Misogyny in Faith Communities

Misogyny harms everyone: men, women, and children. Valerie Hudson and Anne Blythe take a deep dive into misogyny in faith communities.

From the way clergy counseled you to “have more sex” with your abuser in order to placate him, to the way you lost your support system from the church when you finally told the truth, misogyny in your faith community has harmed you in a very real way.

Valerie Hudson is back on the BTR podcast, taking a deep dive into how deeply rooted misogynystic practices and beliefs harm victims of abuse and betrayal. Read the full transcript below and listen to the BTR podcast for more.

Misogyny in Faith Communities Harms You

Too many women in faith communities face the extremely harmful effects of misogyny when they seek help from clergy and instead find even more abuse.

Clergy enable abuse when they:

  • Believe the truth lies “somewhere in the middle” rather than supporting the victim
  • Encourage the victim to “forgive and forget”, trust, or love the abuser in order to help him repent
  • Discourage the victim from separating herself from the abuser, whether by divorce or other means
  • Counsel the victim to engage in sexual contact with the abuser in order to placate his pornography use and/or other sexual acting out
  • Bypass the victim by speaking the abuser, which can put the victim in serious danger
  • Encourage other members of the faith community to shun the victim for telling the truth about the abuse/leaving her abuser

Misogyny and Misconstruing the Parable of the Prodigal Son

When clergy counsels victims to celebrate the “return” of their abusive partners, citing scripture and perhaps the parable of the Prodigal Son, they are not only enabling abuse, but further traumatizing victims.

Too often, abusers have gaslit clergy into siding with them, and clergy, in turn, gaslight victims into feeling responsible for holding their families together, “forgiving” (reconciling) with the abuser, and allowing a dangerous, manipulative individual back into their home and lives when it is most definitively not in the victim’s best interest.

It’s clear that scripture, specifically parables like this one, are understood by many religious leaders through a misogynistic lens. Valerie explains:

“We need to see the parable of the prodigal son for what it’s really telling us, which is that sometimes you are going to have to wait at a distance, not have a full-fledged relationship with someone who’s involved in self-destruction or other destruction.”

Valerie Hudson, author and university distinguished professor

Misogyny Harms Everyone

“What you do to your women, you do to your nation, and if you curse your women, then you’re choosing to curse your nation as well.”

Valerie Hudson, author and university distinguished professor

Misogyny doesn’t only harm women: families, faith communities, nations, and entire societies are deeply effected by the inequality that arises from misogynistic beliefs and practices.

BTR Is Here For You

At BTR, we understand the frustration, grief, and rage that victims feel when they’ve experienced misogyny at the hands of clergy. It can be difficult for victims to try to explain what they’ve experienced to those who haven’t been through it – that’s why the Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group meets every single day. Join now and begin your journey to healing.

You’re not alone.

Full Transcript:

Anne: Anne: Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.

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Valerie Hudson on the BTR Podcast

We have Valerie Hudson back on today’s episode. If you didn’t hear the last two weeks, go back first, listen to those, and then join us here. We’re going to just jump right back into the conversation.

Anne: Let’s talk about that confession piece a little bit in regard to bystanders and how bystanders can help either stop and confront the abuse or sometimes enable it. So, when you talk about confession, I know of a lot of stories of victims where the abuser goes in and talks to their clergy and says, hey, I have been abusing my wife. I’ve been gaslighting her, I’ve been doing this, and the clergy will say, oh, no, you haven’t. No, no, no, that’s not abuse. Or they’ll say, I’ve been using pornography and that’s abuse to my wife. And they’ll be like, no, no, you’re not. Or I’m a pornography addict, and I’ve been using it a lot and lying about it. No, no, you’re not an addict.

When Clergy Enable Abuse

So obviously, that is not going to help the abuser when he’s attempting to perhaps repent. And we know that when there’s one rat, there’s 50. Usually, they only tell a partial truth in the beginning. And so, if a clergy takes that partial truth and is like, you’re a good guy, what are you talking about, instead of saying, whoa, this is serious. We need to see the whole iceberg here, right. Or we need to ferret out all of the lies that he’s told. Can you talk about why bystanders have such a difficult time supporting victims, and in many cases, end up accidentally enabling the abuser?

