Of masculinity & abusive breeding grounds.

Of masculinity & abusive breeding grounds.

This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared on Ply­mouth Brethren Dropout on May 26, 2014. An updat­ed ver­sion appears below.

It’s been just over a year since the tragedy at Isla Vista that prompt­ed the orig­i­nal pen­ning of this post. So many things have hap­pened since then that illus­trate the points made here­in, includ­ing but not lim­it­ed to:

Male enti­tle­ment is alive and well in sec­u­lar and Chris­t­ian spheres. It’s even evi­denced in my own life through ran­dom drunk­en frat­boys at a fes­ti­val feel­ing enti­tled to my time and atten­tion as well as the nev­er-end­ing trick­le of Chris­t­ian men who are so very con­cerned with my writ­ing.

All of the above is meant to under­score that, while the bulk of this post is con­cerned with mas­culin­i­ty as defined specif­i­cal­ly in the denom­i­na­tion of my upbring­ing, the open Ply­mouth Brethren assem­blies, male enti­tle­ment is a prob­lem that has far-reach­ing affects. The only dif­fer­ence I can see between sec­u­lar misog­y­ny and Chris­t­ian misog­y­ny is that Chris­t­ian men have the added “author­i­ty of God” to strength­en the argu­ment for their priv­i­lege.

Mas­culin­i­ty has a very nar­row def­i­n­i­tion with­in the Ply­mouth Brethren, and can only be expressed in dom­i­nance. The dom­i­nance giv­en to men, accord­ing to the assem­blies, is over the entire earth, over gath­er­ings of local believ­ers (espe­cial­ly women), over their wives, and over their chil­dren. In short, men are con­sid­ered the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of God’s author­i­ty on earth, and thus often can­not be spo­ken against.

As I’ve said before, the assem­blies exhib­it per­haps the dic­tio­nary def­i­n­i­tion of benev­o­lent sex­ism. In his book about bib­li­cal coun­sel­ing, Jean Gib­son writes that “the husband’s assigned role of lead­er­ship does not jus­ti­fy tyran­ny, harsh­ness or an insen­si­tive dom­i­na­tion,” and con­tin­ues that “If hus­bands were con­sis­tent, reli­able lead­ers, providers, deci­sion-mak­ers and the like, wives would be delight­ed. When hus­bands default in these areas, they are a dis­ap­point­ment.” He also writes that women are to be under the lead­er­ship of their hus­bands, say­ing, “Sub­or­di­na­tion does not in any way deny her equal val­ue in Christ or her dig­ni­ty as a per­son of worth.”

umbrellaUnder the guise of Bib­li­cal order and com­mit­ment to the Lord, women in the assem­blies are stripped of pow­er and con­trol over their lives and told that the men in their lives are tasked with their pro­tec­tion. If women in any way step out­side of their umbrel­la of pro­tec­tion, whether it be through hav­ing a dif­fer­ence of belief or falling into “sin” or speak­ing up about abus­es of pow­er from the men who have sworn to pro­tect them…it’s not hard to see the dam­age such a sys­tem can do, and it’s not hard to under­stand why it can eas­i­ly fly under the radar con­sid­er­ing the way church dis­ci­pline is han­dled among autonomous church­es.

I do appre­ci­ate that the assem­blies don’t often explic­it­ly teach the vio­lent kind of mas­culin­i­ty that’s ram­pant in wider west­ern cul­ture and espe­cial­ly encour­aged by Men’s Rights Activists, as seen by the label­ing of Elliot Rodger as a hero. How­ev­er, this focus on men being lead­ers (and lead­er­ship nec­es­sar­i­ly mean­ing dom­i­nance over oth­ers) eas­i­ly cre­ates an envi­ron­ment in which men devel­op a sense of enti­tle­ment.

When I was 16, I became con­vict­ed that my music, cloth­ing, hair style, and per­son­al­i­ty were an affront to God. I touched on the specifics in more detail here, but suf­fice it to say that a wan­na-be goth/punk girl with short spiky hair lis­ten­ing to hard rock wasn’t con­sid­ered fit­ting for a god­ly young woman. That sum­mer while work­ing at Green­wood Hills, I used my mea­ger wages to buy more fem­i­nine cloth­ing.

The first day I walked out of the girls’ side of the staff house wear­ing a long flow­ered skirt and deep red but mod­est tank top, one of the guys on staff whis­tled loud­ly, com­mend­ing me for how beau­ti­ful I looked. He came clos­er to admire me, then with­out warn­ing pulled me into a tight hug, drap­ing his body over mine so that we were briefly meld­ed togeth­er. I told him to let me go, tried to pull away, but he only laughed, held me tighter and longer. When he final­ly let me go, I was utter­ly shak­en. I viewed this young man as a broth­er in Christ. I’d always assumed that the staff boys were god­ly young men who would serve as the strong, sen­si­tive, god­ly lead­ers the assem­blies taught that they would be. It had nev­er occurred to me that this could hap­pen.

This guy’s behav­ior con­tin­ued for the next cou­ple of weeks. He made a con­cert­ed effort to be wher­ev­er I was, espe­cial­ly if there weren’t many peo­ple around, touch­ing as much of me as he could and laugh­ing when I expressed dis­com­fort or rage. At one point, upon find­ing me sprawled on a couch read­ing a book, he tack­led me and laid on top of me, pin­ning me to the couch, star­ing into my eyes from mere inch­es away, lit­er­al­ly laugh­ing in my face as I strug­gled to push him off. It took some­one else in the room com­plain­ing for him to get off of me. His behav­ior final­ly stopped when a friend pulled him aside to explain that I was “sen­si­tive about that sort of thing,” and even then in his apol­o­gy he knelt close enough to breathe on me, grin­ning with clear enjoy­ment at my dis­com­fort with his close­ness.

