[content note: mentions of sexual assault, discussion of purity culture]
A story surfaced this week about a rule Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen have: he won’t meet alone with a woman unless his wife is present. When you look at this as an individual case, it appears to be an agreement between a conservative couple meant to preserve honesty in their marriage. But this rule was birthed out of conservative Christianity’s problematic beliefs about sex and relationships, which disproportionately marginalizes and objectifies women and girls. When this is practiced by politicians, the effects of this rule go far outside the confines of their marriage and affects how they do their jobs and ultimately the citizens they serve.
Purity culture is a term used to describe conservative Christianity’s teachings about sex and relationships. The foundation of this is the belief that people must remain virgins until heterosexual marriage, and that any sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful. Sprouting from this are teachings like: women must dress modestly in order to avoid tempting men, having sex before marriage means you’re “used up” or “damaged goods” (especially if you’re a woman), and that if you’re a good abstinent Christian, your sex life with your spouse will be beautiful and amazing and full of mind blowing orgasms.
These beliefs were presented to me starting at a very young age, but the most memorable application of this was when my youth group participated in a Christian abstinence program called True Love Waits. For several weeks we took classes separated by gender: boys were taught by my youth pastor, and the girls were taught by a couple of the female Sunday School teachers. We were given reasons why premarital sex is sinful and told that when you have premarital sex, you’re cheating on your future spouse. The girls were constantly told to be aware of how we’re dressed in order to not tempt men. We were cautioned against putting ourselves in “compromising situations” that could lead to sex. There was no talk about the actual act of sex, how relationships work, or consent. I’m not sure what the guys were told, but the overall message for the girls was it’s our job to preserve our purity and the purity of any man we interacted with, and if we followed all the rules, we’d be rewarded with marriage.
The end of the True Love Waits course was celebrated with a ceremony that was meant to resemble a wedding; the girls wore white or pastel colors and the guys wore suits. We stood up in front of the church, pledged that we would not have sex until marriage, and were presented with a piece of jewelry by our parents. My mom gave me a ring with the words “True Love Waits” engraved on it. I was 12 years old, and I went along with this simply because I wasn’t aware there were any other options. Women who had premarital sex were described as things like used up pieces of gum or plucked flowers, and I definitely didn’t want that. I wanted to be good, and good girls didn’t have sex. Asking children to make such a promise is really fucked up, but that’s a post for another day.
When you break purity culture down to its basic elements, women are sex objects and men are sexual predators with no self control. Christian women have to be constantly vigilant because anything we wear, say, or do could lead a man down the path of sexual sin and destruction. Men were advised to do things like give their female friends side hugs in order avoid contact with their breasts, and if they came across a woman wearing revealing clothing they should cover their eyes. When I was in college I recall watching movies with my guy friends, and whenever there was even the smallest amount of female nudity they would turn their heads or cover their eyes. To be honest this just drew more attention to what was happening in the movie and made things awkward.
Once you got married, which was the ultimate goal of Christian adulthood, relationships with anyone of the opposite gender who was not a family member was forbidden. If you were a woman, you could not have male friends, and if you were a man you couldn’t have female friends. Men were advised to never be alone with a woman they weren’t married to in order to avoid temptation and so people wouldn’t assume you were sleeping together. Even before marriage, we were advised to maintain good boundaries in our opposite gender relationships in order to avoid sexual sin. In purity culture, there is no such thing as platonic relationships between men and women. The threat of romance and sexual sin was always present so we had to “guard our hearts.”
As a woman growing up in this culture, it fucked me up. Being constantly objectified and mistrusted by every man I met was dehumanizing. Sometimes I resent being a woman and having a body; being fat and black in evangelical purity culture presented its own specific set of problems. I hate myself because I’m not good enough or pure enough. In college I was full of sexual desire and desire for general closeness but I didn’t know how to deal with it. I’m paranoid about being around men in case something “bad” happens. I’m self conscious about my appearance and worry about “being a stumbling block”. Because of purity culture and my own insecurities, I didn’t even realize I was sexually assaulted by a classmate until years after it happened. The entire concept of sex and relationships was ruined for me, and years later the shame remains.
So imagine growing up as a man in this culture. You’re constantly told that women must be held at a distance because they could tempt you, and you have to set up strict boundaries because if you’re not careful, you can end up in a sinful situation. You’re told you have no self control when it comes to sex, and sexual sin was lurking around every corner waiting to rope you in. “Men can’t help themselves”, “Men are visual creatures”, “Respect your sisters in Christ, don’t be alone with them.” This all has to lead somewhere, right? It manifests into misogynistic behavior, like the agreement the Pences have made.
Because Mike Pence is a politician, his refusal to meet with women and treat them as human beings instead of potential sexual partners or temptresses leads hurts women. When he was governor of Indiana, Purvi Patel was jailed for performing a self-induced abortion after having a miscarriage. Yesterday he cast a tie breaking vote for legislation that would allow states to withhold federal funding from Planned Parenthood. Men who refuse to be around women and refuse to treat them as human beings will ultimately harm women. When they’re politicians, it leads to anti-choice legislation and other laws which systematically oppress women and uphold our sexist culture. This is why this aspect of the Pence’s marriage matters; it’s not occurring in the vacuum of their white Christian universe, it has consequences that affect millions of people.