The Purity Trap
Mother Jones|January/February 2022
These women went to Bible college to deepen their faith. Then they were assaulted— and blamed for it.
By Becca Andrews. Photographs by Kim Raff and Zoë van Dijk

Megan Wohlers thought she had done all she needed to do. And even if she had missed something, she thought, she was on a Christian campus, full of other believers—someone would certainly intervene.

It was the fall of 2016 when the sophomore at Moody Bible Institute, one of the country’s most prestigious evangelical colleges, started the process of getting help to extricate herself from an abusive ex-boyfriend. She tried to be systematic: She spoke with the public safety department at the school, and she wrote a letter to her ex, demanding that he leave her, her family, and her friends alone. She gave copies of the letter to a professor, the Title IX office, and Dean of Students Timothy Arens, who also promised to speak with the boy and tell him to back off. Surely, it would be enough.

It wasn’t.

Now, more than five years later, Wohlers, who’d dreamed of going to Moody since she was 10, whose father was an alumnus, whose aMBItion was to go tofficentral Africa to spread the gospel, is one of 11 women who have decided to make public their experiences with sexual abuse at the college. “The school encourages transparency and vulnerability with each other,” Wohlers tells me, “but when you do open up to administration, you get shamed and blamed.”

It is time, they’ve decided, for others to witness what they see as a systemic failure to address sexual misconduct at the school that describes itself as “the world’s most influential Bible college,” the place “where God transforms the world through you.” It is time to expose the people who were tasked with protecting them—under the laws of the country, under the laws of God—but who at best looked the other way, and at worst blamed them for the violence perpetrated against them.

And finally, it is time, they argue, to move beyond the purity culture that has defined Moody—and imperiled women on campus—for far too long. “All the responsibilities are on the girls to be pure,” says Anna Schutte, who graduated from Moody in 2020. “You know, if a guy has a porn addiction and a sex addiction, you should pray for him. But if a girl gets assaulted, it’s her fault.”

A LOT OF PEOPLE like Wohlers—young, aMBItious, evangelical—set their hearts on Moody Bible Institute at an early age. It is the “Harvard of Christian schools,” says Moody graduate Anna Heyward. “If you want to be a godly person and go into ministry, you go to Moody.”

Founded on the Near North Side of Chicago in 1886 by D.L. Moody, a passionate evangelist, Moody Bible Institute now runs a vast “network of Christian radio stations, affiliates, Internet stations, podcasts, and related programming,” according to its website, as well as a publishing house. Though the student body is under 3,000—about half of whom study online or in graduate programs—the school has long been a central training ground for future generations of church leaders. Mary McLeod Bethune graduated in 1895, and Jerry B. Jenkins, a co-author of the bestselling apocalyptic Left Behind series, is an alumnus, as are a host of influential Christian authors, pastors, and activists.

Women have attended Moody from the start, but for all intents and purposes, men—students and faculty alike—are the spiritual authorities. The reasons for this are both formal and informal, but all are colored by the evangelical belief in complementarianism—that according to God’s perfect design, men and women have separate strengths and weaknesses that together reflect the image of God. The school’s Student Life Guide puts it this way: “Moody Bible Institute believes that humanity came from the hand of God with only two sexual distinctions—male and female—both in the image of God, and emerging from one flesh with the unique physical capacity to reunite as one flesh in complementarity within a marriage.” Men are considered to be gifted with leadership, to be the godly heads of household and the authority on scriptural teachings. Women, meanwhile, are a moral authority of hearth and home, and are often confined to ministering to other women and children. This is reflected in the faculty: 64 percent is male and most women teach in communications, counseling, or music. “I saw people that elevated issues of patriarchy to on par with what’s the core of the gospel,” says Clive Craigen, a former professor who led the urban ministries program at Moody and left over a difference in values. “I’m like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m willing to die for the gospel, but I am not willing to die for this.’”

An extension of complementarianism is an all-consuming purity culture. Stringent adherence to abstinence before marriage places a unique burden on women to stay “pure” for their future husbands, while also ensuring that their attractiveness and sexuality do not become “stumbling blocks” for other men. The SLG demonstrates this in a disproportionate focus on women’s clothing—dresses and skirts must reach the knee, no leggings or yoga pants are allowed, and neither is clothing that is “strapless, sideless, backless, or which reveals the chest or midriff.” Shoshana Zygelman, a 2020 Moody graduate, recalls being asked by a student who worked at the campus gym to wear shorts over her leggings when she was working out. “Students are encouraged to respectfully and courageously initiate conversations with one another” about their attire and whether it reflects godliness, the SLG explains.

