The Transformed Wife Prefers Debt-Free Virgins, But the Rest of Us Like You the Way You Are

Content warning: discussion on sex and Christianity, mention of rape

Two days ago, a Christian blogger, Lori Alexander of The Transformed Wife, posted a piece claiming that “Men Prefer Debt-Free Virgins Without Tattoos.” While many people have come out thinking this must be satire and assuming people don’t really think this way, I can attest that this is how I was raised and continued to be advised at different times well into adulthood. It’s real and pervasive in certain parts of the church. It may not be official protocol or belief within a congregation, but there are plenty of people who talk like this behind closed doors, from the rural midwest to the bustle of Los Angeles.

The post makes its primary claims in the opening:

Do you know how much more attractive debt-free virgins (without tattoos) are to young men? Unfortunately, there are so few of these types of young women anymore because of the high costs of college (debt) and sexual promiscuity even within those in the church. As believers in Jesus Christ, we need to live in a way that is pleasing to Him because His ways are the best. He calls debt a burden and urges us to live lives of sexual purity.

The problem with this claim, “men prefer debt-free virgins without tattoos,” is that it’s misleading on several accounts. It assumes a singular interpretation of the Bible and enforces one type of performativity. It’s not actually referring to debt but about women’s education. And it has nothing to do with what men (as if they are a monolith) prefer.

This is about shaming women for making choices about what to do with their brains, their skin, and their genitals. None of which is anyone’s business but theirs (and God’s, if they believe); it’s certainly not the concern of a blogging moralist.

  • The Bible shows us that there is nothing wrong with “independent, loud, and immodest” women. 

A short list:

Esther: ruled a kingdom and influenced her husband for the sake of her people. (And while we are at it, let’s remember that Vashti was cast aside because she defied her husband who tried to force her to display herself in front of other men.)

Rahab: was a prostitute who lied to the king of Jericho to help the Israelites take over the city. She is supposed to be part of Jesus’ family line.

Jael: killed a man with a tent peg.

Phoebe: a woman with no known ties to a man was a deacon in the early church.

Mary (and other women): she/they (depending on the Gospel) were the first to witness the resurrection of Jesus.

In both the Old and New Testaments, the Bible is replete with examples of women of various backgrounds and means, habits and beliefs, education and status were used just as they were to enact change and/or impact their communities.

The post says that “most girls have not read the Bible with their father or husband to explain it to them.” What the list above exemplifies is that women did not need a man to interpret God to them. Implying that a woman is unable to think, to act, to have an individual relationship with God, and to interpret what God is saying to them is possibly blasphemous under Christian theology. At the very least, it undermines the presumed power of the Christian God and denies his word, which is supposed to be infallible and perfect according to evangelicals.

  • What we consider to be virginity/purity is a fallacy that hurts more than it helps.

Virginity/purity is an imagined value placed on a person’s body (more often a woman). It is a commodity that only exists under certain circumstances and can only be given under certain circumstances, or else it is “lost”.

What constitutes as sexual practice varies by person: “How far is too far? Do you lose your virginity when you masturbate and think about sex? Is oral or anal sex…sex? Are you still a virgin if you are gay and never had vaginal intercourse?” Such questions worry many teens in pro-abstinence youth groups and church camps. Despite centuries of misinformation, modern medicine teaches us that nothing physical happens for most people when they do start being sexually active with others:  vaginas are elastic and return to normal, hymens often break for non-sexual reasons, and beginning to have sex does not mean a person becomes instantly and magically insatiable. Again, these are all tall tales that are meant to scare and feed the anxieties of abstinent youth.

Prizing purity over the realities of life not only denies the natural workings of pubescent and post-pubescent bodies, it also ostracizes women who have been raped or those who have been “redeemed.”

Sadly, we know that somewhere between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 women will be raped in their lifetimes, and abstinent women are not immuned from this fate. (This is my story. I was abstinent by all definitions until I was 28, when a man decided to ignore when I said “no.”) Women within communities with these beliefs who were victims of rape or molestation often bear shame that should be saved for their assailants, and the messages spread by women such as the author of the post perpetuate these issues.

Converts come to Christianity from all ages and walks of life, and there are a number of unmarried men and women who are sexually active when they find Jesus. According to Christian theology, they are free from any previous transgressions. But by having the false notions of purity, communities hold on to biases and assumptions that degrade a person to an object that is used, dirty, and broken.

