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Believe Women

This Is Why Evangelicals Don’t Believe in Sexual Assault

Their definition of what constitutes as sex and rape may not be the same as Catholic Brett Kavanaugh’s, but this judge is seizing a loophole and plans to ride it all the way to the bench.

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Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh told Fox News on Monday that he was a virgin throughout high school until “many years after” college. The statement puzzled numerous commenters. Some questioned why he would say such a thing, especially as a defense against allegations that he sexually assaulted a fellow teenager in high school, forced a woman to touch his penis in college, and potentially participated in ongoing sexual assaults at parties throughout high school and college.

Yet, Kavanaugh’s declaration of virginhood makes sense for people who grew up in the Christian evangelical subculture in America. In a world where the main guiding ethic is “no sex until the wedding night,” it’s not surprising that Kavanaugh would lean hard on a technical definition of “virgin” to defend himself against allegations of assault. Like many before him, he’d rather spend the time arguing over the meaning of “is” than addressing the now, as of Thursday, September 27, five accusers who have bravely come forward with allegations of assault.

Defining sex as penis-vaginal intercourse is right out of the handbook of Bill Clinton, who tried to use this loophole to fend off claims that he was having a consensual affair with Monica Lewinsky—a handbook Kavanaugh would be well acquainted with from his time serving as an associate counsel under Ken Starr’s countless investigations into the Clintons. Kavanaugh, it bears reminding, is not being impeached; the GOP is aggressively trying to appoint him to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelist leader Billy Graham, commented last week that the accusations of sexual assault levied against Brett Kavanaugh were “not relevant.” Further, he argued, that “it’s obvious that she said no and he respected it and walked away.” “Obvious,” that is, to Graham, who seems to believe that without penetration, attempted rape is just foreplay.

While infuriating, Graham’s comments and Kavanaugh’s virginity defense are well in line with the past 60 years of white American Evangelical theological tradition, where sexual ethics are a matter of “lawfully wedded,” rather than a freely given yes or no.

For decades, white evangelicals have been instructed to wait for sex until their wedding day, when they will marry an appropriately Christian member of the opposite sex and then have vanilla, heterosexual exclusive sex with that person for the rest of their lives. Young Christians, especially women, are taught that having sex with multiple partners will ruin them for their spouse.

Growing up in this culture drove me to write my 2015 book, Damaged Goods, which examines purity culture teachings in evangelicalism and refutes them from a feminist perspective. I grew up knowing I couldn’t date, and was supposed to look forward to the day I’d marry a Christian man. I firmly believed that everything would be fine if I just “kept pure.”

I was told that keeping pure would be a fight—mainly a fight against my paramour’s raging hormones. My sexual desire or sexual drive as a woman was never once addressed. I was taught instead that it would be my duty to say no. Evangelical authors like Joshua Harris, Justin Lookadoo, John Piper, and Eric Ludy all told me that men are insatiable pigs and that it was my womanly duty to keep them in check by dressing modestly, telling them no, and directing them to prayer instead of lust.

I remember imagining my future bravery in fighting off sex-crazed men. I planned the way I would set boundaries on future dates, and how my husband would be the first person I ever kissed, well before we even considered sex. (Sorry, younger self, you’re now dating a woman and you’ve definitely done more than kiss.)

Consent never entered into the equation. Respecting another person’s body was never discussed because once you were married, you belonged to your husband and he to you (1 Corinthians 7:4), which meant saying no would be a matter of mutual agreement, not a veto power one person has over the other’s desires. The wife has a duty, in fact, to have sex with her husband in order to keep him safely within the bounds of the marriage.

This is why Graham is able to say that Kavanaugh respected Dr. Ford’s “no,” despite the description of the assault including that he put his hand over her mouth to stop her from screaming. He didn’t finish. He didn’t complete the act. He walked away. Therefore, he ultimately respected her.

It is because of an evangelical culture awash in this kind of teaching that Kavanaugh’s series of assaults can be excused as youthful indiscretions. Men are expected to slip up and violate their purity, and it’s all okay as long as their penis didn’t actually enter a vagina. It is his future wife’s duty to forgive, and no one else should pass judgment on sins that are in the past.

The language of consent is not a language that evangelicals or their heroes speak.

Kavanaugh, of course, has the slight problem of being Catholic, which evangelicals typically consider as heresy. But in the landscape of the culture war over feminism and who owns women’s bodies, Kavanaugh has become an evangelical darling for his pro-life stances and his potential willingness to decide to overturn Roe v. Wade. And Kavanaugh has clearly leaned into that role, as his admission of virginity is less a defense and more of a dog whistle to evangelical conservatives that he is one of them. He didn’t do the penis-in-vagina thing, so that means he’s pure. Oh, and he drank a little, but he still loves Jesus and got his life right, so it’s all water under the bridge.

It is the evangelical MO to ignore the testimony of women. Before the resurgence of discussion about campus rape culture in the 2010s, numerous women have suffered in silence at Christian universities, told that they must forgive their abusers and questioned about their breaking of other campus rules. It was only with outside pressure (and the closure of wallets) that then-president Kenneth Starr was forced to resign from Baylor University after reporting revealed a culture of rape as team bonding in the athletics department at the university, and the university’s subsequent mishandling of reports (Full disclosure: I attended Baylor University from 2008–10, just before Starr’s tenure).

This is how evangelicals have twisted themselves into justifying sexual assault. It is remarkable that men have made it to marriage unsullied. Kavanaugh did so, which means any sexual assault he is alleged to have committed doesn’t matter—it couldn’t have been that bad because there was no penetration, and even if there was, who could judge him for failing in his quest for purity? After all, God forgives. And we have an abortion law to overturn.

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