Five things I’d explain to a teenage girl if she asked about Deuteronomy 22:13-21 (assuming she has the courage to)

Young woman looking up thoughtfully with the words: Five things I’d explain to a teenage girl if she asked about Deuteronomy 22:13-21 (assuming she has the courage to ask) workthegreymatter.com

This would be that law about the young bride who’s already lost her virginity.

Actually it’s not, but I’ll get to that later.

I promised myself I’d keep this post under 1,200 words: 200 for each thing to say, plus intro. So if you want detailed backup for what I’m saying here, check out the links and references for further reading. I’m drawing mainly on the work of Aaron Koller, Carolyn Pressler, Joseph Fleishman and, not least, Emily Nagoski.

I’m writing this post because in the Western evangelical church, Christians of all ages are encouraged to read the Bible, although there are some pretty puzzling things in it. And whilst it’s pretty standard to say “Jesus won’t mind if you ignore that bit,” if you’re talking to a teenage girl who’s anything like me, those arguments won’t wash. (Admittedly though, I’m pretty weird.)

I grant you, even if she’s grown up with purity culture, Deuteronomy 22 probably didn’t feature much in conversation. But it’s still likely she’ll completely misread the passage (as I did) if she reads it from a purity culture mindset.

So, here are five things to explain. Take it slowly and gently.

Continue reading Five things I’d explain to a teenage girl if she asked about Deuteronomy 22:13-21 (assuming she has the courage to)

I’ve learnt that I can’t blog about virginity, without discussing violence

Hands poised in typing over a mac laptop with the words on top: I've learnt that I can't blog about virginity without discussing violence workthegreymatter.com

A few weeks ago I had a long sit down and pondered what I blog about and how I categorise it.

One of the difficulties my readers face is that one week I’ll be posting something light and reflective, and the next I’ll be delving deep into toxic teachings and abusive practices. With such variety (volatility?) in subject matter and tone, I realised I wasn’t making it easy for people to make decisions on what to read.

So last year I introduced four categories: sunlight, firelight, moonlight and starlight. Sunlight was the uncontroversial, positively-oriented stuff that would generally be easy to read. Firelight was more stretching; it was more likely to challenge long-standing assumptions and it discussed how/why bad things are bad. Then there was the moonlight category. I reserved this for posts about the wildly unorthodox, the not-safe-for-work topics, and serious violence. After all, this blog started as a take-down of Fifty Shades of Grey.

The last category, starlight, was a wildcard, collating posts about my life and reflections — often as a blogger. This post, in case you were wondering, is starlight.

The framework helped me focus how I blogged. For example, if I wrote about hope, I might have a sunlight post discussing how God created us to have our own agency, a firelight post on how penal substitutionary atonement is problematic, and then a moonlight post carefully examining teachings about hell.

And to begin with, I thought that I’d be able to do the same with purity. But now I don’t think I can. Or at least, not when it comes to virginity. Continue reading I’ve learnt that I can’t blog about virginity, without discussing violence

Honour, not sex. Why applying Deuteronomy 22 is more complex than you thought. And why this matters.

Picture of man holding a Bible with a woman in the background, as if engaged in conversation though their face aren’t in the frame. Words on top: Honour, not sex. Why applying Deuteronomy 22 is more complex than you thought. And why this matters. Workthegreymatter.com

There are a fair few strange laws concerning sex and marriage in the Old Testament books of law.

Problem is, whilst some Christians see much of the Old Testament as not relevant at all, there are others who tend to look for modern application. And if you’re in this second camp, there are all manner of questions to be answered about which laws describe the past and which prescribe principles for ethical living — and how exactly these translate to the modern day.

My personal belief is that none of the Old Testament laws are either wholly prescriptive or wholly descriptive; I think they all reflect their time (descriptive) and they all have something to teach us (prescriptive). Well, to varying degrees, obviously, but I’m not prepared to write off any of them as wholly irrelevant relics. And maybe you agree or maybe you don’t. Either way, it’s fair to say that some Christians are inclined to interpret prescriptively and when they do, they’re influenced by what each law is actually talking about.

