Trigger warning: Sexual assault and sexual violence
Why This Book Matters
“She Deserves Better” by Sheila Wray Gregoire, Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach, and Joanna Sawatsky asks a simple question: “How do we raise girls in an unsafe world?”
If you look at the world at large, girls are not safe. We live in a world where sexual violence against girls is not only the norm, but it is glorified. The unstoppable, multi-million dollar porn industry has become a religion, and upon its altars women and children are constantly, ritually sacrificed in more and more dehumanizing and horrific ways: rape, beating, cruelty, strangling, torture, and more (Hald, et al, 2010). These violent fetishes have been normalized as a part of sex, and this has shown to affect behaviors even among minors. Intimate partner violence and intimate partner sexual assault affects women disproportionately, and, on college campuses, women are more likely to be victims of unwanted sexual contact, sexual coercion, and alcohol-related sexual assault from those known and unknown to them. Male victims of assault are also harmed: they face invisibility, silencing, and persistent disbelief.
In many cultures, including in the West, victims are viewed as the ones to blame – “What were you wearing?”. In the United States, for example, 25 to 40% of adults have been shown to believe rape myths (Elmore, et al. 2016) such as that a woman’s clothing was the cause of her assault and that the perpetrator was not to blame. A 13-year longitudinal study by Balm, et al. (2018) found that news reporting that echoes rape myths is correlated with higher incidences of rape and with a lack of police investigation in communities: this shows that a community’s beliefs play a huge role in enabling sexual violence. Sheila, Rebecca, and Joanna’s book takes on the incredible challenge of sexual safety in the world of rape myths and devastating ignorance.
Given the dismal rates of safety and prevalence of harmful myths in the world, Christians are faced with a challenge. We must recognize how incredibly high the stakes are and we must recognize our calling as Christians to be places of safety. The standard we are called to is the standard of the Good Shepherd. Thus, Christian parents are faced with the question, “How do I keep my children safe?” How do they nurture wholesome values in young men, cultivating respect and teaching them to resist culturally groomed entitlement and the glorification of “macho” conquest and aggression? How do they raise girls who have a strong sense of God-given honor and dignity, rejecting the shame, exploitation, and dehumanization that a harm-filled culture constantly tries to draw them into? What should parents teach their children about healthy sexuality – refusing pornography and porn culture, overcoming the sexualization they are bombarded with from the moment they begin to walk, and treasuring the sacredness of safe, mutual, honorable, marital intimacy in a world where sex is cheap, casual, and self-serving?
The sexual liberation has only served to increase both violence against women and sexual/relational dissatisfaction. Evangelical Christians eager to keep their children from the harm, confusion, and social-moral breakdown they witnessed in the world around them, began to develop in the 1980s what has become known as “purity culture”. The message was moral: abstain from sex, strive for sexual purity, and pursue marriage through courtship. Many young evangelicals developed intense shame around the concept of sexual purity which extended into the realm of extremist, scrupulous “emotional” purity. Sexual desire and romantic desire were spiritualized and imbued with moral shame, leading to long-term dysfunction that continued in marriage. Purity culture, as found in many of the writings that Sheila, Rebecca, and Joanna cite and analyze, does not promote a healthy relationship with one’s sexuality, spirituality, and bodies.
We are realizing today that there were many fault lines in the purity culture structure that primarily come from compromise with the world and absorption of the world’s values.
Where the emphasis was on adherence to moral standards, relational health and wholeness were sidelined. Young men and women were not taught to relate to one another in a loving, Christ-like, wholesome, counter-cultural way.
