Okay, folks. You might wanna buckle up, because this is gonna be poignant, extremely personal, and hopefully a bit convicting. As you can see, I’ve titled this post The Deafening Sound of Silence, and I’d like to talk about conservative Christians and sexual assault. First of all, no, I’m not specifically talking about cases of Christians engaging in assault, such as the widely reported Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal; rather, right now I’m more interested in our collective attitudes and misconceptions about sexual assault, many of which I believe are fairly unique to conservative, evangelical and/or orthodox communities.
As I’ve stated in many of my blog posts, I’m not here to preach or to throw around accusations, and I’m certainly no better than anyone else. Therefore, I intend to begin with myself. Those who know me also know that I was raised in a stable, conservative, Christian home, and roughly 99% of the people I knew lived in similar situations. We were all white, middle-class, suburban American kids. We went to church every Sunday, our parents stayed married to each other, everyone always voted Republican, and as far as I knew, I had never even met a single person who struggled with drugs, alcohol, depression, abuse, teenage pregnancy, or anything else beyond getting a bad grade on a math test or something. As much as it was possible, we lived a fairly idyllic existence.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for having a loving family, and I’m glad I never really had to go through anything terribly difficult or traumatizing. But as a result, I also grew up sheltered in a lot of ways. And that’s what will bring me to the point I’m ultimately trying to make. By the way, I promise that I really am getting to the point, although I do need to provide a bit more backstory first. Bear with me…
I didn’t really date much in high school or college. Since I tended to be fairly myopic when it came to matters of the heart, I would usually spend a long time more-or-less fixated on whichever girl had caught my attention and then wistfully pine over her for a while if it turned out she wasn’t interested. Not exactly a formula for romantic success, I know. So I ended up going to a few school dances — Homecoming and Prom and whatnot — but I never had a girlfriend. College was similar, although I did go on a handful of dates here and there, but none of them ever really amounted to anything. However, that all changed during my senior year, when I was 22 years old. Admittedly, my first real kiss and my first sexual experience were both with the woman who would eventually become my wife. Some might find that lamentable, but I’m not ashamed of it whatsoever. However, my lack of seasoning in this realm of life also went a long way toward shaping many of the attitudes and misconceptions that I would one day come to regret.
One of the reasons I’m not ashamed to tell you my story is that many of the people I knew growing up were, well… pretty much the same as me. I had several close friends (both male and female) who didn’t really date in high school (often by choice — thanks a lot, Joshua Harris), and many of them also ended up marrying their first truly serious boyfriend or girlfriend, usually in their early 20’s. Therefore, most of us never really got involved in the stereotypical version of American “single life,” with all the bar-hopping, serial dating, casual hookups, and other such “heathen” activity. As conservative Christians, we had been taught two things from a fairly young age: 1) the ultimate purpose of dating is marriage, and 2) sex outside of covenant marriage is a sin.
Once again, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with these lessons. In an ideal world, beyond the standard justifications through Judeo-Christian codes of morality, there are plenty of reasons why abstinence until marriage is a wise choice to make. However, there were other lessons that I believe did end up having a negative influence on our collective attitudes toward the opposite sex.
Firstly, from a young age, girls in the evangelical community are held to rigid, legalistic standards and are essentially taught to be ashamed of their bodies and of their sexuality. While it may not be explicitly stated this way, they are conditioned to view themselves as temptresses, being told that they need to dress and act very modestly, because unless they do, they will encourage boys to have lustful thoughts and thus lead them into sin. As if it’s their fault (and by extension, not our own). There are obviously various levels of this mindset, the most extreme being seen in heavily Muslim cultures in the Middle East. But even if a burqa covers more skin than a baggy t-shirt, the core attitude is no different. We are telling girls that their bodies are dangerous — that they are mere objects of lust, and eventually, that’s how they begin to define themselves. We are making them responsible for our lack of self-control. We are laying the burden of our sin at their feet.
I have friends who attended Christian universities, and there were ridiculous, repressive rules that prohibited students of the opposite sex from being any closer than a Bible’s width to one another. Needless to say, merely holding hands was strictly forbidden. So instead of teaching young men and women to interact in a healthy, self-controlled, and mutually respectful manner, many of these institutions are teaching them to avoid all contact, because obviously, that would only lead to wild wanton fornication… right?
