So I decided to weigh in on the Billy Graham Rule. Sounds risky, I know. But realize before you read this that I’m not attempting either to criticize a rule OR to make new rules for people. I’m just reflecting on the atmosphere of sexual teaching I’ve personally encountered in Christian culture.
I’m not assuming that my interpretation of Christian sexual teaching is universal or even up-to-date. I speak only from my experience growing up in 1990’s middle America. Church culture in various places and in various times will likely be different, as will each of our interpretations of said church culture.
Growing up in the Church, I didn’t get the sense that the power of a woman’s sexual desire was really acknowledged. A woman’s sexual attractiveness was certainly acknowledged; young men were taught how to fight their attraction to women, and women were taught how to cover their attractiveness. This led to an idea of women as temptresses, but only so far as their appearance goes. The temptation and attraction of the female wasn’t at the soul-level. It was only skin deep.
We were taught that women didn’t have the strong sexual desires or visual natures that men had. This of course meant that no one taught girls how to keep their sexuality under control in any way other than their clothing choices.
I think this does a grave disservice to both men and women. Men become dehumanized through this view: they are greedy creatures who must be sexually satisfied at all costs and who are incapable of looking beyond a woman’s appearance to see her soul. It reduces sexual desire to physical appearance, while I believe sexual desire is very much rooted in the emotional and spiritual.
Women fall by the wayside when we see through this lens. Girls are not taught how powerful their desires can become. They are not taught that forming an intimate emotional relationship with a man could stoke their sexual desire in ways that are later difficult to manage. They’re only taught that they must keep their bodies under wraps so that the men can manage their desires. But girls aren’t taught that they themselves might need to control their desire or given any practical ways to do so.
So the thing that concerns me about the Billy Graham Rule conversation is not whether it is wise to follow it, or whether it is legalistic to follow it. What concerns me is the way the conversation seems to reduce women to an object of desire and not a source of desire.
Perhaps I do not fully understand the conversation, but this is the way I see it: When we talk about women as temptations to men (because we tend to think more about the ways the Billy Graham rule protects men), we are talking about the way women’s bodies are tempting. The impression I receive, then, is that if a man is in a room alone with a woman, he won’t be able to contain his sex drive, especially if that woman is considered societially “beautiful.”
The way I hear it discussed seems to me almost to border on harassment or assault, the way a man wouldn’t be able to control himself in a woman’s presence. In this view a woman tempts a man passively but not consensually. I think this is ludicrous. It means we don’t think men have any self-control at all. It means we don’t think of men as being fully human with a mind and a will that can make self-sacrificing choices.
I know, through both personal experience and years’ worth of conversation and reading, that there is an abundance of bad men in this world. Many men are willing to take advantage of women’s physical and social weaknesses. But I have also met an abundance of good men who respect women as fellow humans and would not dream of taking advantage of them.
I’m deeply bothered when I sense men and women being categorized so simplistically. Men are not merely dominators who, at the same time, are helpless in the face of a pretty woman. And women are not merely seductresses unaware of their overpowering attraction to men. People are more complex than that.
Whether couples or singles choose to follow the Billy Graham Rule should depend on their personal and shared histories. It should depend on their consciences and their circumstances. But it should not depend on a distorted view of male and female sexuality.
For myself, having lived nearly 37 years as a woman in a woman’s body, I will say that if I were going to follow the Billy Graham Rule (but spoiler alert: we don’t), the reason would not be because I don’t trust men to control themselves. No, the reason would be because I don’t trust myself.
I know how strong sexual desire can become. If my husband and I remained virgins before marriage, I have to credit him with the “no.” I cannot possibly credit myself. The strength of desire surprised me — I think in large part because of the pervading idea that women aren’t sexual beings in the same way men are. But perhaps my experience is singular. Perhaps other women did not grow up in an environment that minimized their sex drives.
It is for these reasons that I consider my own self as a potential source of desire. Even as someone enjoying a very happy marriage, I have to be honest and say that temptation or attraction can still occur. This statement is true for both of us (and yes, we talk about these things). Temptation happens simply because human desire is powerful — including the female desire that is too often neglected in these Billy Graham Rule conversations.
So what I wish for the world is not that we would universally follow the Billy Graham Rule or universally disregard it. What I wish is that we could have more and better conversations about temptation and about what it means to be a human made in the image of God.
I don’t want us to treat other human beings as primarily sexual beings, thus reducing their humanity. Nor do I want us treat ourselves and others as immune to temptation, thus living in ignorance and arrogance. What I wish is that the world could be a place where both men and women truly see each other as the fellow humans that we are.
I want us to know ourselves and our spouses well enough that we know what kinds of boundaries to place around our marriages and our other relationships. I want us to pour into our marriages and live in love and trust with each other. I want men and women to be able to relate to each other in the Church and in the workplace with interest, integrity, and respect.
I want us to understand so deeply who God created us to be that we won’t waste time arguing over legalities but will work to build up the image of God in each other through thoughtful conversations, safe relationships, and a shared wonder and worship of the Maker of all things.
Thoughtful readings on the Billy Graham Rule/Modesty Culture:
Misogyny in Missions by Jonathan Trotter
Misogyny in Missions Part 2 by Tanya Crossman
Women are Scary (and other lessons modesty culture teaches men) by Jonathan Trotter
It’s Not Billy Graham Rule or Bust by Tish Harrison Warren
An Open Letter to Men Who Broke the Billy Graham Rule by Tish Harrison Warren