Purity culture ultimately proved to be counterproductive because the social assumptions undergirding the strategies and principles taught were based on the same degrading beliefs about women that undergirds the porn industry. Purity culture assumed that women’s bodies were the source of lust and that predatory desire, cultivated in a pornographic culture, was normal and healthy. The message to men was to blame women’s bodies for your urges, resist pornographic addiction, pursue marriage, and then you’re entitled to fulfilling, porn-adjacent, sex for the rest of your life. Degrading lust was made indistinguishable from holy, intimate love. The message to women was that men were uncontrollable: women were responsible for preventing lust through modest dressing, maintaining sexual purity in the dating relationship, and satisfying their husband’s sexual demands. If they fulfilled their responsibilities, men would respect and protect them. Writers on modesty, purity, and marriage such as Shaunti Feldhahn openly wrote that women and girls could “help” prevent boys from giving in to sin, and keep their from husbands emotionally, mentally, or physically straying. These teachings directed at young girls have often exacerbated the tenacity of four central rape myths found in culture: “victim blaming, empathizing with perpetrators, assuming the victim’s consent, and questioning the victim’s credibility” (Schwarz, Baum, and Cohen, 2022).
Stop and think for a moment: Have you heard these sentiments expressed among Christians, among people you know? Russell Moore, a prominent Southern Baptist leader and current editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, notes that a culture of mocking victims of sexual assault has “devastating implications” for “the teenage girl in a church somewhere who’s being abused by her youth pastor wondering whether to come forward” (Wingfield, 2023).
Of course, many of these beliefs pre-date Evangelical purity culture. The Victorians, for example, placed a high price on female sexual purity while winking of male promiscuity: “boys will be boys”. We’ve talked about rape culture myths: many societies around the world believe that men are not to blame for sexual assault, women’s attractiveness and clothing are. A woman once told me that if she did not cover her entire face in her home country, men would take that as an invitation and excuse to sexually harass her, and she would be at fault. First it’s hair, then knees, then shoulders, then faces, then eyes, then even the presence of a woman: she should not have been there at all, even if she was fully cloaked and hidden, her body made invisible. Then, because women’s purity is of social and monetary importance in many cultures, families respond to sexual assault by shaming girls, marrying them to their attackers, or taking her life – globally, around 5,000 women are victims of honor killings at the hands of their own families every year (World Health Organization, 2012).
We cannot underestimate the extent to which the many forms of sexual violence against women are exacerbated by the cultural beliefs of the world in which girls are raised. Shame, blame, guilt, and worthlessness are internalized and become destructive self-beliefs. This is why Sheila, Rebecca, and Joanna are raising their voices in the open square and saying in the voice of wisdom, “She deserves better.”
Developing self-awareness as a pre-teen and then adolescent girl, I knew that I deserved better than the world of fashion and dating in 2000s pop culture. I knew that was not what I wanted for myself, and I could tell that the clothes and lifestyle marketed at girls my age had a marked difference to the clothes I had worn as a child. They felt, for lack of a better word, dirty. Dehumanizing. I made the choice to embrace the conservative Christian approach to womanhood, primarily because the focus was on my relationship with God and relating to teen culture in a way that better resembled my values. Despite the fact that many of the harmful teachings of the Biblical womanhood and purity culture movement had to be relearned later in life, I knew that I was on the search for something more than what mainstream culture had to offer.
What This Book Says
“She Deserves Better” is just the start. The book begins to ask questions that dig deep into the preconceived notions and unconscious, formative, beliefs we have about womanhood and female sexuality, that the evangelical church has passed on to young women through purity culture. While the media, magazines, and messages the authors discuss relate the most directly to evangelical contexts, I believe the themes, question, and formative conclusions are relevant to the cultural world of Anabaptists and Kingdom Christians as well.
Sheila, Rebecca, and Joanna start the book with questions from moms (pp.15-16): How should they raise their daughters to have a “solid faith” without the shipwrecking and disillusionment found in many youth groups? How can they raise daughters while suffering from hurt and harm? Do moms have to choose between the world’s “hypersexualized” media and purity culture as it exists within the church? The goal is to explore a healthy, wholesome, approach to womanhood, to help girls develop wisdom in the face of hedonism and harmful grooming.
The premise of the book is that we can learn a lot about a culture from its fruit, and to do so we need more than hearsay. The authors have done a lot of extensive research and bring in helpful sources. For example, they cite studies showing that faith and church attendance has many positive effects on an individual’s well-being and life-long success. However, there are also concerns raised about how we can do so much better for girls: church-going is shown to increase the likelihood that a girl has insufficient sex education.
