How purity culture and anti-Asian racism intersect in some white evangelical circles

·6 min read

The intersection of purity culture and anti-Asian racism is familiar to many Asian American Christian women, who say there’s long been a connection between the two among white, conservative Christians.

But recently, they say, there’s been more public scrutiny of how purity culture disproportionately blames women of color after law enforcement officials said Robert Aaron Long, the man who has been charged with killing eight people, six of them Asian women, at three Atlanta-area spas in March, had a “sex addiction” and a “temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”

Purity culture,” a subculture of evangelical Christianity that peaked in the 1990s — with young girls pledging to their fathers to abstain from sex until marriage by wearing “purity rings” — is still present today. It forbids sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage and places the responsibility on women to manage men’s sexual desires by dressing modestly and not tempting them.

Christine Hong, an assistant professor of educational ministry at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, said the rationale authorities attributed to Long evinces a toxic combination of Christian sexual purity theologies.

“Sexual purity theologies are tied to white supremacy because Asian women have a transcontinental history of being hypersexualized and fetishized through Orientalism and militarism in Asian nations,” Hong said. “You can be a 65-year-old grandmother whose job is to feed co-workers at an Asian-owned day spa and suddenly you are a sex worker, a ‘temptation’ for white men. These dangerous theologies erase the lives and personhood of the Asian women the shooter murdered and instead make them solely temptations to be eliminated. He preserves his righteousness by eliminating the temptation.”

Weeks after the shootings, some Asian American Christian women began speaking out about their experiences with purity culture.

“It is purity culture that enabled my evangelical Christian high school principal 10 years ago to tell me, a 14-year-old Chinese-born girl, to change out of my short dress to avoid tempting my male classmates and teachers,” Flora Tang, a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School, wrote for America Magazine.

Angie Hong, a master of divinity candidate at Duke Divinity School who previously worked at Willow Creek Church in Chicago, one of the largest churches in the U.S., similarly wrote about the disproportionate burden that Asian Christian women face. “I was encouraged to give ‘side hugs,’ because full-frontal hugs were very tempting to men, especially those who enjoyed meeting Asian women” she wrote in The Atlantic. “I realized that I was sometimes perceived as an exotic temptress rather than a China doll.”

Long’s church, Crabapple First Baptist, released a lengthy statement denouncing the killings, calling them an “extreme and wicked act” that is “rebellion against our Holy God and His Word.” The statement said: “No blame can be placed upon the victims. ... The women that [the gunman] solicited for sexual acts are not responsible for his perverse sexual desires nor do they bear any blame in these murders. These actions are the result of a sinful heart and depraved mind for which [the gunman] is completely responsible.”

While some Asian American Christian scholars tie the hypersexualization of Asian women in the U.S. to the growth of sex work industries around U.S. military bases in Asia, others argue that the origins of such ideas go back much further.

K. Christine Pae, chair of the department of religion at Denison University in Ohio, said some structures of racialized misogyny date to the longstanding hierarchical dualism between body and spirit in the European church. Anything associated with the body was seen as sinful, and women and people of color were viewed as being closer to the body. Because “sexuality is still also associated with Christian imagination of sin, especially original sin,” Pae said, women of color were seen as exceptionally sexual.

She said the Western church has long held up two images of women — the Virgin/Whore dichotomy. The first is the sexually pure Virgin Mary, usually associated with white women, which became the “number one reality that every woman thought they should pursue,” Pae said, in contrast to the “whore woman, the promiscuous woman,” often depicted also as a foreign woman throughout the Bible, from the Book of Hosea to Revelation.

Experts have written about how women live between those two polarized worlds, endeavoring to be pure like Mary and constantly fearing they will fail and be seen as whores. Pae said she sees such logic in the actions of U.S. servicemen in Asia. “They protect ‘good women’ — their mothers, wives and girlfriends — while they sexually engage foreign ‘sinful women’ who were considered rape-able and sexually available,” she said.

More recently, the American fantasy of Asian women as sexual, sinful tempters was manifested in the controversy over the 2009 book “Deadly Vipers: Character Assassins,” one of many public examples of offensive Asian stereotypes in the evangelical world in the 2000s. Printed by the Christian publisher Zondervan and written by two white Christian men, the book displays an image of an East Asian woman, named “Assassin of Boom Chicka Wah Wah,” with a bare midriff holding a Japanese sword to illustrate the temptation of sexuality.

Kathy Khang, a writer on race and gender in the evangelical church, was part of a group of Asian leaders to successfully call for the halting of the production of the book. “This is how Asian women are imagined and captured,” she said. “We are the objects of desire and sources of infidelity. ... It’s exhausting and so disappointing, as I don’t know if things have changed dramatically since then.”

The demonizing of Asian women is also related to the Western church’s broader entanglement with anti-Asian racism, experts say. For Lucas Kwong, an assistant professor of English at City University of New York, the history dates to the 19th century and the use of the term “heathen Chinese.”

Kwong pointed to the 1898 bestselling Victorian novel “The Yellow Danger,” in which a Chinese-Japanese villain takes over Notre-Dame Cathedral and replaces Christian iconography with Chinese idols. The “sanctified Sinophobia,” which he called anti-Asian racism disguised as Christian piety, is still manifest today in the words and actions of some prominent Christian politicians. Kwong detailed many of the connections in an online statement this year titled "An Open Letter on Anti-Asian Racism & Christian Nationalism."

Pae said it is time for churches not just to remove offensive stereotypes and re-examine purity culture, but also to go deeper and interrogate the social structures of racialized misogyny. Acknowledging its theological roots and resulting history is a first step for churches to break their silence about issues of gender and sexuality, she said.

For instance, she said, before the Immigration Act of 1965, most Korean women were brought to the U.S. as military brides of servicemen. The majority met their husbands through sex work in Korea. In the U.S., these women formed the “backbone of the Korean American community,” she said, later bringing family members over and building Korean American churches. But “because of cultural shame and suppression of female sexuality, Korean American churches have rarely talked about these women, who don’t want to reveal what they did in Korea,” she said.

“As a Christian social ethicist, I believe the church should critically examine their calling,” Pae said. “Why do they exist? It’s not simply worshipping God. They have to interrogate the role of churches in society.”