Tuesday, February 2, 2016

This is so much like me in purity culture it's kind of freaky

Drawing of a girl and boy who seem to have a crush on each other. Image source.

Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism has been doing a review of the book  "Anonymous Tip" by Michael Farris. It's a book which was apparently written to show homeschoolers how Child Protective Services is evil and wants to take away their kids. In the story, Gwen is a mother whose daughter, Casey, was taken away, and her lawyer, Peter, is helping her get Casey back. Peter is a Good Christian Man, and Gwen is beautiful... and you guys, the way Peter's thoughts and feelings about Gwen are portrayed in this book is EXACTLY the way I felt back when I was in purity culture and I had crushes on guys.

Like, I'm kind of shocked at how perfectly this matches what I felt.

Let's see some examples!

1. From Anonymous Tip: In Which Peter Says Too Much:

Gwen's first lawyer, Bill, sexually harrassed her. When she meets Peter and he offers to take her case, she wants some kind of assurance that he's not also going to try to take advantage of her. Here's what he says:
“I believe that the Bible teaches that as a single man I am unable to marry a woman who was divorced under circumstances like yours. Not all born-again Christians believe this. But I do. So because of that . . . ”

He paused for a moment, looked down briefly, and continued, “Because of that I would never begin to pursue a relationship with you. I would like to be your lawyer and your friend, but . . . nothing more. I shouldn’t’ have brought this all up. I just wanted you to know that you could trust me to do you a favor without an ulterior motive. OK?”
I... what? What? What? This is in the context of a lawyer-client professional relationship. Why would he say that?

(As someone on the internet once said, "If this red flag was any bigger, China would slap 5 stars on it and claim it was visible from space.")

But this is SO what I was like in purity culture. Completely missing the point when relationships came up in conversation, saying bizarre, overly-personal stuff that left normal people like "what?"

Like the time I told a friend he needed to be careful that he and his girlfriend were "safe" and when he asked what that meant, I said they should make sure not to get "too emotionally attached." Which is a completely normal thing to say in purity culture, but he had no idea what I was talking about.

Or the time some guy I barely knew from high school asked me out, and I said no, and I gave him this whole long explanation about how I would only date a Christian guy who puts God first in everything, and I pray for God's direction about who to date, etc. Like... no, you don't need to say all that. If you're not interested in someone, you can just say no, and you don't owe anyone an explanation. (Related: purity culture teaches girls to make decisions based on the rules and what God says- but you are never supposed to consider your own feelings or what you want. It leads to feeling like we should at least "give him a chance" if we're not able to present a logical argument about why we are not interested in dating some guy.)

Or when I was at training for my TA (teaching assistant) job in college, and there were some ethical questions we were supposed to discuss, and one was what do you do if you want to date a student in the class you are TAing? And my first thought was I would get on my knees and pray about it, because dang, being in a relationship is some super-serious dangerous stuff, and I'm only doing it if God clearly gives approval. And no, I did not say any of that out loud. (Related: Though I would definitely take seriously the ethical issue of dating somebody whose grades I control, and what the university's rules were for that situation, God's yes or no would supercede that.)

So here we have Peter, who seems to be a purity-culture Christian and doesn't know how to just respond like a normal person and say "I'm a lawyer and it would be unethical for me to be romantically involved with a client." Instead he says a bunch of very personal stuff about the kind of woman he is allowed to marry and how Gwen doesn't meet that standard. Like, what the heck? Creepy.

2. From Anonymous Tip: Sir Peter the Handsome:

Peter agrees to take Gwen's case, and goes to meet her at work:
Presently Gwen Landis came striding down the hall in her nursing whites. Peter couldn’t help staring at her. A smile broke out on his face involuntarily. And with the smile, there came a momentary pang of spiritual conviction. He realized that he was not guarding his heart very well. Not only was Gwen divorced, but he had no reason to assume she was a believer. He had very strict standards and had not dated a nonbeliever in years. He focused his mind quickly on his legal mission, and greeted Gwen with a mix of warmth and professionalism.
OH MY GOODNESS. This. Exactly this. This is what "guarding your heart" feels like. You have a momentary feeling of attraction to someone, and then you squash it as hard as you can and feel really guilty about it. Because you have very strict rules from God about the kind of person you are allowed to be attracted to.

