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Power Dynamics: Who Can Say No?

Princess O’Nika Auguste hails from Helen of the West, the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia. She is a PhD student in Biblical Studies at Dublin City University. Follow her on Twitter:/X @isletheologian.

The complex interplay of power dynamics is not limited by time; it is present in ancient history, in holy books like the Bible, and in our current world. Indeed, many stories that depict human interactions bear witness to the presence of complex power relationships across time and space. Two such stories include that of David and Bathsheba (2Sam 11), and the encounter between Mary and the Angel Gabriel (or God in Luke 1). This post will engage these biblical narratives alongside contemporary narratives in order to ruminate on this complex and timeless topic. By examining these stories, I will highlight the deep and long-lasting effects of power relations, acknowledging their presence over generations and influence on the human condition. 

Jenna Van Schoor describes power dynamics as “the balance of power between two or more people when they engage with each other. Depending on cultural and other relevant contexts, this can look very different” (van Schoor 2023 What Are Power Dynamics). So, how do the narratives of Bathsheba and David and Mary and Gabriel/God reflect these dynamics of power? The power of both David and Gabriel is signaled initially by their gender and status – David as a king and Gabriel as an angel/deity. In each story, this power is contrasted with the lack of status held by Bathsheba and Mary both of whom have little or limited status. David and Gabriel thus wield great authority, power, and influence over Bathsheba and Mary respectively.

David and Bathsheba’s story is widely contested on and offline. Every year there are debates on social media about whether Bathsheba was raped by David. In this narrative, the power dynamics are those of a king and his subject. Thus, any conversations about the relationship between David and Bathsheba needs to include the nuanced discussion around concepts of consent, cultural context and, of course, power disparities.

The limited amount of detail given in the biblical text of the Bathsheba narrative reveals its complexity. The text tells us that David sent men to find Bathsheba after he observed her taking a bath (2Sam 11:2–5). We read, “David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her,” after which she became pregnant. The text is silent on Bathsheba’s feelings about the encounter. Some, like Randall C. Bailey (1990, 86) contend that Bathsheba was a consenting and equal partner. They suggest she flirted with David and even requested to be sent for. Despite extensive research by feminist biblical scholars like Phyllis Trible, Jennifer Wright Knust, and Johanna Stiebert which problematise the power dynamics between Bathsheba and David, such interpreters continue to deny the power differentials and insist that Bathsheba consented to King David’s advances for sex.

It is important to recognise, however, that even if Bathsheba had agreed to the encounter with King David, this relationship is still problematic because David is the king, and the inequality of relationship amounts to an abuse of power. The problem is one of consent and Bathsheba’s ability (or lack thereof) to say ‘no’ or refuse the advances of one who has power and authority over her.

Similar power dynamics exist in contemporary culture, where powerful men have sexual relationships with women who have less power and status than them. Examples of powerful men who have used their power to abuse women include Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, and Danny Matterson. In some instances, these men have been found guilty of rape, but all of these relationships amount, at the very least, to an abuse of power. Another example is the relationship between Monica Lewinsky and former US President Bill Clinton – a relationship which is still the subject of intense media debate decades later. In the mid-1990s, President Clinton started an intimate relationship with a young White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. Eventually, media leaks about the affair led to Clinton’s impeachment although he was ultimately acquitted and remained in office until 2001. Monica Lewinsky, on the other hand, was demonized as an opportunist and seductress who tempted an honourable man and she continues to bear the fallout from this affair to this day. While some argue that Monica was a free intern and could have left the relationship at any time, we have to question whether this was even an option for her given the power disparity between them (as intern and president). What would have happened to her if she had ended the relationship? Would she have been able to find other forms of employment? What consequences would she have suffered for denying the most powerful man in the world? Would she have been ostracized from Washington DC? (See Sex, power, and humiliation: eight lessons women learned from Monica Lewinsky’s shaming).