Maybe that seems so obvious it shouldn’t need to be said — of course laws about the priesthood, warfare or slavery are going to be taken less literally than laws about putting up safety rails on a roof or not cursing the deaf. Why? For the simple reason that modern Western societies are structured very differently to ancient Israel.

But here’s the issue: what if there are laws designed for ancient societal structures, but which mainly use timeless language? Laws like that risk being interpreted and applied more literally by modern Christians, when they shouldn’t be.

This is what I think happens with Deuteronomy 22:13-30.

CONTENT NOTE: this post includes discussion of sexual abuse, ‘honour’ violence and rape myths. Continue reading Honour, not sex. Why applying Deuteronomy 22 is more complex than you thought. And why this matters.

sometimes I wonder… if Rachel Jankovic understands scandal (a response to her criticism of Kaitlin Shetler’s viral poem)

Over the last week or so, a #poemfortheresistance by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler has been making waves on the internet. Both stark and poignant, it contemplates whether Mary’s experience of breast-feeing Jesus was anything like the author’s earthy experience. (Its text is at the bottom of this post.)

The poem has many layers but it lands the author’s view that the coarse image of a teenage girl, with cracked nipples maybe, breast-feeding Jesus, says far more about the truth and relevance of the Christmas story than the many sermons you might hear from privileged male preachers who gate-keep women from the pulpit.

At the time I write, the poem has garnered over 40,000 reactions on Facebook and 29,000 shares (not counting the ones where people copied the text into their own posts). It’s clearly resonated with a lot of people, however it’s also been deemed silly or irrelevant by some, offensive to others.

In particular, Rachel Jankovic criticises the poem for misstating the scandal of Christmas as “some kind of woman power thing” when the real scandal (in her view) is obedience to God.

I want to talk about this. Continue reading sometimes I wonder… if Rachel Jankovic understands scandal (a response to her criticism of Kaitlin Shetler’s viral poem)

How I used to interpret Deuteronomy 22:13-21, and how I explain it now (in fewer than 500 words)

Picture of a bride with her eyes closed, standing against a white flowing veil-like background with the words: How I used to interpret Deuteronomy 22:13-21... and how I explain it now Summarised in fewer than 500 words. workthegreymatter.com

Deuteronomy 22:13-21 is one of the scarier passages for impressionable young Christian women, as it seems to hold up pre-marital sex as a crime punishable by death. Even for married women, such as myself, the passage can be puzzling: hymeneal blood following intercourse is a notoriously unreliable proof of virginity.

Well, having just published 2,600 words explaining this law (and that doesn’t count the footnotes), I thought I’d give the short version. Here it is in fewer than 500 words: Continue reading How I used to interpret Deuteronomy 22:13-21, and how I explain it now (in fewer than 500 words)

About that virginity test in Deuteronomy 22: it’s not what you think

Picture of a bride with her eyes closed, standing against a white flowing veil-like background with the words: About that virginity test in Deuteronomy 22:13-21... it's not what you think. Forget the hymen. This was about power. And money.. workthegreymatter.com

There was some justifiable outrage recently when rapper T.I. said that he had a gynaecologist annually test that his daughter’s hymen was still intact.

Leaving aside the brutal, if not fatal, penalties that women may suffer even today if they lose their virginity in a socially unacceptable manner, T.I.’s attitude is reminiscent of Old Testament times.

Or is it?

CONTENT WARNING for discussion of murder and toxic purity culture.

Deuteronomy 22:13-21 is one of the scarier passages for impressionable young Christian women, as it seems to hold up pre-marital sex as a crime punishable by death. Even for married women, such as myself, the passage can be puzzling: hymeneal blood following intercourse is a notoriously unreliable proof of virginity.

So, do we:

  1. Take Deuteronomy 22:13-21 as nevertheless prohibiting all pre-marital sex,
  2. Write it off as an ancient relic, void of Christian love as we know it, or
  3. Say there’s got to be more here than meets the eye?