In their own research among Christian women, Sheila, Rebecca, and Joanna found that these beliefs were highly prevalent during their high school years (p.23):
- “Girls talk too much” (52%)
- Comment: this is demeaning, and means that girls believe that before they have said anything, that what they have to say has little value even if this means speaking up about feeling unsafe or harmed
- “If you have sex before you are married, you will have ruined your chances of having a good sex life in marriage” (66%)
- Comment: This sends the message to sexual abuse victims that they are damaged for life, less desirable marriage partners, and that they should carry shame and blame.
- “If you wait to have sex until you are married, you will have the best sex life possible.” (82%)
- Comment: See the authors’ previous book, “The Great Sex Rescue” for why this isn’t true: ignorance and harmful teachings have caused evangelical women to have higher rates of sexual pain (vaginismus) and inorgasmia. This belief can cause serious damage and disillusionment when women find they have no recourse when they struggle with marital intimacy – is something wrong with me because I don’t have the perfect sex life I was promised?
- “If a girl makes out with a boy, she is responsible to stop the progression to sex because he won’t be able to” (68%)
- Comment: Note that many authors expressly teach this. This is identical to the rape myth that the perpetrator simply was carried away and had no intention to carry out assault.
- “Boys will struggle with their visual nature in a way that girls will never understand” (86%), “You have a responsibility to protect boys around you by wearing modest clothing” (78%), “Boys can’t help but lust after a girl who is dressed like she is trying to incite it” (80%)
- Comment: Note that this once against is identical to rape myths widely perpetuated in secular society. The reality is that in extremely conservative cultures around the world and in ultra-conservative Christian settings, rates of pornography addiction and sexual abuse and assault are high. See what I have written on the subject here.
- “Girls who dress immodestly are worse than those who don’t” (79%)
- Comment: The sentiment is one deeply imbued with self-righteousness and judgment. We should not dress modestly in order to see ourselves as better than others, nor should we disrespect those who dress differently from us. This often leads to blame and the perpetuation of rape culture.
Simply put, Jesus gives us hope. As your child wades through the rocky waters of adolescence, starts questioning everything she knows, and tries to sort out how to navigate as an adult in this incredibly complex world, she has an anchor, a rock, a safe resting place in Christ. This may explain why studies have found that personal devotion to faith is greater predictor of positive outcomes than simply strict adherence to religious beliefs… your daughter is, according to psychological research, capable of having a very real and impactful faith life even at a young age. She is capable of truly knowing and believing in God in a way that will shape her life, shape her choices, and shape her view of the world for the better. (pp.34-35)
Chapter 2 of the book is of particular interest to Kingdom-minded Christians. Sheila, Rebecca, and Joanna focus on the role of faith in the life of a young woman. On pages 40-43, they draw from word frequency statistics to show that while the New Testament emphasizes the “Holy Spirit”, “gospel”, “Kingdom of God”, “Jesus”, and “faith”, Christian materials for teen girls are deeply concerned with “sex”, “marriage”, “purity”, virginity, and modesty. Strangely, this emphasis on fashion (modesty) and sex (purity) sounds like Christians are teaching girls to be obsessed about the same content depicted in Cosmopolitan, Sports Illustrated, and PlayBoy magazines, just from a different cultural viewpoint. In fact, some secular books aimed at teen girls were found to have less of an emphasis on boys and dating than Christian books. Sheila, Rebecca, and Joanna argue that this makes girls’ faith “self-focused and small”. Our priorities are all wrong, and seem to be defined by reactions to culture than a living, Christ-centered faith.
What does a Kingdom centered womanhood look like? I believe that God’s vision for His daughters concerns so much more than the one minute it takes to decide what to wear in the morning, nor does it revolve around our relationship with the opposite sex. He wants us to love Him with our whole heart and walk in healthy, Christ-honoring (not self-righteous) holiness.
