An article that was recently published by Christianity Today has rightfully infuriated many people, Christians and atheists alike. Since publication, Christianity Today has been getting significant pushback (see hashtag #TakeDownThatPost) for publishing the piece, and late Friday night, as I was putting the finishing touches on this article, they took it down and posted an apology. However, that does not negate the fact that they published this piece in the first place and, as an ex-fundamentalist Christian, I find their initial choice to publish it utterly unsurprising and completely in line with common Christian doctrine surrounding sin and sex.
The article in question is by an anonymous felon who is in prison for sexually assaulting (and having a coercive sexual relationship with) a minor under his charge while he was a youth minister. However, from the tenor of the article it is impossible to tell that this is the case. It is framed by the site and the author as a consensual extramarital affair, where the wrongdoing is located in adultery, with the explicit implication that anyone can be lead into this “sin”. Except that is not what this is at all – there never was a consensual sexual relationship; the crime and morally reprehensible act is not cheating but sexually coercing and assaulting a child/young adult.
According to common Christian doctrine, the girl who was victimized and the pastor are both guilty of sexual sin because the girl “tempted” the pastor and “allowed” this so-called relationship to take place. Because she wasn’t physically forced (at least not by the perpetrator’s account), she is equally or at least partially culpable. Additionally, instead of casting this man as a predator who manipulates and abuses, Christianity* conveniently plays along with this manipulative tale of how anyone can “fall into sexual sin”, thus absolving the perpetrator of any real responsibility for his behavior or acknowledgement of what his actions truly constitute.
Growing up in fundamentalist Christianity I witnessed this attitude continually. Sin was something anyone could fall into or commit, and all sins were equal in the eyes of God – therefore, sexual abuse was just one more sin and victims were closely scrutinized to see if their actions had led someone to sin. As long as the sinner asked for forgiveness, all was well again and it was the victim’s responsibility to forgive their abuser or else they were sinning as well (along with the not infrequent insinuation that the victim was also somehow at fault for tempting the perpetrator). There was no difference in their eyes between two teenagers “falling into sin” by having a consensual sexual relationship and one person sexually assaulting another – both were simply sexual sin.
In many circles there was an additional assumption that the victim must have done something for God to “allow” this to happen: the victim was, perhaps, not under the “umbrella of protection”, or was behaving or dressing “immodestly”. The concept of enthusiastic consent and that a victim never invites assault was not only rejected, but conflicted with common interpretations of the Bible and the many passages that place the onus on the girl/woman to avoid rape by being virtuous. To illustrate, a pastor at a church I attended as a child counselled a man who was sexually abusing his daughters, but no one saw any reason to report him because he was seeking counseling through the pastor and asked for forgiveness for his sin (which he, of course, kept repeating). And in another story, a woman I know was frequently sexually assaulted by her father and at times molested in front of her mother – her mother’s response was to accuse her of being a temptress and to ignore the abuse. In fundamentalist Christianity there is always an easy cause for sin: Satan, who is often seen as acting through the victim and leading the sinner astray.
Christian outlets will continue to publish the missives of manipulators like this because their philosophy and doctrine support it – changing that narrative within the church requires a complete reinterpretation (and I would argue, rewriting) of the Bible around the concept of sin and forgiveness, among other things.
I prefer to construct a secular ethical and moral code that doesn’t require rewriting a mythos that has no value to me – especially because I personally find religion to have harmful consequences, ultimately, because it relies on a refusal to examine and discard beliefs for which there is no evidence. The fact remains, though, that religion is a powerful force, and no amount of evidence will convince most people to abandon it. Working from within to change narratives that support and foster abuse is necessary, and a task I hope progressive Christians continue with, though it is not work I can participate in.
Although Christianity Today has removed their article, I believe they should do much, much more. Ask Christianity Today to publish a series on sexual abuse in the church from the perspective of victims. You can contact them by filling out their contact form.
*Note: I am speaking of Christianity generally here, I recognize that not all Christians or Christian sects believe this or act this way.
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.
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.
‘It’s really a sense of power that comes from specialness … anyone who finds himself at the center of the world they’re in has a sense of impunity. Ken Dryden, lawyer and Hall of Fame goalie for the Montreal Canadiens.
In a down-on-its-luck eastern Ohio town, the local high school’s star football players were powerful people. As the town’s pride and joy – its hope for the future – the young men in Steubenville enjoyed all the privileges of small town princelings, just like millions of young men in millions of small towns all over the world. One of the privileges of that power was that the football players had their “pick” of the town’s unattached girls. For star athletes, the privilege of first pick of the most desirable girls is like selecting ripe melons at Kroger. The athlete gets to choose or discard, never the girl.
