I grew up in a “cowboy” town in central British Columbia in the 1960s. I say it was a cowboy town because our area was surrounded by 100s of ranches, and everyone in the region attended our rodeo and exhibition which centered around 4H events and ranch life. Our rodeo occupies a place in cowboy lore just a step behind the famous Calgary Stampede.
I hung out with several legit cowboys in high school. After high school, I worked on a cattle ranch and cowboy life became part of my biography.
Most Cowboys like to drink, and the men in our town were exceptional at it. My dad loved to drink beer and play poker, both of which were pasttimes of our town. My dad spent many afternoons and evenings at the saloon near our house. He spoke about it in glowing terms. It was like a mistress he was not ashamed to admit he visited.
One day, Dad, Mom and I were out for a walk. We walked by the bar and Dad pointed out this was the place he told me about. I had seen it before, but now I noticed one of its features. It had two entrances.
On the one door was the word “Men”. On the other door it said “Ladies and Escorts”. (Note: in the 60s, “escort” did not mean prostitute. It referred to a person who escorted another person to a social event. It could refer to either men or women).
I asked Dad why they had two different entrances. “It’s to protect the women”, Dad said. “If a woman goes into the man’s side without a man with her, she is not safe. No woman would want to do that.” I believe he was telling me this: This place is not safe for women without male protection. I was left to infer that this was a normal condition between men and women.
My mother was an early feminist. She didn’t buy that story. Later, at home, she talked to me about the doors and the two sides of the saloon. “You know what your dad told you is bullshit, right? It’s like this. Bar owners don’t want prostitutes in their business. They assume any woman who comes in there alone is a prostitute.” I was nine at the time, so I didn’t know what a prostitute was.
I later found out my mother was right. Robert Campbell is his study, “Managing the Marginal: Regulating and Negotiating Decency in Vancouver’s Beer Parlours” wrote this:
“One did not have to sit long in these beer parlours to come to realize the government was regulating much more than just alcohol consumption. They were regulating class, gender, sexuality, and race. Even the presence of the two sides of bar–Men, and Ladies and Escorts–was done to protect men from women who would give them venereal disease. It was assumed any woman coming into a bar alone carried some kind of disease with her.”
My mother knew I had been sexually assaulted the year before. She also knew I had found my dad’s not-well-hidden porn stash recently. She decided I needed more accurate sex education. Because she talked straight about sex, she often cleared things up for me.
Thus, she told me all about prostitution. Even in the 60s, feminists understood that many prostitutes were trafficked, though they used a different word. She explained that some men hired women to have sex, but it was using them just like the babysitter used me.
She also explained that too many men falsely separated all women into three categories: Women waiting for marriage who abstained from sex, married women, and prostitutes. She hoped I would know there was another kind of woman: A woman who was not a prostitute who also enjoyed sex but did so safely, and of their own free choice.
The way she explained it, I understood what she was saying.
For a couple of years, every time I rode past the saloon on my bike going to school I thought about the doors. I thought about those two ideas:
*It is natural for men to assault women if they’re alone
*Women who go out in public alone are prostitutes or promiscuous.
Perhaps you read that and decide how happy you are these old ideas are dead and gone forever. However, I assure you they are not. If you think about it, these old ideas are very much alive and especially creating havoc in churches today.
Consider the first idea: It is natural for men to assault women if the women are alone. Two core beliefs shore up this idea. First, women are held responsible for men’s lust. If a man lusts after a woman that means she has done something to provoke this.
I have seen this attitude in churches more than anywhere else. We once had a female worship leader who was busty in shape. Our services were in a room which fluctuated greatly in temperature. Because of the changing temperature in the room, occasionally her nipples would stand out. I cannot tell you how many times men and women complained that she was being provocative. One man said, “how can my sons ignore her sexuality with her displaying it like that?”
I was always furious about that. My first comment was always “who told you to stare at her nipples through her shirt?” They assumed they had no choice. They blamed her for a naturally occurring thing. More than anything, they blamed lust on the object of lust (her) instead of the subject of lust (them).
Sexual attraction is not lust. If it were, any sexual being would be guilty. The Greek word for lust–Epithumia– means to add something extra to attraction. The prefix “epi” intensifies the original word. Thumos simply means “desires”. Thus, Epithumia means to voluntarily and deliberately act upon attraction in the mind, assuming you have the right to sexualize another person without their knowledge or permission.
