the shame is ours
I’ve spent the week out reporting a complicated story in Southern Utah — one that required a whole lot of time in the car. Today, driving the four hours back to the closest airport, I listened to a set of podcasts that started me thinking about what we’re actually talking about, and around, when we talk about what happened between Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
On Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed Linda Key Klein, whose new book, Pure, recalls growing up in the Evangelical purity movement, and the struggle to shed the internalized understanding of sexual shame that accompanied it. Klein’s memoir also includes dozens of interviews with other women who grew up with similar ideas about women’s sexuality, and the way she talks about the small yet effective ways the church teaches women to maintain their purity — in thoughts, in dress, in body, in action — rang so familiar to me. I grew up in a church that was ostensibly Presbyterian but newly inflected with evangelical ways of worship, youth communication, and understandings about the gospel; this was especially evident in the various camps and church-related events I attended, which, the more “fun” they seemed, the more they strayed from actual theology and more towards intensely patriarchal ideology whose main goal was to control, not to liberate from sin.
Klein describes how girls were taught that only they had the keys to sexual purity — they had control, whereas men simply could not control their urges, and they must do everything possible not only to ward off advances or impure thoughts, but to prevent them from happening in the first place. Klein was admonished for flirting (aka talking), for wearing clothes that were deemed immodest (mostly because she had a developed a woman’s body, not because she was wearing anything revealing). I have a vivid memory of attending a Christian rock concert at The Gorge in Central Washington in the very heat of July, and an announcement coming out over the loud speaker for all the girls in swimsuit tops to cover up: we were tempting our Christian brothers. That’s why we weren’t allowed to wear two-piece bathing suits at church camp, or even tank tops with straps that weren’t “lasagna-width.” (Boys, it should be noted, had no restrictions on their wardrobes).
The impetus to protect oneself fell on the girl. The impetus to say no fell on the girl. The work, the labor, of purity: it was all girls’.
And if she failed in this — if she sparked a boy’s lust (let alone a girl’s — the compulsory heterosexuality of this message deserves an entire post in and of itself) — the failure was hers. And she had not only failed herself, and her “Christian brother,” but God. It was a sin, but a particularly grievous sort of one. For even though the actual bible teaches that all sins may be forgiven, or that all sins are equal before the eyes of God, under evangelism, there is no sin more horrifying than sexual impurity. (I truly believe this — spousal abuse, pedophilia, even murder, all of it pales to the way the church talks about the wages of sexual sin).
Part of that gravity stemmed from the way the church positioned the ramifications of sexual sin. Klein talks about how pastors would use the language of “If you stay pure before marriage, then after marriage, you will enjoy a healthy and beautiful sex life.” Your husband would never cheat on you. You would never fight. There would be no awkwardness or shame around the sexual act, simply because you had maintained your purity ahead of marriage. Klein points out how nonsensical this is: women spend their formative years banishing all sexual thoughts, only to then be expected to become incredibly sexual, sexually-pleasing, sex-loving women on the night of their wedding day.
Yet the paradigm remains, and within it, a failure to remain pure, or to keep a boy pure — that would result in a broken marriage. Pastors even searched for retroactive impurity: if a husband strays, it’s likely because of a moment that maybe even the wife can’t remember, a moment of impurity that needs to be rediscovered and atoned for. Again: the problem, the responsibility, the shame, it’s all the woman’s.
It’s sometimes easy to laugh at Purity Rings and ceremonies, or treat those who ascribe to it — Klein and millions of others — as aliens. But it’s simply the most bold and most broadly articulated version of our nation’s guiding attitude towards sex, which has been shaped and normalized over hundreds of years. People call it “Puritanical,” in reference to the Puritans, and the Puritans — and so many of the Calvinist theology that was later gradually transformed into contemporary Evangelicalism — but it’s mixed with a heady strain of Catholicism, which infused American culture along with the various waves of European immigrants over the course of the last 150 years.
Christianity can be an incredibly inspirational, contemplative, philosophical practice. It can give meaning to larger, unknowable forces. It can provide a feeling of salvation and unconditional love to those who feel most broken, most forsaken. But it’s often distilled down to its most base, most controlling, elements. It is used as a club to exclude those who are different and control those who threaten the existing order. And because the religion of Christianity — not the faith, but the religious institution — is incredibly patriarchal, it has been used, specifically, to disempower women, often by inculcating them the certainty of their own fallibility. Just think of Eve: a woman is responsible for the fall of mankind. And women have been told — or, more precisely, forced — to requite for that sin ever since.
