How the religious right's purity culture enables predatory behavior

Underneath the salacious headlines about Falwell's scandals is a system of patriarchal objectification

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published August 27, 2020 6:05PM (EDT)

President of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr., delivers a speech during the evening session on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
President of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr., delivers a speech during the evening session on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The last year has found former Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. tumbling into one scandal after another, before finally officially plummeting from grace this week.  It began last year when, as Politico reported, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen helped "clean up racy 'personal' photographs" of Falwell's wife, Becki, including one of her in a French maid costume, which he had allegedly sent to a number of employees at his evangelical university. 

Then there were the photos of Falwell that surfaced on Aug. 7, showing  him with his pants partially unzipped and his arm around a woman whom he later claimed was his wife's assistant. Two weeks later, he released an exclusive statement with the Washington Examiner claiming that his wife had engaged in a "fatal attraction type" affair with Giancarlo Granda, a former pool attendant-turned-Miami businessman. 

The next day, Granda released a statement of his own at Reuters claiming that Falwell both knew of and observed his sexual relationship with Becki. "Becki and I developed an intimate relationship, and Jerry enjoyed watching from the corner of the room," Granda said. 

The level of hypocrisy is overwhelming; students at Falwell's university are all required to adhere to a strict code of conduct called "The Liberty Way," which forbids premarital sex, same-sex relationships, alcohol, and "obscene language," while also requiring that students "dress modestly at all times." 

But there's an additional, especially sinister, accusation regarding Falwell's behavior that has since emerged. On Tuesday, Granda posted a statement on Twitter wherein he described Falwell as a "predator," saying he'd sent Granda an image of a female Liberty University student exposing herself at their farm. In an interview with the Washington Post, Falwell recalled the image, saying, "She had on, I don't know how to say this, granny panties," saying it wasn't sexual, but that he sent photo to multiple people because he thought it was funny. 

Compared to some of the more salacious elements of the Falwell scandal, like French maid costumes and debates over where the verses on cuckoldry are found in the Bible, it's been easy for this smaller yet more insidious detail to get overshadowed. 

However, it's perhaps one of the clearest illustrations of how the purity culture that is bolstered by and ingrained in contemporary evangelical circles enables predatory sexual behavior, often without consequences. 

I grew up attending Southern Baptist churches during the mid-2000s, when purity had become a pop culture buzzword after the Jonas Brothers donned rings to symbolize their commitment to abstinence before marriage. Miley Cyrus, Jordin Sparks, Selena Gomez, and Demi Lovato all followed suit, adding a little glimmer to their sugar-coated public personas. 

These celebrities were occasionally ribbed for their public proclamations of purity. There was a "South Park" episode that poked fun at the concept, and Russell Brand had a quick bit about the Jonas Brothers' purity pledge at the 2008 VMA Awards. But the stars were prepared to respond. 

"Not everybody, guy or girl, wants to be a slut!" Sparks infamously clapped back. 

Eventually, most of the stars quietly took off their rings as they began the process of aging out of their totally wholesome images (Sparks, however, publicly recommitted to abstinence before marriage after breaking up with pop star boyfriend Jason Derulo). But in my evangelical church, purity wasn't something you could simply shed. 

One of my most vivid memories of youth group was from a discussion about the effects of premarital sex. My youth pastor glued together two pieces of flimsy tissue paper — one red to symbolize sexual sin, one white to symbolize purity — rubbed them together vigorously and pulled them apart. The pieces were shredded and irreparably damaged. 

That wasn't the only metaphor. There were many more — an alabaster bottle that was shattered after being roughly handled, roses with the petals torn off, a stick of gum that becomes undesirable after a single use, a bicycle that had been stolen and damaged rendering it "less fun" for the rightful owner to ride  — but the message was always the same: as a woman, before sex, you were pristine, but afterwards you were essentially worthless. 

Inherent to all these metaphors was the implication that women were the inanimate objects that were acted upon; we were the roses and the bicycles and the sheets of white tissue paper. But it was also our responsibility to ensure that our purity was maintained, to dress modestly so we wouldn't cause our brothers in Christ to stray and to keep our legs closed. 

Underlying these teachings is belief that a woman's sexuality is not her own. It belongs first to her father — in evangelical circles, fathers will often gift their daughters purity rings and organize purity balls — and then to her husband. I heard young men encouraged to guard young women's virginity on the sole basis that it "belonged to her future husband." If a woman was not a virgin before marriage, she owed it to her future husband to not only let him know, but to ask for his forgiveness. 

"No one wants damaged goods," a youth leader once explained to me.  

This fear of being rendered completely undesirable also contributes to a fear of coming forward after sexual assault. I don't have hard data on the number of women who have been abused by fellow church members, though as I reported in 2018, there was a call to put together a register of "Southern Baptist clergy and staff who have been credibly accused of, personally confessed to, or legally been convicted of sexual harassment or abuse."

But I have listened to and cried with Christian women who didn't even know how to proceed after they were assaulted. They were swallowed by feelings of grief and guilt, but also consumed by that lingering fear that they had been left in a state that was eternally unlovable. After all, we were taught that we were the sticks of chewing gum; it didn't matter who chewed it, we were worthless after that first bite.

When such damaging patriarchal objectification is so deeply ingrained in the teachings of the evangelical church, it makes sense that Jerry Falwell Jr. wouldn't see an issue with spreading a compromising image of one of the students at the university where he teaches. It makes sense that he would vocally support a president who has been accused of rape, sexual harassment and brags about his ability to grab women by the pussy. 

It makes sense that, until Granda released his statements about his intimate relationship with the Falwells, he positioned his wife as the sinner caught up in an affair that was tearing the family apart, while he attempted to reconcile the situation. 

It also makes sense that there are likely more images and stories from women who have been hurt by Falwell — other women that he has objectified and subsequently vilified —  that are yet to come to light. Unfortunately, it's also true that there's an entire subset of Christian men who would feel entitled to do the same.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Commentary Donald Trump Evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. Purity Culture