There’s a term for using religious language to avoid dealing with uncomfortable emotions: spiritual bypassing. Psycho-therapist John Welwood, who coined the term, describes spiritual bypassing as the “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” Instead of truly listening to a person’s pain, we provide distance from unresolved feelings using God-language.
Chapter 3 is another chapter I believe will have a solid impact. The focus here is on unhealthy spirituality, “spiritual bypassing”. Sheila, Rebecca, and Joanna uncover a tremendous neglect of emotional health in favor of emotional unhealthiness disguised as spirituality. A story that comes to mind is that of girls who reported a peeping Tom at Bible school and were told to silence their feelings of dis-ease and danger. They were gaslighted, told that their safety did not matter, and instructed to forgive and forget. The perpetrator is now in jail, having gone on to sexually assault minors. It’s not only girls who are told that their gut feelings and instincts don’t matter – this is rife throughout Christian culture. We are also constantly fed messages about mental health that are deeply imbued with shame, condemnation, and the instruction to work harder and trust God more.
Recently, I came across a book by a woman suffering from extreme depression who was denied all forms of treatment and counseling, and who came to a point where she believed God called her to simply trust and obey, keep smiling, blame herself for her husband’s infidelity, repent for her lack of faith and depression, and submit to the point of never holding her husband accountable for adultery. She writes to women, counseling them that this is God’s holy and right way, and the only way to be truly obedient to God and to scripture. The level of internalized blame, destruction self-condemnation, and spiritual performativism exhibited in her writing is only, however, one extreme example of norms prevalent throughout Christian culture. Stop listening to yourself – your instincts are evil, your suffering is selfish, your feelings are a sign of unbelief.
Sheila, Rebecca, and Joanna identify this as DARVO, a tactic used against victims of abuse (p.64).
- You don’t feel what you think you feel (Deny)
- If you do feel that way, it’s your fault because you don’t trust God enough or you allowed a demon to have a foothold (Attack)
- If you show that you’re feeling that way, you’re going to be a bad witness and you’re going to hurt the church or even potentially threaten someone’s salvation (Reverse Victim and Offender).
The DARVO manipulation strategy is so effective because it systematically chips away at a person’s self-confidence and their ability to trust themselves. If you don’t want to deal with something uncomfortable, just erase the person experiencing it!
Netflix recently released a documentary titled, “Keep Sweet, Pray, and Obey” about women in the fundamentalist Mormon sect, FLDS. Sheila, Rebecca and Joanna identify this in their interview research where the “mentality… that a Christian should always be happy because we need to be a good witness” was prevalent.
Flor explained, “In the church, you have to kind of live in this fever where because of the gospel, you feel you have to forget yourself, to die to the self, and present a joyful, happy front even if you’re hurting.” (p.65)
“While this was happening – while he was forcing me to act out his porn fantasies and forcing me to do any and all sex acts he craved while he systematically abused and harmed me – I was still posting on Instagram and Facebook about what an amazing servant-leader husband and father he was. I was waxing poetic about him to my friends. I was saying all the things ‘good Christian wives’ said because I couldn’t bear the thought that my marriage had failed.” (p.66).
How much of our emphasis on appearance are a shortcut and a way to avoid engaging with what’s going on inside a person? While some are able to show their struggles, the expected norms for a Christian woman, especially in conservative circles, is to look right and seem right – to seem contented, pure, modest, godly, and at peace outwardly. 25% of teenage girls today experience “at least one major depressive episode, compared to 9% of boys” (p.52) – both the statistics and the culture of condemnation around mental health in our churches are dismal.
I’m not going to spoil the rest of the book for you! It is a wealth of verified information, wisdom, and meaningful questions and discussion around questions like boundaries, consent, the female body, sex education, dating, modesty culture, and a girl’s identity. The authors do not so much as push dogmatic convictions, but generate meaningful conversations in response to questions many parents are already asking.
