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

Thomas Whitley

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.