From the May-June 2021 issue of News & Letters
In 2017, a wave of victims of sexual violence and harassment began sharing stories and naming perpetrators, calling it the “Me Too Movement” after their use of the hashtag #MeToo on social media. Emily Joy Allison created the hashtag #ChurchToo to share her story of an adult youth group leader’s attempt to groom her into being raped when she was a teenager. By the next morning, thousands had used #ChurchToo to tell their stories of abuse within the Church.
PURITY CULTURE BLAMES VICTIM
In her book, #ChurchToo: How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse and How to Find Healing, Allison describes her experience in which her parents stepped in before the predator could rape her. However, they blamed her for the grooming, made her apologize to the predator (whose other victims have also come forth), and berated her for many sessions lasting hours. As a result she developed feelings of disassociation from her body, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, and eventual estrangement from her parents. She only later realized they labeled her, a teen with no sex education, a “sinner” for something an older adult was doing to harm her. Receiving therapy, learning about sexual abuse, and studying similarities in #ChurchToo stories, she exposed how purity culture encourages sexual abuse.
In the 1990s, the religious Right began promoting purity culture in churches and, using federal funding, public schools. They present it as a wholesome, traditional, Biblical cure-all for society’s ills. Allison explains that its teaching of abstinence before and outside of legal, heterosexual marriage “is not and never has been ‘the historic Christian position’.”
Another historically new aspect is fundamentalist opposition to contraception and abortion, which resulted from the unpopularity and failure of the religious Right’s original issue of joining denominational forces to oppose desegregation. Their opposition to reproductive justice and promotion of the notion that women’s only “value” is supposed “sexual purity” stems from white nationalism. Allison interviews women of color who describe being automatically stigmatized under purity culture, which is “steeped in white supremacy.”
A major factor in this climate of abuse is complementarianism, patriarchy posing as equality. This is the notion men and women have opposite, “complementary” natures, with men having more “reason” and leadership ability. Fundamentalists claim society would collapse if these roles are abandoned, while in reality, the doctrine of male headship over women in marriage and in churches encourages grooming, gaslighting, and abuse.
ANTI-ABORTION MELDS WITH RACISM
Teaching girls obedience to male authority and to despise their own desires causes detachment from one’s own body and an inability to set boundaries. Allison explains the nervous system responses to trauma, fight or flight, also includes freeze or fawn “in which an individual may overly accommodate others in order to manage their [own] fear.”
Purity culture claims any violation of a woman’s boundaries is her own fault for failure to maintain “modesty,” which is supposed to control supposedly uncontrollable male sexuality. In reality, predators are deliberate and calculating in sexual assault and in grooming, which is gradual boundary violation. Victims are retraumatized when told they are equal collaborators in “sin.” Men and LGBTQ people develop serious self-esteem issues when told their sexuality is supposedly excessive and sinful.
This book is important encouragement to demolish purity culture, which cannot be reformed and is always abusive and dehumanizing. Allison describes the difficulty of facing personal trauma and loss of relationships and communities upon speaking out as an abuse survivor. She tells survivors how to report experiences, reconnect with their bodies, and cultivate their own values. For those seeking new churches or religions, she describes characteristics of healthy communities valuing equality and humanity of all.