At the “Moody Bridal Institute,” as it’s sometimes called, there’s a “ring by spring” mentality; one campus tradition includes female students riding up and down the elevators in the dorms, announcing their engagements at each floor. “Getting married, being in a relationship, that was seen as the ultimate goal,” recalls Zygelman. Former students say these beliefs contribute to a culture in which men are given control over women, making them feel entitled to women’s bodies. And since purity culture assumes an end goal of marriage between two virgins, sex becomes mysterious and forbidden—yet also prized. And where better to find one’s lifelong match than on a campus full of people who share the same spiritual identity?

This, for me, is familiar terrain. I grew up in an evangelical setting, and in college I joined a campus ministry that pulled me deeper into a religion that always seemed to demand more personal sacrifice, usually because of my gender. Moody strikes me as a campuswide version of that ministry. As Zygelman was telling me about the ways her clothing was policed, I flashed back to a game night at a male friend’s apartment, when his roommate came up behind me and yanked my drooping shirt back over my shoulder, admonishing me for not protecting the men in the room. I stared up at him. “Do not ever touch me without my permission again,” I said evenly. The night ended shortly thereafter. When I was ultimately assaulted in that same apartment, by a different boy, purity culture blurred my vision long after I stopped adhering to its tenets. I could not name what had happened because I couldn’t let go of my supposed role as gatekeeper, the one who was supposed to stop it at any cost. All the women I spoke with who were survivors of sexual violence at Moody say they experienced a similar difficulty in finding the language to express what had happened, because it was impossible to see beyond the constraints imposed by Moody’s specific interpretation of Christianity. It can be hard to recognize harassment when it is at the hands of a brother or a sister in Christ.

A current professor at Moody, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, says he worries that this trust in shared spirituality translates into a false sense of security. “A parent might think, ‘I’d be afraid of sending my 18-year-old daughter to that big state school, but this community, it’s going to be safe,’” the professor says. “And so I think that, in a certain sense, we have our guard down…but there are wolves who see our community like a bunch of dumb sheep.”

WOHLERS REMEMBERS her first semester at Moody as being close to perfect. She made friends easily, she excelled academically, and her spiritual growth and ministry opportunities were built into the curriculum. By the end of her second semester, Wohlers felt a new closeness to God and an assurance that she was on the correct path. Then, she hit another Moody milestone: She began a relationship with a male student. “[The timing] just seemed like a total God thing,” she says. But the relationship quickly became abusive—he began monitoring her texts, emails, and social media. He would bite her, insisting it was affectionate, even when it left painful wounds. “Right away, he started pushing all my boundaries,” she says. Just two weeks in, she tried to break up with him, beginning a cycle in which she would attempt to get out, and he would convince her to stay, with each phase further eroding her sense of self. “I didn’t know which way was up—kind of like if you go out swimming in the ocean and you get pulled under.”

Shortly after that attempt to end the relationship, he assaulted her. They went for an evening walk and settled in an isolated patch of grass in Millennium Park, where there was little streetlight and hardly any foot traffic. They began to kiss, but when his hands slipped under her shirt, she said no—she kept saying no, and he ignored her. He only stopped when she cried. She was sure that it was her fault, that she had tempted him. In response, he mocked her. The next day, a friend went with her to break it off, but the couple continued to talk long after the friend left to go to class. The conversation ended when she heard herself agreeing to stay with him.

As summer break approached, he began to push her to elope. On the one hand, that felt perfectly normal for Moody students; she knew classmates who had dated for a scant two months before they married. But she was uneasy about the relationship’s volatility, and unsure this was the man God intended for her.

One day, while he was visiting her family over summer break, he heard her little sister mistakenly refer to him using a previous boyfriend’s name. Afterward, he told Wohlers that he’d like to tape her sister to the ceiling and take her life. Later that summer, she went to visit him, and he assaulted her once more. When she returned home, Wohlers attempted suicide and was hospitalized for 24 hours. He called her father, which led to a heated confrontation between the two men. At that point, she ended the relationship for good. (Wohlers’ ex-boyfriend declined to comment to Mother Jones.)

Still, she worried that the situation could escalate when she got back to school— her ex kept trying to contact her, and his threats against her family had shaken her. After seeking advice from a professor she trusted, she contacted Moody’s Title IX office, then run by Associate Dean of Students Rachel Puente and Director of Accreditation and Assessment Camille Ward. As Wohlers sat in her grandparents’ house in Florida, a Moody public safety officer kindly walked her through the steps for filing a Title IX report, a process established by a 1972 federal law that was designed to prevent sexual discrimination and abuse in educational institutions. But once she returned to campus, she opted not to file; she thought the letter she wrote her ex, asking him to leave her alone, and the conversation Dean Arens promised to have with him would work.

(Arens, Puente, and Ward did not respond to requests for comment from Mother Jones. Presented with a list of questions about allegations in this story, Moody sent a statement noting: “Moody Bible Institute remains committed to doing everything we can to ensure a safe and nurturing environment for all members of our community, and we are grateful to those who made their voices heard during this process.”)

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