Valerie: Again, I don’t know the why, except that in all of the cases you’ve just mentioned, I believe the ecclesiastical authority was male. And again, I think people’s views on things are colored by their experience of living as a male or female. I think men are prone to give other men the benefit of the doubt rather than other women. But I do know one thing, that those things are heinous in the sight of God. That God will judge those ecclesiastical authorities with clarity and exquisite precision. So, I think we need to believe in God’s justice for some of them as well.

“Predators Are Skillful At Gaslighting Authorities”

There was a terrible old legacy in my own church, which suggested that victims of rape needed to repent themselves because they were no longer chaste. And fortunately, my church has sort of changed on this and given out very plain instruction in their handbook of instruction, that victims of sexual abuse are still innocent and pure even if they’ve been raped. A virgin is still a virgin, and that no one can take their chastity and their innocence from them, that they hold it still. So, I think that was an important change that has happened, at least in my own church. I’m just aghast to hear what you’ve said because, as an ecclesiastical authority, I certainly would want to talk to the person who had been abused in order to figure out what I was dealing with here. And I think as someone else’s said, predators are skillful at gaslighting not only the victims but gaslighting authorities to which they are responsible.

The Sad Truth: When Victims Go To Clergy

Anne: You quoted Christian theologian Richard G. Scott in your article, and he said, “Remember that predators are skillful at cultivating a public appearance of piety to mask their despicable acts. Recognize that it is very unlikely that the perpetrator will confess his depressive acts. Painstakingly assure that every individual that is suffering from abuse receives appropriate help.”

We have heard so many stories of the woman going in, she talks about the abuse, the clergy says, oh, that’s awful. That’s terrible. I’ll help you. Let me call him in. So, he calls him into the office, and then after he hears “his side of the story,” not realizing that it’s all lies and manipulation is like, oh, oh, I see what’s happening now. She’s controlling. She’s not doing what she’s supposed to do. It’s really her problem. I get it now; you’re not an abuser. And so even though so many churches have policies that say we do not tolerate abuse, because clergy, they’re not educated about abuse, they’re not sure what to look for, you know, something, they can’t recognize that that type of gaslighting to the clergy member is not only abusive to the clergy member, but it’s also just piling on the abuse to the victim, right.

“The Truth Isn’t Somewhere In The Middle”

And so, in that thinking, well, okay, there’s two sides of the story and the truth has got to be somewhere in the middle, they need to realize that a victim is telling the truth and the abuser is manipulating and lying. So, the truth isn’t somewhere in the middle. There’s an absolute truth here and they need to figure out what that is rather than believing a manipulator and a liar.

Valerie: I’m so glad you said that because I believe that a lot of people make that mistake. They hear that one person says A, one person says C, so the truth is B. That’s not it. In abusive situations, the truth is probably either A or C and that we do a disservice to victims in abuse situations when we assume that there’s some sort of middle ground of truth when we’re dealing with abuse. That is so important, and I hope that churches are training their clergy in these kinds of cognitive biases. Being male, believing that truth is going to be the middle ground between two different accounts unless they are. You know, one of the most important things that can be done is, and this certainly would be revolutionary in my own church, is that women need to sit in on these discussions also. If the male perspective needs to be balanced by the female perspective, then I think it needs balancing in the case where we decide where the truth lies.

When Clergy Blame Victims For The Abuser’s Behavior

Anne: Absolutely. I always recommend that if women are going into clergy to report their husband’s abuse, either psychological, emotional, their porn use, that they take another woman with them who understands abuse into that meeting, that they do not go in alone. We’ve seen so many times that that clergy will further abuse that victim by saying, oh well, are you having sex with him or are you making dinner or what are you doing, you know, that type of thing. To make sure that she is not further harmed in that interaction, which is happening all over the place in every single denomination and every religion. We have women from every faith paradigm here and it’s happening everywhere.

So, the last Christian principle that is misapplied in the context of abuse is this prodigal son concept where if you don’t forgive, meaning reconcile is what they’re talking about, they’re not talking about actual forgiveness here. They’re saying if you don’t reconcile if you don’t make sure you like kill the fatted calf and welcome this guy home, and give them hugs and all, that the greater sin lies with you. So can you talk about why this principle is misapplied in the abuse situation and when it’s misapplied, it continues to put victims in harm’s way?

