In the past few days, a Baptist minister from Missouri, Stewart-Allen Clark, has garnered national attention. (A snippet from the viral video of the sermon is linked below.) He preaches specifically about the male gaze, telling women that they’re responsible for what their husbands look at.
“Don’t give him a reason to be looking around.” The image that the preacher uses to accompany that line is a recognizable stock photo. A young man walks with one attractive woman and does a double-take at another. (The preacher apparently didn’t notice that the picture didn’t support his point.)
In this “sermon” (which makes no biblical references) preacher Clark goes on to harangue women to lose weight. Every wife should seek to become a trophy wife. “Not every woman can be the epic trophy wife of all time, like Melania Trump. . . . But you don’t need to look like a butch either!” He says these things while peering into an open Bible, as if Melania herself might be hiding between its covers.
It’s ridiculous. It’s maddening. And for many people growing up in faith communities, this message is all too familiar and ordinary.
Messages to Women
Women are responsible for their husband’s lustful leering at other women. This is why they must be slim and attractive.
Women are responsible when men other than their own husbands lustfully gaze upon them. This is why they must dress modestly.
In short, women are responsible for all the actions that follow when a man lustfully leers. Lustful leering is his God-given right because “that’s how God made him.”
The preacher’s attitude objectifies a woman’s flesh and skin, as if these things exist only to be rated by men. It is inherently objectifying. The object of a gaze becomes an object.
The Christian tendency to over-focus on what girls and women wear makes it easier for men because it gets them off the hook. It makes the gazer not responsible for his gazing.
The Semantics of Gazing
No wonder Christians treat a man’s gaze as if it belongs to the thing being gazed upon. It’s convenient. Yet we all know it’s nonsense.
When a person gazes upon something, she or he uses their own set of eyes. Therefore a gaze belongs to the person doing the gazing.
Making women responsible for the male gaze is one of the dynamics of rape culture. While it appears to be mixing a metaphor, making women responsible for the male gaze is the exact opposite of “seeing through another person’s eyes.” Seeing through another person’s eyes has nothing to do with physical gaze. It has everything to do with intentionally switching from object to subject. Rather than seeing another person as an object, you attempt to see through their eyes as subject.
This switch is what I’m exercising in this brief essay. I’m inviting you to step out of your normal viewpoint into mine, as a feminist who loves Jesus. But I will never deny that you are using your own eyes to read these words. Your gaze, and your response to what you read, belongs to you and you alone.
The Image of God & the Male Gaze
Part of the Image of God in each of us is that our senses belong to us uniquely. We see with our own eyes, hear with our own ears, smell with our own nose, taste with our own tongue, and touch with our own fingers. Each action is something we perform; that action (and any subsequent action) is something for which we are then responsible. This is part of our agency.
That’s biologically true. So why are women held responsible for the male gaze? It’s to make women scapegoats for men’s misdeeds; to exert power and control; to blame the victim.
I’m glad that the Internet has caught up with this particular preacher. It has shamed him, and made him — and his church — bear consequences. What do you think a deeper investigation might uncover? Would you be surprised to discover that this man has been predatory on women? His misogynistic attitude creates a seedbed for behavior that’s controlling and abusive.
Body-Shaming the Body-Shamer
It’s tempting to simply poke fun of Stewart-Allen Clark. It’s easy to see why folks are body-shaming him — a portly man publicly haranguing women about their weight. Yes, it’s laughable. To body-shame him is to let the law of karma hold true, that what goes around comes around. Or as the Apostle Paul reminds us, quoting Hebrew scripture: “you reap what you sow.”
But while I’m tempted to body-shame him, I mainly want to take issue with his message. His words are both misogynistic and mainstream. And that’s a problem. Why is the hatred of women so commonplace in church culture?
Ask any women who grew up in church culture, and I guarantee that she has heard that she is responsible for the male eyes that rest upon her. When I was growing up I was told that I needed to mind the length of my hem and the width of my shoulder straps, because “boys are visual.” Apparently, glimpsing a sliver too much of my skin would cause boys to sin, and that would be my fault.
I attended Christian schools. In Jr. High our Science teacher measured hems by having us girls kneel on the floor while she plied a ruler. The school did not allow girls to wear pants (no doubt the fear of being “butch”). So that obvious escape from the tyranny of the ruler was not an option. Heaven help the girl who had a growth spurt that made her dress an inch too short.
Christians sometimes act as if they never participate in rape culture. One foundational element of rape culture is treating women as if they are responsible for the male gaze.
MY FRIENDS, Stewart-Allen Clark’s sermon is a fine example of how the church is complicit in sexual abuse and misconduct.