For communities to actually follow the commands they purport to believe, they need to cast aside these practices of ruling by fear and gossip and assumption and begin practicing what they preach about love and understanding.

  • Women can’t be leaders in the church and home if they aren’t learned and independent

The subject of women as leaders in the church is touchy, with varying opinions largely rooted in a few passages buried in Paul’s letters. From a “red letter only” perspective, women were chosen equally to follow as men. Jesus made special trips to see Mary and Martha, and Mary Magdelene was listed as an apostle. And as mentioned above, it was women who were the first to see a risen Jesus.

Paul came to the table far later, and contextually he had his own issues with women. He said: “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 (NIV). Additionally it’s important to remember the social structures at the time which influenced the writing. Paul’s letters were always specific to his audience. He was NOT writing to American women in 2018! It seems short-sighted to base an entire church structure on only one person’s writings when there were several authors of the New Testament, and none of the passages in question were attributed to Jesus.

The brunt of the blogger’s argument against women’s education is the cost of an education. But as one reads, her issue is not just with cost but with content. She wrote, “Secular universities teach against the God of the Bible and His ways. It’s far from what God calls women to be and do: it teaches them to be independent, loud, and immodest instead of having meek and quiet spirits.” The alternative for this problem, of course, is Christian universities. But considering Christian universities over secular ones when also weighing the cost analysis makes the former unreasonable.

The cost of attending Liberty University is around $92,000. Bob Jones University is around $69,000. Compare that to world-renowned secular public schools: UCLA $53,000 and University of Virginia $54,000. (All are estimates of 2018-19 tuition only, in state numbers multiplied by 4.) Additionally, many of us were able to graduate with our bachelor’s degrees with minimal, if any, debt. Attending community college and transferring and working through school can greatly minimize the debt burden of school (Taking the current numbers from my almae matres, 2 years of community college and 2 years at my state school would be about $17,500less than a new car–and one of those years, I had completely funded). Not to mention scholarships, work study, and other funding opportunities. We all find ways to be able to do it. To assume an education always means debt is to be very unimaginative and naive about the options.

The author also asserts that “Young women learn nothing about biblical womanhood or what it takes to run a home when they go to college. They don’t learn to serve others either. They learn the ways of the world instead.” Again, this is a non-issue under their own worldview. Several Christian universities offer what we colloquially call “Mrs.” degrees, or degrees that prepare women to be wives while affording them the opportunity to meet eligible bachelors (hopefully pastors) at school. (I have my criticism of these degrees, but my point here is to point out hypocrisy, not the failings of these programs.) Even secular universities offer courses in home economics. I took a course my junior year on personal finance and investment for non-finance majors. Universities are replete with extracurricular cooking classes. And many a college student learns to cook simply because they like to entertain friends *raises hand along with several of my colleagues*.

So this anxiety that took up so much space on her post seems to be borne of nothing. If anything is an indictment on her generation, for people don’t learn how to keep home in college; they learn with their parents and grandparents. If a person can’t take care of themselves as adults, it has nothing to do with college and everything to do with family.

Another unfounded anxiety is this: “[A college-educated woman] will start having babies later in life. That is if they can still conceive naturally.” College-educated women have babies at all ages. Some women have babies first then attend college. Some are pregnant while in class. Some do wait a few years. There is little difference in the fertility and health of a woman between being 18 and 25. And we are seeing more women in their late-30s and 40s having healthy pregnancies. Studies have shown that being older parents tends to be beneficial in raising academically strong kids, being more emotionally prepared for parenting, and financial stability. I’m not sure what she meant by the latter part of the claim, but it is extremely tone deaf to the struggles of many women of all ages who deal with infertility. Again, age isn’t really the primary factor anymore in terms of ability to conceive. So this jab is unfairly and callously toward infertile women.

The author also takes a jab at single mothers, saying “It greatly offends working mothers to teach women to be keepers at home.” This line makes a lot of unfair assumptions. First, a woman can have a career and keep a home; the two are not mutually exclusive. Second, it implies that being a working mother is a choice, which for working class people, dual incomes isn’t a choice but a necessity. Third, it assumes that the woman is eschewing the help and income of a man. It ignores the reality that some women don’t choose to be single and working moms, but that is the scenario they find themselves in.

