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.”

A black and white illustration of what is known as “God’s Umbrella of Protection.” There are 3 umbrellas pictured stacked on top of one another, the top being the largest and the bottom being the smallest. God is represented by the biggest umbrella, “protecting” those beneath his cover. “Husband” is the umbrella beneath God, and “Wife” is the umbrella beneath Husband. The Husband is to “protect and provide for family” through “profession and activities,” while the Wife is only over “Children and Homemaking Activities.” This entire system is christened “The Divine Order.”Under 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.

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