “guys and girls” to help each other stay pure, and unsurprisingly I have problems.

We [men] need to stop acting like hunters trying to catch girls and begin seeing ourselves as warriors standing guard over them … we must realize that girls don’t struggle with the same temptations we struggle with. We wrestle more with our sex drives, while girls struggle more with their emotions. (98)

Beat my head into a friggin wall.

This is, in short, benevolent sexism. Joshua places women on a pedestal and tells men to guard it … and then he goes on to reassert the myth that women are chaste angels who are lured in by romance. It’s not his fault he thinks this– I’m pretty sure every woman in his life has spent a long time reinforcing the message that women just don’t experience arousal, not really— but it’s frustrating nonetheless. Women are just as capable of experiencing hubba hubba feelings as men are, and science backs me up.

He then goes on to share a story about his friend Matt who wanted to date Julie, but refrained from flirting with her for a period of time because “God made it clear to Julie that she had to focus on Him and not be distracted by Matt” (98). Joshua says look at him, that was the right thing to do, and I agree– but for an utterly different reason. In Joshua’s telling, Matt’s focus is on honoring God by not interfering with Julie’s time of “serving Him.” In my view, Matt did the right thing because Julie set a boundary and Matt respected it. Julie said “I like you, but I want to wait” and Matt, instead of interfering with her decision or trying to get her to do what he wanted, made himself be ok with waiting.

But talk about boundaries in relationships subverts the teaching that women aren’t allowed to have boundaries once they’re married. They’re not supposed to deny their husband anything. After all, their body doesn’t belong to them, but to their husband. And vice versa, supposedly, but when have women ever literally owned their husbands?

It gets worse when he turns to “The Girl’s Responsibility,” where he focuses on women being modest:

Now, I don’t want to dictate your wardrobe, but honestly speaking, I would be blessed if girls considered more than fashion when shopping for clothes. Yes, guys are responsible for maintaining self-control, but you can help by refusing to wear clothing designed to attract attention to your body. (99)

Anyone who’s ever criticized Christian modesty teachings points out that when they say that men are “responsible for maintaining self-control,” and it’s not a woman’s fault when a man “stumbles” they’re not being honest. Joshua contradicts himself not even a paragraph later:

A single mom who had recently rededicated her life to Christ told me, “I went through my closet and got rid of anything that might have caused a brother in the Lord to stumble. I asked God to forgive me and to help protect the purity of those around me.”

If it’s not her fault, why does she need forgiveness?

Hilariously, the problem with telling women they have to be modest or they’re sinning is highlighted in this little line: “even in the summer, when it seems impossible to find a modest pair of shorts!”

Ah, Joshua. This is one of the reasons why I wasn’t allowed to read your book when I was a teenager … you think shorts can be modest. Not just pants. Shorts. Dear Lord, you’d allow a woman to expose her knees?!

And that right there is the biggest reason why teachings on “modesty” are the biggest load of crock. There are no clothes a woman can put on her body that a man can’t conceive of as sexy, because it’s not actually the clothes. It’s the man and his own personal issues– what he personally finds attractive or sexy, or what his personal fetish is. It’s impossible for a woman to “cause” her brother to stumble because no woman is psychic, and even if she dressed to avoid one man’s fetish, she’d just end up in an outfit that is some other man’s fetish. It’s ridiculous.

***

The last chapter of this section is Joshua telling us about a dream he had that he thinks illustrates God’s forgiveness and grace, which I think is a good thing to include. As much as I disagree with the way he’s handled … almost everything … one thing he hasn’t done (at least so far) is talk about how ruinous sex outside of marriage supposedly is. Oh, he’s talked about how “dangerous” it is, and how we can’t give pieces of our heart away, so he’s definitely contributing to the damaging consequences of purity culture, but he hasn’t said anything like “having sex makes you a half-eaten candy bar or a cup full of spit” so I guess that’s something.

The next section we’re getting into is “Building a New Lifestyle,” so we’ll see how that goes.

Feminism

feminism and American exceptionalism

Every so often I bump into an anti-feminist or an MRA who tells me that it’s ridiculous for me to be a feminist in America. If I was really a feminist I’d expel all my time, energy, and attention on real problems like the horrible subjugation of women in the Near and Middle East. Jessica Valenti has written a response to this sort of false equivalency, saying “The goal of feminism is justice – not to just be better off than other oppressed women. There’s no such thing as equal by comparison.”

