Conservative Christian Slut-Shaming, Boys Will Be Boys, and Identity Formation

Chances are by now you’ve read the recently viral post “FYI (if you’re a teenage girl).” Many of us had our Facebook feeds inundated with people sharing the post and proclaiming its wisdom. Then, slowly but surely, less glowing responses began to show up. [See this fantastic example that brings in late antique Desert Mothers.]

The post is framed as an open letter to a teenage girl (whom I hope is imaginary, or at the very least, a composite character) that has posted a picture which the author (a mother) perceives as overly sexual. The mother explains that her family sits around the dinner table and goes through the feeds of the teenage girls that are online friends with her teenage sons. When they come across what they perceive to be a too sexual post, the teenage girl is blocked.

Admittedly, the overall message of the post seems to be one of trying to teach children good social media practices, but it does much more than that. For starters, there is what appeared to many commenters as blatant hypocrisy: the mother decried certain photos of teenage girls while peppering her post with photos of her attractive and fit sons, bare-chested on the beach (the author has since replaced these pictures). But this only scratches at the surface.

There are two deeper issues that jumped out to me.

First, the post perpetuates the myth that females are responsible for anytime someone else views them as sexual beings. It is the girl’s fault, the mother believes, when her teenage boys see pictures like this and have sexual thoughts about the girl. Many have said that the post is engaged in “slut-shaming,” which is the practice of viewing a person as a “slut” because of some action such as the way he/she dresses, the use of birth control, etc. This is most often perpetrated on women. Whereas guys are often seen as heroes when they are sexually active, girls are often seen as sluts. In this blog post the mother comments that the teenage girl appears to not be wearing a bra in the picture (she is apparently in her bedroom, heading to bed) and then proceeds to lay all of the responsibility on this teenage girl.

know your family would not be thrilled at the thought of my teenage boys seeing you only in your towel. Did you know that once a male sees you in a state of undress, he can’t quickly un-see it?  You don’t want our boys to only think of you in this sexual way, do you?

Besides the generally condescending tone, it is clear to the mother that it is the teenage girl’s responsibility to make sure guys don’t think of her sexually.

The second deeper issue is also demonstrated in the above quote: the myth that males always and everywhere are only ever capable of viewing females sexually. Apparently, after seeing one “sexual” picture of a teenage girl, guys are only able now to think of that teenage girl as a sexual object. The idea seems to be that “boys will be boys” is true and that it portrays a real, ontological truth about males. She talks about “a male” as if it were a specific scientific species whose inherent nature is the same across the board, as if her claim that a male cannot un-see a “sexual” image were as solid a truth as the law of gravity. Just like the practice of slut-shaming and implying that it is a female’s responsibility to make sure she is not viewed sexually, so too this implication that males have no choice but to view females sexually is a sexist generalization rooted in issues of identity and power.

This particular blog post is not my first encounter with conservative Christianity’s warped views on sex and gender. The particular conservative Christian culture in which I grew up preached what I now consider to be a very unhealthy sexual ethic. It said being sexually attractive or sexually attracted are “sins” that one must flee (unless one happens to already be married to his/her opposite-sex spouse). It bordered on saying that all sex must be for the purposes of procreation. It continues to perpetuate the idea that you are what others think you are – this is why the mother is blocking teenage girls because of who she perceives them to be after one picture and also why, for instance, I was always instructed to never have lunch with a female to whom I wasn’t married.

My experience was of a culture that sent mixed messages when it came to sexuality. On the one hand, you should never think about sex (no lie, while in college I heard a speaker say that “sex” should be defined as anything that prepared your body for sex – this would include thinking about sex, involuntary erections, etc.), or look at pornography, or masturbate, etc., and you should be careful to “guard the heart” of the girl you were “pursuing” (guys always pursued girls, girls never pursued guys). Yet on the other hand, youth pastors and camp speakers were celebrated for talking about how “hot” their wives were – the underlying implication being that if you chose to really serve God, by going into “the ministry” for instance, then God would reward you with a “smoking hot” wife with whom the sex was always amazing.

There is a clear element of placing all of the blame on females for just being too attractive or not doing enough to strap down their breasts (i.e. not becoming enough like men). Gospel of Thomas 114 seems apropos here. Females were shamed and guys were taught that even looking twice at an attractive female was a sin (we were taught to “bounce our eyes”). Girls were always the objects and guys could never hope to be anything other than sex-crazed.

