Preparing Our Girls To Be Abused: When Churches Unwittingly Groom


One night when I was 15 years old, I went to a women's Bible study at Doug and Nancy Wilson's home. I'd never been to this Bible study before but had decided to go that night with a friend of mine. Though I'd attended Christ Church for several years by this time, I had never actually spoken with Nancy Wilson. After the Bible study she approached me, took a seat next to me on the couch and began asking some general questions about my life and interests.

As we spoke I told her about my love of music and my plans to start a jazz band. She asked who would be in the band and I told her I knew some local high school-aged musicians who performed at my mom's coffeehouse; I'd be asking them to join. She asked if they were boys or girls. "Boys." I answered, "It's really hard to find female jazz musicians my age around here." She went on to express her concerns to me. The conversation left me feeling uneasy and it really stuck with me, to this day I remember everything she said to me.

She warned me against working with an all-male group. She told me it wasn't appropriate for me to be surrounded by boys and told me I should make a real effort to find female band members. I told her my parents knew the musicians and were comfortable with me starting the band. She responded that it was unwise all the same and that I should reconsider my plans.

She expressed concern over me leading a group of guys. Nancy said it wasn't appropriate for a woman to lead a group of men. She suggested that I could still identify as the lead singer of the band but pass off the title of 'band leader' to one of the boys in the group in order to avoid being in a non-Biblical role of authority.

She warned me against dressing in a way that would cause the boys to stumble. She told to me be careful that my clothing was not too tight or revealing, especially if there were boys in the band. "You're a pretty girl" she told me, and she said I needed to be careful of the way I might tempt the other band members to feel or think about me.

She warned me not to become arrogant or brash. She reminded me that women should be gentle and have kind, quiet spirits. Leading a jazz band might tempt me to behave like a diva and she warned me to be on guard against the temptation to be the center of attention.

To some folks this might seem like perfectly healthy advice for a pastor's wife to offer a young girl, but the advice was unsolicited and was offered to me even after I had explained that my parents were aware of and approved of all the decisions being made. Her advice sent a very clear message to me that I needed to remember my place as a female: I had a responsibility to defer to men, to limit my exposure to men, to be meek and gentle around men, while also bearing the responsibility for men's lustful thoughts about my body.

What I didn't realize is that I was being groomed for the shaming I would experience when I came out about my abuse almost 3 years later. I would be told that I was culpable in my own abuse and that I bore responsibility for the abuse because of my flirtatious, tempting behavior. The man who abused me would be relieved of a great portion of his own responsibility in light of my "parent's foolishness" and his own "immaturity."

Nancy fed me the same words every other young girl in misogynist religious communities hears. Advice like hers is the very thing that reinforces abuse victims feeling dirty, shameful, and responsible for their own suffering. The man who abused me certainly made me feel this way, but the sad truth is that the teachings from my church had been making me feel shameful for years before the abuse even began. I had been unwittingly prepared to accept my fate of sexual abuse and to subsequently accept the blame that would be placed on me after I spoke up.

I wish I was alone in this. I wish my story was an anomaly but you and I both know it is far from that.  Our churches and communities need to take a step back, zoom out from specific cases of sexual abuse and talk about what leads to the abuse. Admittedly, there are many factors that open doors for abuse to take place, but the way we train our youth to view themselves and those around them is a hugely relevant factor.

Regardless of our religious views we must empower our girls to see themselves as so much more than secondary human beings and the future belongings of men. They must know that however gentle they are by nature they can expect and require respect from the men in their lives, and that when they are hurt by someone in a position of authority over them it is not their fault. Not in any way.  

We must also empower our boys to take responsibility for their thoughts and actions rather than reassuring them through example that a woman will shoulder the blame for their failings. They must know that love is a sacrifice, a mutual understanding between two people and not something which is owed to them.

Nancy Wilson was simply repeating the things she had been taught and had come to believe. She saw an opportunity to reach out to me and was passing along the information she felt I needed to hear. I don't fault her, but I do disagree with her and I do feel that her advice and the advice so many other young girls in our churches and communities are given is deeply harmful and dangerous.

We cannot tell our daughters "you are valued and cherished" while also telling them "it's your fault you were raped."






Comments

  1. Proverbs 31 presents a talented businesswoman. Debora was judge of all Israel. But here in Moscow, we teach our daughters to hide their God-given abilities in the name of "submission." As a Christian living in Moscow, watching the Wilson clan disempower women makes me sick.

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    1. In the culture I was raised in, marriage is the ultimate goal. Anything else is secondary and sub-par and though occasionally allowed, is frowned upon and greatly affects the woman's self worth and dignity.

