Patriarchy and purity: New books about Christian antifeminists

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Our bodies are not our own, at least according to some of the most fervent fundamentalist American Christians. They’re on television (the Duggar family, stars of TLC’s 18 Kids and Counting), and your children may see them in DVDs used to supplement health classes (Pam Stenzel’s Sex Still Has a Price Tag is a popular example, an anti-sex scarefest cloaked as abstinence education and marketed in slightly different versions for religious and public schools).

The core belief is that our bodies are the property of God and, in the case of women, our bodies belong to the men in our family. Our father takes first watch and, as described in creepy detail in Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth, may even take his pre-teen daughters to a formal dinner-dance in which vows and tokens of “purity” will be exchanged. His job is to guard our body until he turns it over to our husband.

And, as detailed in Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, that husband may very well be selected for us by our father. After marriage, our body will belong to our husband and can only be denied him if he seeks to perform “sinful” acts.

In the ultimate sacrifice, our body belongs to God—a particular, patriarchal God who values above all a hierarchy at which he is the apex. We will bear any and all children conceived, eschewing birth control as a rebellious attempt at telling God we know better than he does.

We will serve our husbands as “helpmeets,” never challenging their headship. We’ll be patient, even if he’s abusive, neglectful, lazy or just plain incompetent. It’s up to God to make things right, not us. We’ll not just raise but home-school our children, protecting them from the outside world and inculcating “traditional” family values in them.

Our daughters will learn the art of homemaking—and making do with very damn little, since there are so many children to support. They will, at an early age, be drafted into caring for their younger siblings in a breed-your-own-nannies pyramid scheme.

Our sons will become weapons in the culture war, part of a move to take Christian dominion over the United States and beat back the secular forces that promise personal liberty, diversity and equality.

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Valenti’s book concentrates on the main message of the abstinence movement: Women who choose to have sex are dirty. Unclean. Impure. They’re like a piece of chewing gum stuck under a desk. You wouldn’t put that in your mouth, would you?

The Purity Myth is a fact-filled update on the current state of sexual repression, shame and young women. It’s certainly timely in light of the failure of “abstinence-based” education (the pregnancy and childbirth rates for teenage women are climbing again).

Quiverfull is every bit as frightening. Joyce makes connections between a number of seemingly disparate movements: Christian fundamentalist home schooling; anti-birth control and anti-abortion groups; “family” churches (no nurseries and a rigid hierarchy of discipline); anti-gay-rights groups; and the Christian dominionist philosophy which calls for turning the United States into a theocracy run on Old Testament principles.

These books make clear that our freedom—to believe what we choose and to practice those beliefs in peace—starts with our bodies, and our right to choose what to do with them is far from secure.