But there’s more. I  see another process at work in how conservative Christianity talks about sex and gender and that’s the process of identity formation. These messages and actions work to draw clear lines between “us” and “them,” between those who are sexually “pure” and “chaste” and those who are “sluts” and are only seeking sexual attention. Because of this, the message must be presented in a very specific way and you must do very specific things to be considered part of the group. Sometimes this takes the form of signing a True Love Waits card (and of course, buying one of their purity rings to wear, proudly displaying your virtue and group affiliation). Other times it takes the form of proudly declaring to the world just how virtuous and godly you and your family are (like maybe in a blog post). The end result is always the same: “we” are clearly superior to “them.”

I know the blog post was ostensibly about good social media practices, and that is a conversation that I think is very much worth having, but not in this way.

———-
P.S. There is another feature to this post that bothered me that wasn’t immediately relevant to my above comments and that is the idea that our teenagers should never be having sexual thoughts, that the very fact that we are sexual beings is a “bad” thing. I understand that for many conservative Christians that is true. This is a view rooted in an anthropology of humanity that is informed almost solely by the doctrine of “The Fall.” This is not a doctrine to which I subscribe for a host of reasons. Sexuality in and of itself is often viewed as evidence that we are “depraved” and “sinful” and just all around horrible beings. Messages like this abound, as do more blatant attempts to make other people feel guilty for who they are as a person and as a human being. I am all for sexual responsibility, but I think that we should be promoting better sex education, safer sex, and a sexual ethic that is overall sex-positive.

7 thoughts on “Conservative Christian Slut-Shaming, Boys Will Be Boys, and Identity Formation

  1. Thanks for this and great to have a thoughtful and literate perspective from a male point of view. I’d like to add that it is not ‘Christianity’ that creates a double standard for women, but the a specific thread within Christianity. The version we now think of as dominant is one preserved in sources which owe their survival to the librarians of (male) monasteries in the middle ages, who thought they were useful to the formation of young monks. In a recent book called Band of Angels, I’ve tried to show that traces of the early Christian woman’s point of view can still be discerned. None of this obviates what you say in your post, but I don’t want to entrench an idea that Christianity is/was inherently misogynistic or against the human body – the sources that sound that way to our ear reflect a short-hand used by a certain historically specific male ascetic culture – the nuns thought about things very differently, and their sayings might be more welcome to our modern ears!

    1. Thank you. And while I haven’t had a chance to read your book (though will shortly since I’ve put it on my reading list for Christianity in Late Antiquity), I am very aware that we are dealing with a very specific brand of Christianity, both historically and today, and that we have more voices than are typically represented. This is why I tried to talk about the particular type of conservative Christianity in which I grew up, though it is easy to just talk about “Conservative Christianity” as if it were one single thing.

      I am in the midst of comprehensive exams, but my intended dissertation project is on sexual slander in early Christianity, so I think a lot about how language like this (and often much more explicit language) is used to delineate who is a “true Christian” and who is not. This an area where my research in antiquity often has direct relevance to contemporary experiences.

  2. Thanks for the post! Very interesting. I’m a Christian but I did grow apart from that slut-shaming thinking they had and I have felt free from a weight I had over my shoulders. I live in Florida and for me is normal to see people with light clothing and things like that.

  3. Hi, I saw that you study sexual slander, I just came from a blog where I was trying to argue why Slut-shaming (the real kind, of an 18 year old porn star) where bullying and harassment were hurting her. The Christians at this popular manosphere blog were saying that slut-shaming was done by Jesus. I wonder if you want to check it out since you study things like this… it really threw me for a loop that people that seemed so grounded on areas of marriage and Christian values actually claimed that Jesus himself slut-shamed.

    If you’re interested, the link is:

    http://sunshinemaryandthedragon.wordpress.com/2014/02/23/how-feminism-spreads-from-a-few-unhappy-women-to-many-previously-happy-women/#comments