But, I want to talk about this because I have something Jessica Valenti doesn’t: lived experience with Christian Patriarchy.

The above accusation– that if I were really a feminist I’d only care about “third world country oppression”– is driven by the belief that American-focused feminism is petty, shallow, ridiculous, unnecessary, and somehow vengeful, like how this article paints it by limiting American feminism to “banning the word bossy.”

First, I’m not interested in playing the “who has it worse” game. I’ve never engaged in Oppression Olympics, and I’ve never gotten behind the idea that, for example, my partner shouldn’t complain about his headache because I have fibromyalgia and endometriosis. Yes, I think it’s absurd that women in Saudi Arabia can’t drive. Yes, my stomach turns at the rape crisis happening South Africa and the growing frequency of acid attacks in India. Yes, I’m horrified that, last week, a 15-year-old girl was strangled and then incinerated for helping her friend elope.

But, the people who tend to throw this particular accusation in my face aren’t actually upset at my supposed lack of empathy for these women. Their argument is made from ignorance, and they make it because they are privileged and willingly blind. They say we can vote, and we have [some, and eroding] legal rights, so I should just stop being such a harpy and getting my panties in a twist because I don’t like how often women say “sorry.”

***

Almost 1,500 American women are killed by their husband or boyfriend every year. More than half of them will be shot to death. 1 in 5 high school girls report being physically or sexually abused by their male partner, and 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted or raped in college (and to be pre-emptive, that’s a link to the Post-Kaiser poll, which was a random sampling of 1,053 of current college students, so you can take your “that 1 in 5 statistic doesn’t count ‘cuz it was only two colleges!” bullshit elsewhere).

But these are all problems we’re familiar with, mostly.

What they don’t know is that all the problems they point to in those foreign places (which are populated by brown people and are usually culturally Islamic, let’s be real about the racism and Islamaphobia happening)— they exist here. In different forms, sure– we don’t use the term “honor killing” when a man murders his wife for adultery– but the consequences of misogyny and patriarchy in America are far-reaching.

I grew up in a culture that explicitly taught me that I, as a woman, shouldn’t vote. In fact, I must not vote if my vote were to contradict my husband’s, they argued. Thankfully my parents countermanded this, but the reality is that I personally knew a few dozen women in college who didn’t vote because they thought that women’s suffrage was wrong. Since I’ve started moving in ex-fundamentalist circles, I’ve found that it wasn’t limited to my neck of the woods, either– Libby Anne once argued as a teenager that “in an ideal world, women shouldn’t vote,” and she’s from the Midwest, not the Deep South. Oh, and this argument still exists today. In fact, Nancy Leigh DeMoss called the women’s suffrage movement sinful in her enormously popular Lies Women Believe.

So while yes, technically women can, legally, vote– a toxic and widespread culture frequently forbids it. Even if something is legal, what good is it if women can’t access it?

I was taught in the Stay-at-Home-Daughters movement that women shouldn’t be educated, and were forbidden from leaving home to seek employment. I was taught that women can’t be trusted to supervise, manage, or govern anything– we barely even run our own households, and we certainly shouldn’t be given control over our finances. We didn’t have to wear burkas or hijab (although the definition I was taught for “modesty” was based on a Hebrew word that means “long and flowing” and a lot of us wore head coverings), but we were prevented from basically ever leaving our houses or existing in the public sphere.

And even though marital rape was made illegal everywhere in the US in 1993, there are still eight states that have “marital exemptions” for rape– and that’s not even touching all the Christian people who think “marital rape is an oxymoron,” including people like Nancy Wilson, who’s the wife of one of the biggest names in conservative evangelicalism. She’s written regarding marital sex that “But of course a husband is never trespassing in his garden.” Your basic, run-of-the-mill, everyday conservative Christian is as rabidly misogynist as Vox Day.

It looks different than what people think happens in the Arab world, but it’s a similar ideology with similar practical consequences.