This last point is important and an argument for women’s education. No one is guaranteed “till death do us part” nor are they guaranteed that “death” isn’t tomorrow. With divorce rates in the church being equal to the rest of the country, about half of Christian married couples will dissolve their union. And another percentage will lose their spouses to illness or accident. If they do not have education or skills, how will they support themselves or their children? Homemaking doesn’t pay the bills, and it is irresponsible to limit the resource that is women’s minds and hands. As Nicholas Kristof argues in his book Half the Sky, “the key to economic progress lies in unleashing women’s potential” and “the greatest unexploited economic resource is the female half of the population.” Moreover, if we truly believe in loving mankind, in caring for the “orphan and the widow” or the “least of these,” why are we limiting the potential of half the population?

  • Is this how things work? Do men actually care?

The premise of the original post is to discuss how a woman should act under the auspices of snagging a Christian man. This realm of Christianity–often conservative evangelical Protestantism, though others fit the bill in some areas–creates a false narrative that godly women (read: virginal, quiet, undereducated but quality homemakers) will indeed be blessed with husbands.

And this is patently untrue. Take a look at any congregation, and you will see men chasing women of all looks and backgrounds and levels of belief. You will also see plenty of men and women who do precisely what they were told sitting completely alone. I watched some of the sweetest, rules-following people slip into their 40s and 50s alone while also watching a cadre of young Christian men prefer to “missionary date” (the practice of dating a non-Christian with the purpose of converting them then marrying them). The reality is that none of the actions or characteristics discussed in the original post guarantees to garner anyone’s attention, let alone an eligible bachelor.

  • A note on submission and what the author could learn from the BDSM community.

The author writes, “most young Christian women wouldn’t listen to their husbands since they’ve not been taught to live in submission to their husbands.” By what definition of submission does she mean? In theory, these conversations usually define submission as complete deference to the male figure. But again in reality even submissive relationships have some give and take. Fully submissive relationships often also have signs of domestic, emotional, and/or psychological abuse.

The BDSM community that has spend a long time perfecting, defining, and redefining the concept of submission. And under such a relationship, the submissive holds the power. Submission is done by consent, willingly and after negotiation. Which shouldn’t be too unlike preparation for marriage. That consent can be taken back at any time for any reason. And in that way, even with performed submission, both parties maintain their rights to autonomy.

The problem with Christian submission is that it’s not honest about its goals, practices, and limits. This ambiguity has been dangerous–and sometimes deadly–for some women. For other women, this ambiguity has convinced them to (rightly so) reject the concept. If Christians want to reclaim the concept of submission, they need to figure out what it means first and maintain a humane definition of it.

  • Christian writers like this harken to the fictional Serena Joy (The Handmaid’s Tale), and we should heed the warnings of her fate.

If we have learned anything from the imagined world of The Handmaid’s Tale, Serena Joy enjoyed her version of domesticity before the war BECAUSE she was (at least moderately) equal, independent, and educated. She suffers deeply under the fully restrictive patriarchal regime after the war–a scenario she not only wanted but fought for–because what she thought submissive domesticity to be was actually nothing more than a fantasy. The lesson we should learn from fiction and from reality is that society only benefits when women are treated equally, with freedom of choice and without shame for those choices.

  • Attributing this narrative on womanhood to the Bible is antithetical to what the Bible actually says.

The author ends her post with a series of Bible verses, which supposedly substantiate her claims. It seems fitting to end my post looking at the Bible as well and considering the problems with her interpretations and application thereof.

First and foremost, the Bible is very clear not to judge a person for their actions. Judgement is reserved for God. Romans 14:4 (ESV) says, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” And the very popular and oft memorized, Matthew 7:1-4 (ESV): “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?” I’m sure the original poster knows of these.

The post is actively judging women who make free choices as being inferior, by way of alluding to their unattractiveness to men. This of course assumes that women are seeking the attention of men, rather than women or other genders. It assumes that all men agree with this viewpoint (they all certainly don’t). And it assumes that women want to attract the men who think this way.

In terms of debt, the Bible does make a commentary on debt, largely from a social standpoint. But the Bible was not written with modern capitalism in mind. The ability for anyone without Elon Musk’s wealth to have a car or home without incurring some form of debt at some point or without years of working and saving is almost nonexistent. The Transformed Wife never discusses these most common forms of debt, though. She only focuses on education. Not all education. Just women’s education.

