It seems a lot of people can’t fathom why a woman, regardless of political beliefs, would support Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in light of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about him sexually assaulting her.
I can, and here’s why.
There exists a generation of women who were never taught consent ― and I’m not talking about Boomers. I’m talking about the hundreds of thousands of us who were raised in church and came of age at the turn of the millennium.
In our world, we were taught that our bodies didn’t belong to ourselves. God owned them, they said, but really, that meant that men owned them. Our fathers. Our pastors. Our husbands. Our politicians. Never ourselves.
This is, of course, the foundation of the 1990s evangelical movement known as “purity culture.” A pendulum swing from the free love culture of the 1970s and the AIDS scare of the 1980s, the 1990s were all about abstinence. Evangelicals took it upon themselves to stop a generation from promiscuity. They forged a mascot, a slogan (“True Love Waits”), held “purity balls,” manufactured an endless supply of merchandise — and voila! Purity culture, a subculture within an already-bizarre evangelical subculture, was born.
Purity culture taught young girls to bear responsibility for men’s lust. When we got dressed in the morning, we were supposed to ask ourselves what our grandfathers would think of our outfits. We wore T-shirts that said, “Modest is Hottest.”
Our formative years were spent in shame over our bodies, in suspicion of our sexuality, and in earnest ownership over the behavior of men.
When I was 13, I went to my female youth pastor, shaken by the first aggressive catcall directed my way. She said, “Welcome to the wonderful world of womanhood,” with an edge of tired sarcasm to her voice. That was it. I shrugged it off and tried to shrug off the hundreds of catcalls in my future.
When I was 14, I was lying on my belly reading the Bible on the church floor before youth group. A youth leader told me to sit up. If a girl is horizontal around boys, it forces them to picture you naked, she said. It causes them to stumble.
“We were taught that women who have sex before marriage are like a trampled rose. Damaged goods. Undesirable. Unworthy of love. Sometimes the metaphor used in sermon illustrations was a chewed piece of gum. The pastor would chew a piece of gum and then pass it around the room, asking if anyone else wanted to chew it after him.”
When I was 15, I was violently assaulted on a mission trip. In response, my team leader literally asked me, “What were you wearing?”
This famous phrase is not just an internet meme. People actually say it to women, and even more destructively, to young girls. They said it to me. I shut up about that assault for a good decade after that.
When I was 16, I sat in a dark movie theater with my crush, alarmed by my desire to hold his hand. It was my first official date, and I was too consumed with fear to enjoy it. You see, we were taught that women who have sex before marriage are like a trampled rose. Damaged goods. Undesirable. Unworthy of love.
Sometimes the metaphor used in sermon illustrations was a chewed piece of gum. The pastor would chew a piece of gum and then pass it around the room, asking if anyone else wanted to chew it after him. Sometimes it was a piece of tape that had lost its stickiness. Sometimes it was a torn-up piece of construction paper. The sermon illustrations differed, but the message was always the same. With these images seared into my mind, I cut off contact with my crush after that night.
When I was 17, I attended a purity retreat where I signed a pledge to “save myself” for my future husband. I didn’t even think about what I wanted, because that didn’t matter. My body wasn’t my own.
When I was 18, in college, a guy at my Christian school lectured my friend and me for stretching in the student union. He said it caused him to picture us in the positions we could maintain in bed and that we should work harder to protect his thoughts.
We acquiesced. After all, we wanted to be women of God, worthy of our future husbands.
When I was 19, another girlfriend of mine went to visit a guy who was housesitting off campus. She kissed him on the sofa after a movie, and then gathered her keys to leave. He forced himself on her. She came back to the dorms in tears. She didn’t report it because we knew that girls who had sex were expelled from school.
There was so much shame regarding sex in evangelical circles that none of it — consensual or otherwise — was talked about. There was no difference. It was all sin.
When I was 20, my Christian boyfriend dumped me. “I want a pure woman,” he told me after one of our kissing sessions. We hadn’t even had sex. “Maybe if your cleavage wasn’t always out I could have controlled myself,” he suggested. I promised him we could stop making out. That wasn’t enough. We already had. I was damaged goods.
When I was 21, I was engaged to another Christian man. We stuck to the pledges we had made as teenagers. We sought Christian counsel to prepare ourselves for marriage. Always be available to your husband, they said. If you don’t fulfill his needs, he will lust after other women. Until then, continue to be sexless. Try not to even think about it. An impure mind is the start of all sins.
By then, I was damn well ready to have sex, yet I did not until after the cake was cut. I had made a promise to other people. My body was not my own.
“I’ve had to unlearn so many ideas about sex and the female body. I had to relearn basic concepts of bodily autonomy, sexual consent, and sex/body positivity. Purity culture uses fear to try to stop women from being autonomous over their bodies. At its core, it is about control.”
When I was 22, I began to untangle myself from the mess of purity culture. I’ve had to unlearn so many ideas about sex and the female body. I had to relearn basic concepts of bodily autonomy, sexual consent, and sex/body positivity. Purity culture uses fear to try to stop women from being autonomous over their bodies. At its core, it is about control.
So this is why it is not surprising to me that so many women are rushing to protect Kavanaugh and deriding Ford. The women who grew up being guardians of male sexuality are now approaching middle age, and many of us are still assuming that role and expecting other women to as well.
The lingering effects of purity culture run deep. We were taught to distrust women — beginning with ourselves.
Carly Gelsinger lives in California with her husband and two daughters. She holds a master’s in journalism and runs a small business helping people write their stories. Her first book, Once You Go In: A Memoir of Radical Faith, will be released in October 2018 and is the story of her experience being lured into and escaping a fundamentalist church. Learn more about Carly at by visiting her official website.
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