Evangelicals’ Response to Assault and the Donald Trump Audio

I rarely talk about this because it feels incredibly personal, but when I was a Christian college student I was sexually assaulted by someone at a party. I was trying to transition out of the religious world of my adolescence and en route, I made some hyper-naive decisions leading me to be in vulnerable situations alone. I was incredibly ashamed about what happened, because sexual purity is arguably the deepest symbolic element of evangelical femininity. A month later I still hadn’t told anyone, until I finally broke down and “admitted” the incident to a religious leader I was very close with.

Her first response was: it’s sad what happened, but realize that it also means you are no longer a virgin. Her second response was: you were drunk at a party, which is a sin. Her third response was: this is what happens when you don’t trust God and instead befriend non-Christians, we need to get you back on track.

That was six years ago this month. I’m back on track in a ~different way~.

I deeply empathized with this article by Joy Beth Smith, published in the Washington Post. It opens up a brave discussion about the intersection between evangelical culture, Donald Trump, and sexual assault. I think the fact that the religious right is either 1) standing behind Trump after he discussed assaulting women, 2) extending him just enough “grace” to keep the reins on the Supreme Court, or 3) remaining stunningly apolitical from their pulpits, speaks volumes about the real priorities of many evangelical churches.

And let me be clear, even if religious leaders are not voting for Trump and say his behavior is immoral, if they are constantly hand-picking sermon topics from the Bible that would encourage their church members/ twitter followers/ podcast listeners/ readers/ etc. to feel morally obligated to vote conservatively (anti-abortion, anti-religious tolerance, anti-gender equality, anti-gay and trans rights, anti-public schools, etc) then that feels like the same thing. There are so many New Testament ideas that would encourage members to vote progressively in many elections, or that would paint a more nuanced picture of Christian ethics (social services for the poor, anti-war, love of immigrants the orphan and the widow, solidarity with the Islamic world, anti-weapons, anti-consumerism, racial equality, prison reform, anti-death penalty). But I digress.

As of now, Christian culture trains women from a very early age to be mortified by their bodies. The first thing that happened after the Fall is that Adam and Eve realized they were naked and they felt ashamed. I knew adult women who would cry at the gynecologist because they were so ashamed to be seen naked, even by a doctor. At summer camp, I was told that women should never wear shorts above their knees, show cleavage, wear shirts that would hug their breasts, be seen in leggings or bikinis. My first boyfriend, at twenty, broke up with me because I was “too tempting” and didn’t take abstinence seriously enough for his taste (he thought we should never hang out after a certain hour, and that we could only kiss if we were being “good” enough to not cross any more boundaries). As a woman, sex was going to be painful and awkward for the first year or so, I was told. I have heard from numerous married women that the shame lasts for many years after, even in healthy marriages. Christian women planning their weddings would diet for months in preparation for the wedding night. I don’t know any men who were concerned or mortified about their own bodies, in relation. These godly men were on other end of the spectrum, consistently painted as over-sexed sinful creatures who could not, without divine sanctification, control their appetites or treat women as more than objects. Women, then, must save the men by covering themselves with modesty and gentleness, hiding dutifully behind the wisdom of their fathers and pastors, and later their husbands.

In the logic of this subculture, when a woman is assaulted she was probably stepping out of bounds — drunk, or dressing inappropriately, or manipulating a man with her wiles and charm. Or, if she was assaulted it was because the man “stumbled” and participated in his true, sinful nature — giving into a “temptation” that every man faces since “original sin” has perverted their desires. I was told repeatedly that if two individuals are not “saved,” they can never express real love and concern to each other intimately without abuse. The woman wants to use the man for emotional validation and the man wants to use her for physical gratification. (I feel like I’m in a Victorian romance and a fantasy novel at the same time).

Christians cannot pretend to be horrified by rape and assault but participate in rape culture by conflating non-married and non-consensual sex as equally grievous “sins”, victim-blaming, and hiding behind the doctrines of original sin and weakness of “the flesh.” These ideas underestimate people’s agency to change cultural norms or choose not to participate in rape culture. These ideas also underestimate non-religious individuals’ capacity for respect and consensual intimacy outside of marriage, as well as the intrinsic goodness of men and women alike. Unless the dialogue surrounding Biblical manhood and womanhood shifts toward equality and also renunciation of rape culture, sexual assault like my own will continue to be mishandled by church leaders. For the meanwhile, although Trump’s crudeness is frowned upon by many evangelicals, his impulse to attack “beautiful women” and repent half-heartedly after the fact is commiserated with, if not justified.