The only place in the Bible that tattoos are specifically listed is Leviticus 19:28 (ESV) “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.” This is from Old Testament law. Looking at discussions on tattooing as halacha, it’s a mixed bag. While some rabbis count all tattoos as forbidden, some only view a tattoo referencing another god as idolatry, and others view this part of the law to be historically specific and outdated. While tattoos are a matter of debate within Judaism, it should not be a matter of debate for Christians. Why? Because by Christianity’s own belief system, Jesus came to fulfill the law and to set believers free from the law:   Romans 10:4 (ESV) “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” So why are The Transformed Wife and those who agree with her fixated on maintaining laws from which they purport to be freed by faith in Jesus?

Finally, the matter of abstinence–the way it is practiced today–is a construction of the current political moment. The church has had a very long history of favoring purity and virginity, but this narrative changed based on social and political climates. (An example is looking at the history of Mary Magdelene and how she transformed in character from a follower to a prostitute to a saint, very little of which, if any, is actually in the Bible.)

With the growing autonomy of women in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s, the push to hinder the independence of women grew. Coupled with the emerging pro-life movement and the “Moral Majority” in the 1970s, the modern abstinence movement redefined chastity to include all forms of sexual behavior, rather than the ambiguous historical definition that was generally concerned with heteronormative penis-in-vagina sex. For more on this history, read here and here.

Looking at what the Bible says, there continues to be ambiguity. Nowhere in the New Testament does it explicitly say “do not do ______ before you are married”. (Feel free to fill in the blank with any number of offenses often chastised as being equally sinful, including but not limited to dancing, holding hands, kissing, making out, cuddling, manual stimulation, oral sex, anal sex, vaginal sex, etc.) Putting aside the Old Testament verses for the aforementioned reason, the New Testament references abstaining from “sexual immorality” in several places. But context is key. For example, Hebrews 13:4 is talking about adultery outside of marriage. Colossians 3:5 is referencing idolatry. Verses like 2 Peter 2:11 are often used, but it refers to “the flesh,” which hedonism is about far more than sex. In other words, sex should not be the assumed meaning, let alone premarital sex.

  • I am proud to be an educated non-virgin with tattoos (and a piercing!)

I wrote this post because the original blog struck a cord in me.

I lived the life she described for years. Even after I was raped at 28, I remained abstinent until I was almost 32. I stayed as debt-free as possible until graduate school. I was active in the church on and off until I left completely due to non-belief at 30, a process that truly broke my heart. (I can’t really defend the tattoos. They are part of me. Deal with it.)

I’m asked often why I never married and why I chose a career over family. My answer has been the same: No one asked me to have a family. It didn’t matter that I was a debt-free virginal pastor’s daughter (with tattoos) who could feed an army. It wasn’t what people wanted of me, then or now. All I can do now is be who I am and build community with the people who like me for who I am.

To reiterate my original point, none of this has anything to do with what actually attracts men or pleases God (if God exists). This is a form of social control that benefits, really, no one. If this is a choice you want to make for yourself, great. But don’t force others into your paradigm. Don’t reimagine your holy books to meet your agenda. And don’t shame people for making their own choices and discovering who they are. It’s frankly, none of your business.

What is Adoptive Breastfeeding and Why So Many Adoptees are Against It

Visit any mixed adoption group (mixed meaning it includes adoptive parents, first parents, and adoptees), and one topic guarantees a war zone of a thread: adoptive breastfeeding.

WHAT IS ADOPTIVE BREASTFEEDING?

There is a trend among adoptive moms–especially in mommy groups–to apply the “breast is best” principle to adopted kids…even if the woman has never lactated before. This alone leads to a lot of questionable advice since one of the leading ways to induce lactation in a never-been-pregnant woman is medications which can pass through the breast milk to the child. Which, logically, defeats the purpose behind breastfeeding as being the most natural feeding option. (We aren’t even going to get into how the breast vs. formula debate can lead to shaming woman who can’t breastfeed nor how it attempts to claim a lack of intelligence and development in formula-fed people.)

WHY IS THIS SO CONTROVERSIAL IN THE COMMUNITY?

