TW: bullying tactics
I was in college in the years directly following the publishing of a book called I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which pushes courtship and purity culture. I tried to read it out of curiosity once, but just couldn’t stomach it. My roommate, however, embraced its message to the extreme.
Roommate was part of a group of Christians on campus who broke away from the official Christian student group because it didn’t enthusiastically embrace the surging purity culture craze. Instead, they formed their own little spiritual gang. One of the first things I noticed that creeped me out was that it was all girls in this group, except for one guy, who was the unofficial Leader. He seemed to dictate what they did and when. Eventually, other friends were dropped and the group only hung out with each other.
The group began to fray when one of the girls in their group began dating. Since I Kissed Dating Goodbye was what they bonded over and the reason why they’d left the campus group, they were all completely taken aback that one of their flock was suddenly being seen around campus holding hands with a guy. So they did what any good Christian would do, and began hounding this girl to break up with her boyfriend, lecturing her about purity and how remaining single is the only biblical thing to do until she was ready to be married. They also chastised her for holding hands with him, and being alone with him. She’d cry and say she knew it was wrong to date and that she would end it immediately, but never did. Once she said she did, but they found out that she’d lied. And so, being the good friends they were, they continued to berate and harass her, and try to make her feel as bad about herself and as guilty as possible, until the Wayward Friend started making excuses to avoid being with them. She would skip lunches, then dinners, then bible studies, first a few times a week, then more and more frequently.
Roommate was honestly confused about why the Wayward Friend was coming to bible study less and less, and why she hadn’t yet broken up with her boyfriend when she kept saying she would. I remember so vividly the look of confusion on her face as she was telling me that Wayward Friend wasn’t answering emails or calls and she couldn’t understand why.
I was shocked that Roommate could be so naive, and pointed out that when she’s with them, all they do is harass her and bully her and intentionally make her feel bad about deciding to date. Her boyfriend and some of the new people she seemed to be gravitating to were likely not going out of their way to make her feel bad. I remember saying to her, “What would you prefer – people who make you feel bad and tell you that you’re wrong, or people that make you feel good and accept you?”
Roommate was thoughtful at times, I know that it never occurred to her that it wasn’t sin or the devil that had driven their friend off, but their own actions. I could see her thinking about it. In the end, the Wayward Friend ghosted them. Roommate was unsettled by it. She felt bad, but had trouble grasping that you can’t bully someone and then expect that they’ll want to be your friend. She said that their actions toward their friend came from a place of love, but didn’t understand that her friend didn’t feel loved by their treatment of her.
Eventually, Roommate and her best friend split from the group themselves. What first made her start to question Leader was when he decided that anyone who didn’t have a biblical name, or a derivative of a biblical name, should change their name. Roommate tried to go by ‘Marie’ for a while, but it didn’t feel right to her. She drew a lot, and I noticed that she started drawing her real name over and over. I could tell she was starting to crack.
Then, Leader appointed himself dress code police, and decided that the girls should no longer wear tank tops. White t-shirts were out, too, because sometimes you could see the outline of a bra. And flip flops were also a problem, because they “implied nakedness.” Shorts weren’t okay for girls, but they were for guys. Etc. That’s what finally jolted Roommate out of her follower mentality – she didn’t feel that he had the right to tell her what to wear or what name she went by. She and her best friend left the group, and several others followed.
Looking back now, this Leader was essentially trying to erase their identities, and some of the girls didn’t want to change who they were into whatever Leader wanted them to be.
After that, Roommate reached out to Wayward Friend, who was still with her boyfriend and had a new group of friends. Roommate apologized. Wayward Friend thanked her for the apology, but let her know that she wasn’t interested in hanging out with her or anyone else from that group anymore.
That was a really hard lesson for Roommate. She had bought into the ‘forgiveness is obligatory’ notion that fundamental Christianity tends to push, so thought that an apology would somehow make everything okay again. It never occurred to her that an apology doesn’t magically erase all the abuse that her former friend suffered at the hands of people who said they cared about her.
So Roommate lost a friend, and I know that her friend’s ultimate rejection of her hurt. However, Roommate was actually pretty lucky. She realized that her group was on a dangerous path in allowing the sole male to control everything they did, realized his control was getting tighter and more bold, realized her own wrongs, apologized for them, accepted the consequences, and started thinking for herself about what she believed and what she wanted from life.
I got to witness the whole cycle. The Leader was preying on girls like Roommate who were easily led and used to being told what to do. He used religion and a really popular book to justify his increasingly controlling behaviors. He ramped up the abuse/control slowly over a period of time. Roommate also used religion and a popular book to justify mistreating one of her friends when that friend dared to do something that Leader and justifying texts didn’t approve of. She went along with the pack mentality because it was the “right” thing and was done out of “love”, only breaking away when Leader started asking her to do things that felt uncomfortable, and judging her the way they had judged their former friend.
I’m glad Roommate broke away. I’m connected to her on social media, and interests she started discovering and exploring after splitting away from Leader are now how she makes her living. They’re also how she met her husband.
I still think about the girl they bullied, and hope she’s doing well. I’m glad she was able to walk away, but I imagine it wasn’t easy. It’s hard enough to get out of an abusive situation, but when an ideology is involved, it makes it that much harder. Not only are you being abused, but a text that’s accepted as the word of a higher power are being used to justify how you’re being treated. It’s not a good place to be, but I’m glad that at least a few of the girls who were part of that group were able to kiss spiritual abuse goodbye.