Which brings us to Kavanaugh. Ford’s accusations — and the truly jaw-dropping yet wholly expected responses to them on the part of male politicians and politicos, most of them men, the vast majority of them self-professed Christians. In the days since Ford’s account of the abuse first came to light, I’ve read dozens of women recounting “what it was like” when something like this happened in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There wasn’t a word for it. There wasn’t a ready apparatus to report. There was no guarantee that you wouldn’t automatically become known as a slut. And as the case of Amber Wyatt, recollected at length in this incredible piece for The Washington Post, underlines, there is still no guarantee. In fact, I would argue that it’s still very likely for a woman who comes forward with a claim of sexual assault to be labeled as a slut, or sexually forward, or asking for it today, even after #MeToo — especially if you’re in a small town, especially if you’ve accused someone in power, especially if you’re not white or middle-class or have otherwise positioned yourself into a perfect quadrant of “believability.”
Listening to Caitlin Flanagan talk to The Daily about a similar experience to Ford’s — which she also details, at length, in a piece for The Atlantic — I was struck by her version of a sentiment that’s now so common I’ve become desensitized to it. She felt deep shame about what had happened to her. She blamed herself that she hadn’t been able to immediately fight him off. She cut her hair, made herself undesirable. And she attributes her ability to move past the event, which took place in 1979, to the man’s repeated attempts to apologize — and, even more specifically, to articulate, in very clear language, that the fault for the event was his.
Flanagan didn’t have to grow up in a religious home to internalize that the fault for that assault was hers. Neither did Deborah Ramirez, who was raised a devout Catholic, and whose account of alleged abuse by Kavanaugh, reported just tonight in The New Yorker, includes the memory: “I wasn’t going to touch a penis until I was married,” she said. “I was embarrassed and ashamed and humiliated.” She also told her sister and mother about “an upsetting incident,” but did not go into detail “due to her embarrassment.” “It was a story that was known,” she said, referring to what happened her freshman year, “but it was a story I was embarrassed about.”
Like so many women who don’t come forward, she questioned whether she would be believed, or whether the account was worth telling, because she herself had been drinking at the time of the assault.
To have had something to drink, to get in the car, to wear a certain sort of outfit, to not resist right away, to have a sexual reputation or a sexual history — all of those are ways in which women, in or outside of the church, are viewed as abdicating their responsibility not the “tempt their brothers.” Thus, whatever happens after abdicating that responsibility — after failing — the fault is all hers. Who wants to talk about their failure? Who wants to share, in reportable detail, the most shameful moment of their lives?
I used to tell my students that ideology never announces itself as ideology. It naturalizes itself like the air we breath. It doesn’t acknowledge that it is *a* way of looking at the word; it proceeds as if it is the only way of looking at the world. At its most effective, it renders itself unassailable: just the way things are. Not an opinion, not the result of centuries of implicit and explicit messaging, not a means of upholding a power structure. It just is.
When I hear Caitlin Flanagan talk about her assault, when I read Deborah Ramirez talk about her assault, when, next week, I’ll hear Christine Blasey Ford forced to recount the specifics of her assault, and asked why she didn’t report it, and why it took her years to talk about it, I see that ideology at work — but I also see that ideology under threat. The equivocations of the those who do not want to believe the accusations, and especially those who want to believe that they are invalidated because they were not reported, or that they do not matter — it’s an expression of an ideology that teaches women that assault is always their fault, that shame is the natural response to their failure, that men are not responsible for their responses to a woman’s failure to protect her virtue. This belief is not just sexist, although it’s that, or misogynistic, although it’s that as well. It’s fundamental to maintaining the patriarchal balance of power. It convinces women that they are shameful and broken beings. It suggests that they are weak and fallible. It incapacitates ambition. It cuts short trajectories towards positions of power.
Flanagan has become an internationally known columnist. Ford received her PhD and is a professor. Ramirez worked for an organization that supports victims of domestic abuse. They fought to find a way forward — a way to counter what they’d internalized about what happened to them. #MeToo has provided a structure for men and women to resist the paradigm set forward about abuse — and poked holes in the ideology that seeks to suppress victims. But ideologies, especially ones so indelibly linked to the preservation of power, do not quietly go away. They thrash and yell and, in the process of trying to desperately preserve themselves, reveal their most transparent selves.
That’s what’s happening now. We are watching the escalation of the death throes, now several years coming, of purity culture. It’s by turns exhausting and exhilarating and disheartening. It makes me want to throw the computer. It makes me incredibly hopeful. It makes me want to crawl in a hole for the next week. It makes me want to watch every second of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony because whatever discomfort I feel is nothing compared to what she is enduring in order to dismantle — however slowly, building on what started with Anita Hill and has been continued by decades of advocacy, up to and including #MeToo.
The easiest way to disempower an ideology? Name it. Lay its interworkings bare. Call bullshit. That’s what I’ve tried to do here — and what we can all continue to do, this week and in all the weeks to come.
As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of mishmash in their inbox, forward it their way. I apologize for any typos or weird sentences, but my relative inattention to them is what makes it mentally possible to write this every week. You can respond to this email with feedback. You can follow my reporting here. And keep fighting the good fucking fight. The shame is, supposedly, ours. But it’s not.