Rape - a Secular View

Eighth article for Secular Woman's Sexual Assault Awareness Month Series

by Elsa Roberts, follow her on twitter

A repost from October 2012 with updated links

What do you think of when you think about rape? Be honest. Dark alleys, knives, blood, strangers - those are the things I usually hear when I ask that question. Ask the average person where women are most at risk and from whom, and the answer is usually 1. after dark walking anywhere, and 2. a stranger.

That is the picture people have of rape; that is what most people see as "real" rape, "legitimate" rape. But, that’s not how most rape happens.

Most women aren’t raped while walking in the dark; they aren’t raped by some stranger with cruel intentions. Most women are assaulted in their own homes or the home of a friend. Most are assaulted by a boyfriend, husband, relative, friend, or acquaintance -- the people they trust and should have no reason not to.

Now, when you think of a woman assaulted by her boyfriend or someone she knows casually, what comes to mind? Do you wonder, “Maybe she was drunk and sent unclear signals” - ? Do you think, “Maybe she woke up and regretted sex, so now she says it’s rape” - ? Do you think, “Well, that’s just not as bad as real rape, rape rape. This rape is something else, something less, something a woman could have prevented if she had just been a little more careful -- not worn that hot dress, not made out with that guy, not invited him in for a drink" - ?

If those thoughts cross your mind, you aren’t alone. Sadly, these beliefs about sexual assault are pervasive in our society, and these beliefs are why people like Todd Akin call some rapes (and only those rapes) “legitimate.”  They’re why Whoopi Goldberg felt the need to distinguish between "rape" and “rape rape.” They’re the reason that Ron Paul felt he could use the term “honest rape” when talking about which women pregnant by sexual assault deserved the right to terminate their pregnancy.

Rape is unique among crimes for many reasons, not the least of which is the special way it violates a person. But the main way it is unique is the way we treat victims of rape. Rape victims’ stories and motives are questioned in a way that no other crime victims are. When was the last time you heard someone (not in a courtroom or news report setting) talk about an “alleged mugging” or an “alleged break-in” or an “alleged theft?” When was the last time a victim of a break-in was asked by friends whether the crime really occurred, or whether maybe, just maybe, they were making it up because they wanted attention?

Never, that’s when.  However, rape victims frequently face disbelief from those closest to them; friends, family, co-workers find it easier to believe the victim is lying than that they could have been raped.

Why is this the case? I think it can be traced back the way our culture has been infused with and shaped by Christianity.

Christianity has viewed women as liars and tempters since Genesis, when Eve seduced Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. And sexual assault has only been a real crime when committed against a virgin who has resisted with her utmost capability; anything less and maybe she was asking for it, maybe she wanted it. The idea of women as wanton temptresses or pure virgins permeates the Bible; Tamar, Jezabel, Mary, Rebecca, are all held up as archetypes of certain types of women. These ideas naturally influenced society and the law, which is why non-stranger rape was not even a real concept, or something that could be prosecuted, until the second wave of feminism began in the 1960s and pushed out new definitions of sexual violence. Advocates made the claim, radical at the time - and sadly still radical today - that a woman needed to consent to sex, even with a partner, and that anything else was sexual assault. Although laws have slowly changed, it was only last year that the FBI updated their definition of rape by removing the language around “forcible” and modifying it so that men could also qualify as victims.

Cultural ideas that once a woman has “given it away” she can’t really be assaulted find their root in the biblical idea that only virgins are real victims because a woman’s value lies with her virginity and giving it to only one man. Once a woman’s virginity is gone, she isn’t really rapable because there is nothing for the rapist to take away (from another man) any more. This is made clear in Deuteronomy 22:28-29, where the “punishment” for raping a virgin is that the man must pay a fine to the woman’s father and then marry her because he has sullied the father’s property.

Society has evolved somewhat past this notion, but not too far. Use of physical force is still an important factor in how our society views the legitimacy and severity of a rape. Use of physical force for most people takes away any doubt that the woman is lying because then she has an excuse for not fighting back and resisting the assault. This again can be traced back to the biblical stipulation that a woman (virgin) must “cry out” in order to be seen as a credible victim.

Women are viewed as the gatekeepers of men’s sexuality. "Good" women don’t tempt men; they reserve their sexuality for one man. "Bad" women sleep around and taunt men by dressing sluttily. And slutty women can’t be legitimately raped because 1. they always want sex, and/or 2. they flaunt themselves in front of men and then try to withhold sex. The expectation that after a certain point women “owe” men sex reveals how women are still viewed as property (another biblical concept) or things, not fully human with the right to decide their fate for themselves. There is still widespread belief that once a women takes things past a certain point, sex is inevitable and a woman doesn’t have the right to stop it.

These myths about sexual assault have all been debunked but, like the myths of religion, continue to spread and be believed even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. A secular perspective, informed by a desire for equality in society, helps shed light on misconceptions and myths about rape because secular (skeptical) people value evidence and use it to guide themselves through life.

I think a more secular society will result in a more just society because it will be less likely to revere ideas and practices that have no basis in fact. The more people are confronted with the truth about the experiences of sexual assault victims and survivors, the harder it will be for them to believe the lies that have permeated our collective consciousness for so long. A secular society will value these truths over the myths about women and sexual assault that the Christian perspective has helped perpetuate.

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