Foul Mouths v. Purity Culture: Which Leads to Sexual Violence?

For Every Mom writer and future Zondervan author Shauna Shanks* has recently published a piece on her blog that really does a fine job of capturing the thinking of many evangelical women who are sticking by Donald Trump.

And I don’t mean that as a compliment. (Though I do mean it as a compliment when I say you should read Kelsey Burke’s piece for Religion Dispatches on the topic. It’s generous and sensitive and just great.)

In “I Don’t Get the Outrage Following Trump’s Lewd Comments and Here’s Why,” Shanks stakes two claims:

  • American culture is sexualized and raunchy in ways that demean women.
  • Donald Trump is a symptom of our culture.

I agree with Shanks on both claims but not with her effort to link them.

First, every piece of evidence of America’s raunchiness she cites is an example of a woman violating what she considers appropriate sexual norms. NFL cheerleaders, women the red carpet at award shows, teenage girls who dress “to sexually allure,” girls who get cosmetic surgery, models, “dresses with slits up to their bellybuttons and v-necks cut to the same,” the dancing at the Super Bowl halftime show and the dancers’ costumes. When she references specific people, it’s often women of color or white women in relationships with black men—Beyonce and Kim Kardashian. Shanks never once gives an example of a man participating in this kind of culture, nor does she reference specific examples of white people. Anytime a white person chooses only black women for examples of “bad” behavior, you should be getting skeptical about what else they have to say.

To the right, a woman who owns her sexuality. To the left, a man who sexually assaults women and girls. 

Second, while Shanks claims not to be telling people how to vote, she’s drawing from ridiculous examples used by Trump surrogates themselves, all examples taken from hip hop culture, all thus racialized.  As if Donald Trump learned how to publicly comment upon women’s breasts from Nicki Minaj or Rihanna.

Third, Shanks’ comments also ignore the fact that a hypersexualized culture also harms boys and men not just as “consumers” of that culture but as participants in it. Boys, for example, on average engage in sexual activity earlier than girls, with more people, and in riskier circumstances, than girls. If raunch culture is bad for kids, that includes boys, but Shank, the mother of three sons (and no daughters) keeps her focus on what girls are doing wrong. She argues that while it’s the duty of parents to help their kids navigate this stuff, her words do not address what boys need, only the ways that girls become part of the problem of sex in the media. When she does address boys, her focus is on covering their eyes.  Boys seem to be the victim here, while girls are the temptresses—old garbage from purity culture that Shanks seems to want to rise above but can’t quite.

Finally, while the larger problem is a vague “Hollywood and media,” Shanks keeps her focus on women. She says that the problem with football is the “pelvic thrusting, grinding and sex-dancing lingerie-clad performers” but doesn’t mention their terrible, exploitive pay, the large numbers of domestic abusers and sexual assailants held up as sports stars, the racism within the sport, or the known risks that players take with their long-term brain health in order to satisfy fans who equate violence with masculinity. Instead of recognizing that football is dangerous to women (or rather, men who watch football are a danger to them), she focuses on how the few women in football—cheerleaders—interrupt her family’s fun.


Above, NY Giants kicker Josh Brown, on paid leave after admitting to domestic assault. NOT a role model for your kids. 
Below, Alexa Brenneman, a leader in the fight to secure fair wages for NFL cheerleaders. A role model for your kids. 


Now, this isn’t an argument to let your kid do/watch/play anything. Violence against women in song, film, television, and video games can normalize violence and lower inhibitions against violence and disrespect. We know that this is particularly true of pornography. And, in general, I agree with Shanks’ concern that parents must guide their kids through this and that it would be a lot easier if pop culture would relent a bit, give us some space to have a conversation. We can help them make sense of the world because, to quote scholar Janice Radway, “reading”—or watching—“is not eating.” We get to choose how we make sense of the media we engage. It’s hard to do that, as Shanks says, when the visual onslaught, in particular, is so relentless.

And I suspect that Shanks I would agree on a lot of child-rearing strategies and share a lot of the same complaints.

My real beef with Shanks piece is that she sees Donald Trump’s comments about women as a result of the raunchiness of our larger culture, which she keeps illustrating with examples of women taking up hyper-sexualized roles, rather than as a result of a patriarchy that is built upon violence against women; it’s why she blames cheerleaders rather than football. In contrast, I think that purity culture, more so than Beyoncé’s lyrics or dance moves, is a danger.

It’s a culture that says that girls belong to their fathers and women belong to their husbands, who are tasked with protecting their sexual “purity” until a suitable trade—a Christian husband in exchange for a virgin daughter—can be made. It says that a woman’s worth is in her intact hymen (a lie! A damned lie!) and that the great challenge of adolescence is to escape it without having “lost” your mythical “virginity.” It says that boys cannot be blamed for being focused on sex and that it’s girls’ jobs to keep them pure, too. It says that sex is degrading and filthy until, on your wedding night, it magically becomes the most wonderful thing in the world. It says that if you have sex before that, you are worthless, and if you don’t find sex to be the most wonderful thing in the world after that, you’re selfish or lacking in spirituality.

If you wanted to design a culture in which sexual assault flourished, this would be the blueprint: Don’t let women’s bodies belong to them, confusing sex and assault. Make women and men enemies over sex, with women as gatekeepers to men’s sexual pleasure, to which they are entitled by their natures as “alpha males.” Discard women who have sex—and, because you confused sex and assault, discard those who have been assaulted, too. Watch as the quest for purity robs sex of its pleasure, as I Kissed Dating Goodbye author Joshua Harris has been slowly coming to realize.

To the left, a book you don’t want your teenager to read. To the left, a book you don’t want to read, either. 

In short, Christian mothers should worry less about Beyoncé’s invitation to the White House and more about the ways that Christian patriarchy and purity culture set us all up for sexual harm.

Elizabeth Smart, a victim a sexual assault, is the wisest person on the topic.

In an update to her original post, Shanks notes, “Donald Trump’s comments were not only lewd, but what he describes is sexual assault” but then says that this “is NOT what I am talking about in this post.” But her post makes no distinction between Trump’s “lewdness” and his violence (which is why this update was necessary).

Throughout, her argument is that we should expect Trump to behave lewdly because we live in a lewd culture. But, of course, this is not true. Leadership is doing better than your situation requires of you or, in the most heroic cases, even allows.  Both Shanks and I are rearing children in a lewd culture—but we expect them to resist it personally and dismantle it structurally. We can certainly expect the same of a presidential candidate.

But the bigger concern is Shanks’ implication through the piece, despite the updated comment, that lewdness and violence go hand-in-hand. And they don’t, at least not necessarily. Many, many gentlemanly gentlemen are sexual assailants. They are teachers and politicians, grandfathers and uncles, Sunday school teachers and youth pastors, powerful men and less powerfulall made powerful by patriarchy and purity culture. They are heartbroken and scandalized at yoga pants, and they never, ever say “pussy.”

And yet… and yet… and yet


If you want to learn more about how to protect your children from sexual abuse, consider consulting the work of Dr. Nina Burrowes, who maintains an active YouTube channel focusing on this topic. If your church needs to address sexual assault within its community or work on sexual assault prevention, consider contacting GRACE—Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment. And if you are a survivor of assault and want support, consider reaching out to RAINN, a national network that can help you find local resources.

*I don’t want to pick on Shanks. A lot of evangelical women think this way. She just gets my attention because Zondervan gave her a book contract and thus she has more influence than other Christian mombloggers. 





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