Thursday

because purity culture harbors rape & abuse



Content note: child sexual abuse, victim blaming, Christians behaving abominably

Last week I got the chance to talk to our summer staff about sexuality, challenging them to rethink some of the ways we traditionally frame the discussion for young people. We talked about how "sexual purity" marries the language of dirt and shame to sex and bodies in ways that misrepresent God and cause a great deal of harm, and we talked a lot about consent, which most purity teachings erase from the equation altogether.

According to the purity script, any sex and even attraction apart from heterosexual marriage falls under the category of sexual sin: consensual pre-marital or extra-marital sex are indistinguishable morally from sexual abuse and rape, and victims are rendered "impure" and at fault alongside their abusers.

In the purity culture framework, fooling around with one's girlfriend is the same as a youth pastor sexually abusing a minor: just erase consent, harm, and exploitative power differentials, and file together under sexual sin and selfishness.

I wish I were exaggerating, but this specific example played out at Christianity Today's Leadership Journal this week, when they offered up their platform to a convicted child predator, giving him five pages to convince readers that what he was involved in, what got him sent to jail, was an "extra-marital relationship." Nevermind that this "relationship" was with a teenager that he was in a position of spiritual authority over, whom he groomed for sex.

In this abuser narrative, the victim and crime are wholly erased. Instead, the youth pastor and his teenage "friend" are presented as being mutually seduced by the "allure of sin." They both are to blame for "giving the devil a foothold" and "quenching the Holy Spirit", and this is held up as worthy lesson for Christian leaders to learn from:

The "friendship" continued to develop. Talking and texting turned flirtatious. Flirting led to a physical relationship. It was all very slow and gradual, but it was constantly escalating. We were both riddled with guilt and tried to end things, but the allure of sin was strong. We had given the devil far more than a foothold and had quenched the Holy Spirit's prodding so many times, there was little-to-no willpower left.
We tried to end our involvement with each other many times, but it never lasted. How many smokers have quit smoking only to cave in at the next opportunity for a cigarette? We quit so many times, but the temptation of "one more time" proved too strong.
Like David, my selfishness led to infidelity.

Leadership Journal allows a convicted child abuser a platform to manipulatively frame this as a story of personal selfishness and infidelity without one word about molestation, statutory rape, sexual grooming, or the abuse of power and children entrusted to the care of adults at a church. [A "clarifying" author's footnote hardly cancels out five still-standing pages suggesting and flat-out asserting the polar opposite.] Also alarmingly, the article is tagged for these "related topics": accountability, adultery, character, failure, mistakes, self-examination, sex, and temptation.

This is not leadership. This is rape culture, abuse apology, and re-victimization under the guise of education and grace. It's not even a bad redemption narrative, as the youth pastor, publication, and many of its commenters fail to demonstrate a most basic understanding of the fact that what transpired was the rape of a minor, not an adulterous affair. Repentance requires actually accounting for--not glossing over--the actual harm one commits.

An affair is a mistake, but sexual abuse and rape are crimes, and good leadership recognizes the difference, particularly for survivors. Good leadership understands that there is no preventing sexual abuse without also dismantling the systems obscuring and favoring coercive abuse of authority. Good leadership doesn't privilege the stories and presence of abusers over the humanity, recovery, and safety of children and victims and then have the audacity to call that "grace".

Abusers aren't "monsters," and they aren't "just like us," either. The former leads to disbelieving victims and prevents us from seeing abusive dynamics close to home. The latter actively obscures exploitative power differentials, encouraging sympathy for abusers at the expense of those they continue to harm.

If we care about ending abuse, we must expose the systems that prop it up everywhere. Abuse isn't just an isolated or interpersonal problem: it is supported by theologies, policies, editorial guidelines, language, assumptions, and even biblical interpretations.

In the piece, the youth pastor likens his own moral failings to King David's adultery with Bathsheba. He uses the Bible to frame his own sin as adultery instead of abuse, but the stories are similar in more ways than he lets on. A "yes" is only a "yes" if a "no" or a "yes" is possible. A minor cannot consent to "sex" with her youth pastor, and in David's time, what woman had the right to say "no" to a king (or at all, for that matter)?

It matters tremendously how we tell and interpret stories. Abusers are masterful at sweet talk and spinning webs. They manipulate, coerce, shift blame, lie, erase their victims, and then collect congratulations for being so brave while those who object are chastised with myriad bible verses for their lack of grace and "unresolved victim issues".

That's not grace. Abusers aren't entitled to platforms, mics, or teaching positions, and actual grace exists alongside justice, accountability, and consequence. Grace protects the vulnerable. Using grace to favor the powerful over the hurting isn't grace at all: it's oppression-as-usual and the way of empire rather than the upside-down Kingdom of God.

Take down the post, Leadership Journal and Christianity Today. Host a conversation--that does not center abusers--about the need for working Child Protection Policies in every Christian church and organization. Talk about consent, and then talk about it again. Don't let anyone on your watch--particularly convicted abusers!--frame rape as a personal moral failing or sexual sin, neglecting the ongoing impact sexualized violence has on survivors and communities.

Care about survivors, never assuming that your audience of leaders doesn't also include survivors of abuse. Moderate your comment sections. Give a platform to those in recovery. Don't imagine that you can fight sexual abuse without actually calling it abuse or interrogating the assumptions and exploitative power dynamics that enable it to thrive.

And please don't publish another judgey article about why entitled Millenials are leaving the church until you can show your work on what you and other Christian organizations are doing to combat abuses of power and people in the the name of Christ.

We've got to dismantle the frameworks that enable, hide, & baptize harm in our midst.

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