It’s a greeting you’ll hear often on the Girl Defined YouTube channel. Against a cream backdrop decorated with fairy lights and succulent plants, Christian fundamentalist sisters Kristen Clark and Bethany Beal present videos on dating, singleness, fashion and marriage.
The pair came to mainstream attention in 2018, thanks to a video from YouTuber Cody Ko that described them as a cringe “Sears catalogue” come to life. But something much more sinister is bubbling beneath the all-American veneer. Clark and Beal advise young girls "struggling" with "same-sex attraction" to repent their sins and turn to God. They insist trans people need to reject their gender "choices". In the Girl Defined universe, wives must submit to their husbands and women must dress modestly to avoid leading men to sin (Beal, notably, didn’t kiss her husband until they were married).
These views wouldn’t be out of place in The Handmaid’s Tale, but the real surprise is their popularity. Clark and Beal describe themselves as “Biblical women”, but it’s more apt to call them evangelical influencers with a target audience of pre-teen and teenage girls. Girl Defined have 158,000 subscribers on their YouTube channel, with plenty of their videos attracting upwards of 170,000 views. Their most popular video, Beal’s engagement story, garnered 1.1 million.
“I love that you ladies are helping young girls who are confused in this area!” one commenter wrote on a Girl Defined Instagram post that applauded self-declared “ex-lesbian” Jackie Hill-Perry’s rejection of her sexuality. “I’m glad to see you both standing up for what God’s word proclaims!”
Gwen, from Connecticut, US, spent her whole education in Catholic school and describes herself as “spiritual but not traditionally religious”. She was so intrigued by the Girl Defined influencers that she grabbed a ticket to their 2020 virtual conference and posted about the experience on FundieSnark, a subreddit that pokes fun at Christian fundamentalists.
“I think the most surprising thing was how little of their knowledge and sources they had to back up what they were saying,” she tells VICE UK. “They managed to make this three-day conference about how much information is in the Bible about how to be a young girl, when in reality there’s maybe a paragraph total.”
Gwen says that the most dangerous message she heard was that “young girls need to repress their sexuality, because I think what ends up happening is they’re so in the dark they just want to experience it, whatever it is, so they get married at 19. And they get their kicks and then it’s like, oh shit, I have to talk to this person for the next 60 years.
“It was hard for me, because I saw these young, 13, maybe 14-year-old girls commenting like, ‘Wow, I really struggled with sexual sin. This makes so much sense to me.’”
Clark and Beal did not respond to repeated requests for comment from VICE UK, but they’re not the only religious influencers who are preaching conservative views. More radically religious Christian and Jewish YouTubers have sprung up across the internet in the past few years.
There’s Jewish vlogger Classically Abby, sister to right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro, who calls herself a “conservative influencer” and argues that women who opt for abortions simply want to avoid “inconvenience”. Since setting up her YouTube channel a year ago, she’s already gained a following of 88,400 subscribers.
Lori Alexander, who goes by The Transformed Wife online, had to insist on her blog that she did not support marital rape. In a controversial post, Alexander explained how a woman reached out to her when she woke in the night to find her husband forcing himself on her, even after she’d already said she didn’t want to have sex.
“I counselled her to join in with him and please him in this way,” Alexander writes. “She should have willingly submitted to him and pleased him, if she is a godly woman and wants to obey the Lord.”
Then there’s YouTuber husband and wife duo Paul and Morgan Olliges, who have a catchy theme song, a dog, and strong views on how exactly wives should serve their husbands. In one video, Paul explains to their 137,000 followers that Morgan needed to ask him for forgiveness for daring to have sex with another person before she met him.
“I do think it’s appropriate to ask the person you’re probably gonna marry for forgiveness for a sin you’ve committed in the past that’s going to affect them,” he says in the video. “I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
“It was my choice to ask for forgiveness,” Morgan insists. “I decided to humble myself. I decided to lay down my pride.”
Dr Dawn Llewellyn, senior lecturer in Christian Studies at the University of Chester, says that it’s unfair to write off these women’s agency in choosing to subscribe to these retrograde values. “For them it’s an enactment of their faith and their fidelity to God,” she explains. “I wouldn’t ever say that they’re stupid or didn’t want to do it, because women have been taught that for a long time.”
She adds: “They know their audience. Evangelicals really have a focus on actively seeking and recruiting people, and being very visible and present in the world. It’s a very modern phenomenon – the Evangelical movement didn’t really kick off until the 18th century. Their form of Christianity isn’t ancient – so digital religion helps to live out that Evangelical activism.”
This was something Bethany Collins, from Devon, England, found out firsthand at her Pentecostal church. She began attending in 2017, persuaded to go by a group of girls at her sixth form.
“I was figuring out my sexuality and struggling with my mental health at the time,” she tells VICE UK. “In the beginning, everyone was really welcoming and really loving. You really felt like you were part of something. But seeing all the rhetoric about [the LGBTQ+ community] being wrong and me being an evil person was really difficult.”
It was Bible study that led Bethany to channels like Girl Defined, which reinforced what she was hearing at church. “Because it was normalised [in the videos], it was almost validating,” she says. “My family aren’t religious so it was quite nice to have an independent perspective on what people at church were saying, and to have someone else say the same thing. I ended up taking it on board, which was really difficult.”
“[The church was] doing a series on what they called hot topics - talking about love and dating and sex. They’d livestream the services on a Sunday, but I missed the one on sexuality. I emailed the communications guy and he said I had to promise I’d never share the recording with anybody. I had to sign a waiver to promise I wouldn’t distribute it. In it, there was a 55-year-old gay pastor who was talking about how he’d never been happier because he accepted who he was and God loved him as long as he didn’t act on his desires. It was such an awful thing to watch.”
Now Bethany is trying to walk away from her faith. “It was really difficult going from having all these people around you and then suddenly not having any of that,” she admits. “But I don’t regret going [to church]. I did find comfort in a lot of it – just not in the awful stuff that came with it.”
Bethany is testament to the fact that these influencers have a real effect on people’s lives – one that stretches way beyond YouTube (or Gilead, depending on who you ask). They remind young or vulnerable people that they’re not alone – that the world is full of so-called sinners – and all they have to do is reject modernity for Jesus, suppress the parts of themselves most that the Bible deems most inconvenient, and they’ll be redeemed.
“I do get it,” Gwen says. “I understand the desire for a guidebook to life, and to have faith that if I do these things, everything will be okay. But my advice would be: do what you feel. Make sure that it’s in your heart that you’re doing this.You can’t do things because you’re afraid that you’re going to end up in some horrible place, burning for eternity. Because in my heart and soul, I just don’t think that’s how it works.”