These positions are championed by the homeschooling world’s biggest names, presented at basically every convention, and the related (although not identical) Quiverful movement has had multiple reality television shows about it, most famously 19 Kids and Counting. That supposedly nice, happy, perky, oh-so-chipper family share the same fundamental beliefs about women as those who shot Malala Yousafzai in the head. Christian fundamentalism can no longer be discounted as “fringe” when Ted Cruz is almost as fundamentalist as they come, and he earned 45% of the Republican delegates– with plenty of evangelicals feeling that he closely aligned with their values and beliefs.

Oh, and just in case you thought that the oppression of women and children was limited to keeping us chained to our homes and dismissing marital rape as impossible, it’s not. A few weeks ago I saw a bunch of articles on child marriages go through my feed, with many people shocked and horrified (which they absolutely should be). When I told a woman who’d exclaimed “I’m so glad that doesn’t happen here!” that child brides do indeed exist right here at home, she didn’t believe me. It’s not her fault. Most people are unaware of the long and continuing history of child marriage in America.

Growing up, one of the most romantic, lovely, well-circulated and highly praised stories of courtship I’d ever heard was told about Matthew and Maranatha Chapman:

When Matthew first expressed his interest in Maranatha … Maranatha was 13 and Matthew was 26. When Matthew heard from God that he was to marry Maranatha, and begged Stan [her father] to let him propose marriage to her, Maranatha was 14 and Matthew was 27. When Stan gave Matthew the go ahead to propose to his daughter, Maranatha was 15 and Matthew was 27. They were the same ages when they married just over a month later.

A 26-year-old man was sexually interested in a 13-year-old little girl, and this story gets passed around as the ideal courtship. In fact, when Matthew confesses his attraction to Maranatha’s father, Stan’s response to is say that his feelings for a 13-year-old are from God, I shit you not.

But that story is from the 80s! It’s over two decades old! Well, this one isn’t. It’s from this week. A misogynist decided to organize an event where patriarchs can go and sell their daughters for a “bride price,” and the man running it said this on the event’s website:

The woman who has arrived physically and sexually at a point where she is ‘ready’ for a husband, is ready for a husband, else we make God out to be a liar… Calvin and Gill, quoting the Jewish authorities in reference to the term Paul uses in I Cor 7:36, place the lower limit of this at twelve years old for girls

Scripture speaks of the father of the son “taking a wife” for his son, and the father of the bride “giving” her to her husband  It gives example after example of young women being given to young men, without the young woman even being consulted …

And while this stinking pile of shit thinks “not very many girls” are truly ready for marriage at 12 years old, they could be and he says there’s nothing wrong with marrying her off for a bride price without her consent.

Burn it down. Burn everything down.

Our belief in American exceptionalism prevents nearly all of us from seeing these things as they really are, as they really happen. We hear about some “Get Them Married Retreat” and think “oh, that’s Kansas, that’s Christian fundamentalists, that’s hilarious.” As if the thousands upon thousands– if not millions– of children being raised in conservative and fundamentalist households don’t matter, or aren’t significant enough to care about. It’s easy to think of brown, Islamic people being horrible to women and children because that fits in with our imperialist and white supremacist view of the world. It’s easy to dismiss anything white, Christian people do because we can justify them as “outliers” … and because they look like us, it can’t be that bad.

Except it is. It’s worse than you think.

Photo by Joe Campbell
Feminism

it’s not about you: feminism and men

One of the workshops I attended at the Gay Christian Network Conference was led by Emmy Kegler (who is a solidly good human being and I adore her). During the “workshop” bit of her presentation, she asked us to split into groups and identify characters from the Bible who were marginalized in some way, and then pick one to share with everyone. I loved the conversation I had with my group, and we decided on Veronica, the Woman with the Issue of Blood– as y’all could probably have guessed, if I had anything to do with the decision.

The first person to share his group’s character started by saying “at first, the only people we listed were women until one of us asked but what about the men? There are plenty of marginalized men, why don’t we talk about them?” and he went on to share a list of different oppressed and marginalized men.

I was up next, and as you can probably imagine was feeling just a teensy bit bellicose: “Well, the only people my group talked about were women, but I’m a feminist so I don’t have a problem with that,” and then attempted to talk about Veronica.

Oh, but that wasn’t going to happen so easily. The man who’d spoken before me shouted “hey, I’m a feminist!”

