The man who confessed to murdering eight people in three metro-Atlanta massage parlors denies that the rampage was a hate crime. But we’re not taking his word for it. We’re considering the ethnic identity of the victims, the past year of anti-Asian rhetoric and surge in anti-Asian violence, and the long history of anti-Asian racism in America. In other words, the whole context.
Good. So let’s also examine the larger context of the motive Robert Aaron Long actually expressed: sexual addiction.
“He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction,” said Captain Jay Baker about Long’s confession. “We believe that he frequented these places in the past,” Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds told reporters, “and may have been lashing out.”
Where in the world did Long get the idea that his sexual desire was a terrible problem for which these women had to pay?
It’s not a big mystery.
Long is a devout Southern Baptist. He led a high school Christian group and served on his church’s Student Ministry Team. In 2018, he was baptized in that church, the Crabapple First Baptist in Milton, Georgia. One schoolmate of Long’s remembered him as a “super nice, super Christian, very quiet.” When he heard about the shooting, he said, “I mean, all my friends, we were flabbergasted.”
He should be shocked. But not because Long is a Christian. In fact, a strict Southern Baptist upbringing might well contribute to the belief that sexual desire is the height of sin and the twisted logic that female sex workers (or perceived sex workers), in causing the desire, caused the sin.
In its recent statement, the Crabapple First Baptist Church categorically denies the link: “The women that he solicited for sexual acts are not responsible for his perverse sexual desires nor do they bear any blame in these murders. These actions are the result of a sinful heart and depraved mind for which Aaron is completely responsible.”
Of course, Long is solely responsible for the murders. But we should not let his church off the hook just because they say we should.
The Southern Baptist Convention, the organization of conservative Baptist churches to which Crabapple belongs, preaches that sex is strictly a procreative act, sex outside of marriage is a sin that leads to damnation and lust is something that “we need to help men kill.” It was the SBC that launched the True Love Waits abstinence campaign, which promoted not just waiting until (heterosexual) marriage to have sex, but also total “sexual purity”: no sexual touching, no pornography, no sexual thoughts.
That means that Crabapple First Baptist describes as Long’s “evil” and “perverse” sexual desires may simply be . . . sexual desires. Its loathing of sex likely became his self-loathing; its shaming, his lethal shame.
Linda Kay Klein, the author of “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free” has noted that fundamental to purity culture is the idea that “men and boys are easily sexually tempted, and that women and girls are responsible for protecting men and boys from the temptation that is their bodies. That means not being seductive in any way, not wearing anything that could cause a man to think or act in a sexual way. And that if women and girls would just do that, then everyone would be safe.”
Here’s an example of this attitude, from a blog post entitled “Modesty Matters” by Kara Bennett, wife of the pastor of Faith Baptist Church of Faith, North Carolina: “when a young lady dresses inappropriately . . . Her sin spreads. As she strolls down the beach in her immodest bathing suit or worships on a Sunday wearing a revealing dress, everyone who sees her is handed temptation. The men and boys around her must battle the sin of lust.”
In strict patriarchal religions where sex is considered a sin, the solution to the problem of male desire is female erasure. It’s not just evangelical Christianity: in ultra-Orthodox Judaism, women must cover their bodies and their hair and sit out of sight in the synagogue; in fundamentalist Islam, women wear hijabs or burqas to protect themselves from male desire and to protect men from temptation.
“In the evangelical community,” writes Klein, “an ‘impure’ girl or woman isn’t just seen as damaged; she’s considered dangerous.”
It is in this context and with this upbringing that Long saw his own sexual desire as sinful and women he desired as embodying a “temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”
“Super nice, super Christian” Long was super indoctrinated into a belief system that held women responsible for the sin of male desire. As we try to understand the lethal mix of racism, misogyny, and gun culture that set the stage for Tuesday night’s tragedy, that belief system should bear scrutiny too. No matter what the church says.