A better future for our little girls
A biblical approach to the teenage experience
Women my age grew up with purity culture, which prized virginity and modesty as a way of combating the secular sexual revolution. Now in our 30s, many of us finally see it for what it is: the Christian objectification of women’s bodies, the systematic dehumanisation and devaluing of girls and women beyond their virginity and a false sexual prosperity gospel. We abhor the ‘used chocolate bar’ analogies and can see the pain that purity culture and modesty teachings have wrought on our generation. However, we still wonder how we can teach our children about biblical sexuality.
She Deserves Better is a new book that breathes fresh air and a hope for a better future for the next generation. The relief in reading this open, matter-of-fact, research-based and biblical approach to the teenage experience is visceral.
The Charlie’s Angels behind this work are Sheila Wray Gregoire, her daughter Rebecca Lindenbach and statistician Joanna Sawatsky. They are best known for their previous groundbreaking work, The Great Sex Rescue in which they outlined their findings from surveying 20,000 evangelical women about their experiences of sex and marriage.
Through each chapter, Gregoire et al explore key themes from popular evangelical books aimed at pre-teen and teenage girls. Refreshingly, they cover a wide range of topics from cultivating a genuine faith based on the character of Jesus, mental health, peer pressure to dating and sexuality.
Fuel your faith every Friday with our weekly newsletter
Gregoire, Lindenbach and Sawatsky’s key thesis is examining the fruit of theology. As Jesus says, “a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” As a researcher and medical doctor, I am delighted they do not merely bring their rhetoric to this hotly contested arena. Funded by their loyal Patreon supporters, they performed a rigorous survey of 7500 women and analysed the statistics, developing a peer-reviewed academic database.
They include realistic scenarios to discuss with your pre-teen or teenage daughter and offer constructive discussion points.
Unlike many Christian authors in this field, they speak with authority (not simply anecdotes) about the demonstrable harms from bad teaching. They have clearly demonstrated the close correlation between beliefs such as the modesty myth or that “girls talk too much” to outcomes such as increased rates of sexual pain, uneven household workload distribution and abusive marriages.
But the authors don’t stop at identifying incorrect teaching. In this wonderful, practical mother-daughter book, they include realistic scenarios to discuss with your pre-teen or teenage daughter and offer constructive discussion points to learn how to build boundaries, identify toxic or predatory people or navigate dating and sexuality.
This book includes chapters about setting protection boundaries and understanding that your daughter is worthy of protection from destructive friendships. It challenges the common assumption that being a Christian means “putting yourself last, never thinking of your needs and always helping others.” Rather, it means “loving others AS yourself.”
As examples where girls were never taught to identify or protect their own comfort or boundaries, they cite popular Christian authors such as Shaunti Feldhan and Dannah Gresh, who include “submissiveness scale” quizzes in their books to see if pre-teen girls are “bossy babes” or “submissive servants”, or recommend that teenage girls practise submitting to the boys in their lives in preparation for submission in marriage.
The admonishment about helping fellow believers “not stumble” is aimed at those with a stronger faith to encourage the weaker.
Gregoire points out some of the most disturbing aspects of modesty culture, particularly books aimed at pre-pubescent children, telling them that “bellies are very intoxicating, and we should save that for our husband”. At times, she feels like the child pointing out that the emperor is wearing no clothes. How is it possible that when an adult man has expressed sexual temptation by a teenager in a singlet top, the attention and blame are immediately drawn to the girl to put on a T-shirt instead of the man who has openly admitted to paedophilic tendencies?
She rightly points out that the admonishment about helping fellow believers “not stumble” is aimed at those with a stronger faith to encourage the weaker, and asks – who is weaker? Adult men or minor children? Whose faith is tested more: the adult man, by looking at a girl wearing shorts, or the teenage girl who would instantly feel shame, guilt and judgment in a place where she should feel welcome? Gregoire systematically dismantles widely held beliefs in such a straightforward, commonsense way that it made me wonder why they had held such a prominent place before.
Gregoire tackles with aplomb tricky issues such as dating, consent and sexuality. Her writing in the evangelical market is unique for emphasising the mutuality and intimacy of sex rather than portraying sex as something that men (or boys) take and that women “allow” or “give”. I cheered when I read her discussion of consent – “anything other than an enthusiastic yes is no”, and the rationale behind helping our daughters understand when their consent is being violated (and not to violate anyone else’s!).
By contrast, a well-known book from my teenage years, Every Young Woman’s Battle, portrayed the following scenario: “I thought Daniel and I were on the same page. I wanted a close intimate relationship, but I also wanted to save sex until marriage. He said he wanted the same thing, but when we got alone behind closed doors, Daniel didn’t want to talk long before making his move on me… eventually his hands began to roam, and he got my motor running to the point that I allowed him to do things I’m not proud of.”
Following this story, the authors immediately state: “Kristie should have known better than to be alone with Daniel behind closed doors once he began pressuring her to do things physically that she didn’t want to do.”
Reading Gregoire’s work immediately gave me the discernment to realise that Daniel’s behaviour in violating her boundaries was a red flag, not Kristie’s fault for being behind closed doors with him! She Deserves Better teaches our daughters that this behaviour should not be tolerated or accommodated, that if boys push their boundaries, that is a red flag, not a cause for personal guilt, and if she ever feels sexually coerced, she should feel empowered to draw her own boundary. If we want to protect our daughters and raise good sons, this is how.
It is a book to help us raise our sons to respect women’s voices and women’s boundaries and to see the girls and women around them as human beings instead of body parts.
In its closing chapters, She Deserves Better challenges mothers to consider the church setting in which we are raising our children. This may be controversial for some, as the book draws clear links between hierarchical patriarchalism and abuse. They ask, “If there are two forces in this world, which is more likely to benefit from a theology that silences one half of the population while encouraging passivity and laziness in the other?”
The authors encourage us to consider the real-world (if inadvertent) outcomes of sincere and convicted theology, and to put a real face (your daughter’s!) to those outcomes.
She Deserves Better is not just a book for raising our daughters (although for that, I am truly thankful). It is a book to help us raise our sons to respect women’s voices and women’s boundaries and to see the girls and women around them as human beings instead of body parts. It is a book that re-parents the young girls and women who grew up during purity culture, being worried about policing not only our own sexuality but that of the males around us. It frees us from the guilt and shame of sexual experience (whether consensual or coerced).
This book is tenderly devoted to Rebecca and Joanna’s baby daughters, with the words, “You do deserve better, and by God’s grace, you’ll get it.” I finished reading this book while cuddling my one-year-old daughter, a bright, energetic and brave little girl. Armed with this book, I look forward to raising her to have a vibrant faith in a community that values her voice and personhood, and for her to rest in God who delights in her.
Jennifer Stockbridge is a wife, mum of two, a medical oncologist and a PhD student serving at St James Anglican in Croydon, Sydney.