Right, buddy. Sure you are. Because shouting at a woman and interrupting her presentation is totally what a feminist man does. Unfortunately (and imagine me saying this infused with as much exhaustion as is possible), this is exactly what “feminist” men usually do. After my post on complementarianism as a form of sexual coercion went up, I spent over half an hour arguing with a “feminist ally” about a conjunction I’d used in the post. A conjunction, my hand to God. Eventually, after I asked him to stop talking to me, his response was, and I quote: “Block all dissenting views. Create the perfect echo chamber. Do what you feel you need to do. I’ve got no qualms.” Hilariously, he’s since blocked me. Shocker.

But what about the men?

I used to take that question seriously. I’ve spent hours upon hours responding to e-mails and comments– on my blog and elsewhere. Using every fact and every shred of research at my disposal, I’ve constructed responses that were full-blown essays personalized to the individual man with his individual questions. Over time I realized how incredibly fruitless those efforts almost always were, so I ended up turning to pieces other people had already put together, like these:

There are even entire books dedicated to this! I’ve got The Macho Paradox, Angry White Men, and Man Enough sitting on my bookshelf. However, as even more time has passed, when I get the “but what about teh menz?!” question I realize a) it’s a derailing tactic and b) I cannot be called upon to give any more fucks.

Behold! The field in which I grow my fucks. Lay thine eyes upon it and thou shall see that it is barren.

I do not care about men (especially cis, straight men) in my feminism.

Oh, I care about men generally and especially in specific instances, like friends and partners and family. I care when you’re hurting, when you’ve been shamed, when you’ve been victimized. I care about your lives. It matters to me if I’ve done something to harm you, if other people have stomped on you, if random events occur that makes things stressful or disappointing or horrific. I care about you as people, and I will do my best to be kind.

However, the question of whether or not, or how, the patriarchy affects men no longer matters to me. Sure, it “affects” men … just like it’s illegal for both rich people and poor people to beg. Technically, rich people and poor people are equal in the eyes of the law and society when it comes to whether or not we approve of panhandling. However, we all know exactly how laughable it is for rich people to be legally prevented from panhandling. They wouldn’t do it anyway (this, obviously, does not include all the other ways rich people and corporations can legally obtain funds that really amount to nothing more than highbrow begging).

The same thing applies to cis, straight men (and trans men and gay/bi men, in limited ways).

With vanishingly few exceptions, all the ways that men are “hurt” by patriarchy are not directed at men. Men are not the targets, even when they’re being affected. Women are the only target of patriarchy, and sometimes there’s the occasional splash over onto men. In all those “__ Ways Patriarchy Hurts Men” pieces, the “ways” are driven by misogyny and femmephobia.

For example, recently a young man was sent home from school because the principal said his hair was too long. That was certainly not a good thing to have happen to him, and the principal was obviously wrong for doing that. However, this was not “sexism against men,” as one Facebook commenter put it. He was being sent home because he was perceived by his principal as womanly. The principal was so offended by the idea of any man appearing “feminine” that he banned this young man from his sight. That’s how big of an insult femininity is to men. Our womanly existence with all its trappings and constructs is, by its nature, offensive to men.

Should this man have been sent away from school? Of course not. However, he can chop his hair off and come back. I will never be able to chop off my womanhood. I will never escape my female body. There is no way I can do my hair that isn’t “wrong” to somebody, somewhere. If its short and easy to maintain, I’m clearly damaged and insane (and no, I’m not linking to the “articles” that say so). If it’s long and styled the way I like, I’m clearly just trying to be a sex kitten, so I’m a slut and men can say/do anything they want to, including following me all over the metro or saying I “look like a woman who has a lot of sex” behind my back.

There are no clothes I can wear that can be perceived as neutral. If I wear jeans an oversized hoodie, like I am today, then I’m dowdy and lazy (forget that it’s cold and rainy outside and I just want to be comfortable). If I wear a short skirt with a sweater, tights, boots, and accessories then I’m obviously gunning for attention. If I wear a blousy, floral shirt with a big chunky cardigan on top of my flair jeans, then gawd I’m a pothead hippie. Skinny jeans and chucks? What are you, some sort of fucking hipster? (And yes, that last has been said to my face.) A boxy suit, with plain black shoes and hose? Well, would you look at that bitchy businesswoman. A stylish pantsuit? You’re not being serious enough.

