How I Went from Slut-Shamer to Women's Rights Activist

Internalized misogyny is big in conservative church cultures.

Jul 10, 2014 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

Spoiler alert: It wasn’t in three easy steps. It took years, research, and the wisdom of countless other women’s voices to convert me. But it started the day I got a sinking feeling in my gut, and decided to follow it wherever it led.
 
I could give you a list of my Google search history when I was emerging from fundamentalism, but that wouldn’t be the whole story. It starts before that, when I was still in the thick of hands-waving, holy-spirit-praying Christianity. Let me show you a scene in my life as a former slut-shamer. 
 
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Setting:  I’m about seventeen, on the worship team at my parent’s fundamentalist church. I’m standing on the main stage, rehearsing for the morning’s program. Soundcheck is boring until you get to sing, because I am a teenager and not immune to the spotlight on me, even if it is supposed to be “all for the glory of God.” Action ensues in the pews. Someone’s motioning to my mother, and my mother’s calling me down off the stage, and it turns out a pastor’s wife has a concern with the length of my skirt. I look down. It’s swirling above my knees, not quite high enough to be considered mid-thigh. But most frustratingly of all, I have a pair of long black shorts on underneath it. I thought I was hitting all the modesty checklists.
 
But it doesn’t matter, because another woman has done the policing work in order to prevent me from being a “stumbling block” to grown men. She doesn’t want the sight of my long teen legs to force a man to sin, so she sends me home. 
 
Shortly thereafter, I quit the worship team.
 
While I didn’t have the vocabulary for it at the time, what happened so often in my church environment was women shaming other women for their dress. As a pastor’s daughter, I was particularly susceptible to judgement from others. This happened to me countless times. I was made to sit down with a sweater in my lap because a boy had been staring at my shorts. I was told to go home when my usual pants became too clingy because I was gaining weight. I was once made an object lesson at a women’s Bible study, with the leader saying “Don’t be like Becca, she’s wearing a two-piece to the beach.” I was kicked out of more prayer circles and worship services than I can count because of my clothing, and I was often left crying and ashamed of my body.
 
Going to church became a war zone of opinions. I started seeking out baggy shirts. I developed an eating disorder.
 
The thing was, though, that this entire time I was being so hurt by the modesty police, I was also a member of their number. Internalized misogyny is big in conservative church cultures. They start feeding it to you young in the form of concern for our “brothers in Christ.” I didn’t slut-shame women because I thought they deserved what they got. I did it because that was just how the world was, because everyone did it, because if we didn’t then we might be the cause of a man lusting after us, and that was something we were responsible to avoid at all costs. 
 
So when I was making snide comments about a girl’s tank top behind her back or noting the tightness of her jeans with a critical eye, I didn’t think about it. I would tell girls at summer camp to go back to their cabins, because their shirt wasn’t high enough. It was second nature.
 
But as I grew older, the system began slipping. It stopped making sense to me, no matter how hard I tried to reconcile it. If I was going to wear a bikini to the beach, but only under a tank top and shorts, and it was just with a few girl friends, how was that wrong? If I picked a skirt that was flowing and the opposite of form-fitting, and even wore shorts under it as a modesty guard, why was I still being kicked out of church for it? If I wore tank tops under all my shirts to prevent cleavage or belly-baring, why did I still hear that I was causing men to sin? 
 
The longer I was in it, the more I realized that no matter how hard you tried, you could never win. No matter what you wore, someone else would always have an issue. The standard was unreachable. Which meant it didn’t actually work, this system we’d built around shaming and bullying each other.
 
If a man was going to lust after me no matter what I did, what was the point in trying? If men couldn’t control anything they did after seeing a woman, didn’t that make them nothing more than animals? Why was it my responsibility to prevent whatever went on inside a man’s brain? The task was impossible; succeeding was never going to happen, and I began to realize that it stemmed from a worldview that oppressed women and taught that men were less than rational beings.
 
Other things helped me on my journey out of slut-shaming, too. I moved out, went to college, expanded my media consumption, and the flood of new voices I was exposed to led me to search out more. I educated myself by devouring everything I could find about feminist theory and practice. When I first came across the term “slut-shaming,” it hit me solidly that this was the thing I’d been both a victim and perpetrator of. I finally had a term for what had hurt me, and I had to come to terms with my part in perpetuating it. 
 
I think that’s part of what led me to using my own voice to speak out against what’s known as “purity culture” in evangelical Christian circles. I can’t ever undo the harm I caused, but I can use my platform to educate and work toward change.
 
I’m not an idealist, and I know that a lot of people in conservative church circles won’t hear what I have to say. But whenever I receive emails from women about their journey and how my writing has helped them just a little bit, I know that it’s causing ripples. If I can help even a few women with stories like my own, then I’ve done my job.