I survived sex trafficking. The church didn’t help. I still grieve over that.
Recent stories about abuse and misogyny in the church have me thinking about those days when a man sold what wasn’t his to sell and his customers took what wasn’t theirs to take. The product was my body. I don’t write about this often (or ever before now, other than Twitter), but it’s time.
Let's sit, face to face, eye to eye, and talk.
Or let's do the closest thing to that possible via a blog post.
With a flood of recent stories covering the allegations against [insert latest pastor/church], I’m hearing a broken record from many conservative Christian leaders (almost all men, from denominations that bar women from being pastors). If only he had followed the Billy Graham Rule, also called the Pence Rule for the vice president’s adherence to it, then nothing would have happened.
This rule was set as a personal one for Graham, who traveled often in his crusade work. Many male leaders have adopted it as a prescriptive law for the church. If you are blessedly unaware of this rule, then I’m a bit jealous. Here’s the gist: a man is never alone with a woman who isn’t his wife. Period.
When I was trafficked, my body wasn’t treated with respect. (Obviously.) It wasn’t even treated like it was mine. No, men owned it, took it, exploited it, and dehumanized themselves in how they used any part of me they could touch.
Meanwhile, the Billy Graham Rule, especially when dictated as a best practice, tells men that it’s okay to assume any woman might be a seductress or false accuser and/or it’s a given that men sometimes lack control of their own sexual desires but, at the same time, possess the self-control to follow this rule strictly. They don’t have to be their own keepers. If they own, take, or exploit a woman in a one-on-one setting (which is statistically far more likely than the seductress or liar trope that blames the woman), then it’s because they didn’t follow the Rule.
We’re preaching lies when we teach the Rule, whether it be from the pulpit or in a tweet or by a Hogwarts owl. When women are victimized, not adhering to the Billy Graham Rule isn’t the problem. Not adhering to the Golden Rule is.
We don’t end sex trafficking with the Graham/Pence Rule. It’s not designed for that, clearly. So why in the world would we expect to end any other kind of sexual predation that way, as some have suggested it could have in the case of crimes or harassment of women by pastors? In the Southern Baptist church where I spent my first decade of adulthood, daytime women’s Bible study leaders were required to wear skirts, no pants. That was rooted in Southern definitions of gender roles rather than anything in scripture, much like the Rule.
Men, if you want to honor the women in your life, practice dominion over year own body. Period. You don’t own anyone else’s. No other body than your own was designed for your control.
I’ve been in rooms alone with men who were sex traffickers and rapists. They trafficked and raped me. I’ve been in rooms alone with men who were colleagues, friends, or acquaintances. They did no sexual harm to me. The difference isn’t the environment. It’s the type of man.
You can keep your rules, the ones that strip men of responsibility and women of humanity, but #churchtoo will persist. The path to flourishing isn’t in these arbitrary and extrabiblical laws but rather in the practice of love, giving and receiving it.
This summer, the scandal of Patterson’s recording and recent statements reminded me of another recording. (Don't know what I'm talking about here? Check out my piece in SKEW a couple months ago for the backstory.) Before Omarosa wrote that he did this in the White House, the then-candidate Trump said, on 2005 tapes from Access Hollywood and released less than a month prior to the election,
Christians of all genders shouted together, “This is not okay.” But then 81% of white evangelical voters decided that the value of unborn babies mattered more than the lives of women and, given his previous comments, the lives of immigrants, black people, and those living with disabilities, to offer a few. (Nevermind that providing greater supports for women lowers the abortion rate more than any restrictions have.)
I’ve seen women speaking out against entertainment icons and being heard. I’ve seen others speaking out against political figures and sometimes being heard. But then I see who is in the White House, review the list of credible accusations against him, recall his own words about grabbing women’s genitals, and remember that my white evangelicals still support him in droves. The most recent poll shows approval ratings of Trump by white evangelicals to have held strong at 75%. This is why I’m not sure the church is ready for the reckoning we need. I pray I’m wrong, but it’s hard not to be concerned by continued support for an openly misogynistic politician.