The moment that a person – usually a female-bodied person – becomes the object of a more powerful person’s desire (whether for sex or some desire to exert control), her humanity ceases to matter. She becomes, literally, a thing – currency that the more powerful person feels entitled to spend. Human culture is patriarchal: heterosexual men are the only persons whose full humanity is never questioned, while women – and men who are suspected by other men of not being the right kind of heterosexual man – are treated by every society on earth as less than fully human. Their existence and worth is measured almost exclusively within the context of their relationships with and effect upon heterosexual men. Heterosexual men are persons whose living, thinking and taking action defines who they are, while women are men’s accessories: their mothers, their girlfriends, the mothers of their children. It is the thing that they are to men which defines what women are.
The young woman who was carted from party to party in Steubenville that August night was little more than a ripe melon – or a piece of meat – to those football players. They treated her like a plaything as if there was no human being inside that unconscious body because, on a deeply primitive level, for some young men there is no human being inside a female body. And when she somehow gathered the courage to press charges against the young men who raped her, she became the thing which her town raged could unfairly (!) ruin their princelings’ lives. Having also grown up swimming in the rape culture that still permeates nearly every human society, the rape victim feared she would be blamed and vilified for reporting the crime and pressing charges and she was right. She had to be persuaded to go forward with the case, but she finally did – courageously, and in the face of vicious condemnation from her former friends and neighbors.
“It wasn’t what I expected to see,” Westlake testified Friday at the Jefferson County Justice Center here in this old Eastern Ohio mill town, where Mays and Richmond stand trial for rape. “I wasn’t really sure what to think.” Why didn’t you stop it, special prosecutor Marianne Hemmeter asked? “Well,” Westlake said, “it wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I always pictured it as forcing yourself on someone.” Let’s ignore the obvious point that you don’t need to “force” yourself on a girl who is incapacitated by alcohol. Instead, let’s simply ask what did Evan Westlake do? “I said my goodbyes,” he testified. Goodbyes? And what exactly was the response from Mays and Richmond after having someone walk in on them in the middle of that moment – even if, as the defense is arguing, it actually was consensual? “They said, ‘I’ll see you Monday at football,’ ” Westlake said. Prosecutors may get conviction in Steubenville rape trial, but it will come at a cost. Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports, March 16, 2013.
How is it possible that a modern, educated teenager does not know what rape is? If inserting objects and body parts into the body of an unconscious person is not “forcing yourself on someone”, then what is it? How could it be that in a society which claims to abhor rape, a young man stood a few feet away while a rape was being committed, felt surprised but apparently undisturbed by what he was witnessing, then casually “said his good-nights” and walked away. He walked away without the slightest sense that a crime was being committed. The sight of an unconscious girl being casually violated by two young men aroused not a scintilla of basic human compassion in him. None at all. Three football teammates casually said their good-nights, (“see you at football on Monday”) while two of them were still raping an unconscious, vomit-spattered, urine-soaked girl and Evan Westlake was not sure what to think! How could he not know what to think about that?
Although most people strongly protest that they would never condone rape, the reality is that most people actually do condone rape. Like Evan Westlake, they condone rape because they believe that most kinds of forced sex are not really rape. Most people think that opportunistic or coerced sex, which is the modus operandi in the majority of sexual assaults, is normal, understandable or justifiable thanks to a culture which normalizes and excuses men who rape women. There may be a general rueful admission that “taking advantage” of a drunk woman or pressuring a date into sex may not exactly be polite, or the smoothest, coolest way to operate, but it is still after all just a guy doing what comes naturally when he wants something and that thing is apparently right there for the taking. If the object of his interest is incapacitated after drinking too much, her failure to say “no” can be taken for a “yes”- at his discretion. If the thing he wants is not 100% clear about her refusal (at least in his own mind – remember boys: no means maybe and maybe means yes!), then a guy feels justified in assuming that he has her consent and society backs him up on that. In essence, society hands over a woman’s ‘right to consent’ to men, who are permitted – even encouraged – to apply it according to their own interpretation of reality, however influenced that may be by anger, alcohol or unreciprocated sexual arousal.
Consider the following rape apologia:
“What did she expect to happen when she went out dressed like that?”
“What did she expect would happen?” reasonable people ask, “If she didn’t want to have sex, she ought not to have sent the wrong signal by getting drunk. If she has regrets in the morning, it was her own stupid fault.”
“If she didn’t say “No’, then she probably meant “Yes”. She wasn’t clear! How is a guy supposed to know, anyway?”
“Why should some poor man go to jail because of some lying slut who only got what she was asking for?”
