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The Origin Of Blaming Women For The Sins Of Men

Our society has a long-standing history of holding women accountable for the sins or wrongdoing of men.

Her Voice

Pop culture moments in the making are always something to watch, but no one could’ve prepared themselves for what was in store for this year’s Academy Awards. In fact, I hate to bring it back up because it was so annoyingly over-discussed. Still, I’m bringing this to the table again, and ironically, because it doesn’t sit with me how quickly people used this as further proof of Jada Pinkett Smith ruining Will Smith. But, I’m calling bull! It’s one thing to turn on Will (though I don’t agree due to the murky history the Oscars have of uplifting actual predators), but to turn on Jada?

Well, that’s further evidence of my belief that this world is out to get women, especially those who stray from social norms in any shape or form. However, our society has a long-standing history of holding women accountable for the sins or wrongdoing of men.

Time and time again, history has demonstrated that women are expected to not only be pure, holier than thou beings but that when men go astray it is because the woman in his life was a stray arrow. I first learned of this concept in regards to sexuality, but it’s clear like many other aspects of life, that it has a trickle-down impact. Twitter critics came out in droves to crucify Jada because it was speculated that she gave Will a look signaling him to defend her honor, then again because of previous clips of her speaking on their relationship dynamic.

People used this as an opportunity to support their previous arguments that Jada was toxic because she as a woman should’ve willed Will to sit his ass down. They used inaccurate clickbait to have the public believe she had actually spoken against her husband, when in fact, all quotes have been from previous dialogues. While I would love to make this a Black woman issue, this is a woman issue!

This does not negate the fact that this phenomenon may take different shapes when experienced by Black women or be more complicated to navigate. In conversation with xoNecole, Psycho-Historian Shannon Hannaway notes how “blame has historically been shifted to Black women even in instances where the power dynamic in no way reflects the verbiage – even in modern times it is used to describe the events of the past.”

She further highlights Thomas Jefferson and his abusive relationship with Sally Hemings, which has never actually been stated that way in history books. To Hannaways’s point Hemmings, who was a Black slave, is often described as the dead president's “mistress” rather than “a survivor of sexual assault and abuse.”

While purity culture started out as a concept relegated to WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), I believe respectability politics played a role in Black women attempting to maintain these social constructs no matter how impossible it was due to the controlling images that continued to make a mockery of Black women’s attempts to successfully integrate amongst white women in this way (and many others).

Hannaway says, “Purity culture is very much so a WASP concept, although there are variations throughout the history of this idea, the version we know today in the United States is a direct result of the Cult of Domesticity – a movement that began between 1820 and 1860. To be pure and good was a status symbol for wealthy white women, absolute virtue was a sign of this status and women’s role in keeping the home, raising children, and acting in accordance with purity and goodness.”

However, she pinpoints the tipping point and significant difference as it pertains to the racial piece of our intersectional identities being that “...at this same time slavery was still legal, and even after the Civil War, Black women experienced a shift from formal slavery to near-slavery in the homes of wealthy white women and in fact did a majority of home-keeping behind closed doors.”

Hannaway goes on to add, “White women were afforded the privilege to act in accordance with the Cult of Domesticity, whereas Black women and their families were expected and in fact still considered less than despite the end of slavery. Black women did not have the privilege of spending time with their own families, and [were] blamed for their inability to shift careers and be present in their families. Historically Black people have been treated in accordance with white colonial belief systems that commodify bodies and remove personhood, shifting moral righteousness to white people.”

This circles back to my initial point of Black women being held and expected to maintain the same standards as white women, as they are the pinnacle of purity and exemplify the behaviors that we Black women ought to mimic – yet constantly finding our best imitation to be unacceptable merely because of our Brown hues and the status attached to it.

Hannaway continues, “In the world we live in, men and women are socialized in a way that removes the blame from men and places a disproportionate amount of responsibility on women starting at an early age. Research reflects that as early as elementary school, the notion that boys are underachievers and girls are compliant and responsible begins. This is reinforced from then on every day, as children become teenagers and later adults, these roles within society become reinforced until they are locked in.”

We see it everywhere from the home to the boardroom, where Hannaway says women CEOs are held to more grave consequences than men if and when they fail. And even outside of the company, consumers are less likely to continue to allocate their money in the face of an error made by a woman CEO – further speaking to the collective socialization.

And of course, there are religious roots because aren’t there always?

“Women are even tasked with ‘changing’ men and this is a trope seen in even recent movies such as Failure to Launch, The Kissing Booth, Twilight, to name a few: of note, these are all films with a predominantly young, female audience," Hannaway adds.