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  2. So true! The only conversation I ever had with Nancy Wilson left crying and shaking. Seems that marital problems aren't allowed be spoken of unless the wife is willing to take the blame for them all....

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    1. I'm so sorry. I have heard of experiences like yours so many times. There is an idea that if a husband has failed in some way it must be (at least partially) the wife's fault. Well, sometimes one person in a relationship is just a jerk regardless of how the other person is behaving. It is possible that the responsibility can lie with one person.

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  3. Take all advice with a grain of salt. Whenever a pastor, mentor, or teacher has given me advice that I wasn't sure about, I talked to my parents about it. And oftentimes, they would tell me that they disagreed with the advice. I don't believe Nancy or Doug are misogynists. She is very wise about husbands' and wives' individual leadership roles. And she is very wise and perceptive about consciously being responsible for ourselves as women (trusting and believing in ourselves to handle life... not relying on men to be responsible over us). It definitely was not her place to charge you with some of the things that she did, but I don't think she was in any way setting you up for defeat later in life.

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    1. Hi Anonymous, thanks for weighing in. We'll have to agree to disagree on this one. I think the teachings I was exposed to for my entire childhood absolutely set me up for defeat later in life. I was groomed to accept a man's authority over me and not to question the words of someone older/wiser/"Godlier" than me. I was taught to be meek. I was taught to submit. I was taught if a man looked at me with lust I must be provoking it in some way (perhaps I was wearing my purse straps incorrectly and unnecessarily drawing attention to my breasts - that was a big one.) Nancy reinforced all of these teachings. It is a tricky thing to be meek and tell an abusive man "NO!" at the same time.

      I was prepared for a submissive role and though no one's intention (outside of my abuser, of course) was that I be abused, the teachings of the church put me in a prime position to be taken advantage of.

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    2. Excellent response! I applaud you for sharing your experiences and the growth and healing you have had to go through to push past these antiquated ideals. We have every right to say no or yes to anything and should never be blamed for someone else's criminal actions. You are amazing and courageous. Thank you for sharing.

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    3. In response to Anonymous' comment: Natalie is much wiser in her youth than me (and I'm a grandma!). Nancy Wilson's advice probably wasn't meant to harm, but her type of thinking does make girls and women feel inferior and the cause of a man or boy's lust. As a new Christian, I received similar advice and I was a grown, happily married woman with two teenage sons. But because I was active in local politics and worked with men, I was made to feel like a harlot. Sadly, I didn't thoroughly understand the harm in this type of thinking until reading Natalie's post this evening. Thanks Natalie. :)

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  4. This is such an important post, Natalie! As Christians, often we are taught to be codependent. We're taught that we're responsible for other people's experience of life. And...that others are responsible for ours! We are NOT taught where we end and others begin. We are taught to say 'yes' and that saying 'no' is ungodly. We're taught to 'serve,' meaning taking care of or saying 'yes' to others at our own expense. We are not taught how to allow the 'good' in and keep the 'bad' out and that THIS IS love! We aren't taught that 'no' is a complete sentence, no explanation required, EVER!! I agree. How you and many other were programmed, invites abuse. It must be brought into the light b/c as Paul said, that which is brought into the Light, itself becomes Light. Stay strong, people are listening, many, many! Your bravery is beyond imagination! Love you❤️ Maria Rippo

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    1. "We aren't taught that 'no' is a complete sentence." <--applause!

      I absolutely agree - it is important for us to be discerning about what is 'love' and what is 'control' - in fundamental circles they can look very similar.
      -Jean

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  5. Something that doesn't add up for me is the fact that the culture there teaches that men are in charge, responsible. They are to lead and women are to submit. While my opinions on this teaching and culture are a different topic entirely, I'm interested in the logic of teaching that men are responsible leaders, yet when a man stumbles and abuses a girl, it's suddenly the girl's fault? Doesn't that give a bunch of power to a girl that was not given her before the man stumbled? It doesn't logically make any sense. If the men are to lead, they are responsible when they mess up too. Or should be. It makes no sense within the confines of their own teaching to lay blame on the girl, because she is given no power or choice about her life.

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    1. Exactly. There was an article just in the last couple of years where a pastor (from prison) wanted a 15 year old to be just as culpable as he was in his crime. I was glad when people responded with NO. NOnono.

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    2. Ah, but you see, the female is the tempter, the one who leads the man into sin. It's not his fault when he's simply acting on his sinful, manly nature. Crock of rot, I know, but that's what they teach and believe.