“If something happened that she didn’t really want, then she ought to have thought of that before going on that date/accepting that drink/asking him in for coffee/smiling and flirting/trying to enjoy full rights to free citizenship while being female…” – pick any scenario because they all lead to forced sex somewhere every day.
And of course, the ever-popular “If men don’t pursue women aggressively, the human race will go extinct!” which both excuses male aggression and denies normal, healthy female sexuality in one astonishing stroke.
With very rare exceptions, not quite consensual sex is seen as the inevitable result of mistakes made by women (leading men on, dressing like sluts, asking for it with their ice-girl attitudes, expecting to enjoy the freedom to go places and do things that men enjoy, etc) and not as rape committed by a man. When made by a very young girl or teenager (who is still assumed to be a virgin), these “mistakes” are considered foolish but innocently regrettable (though the sexual assault is still the girl’s own fault), in the case of non-virgin women, the use of the word “mistakes” is a transparently insincere way of describing what is clearly believed by the culture to be calculated, provocative behavior on the part of a lying female who later regrets her own bad behavior but who inexplicably still wants to draw attention to it by accusing an innocent man of rape.
She must have led him on – how was he to know she only wanted to enjoy a flirtatious evening and then go home alone? Obviously, she didn’t – she just changed her mind after the fact!
Having internalized these attitudes thanks to the pervasive rape culture, most people are uncomfortable labeling such incidents “rapes”. It strikes people as somehow unfair to call a man who merely uses a woman’s body without her explicit consent a rapist. Most of the time, people agree, women only get what they deserve!
Then, there is the myth which goes something like this: the only real rapists are monsters. When they are not leaping out of bushes to attack a woman with a weapon, rapist monsters are hanging out at bars creepily stalking stupid women. Even so, it isn’t a crime to be a creepy guy – innocent nice guys are sometimes called creepy and just think of that slippery slope! If women weren’t so stupid, they would not provoke real creeps to stalk and/or attack them! But, the handsome, normal guy who won’t take “no” for an answer after a date is nothing like those monstrous rapists. Maybe he paid for a nice dinner date and she’s been smiling at him all night – so he can’t be blamed for having expectations! and anyway his making a move is a natural red-blooded male reaction to female provocation. People ought to give him the benefit of the doubt because he is such a nice guy but they should have a healthy skepticism about the honesty of the girl or woman. A man should be thought innocent until proven guilty; a woman should be thought a liar until proven to be telling the truth. Reasonable people should always be extremely cautious about casting doubt on a person’s character – it could haunt him for life! – so trashing a woman’s reputation instead is the only reasonable response to a rape accusation. The accused man is a person – a fully human being whose life could be ruined by the accusation that he is a rapist monster! – the accuser is merely a woman – just a female, and everyone knows how they lie…the question of whether her life might be ruined by whatever transpired is hardly worth asking. Females are, after all, made to be used by men, so why are feminists making such a big deal over this?
Another popular justification for rape apologia is the pretended even-handedness of criticizing young men for walking alone in unsafe places or getting drunk in situations where they might be assaulted and criticizing young women for walking alone in unsafe places (just about anywhere away from male protectors – and even then not so much, but that is for another post) or getting drunk in situations where they might be assaulted.
“Holding a girl responsible for her own stupidity is not victim-blaming! I’d criticize a guy, too, if he stupidly put himself in danger by getting drunk with the wrong crowd or hanging out on the dodgy side of town!”
But here is where this false equivalency breaks down: even if we accept the claim that society actually accuses young men of bringing crime on themselves through their appearance or behavior (something so rare that even a determined google search can find little evidence of it with the notable exception of too many cases which are suspiciously limited to young men of color or other marginalized groups, but again, that’s another post in itself), the difference is that no one ever suggests that because of a male victim’s stupidity, his attackers should not be held accountable for their crimes.
In no other assault scenarios are victims held responsible for inciting envy, fear, rage, a desire to hurt or control or any other emotion in their attackers. Only when girls or women are attacked – and in particular when they are sexually assaulted – is the onus for the crime placed upon the victim. It is not even sexual assault itself that is the exception but specifically sexual assault against women and girls which is reserved for this special victim-caused ‘incident’ category. Rapes of boys and men are not generally dismissed as “he was asking for it”. One only has to point to the recent public hue and cry over the sexual crimes committed by priests in the Catholic Church to see that this is true.