I would argue that the sentiment of changing men and controlling, er, reining them in when their behavior is not in alignment with white colonial standards fall within the same vein. You see, apparently, it was more telling of Jada Pinkett Smith’s morality and virtue that she wasn’t able to predict her husband's next move and use some type of X-Men-like superpower to shift his mood for the greater good of humanity.

When I asked Hannaway to further explain the origin of holding women accountable for the actions of men, she shared an interesting finding. “These belief systems and accepted mythologies gave men the ability to blame women for lustful thoughts by association with the paranormal. When a woman was not Christian and white, this belief was even more likely to be acted upon in accordance with the idea that people of color without a Christian God worked with the Devil, and by causing sinful thoughts were surely to blame.”

Even more eye-opening and disheartening was the reality that Hannaway spoke on:

“The oppression of women has historically been a way for men to maintain power and control. It’s worth noting, that because of this societal structure present in the church and in governments, women’s voices have largely been silenced and erased in history. Additionally, women have been the target of violence in the name of assimilation. One argument that makes the most sense, is that women are human beings with the ability to create life and are necessary to the continuity of humanity. To control women is to control life itself. In matriarchal societies, this oppression does not occur in the way it does in patriarchal societies. In patriarchal societies like modern western civilization, women are commodified and objectified.”

Needless to say, there’s so much more to be said on this matter – all of which is interesting because it holds so much truth. Though we can’t possibly get into it all in this one piece, I hope that this raises the consciousness of people everywhere who have managed to perpetuate these acts of misogyny. If change begins with us, I think it’s critical that we as a culture begin to evaluate on an individual basis the way that we interact with patriarchal scripts.

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When I was ten, my Sunday school teacher put on a brief performance in class that included some of the boys standing in front of the classroom while she stood in front of them holding a heart shaped box of chocolate. One by one, she tells each boy to come and bite a piece of candy and then place the remainder back into the box. After the last boy, she gave the box of now mangled chocolate over to the other Sunday school teacher — who happened to be her real husband — who made a comically puzzled face. She told us that the lesson to be gleaned from this was that if you give your heart away to too many people, once you find “the one,” that your heart would be too damaged. The lesson wasn’t explicitly about sex but the implication was clearly present.

That memory came back to me after a flier went viral last week, advertising an abstinence event titled The Close Your Legs Tour with the specific target demo of teen girls came across my Twitter timeline. The event was met with derision online. Writer, artist, and professor Ashon Crawley said: “We have to refuse shame. it is not yours to hold. legs open or not.” Writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow said on her Twitter: “Any event where 12-17-year-old girls are being told to ‘keep their legs closed’ is a space where purity culture is being reinforced.”

“Purity culture,” as Benbow referenced, is a culture that teaches primarily girls and women that their value is to be found in their ability to stay chaste and “pure”–as in, non-sexual–for both God and their future husbands.

I grew up in an explicitly evangelical house and church, where I was taught virginity was the best gift a girl can hold on to until she got married. I fortunately never wore a purity ring or had a ceremony where I promised my father I wouldn’t have pre-marital sex. I certainly never even thought of having my hymen examined and the certificate handed over to my father on my wedding day as “proof” that I kept my promise. But the culture was always present. A few years after that chocolate-flavored indoctrination, I was introduced to the fabled car anecdote. “Boys don’t like girls who have been test-driven,” as it goes.

And I believed it for a long time. That to be loved and to be desired by men, it was only right for me to deny myself my own basic human desires, in the hopes of one day meeting a man that would fill all of my fantasies — romantically and sexually. Even if it meant denying my queerness, or even if it meant ignoring how being the only Black and fat girl in a predominantly white Christian space often had me watch all the white girls have their first boyfriends while I didn’t. Something they don’t tell you about purity culture – and that it took me years to learn and unlearn myself – is that there are bodies that are deemed inherently sinful and vulgar. That purity is about the desire to see girls and women shrink themselves, make themselves meek for men.

Purity culture isn’t unlike rape culture which tells young girls in so many ways that their worth can only be found through their bodies. Whether it be through promiscuity or chastity, young girls are instructed on what to do with their bodies before they’ve had time to figure themselves out, separate from a patriarchal lens. That their needs are secondary to that of the men and boys in their lives.

It took me a while —after leaving the church and unlearning the toxic ideals around purity culture rooted in anti-Blackness, fatphobia, heteropatriarchy, and queerphobia — to embrace my body, my sexuality, and my queerness as something that was not only not sinful or dirty, but actually in line with the vision God has over my life. Our bodies don't stop being our temples depending on who we do or who we don’t let in, and our worth isn’t dependent on the width of our legs at any given point.

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