3. From Anonymous Tip: Peter Makes His Move:

Peter invites Gwen to his church. Then this:
As he walked to the elevator, he said to himself, “It’s evangelism. It’s not a date. It’s evangelism.” Then he thought of Aaron and Proverbs 21:2: All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart. He hit the heel of his hand on the elevator door. I don’t know. I just don’t know what is going on inside of me.
Y'all. I have TOTALLY had the "it's evangelism, it's not a date" debate with myself. See, back when I was a Real True Christian, two of the most important areas in which I demonstrated my total devotion to God were purity culture and evangelism. Purity culture says "don't be too friendly with the opposite sex, because you might start to like them and then lose part of your heart/purity, or you'll lead them on and then it'll be your fault." Evangelism says "you need to do everything you possibly can to talk to people and try to convince them to become Christians. It doesn't matter if it's risky or socially unacceptable or seems like a really bad idea. Heaven and hell are at stake here!"

So, do I invite a guy friend to read the bible with me, or not? Maybe it's God giving me this great evangelism opportunity! Or maybe I'm "leading him on" and he's getting the wrong idea and everyone's going to think there's "something going on" with us.

(To add further unhealthy elements to the situation: In purity culture, you're not allowed to date someone or express any interest in them without approval from God. So the only way for a girl who's really really interested in boys to get any kind of romantic anything is to have a boy like her and then she rejects him. You guys, I spent so much time having worried conversations with friends about "what if he likes me? What if I'm giving him the wrong idea? Should I keep meeting with him for bible study or not?" and a big part of it was that I wanted to be desired. I wanted to talk and talk and talk about the possibility that a boy might like me, because in purity culture, that's the closest to romance that I could get and still be "pure." I wasn't even attracted to him or interested in dating him- I just wanted to be wanted.)

Libby Anne points out that in Peter's case, he is Gwen's lawyer, so there should be no evangelism OR dating going on. Yep.

4. From Anonymous Tip: In Which Lingering Eyes Make Peter Forget All His Doctrine:

Peter brings Gwen to church. Aaron, his accountability partner (because of course he has an accountability partner) expresses concern:
Aaron and Lynn rushed over to Peter and Gwen immediately after the last song. Lynn struck up a friendly conversation with Gwen. Aaron turned to Peter and whispered, “Who is she?”

“She’s my new client you told me to witness to.”

Aaron had been watching Peter watching Gwen during the service.

“You’d better be careful,” was all Aaron could say without prolonging the side conversation.
Yep, because in purity land, beautiful women are DANGEROUS. They tempt good godly men, just by existing as beautiful women. Be careful.

5. From Anonymous Tip: In Which Bruises Are Not Abuse:

And then, here are some of Peter's thoughts as their non-relationship develops:
“Me too,” Peter said, again pulling his gaze away from her face. I’ve got to stop staring at her, he told himself. But he didn’t. Finally, looking down at his desk, feeling convicted in his spirit, he said, “Well, I’d better get to work.”
I'd like to point out how out-of-control Peter feels here. He's attracted to Gwen, he likes looking at her, and he believes this makes him a dirty sinner, locked in a battle to guard his heart, and losing badly. Cascading out of control down the slippery slope full of all kinds of temptation and before you know it, you've had sex and lost all your purity because you couldn't control yourself.

I totally felt like this, back in my guard-your-heart days. I couldn't stop myself from having feelings and romantic attraction. And I was so scared- it meant I couldn't control myself. And if I couldn't control myself in this area, who knew what other sin I was capable of? Merely noticing someone was attractive was a HUGE CRISIS.

All right, reality check. It is totally normal and okay to be attracted to someone. That's out of your control. But you are definitely able to control your actions. You are 100% capable of liking someone but NOT acting creepy toward them, NOT asking them out, NOT touching them, etc etc etc. That is what normal people do. But purity culture taught me it was all one huge slippery slope and I wouldn't be able to control myself- and then I found yes, it's true, I'm not able to control my feelings of attraction. OH NO! PANIC!