The rape of a child or teenager – or indeed any person who is in a subordinate position to an authority figure – is unconscionable and deserves to be prosecuted vigorously. However, the deliberately vague term “child rape” that is always used to describe these clerical crimes obscures the fact that most of those victims were not just “children” but specifically underage boys. The stark truth is that it is because the majority of these crimes were committed against boys and young men that society is as horrified as it is by them, and it is because this fact is obfuscated by the coy usage of “child” instead of “boy” that society can continue to pretend that it treats all rapes – of both male and female victims – as equally terrible. The truth, however, is that similar abuses have been visited upon girls and women in far greater numbers for all of human history – at least 1 in 4 girls and women are raped in their lifetime by clerics, teachers, family members, neighbors, boyfriends, employers, husbands and sometimes even strangers – but this ugly feminine reality has never elicited universal societal condemnation like the outrage over the recently uncovered sexual abuse of boys by priests. On the contrary, rape, forced pregnancy and assault of girls and women has been protected all over the world for most of human history by patriarchal social mores and laws, often justified by ‘respect” for religious freedom. Rape and male oppression is accepted as the way things are for women. Boys and men, on the other hand, are never supposed to be the targets of this kind of abuse. When it happens, it is considered an intolerable blight in society.
In first world countries, most women gained citizenship, the right to vote and legal recognition of their human rights over the last century. Nevertheless, most societies still do not accept that the majority of rape claims by women are really rapes. The hyper-vigilance over “false accusations” is not because assaults have not occurred, but because society denies that those alleged sexual assaults are equivalent to ‘forcible rape’. There is always a justification, always an excuse for why it was understandable for that man to force that woman into a sexual act.
The Rape Culture that pervades all human societies ensures that women are still considered less than fully human – even in the first world – so that abuse of their autonomy and consent is tolerated and condoned even by the justice system. By and large, the reality in most societies is that while there may be laws on the books criminalizing rape, society actually refuses to recognize most forms of sexual assault on women as legitimate rape, and in practice most societies regard nearly all women as unrapable. When the fault lies with the alleged victim, there can have been no crime committed. Rape culture reinforces the idea that women, by their very existence, are always sexually tempting men, always at fault, always to blame. Women make men force sex on them, so it is never rape.
In many parts of the world, rape is accepted as an everyday occurrence, and even a male prerogative. In 1991, at a coed boarding school in Kenya, seventy-one girls were raped by their male classmates, and nineteen died in the ensuing panic. The deputy principal reassured the public: “The boys never meant any harm against the girls. They just wanted to rape.” Michael Parenti, “The Global Rape Culture”, The Culture Struggle, 2005.
Rape culture serves up a double whammy to women – it not only dismisses the assault of women and girls as justifiable based upon the feelings of their attackers, but it also holds the victims responsible for those feelings. Young men raised in rape culture are accustomed to judging the morality of their behavior toward women according to their own emotions and desires – how they feel around a woman justifies their behavior toward her – and at the same time they are encouraged by rape culture to hold women responsible for how they, men, feel. Rape culture tells men that they are entitled to satisfy their own urges at a woman’s expense. Many, if not most, men who assault women believe that what they feel has been deliberately caused by the women they target, and, therefore, the women are responsible for whatever happens. Surprisingly frequently, especially if charges are laid against him, a rapist will actually claim (and actually believe) that he is the victim in the situation. Plenty of evidence supports the contention that society – steeped in rape culture misogyny – usually agrees with him.
Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety. Rape Culture affects every woman. The rape of one woman is a degradation, terror, and limitation to all women. Most women and girls limit their behavior because of the existence of rape. Most women and girls live in fear of rape. Men, in general, do not. That’s how rape functions as a powerful means by which the whole female population is held in a subordinate position to the whole male population, even though many men don’t rape, and many women are never victims of rape. This cycle of fear is the legacy of Rape Culture. (Rape Culture, Marshall University Women’s Center.)
Many women unwittingly support rape culture by taking comfort in the mistaken belief that rape only happens to a certain kind of woman and they themselves can avoid it by living properly (whatever they think that means). What they fail to realize is that by promulgating rape myths, they actually strengthen the rape culture that makes them more likely to be victimized. Rape myths provide cover for those who actually commit the majority of rapes: seemingly ordinary men who also believe the myths of rape culture and who thus believe that in many situations the consent of a woman can be considered implicit based upon how he interprets her behavior. If he feels that what she is wearing or where she is or how much she has drunk or how much she has flirted is an invitation to him, then it is an invitation to him regardless of whether the woman ever had any thought of issuing an invitation. What she thinks or feels simply does not matter because the possibility that she actually has real thoughts and honest feelings like he – a fully human person – does, simply does not exist. Many rapists have so thoroughly absorbed the poison of rape culture that they truly believe that they are entitled to take what they tell themselves women are offering and therefore whatever they have done, it is not rape.