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  6. Natalie, I think it is important to point out that not only girls are prepared, groomed. Certainly, in the case of fundagelical churches, girls are especially abused but let's not forget that all children/young people are 'churched' in this way of shame and blame. Best wishes in your work for freedom!

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  7. Yes! This was every day at Logos from young elementary girls all the way up to high school. I remember girls shaming our classmate because her red finger nail polish was too seductive and she looked like a seductress. Lip gloss was also very controversial because it made boys think of kissing your wet, shiny lips. The purse strap you mentioned was a big one too--ALWAYS wear it over your shoulder and never cross body so your breasts are not too prominent under your baggy uniform. Also uniform approved tights and skirt lengths were a huge weapon of shame as well as if your lace camisole was visible when you left your top two shirt buttons undone. It all sounds completely unbelievable unless you've experienced it. I had friends tell me all the time their parents wouldn't let them hangout with some girl in our class because she was acting in seductive ways. Every girl I've known from That community has huge body image issues (whether they realize it or not) from having their appearance and weight scrutinized on a daily basis. Again, it sounds so absurd unless you've lived it!

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  8. The uniform is only the surface issue in emotional rape but an important one. Thank-you, Amanda Bentley, for laying it all out for us to see. Now go beyond the clothes and outward appearances to the emotional assault on the mind, on the very thoughts of people and how dirty and fallen they are.... Dirty filthy ugly humans without worth unless properly churched, properly dressed inside and out. Such ignorant sickness visited on children, young people. These Christians have no common decency. That is why DW fits so well at his pulpit.

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  9. Thank you for speaking truth about this subversive way of looking at the world.
    -Jean

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  10. This whole post reminds me of the video for the No Doubt song, Just A Girl.

    And lead singer vs. "band leader"?? What decade is Mrs. Wilson in?

    Natalie, I hope you sing in a cool band anyway.

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  11. Diana Krall, Gwen Stefani, Sheryl Crow, Joan Osbourne, and numerous other amazing female musicians have led bands composed entirely of dudes. So the fuck what? Do your thing. Nancy Wilson is an idiot.

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    1. And then there was another woman from the Pacific Northwest named Nancy Wilson, who with her sister Ann led a band of men and were quite successful. You may have heard of "Heart".

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  12. I agree with Natalie, because my growing up experience was similar with my church (I also received some of the worst advice I have ever gotten, too, from Nancy Wilson- thankfully, I could discern it at the time and knew I would never ask her for advice again). I think that the problem is that advice does not come 'one size fit all'. Wisdom demands catering advice to different people, recognizing that there is much grey and that applying principles can often look like contradictions between different people. My family is sometimes baffled with how I have been affected by my upbringing/complementarianism. I think people who are more sensitive and vulnerable to having advice impressed on them to the point of fear end up on the other side of devastating circumstances with shattered lives wondering "Why?" and are forced to make sense of it all. So, wisdom. So, ....no more complementarianism, no more legalistic, foolhardy lectures on modesty and men. Yes to more lectures on courage, on wisdom, and on learning how to be brave with your natural/God given gifts.

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  13. There was a small group I attended in high school. The group was all ages and I was sixteen. He was teaching the verses about Abraham and his family in the old testament where Abraham's daughter Dinah is raped and forced to marry her rapist. I spoke up and said that it was despicable. And for the next fifteen minutes argued with the teacher about the injustice of the situation. I'll never forget him brushing me off and telling me it was her own fault for being raped. That she was responsible for being in the wrong place, for being curious, for disobeying the rules. She was responsible. I feel like that's when I became disconnected with church. How could anyone be responsible for the actions of another? Never during the entire debate did he even remotely admit that the rapist had any responsibility other than to marry the girl he raped.... idk. But your story reminds me of that. And I appreciate your voice and how you've said this resonates with me. Thank you.

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    1. This is slightly tangential, but have you ever read The Red Tent? It's the Dinah story, told from Dinah's point of view. I found it eye-opening and empowering. A lot of times we're fed a certain view of biblical stories from a man's point of view and taught not to question it (I definitely was, at least). Anyway, I highly recommend it to any woman coming out of this kind of fundamental atmosphere

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    2. When I was a teen, my family was influenced by this teaching about Dinah. Basically that she deserved this punishment, for leaving the family compound without one of her brothers as chaperone, and for wanting to go visit the heathen daughters of the land in the first place. This was used as Biblical precedent for this chaperone system being taught. For years I was not allowed out the front door without either a parent or brother with me. This was presented as being a buddy system, as protection. Apparently if I had gone out alone for a ten minute walk I would have deserved the rape I was clearly asking for?

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