Ten days after defending his decision to endorse Josh Butler’s controversial book about Jesus, marriage and sex, Preston Sprinkle released a Theology in the Raw interview with Sheila Gregoire and Rebecca Lindenbach where he continued to prioritize the perspective of men. But this time, his line of reasoning parroted the assumptions of purity culture and echoed the claims of rape culture.
Sprinkle’s comments became so absurd, especially in the second half of the episode, that they prompted New Testament scholar Laura Robinson to say her husband “just about curb stomped” her phone and had to walk away “because he has elevated blood pressure and I don’t want him to have a stroke and die.”
To be fair to Sprinkle, the conversation ended with some hope that he might change his perspective on some of the issues discussed. In an interview about the episode with Baptist News Global, Lindenbach said she was thankful for the opportunity to talk with Sprinkle and hopes he “continues those kinds of conversations with other women who are speaking out.”
Robinson, who tweeted extensively about the episode, agreed. She wrote, “I listened to this podcast today. It made me really mad.” Then she added, “I think, given the note it ends on, there’s a real possibility that host Preston absolutely did learn something and reevaluate his thinking” despite “saying some weird stuff.”
That said, the claims Sprinkle made and the ignorance he demonstrated throughout the episode were extremely problematic, especially coming from someone who heads the Center for Faith and Sexuality.
Surveying evangelical women
Gregoire and Lindenbach originally surveyed 20,000 evangelical women about how their beliefs affect their marriages and sex lives. The results were published in their book, The Great Sex Rescue, which was featured by BNG. Now they’ve surveyed another 7,000 evangelical women for their upcoming book, She Deserves Better.
In their interview with Sprinkle, Lindenbach noted: “This book, She Deserves Better, is about figuring out how do we raise girls to resist toxic teachings. … We want to raise the next generation of girls to not need a great sex rescue. That’s our goal. Our goal with books like She Deserves Better is to make Great Sex Rescue unneeded because our girls will be getting the good messages from the beginning and have been sheltered from the damaging ones, even before they had time to take root.”
The evolution of purity culture
One of the difficulties with discussing purity culture today is the conversation has evolved to a place where people can claim to be against purity culture while using the same assumptions and disguising their theology with different branding.
“People can claim to be against purity culture while using the same assumptions and disguising their theology with different branding.”
Lindenbach explained: “A lot of people are saying things like, ‘Yeah, purity culture is bad. It’s the thing right now to say with your words that ‘we don’t believe in purity culture anymore. We don’t believe that girls’ value is only in what they do with their bodies. No we don’t believe that,’ except that when you actually look at what they teach, they use different language. They use different words. But it’s still there.”
Her words about the consistency in priorities and assumptions, combined with a denial of embracing purity culture, become the blueprint for how Sprinkle handles the rest of the interview.
Sprinkle’s lack of awareness
Sprinkle seems to know very little about his area of expertise, and yet he comes across as patronizing. At one point, he boasts, “My main area of research is sexuality. So I’ve read probably all the same literature you have, or at least most of it.”
But he admits, “I don’t know what that is,” referring to Brio magazine. Brio was a widely read publication of Focus on the Family for teenage girls and young adult women from 1990 to 2009, during the glory days of purity culture. It started being published again in 2017.
Sprinkle also never heard of the “thirst trap” trend on social media, where users post attractive pictures of themselves meant to elicit sexual attraction.
Given the amount of research Gregoire and Lindenbach bring to the conversation, it was dismissive when Sprinkle said, “When I hear people even talk about peer-reviewed literature on sexuality studies, I roll my eyes.”
“When I hear people even talk about peer-reviewed literature on sexuality studies, I roll my eyes.”
Then Sprinkle implied that purity culture is something out there, mostly a thing of the past, and that it is a mixed bag of good and bad.
“Maybe because I swim in broader circles or different circles, the overwhelming majority that I hear about purity culture in my Christian circles is negative,” he said. “Like it was terrible and I’m glad we’re not in that anymore. But it sounds like it’s still alive and well and we actually do need to push against some of the negative stuff that came out of the purity culture. Not everything was bad necessarily.”
