It’s 9 a.m. on a Wednesday. Two female college students sit across from me on the leather couch in my office, placed strategically in a private corner of the student life suite at a small Christian college, precisely for moments like these.
The young woman on the left looks compassionately at her friend, whose eyes are fixed on my floor, and then looks nervously at me. She explains that last night, her friend, “Carrie,” might have been raped by a male student in his dorm room. She persuaded Carrie to tell me her story, because she knew I was one of the Title IX sexual assault investigators on campus. “Carrie,” I say, “is this true?”
She didn’t want this contact to happen, and she didn’t say no.
As tears well in her eyes, she slowly nods her head. Slumped over, she begins to share the painful details of her experience. Her friend “Michael” invited her over to “Netflix and chill.” Raised in a sheltered Christian home, Carrie wasn’t aware of the connotations of that invitation. So she went to his dorm room, excited to hang out with a friend – a friend who was handsome and charming and who made her feel attractive. Maybe someday they’d be more than friends.
But just a few minutes into the movie, things started to go in an unanticipated direction. Suddenly, Michael’s hands were all over her and his body was pressing down on hers. Carrie, a virgin, lacked the sexual literacy to explain how his anatomy came into contact with hers. But she knew two things for sure: She didn’t want this contact to happen, and she didn’t say no. She wanted to say no, but in the midst of it all, she was paralyzed and mute.
Now, the morning after, in my office, she worried that Michael might not want to be friends anymore if he found out that she told on him. Most of all, she worried that she was ruined – that no man would want to marry her now that she was … impure.
A few hours later, I invited Michael to my office to share his side of the story. As is almost always true in sexual-assault cases, Michael told a different account of the night in question. He was in the mood “to get some” and texted Carrie to “Netflix and chill.” She willingly came to his room, willingly lay beside him on his bed and willingly accepted his moves. She let him take off her pants and get on top of her. Never did she say “no” or “stop,” so he kept going. When I asked him, “but did she say yes?” he replied, “I don’t remember if she said yes, but she let me do it. If she would have told me to stop, I would have stopped, I swear. But she was into it. Why else would she have come to my room?” When I asked him if he thought about what it might have been like for Carrie, who had no previous sexual experience, to be the recipient of his moves, he admitted that he hadn’t thought about it. He got what he wanted; she didn’t say no; end of story.
But as a Title IX sexual assault investigator, it was not the end of the story for me. I had the difficult job of determining the central question in every sexual assault case: Was there consent? Fortunately, I have been thoroughly educated in the definition of consent.
CULTURE OF CONSENT
In 2011 the Obama administration sparked a revolution on college campuses regarding sexual-assault prevention and investigation. Recognizing that many colleges had failed to respond justly to reports of sexual misconduct, the White House used the landmark sex discrimination law of 1972, Title IX, to address these shortfalls.
In 2011 and 2014, the Department of Education issued “Dear Colleague” letters providing extensive guidance to colleges, paired with active enforcement of these guidelines. Student-development professionals from across the country labored to fulfil these mandates through policy-making and annual trainings. In these trainings, we learned that consent is not merely the absence of a “no” but also the presence of a “yes.” We learned that consent may not be inferred from silence, passivity or lack of resistance. It must be freely and actively given and offered from the beginning to end of each instance of sexual activity and each form of sexual contact. It cannot be coerced or given by minors, developmentally disabled persons or incapacitated persons. When it comes to sex, they preached, consent is everything.
And mostly, these preachers of consent are right. Consent is a non-negotiable part of any ethical sexual encounter. The emphasis on consent is a reminder that both parties in a sexual relationship must have relatively equal levels of power and voice for their union to be just rather than exploitive. Sex can so easily be an expression of dominance; the language of consent mitigates against that threat. It is right for colleges to equip their students to look for consent and to give or withhold it.
Yet there is something unsettling about the claim that consent is everything. Such a sweeping statement is embedded in a larger cultural framework. This framework assumes that sex is the meeting of two (or more) autonomous individuals whose personhood is best exemplified in their ability to choose. It assumes that sex is a given of the human experience. In this context, there is no over-arching sexual ethic, no understanding of what sex is for. There is no sense that a particular sex act may be dehumanizing or harmful. There is no claim that sex ought to be restricted to a particular social context, such as marriage. All that is required for sex to be moral is that the independent parties involved give their consent; all that matters is autonomy and voice. I call this framework, embedded in Title IX guidance, the “culture of consent.”