The Reality About The Prodigal Son

Valerie: Oh, that’s great. Let’s talk about that. Let’s look at the parable itself. Now we can’t tell from the scriptures whether the prodigal son was abusing others or simply living some sort of riotous life and abusing himself. But nevertheless, while the son was living this riotous existence, the father in the parable didn’t run after his son and offered to have him live at home and be provided for and enabled while he was continuing this type of life. Instead, the father waited in silence. We’re not told how long he had to wait, maybe he had to wait for years. We are not told that there was even any contact between the father and the son during this time. But when the son did turn around, when he did repent of his foolishness, when he did retrace his steps back home, wanting only to be a servant, and not to claim back his privileges. When that day came, his father ran out to meet him and embrace him. The father even held a big party to rejoice over his son’s return. Now was the prodigal son restored to all his privileges, at least in this life? I don’t think so. I’d venture he probably wasn’t trusted with money anymore and he spent his inheritance. I don’t think the father carved out a separate inheritance for him.

What Is The Parable of the Prodigal Son Actually Telling Us?

So even after sincere repentance, there may be some continuing restrictions or limitations based on a knowledge of the abusers’ weaknesses. But while the son is doing wrongfully that love waited silently and at a distance in a state of hope and anticipation, not in a state of enabling or overlooking the bad behavior or running after the abusive person. So, I think we need to see the parable of the prodigal son for what it’s really telling us, right. Is that sometimes you are going to have to wait at a distance, not have a full-fledged relationship with someone who’s involved in self-destruction or other destruction.

Trauma Mama Husband Drama

Anne: I am going to take a break here for just a second to talk about my book, Trauma Mama Husband Drama. You can find it on our books page which has a curated list of all of the books that we recommend. My book, Trauma Mama Husband Drama, is a picture book for adults. So, it is the easiest way for you to explain what’s going on to someone who might not understand it, it’s also just a good reference for yourself because it shows what’s happening with very telling and emotional illustrations, as well as infographics at the back.

And now back to our conversation.

Abuse & Entitlement

Anne: And it really shows his repentance because he was willing to give up his “entitlements”. He’s willing to come back as a servant. And if an abuser is unwilling to give up his entitlements, he feels entitled perhaps to sex. Maybe he feels entitled to lie. Or maybe he feels entitled to a hot meal, or whatever it is. He feels entitled to that he’s not willing to give up. Like, well, I won’t be abusive, but you have to have sex with me every Wednesday or I’m not going to be abusive, but you need to make sure that you lose 10 pounds or I’m not going to be abusive, but you need to treat me with respect which really means that she won’t maybe ask him questions about where he’s been or what he’s doing. That lack of being willing to give up their entitlements is really exemplified through the prodigal son who is willing to give up those entitlements.

Valerie: Yes, that’s a brilliant point. All right, he’s willing to give up at all. He’s eating the pigs’ scraps. He’s willing to be a servant and not a son anymore. That’s a form of restitution, isn’t it? To give up one’s entitlement. I think that’s a brilliant way of seeing it.

Peace Between Husbands & Wives is the Precursor to World Peace

Anne: Now you’ve written whole books on this, you’ve given speeches, and you have this concept that world peace is available if the sexes, if men and women, can get along and if abuse is eradicated. I hate to ask you to summarize all of this body of work that you have done in just a small answer, but could you perhaps just leave us with this idea that peace in your home and peace within homes and peace between husbands and wives is a precursor to world peace? I think it is so interesting, and I love to leave our audience with your ideas on this.

Valerie: Oh, you bet. Absolutely. In fact, I wrote a book that just came out this year, it’s called The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide. So, if you would like the extended version of that, please feel free to go pick up that book. But yeah, the first political order in any society is the sexual political order. It is the foundation for all human societies. Sometimes I asked my students to think of themselves as video game designers, and I say I’m just going to give you two parameters so go make me a game. And I say one is, is that the within the society there are roughly two equal groups. And number two is that unless these two groups cooperate, there is no second round, everyone dies.

“Are These Two Groups Like Equals, Or Is One Superior or One Inferior?”

And they say well, you haven’t told us enough. They say, are these two groups like equals, or is one superior or one inferior? Who does the decision-making for the whole group? Is it one of the groups or both groups? How are conflicts resolved? By violence or by compromise? And who’s got access to the valuable resources? Is it basically one of the groups or is it both of the groups? And I say, yep, that’s exactly right. Those are all political questions, and how any society answers those questions, in a sense, establishes the first political order. And that first political order then is going to shape everything else that arises within that society. And we believe that a first political order that is based on the subordination of women will be unstable, violent, corrupt, exploitative, and autocratic. Why?