The relationship between defamed R&B singer, R. Kelly, and the late singer Aaliyah offers another opportunity for reflection on relational power dynamics. Their relationship began in the early 90s when Aaliyah was emerging in the music industry. There were rumours that Aaliyah (15) and R. Kelly (27) were married – a rumour that was also implied in her album Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, which Kelly was heavily involved in. At the time of the relationship, Aaliyah was underage and was also looking to grow in the music industry. Her family argue that Kelly took advantage of her at a time when she was very vulnerable. Others argue, however, that Aaliyah and her family used the relationship with R. Kelly to cement her as music royalty. Aaliyah already had connections in the music business as her aunt was Gladys Knight and her uncle was recording producer Barry Hankerson. This meant that an alliance between Aaliyah and R. Kelly would strengthen Aaliyah’s place in Hollywood. However, it is now known that when Aaliyah’s parents found out about the relationship they had her marriage annulled and Aaliyah never worked with R. Kelly again. Her marriage to the singer was covered up until years after her death and after R. Kelly had been accused and convicted of sexual assault unrelated to Aaliyah’s case. 

How do the relationships between Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton and Aaliyah/R Kelly relate to the story of Bathsheba and David? It could be argued that, like Monica and Aaliyah, Bathsheba was a seductress and an opportunist who used her relationship with a powerful man to ‘get ahead’. Some scholars suggest that Bathsheba was of noble blood because she was the granddaughter of Ahithophel, King David’s counsellor (2Sam 11:3; 23:34). Bathsheba’s father was Eliam, and her husband was Uriah the Hittie both of whom were part of a group of soldiers called David’s Thirty Mighty Men (2Sam 23:8-38). Those men were David’s closest friends and thus, it could be argued that Bathsheba may have taken advantage of her family’s connections to advance in society through her connection to the throne. But, like Monica and Aaliyah, we have to ask, did Bathsheba have the ability to consent to the relationship with David? Could she have said no to him without fear of consequence? Can any woman in a relationship where this is a large disparity in power say no?

Before these questions are answered, we need to discuss rape and consent. According to Barstow (2023), rape is

“unlawful sexual activity, most often involving sexual intercourse, against the will of the victim through force or the threat of force or with an individual who is incapable of giving legal consent because of minor status, mental illnessmental deficiency, intoxication, unconsciousness, or deception. In many jurisdictions, the crime of rape has been subsumed under that of sexual assault. Rape was long considered to be caused by unbridled sexual desire, but it is now understood as a pathological assertion of power over a victim.” (Barstow 2023).

When we consider this understanding of rape, we must ask ourselves, did any of these women have the freedom to fully consent to their relationship with such powerful men? Could Monica Lewinsky say no to President Bill Clinton? Could Aaliyah say no to the “King of R&B,” R. Kelly? Could Bathsheba say no to King David? If the answer is no, then by the rape definition above these women were coerced into sexual relationships with men in higher positions than them because if they said no, they could lose their livelihoods.  

Perhaps one of the reasons that some interpreters understand Bathsheba as a consenting participant in the relationship is the fact that the biblical the text is not clear on Bathsheba’s feelings and perspective. This is in contrast to another text, 2 Samuel 13, where King David’s daughter, Tamar, is raped, and the biblical writer is very clear about her violation. Tamar clearly resists her rapist, saying ‘no’ and asking him not to ‘force’ her (v 12). She declares his intentions to be evil and offers him a way out (vv 12, 13). She does everything she can to prevent her assault. She is the “ideal victim.” The fact that the author of 2Sam 11 is not explicit about Bathsheba’s role in her relationship with David has led some to be convinced that Bathsheba was complicit in the affair and thus just as guilty as David. Bathsheba does not fulfil the ideal victim trope.

So, what is the ideal victim? According to Mary Morgan,

“Victims of sexual assault are forced to prove not only the guilt of their perpetrator, but also their own innocence. The ideal victim is seen as innocent in the eyes of the public, the judge, the jury and the public. The ideal victim cannot be blamed whatsoever for violence committed against them. It is only then, when the victim has been deemed completely innocent, that perpetrators are evaluated for their guilt” (Words from an “Unideal” Victim).

So, can a woman only be a rape victim if she is deemed to be good, pure, and holy? Conflicting with the myth of this ideal victim is another common rape myth that good and holy women would not be the target of predatory men. But these myths – like all rape myths – only serve to excuse perpetrators of sexual violence and blame victims.

