On Benevolent Sexism & Purity PR

Brelyn Bowman, daughter of pastors Michael & Dee Dee Freeman, was recently married to her sweetheart, Tim Bowman. What makes this story noteworthy is not only their status as big names in particularly the DMV Evangelical Christian circles, but is also the fact that on their wedding day, Brelyn Bowman presented an OBGYN approved certificate of purity to her father, Pastor Michael Bowman.

Brelyn Bowman first took a covenant of purity given to her by her father which included strict discouragements from intercourse, rubbing, petting, etc. at age 13. A few days after the wedding, which featured high profile guests on the Evangelical Christian scene, Mike Freeman Ministries posted the picture that has been rotating through my timeline non-stop, since yesterday. It depicts a father and his daughter, both beaming, and holding the Certificate of Her Purity which states that her hymen was completely in tact.

My response comes with the full understanding that up to this point, Brelyn Bowman’s sexuality has been both physically and emotionally scrutinized. To be clear, the purpose of this post is not to scrutinize her or her personal decisions even further.  Brelyn Bowman’s decision to remain abstinent prior to marriage is something that is her choice to make and hers alone. A woman’s sexual ethic is hers to decide. However, understanding purity culture in Evangelical spaces begs us to dig a bit deeper. And as such, stories like these hearken back to a few deeper themes that can be problematic:

  • patriarchy & the church (including the policing of women’s bodies)
  • the PR that is attached to women’s sexual choices and bodies

1) Benevolent Sexism & The Body
In many Christian Evangelical churches, the policing of women’s bodies is normalized and spiritualized as ‘God’s design’. In the case of the Bowmans, Pastor Michael Freeman posted the picture of the certificate with the caption:

Who knew that a pic like this would get so much negativity but a natural man will not understand things of the Spirit for they are foolishness to them!!! ‪#‎meetthebowmans‬‪#‎readyourbible‬‪#‎prayingforyou‬

Supporters chimed in via social media sites stating how they might want their daughters to do the exact same thing. And herein lies the opportunity to  discuss benevolent sexism. Glick et al (2000) defines benevolent sexism as “a subjectively positive orientation of protection, idealization, and affection directed toward women that, like hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men (p. 763)”.

Let’s break this down a bit given what I’ve emphasized above. Again, the thing about this type of sexism is that it’s “subjectively positive”; it’s coded in language that sounds good to the ear. You might hear this type of rhetoric in sacred spaces that espouse that it’s God’s design for women to be led by men… in order to PROTECT the women. The first element of benevolent sexism is the element of protection: protection of women’s assumed fragility, purity, and sanctity. Online news sources allude to Brelyn’s promise of virginity to her father at thirteen years of age. Given the Evangelical line of thought that the father protects & provides for the family (trust me on this… you can analyze these things when you’ve gotten some distance from those spaces), this sort of covenant / contract / promise might sit squarely under the guise of a father’s protection of a daughter’s purity.

The second element of benevolent sexism is the element of idealization. Each post and picture sets up the idealization of the docile, virginal, “pure” body. The comment sections are filled with statements about incorporating these practices and tools into women’s Bible studies and girl’s groups. What might be causing this? Scholar, Rose Weitz, talks about institutions thriving on the use and subordination of women’s bodies as docile, in order to ensure that these spheres can continue to be male-dominated (2001). Even if this was not the intention, we cannot rule that out as a possible output. We might consider that her partner had no such procedures done (nor did this seem to be an expectation, given the couples’ wedding video). We might also consider the fact that the very act of remaining pure was not credited to Brelyn and her partner, on paper. It was acknowledged and credited to the patriarch, on the tangible certificate. Regardless of the intent, it’s important to consider Brelyn’s bodily and sexual choices were put under what many Evangelical spaces would call ‘a covenant’ at the age of 13. As an adult, it was then her choice to verify and prove that those terms were fulfilled. However, the final certificate was presented to the patriarch. And it’s worth it to sit with that & to think about the implications for other families that will follow these steps. For women & girls, we have to ask ‘Do these particular forms of ‘protection and idealization’ of purity and chastity (when used as a means for celebrating a marriage vow to one man & a covenant promise to another man) serve to ‘justifiy women’s subordinate status to men’? And if the answer is yes, is this something we want to perpetuate within our sacred spaces?

2) When Purity Becomes PR The purity business is a thriving one: there have been books, seminars, Bible study materials, and families that have spent thousands at jewelers for purity rings in every shape & style. The messages of ‘remaining pure’ that are particularly geared towards women are really nothing new. In this particular case, pastors reached out for press coverage of Brelyn Bowman’s story in order for it to go viral.

If you know anyone in TV, radio or any major blogger that would be interested in Brelyn’s story have them contact us – that way, we can get this message of purity out to our young people!

Posted by Dee Dee Freeman on Monday, October 19, 2015

Again, the decision to wait is to be commended, as it is uniquely her choice to make. However, with media stints on Bossip, Media Takeout, and more, the question then becomes… what makes purity PR so appealing? When did the sanctity of a couple’s sexuality & sexual choices (be they abstinence, celibacy, or intercourse) become fodder for the media? Because while this is an interesting piece to write on a fascinating story, there is one, final, remaining question… why is this something that we all know about… to even write about?

Resources:
Tannenbaum, M. (2013)The problem when sexism sounds so darn friendly. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/psysociety/benevolent-sexism/

Glick, P., Fiske, S., Mladinic, A., Saiz, J., Abrams, D., Masser, B., Adetoun, B., Osagie, J., Akande, A., Alao, A., Annetje, B., Willemsen, T., Chipeta, K., Dardenne, B., Dijksterhuis, A., Wigboldus, D., Eckes, T., Six-Materna, I., Expósito, F., Moya, M., Foddy, M., Kim, H., Lameiras, M., Sotelo, M., Mucchi-Faina, A., Romani, M., Sakalli, N., Udegbe, B., Yamamoto, M., Ui, M., Ferreira, M., & López, W. (2000). Beyond prejudice as simple antipathy: Hostile and benevolent sexism across cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79 (5), 763-775 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.79.5.763

WEITZ, R. (10/2001).“WOMEN AND THEIR HAIR: Seeking Power through Resistance and Accommodation”. Gender & society (0891-2432), 15 (5), p. 667 – 686.