Because it’s built on a first political order at the level of every household in the society. That’s domestic instability, domestic violence, domestic terror, domestic corruption, domestic exploitation, and domestic autocracy. It couldn’t be any other way, all right. So, what your first political order is, is going to determine what your society looks like in terms of violence and governance, and so forth. And there’ll be a lot of other spillover effects as well. If you’ve created gender tasks so that perhaps women are in charge of safeguarding people’s health within the family, then if you subordinate women, you’re going to undercut the health not only of women but of children and of men as well. If you’ve gendered a task, where women are in charge of making sure that there’s food on the table for everybody each day, when you disempower women, that’s going to lead to food insecurity. So, we think there’s a lot of different ramifications of a subordinative first political order.

“What You Do To Your Women, You Do To Your Nation”

Back in 2014, we were given a four-year $1.3 million grant from the US Department of Defense to look and see if there was any empirical evidence that what we were saying was true, that the subordination of women at the household level lead to worse nation-state outcomes in terms of violence in governance and terrorism and food insecurity and economic performance, and you name it. And so, we did. It was a Herculean task to be sure, but we were able to examine over 160 different outcome variables on nation-states. And we’re able to show that the subordination of women even when controlling for other alternative hypotheses, was critically determinative in how poorly a nation would be on these outcomes. And so, I think it’s really true is that what you do to your women, you do to your nation, and if you curse your women, then you’re choosing to curse your nation as well.

“We Must Heal The Female Wing”

And I think this is fully in line with what I understand about God’s plan, which if God’s plan was an equal partnership between men and women, an equally loving and respectful partnership, then to the degree that we work that and pervert that and turn it into a subordinative hierarchy, then we’ve undercut the basis of all of God’s blessings, including blessings such as peace and plenty. So, the Bahai faith actually has a beautiful metaphor. They liken humankind to a bird with two wings, and they say the male wing has been strong, but the female wing has been injured and is weak, and therefore the bird cannot fly. So, we must strengthen, and we must heal the female wing in order that the bird may soar into the heavens. And I think that’s just absolutely beautiful and encapsulates everything that we’re saying. And certainly, I think touches even upon issues of abuse, which is that abusive households will not prosper, and that subordination of women never leads to good outcomes not only for the women but also for children and for men and whole societies as well. That’s how I would put it. There won’t be any peace on earth until there’s peace between men and women.

Anne: I love that because I’ve been saying for years, if you want to do your part, then you need to start in your own home and set boundaries around the abusive behavior in your own home, and that will make the world a better place. And also, abuse is bigger than you. This is a situation that has been set up by societal scripting, by religious scripting that is either misapplied or just cultural and not doctrinal, and because of that, you’re up against a lot of misinformation and traditions that are not good for you. And if you want to make the world a better place, start with your own home.

Find Valerie’s Books at BTR.ORG/BOOKS

Valerie: Right. Amen to that.

Anne: Well, Valerie, you are one of my heroes. I am so grateful that you came on today’s episode.

You can find her book, The First Political Order, and her other book, Sex and World Peace on our website. And the article that we discussed at length today, again is called Forgiveness of Abuse and Atrocity: What It Is and What It Is Not. A Guide for the Perplexed Christian Woman. Thank you so much for coming on today, Valerie.

Valerie: My pleasure and thank you for all the good work that you’re doing.

Anne: If this podcast is helpful to you, please support it. Until next week, stay safe out there.


  1. Anonymous

    I was a very young naive woman of 19. I married a man who was ten years older than me. He was Jewish. I was protestant, but new to religion. I had been raised with no religion.

    He had affairs and impregnated other women. He left me for one of the women he impregnated.

    I was expecting our second child. I moved into an apartment with the children. When I reached out for spiritual help the terrible pastor came to visit and verbally propositioned me – with two children in the room. I lost any faith in his church … you’re absolutely right. A the time I had no friends. I was totally vulnerable. I had two children nine months apart. I was in terrible shock. It was a terrible reality. The pastor wanted to try to take advantage of my poverty, my brokenness.

    Today I’m 66. My life was profoundly difficult after becoming a very religious oriented person. I was marginalized and still am. Still trying to heal from spousal abuse. I was abused by another husband as well.

    I have known many abused women – religious women who are sexually abused by their so-called “righteous” husbands. I suffered from so much spiritual abuse. I’m justifiably distressed about religion, but still need to develop a support network. Women always need to be a part of a supportive family. It’s crucial to find a support group.


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