Perhaps one shouldn’t expect 48-year-old men to be up to date on Christian teenage girl fashion magazines or social media trends related to sexuality. But given his claim to be an expert in sexuality and his leadership of the Center for Faith and Sexuality, shouldn’t he be aware of the most influential Christian sources on sexuality that shaped his audience as well as the trends they are participating in?
It’s no wonder, given his lack of awareness, that he spent so much of the interview spouting purity and rape culture tropes.
Purity culture’s effect on women’s minds and bodies
Early in their conversation, Lindenbach mentions the Secret Keeper Girl curriculum, which she read when she was 12.
“It was talking to girls aged 8 to 12. So you have to picture an 8-year-old girl,” she remembered. “And this curriculum taught her that her body, if she shows too much of it, is intoxicating to the men around her. And she was taught to cover up so she wouldn’t intoxicate the men around her, which is horrifying. Telling an 8-year-old girl that a grown man might find her intoxicating is horrifying.”
“Telling an 8-year-old girl that a grown man might find her intoxicating is horrifying.”
Gregoire added that purity culture messages “are highly, highly correlated with lower self-esteem in high school, that lower self-esteem continues into adulthood, they are more likely to marry an abuser, and their chance of experiencing vaginismus — which … (is) a sexual dysfunction disorder where the vaginal wall, the muscles in the vaginal wall contract so that sex and penetration becomes very painful, if not impossible — that becomes much more common too. The risk is really elevated. And I think it’s one of the reasons why evangelical women suffer from it twice the rate of the general population.”
How do we talk about healthy, biblical modesty?
While Sprinkle expressed concern about those effects, his questions had more to do with how he can talk to his teenage daughters about the way they dress.
“How do I also teach my daughters that we also live in a fallen world,” he asked. “That just biologically if you pump a male filled with this chemical called testosterone that has a biological effect on your sexual desires, there’s just certain biological realities here that are simply true. … The fact is if my daughter wore something that was revealing — whether it’s a tight shirt, whether it’s showing more skin — she simply is going to be looked up and down, sideways, up and down by men. … Like these creepy, greasy old men.”
Why would Sprinkle mention “creepy, greasy old men”? It feels like he’s using a man’s age to add to the grossness factor as a scare tactic. But age doesn’t make sexuality gross. Old men are sexual beings and shouldn’t be seen as gross. Of course, they are responsible for how they treat women. But the way Sprinkle asks his questions, it leaves both old men and young women feeling weird about their bodies. Without realizing it, he’s using purity culture language to fuel universal body shaming.
Lindenbach explained: “When we make modesty about specifically, ‘Oh, but you have too much cleavage, oh, your boobs are too big to wear that, oh, your hips are a little too sexy in that skirt so you need to wear something looser than this girl who has less hips than you, what we do is we make women’s bodies the problem instead of teaching men and also boys how to respect people regardless of what their body looks like.”
Gregoire agreed, saying, “We just need to stop the idea that we need to police what people wear.”
Sprinkle responded: “When they are more covered up, they don’t get as many looks. When they’re less covered up, they get a lot more looks.”
“There is nothing you can wear that is going to protect you from assault.”
But that’s simply not the case, Gregoire countered: “It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. You will always attract unwanted attention. … There is nothing you can wear that is going to protect you from assault.”
Lindenbach echoed, “There’s peer-review studies that show that as well. Men don’t actually tend to assault women based on what they’re wearing.”
She had yoga pants on and everything
In one of the creepiest moments of the podcast, Sprinkle told of an experience he had at a local coffee shop. Just as he likes to watch men’s reactions to female dancers at Chicago Bulls games, he also likes to watch men’s reactions to women who order coffee. He describes how he settles in at the back row of the coffee shop to watch.
