Racism and purity culture: Atlanta shootings show how they’re linked

When Angie Hong heard about the purported “sex addiction” of the Atlanta mass shooting suspect and his so-called need to “take out that temptation,” she thought about purity culture and the blame-shifting that men embedded in it use to justify their behavior, including violence.  

Ministers and activists say the connection between evangelical purity culture and white supremacy cannot be ignored in conversations about the killing of eight people, including six Asian women, earlier this week.  

Most evangelical Christians teach young people to abstain from sex before marriage. The ideology often shifts blame to women for “causing men to lust,” justifying strict rules about “modest” clothing that almost exclusively girls are expected to uphold. The ideology has been dubbed “purity culture.” 

“So in this case, Asians were used to absolve him of his self hatred and shame, because he didn’t feel he had that sexual purity. Asians became these demonized personifications of the guilt and the shame and the hatred that he had for himself,” said Hong, who grew up in a Korean United Methodist Church in Atlanta.

“So how do you absolve yourself? How do you relieve yourself of guilt and shame? You erase it by erasing the ornaments and the ‘demon’ personifications. It’s simple math, and it involves erasure of Asian American women.”

Hong, who now lives in Durham, N.C. and studies at Duke University Divinity School, is also a pastor, leads worship and writes and speaks at churches. 

“Asians in history are viewed as ornamental because we are oriental, meaning that we are used as objects at the pleasure of white supremacy. So, in the white gaze, one day we could be a delicate exotic flower. And then the next day we’re yellow peril. We’re kung flu. We are dangerous people. I saw that here,” Hong said. 

Robert Aaron Long, the suspect who is charged with the murders, told investigators he had a “sexual addiction” and carried out the shootings because he needed to eliminate his “temptation,” Cherokee County, Ga., Sheriff’s Capt. Jay Baker told reporters after Long’s arrest.  

It sounds to me like these locations, he sees them as an outlet for him,” Baker said, referring to the massage spas where Long carried out the attacks. “That it’s something that he shouldn’t be doing and an issue with porn, and that he was attempting to take out that temptation.”  

Activists and ministers say Long’s involvement in church and reported frequent social media posts about “God and guns” shouldn’t be ignored.  

Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees racism and purity culture are connected.  

“These ideas about Black women, Asian women, et cetera and sexuality start back in the 19th century folks, with missionaries who deemed practices of the people they encountered as dirty, or impure. Even earlier than that, but I’m talking about evangelicals and Christian sexual prohibitions more broadly. Catholics did it too,” Butler said.  

“So while the good ol’ boys on the police force will say that it’s just sexual addiction because I’m betting many of them grew up this way too. Let’s be clear. This is terrorism. It’s murder. It’s Asian American and Pacific Islander hatred and vilification. It is racist.”  

Hong said this standard of sexual purity defined by evangelicals is nearly impossible to meet, especially for women of color, who are often sexualized at younger ages than white women, according to a 2017 report from Georgetown University Law School’s Center on Poverty and Inequality.  

“Women of color are never going to live up to those ideals. And not only do we harbor shame, we are shamed. Think about what that does to a person’s psyche, personhood and humanity,” Hong said.  

“The ‘Big C’ church, the broader church — I think this is indicative of a failure of community and accountability,” Hong added.  

Hong encouraged people who are upset about this shooting to do some research and connect with Asian American organizations and join in their work to expose racism and hatred toward Asian Americans.  

She stressed the importance of understanding how anti-Asian, anti-Black and anti-Latinx rhetoric are linked.

“Do your own work and then let’s start tying all of this together — how antiAsian, anti-Black and anti-Latinx ideas (are) all sort of coinciding. They’re not competing, but they’re all together. Let’s find out how all that works together,” she said.  

“I know that sounds like really overwhelming stuff. And I believe wholeheartedly that purity culture plays into that. So think about how purity culture affects those communities.” 

Here are some resources for support for Asian Americans and information about combating anti-Asian hate. 

Read all the stories from Reckon’s Purity Culture series.

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