That is what makes lust wrong; it both assumes permission and assumes the right to sexualize another person.
Understand this: Even if someone walks naked in front of me, as a follower of Jesus I still have no right to sexualize them in action or thought.
How did Jesus counsel people to act if lust controls them? He gave two solutions, and both his answers are enlightening:
- Cut off your hand; (Matthew 5:30)
- Pluck out your eye. (Matthew 5:29)
Hopefully, you can see these are metaphors. But what do they tell us? If you lust after another person, they are not in any way guilty. It is your responsibility. If lust controls you, get to the root of it and cut it off. Stop blaming women if you struggle with sexualizing them.
But this is often not what men are taught. Paige Patterson, formerly the President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary got in trouble recently for saying that it was all right for a man to lust after a 15-year old girl. He was referring to himself lusting after a 15-year old whom he referred to as “hot”.
He said that any man who lusted after her was “just being biblical”. He is giving voice to a variation of the theme, “a woman is asking for it” if she reveals even secondary sexual characteristics in public. Those who teach this often take Scriptures out of context or apply ancient ideas of men and women which are not helpful or relevant today.
So the first problem is that some preachers teach that men cannot help but lust after a woman if she is in any way attractive.
The second problem is more subtle. It basically says that if a man lusts, he is not completely responsible for what happens next. This is exactly what my dad was implying.
This gets reinforced in social circles all the time, especially when churches are involved. One of the first questions victims of sexual assault are asked is what they were doing that may have provoked the attack. This question implies that some sexual assault is justifiable.
Our contention is that it never is. Sexual assault is an absolute affront to the common humanity we all share. In a story this week in the Washington Post, they tell about a young teen Amber Wyatt who was raped at a party in 2006. She did everything right after it happened: She reported to the police, had a sexual assault kit done at the hospital, immediately told a responsible adult.
Yet, she received no justice. All she faced was ridicule, scorn, and attacks from classmates and parents. Even the adult she told assumed she must have begged for sex from the two boys because she was “that kind of girl.” Because she was known to use drugs and alcohol, everyone blamed her. One witness said, “If you don’t go to that kind of party, you don’t have problems.” This just implies that men cannot help themselves once the party starts.
Because I was assaulted as a child, I listen acutely for the real reasons behind the victim-blaming and shaming. If an abuser can re-direct ANY of the responsibility back on the victim, it diminishes the force of their crime. If you think about it, this is ridiculous. There is never any justification for a sexual crime. Any Christian who teaches this should be ostracized by their fellow believers.
But let’s look at the other assertion: Women who go out into a public domain alone are promiscuous. This one is not taught as often, but a sneaky version of it still flies around youth groups.
Here is the variation: If you’re a Christian teen girl and you have had sex, enjoy sex, want to have sex, or do not ascribe to waiting to have sex in marriage, you are promiscuous and likened to a prostitute. The so-called Purity Culture claimed that if you had sex before marriage you would ruin your marriage. You would be forever tainted and no one would want you. I remember one youth pastor at a huge rally in San Francisco who had two dozen young men spit in a jar which had been filled with white milk. Then he asked if anyone wanted to drink it. Of course, no one did. The girls in the room were left with the graphic image of themselves as that tainted glass of milk, tainted by the sex they had. Now, no one would ever want them.
Actually, the True Love Waits Movement (a chastity pledge which became the cornerstone of the Purity Culture) did not work. It often had the opposite effect. In several studies released during the early 2010s, it was shown that MORE people had premarital sex if they signed the pledge than the average population.
In this study, even the people who designed the original True Love Waits movement admit it failed in its purpose. Several more studies have shown that women who abstained from sex before marriage did not report having more satisfying marital sex or even more marital success than those who did not wait.
What can we conclude from all of that? Perhaps only this: People are complex. Women are complex. Sex is the most complex part of the human relationship. I hope we are learning this. Victim-shaming, victim-blaming, ignoring sexual assault, castigating young people who have sex, are all the wrong approaches.
It is certainly not true that all men want to sexually assault women if they can get away with it. I would even suggest that most men do not want that. And it is not true that a woman who goes out in public–whether to a bar, party, nightclub, dinner engagement, youth outing, roller-blading, surfing, etc.– is a prostitute in training. These ideas are ridiculous.
If you hear a bible teacher trying to twist the Scripture to teach that, run away fast and find a better and more healthy alternative.