These rape myths are conceivably one of the reasons why many find it difficult to consider the Virgin Mary a rape victim. But equally, people may find it difficult to believe the Virgin Mary was a rape victim because of who impregnated her. To identify Mary in this way is to question the reputation of an angel and of a good God. While the relationship between David and Bathsheba is open to discussion, many seem afraid to debate the narrative of Mary in order to raise similar questions – either because it is too complicated, or because it would cause controversy. The idea that Mary was sexually assaulted or raped would be hugely controversial, of course, because it would be to accuse the deity of sexual violence.

The Biblical narrative in Luke 1 narrates that when the angel Gabriel came to speak to Mary she was afraid and did not understand what the angel was speaking about. The angel told her not to be afraid, that the deity would overshadow her, and Jesus would be born. At the end of the narrative, Mary submits. (Luke 1:26-38).  The text reads:

The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Some argue that Mary is portrayed as having autonomy in this text because she agrees to become pregnant with Jesus (Barber 202, 22). Mary Daly, for example, argues that Mary as the virgin mother could be empowering and an image for female autonomy (Daly 1993,84).

But did Mary have the full freedom of consent? What if Mary did not consent and the deity abused his power? In Luke 1 we find a similar power disparity to that seen between David and Bathsheba – but the inequalities between Mary and the angel are even greater. Here we see an all-powerful male impregnating a young, vulnerable woman. And so, the same questions about power dynamics that were applied to Bathsheba should also be applied to Mary. Could Mary say no? Could she leave? What would have been the consequences if she had told the angel Gabriel “no”?  While some scholars will not go as far as to suggest the Mary was a victim of rape, there there are those who find her consent troubling. Wil Gafney, for example, notes although Mary’s ancient context would have meant that she probably could not have consented to the encounter, she still used whatever agency she had to withhold her consent initially by asking the question, “How could this be?”  Gafney notes that while she did agree, her consent was problematic because, “Mary’s submission [‘here I am, the woman-slave of the Lord] is in the vernacular of slavery… In this light, her consent is troubled and troubling.” (Gafney, Did Mary Say “Me Too”?

Thus, both the narratives of Mary and Bathsheba raise questions of power dynamics and consent. Our traditional interpretations of these stories are troubling because if we are not interpreting these women as victims of male power, we are sexualizing them – Mary a virgin and Bathsheba an adulteress. This, in turn, emboldens patriarchy and sexual violence and puts women in similar power relationships in our own time in a perilous situation. Perilous situations that benefit men. When power disparities are overlooked, we underplay how these dynamics can lead to sexual violence and sexual coercion. Consent is not complicated; power dynamics should not determine who can say no!

References

Bailey, R.C., 1990. David in love and war: The pursuit of power in 2 Samuel 10-12 (Vol. 75). A&C Black.

Barber, M., 2021. Hagar and Sarah and Mary and Elizabeth: Reading Luke 1 with Genesis 16/21 (Doctoral dissertation, Union Theological Seminary).

Daly, M., 1993. Beyond God the father: Toward a philosophy of women’s liberation. Beacon Press.

Klein, L.R., 2003. From Deborah to Esther: sexual politics in the Hebrew Bible. Fortress Press.

Kirk-Duggan, C.A. ed., 2004. Pregnant passion: gender, sex, and violence in the Bible (Vol. 44). Brill.

Reilly, F., 2005. Jane Schaberg, Raymond E. Brown, and the problem of the illegitimacy of Jesus. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion21(1), pp.57-80.

Schaberg, J., 2006. The Illegitimacy of Jesus. A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the infancy Narratives, Expanded Twentieth Anniversary Edition.

Images

“David en Batseba, RP-P-2015-17-117-8” by Rijksmuseum is marked with CC0 1.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en/?ref=openverse.

“File:PM 080988 E La Granja n.jpg” by PMRMaeyaert is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/?ref=openverse.

<div class=’fn’> <div style=’font-weight:bold;display:inline-block;’><a href=’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/en:Annunciation’ class=’extiw’ title=’w:en:Annunciation’><span title=’announcement of the birth of Jesus to Mary’>Annunciation</span></a></div></div>” by Fra Angelico is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

  

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Silencing, Shiloh, and the story of David Oluwale

Today’s post is by Tasia Scrutton who is Associate Professor at the University of Leeds. Her research interests include philosophy of religion, philosophy of emotion, and philosophy of psychiatry, as well as theology, and social epistemology.