“There was a female trainer who would come in,” he remembered. “She was fit. She had yoga pants on and everything. And I would literally look around at the guys and almost literal slobber coming from their mouths as they were just like, ‘God!’ Like one guy was like losing it in his chair and he was just like this, ‘Oh gosh,’ he’s like (gargling sound) ‘oh gah! Whew!’ Everybody was just salivating. She had no clue.”
Sprinkle’s fascination with supposedly sexually helpless men appears to be rooted in his insecurity about his daughters’ growing bodies and personal safety. Given how much he mentions his daughters, Robinson tweeted: “Women don’t need men to tell them that men are looking at them. Women aren’t idiots. I don’t think Preston’s daughters need this info.”
“Women don’t need men to tell them that men are looking at them. Women aren’t idiots.”
She continued, “I think the thing Preston is trying to explain is that he feels uncomfortable when people find his daughters attractive, which is a normal dad feeling and I don’t blame him for it. I just think he’s mixed up his discomfort with the feeling that this must be a reason to act on women’s clothes. So here is my objection to this: Let’s say Preston is right that if a woman is covered up, men aren’t going to look at her. My response to that is: Who cares? It doesn’t make women safer. As one out of four women can tell you, being covered up doesn’t protect from rape. There’s no correlation between looking sexy and being raped. Toddlers get raped. Elderly women get raped. Women get raped in sweatpants and prison uniforms. It doesn’t matter.”
Doesn’t sex drive make it more difficult to stop?
As the interview heats up, Sprinkle continues pushing back, trying to find some kind of wording he could use to influence what his daughters choose to wear. He repeats false rape culture assumptions such as:
- Guys have a harder time controlling their lust.
- How about ‘more difficult to stop’?
- There is a higher sex drive generally speaking among males.
- Obviously, I’m not saying that.
- He doesn’t have as much self-control.
- He’s stronger and has a higher sex drive.
No matter what evidence Gregoire and Lindenbach presented, he kept on pushing, objecting and repeating irrelevant tropes that aren’t even true, centering the perspectives of men and branding women’s bodies as dangerous.
At one point, he said: “I’m sorry. I gotta keep pushing.” Sprinkle’s insistence on continuing to push his perspective was enough to make one wonder if he knows when to stop.
Rape is about entitlement
Perhaps the most central point of contention came when they disagreed about the nature of rape. Gregoire said, “Rape is far less about sex as it is about entitlement.”
Sprinkle immediately shot back, “That’s been disproven though. Louise Perry blew that up.”
Thankfully, Robinson continued her response on Twitter to set the record straight. Robinson explained that in Louise Perry’s book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, she argues that vulnerability to assault is limited mostly to women between adolescence and age 30 at the hands of certain men who have traits that cannot be rehabilitated. But Robinson showed how the statistics simply don’t back Perry’s argument.
Then Robinson asked: “So I’m left with the question of why this one piece of evidence is so convincing to Sprinkle. I think the obvious evidence is because it’s Louise Perry. Perry is popular with conservatives, writing for the Daily Mail and collaborating with Jordan Peterson. She’s a gender essentialist, and as she argues extensively in her book, she wants to walk back elements of the sexual revolution, encourage women to get married and have babies, and not have casual sex.”
Her observation lines up perfectly with Sprinkle’s own words. Throughout his podcast episode, he mentions his research focuses on “same-sex sexuality,” argues lesbians have less sex than gay men, mentions asexual females without mentioning asexual males, and admits, “I’m just trying to acknowledge the biological realities of some differences in male/female sexuality.”
Even though Sprinkle claims to be studying the topic of complementarianism without being committed to it, his commitment to being non-affirming of LGBTQ people is the lens through which he sees gender and sexuality. Because of that lens, he is unwilling to consider any evidence that might blur the distinctions he has in his mind about men and women. So when Gregoire and Lindenbach present data claiming male and female sexuality is not so binary as purity and rape cultures would have us believe, Sprinkle has to dismiss the data and defend his turf.