If you’ve experienced the heightened emotions surrounding the breast vs. bottle debate elsewhere, multiply it tenfold for the adoption community. There are a lot of adoptees and first moms who are for it and there are a lot who are against it. Either way, the fact that we can’t come to any modicum of consensus SHOULD give any prospective adoptive parent pause. Many of us in mixed groups hold that adoptive parents should at the very least give reasonable consideration to the experiences of adult adoptees and first parents because 1) the first parents may be voicing concerns their child’s first parent may also have but feel too afraid to voice and 2) adult adoptees represent the way your adopted kid might feel in 10, 20, or 30 years.

I know, I know. You can find plenty of people who agree with you one way or the other, and that makes the opinions you don’t agree with moot, right? Well, you don’t have a guarantee on how your adoptee will feel someday. Even THEY don’t have a guarantee on how they will feel. Just ask any adoptee who has gone through what some call “the fog” and the massive personality change they had in that transition. (First moms often go through their own “fog” experience.) So, some of us feel the best practice is to consider the views of a variety of adoptees and first families before making decisions, because you don’t know the way your 5-year-old will feel about your choices when they are 35. But you have a plethora of 35-year-olds who can give you a clue.

SO WHY ARE ADOPTEES AGAINST IT?

Before we get started, we need to set a baseline understanding on a common rebuttal:  THE PROBLEM OF ADOPTIVE BREASTFEEDING HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE GENERAL HISTORY OF BREASTFEEDING. I say this first because all conversations eventually end up back at this first point over and over, and we almost never move past it.

Most (if not all) people who are against adoptive breastfeeding recognize that 1) breastfeeding is natural and 2) breastfeeding kids who aren’t yours (nursemaids) have existed throughout history. No one is disputing that it is normal and historical to offer a lactating breast to a hungry child, biological mother or not. This biological and social history of the breast and babe are not on trial here. This conversation has to do with adoption.

  • Another rebuttal is that “people have always adopted (and we presume fed them with their breast), so it’s ok; it’s historical!”. But MODERN ADOPTION DOES NOT HAVE A LONG HISTORY. Yes, children who do not have parents for various reasons have been taken in by their local communities since the dawn of man. Prior to modern adoption, communities raised children. They were not separated from their birth families, even in the event of death. More often than not, they were still raised by extended family. From Hinduism to Islam to European bloodlines and more, historically, preserving the child’s tie to their birth family has never been in question. The child is born to their mother and father. Period.However, we have created a situation through our strange concepts of individualism that make such communal connections foreign, that the preference is adoption by strangers.In the last 100 years or so, we have completely changed the way we view the status of children. We now define “orphan” ambiguously: it is NOT a child with no mother or father or extended family willing to take them in, as we generally learned in grade school. “Orphans” for the purpose of adoption can have a living father and/or mother and/or grandparents/aunts/uncles. We now have legalities and contracts that remove a child from one family and make them part of a new one as if they never existed within the first family. These legalities enable states to bar first families from contact, keep adoptees from their own vital information, and enable the complete erasure of an adoptee’s past. (We aren’t even getting into the problems of intercountry adoption, trafficking, and ethics.)

 

  • WE HAVE TO PROBLEMATIZE THE OBJECTIFICATION OF BIRTH MOTHERS. Current adoption rhetoric tends to claim that some woman “gave up” her baby, was abusive toward her baby, or was a martyr passing along the gift of motherhood.  Such characterizations makes her into either the saint (for choosing adoption) or the sinner (for being forced to relinquish), both gives her second-class citizen status, and this lesser designation gives the adoptive parent a free pass to do whatever they please.Yes, there are some women out there who gave up their babies for selfish reasons and are quite horrible to their adult children in reunion. We have no dearth of those stories. But spending some time in with birth mothers and in mixed groups, one sees that the vast majority of birth mothers felt pressure to relinquish by family, by society, by agencies, and by the prospective adoptive parents. And…again…we have to remember that a large number of adoptees in the US are intercountry, and intercountry adoption is replete with coercion.Imagine if you were a mother whose baby was taken from you–whether by the state or by your mother or some other way–and learning that the bonding experience that was meant for you is being experienced by someone else. Yes there are some birth mothers who do agree and encourage adoptive breastfeeding. But we can’t take a few examples and build a monolith.

