On my 16th birthday, in 1995, I wrote in my journal about how happy I was that my mother hadn’t let me date yet. “I’m still a virgin and drug free,” I wrote. “As corny as it sounds, I never looked into my future and saw myself any other way.”
I don’t know how most 16-year-olds viewed their own virginity in the 1990s, but in the small, conservative, heavily evangelical town in northern Arkansas where I grew up, sexuality was tremendously fraught. We were taught, explicitly and implicitly, that we should constantly fend off boys and their desires. If I viewed reaching 16 and still being “sweet” as a triumph, it was only because the prevailing view around me was that my budding sexuality was essentially a battle to maintain purity against the perversions of boys and men.
Even though these were not messages I heard at home or from everyone, they infiltrated my thinking. Women should get married, and men were the spiritual leaders of the households. Girls should never, ever have sex before marriage. Boys, meanwhile, most often seemed to have their sexuality and misdeeds framed in relation to the girls they might hurt—“Don’t get a girl pregnant!”—because she would be the one to suffer the consequences.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this world as revelations about the strange romantic history of Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate from Alabama, have come to light. After he was accused of pursuing sexual encounters with teenagers when he was in his 30s—one was just 14 at the time—one might be forgiven for assuming the man’s career was over and that he could no longer win. After all, even Republicans have started to denounce him: The National Republican Senatorial Committee will no longer fundraise with him, at least two senators have withdrawn their endorsement, and some are calling on the state’s governor to delay the special election—Moore is running to replace Jeff Sessions, who is now serving as attorney general in the Trump administration. (Kay Ivey, the state’s Republican governor, has so far said she plans to do no such thing.)
Moore, meanwhile, has denied the claims, or tried to discredit the women behind them. Steve Bannon, the former Trump advisor now backing Moore, suggested the story amounts to a conspiracy between the Democrats and the Washington Post (which Moore has threatened to sue) to scuttle the man’s candidacy and career. The candidate claimed he doesn’t know the woman who said he stripped their clothes—and tried to get her to touch his underwear—when she was 14, Leigh Corfman. And his hard-core supporters have even taken to pointing at what they call her “checkered past.”
In some ways, this can be chalked up to hypocrisy among the evangelical Christians of the South, overlooking their morals in a quest for power. More than that, though, there are a host of Alabama Republicans insisting a 30-something man dating teenagers is not that abnormal. After all, Joseph was (likely) much older when he married Mary. A county GOP chair said any alleged incident was irrelevant because it would have happened so long ago, and he didn’t see what the big deal was with a 32-year-old dating a 14-year-old. This weekend, Moore’s own Baptist minister said he believed the allegations of misconduct were untrue because Moore said they were.
But it’s also a reminder that nearly every time this country experiences a watershed moment for women’s rights, there are some people who don’t find feminist struggles necessary, or useful, or something to celebrate. Just three years ago, Women Against Feminism started a tumblr campaign explaining why they didn’t need feminism, and the idea that discrimination against women doesn’t exist in American society circulated in conservative circles again during the last election, even as many of us celebrated the prospect of electing the first female president. The current #metoo campaign against sexual harassment and sexual assault isn’t resonating for everyone in America, and it’s safe to assume those skeptics might be heavily concentrated in heavily Christian southern states like Alabama.
Kathryn Brightbill, a policy analyst who advocates on behalf of home-schooled children, recently wrote about Moore and how he fits into a culture in which fundamentalist Christians urge women to be young when they get married. “As a teenager, I attended a lecture on courtship by a home-school speaker who was popular at the time,” she recalled. “He praised the idea of ‘early courtship’ so the girl could be molded into the best possible helpmeet for her future husband.”
Most of the churches in my hometown were evangelical Christian congregations, and some were fundamentalist, like the ones Brightbill writes about. While many of the churches varied both in practices and in doctrine, at the conservative end, women were not allowed to wear pants or cut their hair or go to college. They were isolated, governed only by the ethos of their small-town attendees and their traditional values. It was a situation easily exploited by predators.
But the governing idea—that young women can and maybe should marry much older men—isn’t limited to a small, fundamentalist segment. I have more than one friend who married a much older man as a teenager: the youngest was a 15-year-old who married a 24-year-old (the age of consent was 16 but her parents' permission meant no one else got involved). This was, in part, an effort to contain female sexuality: it was OK to start having sex if you were married. In many cases, my friends were already sexually active, with marriage serving as an after-the-fact curative. My friends had started to have sex as young as 12, while still in middle school, most often with older boys and sometimes with men. They assumed they’d marry their boyfriends; the result was that 13-, 14-, and 15-year-olds often spent their time talking about marriage. I didn’t think about this as hypocrisy, but did think they’d lost the battle and I had won, and that my friends were jealous of me for being a virgin. I was a bit of an insufferable princess, but in such cultures, women are often pitted against each other in this way.
Saturday Night Live naturally made jokes about Alabama being backward this weekend, but it's fair to say the South generally has different attitudes about this stuff—and is bringing up the rear in some national trends. Teenage birth rates are declining everywhere, but remain highest in the South and Southwest. Child marriage is uncommon, but most often crops up in the same areas. Evangelical Christians, meanwhile, are the most likely to say children are better off with a parent (most likely the mother) staying at home.
It’s indicative not just of a culture that invites predation, but also one that undervalues the contributions of women. We are expected to be the guardians of spiritual purity, mothers, helpmates to our husbands, and not much else. If this is the case, why not start early? And if you’re not going to have a career, you’re better off with a man who can already provide well for you—and he’s likely to be older. Some people might think its weird for grown men to date high school girls, as one of Moore’s former colleagues has said of his past behavior, but people won’t necessarily object, especially if a girl's parents don’t.
These attitudes are changing, but very slowly. Another allegation of sexual assault might change things, and Moore may lose his Senate bid either way: A poll released Sunday found that Moore’s Democratic challenger, Doug Jones, had pulled slightly ahead. But if the Republican does lose, I expect it to be less because Moore’s voters defected from the Republican camp, or were so disgusted they stayed home, and more that national headwinds were favouring Democrats—even in deep-red Alabama.
Moore’s behaviour, however long in the past, illustrates another, more sinister trend in America, though: However much progress the country has made recently in outing abusers, it's been liberals in blue states who seem to be most eagerly cleaning house. We still have a long way to go before many men are held to account for what they have done, and continue to do, to women and girls, in the most conservative pockets of America.
Follow Monica Potts on Twitter.