In case you hadn’t guessed, this post is all about option 3. (If you want a summary in fewer than 500 words, click here.) Continue reading About that virginity test in Deuteronomy 22: it’s not what you think

On consent for sex in the middle of the night

Picture of the ocean at night with moonlight reflecting off the water, with the words: On consent for sex in the middle of the night (a response to another Christian blogger who I hope you haven’t heard of) workthegreymatter.com

A video of this post is also available on YouTube.

The middle of the night is not usually a good time to do things other than sleep. Lack of sleep makes us tired and most of us don’t get to snooze during the day. That said, sometimes our sense of nocturnal fun means we make exceptions.

Something you’ll hear me say is that marriage doesn’t give spouses a right to sex, but rather a right to approach each other for sex. So, in theory, sex in the middle of the night is on the cards.

Problem is — if your spouse is asleep, how do you know if it’s OK to have sex with them?

Well, for starters it is never ok to have penetrative sex with someone whilst that person is asleep!

Not even if that person is your spouse. Continue reading On consent for sex in the middle of the night

On wives ‘depriving’ their husbands of sex because she ‘doesn’t feel like it’

(…and marital rape, 1 Corinthians and ‘disciplining your body’. This post is a response to another Christian blogger who I hope you haven’t heard of. I’ve made two videos covering this post on my YouTube: part 1 is here and part 2 is here.)

Photo credit: BreathlessDesign on Pixabay

There is this idea amongst certain Christians[1], that if a husband feels like sex and his wife is there, then she should habitually allow him to have sex with her even when she doesn’t feel like it. ‘Wives mustn’t deprive their husbands,’ they say, quoting 1 Corinthians chapter 7.

The problem with this kind of teaching is that it normalises prioritisation of the husband’s wants and needs over the the wife’s wants and needs, and it ignores the asymmetry of men’s and women’s bodies.

It’s also not what Paul was saying when he wrote to the church in Corinth. Back then, Christians had this idea that you were more holy if you abstained from sex continuously. But Paul was like, ‘Er, no. Husbands and wives shouldn’t deprive each other except by mutual consent.’

Why did he write that? Because, amongst other reasons, he knew that sex is one of the ways that spouses can celebrate their intimacy together. So unless there’s some adverse circumstance, it doesn’t make sense for couples to continuously abstain from this physical act of mutual affirmation. And I would agree.

That said, you can’t physically affirm someone when you feel that they pressure you, or ignore you, or use you.

And sometimes that’s how wives feel when they’re approached for sex. Continue reading On wives ‘depriving’ their husbands of sex because she ‘doesn’t feel like it’

Why do I care so much about the Old Testament rape laws?

Picture of woman sitting outside with her eyes closed and a slight frown, holding a closed copy of the Bible, with the words: Why do I care so much about the Old Testament rape laws? workthegreymatter.com

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

What I blog about and what I want to blog about, do not always align.

The Old Testament laws on sex, adultery and rape, particularly those in Deuteronomy 22:13-29, are a sensitive topic to say the least. Whenever I find an angle to write about, my inner caution tends to apply the brakes before my enthusiasm gets to the point of posting.

It’s not that this is a topic to be enthusiastic about, per se. It’s just that, in the last few years, the biblical scholarship I’ve read on these passages has absolutely blown my mind. And the more feminist literature I read (currently working through Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth), the more I believe the church needs to re-evaluate its relationship with these verses. Because although these verses are steeped in patriarchy, I’ve come to believe that there’s a lot of good stuff that they can teach us today.

If you’re now raising your eyebrow at me, I’m gonna guess it’s for one of several reasons. I’ll take them in turn. Continue reading Why do I care so much about the Old Testament rape laws?

On telling wives and girlfriends about their partner’s misogyny – please be careful

Picture of woman looking at her phone, not smiling, with the words: He sent you a lewd message. Now you want to tell his wife. OK... but please be careful. workthegreymatter.com

Photo credit: rawpixel on Pixabay

The thought of getting your own back feels great. Some random guy sent you a lewd unsolicited message and a quick flick through his timeline shows that you’re probably not the first woman he’s tried this with. His comments ooze with ego and a grossly misplaced sense of entitlement. You see it. You’re fed up with it.

And after a little digging you’ve found out who his wife, girlfriend or play-partner is.