Then on the other side of the coin, boys are frequently being taught that women are meant to be submissive (or even subservient) to men. I addressed this issue a few years ago in my post entitled Men, Women & Biblical Equality, in which I wrote the following:
In the fifth chapter of Ephesians, we often read the verse that says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord,” and we leave it at that. Therefore, I always got the idea that the husband is in charge and must shoulder the full responsibility for running the show and leading his family. But later on, Paul also says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Yeah, it’s that last part that really got me. As he gave himself up for her. What could be more submissive than self-sacrifice? Of course, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble by simply reading the previous passage, in which Paul encourages us all to “submit to one another in the fear of God.” Facepalm.
Either way, couple these two ideas together (women are objects of lust, and they must be subservient to men), and it’s really not that hard to see why so many guys in the Christian community have such a hard time understanding not only that no means no, but also that yes means yes. Equally unsurprising is that Christian women often don’t even understand that they have the right to say no (especially if they perceive their behavior as inviting male attention), or even moreso that without a yes, there is no consent.
Now, because I had never even had the opportunity to engage in a physical relationship until things got serious with my wife, I was never really required to navigate that whole “sexual consent” thing. I never went to teenage drinking parties where girls were passed out and vulnerable on the couch. I never sat in the back of a movie theater with someone trying to see just how far I could go. I never had to read nonverbal signals (or verbal ones, for that matter) to figure out what body parts my date would let me touch. I never had to ask questions about who had protection and what kind it was. No one could have honestly accused me of rape, since I hadn’t so much as kissed a girl. Literally none of these things even existed within my realm of experience. But in a weird way, I kinda wish they had — not to dispense with Biblical morality, but because I feel like I would have learned a lot of things earlier on that I unfortunately had to learn the hard way. And I can be pretty damn stubborn.
Okay, let’s get down to business. I recently learned the term “rape myths,” which refers to prejudicial, stereotyped, and false beliefs about sexual assaults, rapists, and rape victims. They often serve to excuse sexual aggression, create hostility toward victims, and bias criminal prosecution. I found the below list online, with multiple articles and studies referenced to back up each entry. I encourage you to peruse the list and ask yourself how many of these myths you either believe now or used to believe at one point:
- That women commonly or routinely lie about rape.
- That what the victim is wearing can lead to a sexual assault, or that rape is the victim’s fault if they wore revealing clothes.
- That victims bear responsibility for an assault if they were intoxicated when it happened.
- That most rapes are committed by strangers (in reality, most rapes are committed by friends, family, or other individuals known to the victim).
- That when a male pays for a dinner or date, a woman is expected to reciprocate with intercourse.
- That women who are raped often deserve it — particularly if they entered a man’s home or got in his car, or that such actions indicate consent for sex.
- That it is not rape unless the victim fights/physically resists, or that it is not rape unless the victim is physically coerced or injured (in reality, many rapes do not involve physical coercion, as in cases where the victim is impaired/unconscious, or where an unequal power relationship forces the victim to submit).
- That a woman should be able to avoid rape by “fighting off” the rapist, and that she has the responsibility to do so.
- That some women secretly want to be raped.
- That it is impossible to rape one’s wife or intimate partner.
- That rape is simply unwanted sex, not a violent crime.
- That women “ask for” rape — for example, by flirting, dressing provocatively, consuming alcohol or behaving promiscuously — or that only certain “kinds of” women (i.e., “bad girls”) are raped.
- That men are unable to control themselves once they become sexually excited, that women are responsible for rape if they allow things to go too far, or that consent to kissing, petting, etc. constitutes consent to intercourse.
- That women commonly falsely allege rape out of spite, to overcome guilt after a sexual encounter they regret, to cover up an unwanted pregnancy, or for attention.
- That rape is primarily sexually motivated (many researchers have suggested that power and/or anger, not sex, are often the dominant motivator of rapes).
- That most rapists are psychotic or mentally ill.
