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How Purity Culture Rhetoric Can Teach Men to Devalue Women

How Purity Culture Rhetoric Can Teach Men to Devalue Women

In purity rhetoric for men, women are often depicted as damsels in distress, but also as damsels causing distress. It’s confusing. Instead of encouraging men to heed Paul’s advice to treat “older women as mothers, and younger women assisters, with absolute purity” (1 Timothy 5:2). 

Christian books for men focus more on avoiding women than interacting with them. Sadly, there is little room for fellowship within the Church between men and women when women are more often talked about as potential stumbling blocks than as sisters in Christ.

“A woman is at her best when she is being a woman,” John Eldredge, author of Wild At Heart (2001) says. Being a woman, according to Eldredge, is about being “more seductive than fierce” and using one’s beauty to “arouse” and captivate men. Eldredge believes that the most important question for women is, “Am I lovely?” He concludes that women would rather be valued for their beauty than their efficiency, independence or service to others. This view starkly contrasts the often referenced “Proverbs 31 woman,” who is characterized by her mercy to the poor, her strength and her desire to fear God over being charming or beautiful (Proverbs 31:20, 25, 30‑31).

Eldredge quotes the poet William Blake who said, “The naked woman’s body is a portion of eternity too great for the eye of man” and he holds up Ruth as an example of godly womanhood, summarizing the biblical story as one where Ruth seduces Boaz in order to secure his favor.

So what does Ruth do? She seduces him. . . . Ruth takes a bubble bath and puts on a knockout dress; then she waits for the right moment. . . . This is seduction pure and simple—and God holds it up for all women to follow when he not only gives Ruth her own book in the Bible but also names her in the genealogy. I’m telling you that the Church has really crippled women when it tells them that their beauty is vain and they are at their feminine best when they are “serving others.” 

A woman is at her best when she is being a woman. Boaz needs a little help getting going and Ruth has some options. She can badger him: all you do is work, work, work. Why won’t you stand up and be a man? She can whine about it: Boaz, pleeease hurry up and marry me. She can emasculate him: I thought you were a real man; I guess I was wrong. Or she can use all she is as a woman to get him to use all he’s got as a man. She can arouse, inspire, energize. . . . Seduce him. Ask your man what he prefers.

While Eldredge praises the beauty of women, purity rhetoric often depicts female beauty as a threat. Instead of encouraging men to view women as sisters, authors of Every Man’s Battle (2000), Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker, talk about how it is impossible to “eliminate attractive women,” so they must instead “get zapped” by a man’s metaphorical “clicker.”

What they mean is that men should quickly avert their eyes when faced with visual temptation, but their language brings to mind the image of a buzzing, iridescent lantern that singes any bugs that fly too close. With so little advice offered to men about how to interact with women other than to avoid or “zap” them, women begin to resemble mosquitoes more than image bearers of God.

Although fighting sexual lust is biblical, depicting women as obstacles to and rewards for purity rather than as fellow image bearers of God is not. I asked Paul, a single Christian, his thoughts about how sexual purity is discussed in the Church. He said, 

“I don’t think the idea that women are sexual objects was ever effectively refuted, since it was never replaced with an alternative approach to women. In fact, I think simply telling us not to lust almost affirmed the idea that women are sexual objects. But perhaps the biggest issue was not what was taught but simply that the topic was not discussed enough, not meaningfully anyway. Only in a token and shamed away.”

“How will you talk to your son about lust in a way that affirms the dignity and value of women?” I asked him.

“I will tell my son that lust is deceitful. Lust tells you that sexual gratification is fulfilling, but there is no such thing as sexual gratification from an object. If you treat women like objects, you won’t find satisfaction in that. Sexuality is about vulnerability and acceptance. You can only find those things in a person you respect. And respect doesn’t mean treat politely and gentlemanly. Respect means that you think of the other person as being as much a person as you are.”

Christine Gardner, author of Making Chastity Sexy, remembers hearing a call for men to respect women at one of the Pure Freedom events she attended, but notes that it seemed like a disconnected, “eleventh-hour” attempt in a day that focused almost entirely on male lust. Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye (2001), stands out in his focus on women as “created in the image of God” and admits that he used to view women as “nothing more than objects to satisfy [his] desire,” but when he gave up dating, he learned how to value women beyond their physical attractiveness and what they could do for him. In general, though, the value of all women is not a main focus in purity teachings for men.

Proactive Versus Reactive Strategies

Books like Every Man’s Battle reinforce lust as the problem, and rules like [Billy] Graham’s make avoiding women the solution. Christian writer Katelyn Beaty acknowledges that men who practice the Billy Graham rule likely do so with good motives, believing that “it’s better to limit interacting with women altogether than open the door to temptation.” However, she also points out that this way of dealing with sexual sin elevates “personal purity” above the biblical command to love our neighbors. Instead of teaching men to avoid women, a proactive strategy for battling sexual lust urges men to see women as neighbors.

Long-term solutions to the problem of sexual sin and abuse are not accomplished, as Redeeming Sex author Debra Hirsch, points out, by “imposing distance between men and women.” Though there are times when a Christian must flee sexual temptation, like Joseph did from Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39, Christians must focus on proactive rather than reactive strategies. The problem of lust, as with any sin, must be discussed in light of the fact that Christians were created for community.

The apostle Peter calls Christians to “love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22 ESV). If women are to be viewed as whole persons, the male gaze must be addressed holistically. The problem of male lust is not solved by looking away from women, but by looking at them correctly—as more than their physical bodies, the temptations they pose or the sexual satisfaction they provide. They must learn to see them as sisters, image bearers and coheirs of the kingdom of God.

Adapted from Talking Back to Purity Culture by Rachel Joy Welcher. Copyright (c) 2020  by Rachel Joy Welcher. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

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