My appeal to parents is this: your child is not safe in purity culture. Too many parents have failed their children by enabling, defending, and standing with predators. Too many parents have unwittingly passed on spiritually, emotionally, and sexually harmful messages that enable grooming for abuse, the abuse itself, and then the shaming and condemnation that comes after. The sexual abuse in churches is happening under the watch of “loving” parents.
My Mem replied, “To forgive means he’s sorry and you can never talk about it. If you do, your sin may be as big, if not bigger, than his sin.”… My Mem encouraged me to forgive him and endorsed me sitting on his lap even after I told her of his abuse. I didn’t have the words then to describe that I was terrified of my dat and even when I talked about it no one would hear me.”
This is what Mary Byler’s biological “mother” said when Mary sought help as a sexually abused child (Byler, 2022). Later, this “parent” defended the perpetrators of abuse and wrote letters to judicial authorities claiming that Mary had a tendency to lie and make things seem worse than they are, despite recorded admissions by the perpetrators. Similarly, Sheila, Rebecca, and Joanna describe example after example of sexual harassment, molestation, and assault downplayed by parents and churches – “When interviewed, Jim Bob Duggar downplayed the trauma his daughters endured, saying ‘This was not rape anything like that’… Michelle said, ‘I know that every one of us have done things wrong. That’s why Jesus came!’ (p.85).
Sheila, Rebecca and Joanna emphasize this: “Your daughter is not a giving tree.” Constantly drumming in the message of self-negation and self-effacement, of putting yourself last, has devastating effects when it comes to setting boundaries for their own safety, standing up for herself in situations of abuse and exploitation, and speaking with a clear and confident voice.
Now, frankly, many teens are inherently selfish and could use a reminder that the world does not, in fact, revolve around them… But what if your daughter is naturally empathetic? What if she’s a people pleaser? What is this kind of girl apt to do when she is facing an awkward boundary situation? She’s likely going to look for any excuse not to have to set that boundary so she can escape the discomfort – and J.O.Y. gives her exactly the way to do it: bury her own needs for the sake of avoiding conflict. (p.80)
Rather than teaching our daughters to rationalize away the sins of others or downplay their own hurt in order to maintain an appearance of unity, let’s teach our daughters to stand up and speak, even if the truth is uncomfortable (p.82).
Does your daughter have the skills she needs to identify who is safe and who is not? Will she be able to identify when her interpersonal conflicts cross over from normal squabbles to bullying and boundary crossing? (p.126)
Here’s where the abuse question becomes very real for young women: in dating relationships. Young girls are actually told in Christian books that their boyfriend’s anger is likely their fault. They must have “crossed the line” and “disrespected” him, and that is why he reacted. (Shaunti Feldhahn and Lisa Rice, cited in p. 135). They are also told that aggressive behaviour is not only normal, it is masculine and something to be prized. According to Focus on the Family’s Brio Magazine,
The fact is, guys are not only visually stimulated and physical, but they really are the sexual aggressor in any relationship. And you know why? God made them that way. That’s right. God wired guys to be sexually aggressive, just as He made you to be the caring, nurturing one in the relationship” (pp.136-137).
Priming for abuse. Grooming. A direct contradiction of Ephesians 5, Galatians 5, and the entire message of Scripture.
Shaunti Feldhahn and Lisa Rice go so far as to explain to women (repeating rape culture myths) that theirs is the primary responsibility to stop guys from going too far. Similarly, a male author at Brio magazine writes,
“That’s not to say that we don’t have a responsibility to live self-controlled, pure, lives. But a lion is a lion, and a guy is a guy… So, help us out… Give me an inch, and I’d see it as an invitation to go a mile” (cited in p.187).
Sheila, Rebecca, and Joanna cite the firsthand experiences of women, who write that:
- “The one time I actually reported a case of someone abusing me, it was turned on me and I was accused of being inappropriately dressed because I had on shorts.”
- “I was raped by a high school teacher in a private Christian school and subsequently married him because I believed I had to, that I was damaged goods because I allowed or caused or participated or was complicit in the rape. I wasn’t the first or last student he violated.”
