#ChurchToo: How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse and How to Find Healing, Emily Joy Allison. Minneapolis: Broadleaf Books, 2021.
Summary: An argument connecting sexual abuse and other sexually dysfunctional teaching to the purity teaching upholding an ideal of abstinence until marriage between a man and a woman.
Emily Joy Allison went to a non-denominational evangelical church. Her father gave he a purity ring and was told she shouldn’t even kiss a boy until marriage. She eventually went to Moody Bible Institute. But before that, she was a survivor of sexual abuse from a youth leader in her church who “groomed” her and then came on to her. She’d never been taught about her body or about consent or what constituted abuse. Her father figured out what was going on, the leader was removed from the youth group, and the church swept the incident under the carpet. Emily’s last contact was a forced call him to apologize for her role. He never apologized. In her parents’ eyes, she was just as much to blame as he was. The day would come years later when she was no longer welcome home. At this writing, she still is not.
She buried this incident for many years. Only when the #MeToo movement arose did she summon the courage to create a new hashtag, #ChurchToo, and told her story and outed her abuser. Her story serves both as prologue and example of her thesis: that purity culture emphasizing abstinence, or else, creates the environment for abuse to thrive in church contexts. Women bear a disproportionate responsibility to dress and live “modestly” so as not to cause men to be aroused. It creates a rape culture, where the assumption is that the abused bears as much responsibility as the abuser. Sexual shame is used to create social control at the cost of both women and men hating their bodies and their sexuality–even while many are sexually active, up to 80 percent in a statistic cited in the book. Allison uses her stories, those of others, and research to deconstruct purity culture and its underlying theology.
Allison, a self-professed lesbian, goes further. She argues that the abstinence ideal underlying purity culture is homophobic, doing violence to LGBTQ persons. She advocates for a fully affirming position as the only alternative to abusive purity culture, with no middle ground.
In response, first of all, I’m convinced that her account of purity culture and its use of shame and social control to try to enforce an ideal of abstinence until marriage between a man and a woman is both credible and chilling. Her own story of her church’s inadequate and manipulative instruction about sexuality and coverup of her abuse is heartbreaking. I believe her. Her account, sometimes laced with profanity and justifiably angry is one I’m sure many churches will shun, likely the very churches that need to hear her.
What I miss in her attack on abstinence and advocacy for a fully affirming stance is a theology of human sexuality, particularly of the meaning of our sexuality. She rejects the “clobber verses” of scripture without addressing either the underlying theology that is part of the fabric in which these verses have been understood nor the theological premises, if such exist, for her own alternative of “ethical nonmonogamy.”
Likewise, while exposing the scandalous character of abuse in the church, which needs to be brought to the light of day, she offers no discussion of the rape culture I’ve witnessed as a collegiate minister in public universities where student have no lack of sexual education and instruction on consent. Donna Freitas, in Consent on Campus, notes what a complicated idea “consent” is and the reality that at least one in four report sexual abuse. Students nod knowingly when they hear the phrase, “the walk of shame.” This is not a purity culture context.
So, while I disagree with her broad brush indictment of abstinence and am committed to a different sexual ethic, her challenge to the patriarchal structures of the church, and her analysis of the purity culture a generation of youth were raised on, is deserving of attention. The dysfunctional sexuality of these churches is matched by the dysfunctional sexuality of the wider culture. There is a trail of abuse arising from both. Allison challenges us to something better than #MeToo and #ChurchToo.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.