6. From Anonymous Tip: In Which Peter Has Second Thoughts

After winning the case, Peter is sad that he won't have an excuse to see Gwen again:
The legal victory was bittersweet. He had poured his heart and soul into winning, but winning meant less contact with Gwen. That thought was both disappointing and troubling. He was disappointed because he wanted to keep seeing her. Yet he was troubled because he knew his desires did not mesh with the lessons he believed the Bible taught. Gwen was not a believer. But Peter believed that her spiritual condition might well change anytime. Her status as a divorcee was unchangeable—absent the unlikely possibility Gordon [Gwen's ex-husband] would drink himself to death sometime soon.

"Absent the unlikely possibility that Gordon would drink himself to death sometime soon."

Excuse me, WHAT?

Peter believes that he can't marry a woman who was divorced without "biblical grounds." (The book emphasizes that not all Real True Christians believe this, though.) Basically the only way he and Gwen can be together is if Gordon dies, because then Gwen would be a widow and it's okay to marry a widow but not to marry a divorcee.

This is what happens when something like having sex is treated as a life-and-death issue. Pretty soon you end up inserting the concept of death into situations where it totally should not be. You get people imagining hypothetical situations where somebody is threatened with death if they don't "give up their purity" and have sex, and everyone gives their opinion on which would be worse: to not be a virgin, or to be dead. [Ahem. This would be rape. Even if the victim says "yes" it does NOT count as consent if they're being threatened.] You get stories of pastors who tell rape victims "too bad he didn't kill you, at least you would have still been a virgin." You get girls who believe their lives are ruined- who don't think it's even worth trying to escape from their abuser, because what's the point? They're worthless now anyway.

And then there was me, super-angry upon discovering a vent in the bathroom of my college dorm which maybe would allow somebody in the next room over to look through and see into our bathroom. So so so angry because what if a boy saw me, then knowledge about my body would be out there in the world, rather than saved for only my future husband- unless of course I killed the random boy who happened to look through the bathroom vent (doesn't matter if it was an accident or what). Yep, then I would still be pure.

For Peter, divorce is not an acceptable way to end a marriage (unless there's adultery, I assume- then God allows divorce), but death is. DOES NO ONE REALIZE HOW COMPLETELY MESSED-UP THIS IS? In the real world, divorce is awful and it sucks, but it gets better. Life goes on. And hopefully you end up much better off than you were in the bad marriage. Divorce is not the end of your life. But in purity culture, it is. (Actually, purity culture says just breaking up with your boyfriend is pretty much the end of your life- divorce would be unimaginable.)

So here's Peter, sort-of-not-exactly hoping that a person DIES, because the rules say that's the only way he can get with Gwen.

7. From Anonymous Tip: Aaron Gives Peter a Talking To:

Peter tells Aaron that, though earlier he had made a commitment not to marry a divorced woman, he's now starting to wonder if that's REALLY the rule that the bible teaches.
“So, you’ve got a different kind of issue than pure scriptural interpretation. You’ve reached a conviction in the past about the meaning of Scripture and made a commitment to God based on that understanding. And now, when a very attractive alternative interpretation of Scripture comes on the scene, you are rethinking your convictions. I don’t think that’s the way that God wants us to operate. Sure, there are times we should change our views. None of us interprets Scripture with one-hundred-percent accuracy. But I don’t believe that we should change our convictions in the heat of the moment—especially when the reason for the change is not some new insight from Scripture, but simply a very attractive temptation to vary what we have believed.”

Peter sighed deeply and fiddled with his coffee cup. “I was afraid you were going to say something like that. You’re probably right.”

“Well,” Aaron replied, “I don’t feel that it is appropriate for me to give you a blanket answer about divorce. If God changes your mind, that’s one thing. But if it is a beautiful woman responsible for the change, I fear you set a very dangerous spiritual precedent in your life.”

“Well thanks—I think,” Peter said with a weak smile.
This line of thinking is SO dangerous.

