Following up on our discussion of toxic masculinity in our previous post here we want to analyze some parallels between evangelical complementarian theology and the rhetoric found in online misogynist groups.
In studying complementarian teachings and reading through incel materials one will quickly notice that members of these two groups share a common enemy: feminism (or, more rightly, something they call feminism that might seem vaguely familiar to feminists but not immediately recognizable). According to both complementarians and members of misogynist online communities, feminists are responsible for the downward turn of society. Both of these groups imagine a pre-feminist past as a golden age to which we should return.
Earlier, we looked at how a reductive, literalist, ultimately incomplete hermeneutical approach to scripture sustains and perpetuates complementarian theology. Beyond its “bible-centered” rationale, complementarianism regularly courts an anti-feminist ethos to sustain itself. Feminism is demonized for all sorts of social evils that are harmful to God’s supposed plan for men and women. Feminism is portrayed as an outside secular force that corrupts God’s created order and threatens to disrupt the continuity of tradition, biblical teaching, and faithful Christian witness. Feminism, then, is an offense to that which is natural, biblical, and divinely revealed. When it is not viewed with menace and suspicion, its hermeneutics are portrayed as methodologically inferior.
The confidence with which complementarians proclaim feminism’s foreign (and therefore heretical) status to Christianity is ill-informed and highly unimaginative. Refusal to maximize the interpretive potential of stand-out women of the bible or blocking any feminist attempts to wrestle with Paul’s contradictory statements regarding women (cf. Galatians 3:28 and 1 Corinthians 14:35) signals fidelity not to scripture but to a narrow and oppressive hermeneutic. And let’s not trouble the feminism-is-sinful/patriarchy-is-biblical dichotomy too much by pointing out that many early women’s rights activists were also professing Christians.
Even more to the point, complementarian anti-feminism can only exist by suppressing or discrediting the work of women writers, scholars, and activists working today who claim both Christian and feminist commitments. Instead of seeing their feminism as a capitulation to secularism, postmodernism, or any other form of blasphemy, we should take seriously these women’s assertions that faith and feminism are compatible (or, more radically, that the later is actually strengthened by the former). Ironically, complementarians are identical to incels, MRAs, and other groups that denounce feminism. It seems then that anti-feminism isn’t a uniquely Christian position after all.
In addition to having a common enemy, complementarians and incels share a common conviction: sexual access to women’s bodies will prevent men from behaving badly. Through various responses to the van attack in Toronto, it became clear that some are convinced that lack of access to sex is a reason to hate and kill people (usually women). The argument goes that if women had opened up their bodies to these men they wouldn’t be committing atrocious acts of violence.
The same patriarchal assumptions that excuse violence as a byproduct of stalled sexual expression are fully operational even in some Christian theological discourses. In much writing produced by complementarian authors access to women’s bodies—specifically, a husband’s access to his wife’s body—plays a similar role. Wives “providing” their husbands with sex are safeguarding their husbands from temptation and poor choices. Regular access to sex is said to prevent adultery, emotional affairs, pornography use, child molestation, masturbation, same-sex attraction, and a whole host of other undesirable behaviors. The complementarian system portrays sex as an activity that enables the ongoing sanctification of the male soul; it fuels him toward perfection.
Here is one example from complementarian author Elyse Fitzpatrick:
Although most women recognize that they probably don’t have sex as much as they should, we rarely think about this abstinence as sin. When we refuse our husband’s attentions, we’re actually robbing him… of what we owe him. In addition to stealing from him what’s rightfully his, we’re also exposing him and ourselves to unnecessary temptation. As a wife who’s been called to help her husband, this is one of the major ways I can fulfill that calling. If I ignore Phil’s needs, then I’m answerable for the storm of temptation with which he has to struggle.”
We are all for sex-positive theology; this doesn’t qualify. On the surface, it may seem to be. Authors are portraying sexuality as a good, a gift, a guilt-free endeavor (as long as it is conducted within particular, narrow relational circumstances). However, when too much is expected of sex (when it is needed to “save”), too much is expected of women’s bodies. This framework can erode bodily integrity and any emphasis on consent because it places blame and derision on wives who “deny” their husbands. When a woman is told denying her husband sex will make her responsible for any sins he commits as a “result” of sexual dissatisfaction it creates a strong-arm environment, undermining the freedom needed for enthusiastic consent. It also transfers blame from the sinner to his spouse, as though somehow men are less theologically culpable for their transgressions. What’s veiled as sex positivity is at its heart sexual coercion with a theological gloss.
In addition to viewing access to women’s bodies as a means of maintaining positive male behavior, both these variants of toxic masculinity present masculinity as fragile. In both worldviews, men need women to act in specific ways in order for men to feel secure in their maleness. Men also need other men to act in specific ways to maintain the “purity” and “integrity” of masculinity. Filtered through these lenses a man gets the idea that, in order to be confident in his maleness, he must avoid transgressive behaviours—like wearing pink or reading books authored by women—because they threaten to break down the imagined “sacred” or “natural” barriers between masculinity and femininity. He must also ridicule these behaviors in others to ensure other men aren’t threatening the boundary. Big transgressions, like stay-at-home fatherhood, or loving other men, are to be critiqued, punished, and discouraged.
Whether it is the elevation of respectable-yet-rebellious academic figures like Jordan Peterson or the adoration of edgy/aggressive pastors like Mark Driscoll and winsome, contrarian gatekeepers like John Piper, members of these clusters demonstrate a penchant for hero making. They elevate father figures and take their words as gospel. Both variants of toxic masculinity also encourage men to feel entitled, and to prefer and elevate whiteness.
The intricate webs of evangelical sexism and incel ideology are spun of many common threads. Entrenchment within either of these ideologies diminishes flourishing—whether the result is an event worthy of the evening news, a man feeling like violence is the only response to feelings of insecurity, or a woman quietly weeping at home as she interprets her husband’s sins as the result of her own failings.
Allison has written here before about the how theological principles give us “tool kits” to understand the world around us. There are plenty of examples of theological tool kits acting as a barrier to seeing ourselves and/or our world clearly. Theology and church cultures that undergird toxic masculinity serve as another prime example of faulty tool kits.
We need to call out the tools. We all do—but especially men. Men need to call out manifestations of toxic masculinity when they see them. We need men to invest and risk their social capital for this. Harness that gender-policing bent you might have had socialized into you and start to turn it in on itself. Stop equating manhood with anything that hints at toxic masculinity and correct your fellow men when you see them doing it. It isn’t always as obvious as some of the usual suspects often make it. Sometimes it is a subtle joke in a sermon, a twisted parallel in the introduction to a bible study, an allusion in a wedding ceremony, or passing comments in coffee hour chatter. Just as these ideas spread in online communities that normalize belief, these ideas are perpetuated in our theological and religious cultures. Pushing back against that is where we can start to make changes. It won’t be easy, but could very well save lives. What could possibly be more stereotypically manly than that?
Elyse Fitzpatrick, Helper By Design (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003), 105.