What makes sexual-assault prevention and response particularly difficult on Christian-college campuses is that the culture of consent collides with a competing culture: purity culture. Such a collision is evident in Carrie’s story, and she is not alone – there are Carries at every Christian college in the United States. That is why we cannot simply parrot the language of consent without recognizing that that language will be filtered through ears that have been formed by a very different story. Students raised in or influenced by purity culture do not prioritize autonomy and voice. Women particularly see themselves as defined in relationship to others – as sisters, friends, daughters and future wives. Moreover, they probably were raised in contexts where their virtue (usually equated with virginity) was valued ahead of their voices.
Given this context, those who us who work with Christian-college students must think deeply about the interplay of these two competing cultures. We must equip our students to analyze and critique each culture’s understanding of identity and value. And most important, we must offer our students the Biblical and theological resources to construct a robust alternative. Christian-college students are hungry for a vision of sexuality, identity and worth that includes but goes beyond consent and values but goes beyond purity. Whereas a fully developed Christian sexual ethic is beyond the scope of this article, an outline of such an ethic is possible here.
When talking about purity, it’s important to distinguish between the biblical theme and current-day culture. Purity is mentioned in verses throughout the Bible, calling believers to flee from sexual immorality and remain pure in body and spirit. In critiquing purity culture, we need not turn away from the concept of purity itself. It remains a basic element in any Christian sexual ethic.
That said, current-day purity culture goes well beyond a simple application of the biblical theme of purity. Rather, it is a wide-ranging social worldview evident in movements such as True Love Waits, best-selling books such as I Kissed Dating Goodbye, blogs on modesty and courting and, most enigmatically, in purity balls where the father pledges his protection to his daughter and the daughter pledges her purity to her father. Typically, these purity balls climax with the father gifting the daughter with a purity ring as a sign of their shared promises.
As is true of any social phenomenon, there are moderate and extreme adherents and a diversity of practices and beliefs that make up purity culture. But what holds together the various versions is the belief that the category of purity, rather than faithfulness, fruitfulness or mutuality, is the primary lens for understanding sexual morality. It presumes an original goodness that is defined by virginity. This original goodness is under constant threat and is lost when a person gives in to temptation and engages in sex before marriage.
While moderate voices within purity culture believe in “secondary virginity,” most proponents leave little room for redemption. Once defiled, one cannot be made clean again. Thus, the primary moral challenge is to guard one’s thoughts and body against degradation. This guarded stance is especially important for women, who are seen as the sexual gatekeepers tasked with protecting their sexually charged male counterparts.
Although only a minority of women on an average Council for Christian Colleges and Universities campus have been immersed in extreme versions of purity culture, many more have been shaped by its emphasis on modesty, virginity and sexual gate-keeping. These themes infuse evangelical youth conferences and Christian books on sex. It is not hard to see that the emphases of purity culture are dissonant with consent culture’s reduction of sexual ethics to the ability to choose. But the conflict between purity culture and consent culture runs even deeper. The most incompatible features of each culture have to do with notions of personhood and value.
RELATIONSHIP VERSUS AUTONOMY
As noted above, consent culture is rooted in an understanding of the person as an autonomous being who is the author of one’s own story. In contrast, purity culture prioritizes dependence over autonomy: One’s story is determined by one’s connections to others. For a young woman, the relationship that is particularly important for her sense of self is the one with her father.
In most versions of purity culture, the father/daughter relationship is based on his authority as head of the family and on his unique calling to protect her. His duty is to shield his daughter from temptation until she is placed, with his blessing, under the protection of her husband. The daughter’s job in the meantime is to maintain her purity until it can be gifted to her future mate. Fulfilling these God-given roles defines not only the relationship between the father and the daughter but also contributes to the young woman’s understanding of her own identity as a self-in-relation.
The relational identities of young women in purity culture are also evident in the way they are taught to engage with their male peers. Women are often taught to take responsibility not only for their own purity but to some degree for the purity of young men as well. This is why dressing modesty is so heavily emphasized. In Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism (2014), Amy DeRogatis writes, “Young men also must strive to maintain purity, [but] because of their hormones and their nature, young men are more easily led astray by young women. An immodest young woman can be a danger to herself and to a young man’s virtue. Young women, therefore, are responsible for their own purity and for helping young men remain pure.” Well-known purity writer Hayley DiMarco names this female responsibility: “[I]t’s not enough to agree that sex is wrong. You have to agree that guys are visual creatures and that you have a huge responsibility in protecting them from your body.” Women who are insufficiently modest cause men to stumble.