You relish the thought of busting this guy and seeing this woman triumph over him in a blaze of fury.

But as satisfying as the thought is, is it realistic? Continue reading On telling wives and girlfriends about their partner’s misogyny – please be careful

An open letter to my pro-porn friend: ethic impossible?

An open letter to my pro porn friend: ethic impossible?

Dear Amy,

Very near the end of our conversation you asked me what I think of porn.

You asked me this, knowing that I don’t masturbate. You asked me, knowing that I’m a Christian and committed to my husband in a lifelong, monogamous relationship. And you asked, knowing that a lot of my good friends are strongly anti-porn.

For a moment, I hesitated. I wondered what I could say, or how I could say it, that would be congruent with what I believe, but wouldn’t be an affront to you.

You, after all, are very different to me.

You masturbate frequently. You earn money reviewing vibrators and dildos on your blog! You’ve gone from agnostic to atheist, you have little love of the institution of marriage and you’re polyamorous. Meanwhile, you’ve got plenty of friends who really quite like porn.

So, um… actually it meant a lot to me that you felt able to ask. Continue reading An open letter to my pro-porn friend: ethic impossible?

How the word ‘proxy’ helps me talk about equality

Night sky with stars and planets above a black mountain
Photo credit: Martin Jernberg https://unsplash.com/@martinjernberg

Over the last few years I’ve found that there are some words that I’ve started to use or think about more frequently. They’re little tools, like an adjustable wrench or an alum key, that I never much needed when I was growing up, but are now really handy. Probably because I’m more purposeful and aware when it comes to theological deconstruction and reconstruction.

‘Proxy’ is one of those words and it’s particularly helped me as I’ve thought about, and talked about, equality. Continue reading How the word ‘proxy’ helps me talk about equality

Let’s talk about that Deuteronomy 22 law where a girl marries her rapist. Because it’s not about marriage or sex.

Juliet from 1996 20th Century Fox adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, with quote "Proud can I never be of what I hate" and text "Let's talk about that Old Testament law where a girl marries her rapist"
Background picture of Claire Danes, taken from the 20th Century Fox 1996 adaptation of Romeo & Juliet.

CONTENT NOTE: This post has general discussion of murder, rape, parent-perpetrated domestic violence, forced marriage and child marriage.  

‘Proud can I never be of what I hate’
– Juliet

Juliet’s words sum up the reaction of many women when they read a certain law in Deuteronomy 22.

The law I’m thinking of is this one:

If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.
– Deuteronomy 22:28-29 (NIVUK)

In a world even remotely aware of consent and women’s bodily agency, this law makes no apparent sense. How, how, how can it be good for a woman to have to marry – and have sex with – a man who raped her? How can a law be good when it means women – often children – are forced to marry? How can a marriage be good, when its origin was an act of violence?

Or, to take Juliet’s words, how can a woman expect to be proud of being married to someone she hates?

You might have heard the apologist arguments before: it was a different culture, virginity in a woman was a big deal, no one else would marry a raped woman, sex was thought to constitute marriage.

Well, guess again. Because I don’t think this law is about marriage or about sex.

To explain what I’m talking about, let’s have a look at the scene in William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, where this quote comes from.

(Grab a cuppa, this post is 3,000 words long – or over 4,000 if you read all the footnotes.)

Continue reading Let’s talk about that Deuteronomy 22 law where a girl marries her rapist. Because it’s not about marriage or sex.

10 uncomfortable realities in Morgan Freeman’s statement on sexual harassment

10 uncomfortable realities in Morgan Freeman's statement on sexual harassment

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations and the #MeToo movement, a story broke recently where eight women accused Morgan Freeman of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment.

His initial response was:

Anyone who knows me or has worked with me knows I am not someone who would intentionally offend or knowingly make anyone feel uneasy. I apologize to anyone who felt uncomfortable or disrespected — that was never my intent.

Still, the story didn’t go away and a few days later he issued a second statement.

His words illustrate uncomfortable realities about sexual harassment, power imbalances and how our society responds to these cases. And I have some thoughts about all that.  Continue reading 10 uncomfortable realities in Morgan Freeman’s statement on sexual harassment