This matches up with what he said at the Exiles in Babylon conference last year when he said he won’t invite the LGBTQ-affirming author Matthew Vines on his podcast for a conversation because Sprinkle has “spent literally hundreds and hundreds of hours” thinking about the topic, doesn’t think it would be fun, and doesn’t “find the biblical arguments interesting.”
Instead, he rolls his eyes at peer-reviewed scientific data because he thinks he’s entitled to his perspective on women’s clothing due to the theology he espouses.
Entitlement is theologically formed
Gregoire and Lindenbach’s primary focus is on subverting evangelical assumptions about entitlement by challenging the theology of the church.
Gregoire explained: “The churches that teach (purity culture) the loudest, we see girls being more sexually assaulted within the church in our survey, we see girls witnessing more sexual harassment within the youth group, we see a whole lot of negative outcomes in that particular church.”
Abusive men find conservative evangelical churches easy places to hide and groom women and girls primarily because the dominant gender and sexuality theology in evangelicalism today is one of sacralized male entitlement through complementarianism.
Gregoire says she wants girls to know they deserve more and are worth more. But the dominant narratives of worth in evangelicalism today are that we all deserve hell and anything less than hell is a bonus. The male entitlement of complementarianism combined with the devaluing of self and neighbor in retributive justice are the theological fuel for violence against women in the broader movement, whether Sprinkle holds to the same theologies or not.
Lindenbach told BNG: “Because men (who statistically speaking are less likely to be victims of sexual assault than women) are told that God desires them to be in power, in authority, in charge over women, then is it any surprise that our theologies are such that sympathize with sexual predators versus their victims? After all, the men in high places in evangelicalism are likely to be friends with people who are more familiar with the feeling of ‘not being able to stop’ during sex than they are with the feeling of fear that their partner isn’t stopping.”
Listen to the women
Because conservative evangelicals argue women are to be silent, perhaps most central to the healing of men and women from sexual violence in the church today is women being affirmed in their voice and men being willing to listen.
“It’s easy to debate differing opinions when you’re not the one bearing the cost of those theological differences.”
“What I’ve been thinking over is how in all these cases (Butler, Chandler, etc.), women were crying out that they were being hurt. The ‘twitter mobs’ were chastised for not having the ability to be reasonable and unemotional about this,” Lindenbach told BNG. “But that’s a privilege men have that women simply don’t. These issues surrounding male-centric sexuality and leadership are cerebral for men; they are visceral for women. It’s easy to debate differing opinions when you’re not the one bearing the cost of those theological differences. It’s easy to debate modesty when you haven’t had a fully grown man find you a ‘stumbling block’ before you even got your first period. It’s easy to overlook abuse cover-ups when you yourself are not at risk of systemic ‘God-sanctioned’ abuse.”
She continued: “Men are not more reasonable than women because they are able to disconnect emotion from these discussions. They are able to disconnect emotionally from these discussions because they are not affected by the outcome. Their ease with which they can have these debates without it causing distress, rather than being seen as evidence of intellectual actualization, should be recognized for what it is: privilege of not having to experience the real-world ramifications.”
At one point in their interview, Gregoire and Lindenbach mentioned a woman they called “Kay,” who kept saying no to a man and didn’t realize until more than a decade later she had been raped. As Kay reflected back on the interview with Sprinkle, she had some very pointed words all evangelicals should hear:
“I hear Preston’s heart for his daughters. I do. I understand he does not want my story to be his daughters’. I don’t either. I cannot speak for every rape victim, but I suppose what I want Preston to understand is that the most traumatic thing for me personally was not the rape itself; it was the blame I placed on myself for 16 years because of his exact line of thinking. If he truly wants to protect his daughters from harm, he needs to undo this thinking.”
Rick Pidcock is a 2004 graduate of Bob Jones University, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Bible. He’s a freelance writer based in South Carolina and a former Clemons Fellow with BNG. He recently completed a Master of Arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary. He is a stay-at-home father of five children and produces music under the artist name Provoke Wonder. Follow his blog at www.rickpidcock.com.
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