 

  • WE HAVE TO RECOGNIZE OUR CULTURE’S RELATIONSHIP WITH BREASTFEEDING AND THEN CONSIDER HOW THIS SOCIAL EDUCATION AFFECTS THE ADOPTIVE EXPERIENCE.Before you read further, take a minute and consider what I’m trying to say, rather than reacting the language being used. This is the part that raises the most hackles in the larger conversation, but it is a necessary part of the conversation. We socially construct unnatural behaviors all the time and then punish people for what they were raised to believe or punish them for pushing against what they were raised to believe. Either way, walk into this next bit understanding that I’m discussing social construction of the breast and awareness of strangers.Our culture sexualizes breasts, implicitly and explicitly. We (Westerners) ALL IMPLICITLY view breasts as secret, personal, and sexual, by nature of the vast majority of messages we get on policing women’s bodies. Regardless of one’s stance, we are conditioned to feel uncomfortable with breasts. We are taught as young children not to come in contact with other people’s private parts. Any contact with the private parts of an adult is dirty and inappropriate, even molestation.

So how can we expect adoptees to be ok with sucking a non-related woman’s nipple at the same time we teach children to avoid non-related nipples? We’ve constructed socially the exact reason why a natural act is unnatural to the adoptee. It doesn’t matter how much one believes in freeing the nipple. Society is going to pound into the child’s head that it’s sexual. And we can’t ignore the repercussions of that.

AN ADOPTEE IS NOT A TABULA RASA, NO MATTER WHAT AGE THEY WERE ADOPTED. Much work has been done on pre-verbal trauma and its connection to infant adoptions. Babies spend nine months with their mothers. They learn the sound of her heartbeat, her voice, the voices of those around her, and the sounds of their neighborhood. They learn the cuisine she prepares. They learned the language she speaks. The prepare for the world they are about to enter. They experience the trauma of birth with their mothers. They (are supposed to) calm down from the trauma of new life with their mothers. They recognize their removal from their mothers. We have so much research on this, it’s sad how disregarded it is.We are happy to talk about the connection between fetus and mother when people keep their babies (just look here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and…you get the picture), but we reject the existence of a fetal-maternal connection in adoption.The baby knows your breast isn’t their mother’s.They were preparing for their mother.

And they are seeking their mother.

It is confusing for a non-verbal being to have a different voice, different heartbeat, and yes, a different breast and milk, than what they were preparing for. Yes, there is evidence of bonding between any baby and any woman who breastfeeds, but our bodies and minds were not made to transfer attachment fully in this artificial way.

BUT WHO ARE YOU AND WHY DO YOU THINK YOU CAN SPEAK FOR ALL ADOPTEES?

You are right. I can’t speak for all adoptees. As I said earlier, you will find PLENTY of adoptees who are for breastfeeding. But you will also find PLENTY of adoptees who are adamantly against it. I’m simply writing this post to lay out some of the common arguments put forward in adoption groups against adoptive breastfeeding, because, sadly, there aren’t enough resources available online that explain these views fully.

Regarding Aziz: Examining the Intersection between Race and Rape

Something about the allegations against Aziz Ansari struck a chord in me. It took over a week for me to fully process the story, and I couldn’t quite verbalize it.

I noticed clues toward the privileges that “Grace” had throughout the story. Such clues include being at the Emmy’s and being able to approach a celebrity as she did. She commented on her wine preference as if that was an important detail: “It was white, I didn’t get to choose and I prefer red, but it was white wine,” establishing for the reader that we should view Aziz as someone who robbed her of agency from the beginning. Having the freedom and resources to speak out about her experience is a privilege many women, especially women of color, do not have access to.

But the chord that the allegations against Ansari struck in me is an echo of the toll of a much larger bell. My initial unease at the evidence of privileges is borne of a much deeper issue that we rarely discuss: the long and violent history of white women accusing brown and black men of rape and the white men who defend them. What is lacking in many commentaries on this story is a conversation on how race and racism informs our implicit biases, and this is a prime example on how an intersectional approach is vital to being able to discuss and disable rape culture.