Special thanks to Lucy Moore and her wonderful contributions to Leeds Civic Trust and Wikipedia.

Just hours after the Leeds Civic Trust installed the blue plaque commemorating the distressing and suspicious death of David Oluwale in 1969, the plaque was stolen. This occurred on the night of 25th April 2022 and is being treated as a hate crime.

At the time of his death in May 1969, David Oluwale, who had come to England from Nigeria in 1949, in search for a better life, was homeless and living in Leeds. He had already experienced ongoing ‘systemic, varied and brutal’ abuse by individual police officers. This was witnessed by other members of the police, who made no effort to prevent it (Sim 2010 159). Ultimately, Oluwale drowned in the local river, aged 39. 

Independent witnesses testified to seeing two uniformed police officers chasing Oluwale along the river on the night he drowned. Two police officers were eventually convicted of grievous bodily harm, though not of manslaughter. Activists have documented the way in which the court case was whitewashed through the portrayal of Oluwale as dirty, an animal, and a burden and menace to society; the judge instructed the jury to find the police officers not guilty (see Aspden, 2008).

David Oluwale (image with thanks to Yorkshire Post and Wikipedia)

The theft of the blue plaque, 53 years after Oluwale died, is another attempt to deny the existence of Oluwale, or, alternatively, to protest against the commemoration of Oluwale’s wrongful death. It both seeks to silence structural, including police, racism, while also demonstrating that such racism is alive and well in the UK today.

Silencing people’s stories – and especially the stories of disadvantaged and disempowered groups – is a familiar theme also to perceptive readers of the Bible. A comical Easter cartoon depicts Jesus’ male disciplines, just after the female disciples tell them they have seen the risen Jesus, saying to the women, ‘thank you ladies, we’ll take it from here’. The cartoon is apt, since, while it is clear from the Gospels that women were among Jesus’ disciples, Christian Scriptures were written and interpreted largely by men, with male interests and experiences in mind (see e.g. the important work of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza). 

The story in Judges 21 after which the Shiloh Project is named is a particularly sinister example of the silencing of women’s stories in the Hebrew Bible. (For the full account of the origins of the Shiloh Project and its name, including the story of Judges 21, see here.)

Silencing can be deliberate or inadvertent, even unconscious; it can be performed by individuals, or groups, or it can be systemic. The philosopher Miranda Fricker draws attention to two kinds of ‘epistemic injustice’ (that is, injustice relating to people as knowers) (see Fricker, 2007). These forms of epistemic injustice relate closely to silencing and shed further light upon it. 

The first of these is ‘testimonial injustice’, which happens when someone is not believed because of the type of person they are. An example Fricker gives of this is of a Black man who is not believed by the police, precisely because he is Black. The example is relevant to the case of Oluwale because, while the violence against him was not a mere case of testimonial injustice, the fact that he could be abused by police officers without them having to fear he could press charges against them, certainly is. Of course, Oluwale would more likely be disbelieved not only because he was Black in a systemically racist wider setting, but also because he was homeless. This shows how different aspects of a person’s identity (being Black; being a migrant; being homeless) intersect, so that the person is even more likely to be a victim of testimonial injustice. The police officers, in contrast, had what is called ‘a credibility surplus’: this means, their testimony was likely to be believed. 

Indeed, Oluwale’s case was highly unusual, in that his death ‘resulted in the first successful prosecution of British police officers for involvement in the death of a black person’ (see here). The reason was that there were other witnesses deemed reliable, as well as other evidence of gross misconduct concerning one of the police officers sentenced for grievous bodily harm. 

The second kind of epistemic injustice Fricker discusses is called ‘hermeneutical injustice’. This is where disadvantaged groups of people do not have access to concepts that help them make sense of their experience, or to communicate their experience to others. Hermeneutical injustice often results from the reality that disadvantaged groups do not get to have input into formulating the concepts that are supposed to reflect human experience: precisely because, as a group, they are not considered, or not considered consequential enough for their experiences to be taken seriously – or even just acknowledged. 

