You saw it coming didn’t you? Once the David Petraeus affair exploded into headline news we were predestined to see the danger story of men and women getting too close.
Jenna Goudreau from Forbes immediately gave her take when she opined, “The David Petraeus-Paula Broadwell Affair: The Danger Of Male Mentors?"
It was no surprise an evangelical would express some version of the danger story. That’s as certain as Billy Graham not riding in a car alone with another woman. In the evangelical sub-culture fear continues as the undercurrent with a ubiquitous subtext in every male-female encounter.
Sure enough, Karen Swallow Prior from Liberty University and contributing writer to Christianity Today responded with her own danger narrative in the Atlantic: “Don't Let the Petraeus Affair Keep Men From Mentoring Women.”
On the one hand, Prior seems to veer away from the danger motif within Christian tradition. She argues we must not overreact to the Petraeus-Broadwell affair. Her own story includes men who have mentored her, cheered her on, and helped her professional advancement.
Prior distances herself from Liberty’s founder, Jerry Falwell. She recalls Falwell’s proud proclamation of avoiding every possible appearance of impropriety. But she herself thinks he went too far. This is all good and well. I want to affirm Prior's distancing herself from ethics born out of the June Cleaver era of sixty years ago.
However, Prior is not able to distance herself from the sexualization of intimacy. She writes:
I would, for example, never consider any of the men who mentored me in very specific, discrete aspects of my professional or spiritual life to be a "very close mentor" (as Paula Broadwell described her relationship with David Petraeus), nor would I want my male students to use such a term about me—although a few of my female students could justifiably use this descriptor.
Prior reasoned that Falwell’s excessive cautions “could serve only to sexualize an otherwise innocent work relationship by placing sex front and center.”
But I wonder whether she does not fall into the same trap when she sexualizes the meaning of “very close” in the context of her relationships to her students?
By sexualizing intimacy isn’t she doing an about-face, naming intimacy as the danger narrative for all relationships between men and women who are not married to each other: mentoring, teammates, friendship, workmates, therapist-client, and so on? Freud and the sexualization of intimacy lurks beneath all danger narratives, narratives waiting for projection onto any who may be considering intimacy. Prior has, in the words of David Wood, an ordained American Baptist pastor, “developed a thoroughgoing hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to intimacy.”
In our post-Freudian, sexualized world there is this stark hermeneutic in mentoring models. Dan Allender says it well: “The faulty assumption is that the more I know and care about you, the more potential there is for sexual violation.” Holding onto this myth sexualizes all intimacy between men and women. By the way, this would also hold for those who would sexualize intimacy in the LGBT community.
It has not always been thus in the Christian community. Intimacy in mentoring models has not always been sexualized. One of the most beautiful pictures in a classic discipleship model from the Christian tradition is the beloved disciple who leaned upon the breast of Jesus at the supper (John 21:20). You also have the special closeness between Mary Magdalene and Jesus and their intimate encounter at one of the most pivotal points in the Christian narrative. No matter how we look at it, if we have a Freudian-modern model of mentoring, Jesus invested an excessive amount of embodied and close accompaniment in his followers.
Before Freud, historical scholars have unearthed for us the close relationships between women and their spiritual directors (or confessors). The story of premodern intimacy between men and women in mentoring kind of relationships is well-known in the Catholic tradition.
As Jodi Bilinkoff documents in her important book, Related Lives: Confessors and Their Female Penitents, 1450-1750, very close spiritual friendships were not uncommon during this time period. She notes, “The bonds of understanding and empathy forged between priests and penitents also found physical expression, manifestation in body as well as soul.” But still these deep friendships were “without benefits.”In fact, this practice was so well known, Bilinkoff documents that during this hostile climate between Catholics and Protestants, Protestants accused priests of preying upon women and using confession as a “tool of seduction.” Many Protestant clerics railed against the scores of unattached women (unattached for many reasons: widowhood resulting from disease or war, or committed service in convents) as “loose women.”