- That consent to one sexual encounter constitutes consent to another (i.e., that it cannot be rape if the victim and rapist have previously had consensual sex).
- That “real” victims report rape immediately (in reality, victims often don’t report rapes immediately due to societal pressure, possible backlash, and trauma such as rape related post traumatic stress disorder, also known as rape trauma syndrome. Victims of rape may also have feelings of guilt and shame which deter them from reporting the crime, or from doing so promptly).
Are you finished? Well, how many did you check off? Personally, I can admit that I naively believed 1, 3, 7, 8, 10, 14, 15, and 18 at various points in my life. I’m ashamed of that now, and I’ve done my best to correct course, which is part of the reason why I’m writing this blog post. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t think those attitudes were an entirely personal problem. I believe a lot of them arose from my conservative Christian background, and that saddens me, because the Church really ought to be the safest, most compassionate, and most welcoming place for any victim to turn. Jesus had something to say about that.
Remember those first two lessons I mentioned earlier? We were taught that the only purpose of dating is marriage, and that sex outside of marriage is pretty much the worst thing ever. That was the sterile little Christian bubble we lived in. And then the latter two lessons: that women are responsible for men’s lust, and that they must be subservient to us. Put all of those together, and we not only become dismissive or judgmental when it comes to many victims of sexual assault, but we also excuse and apologize for the perpetrators: Well, you shouldn’t have been alone with him. You shouldn’t have been wearing that. You shouldn’t have gotten drunk in the first place. You shouldn’t go to those kinds of parties. You should have said something. You shouldn’t have led him on like that. If you had just waited until marriage, you wouldn’t have been in that situation. If you weren’t so loose maybe men would respect you. Do any of these refrains sound familiar? They ought to. I know they do to me, because I’ve thought and said a lot of them myself, and moreover, I’ve heard other people in the Church (both men and women) saying them for years. Far too often, we project our beliefs — right or wrong — onto the world as a whole, and either discredit or look down upon those whom we feel have hoisted their own petard, so to speak. In other words, we tell them that their victimhood is their own fault.
It’s easy for us to feel compassion and empathy toward the young woman who is accosted in a dark alley and screams for help to no avail. Or the wife who is beaten to a bloody pulp by her lout of a husband. Or the child who is molested by an older family member. Or the teen who is kidnapped, locked up, and used as a sex slave for years. But when it comes to the other kinds of victims — the ones who many claim were “asking for it” — we in the evangelical community frequently fall tragically short, ultimately causing further pain to the victims with our dismissal, our rationalization, our judgment, and especially our silence.
Speaking of which, I’m currently reading a book entitled Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can do About It by Kate Harding. I decided to check it out mainly because I’d like to gain more understanding of this issue from a woman’s perspective, and I also feel like it would be useful to educate myself beyond my own private research or emotional conversations with my wife. It’s been both sobering and eye-opening so far, and I would recommend it to any other men reading this. Anyway, I wanted to conclude with a quote from the book that I think is relevant to this discussion:
If the real crime of rape is the violation of another person’s autonomy, the use of another person’s body against their wishes, then it shouldn’t matter what the victim was wearing, if she was drinking, how much sexual experience she’s had before, or whether she fought hard enough to get bruises on her knuckles and skin under her fingernails. What matters is that the attacker deliberately ignored another person’s basic human right to determine what she does with her own body. It’s not about sex; it’s about power.
But if the real crime of rape is sullying a pure woman with the filth and sin of sex — making her “damaged goods” in the eyes of other men — then of course it matters whether she was a virgin, and what kind of situations she willingly “put herself” in, and whether she deliberately risked further physical injury to demonstrate her refusal. What matters is that she displayed a clear pattern, in both her everyday behavior and her reaction to a man overpowering her, of not wanting sex. Not ever, from anyone. Because once your vagina is open for business, it’s not like having a penis in there is anything new or shocking! If he didn’t beat you or hold you at knife-point, if he didn’t kidnap you or steal anything, and if your hymen was already broken, what is “rape,” really, but a few minutes of unpleasantness? Surely, you can’t send a man to prison for that.
This is what we act like we believe, deep down.