That was vio­lence. That was a man in a patri­ar­chal set­ting assum­ing that my body was for his plea­sure and insist­ing that my “no” was mean­ing­less, that my per­son­hood was sec­ondary to his desires. That was a man who was explic­it­ly taught that God gave him domin­ion over me by sheer fact that he was a man and I was a woman.

This wasn’t an iso­lat­ed inci­dent by far.

There was one con­fer­ence in which a well-liked spir­i­tu­al leader con­stant­ly insist­ed on greet­ing a friend of mine with a hug, despite her vocal­ized pref­er­ence for shak­ing hands. Lat­er that sum­mer, I found myself befriend­ed by this man, who had begun greet­ing me with hugs and kiss­es on the cheek at every oppor­tu­ni­ty. He repeat­ed­ly offered to have pri­vate Bible stud­ies with me as well. At the time, I was torn between feel­ing flat­tered and feel­ing trapped. After all, a god­ly man many years my senior seemed to have sin­gled me out — sure­ly this was a com­pli­ment. Nev­er­the­less, I kept my sus­pi­cions to myself for over 10 years.

Not long after that, a male staff mem­ber at the camp began mak­ing con­cen­trat­ed efforts to sin­gle out anoth­er girl on staff. Like my “friend,” he was old­er than her, in a posi­tion of some author­i­ty, and extreme­ly well-liked at both the camp and our church — and he used all of these charms com­bined with his spir­i­tu­al and voca­tion­al author­i­ty to try to iso­late her, and all of those things kept us all from going to any­one about him. We knew we would be dis­missed, so we just did the best that we could to ensure that she was nev­er alone.

You see, it was expect­ed that sin­gle men with­in the assem­blies, once they reached “a cer­tain age,” would pur­sue women of their choos­ing, age dif­fer­ence and rec­i­p­ro­cat­ed inter­est entire­ly aside — and it was also expect­ed that we give them a chance, no mat­ter what.

The young man who harassed and assault­ed me that sum­mer was act­ing as a preda­tor. The man who was phys­i­cal­ly insis­tent with my friend and me was act­ing creep­i­ly. The man who sin­gled out that girl on staff and used his author­i­ty to iso­late her was act­ing as a preda­tor. The var­i­ous oth­er sin­gle men who cycled through the camp, espe­cial­ly those who held any sort of author­i­ty as preach­ers, act­ed in a preda­to­ry man­ner when­ev­er they would fol­low women around, dis­re­gard our implied or explic­it dis­in­ter­est, mak­ing us feel unsafe, know­ing that if we went to oth­er author­i­ty fig­ures, they would have sup­port and we would not. Scott Blair, who I post­ed about before, was a preda­tor who was involved with the youth group at my church for a few years and even the man­ag­er of Green­wood Hills for the same amount of time. He was a mis­sion­ary before that, and an elder until he was arrest­ed. (Once again, I must extend my hearty grate­ful­ness to South­east Bible Chapel for their imme­di­ate action once alle­ga­tions were raised, and express hope for heal­ing and peace to his vic­tims and fam­i­ly.) New Tribes Mis­sion, a mis­sion­ary train­ing orga­ni­za­tion that the Ply­mouth Brethren hold in high esteem, was host to extreme­ly abu­sive men and women at a board­ing school for mis­sion­ary kids.

I don’t know how many oth­er preda­tors are out there in the assem­blies. I real­ly don’t. I don’t know that it’s even pos­si­ble to know, con­sid­er­ing the way that the church­es are orga­nized — or rather not orga­nized but lack­ing offi­cial over­sight, which eas­i­ly allows for peo­ple to move from assem­bly to assem­bly with rel­a­tive ease and lit­tle to no con­se­quences.

This is why telling our sto­ries is so impor­tant. Talk­ing about our expe­ri­ences, exam­in­ing the teach­ings that cre­ate an envi­ron­ment that preda­tors find appeal­ing, cre­at­ing a space for those who have grown up in this envi­ron­ment to unpack what it is that’s so dan­ger­ous with­in the move­ment.

It seems clear to me that the Ply­mouth Brethren (and con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­tian­i­ty as a whole) teach­ing about and enforce­ment of gen­der roles — that mas­culin­i­ty nec­es­sar­i­ly means dom­i­nance and fem­i­nin­i­ty nec­es­sar­i­ly means sub­mis­sion, that men are God’s author­i­ty on earth and women are inher­ent­ly deceit­ful, eas­i­ly led astray and lead oth­ers astray — cre­ates an envi­ron­ment that enables men to par­tic­i­pate in men­tal, emo­tion­al, phys­i­cal, and sex­u­al vio­lence and leaves women with no recourse.

As Hän­nah Ettinger so elo­quent­ly put it, “Not all men are like that, but yesall women have encoun­tered men who are like that.” The assem­blies are no dif­fer­ent. Con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­tian­i­ty is no dif­fer­ent. Often, even pro­gres­sive Chris­tian­i­ty and sec­u­lar­ism are no dif­fer­ent. The dif­fer­ence is that Chris­t­ian teach­ings about gen­der roles help fos­ter an envi­ron­ment where men who are like that can feel safe. And it needs to stop.

Posted in Fat Girl,
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