Here's what's going on: Peter believes it would be wrong to marry a divorced woman. But now that he's interested in Gwen, he's thinking maybe he was wrong, maybe it would be okay for him to marry a divorced woman. Aaron warns him that he must not change his beliefs based on his situation- he can only change if God tells him.

In other words, purity culture teaches that we must form our beliefs before we have any real-world experience, because real-world experience is temptation and it will make us biased and just want to do what feels good and what's easy, rather than what God really wants.

So you end up with girls who haven't even entered puberty yet, making vows that they won't kiss a boy until the pastor says "you may now kiss the bride" at their wedding. They don't know anything about sex. They don't know anything about kissing. All they know is that God apparently wants them to be pure by not doing ANYTHING until the wedding.

And then when they grow up and start dating and end up kissing a boy, purity culture judges them. Look at how they broke their promises. They were alone with a boy and there was just too much temptation and they sinned. Oh, if only they had believed in that promise even harder before entering a romantic relationship! If only they had avoided any situation which might enable them to learn actual information about kissing and their own desires- ahem, er, avoided temptation.

It is my firm belief that people do not break their purity pledges because of temptation. They break their purity pledges because they realize that those pledges were based on misinformation.

Or, here's another example: I used to make lists of the characteristics I was looking for in a "future husband." I was very careful to divide everything into 3 categories: things that were absolutely essential, things that were maybe not absolutely 100% essential but it might be a red flag if the guy didn't have them, and preferences. I did this because I did not trust myself to objectively evaluate a guy if I had a crush on him. Surely I would just say "oh he doesn't meet this requirement, but eh, that's okay, it's not a very important requirement." That's why I needed to be very very clear about which things were absolutely non-negotiable, before I even got into a situation where it mattered.

So here's Peter, who believes divorced people are not marriage material, and then he meets Gwen and sees she's a great person and THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH HER. But instead of saying "oh, I guess I was wrong, I was basing my beliefs on a stereotype about what divorced women are like" and then being glad that he now has more reliable information on which to base his beliefs, he's like "this is what I've decided and I can't change it because that would be giving in to temptation."

(This is ignoring the fact that he's her lawyer, so there should be no romantic anything going on with them. Peter ignores that fact throughout the entire book.)

8. From Anonymous Tip: The Most Awkward Dinner Ever

Peter goes to Gwen's house for dinner. Her daughter Casey has a bad dream, and Peter goes to comfort her. Then this:
Gwen just stood there in amazement. As Peter made his way to the door, it was obvious that Gwen was not going to move. As he approached her, he reached out his hand, grasping her arm gently to rouse her so they could both leave the room.

“Peter,” she whispered. “You are wonderful. You are truly wonderful.”

Peter’s head was swimming. It was the closest they had ever been. He could smell her hair and feel her breath. He lingered. If only her parents had not been in the outer room . . . how he desired at that moment to kiss her with reckless abandon.

“I think you’re more than wonderful,” he whispered.
Yep, that's purity culture. Remember the whole thing about thinking you're totally out of control? Well here Peter imagines that he could kiss Gwen- and maybe he would even do it if her parents weren't in the next room. Almost like he's having trouble controlling himself and the only thing holding him back is the presence of Gwen's parents.

Notice that it totally doesn't matter whether Gwen wants to kiss him or not. Purity culture teaches that people are unable to control themselves, so don't expect anyone to respect anyone else's boundaries or ask for consent or anything like that. Nope.


Yeah. So, to sum up, Peter's thoughts about Gwen in this book are a perfect illustration of the scared, guilty, out-of-control, bound-by-rules, cognitive-dissonant, out-of-touch-with-reality way that purity culture followers respond to their own feelings of romantic or sexual attraction. I know because I used to live that way.

Follow Libby Anne's blog to find out where this goes. Personally, my money's on "we find out that Gordon had cheated on Gwen back when they were married, so suddenly the divorce becomes valid in the eyes of God, and Peter and Gwen ride off together into the sunset, far far away from any consequences of all Peter's ethical violations."

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