October is Domestic Abuse Awareness Month, and my friend, Katie Mulligan, has been blogging to raise awareness of intimate violence. She writes that she decided to do this "because the silence around this subject, even when I speak, is staggering." In her most recent post, Mulligan remembers what it was like to go to a teen abstinence rally as a victim of childhood sexual abuse.
She says this promotional video captures the spirit of that rally:
I have always found the evangelical injunction to remain sexually "pure" until marriage naïve and unrealistic. But Mulligan's post captures the reasons why it is also cruel and downright abusive. She writes:
It was toward the end of the rally that I realized what it was all about. I always was a bit slow to understand the church's stance on sexuality and sexual activity. As things wound down and the speaker asked us to commit to purity and chastity, I wasn't quite sure what she meant, but I felt a bit queasy. I wasn't sure what she meant by virginity, but I was pretty sure by most definitions I hadn't been one since I was six...
I didn't last long in this space. I had questions. And they weren't the kind of questions that were easy to ask in a church youth group full of people screaming, "YESS!" every time someone asked, "Do you love Jesus?" I took one of the leaders aside and asked what I should do if I wasn't a virgin. She explained that I could be re-virginized by pledging not to engage in sexual activity anymore. Now she had questions. I was mortified. I explained that I had been abused, and her demeanor changed. "Don't worry!" she chirped. "Jesus knows it wasn't your fault. It's not like you wanted this or were willing." I left that youth group meeting very confused...
Even more confusing was the relief the youth group leader expressed over the fact that I had been raped. It seemed to her a far better situation than if I had engaged in consensual, pleasurable sexual activity. There was no need, in her mind, to "revirginize" a girl who had been raped. I could still make the pledge to purity and chastity with the other girls and boys.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about the silliness of "True Love Waits"-style campaigns, but it never really occurred to me to think about how a child who has been raped might experience these shaming "abstinence-only" discourses. That is to say, this would be particularly cruel, painful, and potentially traumatic for such a child.
Potentially even worse than teen purity rallies, I think, are the "purity balls."
Consider the opening line of this local news video: "Would you pledge your virginity to your father?"
And this purity ball organization says:
The Purity Ball brings fathers and daughters together for an elegant evening of dining, discussion, and decision. Fathers commit to their daughters that they will remain pure, and ask their daughters for the same commitment. The fathers also commit to pursue the hearts of their daughters by working on strengthening their relationships and letting them know how much they love and care for them.
Why are fathers "pursuing the hearts of their daughters" in the first place?
After she got out, a Quiverfull-raised friend learned that an alarming number of the fathers she'd known had sexually abused their daughters. These men may very well have been abusers anyway, but rhetoric that casts the father-daughter relationship as a romantic one gave them a veneer of theological justification. Is it really surprising that the metaphor is lost on some of these fathers?
One of the most egregious dangers of the "purity" rhetoric is that it provides what is supposed to be a one-size-fits-all roadmap to sexuality throughout one's life. In its rosy picture of humanity, there is no child rape or incest. Its careful regulation of daughters is supposed to prevent such abuses, so there are no rhetorical tools—let alone emotional or psychological ones—sufficient for addressing reality. When one is committed to "purity thinking," there is no logical answer to the question of child rape other than relief that the sex wasn't consensual. Whew. At least you still have your purity intact.
And what about the lifelong consequences of this? When control of a woman's sexuality is handed from her father to her husband like a business transaction, she may find it hard to remove herself from abusive situations in the future. At the very least, she will not have a language with which to discuss what she wants and what she doesn't want in future sexual relationships.
I'm just going to be honest. At times, I've figured out ways of integrating musical analysis into these more topical discussions, but I have no idea how to do that here. I am not a sexual abuse survivor, but I was certainly entrenched in the purity rhetoric in my adolescent and teen years. I've seen the consequences of it.
This is one reason that I think women in blues have always appealed to me. In blues music, sexuality is aggressive, unapolagetic and very straightforward. Theological discussions about "sacred sex" and similar don't really resonate with me, as I'm skeptical of attempts at thinking through sexuality within any sort of theological framework, but there is quite a bit of music out there that I find empowering. Some of it touches on sexuality and/or sexual abuse, and some doesn't. In these recent posts about the Christian Right, I've been dissecting a lot of musical crap. So, here's a smattering of music—in various genres—that is (1) not crap and that (2) makes me feel strong and/or celebratory (for a range of reasons, from lyrics to the way that it sounds). I probably won't have time to analyze all of this music over the course of this series, so I present a few of them here. What music does this for you?
"Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed)," The Raveonettes (video contains lyrics)
"Cold War," Janelle Monae
"The Laws Have Changed," The New Pornographers
"Joy," Lucinda Williams
"The Fight," Sia
"Gold Guns Girls," Metric
"Look at Miss Ohio," Gillian Welch
"Identity Theft," Nellie McKay
"I Hope You Die," Wye Oak
"Make It Easy," She Keeps Bees
Heartless Bastards, "Searching for the Ghost"
"Heart of My Own," Basia Bulat
"Stolen Car," Beth Orton
"Wayfaring Stranger," Eva Cassidy
"Little Fly," Esperanza Spalding