But my partner can wear dress pants with an Oxford, and as long as it’s clean and relatively unrumpled, no one ever thinks anything about him besides the fact that’s he’s a complicated human being who probably has an office job. He overslept and didn’t trim his beard this morning? Would anyone even freaking notice? However, if I walk outside without any makeup or doing something with my hair, then people will frown at me at the check-out counter and wonder why I’m “letting myself go.”

And all those other things that “hurt men” in the patriarchy, like having your claims of woman-on-man sexual assault or domestic violence dismissed? It’s horrible that happens, but it happens because it’s just not possible for a mere, pathetic, weak and insipid woman to have hurt a man. Any woman, any man. If a man has been victimized, then he’s been womanized, and that’s the problem with that scenario. Not that his bodily autonomy has been violated, his agency violently discarded– it’s that he’s allowed himself to be treated like a man treats a woman.

Feminism can’t get anywhere if we center men. Helping men is a side effect of feminism, not its goal.

Photo by Rosa y Dani
Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones
Feminism

Jaime Lannister is a rapist, and let’s not forget it

[This is an edited and slightly updated version of the post I wrote after Game of Thrones’ “Breaker of Chains” aired.]

[content note for sexual violence]

I’ve read G. R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which are now airing as the HBO series Game of Thrones. I enjoyed them, although I caution people to engage with Martin’s world critically. He’s been hailed by a lot of people as a “feminist” writer, but I am extremely hesitant to think of him in those terms (read Sady Doyle’s piece there– it’s both hysterically funny and insightful).

Since the beginning, I have appreciated both Sansa Stark and Cersei Lannister as characters. Cersei, up until Storm of Swords, was a relatable character for me– she was forced into a difficult position by the expectations of her father, of her culture, and of her husband, but she did what she could to find happiness in the midst of an abusive marriage and constant rape. There isn’t a lot about her that I would describe as noble, or perhaps even likable– but she felt realistic to me, and I found myself grudgingly admiring her.

And then Storm of Swords happened, and Martin makes it blatantly obvious that we’re all supposed to hate her now because she’s ridiculously incompetent. She’s completely robbed of all sense because, well, the only explanation he offers for this drastic departure is lady-hormones. I don’t follow Game of Thrones as a show, but I’m a part of online nerd/geek communities, so I have a passing familiarity with what the show is like.

Last year, everything in that part of my internet circles exploded because of the rape scene, which a lot of people insisted diverges from the books. I find that accusation amusing because Robb Stark doesn’t even marry the same woman in the show, but this scene seems to matter to people. I wouldn’t be bothered by the scene diverging from the book, since as television it is a completely different medium, and the artists — the writers, the directors, the actors, the editors– are already telling an entirely different story than the one Martin originally penned. In many ways I think the direction they’ve taken is intriguing.

However, in this one scene they stayed true to the book.

Jaime does, in fact, rape Cersei in the sept next to Joffrey’s dead body.

She kissed him. A light kiss, the merest brush of her lips on his, but he could feel her tremble as he slid his arms around her. “I am not whole without you.”

There was no tenderness in the kiss he returned to her, only hunger. Her mouth opened for his tongue.

“No,”

she said weakly when his lips moved down her neck, “not here. The septons…”

“The Others can take the septons.” He kissed her again, kissed her silent, kissed her until she moaned. Then he knocked the candles aside and lifted her up onto the Mother’s altar, pushing up her skirts and the silken shift beneath.

She pounded on his chest with feeble fists, murmuring about the risk, the danger, about their father, about the septons, about the wrath of gods.

He never heard her.

He undid his breeches and climbed up and pushed her bare white legs apart. One hand slid up her thigh and underneath her smallclothes. When he tore them away, he saw that her moon’s blood was on her, but it made no difference.

That is rape. There is no other word for this scene. Jaime raped Cersei, full stop.

And, honestly, by this point in the books a rape scene would cause me to think yawn, well of course a woman got raped it’s Martin writing this for heaven’s sake what did I think would happen? There are various things to be said about how often people are raped in Martin’s fantasy world, but I’m not really here to critique the existence of rape in his books. It’s what he does with it, and this scene in particular, that deeply, deeply troubles me, because of what happens next:

“Hurry,” she was whispering now, “quickly, quickly, now, do it now, do me now. Jaime Jaime Jaime.” Her hands helped guide him. “Yes,” Cersei said as he thrust, “my brother, sweet brother, yes, like that, yes, I have you, you’re home now, you’re home now, you’re home.”