  4. Hello,
    I just found this blog post linked from an external page. I must say this is an interesting read.
    To start things out, I am a Christian and will never deny my faith, however, I agree with you at least 60-80%. While I, and many others do regard sexual acts out of wedlock sin (including masturbation and porn), I must emphasize that I have seen this behavior, particularly by mothers, however. I do not know why, but mothers seem to be more paranoid about this issue…one-sidedly. We are all human beings and there might have been some strange demon in the past haunting them to this day in an issue that they haven’t discussed with Christ yet (Oh, I’m sure regarding the sons’ and daughters’ purity, they have, but I’m discussing the actual root of such thinking. It seems rather strange to me). I have always disliked double-standards, and seeing that Christianity (not crazy moms) defines purity as important to both, girls and boys, until they are married, was actually one of the things that led to my conversion. As I, myself, had difficulties in the past due to double-standards, and almost turned “bi” as a result (feeling that using such a designation and lifestyle might free me from typical social ‘chains’ burdened onto my gender). So once I discovered what Christians really think (and once again, not crazy paranoid moms), and what the Bible really says, I was shocked, since this is not what society had propagated unto me before…that in Christian, Bible-based, thought, it was everyone’s responsibility to remain pure, no matter the gender or status, and that guilt could be forgiven in other areas of life.
    As a “young” Christian then, I realized that the Bible actually states that I can do whatever I want to do, or be whoever I want to be, and it was OK…as long as I’m not making God sad by sinning…and even then, forgiveness is given. It was amazing for me at the time because I had a lot of confusion and frustration my entire life.

    I find many of the males who become victim to such false stereotypes at home end up confused themselves…they are brainwashed into thinking about sex constantly because people tell them that’s what they need to do and not do on the same time. I’d be very confused. I’m sure many turned gay due to this crazy confusion about what they’re supposed to do. It’s not right.

    Many of these “boys will be boys” attitudes, and “it’s the girls fault’ attitudes, actually stem from society, rather than Christianity. And what has truly happened is that society didn’t remain conservative (in regards to things concerning gender and other things I falsely ascribed to Christianity) due to Christian thought, but that “pure” Christian thought actually became just a victim to society. The odd idea that because your parents were Christian, and because you were raised with a certain belief system inside a society, that they must be related. Not necessarily. Many rules are just rules of mere men, not of God. That is just my two cents to this discussion, I hope you find some gems in this as I did in your post that I agree with to the bigger part. If there are any questions you do have, I’ll be very happy to answer.

    To my curiosity, however, I would like to ask you a question, what denomination/sect was this Church you were raised in? I’d really like to know. Only, of course, if you’re comfortable telling the world.

    P.S. The thing in regards to “Slut-Shaming”(my new word of the day), and Jesus approving of this behavior, is complete bull. On the contrary, actually: http://bit.ly/1rc8AZc

    1. Thanks for reading and engaging!

      I grew up Southern Baptist. I understand that not all Southern Baptists can be described as I have above, that’s why I tried to speak about my particular experiences.

      Your linking to the pericope adulterae is interesting, especially since we know that it was not included in the earliest manuscripts of John. Regardless, part of the issue that I have with many of the sexual ethics promoted by various Christians is that they have set up on a pedestal, and as divinely-given law, the particular sexual mores of particular cultures and times. They are, as I often say, making it all up as they go along. You can read more about where I’m coming from on this point in my post, Sin is Culturally Defined: http://thomaswhitley.com/2014/04/03/sin-is-culturally-defined/.

      1. Hello, I agree that certain views of ‘sin’ are culturally defined. While I do not think that sin changes in different culture (sin is sin), I do believe the perception of what sin is changes throughout culture. Your example in your post in regards to alcohol is a good one. For instance, the Bible never defined drinking alcohol as sin. In fact, Jesus drank alcohol (wine) and many other people did. I drink even enjoy a glass of wine. I think the idea that it’s ‘sin’ came in the prohibition times, mixed with certain other factors (such as the ability to lead you addicted to being a drunkard, which indeed, is defined as sin – ‘wild parties’ and all).

        I actually went to a Southern Baptist Church for a while myself. I agree with many things, but disagree with others. They were good in that they actually went into in-depth study of the Bible, but some traditions seemed to me to be more of a doctrine of man than what God’s word truly says or means. I’m not saying they are wrong, I’m merely voicing an opinion on the matter. But this is why we Christians should dive deeper into the Holy Bible, try to see what was actually meant, and never grow tired of it.

        Another thing I agree with is that you’re claiming that they’re put on a pedestal. Yes, I would agree on that. I might agree with the Biblical views of sexuality, but I find other things more important. Especially since things like cultural norms could affect the perception of sin, and taint the Word of God. For instance, these sexual passages often have only very few verses in the entire New Testament, if at all. In contrast, however, the topics of brotherly love, faith, and God’s grace are more akin to the center of Jesus’s teaching, and should be the things that really should be presented on the pedestal.

        I find it sad, but understandable, that people will more often want to talk about the things in culture they disagree with, rather than those they agree with.

        Sorry if any of this stuff comes out wrong or offensive for some reason (that is not my intention but one never knows what might come off offensive via text), I’m just adding my conversation to those who are interested in reading. I must also thank you for your insight and civil conversation.

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