Given these relational identities and responsibilities, it is not hard to understand why a woman raised in purity culture would understand sexual assault differently than a woman raised in consent culture. In consent culture, rape is understood as a violation committed by one individual against another. It is devastating, to be sure. But in purity culture, a rape carries additional weight in fracturing the relationships that have defined the woman throughout her life. For the daughter, it represents a failure to constrain male sexuality and, even more devastating, a failure to protect the promise she made to her father and to God. For the father, the loss of the daughter’s purity represents his inability to protect her – one of his most important jobs as a father. So for the young woman who has been violated, the results are wide-ranging and long-lasting. They cut at the very core of her relationships and thus at the very heart of her identity.
VIRGINITY VERSUS VOICE
A sexual assault also robs a young woman shaped by purity culture of her most valuable possession: her virginity. In the more extreme versions of purity culture, virginity is not merely one indicator of a young woman’s faithfulness; it is her most prized possession. DeRogatis writes, “Unlike the ‘lies’ taught by secular culture, the true worth of a young woman is not her accomplishments but her virginity, which is a sign of her faithfulness to God and her father.” In contrast, a person’s primary value in consent culture is found in his or her voice; thus, a rape is a violation of another’s will and autonomy. But in purity culture, a rape is also a permanent theft – a taking of something that belongs to her and to her future husband. If virginity is the primary source of a woman’s value, then its taking – with consent or without – represents a crime of the worst kind, for it’s a crime for which there is no reparation. A woman who is raped is irrevocably damaged. Regardless of whether it was her choice, that purity which defined her value has been lost.
In my 15 years of serving on Christian college campuses, I have encountered many women who have been shaped by these notions of personhood and value, even when they have not been raised in an extreme purity culture. These young women’s beliefs about purity and impurity and their relational identities mean that they understand sexual assault differently than do women immersed in consent culture. For them, the claims of purity culture add additional layers of injury to a sexual assault. This is not to minimize the wounding of all victims of sexual assault – men or women, secular or religious; my point is to acknowledge that the consequences of a rape for women formed by purity culture are distinctly ruinous.
IMPLICATIONS FOR CHRISTIAN COLLEGES
If Christian-college campuses are places where consent culture and purity culture collide with one another, what are the implications for those of us who serve students in such a setting?
First, we must recognize that our efforts to teach consent will only be successful if they are embedded in a larger effort to cultivate voice in our female students. Young women who have been taught from an early age that their voices are secondary to those their male counterparts are going to be less likely to say no or give affirmative consent in any sexual encounter. This lack of voice makes them more vulnerable to nonconsensual sexual contact from someone who might, like Michael, perceive a lack of response as an indication of consent. Our campuses must be places where female students are encouraged to speak up inside and outside the classroom and where faculties and leadership teams are composed of women and men who model respect for one another’s voices.
Second, we must acknowledge that the presence of purity culture on our campuses may have a deterring effect on the reporting of sexual assaults. If you’ve been taught to see yourself as a sexual gatekeeper and to temper your sex appeal through modesty to protect your weaker brothers, then you might blame yourself when you are assaulted. Young women influenced by purity culture might also be more reluctant to report sexual assaults because they fear the profound implications that such reports will have on their relationships, both present and future. What’s more, if they see their purity as their most prized possession, then its loss, whether by choice or coercion, can be a loss too great to bear. With so much at stake, it is a wonder than any woman influenced by purity culture – any woman like Carrie – comes forward to tell her story. We are naïve if we imagine that a few training sessions on consent will withstand this cultural pressure to deny the reality of an assault.
Finally, we who serve students on Christian college campuses must offer our students something more than what is offered by either consent culture or purity culture. Yes, we must uphold the necessity of consent. But we cannot adopt consent culture’s minimalist sexual ethic, which assumes that anything one can consent to is morally acceptable. If our students graduate from our colleges believing that consent is everything, then we’ve failed to give them a distinctly Christian understanding of sex.
Yes, we must also uphold the biblical understanding of purity as part of our Christian sexual ethic. But we cannot focus on purity at the expense of other biblical and theological themes that should inform our sexual ethic – themes like faithfulness, fruitfulness, mutuality and covenant. Even more important, we must talk about sexual purity in light of the gospel story. We must share the good news that no one is beyond God’s redeeming work. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, there is no impurity that cannot be washed clean. Our students, particularly those influenced by purity culture, are hungry for this good news. This gospel-inspired sexual ethic has the power to convict and change the Michaels we encounter and to comfort and liberate the Carries we serve. May those of us who work in institutions of Christian higher education and, more broadly, those of us who make up the body of Christ, be bold enough to proclaim this good news and faithful enough to embody it in our own lives.
Julie Vermeer Elliott is vice president for student life at Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa.
Image: Joan Eddis-Koch, Flickr, under CC BY-NCND 2.0 license