I’m Dani Ward,

and I do lots of things.

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.”

umbrellaUnder 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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