The Patterson statements, the Access Hollywood recording, and the Graham/Pence Rule are all related, as are the ridiculous comments trying to link pedophilia and being gay in the wake of Catholic church cover-ups. The voices, input, and establishment of each were created in a bubble where only white, straight, cisgender, American-born men had input. I’m married to a white, straight, cisgender, American-born man, so I’m not hating on anyone who fits those categories. I’m simply acknowledging that women are often harmed when the only voices factoring in to a stance are from men who seem more dismayed about assaults against boys in another church than assaults against women in their own.
This isn't a new story. Women of color are harmed when those at the decision table are all white feminists. Same song, different verse.
Only a few years ago, I was a card-carrying member of the white evangelical club. We didn’t actually have cards, of course, but I have a speaker name tag for an event cosponsored by Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, so I figure that’s close enough. I’m speaking as an outsider of that subculture now, but I was an insider and remain dear friends with some who still are.
The day before the 2016 election, I sat across from my therapist and said, “this is it, and I really think Trump might win.” She didn’t think so, but she didn’t know white evangelical culture from the inside like I do. There’s so much beauty there, so much worth fighting for, so many rich souls who I am better for knowing. But just like the most delicious pancakes can be ruined if covered in poisoned syrup, the best theological intentions are dangerous when soaked in only one perspective, especially a toxic one. I knew that dog shit was mixed in with the batter, and I didn’t want to eat those brownies.
I knew that a culture so entrenched in protecting white supremacy and patriarchy wouldn’t reject it on the ballot. That’s what those 81% of votes were, not cast contrary to church teachings but entirely in line with them. Trump was never the disease of the white church. We’ve always known who he was. He’s simply a symptom of a larger cancer, one that infected some of us and woke up the theological immune systems of others. Fellow white Christians, none of the racism and ableism and xenophobia and misogyny, with a side of homophobia and transphobia from one accompanying Trump on the ticket, is new.
Yet with article after article by white people who experienced an awakening about all the -isms during the campaign or after the election, we are Columbusing racism: “Look,” we shouted, “we just discovered this new thing,” while everyone not white are like, “hi, we’ve known this all along. If you’re serious, let’s talk and act.” So far, I see the editorials about white awakening coming steadily, each author covering the same old song, but not the actual dialogue or needed action.
Religious groups were instrumental both in the hope of Christ’s rising and the horror of his death. Why are we surprised when they’re instrumental in both hope for and subjugation of women or any other marginalized group? If you regard women in the church as sisters in Christ, like you claim, then it’s time to be a brother who cares when we’re bruised.
Let’s stop overlooking the bull(dog)shit and instead break bread – or brownies – together, all of us who love our just and loving God. For those who can’t partake in that community, like domestic violence offenders, let’s go restore them lovingly to justice, which should include law enforcement officers because their assaults aren’t character flaws but actual crimes.
Finally, for the men who don’t think any man should come to the table one on one with a woman, because that might seem too improper to others or too tempting for him, let’s focus on the breaker of the bread on the Thursday before the next day’s crucifixion. Jesus met one-on-one with the Samaritan woman at the well, not only female but also known to have multiple sexual partners, without following the rule that would later be set by Graham and affirmed by Pence. He also was left alone with the woman caught in adultery, once again a setting in which the rule’s excuse of avoiding the appearance of impropriety wouldn’t hold up.
How do we change? I don’t know, but trusting women like Jesus did is the place to start. I spent a week last fall on the #RubyWooPilgrimage, riding a bus and revisiting history with 35 other Christian women leaders, speakers, and writers, many women of color. The wisdom of our small group was astounding. Men have led our country and our churches long enough and made many of those spaces sexually unsafe for the rest of us. Maybe it’s time listen well to women.
Maybe it’s time to remember that both the stories of Christmas and Easter hold women as key players worthy of great honor. Mary carried Christ. God first revealed his rising from the dead to women via an angel at the tomb, sending them out with the good news while his male followers were hiding. The risen Jesus appeared first to a woman, the same Mary Magdalene cast by male scholars as a whore with no biblical justification.
In the kingdom of God, there is no hierarchy of those created with more or less of the image of God in them. No, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
What would our churches (and our politics) look like if we all - especially those who have historically held more power than the rest of us - actually treated one another as fellow image bearers with dignity and worth bestowed by God?