Yes, Feldhahn says she’s not blaming girls, but “if the dress is a bit longer, the top less revealing, or you’re wearing something that covers more of the leggings, that center in his brain isn’t biologically triggered, and that temptation doesn’t arise in the same way”. So a young girl reading this might hear that it’s not her fault but also that she alone can prevent it. That it’s totally his choice, but it’s a biological response to seeing her body that he has no control over because this is how God made him. That it’s not his fault because he can’t help it; it’s hers because she could have prevented it. But no one’s blaming her. See how confusing it is? (p.212)
Note that many of these examples given describe young girls being sexualized not only by their peers, but by adult men and fathers. This is described as normal.
The fact is that this kind of modesty language feeds directly into a pornographic view of women’s bodies, which in turn enables, justifies, and creates a culture that normalizes lust and assault. Believing modesty-related rape myths such as these has been found to increase the likely of ending up in sexually and verbally abusive marriages (p.218). There is also another aspect related to this: Chapter 7 goes into detail about how ignorance about their bodies places girls in direct danger.
Finally, Chapter 10 discusses the pervasive myth that women’s words are worthless. Christian culture actively spreads inaccurate statistics about how women speak, for example, “25,000 words to men’s 12,000” (Gary Smalley, cited on p..241). This deliberate mocking and devaluation has incredibly harmful long-term effects, not the least because we (women included) are being groomed to tune out women’s and girl’s voices as useless, annoying, chatter. Sheila, Rebecca, and Joanna find in their research that this correlates with a great deal of internal, relational, sexual, and marital harm. The belief that women are inherently foolish and easily deceived contributes to how we respond when they report harm, harassment, and assault.
There is a moral imperative to the message of this book. In the following diagram, I have outlined some of the harmful teachings about womanhood I have encountered in the teaching of Bill Gothard, Debi Pearl, Finny Kuruvilla, John Piper, Elisabeth Elliot and other influential teachers on Biblical Womanhood. All these constitute grooming and we need to take sexually abusive teachings as seriously as we would respond to preacher going on the pulpit and saying, “Adultery is great! Everyone should try an affair sometime!” Rest assured, I am not raising the alarm because these are godly and helpful teachings, but because they have been proven time and time again to be deadly. If we are not willing to acknowledge where the dogmas and interpretations of Scripture we hold to are genuinely harmful, it is likely that we do not prioritize the relational purity, brotherly love, and responsible shepherding Jesus directly taught and demonstrated. Instead, we have chosen to glorify culture, convenience, and compromise.
I would like to conclude with this poem that I wrote, and have only now finished. I hope that you find it encouraging and will join us on this journey of discovering Kingdom Womanhood and healthy, cruciform gender theology here on the Kingdom Outpost.
They said she’s created as weak,
That’s how it should be,
So when a man tries to force her,
She cannot break free.
They told her that beauty was found in her silence,
They tell her her beauty is the source of men’s violence.
They told her “be meek”, “make men feel in charge”,
But assaulting her body made him feel strong and large.
Invisible, hidden, that is her place,
Childbirth’s salvation, submission your grace,
Obedience protects you, authority saves,
But when she seeks help, they protect the depraved.
They rally behind the godly abuser,
“Forgive and forget”, the leaders remind her.
Biblical woman, servant, help-mate…
The gospel they teach is a gospel of rape.
The story can change, and indeed it must,
The stakes are too high; we’ve enslaved girls to lust.
Our daughters are precious, worth turning the tide,
She’s more than an object of ego and pride.
Tell her she’s strong, the Lord made her so,
She’s beloved and sacred, and destined to grow
into a woman, one with a voice,
One who is valued, one with a choice.
Her body is honored, her talents are nurtured,
The women around her are courageous shepherds,
She grows into wisdom, her wisdom is seen,
She carries such dignity fit for a queen.
She is whole and not broken – a person, not prize,
She is mighty and gentle, an example of Christ,
She lives for the Kingdom, defying the odds,
The world can’t restrain this daughter of God.