What Happens When Sex Scandals Hit the Church?
Editor’s Note: In light of the recent allegations surfacing about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, this article is worth revisiting as a reminder that Christians, churches and conservative institutions are far from immune from sex scandals.
As a sexual abuse survivor, the last year has been excruciating. After the tape surfaced of now-President Trump admitting that he grabs women by the genitals without their consent, I was horrified as Christians of all stripes responded with variations on “boys will be boys.” This month, I felt my stomach turn again as my fellow believers defended Bill O’Reilly, who has now been fired from Fox News for allegations of sexual and racist harassment. I cannot help but feel that if many Christians are forced to choose between compassion for victims or their political ideology, politics are going to win every time.
I’ve given a lot of thought to why many Christians react this way—with either disbelief or apathy. Certainly Christians are not alone in ignoring the seriousness of sexual abuse allegations, but it does seem that our community’s response follows certain lines because of some common Christian beliefs about women and sexual abuse victims specifically.
Culture of objectification
It’s no secret that our culture sexually objectifies women, and Christian culture unfortunately is not immune to this. As Christians, we frequently decry things like pornography or the sexualization of modern advertising, but we’re blind to the ways that our teachings about modesty are the flip side of the same coin.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but our concept of modesty is rooted in the idea that women are sexual objects. When we see a woman and condemn her clothing choices, we’ve accepted the idea that a woman’s body is primarily sexual. Ankles, collarbones, shoulders, cleavage, knees, thighs—they’re not treated as part of a person, but as objects that can tempt men to lust. All of this leads to the place where Bill O’Reilly thinks he can call a Black woman “hot chocolate.” Unfortunately, when we defend—or even ignore—these actions, we are telling them they’re right.
Evangelical culture tends to treat women as if their primary purpose in life is to give our husband sex. As part of my work over the last four years, I’ve spent a significant amount of time reading books in the Christian “marriage advice” genre: Real Marriage, His Needs, Her Needs, Love & Respect. There’s even a whole sub-category specifically about sex: The Act of Marriage, Intended for Pleasure, Celebration in the Bedroom … Many of these types of books have an almost myopic focus on a woman’s obligation to have sex with her husband.
These books represent a commonly held attitude among Christians: A woman’s main responsibility is to “meet our husband’s needs.” Women are people, with our own internal worlds and ideas to contribute to our marriages, but according to many Christian resources on relationships that’s not what wives are for. What we can meaningfully contribute seems secondary to providing our husbands with sex, lest they “go astray.” It’s not hard to see how that attitude might lead men like O’Reilly to think women exist for their sexual pleasure or for Christians to defend them when they act on that belief.
Victim blaming is a cornerstone of Christian teachings about sexual purity. I can personally attest to this—I was coming of age at a time when Elisabeth Elliot’s Passion and Purity and Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye sat on nearly every dorm room shelf at my Christian college. Like many of my peers, however, purity teachings left me convinced that my rape, when it happened, was entirely my fault. As a woman, it was my task to be the sexual gatekeeper. “Men will only go as far as you let them” was practically my generation’s motto.
For years I believed that what a rapist did was my fault; that belief was confirmed the first time I tried to tell anyone about what he’d done—before I could even finish, the Christian counselor interrupted me and told me I needed to “repent.”
In this purity culture, women are to blame for what abusers do to them. Our existence as sexual temptations “entice lust” in men, and we must shoulder the responsibility for that. Don’t wear bikinis, don’t wear pants, don’t cut your hair … and these ideas go all the way to the extreme that women shouldn’t be employed outside the home exactly because of men like Donald Trump, Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly.
If we wear those clothes or dare to employed, what else could we expect? Why blame an abuser for what is really her fault? Why be outraged when a woman really did it to herself?
Placing more value on leaders
Christians tend to place more value on our male leaders than on the women they hurt. Just this week, the #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear tag was trending on Twitter. In the time I was reading it, the number of women who said “Don’t tell anyone he assaulted you, or you’ll harm his ministry,” was in the dozens. As heartbreaking as that is, it’s all too common. I have been told—twice—that telling the truth about a man harassing me or assaulting me would “harm the Lord’s work,” and I should keep silent about it.
No one wants to acknowledge that our leaders have feet of clay, but it seems that when our political or religious goals are at stake, we’re not just oblivious. Instead, we defend our leaders with an eagerness that over the last year has beggared belief.
This willingness to either defend or ignore these abusive actions is damaging our credibility and our Christian witness. According to a Washington Post poll released this week, around 14 percent of the Christians surveyed left their church after the election, and they did so because of political support for a man who seems to be the antithesis of core Christian doctrines to love God and love our neighbor.
In order for us to take sexual abuse seriously, we would have to take consent seriously. Unfortunately, many Christians treat consent as the butt of a joke. Just a few years ago, I listened to a sermon where the pastor put the word “consent” in air quotes: “The world says that as long as there’s ‘consent,’ it’s alright, but we know better than that, don’t we?” The congregation laughed along.
What I didn’t know as a teenager and young adult was that the difference between a healthy act and an abusive one is almost entirely in whether or not it is consensual. I told my rapist no, over and over again, but afterward that didn’t matter because consent didn’t matter to me or anyone I knew. Women are obligated to have sex because our bodies are not our own, they belong to our husbands—and vice versa, supposedly, but men have never become the legal property of women upon marriage.
Without consent, there’s no practical yardstick for what is right or wrong, so all we have left is a set of tangled-up beliefs about women being sex objects who are wholly responsible for what happens to them. Given all this, it shouldn’t surprise anyone when Christians react so poorly when women come forward with their stories about the men who have harmed them.