I do not excuse or apologize for Aziz. Regardless of the controversies over the details of the encounter, Aziz was wrong and has a responsibility as a self-proclaimed feminist to be sure of consent, to not force any part of a sexual situation, and to check in or stop the first time she expressed wanting to slow down. As a rape survivor of a man of color, I do not enter this conversation lightly. However, as a historian of race and oppression, the reality that thousands of brown and black men have been stereotyped, painted as violent, discriminated against and fired, tried and incarcerated, or, at the worst of times, lynched is ever present at the back of my mind. This does beg the question as to the racial identity of “Grace”, and there has been no response to the query made by other commentators, particularly white and mainstream feminists. Aziz has a documented reputation for dating white and white-passing women both on screen and off, and he as well as other South Asian comedians have been criticized for establishing their careers at the expense of South Asian women.

I am reminded of the story of another Aziz, the protagonist in A Passage to India. In E. M. Forster’s 1924 novel, Adele, a white Englishwoman, falsely accuses an Indian man of raping her and subsequently rips his life apart through the criminal trial. The two characters and a group of other Britons spent the beginning of the book becoming friends and participating in social activities. During a planned excursion visiting a cave, Adele gets lost in the dark and has some sort of troubling experience while alone. She emerges from the cave and immediately reports to authorities that Dr. Aziz had raped her. During her testimony in a protracted trial, Adele admits that she had gotten confused and recants her allegations against Aziz. The book exposes the social and legal control the British had over Indians and engages the reader in the larger commentary on whether an Indian can trust and befriend a white person.

A Passage to India and its tale of this other Aziz underscores a social dynamic of stereotyping prevalent throughout white and non-white interactions both historically and in the present. In his book Orientalism, Edward Said argues that Orientalism is a process by which white Europeans fashioned their identities in opposition to people from the “East”, often imagining, distorting, and exaggerating differences as to paint the “West” as moralistic, strong, and savioristic. This process was and has been pervasive in Western culture as “the basic distinction between East and West [became] the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind,’ destiny and so on.”

The result of this Orientalism is the simultaneous creation of Asian men as emasculated, lazy, brutish, and rapacious. Images from Orientalist artists and photographers depict young Asian men with soft skin and prepubescent bodies, old men sitting around not working, and adult men leering at and sexually using women and young boys. This stereotype of the lazy but brutish and rapacious man of color spans white dominant society. It reinforces imaginings of the white man as needing to save women from their brown abusers. Propagated by white women through false accusations and by white men through colonial and vigilante-esque violence, Orientalism is a tool which supports, upholds and reinforces white supremacy.

While the connections to Orientalism and discrimination against Asians are more prevalent in Europe due to Europe’s participation in colonizing Asia, the United States has participated in this form of racialization.

Asian groups from China, Japan, the Philippines, and Korea (and to a lesser extent, British India) started to come as migrant workers in the mid-1800s which was at the same time that white supremacist ideologies became part of legal structures after the Civil War. Asian immigrants specifically were barred from citizenship, kept from owning land, forbidden from marrying interracially as well as forbidden from bring over wives to marry from their country of origin. These restrictions gave rise to such stereotypes which insist Asian men are perpetually foreign, non-contributors to social good, and a danger to American women through sexual deviancy, ignoring the realities of how these immigrants actually interacted in American society.

White men have historically been at the forefront on policing the sexual relationships between white women and men of color. When Dylan Roof murdered black church-goers in 2015, he said You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.” There have been over 4,000 known lynchings in the United States, and one of the reasons for vigilante violence was the concept of “protecting white women.” Anti-miscegenation laws also delegitimized the idea that a white woman would consensually be with a man of color, as their relationship would be neither socially nor legally recognized.

Vigilante violence by white men on behalf of white women was social: Jessie Daniels writes, “All an individual white woman like Marion Jones had to do to activate the network of white fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins who would come to her “defense” and murder a black man who was asking for help was scream.” regarding an incident where a black man was murdered after asking for food of a white woman.

At times of war the white woman is used as part of propaganda, that the fear of the enemy is synonymous with the fear of a raped white woman.  This anti-Japanese propaganda provides stark evidence of this.

And now we arrive at the underlying and uncomfortable problem which is this: white women have supported and perpetuated these racialized stereotypes by actively buying into trope of the dangerous brown/black man. False allegations have real-world consequences.  They are not only plot devices in books like A Passage to India or To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1949, four black men were accused of raping a white teenager, and the “Groveland Four” all died at the hands of the state, though the state recanted its conclusion in 2017. In 1954, a white woman claimed Emmett Till had whistled at her, and he was tortured and shot by vigilantes days later. He was only 14 years old. She has since admitted that she made up the story.