An example Fricker gives of hermeneutical injustice is of a (real life) woman who experienced sexual harassment at work but before the concept ‘sexual harassment’ was named, or talked about, or better understood. As a result, the woman was unable to explain why she felt miserable at work, became depressed, and ultimately left her job. She was unable to get another job (since her reason for leaving her previous job, without any reference, was mystifying) and was also unable to claim unemployment benefits (because she was understood as having left her job without good reason). The lack of a concept, such as ‘sexual harassment’ in this case, not only affected others’ opinions of her and of her material circumstances, but also her own self-esteem: she was unable to explain her unhappiness and her reasons for leaving her job not only to others, but also to herself.     

The example of hermeneutical injustice is strikingly relevant to the case of the women of Shiloh. The mass rape of the women is not called a mass rape in the biblical text, because the word ‘rape’ (today meaning, to be penetrated against one’s consent with the perpetrator knowing consent to be absent) was not understood in those terms when the biblical narrative was written. While rape (i.e. what the word now signifies) certainly existed (and hurt and harmed just as much), the experience of women – the group most often depicted as victims of rape in biblical and other ancient texts – was not considered important enough for there to be a concept that expressed the world from their point of view.

One might imagine the women in the Shiloh story, like the woman who suffered sexual harassment, wondering why they felt distressed, violated, depressed, but without the resources or language to make sense of their experience. Alternatively, perhaps they did have some concept that described their experience, but since their perspective was never written down, it was not conveyed in the biblical story – thereby enabling the story to perpetuate rather than challenge sexual violence against women.

Silencing, then, can be blatant and crass, as when the plaque telling Oluwale’s story is stolen; or, it can be more subtle, as when particular people do not get input into the concepts used by the rest of their society. It can be individual, as when a police officer refuses to believe a person who is Black, but more often it has a systemic dimension, too, as when police officers in general are less likely to believe persons who are Black, or homeless, or when an entire group lacks or is denied certain concepts or hermeneutical resources. In every one of these cases, silencing is brutal and destructive. Silencing is also deep-rooted, insidious, and pernicious; it works in different, often invisible, but extremely harmful, ways. Because of this, it is easy to feel hopeless: because it is not clear what we can do in response to something that is both subtle and systemic.

One thing we can do is to keep the stories of people like Oluwale and the women of Shiloh alive.

References

Aspden, Kester (2008). The Hounding of David Oluwale. London: VintageISBN 978-0-099-50617-1

Fricker, Miranda (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sim, Joe (January 2010). The Hounding of David Oluwale by K. Aspden. The British Journal of Criminology50 (1): 158–161. doi:10.1093/bjc/azp073

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Kissing Purity Culture Goodbye

Hannah Baylor

Today’s post is from Hannah Baylor.  Hannah Baylor is a PhD student in theology and Christian ethics at Oxford researching sexual consent and a Church of England ordinand. You can hear more about Hannah’s work here: Theology Slam: Hannah Barr on Theology and the #MeToo movement – YouTube


When people find out that I research sexual consent, it usually elicits three responses:

Ooo, that’s so important! (I think so!)

Have you seen that brilliant cup of tea video? (That cup of tea video is terrible; here is my ten-points reason why…)

Or, they tell me their story. It is an absolute privilege to be trusted with stories that have often never been told aloud; it’s a gift which I treasure.  

Being immersed in a topic consisting of painful stories, abuses of power, damaging rhetoric, and continual threats to human flourishing, is often all-consuming and it can be hard to switch off from that. But recent events have had me questioning whether it is right to want to switch off, or whether vigilance is a habit to cultivate.

I recently began to do some research into purity culture in the UK. My initial thoughts were that purity culture wasn’t such a big deal over here, compared with the US with its sub-culture of daddy-daughter balls and abstinence-only education in schools. But as people shared their stories, my illusions were shattered. I discovered friends who had signed purity pledges and wore purity rings and people who had done the True Love Waits and Pure courses. So many people had devoured I Kissed Dating Goodbye; a Coptic friend said her church had really pushed that book on its young people. Purity culture in the UK is not just for evangelicals. The more I learned, the more people shared their stories, the more I realised that purity culture makes its mark on impressionable young Christians here in the UK.[1]

Wedding Rings

And then my memories returned. The sermons where ‘promiscuous’ girls were compared with chewing gum and un-sticky Sellotape. The unhelpful notions I had about dating that I’d acquired through osmosis. The church leader who shamed me over my body and called me a stumbling block. The email I had drafted to my rector, saying I couldn’t continue to help with the youth work, because the youth leader owned and taught from The Collected Works of Soul-Destroying Purity Culture and I didn’t have the power to challenge him but I wasn’t going to collude with him either in teaching harmful ideas. And finally, the memory of a throwaway line someone said to me at theological college, which I’d disregarded at the time, but then realised it was solid gold purity culture.