This, I have a problem with– because this is a rape myth. It actually gets a fucking number on the Women Against Violence’s list of “Rape Myths”– it’s #17:

“When a woman says no, she really means maybe or yes.”

It’s the idea that women secretly all want it, they just have to be persuadedHorrifically, “with my dick” can finish that sentence without the person immediately retching at the utterly revolting idea just expressed.

In Martin’s world, hysterical shrew-bitch women like Cersei Lannister do not get to have their “no” listened to (and we get to say “no” for whatever the HELL reason we want), and strong, handsome, virile, maiden-of-Tarth-defending men like Jaime get to fuck them anyway because actually, she really does want it and I just know because . . . well, no reason– and look, see, she’s getting off on my awesome manly ravishing of her!

But, horrifyingly, this isn’t a rape scene to a disturbing number of people. Chris Ostendorf described it as “complicated consensual sex.” To a lot of people, that she’s saying no to the circumstances somehow makes it not real rape. She would have had sex with him, if it wasn’t for his hand, or where they were, or the septons, or their father somehow finding out, etc.

I have a gigantic– no, colossal— rage-inducing problem with this for the simple reason that when I told my rapist “no,” this is exactly what I sounded like. I couldn’t physically stop someone almost twice my weight, and so I did everything within my power to persuade him to stop. I told him it hurt– he did not stop. I told him “no,” he did not stop. I told him “please, not now,” he did not stop. I said “what if your parents come home?” but he did not stop. I told him I didn’t think it was right (ie, “wrath of the gods,”) and he did not stop.

Finally, I gave up and tried not to let him see me cry because I knew he would hurt me even more if he did. When he assaulted me again, and again, and again, and again, and Again, and AGAIN, I learned that it would all just be over if he got what he wanted. He would eventually leave me alone and go and play Halo if I didn’t fight him. He didn’t care about how much he hurt me, or about how often I vomited after because what forced me do to him disgusted me.

So, for all of you people who argued that Jaime didn’t rape Cersei:

FUCK YOU. FUCK YOU TO FUCKING HELL.

To George R. R. Martin, the twisted fuck who wrote this scene and is perpetuating the exact rape myth that has caused me unending agony: fuck you. To Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (who plays Jaime), who thinks because “it wasn’t just [rape]” it’s somehow justifiable: fuck you. To Sonia Saraiya who thinks there’s “wiggle room” in whether or not we think Cersei “enthusiastically consented”: fuck you. To Chris Ostendorf, who given the chance would describe my rape as “complicated consensual sex”– fuck you, too. Fuck you all.

***

I want to be crystal clear that my problem with this scene in the book (for this post, at least) isn’t that Martin has written yet another rape scene. It’s that what he’s written is a rape myth— a chauvinistic fantasy about male-centric sex that ignores or denies women the ability to consent. Cersei told Jaime no seven different ways, but then suddenly starts begging for it– literally. This is an extremely dominant myth about the difference between rape and consensual sex. In order for something to be considered “legitimate” rape, the victim has to fight tooth and nail until the bitter end. In order for it to be real rape, the victim could never– not once not ever— have consented to sex. If they consented to sex once, well, they’re only saying no for inconsequential reasons and they should just get over it, it’s not that bad.

Martin believes that this is not rape because of the rape myth he believes in– that our culture believes in. Cersei’s apparent enjoyment of her rape (and remember, this scene is written from the rapist’s point of view, not the victim’s, and most rapists think that their behavior is acceptable and normal) in the real world of modern America could be a survival mechanism for an abuse victim– and usually is. Sometimes victims freeze up. Sometimes they, like me, try to resist but then give up because it’s useless and we just want it to fucking end.

Martin does not think that Jaime raped Cersei here, because he believes that women can be manipulative whores who say no in order to be “hard to get,” but in reality really just need to be sexually assaulted into silence and then fucked into realizing what the rapist knew all along– that she actually wanted it.

This is one of the most grievous lies of rape culture– and the actors, the directors, and the writers all used it.

Keep that in mind as you enjoy the season premier tomorrow.