It was tea for the girls and footie for the boys during Christian Union Freshers’ Week. Up and down the country, the new university term began and students have been experiencing the chaos and excitement of the clubs and societies vying for their membership. But aside from the usual fancy dress pub crawls and night outs, the recruitment strategies adopted by some student Christian unions have not only caused controversy but reveal some entrenched assumptions about gender roles in contemporary Christianity.
At one university, the students were invited by the CU to “afternoon tea” – but this event was clearly pitched “for the ladies”, while the “guys” were promised “an evening of FIFA, free food and interestingly hilarious haircuts”.
Segregated spaces can be helpful and supportive for exploring faith and identity, but these events inscribe stereotypical expectations that are out of kilter. Don’t boys drink tea and don’t girls enjoy a good steak with their football? As one Twitter response to a CU Fresher’s Week programme asked: “And what about those people who want to drink tea with their BBQ?”
It could be that these are just outdated and unimaginative ideas for socials, which leave female students left to munch on cucumber sandwiches while male students light the BBQ and crack open a beer – whether they want to or not. But associating certain activities with “guys” and another set with “girls” reinforces gendered and limiting stereotypes. This tendency is indebted to a complementarian understanding of gender often found in Roman Catholic teaching; and in conservative evangelical circles, such as some university Christian student unions.
In God’s image?
Complementarianism holds that males and females are created in God’s image but that they have distinct roles in the church, family life and society. Some argue complementarity gives men and women equal status – they fulfil different but valuable functions that ultimately complement each other. However, this is based on an essentialist binary of only two sexes and opposes them in fixed ways. In its crudest form, women are ascribed “feminine” features such as nurturance, passivity and domesticity, while men are typically represented in “masculine” terms linked to leadership and power.
For example, one CU men’s fresher’s group is called “Man-Up!” While the expression “man-up” is a problematic response to perceived threats to masculinity it also evokes macho imagery at a time when “lad culture” is pervasive across university campuses. These sexual politics have been central to Christianity and have legitimised the unequal treatment of men and women.
It would be easy to dismiss the CU events as fringe, but they reflect a wider emphasis on rigid gender roles in evangelical Christianity, an issue exacerbated by the gradual import of American evangelical culture to the UK. For example, Purity Balls, formerly a US evangelical Christian phenomenon, can now be found in the UK. Purity Balls are formal dances, a cross between a prom and a wedding, during which daughters pledge to remain virgins until marriage and fathers promise to protect their daughter’s chastity – usually, the daughter presents her father with a key to symbolise his role as gatekeeper of her “purity”. One of the leading organisers of Purity Balls in the US described the event:
A guest speaker warns the girls about the dangers of premarital sex. The girls stand on the tables, look into the eyes of their fathers and vow that they are going to remain pure. The father signs the pledge that he will be the protector of her daughter and that he will live a life of integrity.
The daughter gives a gold key to the father and asks him to hold on to it until the day of her wedding, and then he has to hand it to the husband that she will marry. They walk down the aisle and she puts a white rose near the cross, which is meant to seal the commitment she just made. The girls who attend devote the virginity to their fathers and to God, following their Christian beliefs.
Fetishising female virginity
Such events may be well-intentioned, with parents trying to do the best for their child and protect the ones they love in the best way they know how, but there is no escaping the fact that Purity Balls fetishise female virginity. They construct female (hetero)sexuality as something to be safeguarded by a male in a paternal protector role, reflecting the complementarian theology from which they emerge.
The gendered activities promoted by some branches of the Christian union not only reflect the values of the target student market, they also help to shape and perpetuate ideas and behaviour around gender in the wider university. There is no room for queerness or transgender or alternative gender identities here.
Anyone who isn’t comfortable with straightforward labels like “lady” or “guy”, or students who are unhappy with the uncritical adoption of gender norms, are effectively excluded from these spaces, which conflicts with most universities’ inclusion and diversity policies. As one Twitter response lamented: “I’d genuinely feel so much more comfortable going to the women’s one … sigh, gender norms!”
At best, such events draw on dated stereotypes that are ripe for a rethink. At worst, they are an insidious form of gender discrimination.