A white teenager accused three black men of kidnapping and raping her in 2017 and the police found that her story was fabricated. A study on rape at Colgate University found that “In the 2013–14 academic year, 4.2 percent of Colgate’s students were black, and according to the university’s records, in that year black male students were accused of 50 percent of the sexual violations reported to the university, and they made up 40 percent of the students formally adjudicated…. During the academic years from 2012–13 to 2014–15, black students were accused of 25 percent of the sexual misconduct reported to the university, and made up 21 percent of the students referred for formal hearings. Fifteen percent of the students found responsible for assault in those years were black.“

This history of white men using white women to justify violence against black men does not ignore other brown men. It does the opposite. It extends to, creates, and reinforces the anxieties and fears over Latino, Arab, Persian, and South, Southeast, and East Asian men, as well as Muslim men more broadly. One of the justifications for fighting against Indian rebels during the First War for Indian Independence (aka Sepoy Mutiny) in 1857 was the accusation that South Asian men were raping British women. Early Filipino and Chinese immigrant men were kept separate in “bachelor societies” in California, where they also received violent attention from the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists under the assumption they were raping white women. Anti-miscegenation laws were installed in most places where white populations merged with people of color, and the arguments for such legislation were with the specter of sexual assault. Extreme right-wing groups in both America and Europe regularly publish content that asserts Muslim men are rapists. And over the last year, the Donald Trump and his administration insist on labeling Latino immigrants as rapists. In the aforementioned study about Colgate University, “Asian students, who constituted a little more than 3 percent of Colgate’s student body in 2013, were more than 13 percent of the accused, 21 percent of those referred for hearings, and 23 percent of those found responsible.”

It is not only the accusations by white women, violence by white men, or laws enacted that are part of this pattern against brown men.  We also greatly sensationalize and racialize news stories that feature men of color convicted of rape around the world. Last August, the shadow equalities minister, Sarah Champion, resigned her post after penning an article in The Sun claiming “Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls.” While it is true that several of the men found guilty in this incident were indeed Pakistani, the racial labeling of them explicitly teaches the reader that rapaciousness is innate in the Pakistani population. From extensive news coverage to the controversial film India’s Daughter by non-Indian Leslee Udwin on the 2012 gang rape case in Delhi, the perception on India’s rape problem is cemented firmly in the international imagination. This broad characterization of Indian men allegedly caused a student to be denied an internship at a German university because of his country’s rape culture.

The idea that brown men are dangerous and rapacious causes us to generally accept that it is dangerous for white women to travel alone based on stereotypes of certain countries. Despite the lure of Eat, Pray, Love, the internet is replete with advice blogs warning white women how to travel safely, none of which warn about Europe or North America even though rape and trafficking is present everywhere. A survey of listicles on the “most dangerous” places for women to travel does not include entries on Europe or North America. While it’s difficult to produce reliable statistical comparison of rape crimes between countries for a number of reasons, the reality is that rankings based on studies show that Western countries rank across a broad spectrum, just as countries with a reputation for sexual violence ranked in surprising ways. The UN produces statistics on rape by country, and in 2015 Sweden, the United States, and Belgium were reported as having equal or worse numbers per 100,000 than places like Colombia, El Salvador, and Jamaica.  

What does the past and present teach us about this situation with Aziz Ansari?

We must stop obfuscating the equal prevalence of rape by white perpetrators by blaming black and brown men as if they are inherently worse. We must resist long-standing culturally and socially constructed biases that make us immediately believe the worst-case scenario about men of color. We must also recognize, discuss, and rectify the problem of rape culture around the world. However, in order to do so we must also dismantle the idea that brown men are inherently dangerous and deviant.

We accomplish this goal by taking an intersectional approach to our activism, including our feminism. Intersectionality examines how power intersects across different axes, including but not limited to race, gender, class, sexual orientation, immigration status, and ability. It forces us to think critically about situations and consider all of the ways in which different power dynamics play a role. Aziz Ansari was still wrong, but there are reasons why his story has gained vastly more attention than, for example, James Franco who this week had multiple accusations lodged at him from former students and actresses in his films. The power dynamics between Ansari and Franco and their victims are different, and we need to bear in mind the social, cultural, and systemic dynamics that also keep them separate.