Hannah Paasch and Emily Joy, founders of the #ChurchToo hashtag and the Purity Culture Rehab Project, are living proof that the Church is not immune to the sexual abuse epidemic. Paasch and Joy met while attending the Moody Bible Institute, where Joy revealed that a church youth leader had “groomed and manipulated her into a romantic relationship at the age of 16.” The misapplication of modesty and purity concepts led to Joy being punished and ostracized as a result. In a guest article for the Huffington Post, Paasch tells readers how the #ChurchToo campaign is revealing a staggering amount of abuse and victim-blaming in the Christian community.
Joy recalled to Paasch stories of “other victims who had suffered at the youth leader’s hands. Their names would echo through my head at the most inopportune moments: in the middle of chapel, in systematic theology class. The cognitive dissonance was jarring.”
It wasn’t until the avalanche of sexual abuse allegations began making headlines this year that the pair realized that it was time to “create space for survivors within the evangelical church and for those who have left its walls,” and so the #ChurchToo hashtag was born.
Around the time Paasch and Joy met, Paasch says her own “Christian nightmare” as a Moody student began: “I alone had discovered lipstick, it seemed, and while my cleavage was always well hidden, I wasn’t the sort to hide my figure under North Face jackets and puffy vests. Couple those wardrobe choices with my open, responsive demeanor toward men, and it quickly became common knowledge around campus that I was the ‘loose woman’ Proverbs 10 had warned about. I couldn’t fathom how I’d managed to become a slut as a virgin.” Glares and judgment from her fellow students compelled Paasch to fall into a “deep clinical depression”.
In the following years, Paasch and Joy founded The Purity Culture Rehab Project, to document their “baby steps out of the physical and emotional abuse of purity culture — that theology of abstinence that singles out women and slut shames everyone who engages in any kind of sexual activity outside of marriage.” “Purity culture,” Paash says, “is the religious antecedent to rape culture, as it lays the bulk of the responsibility for maintaining the sexual purity of both genders on women’s attire and behavior.”
As their project grew, Paasch reports that the churches she and Joy attended “continued to shame us for our appearances, our presumed sexual activity and our inability to conform to the scriptural ideal of the woman with a ‘gentle and quiet’ spirit.”
Paasch cites the #MeToo hasthag campaign as the source of her courage to come forward with her own rape experience: “Although it did not occur specifically within the church, the power of evangelical purity culture were such that, when I staggered home, still half-mute from the effects of the date rape drug I’d ingested, I was prepared to sweep the whole thing under the rug, blinded by guilt and shame. Surely I had brought this on myself. Surely it was my own fault. Of course, it was not. But after it happened, I couldn’t help thinking about how I had learned to give precedence to men’s needs and desires.”
Such is the problem with Christian purity culture, Paasch says. “The deep cognitive dissonance of purity culture demands that women trust men as leaders, protectors and providers while blaming ourselves when our boundaries are inevitably crossed.”
Paasch describes the #ChurchToo mission as providing a space where “survivors can out their abusers — yes, names and all — but also where Christians, ex-evangelicals and agnostics alike can ask one another: How can we do better? What would a theology of consent and autonomy look like? How would we build a world in which that sort of church was not the exception?”
Thousands of stories using the hashtag have flooded social media, proving that the evangelical church, according to Paasch, “actively supports the confessing abuser over the victim and, in the name of ‘having no appearance of evil,’ has managed to silence thousands of sexual and physical abuse allegations throughout the years.”
Paasch and other victims are saying “enough” now. “There are decades-old stories with this hashtag. The rot has metastasized, and with #ChurchToo, we are digging it out. No rock shall remain unturned.”