How Gender Roles Contribute to the Abuse of Women

A ViewPoint by Meghan Tschanz

Gender Roles Photo by NEOSiAM 2021 from Pexels
Gender Roles Photo by NEOSiAM 2021 from Pexels

“Women here are raised right; they know how to respect men.”

He was in the middle of a monologue about why he traveled here to be with these women, adding the women in the United States were becoming too uppity, they didn’t know their place.

It sounded familiar as he said it, but I couldn’t quite place where I had heard a phrase like it before. And then, quite suddenly, it clicked: he sounded like just about every pastor I heard growing up.

I was just beginning to knit together the themes of oppression that had laced my conservative evangelical upbringing with the extreme oppression found in this dingy bar where trafficked women were sold.

I had been to these bars over a dozen times. Sometimes the men who purchased these trafficked women would want to talk to us and ask us why we were there because we stood out like sore thumbs in a sea of middle-aged men.

My team and I were partnering with a ministry that offered trafficked women an opportunity to leave the bars and get a college education. We explained this to him as he held a woman who could have been his daughter possessively under his left arm.

It wasn’t the first time I had talked to Johns (men who buy women for sex), but it was the first time that his words finally helped me see the “why” of how vulnerable women and girls get trafficked in the first place– and it had a lot to do with the gender roles assigned by culture, and most troublingly, by the Church.

I was raised in a conservative evangelical church, and from a young age knew that I was being groomed to grow into a submissive house-wife. I was taught that my ultimate role and aspiration as a woman was to serve my future husband and that all decisions leading up to the day I met him were to be made with this imaginary “future husband” in my mind.

My “purity” was to be prized above all else, and I grew up with analogies that compared girls who did sexual things to licked suckers, spit in cups, and flowers without petals. Specifically, I was taught that I was a flower, and each time I did something sexual or had something sexual done to me, I would lose a petal. I was told that if I did enough sexual things, like kissing a boy, then I would be left with no petals and lose my value. If and when I met my husband, he would no longer want me because I had become a bald flower.

I was taught that my prepubescent body was a stumbling block and told constantly to cover up. Once, at the age of 13, my youth pastor shamed me into changing my shirt when a sliver of my belly showed when I raised my hands. He told me “it would make men do bad things.” Later that week, a stranger did indeed do a “bad thing” to me and grabbed my young breast while I was lagging behind my group walking on the street.

Immediately, I knew I had become a “bald flower” and that no one would want me, and I did not tell a soul for a decade, lest they know my shame. I was too young to understand that the shame that had been lumped around my “purity” is the very thing that kept me from speaking up when I was assaulted.

It wasn’t until I was older that I realized what an extraordinary thing it is for survivors to speak up, especially if they grew up in a system that valued their silence and submission above all else.

Even if “Biblical Gender Roles” were not preached from the pulpit, as it was in my childhood, the Evangelical Christian market has been saturated with books promoting that a woman’s place is in the home, serving her husband and her children — valuing her submission above all us. Whereas, a man’s place is out in the world, making money and leading. The particular model that I was taught was that men were supposed to be the “provider, protector, and pursuer” and I guess that meant women were meant to be the opposite: dependent, vulnerable, and passive.

These teachings were supposedly from the Bible, specifically Paul’s letters where women were to submit their husbands. But if we take a deeper look at these verses, we see that these verses are taken out of a historical and textual context in a seeming attempt to protect men’s power in the Church. (For more on this, I highly recommend The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr)

When I was taught these gender roles, they sat wrong in my spirit, but without ever being exposed to other teachings, I didn’t have the understanding to push back. I do now.

It’s becoming common knowledge that sexual assault and abuse have more to do with power than they do with sexual urges. Lyn Yonack, psychoanalyst says it like this: “Despite its name, sexual abuse is more about power than it is about sex. Although the touch may be sexual, the words seductive or intimidating, and the violation physical, when someone rapes, assaults, or harasses, the motivation stems from the perpetrator’s need for dominance and control.”

If abuse stems from an abuser’s desire for dominance and control, why do so many in the Church work so hard to enable and support enormous power differentials between men and women?

Why do so many authors like Emmerson Eggerichs of Love and Respect teach husbands to love their wives with the CHAIRS (Conquest, Hierarchy, Authority, Insight, Relationship, Sex) acronym? Eggerichs goes so far as to say, “This is not about the husband deserving respect; it’s about the wife being willing to treat her husband respectfully without conditions.”

Over and over in this book and Christian culture, we hear this refrain, men deserve respect, and they should get it regardless of their behavior. That respect is a need, something men are entitled to, not something earned.

And in a bar four years ago, I realized just how damaging this “need” for respect is. It sent a man across the ocean to buy the respect he thought he deserved from a trafficked woman, talking to me just like my pastors used to.

 

© 2021 by Christian Feminism Today.
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