Purity culture in the US signals its presence. Bells, whistles, gaudy merchandise, political fanfare – you can’t miss it! In the UK, however, purity culture has a far more insidious character. It doesn’t necessarily announce its arrival; it seeps into church teaching through more obscure ways. What I recognise as particularly damaging from my own teenage Christian experiences is when legitimate Christian teaching and purity culture ideals were taught together, making harmful ideas harder to notice and reject. This is why I was so alarmed when I realised how casually and innocuously lines from the purity culture script were spoken by those who would otherwise absolutely reject its premise.

I’m training to be a Church of England priest. I will shortly be in possession of an awkward combination of power and authority: the power of ordination as an office, the power that other people confer upon a person in a dog collar and in a pulpit, the not-really-real power that is being a curate at the bottom of the Church of England hierarchy, and the power that the Holy Spirit gifts in her wisdom. And one of the many terrifying things about that power is the potential to cause pain. The last thing I want to do with my power as a soon-to-be ordained person is to say or teach something, which is not only wrong but is abjectly harmful.

I spoke to a variety of Church of England ordinands and curates who had been raised on purity culture. Some continue to identify as evangelicals, albeit often with a long list of caveats; others have eschewed it. I asked them about the interplay between their experiences of purity culture and the power they now have as ordained, or soon-to-be ordained, ministers. There was a uniform reluctance to preach on sexual ethics generally, and often this was to do with wanting to avoid saying the wrong thing and causing someone pain and shame. Another common reflection was how narrow purity culture’s focus is, obsessing over abstinence until marriage, and how this meant the vastness of issues of dating and inter-personal relationships was overlooked. Certainly, I find myself in the corner of every church debate about sexual ethics, shouting into the void that it would be nice if sexual consent got a look in, you know, for the sake of human flourishing and all that.

One person I spoke to said what they lamented about purity culture was it presented everything as black and white; as an ethical system, it’s an attractive one, because it sets up a dichotomy between right and wrong and then unstintingly upholds it. As an ethicist, I am naturally wary of ethical systems, which present themselves as catch-all solutions. I think such systems force us to abdicate our responsibility in the ethical life and leave those with the most power unaccountable for how they wield it. Purity culture is concerned with rendering its adherents powerless and its enforcers absorbing all of the power. 

People shared their stories with me, and it was, as ever, a gift to be trusted with them.

And what no-one wanted was to cause anybody any harm.

For people like myself who grew up with purity culture spooned into our Christian diet in ways we were not always cognisant of, untangling our sexual ethics is an on-going process. I have spoken elsewhere about the need for power literacy,  particularly for those of us inhabiting roles replete with multifaceted power; this is a skill that we must never be complacent about.

Power isn’t static, but this doesn’t mean that it is necessarily unstable; in fact, the opposite is true, the more static power is, the more unstable it is. We must remain vigilant to the potency of our power and when it is accumulating, and allow ourselves to be challenged on it and to dismantle it. It also requires awareness of the things we don’t condone but which may still have shaped us, and critically interrogate our stances on certain issues to ensure that we are not perpetuating a cycle of harm and shame.

I didn’t relish being proved wrong about the prevalence of purity culture in the UK. It has been uncomfortable to reckon with my own experiences of it and to realise that I and many of my friends are not as unscathed by it as we might have originally thought. But the awareness that it has raised within me at a point where I am on the cusp of receiving a significant amount of power, is invaluable.

So, here’s to kissing purity culture goodbye and power literacy hello.


[1] I highly recommend Vicky Walker’s book Relatable: Exploring God, Love, and Connection in the Age of Choice (Malcolm Down Publishing, 2019) for empirical studies with Christians in the UK and their experiences of purity culture.

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