Revelations that Doug Phillips of Vision Forum had a long-term affair, likely with a much younger woman who worked for his family without pay, have revived crucial interest in Christian patriarchy’s attitude toward relationships and consent. Phillips isn’t a mainstream figure; he’s a proponent of the Quiverfull movement who doesn’t think women should vote. He’s also a figurehead in the so-called Stay at Home Daughter Movement, which encourages young women to forsake higher education and careers in order to remain at home, under their fathers’ “protection.”
Obviously, that protection didn’t extend to Phillips’ young victim–and I use “victim” quite deliberately here. I agree with Julie Anne Smith of Spiritual Sounding Board that the Christian patriarchy movement grooms young women for abuse, consciously or not, by brainwashing them into compliance and encouraging them to forgo developing skills necessary for independent lives. There is a very clear power imbalance present, even in relationships between adults of the same age, because of an overwhelming emphasis on male dominion. I believe that Phillips knew exactly what he was doing. I think he sought this woman out at a young age specifically because of her vulnerability. I think this a.) because that’s how predators work and b.) because the movement idolizes regressive gender roles.
Take the infamous Elsie Dinsmore series. Though they stopped selling the series this year, for fifteen years Vision Forum pushed the books as a wholesome alternative to worldly fiction for girls and formerly ran an essay contest based on the series. Unfortunately, Vision Forum has removed that page from its site and I can only find a cached pdf copy that doesn’t link to the full essays. You’ll have to trust my memory instead. I read the essays while still in college and had to restrain myself from picking up my lumbering school-issued PC and throwing it across the room after reading essay after essay by girls who credited the Dinsmore books for encouraging them to forgo a college education.
The series, which is available on Project Gutenburg if you feel like torturing yourself, stars Elsie Dinsmore and lauds her submission to her physically abusive father and her eventual marriage to Mr. Travilla, one of her father’s friends. Dinsmore is eight in the first book, which also features this stupendous quote from Travilla: “He (Elsie’s father) is not to take you away. I have made a bargain with him to let me keep you . . . call me papa in the future.” And so she did.
This is Vision Forum’s approach to romance. This is what they promote to their stay at home daughters. That’s why I, like Julie Anne, don’t really believe Phillips’ victim consented to the relationship. The environment in which it occurred is intrinsically coercive.
I was not a stay at home daughter. My parents had the sense to encourage me to attend college and pursue a career of my choice. But even their version of soft patriarchy granted my father a position of unreasonable power in our household and condemned me to a lifetime of submission to men.
As a college student, I became the victim of an attempted rape, the culmination of an abusive, controlling relationship. It’s something I’ve written about before on this blog, and while I don’t enjoy writing about it, I will when I think my experience is relevant. Unfortunately, it’s relevant again. You see, Christian patriarchy–even soft patriarchy– doesn’t talk about consent. It doesn’t talk about relationship abuse. It encourages men to control women, and it expects women to submit to that control. And even though I was a non-theist and a feminist by the time I survived the attack, I blamed myself for what happened. I provoked it. I’d worn pajamas around a man, and just the year before, our student chaplain had warned women that wearing pajamas around men made them think about sex. And instead of going to the police when it happened, I continued to submit.
It’s incredible, really, how even the most absurd beliefs can embed themselves inside your psyche and stay there.
I am not that girl any longer. I’m older, wiser, and a bit tougher. I suppose that’s the up side of surviving something like that. You don’t make it unless you become stronger than you were, and I do not believe I’d submit to that abuse now. I think that’s partially because I know my real enemy: Christian patriarchy, the system that had shaped me and my attacker, too.
If the Christian church is concerned about abuse, it will have to divorce itself from patriarchy in all its incarnations. It’s too late for me, and for Phillips’ victim, and for many, many others, but it’s not too late to protect the women and girls whose faith still compels them to participate in Christian community.