Thanks to the warped view that rape culture propagates of what is normal sex, many men feel genuinely threatened by the idea that any non-consensual sex might be called ‘rape’. Most of these very concerned men consider themselves nice guys but some are uncomfortably aware that they may have skated over the consent line at times. Defensively, they insist that there are grey areas in the mating dance.
Women are hard to read! Sometimes ‘maybe’ can mean ‘yes’, not “no” Why should any red-blooded man accept that ambivalence is a form of “no” and be forced to hope lamely that on another occasion she will give enthusiastic consent? Why should women get to have the upper hand in sexual matters?
They argue that parsing the meaning of a woman’s “It’s getting late”, “I’d like to go home now” or “It’s not a good time” is a complex problem and that consent is a very vexing and elusive concept.
Women jerk men around! Why would she say ‘maybe’ if she means ‘no’? Maybe ‘maybe’ means ‘yes’! Why shouldn’t a guy interpret her ambivalence as ‘yes’? Everyone knows women want to be swept away. But if she doesn’t want that, then she should be clear about it. Who can blame a guy for pressing the issue? If he doesn’t press, he might never have sex!
They worry that to criminalize all nonconsensual sex is a slippery slope which could unfairly bring innocent men down with the (very, very few!) guilty ones.
Consent can be very ambiguous and difficult to determine! When she accepted the date/flirted/drank too much, who can blame a guy for thinking she was giving tacit consent to more? How dare she cry rape in the morning just because she regrets her slutty behavior of the night before!
Ignoring for now the constant underlying thread of misogyny that runs through all rape apologia (which can be boiled down to: women lie, they lie constantly and they enjoy lying just to hurt an innocent man for the evil pleasure of it), there is an interesting inconsistency highlighted by this claim that sexual consent is difficult to decipher.
At least one study has shown that human beings are perfectly capable of recognizing both verbal and non-verbal refusals, even when the word “No” is not used at all. In every other sphere of human interaction, human signals for ‘no’ – for refusal – are widely understood by both men and women and yet men who rape persist in special pleading that it is difficult to be sure in just one specific situation: when a woman is saying ‘No’ to sex. Rapists prefer the emphasis to be on whether a woman said “No” clearly enough because they know that there will be wiggle room for them to pretend that most forms of verbal and nonverbal “no” secretly mean “yes” when it comes to female sexual responses and, unfortunately, society allows them to make – and win – that argument.
“Did she say ‘yes’?
“Then your answer was ‘No’.”
“But she said, ‘Maybe’!”
“But, did she say ‘yes’?”
“Then your answer was ‘No’.”
“But she seemed like she was not sure, maybe she wanted to consent!”
“Did she say ‘Yes’?”
“Then your answer was – undeniably, unambiguously – ‘No’.”
In spite of the best efforts of women’s groups working to reduce sexual assault, no large-scale social movement to accept a working definition of consent such as “Only an unequivocal ‘Yes’ means ‘Yes'” has been forthcoming. Many men – who definitely do not see themselves as rapists – prefer the pliable, male-interpreted “No” because it would be much harder for those Nice Guys to kid themselves about their own opportunistic behavior – and harder for society to excuse them, too – if the only acceptable green light for sex was an unequivocal “yes”. “‘No’ means ‘No’ (except when Nice Guys™ think it means ‘Yes’ to them)” has been massaged by the rape culture to suggest the possibility of ambiguity and that leaves the door open for not-so-nice-guys to cash in on the sexual aggressiveness of a few men.
Thanks to the fact that women live in fear of sexual assault, less sexually aggressive men can still benefit from the rape culture which provides cover for more blatant rapists. By pretending to be confused by “mixed signals”, a so-called Nice Guy can pressure a woman into sex she doesn’t want by telling her that she made him think she had promised him something. More aggressive males pave the way for the Nice Guys because a woman’s fear of male anger if she refuses to honor this bogus “promise” seals the deal. By shaming women for being reluctant to trust that their intentions are honorable (even when they are not), Nice Guys often succeed in coercing women to engage in unwanted sex. By accusing women of teasing because they have interpreted a sexual invitation from a little light-hearted flirting, Nice Guys can and do frighten women into agreeing to unwanted sex because women have learned to fear the consequences of being labeled a “tease” (a “tease” can either put out what she has been “promising”, or have it taken from her forcibly, which society will judge she deserves). Nice Guys never do anything overtly aggressive, but they trade on the fear of male aggressiveness to manipulate and coerce women into unwanted sex. In other words, Nice Guys do rape, too.
The patriarchal culture which teaches men to view women as simultaneously both lying temptresses and sexually submissive subordinates ensures that self-aware rapists know they need not fear any negative social consequences as they continue to victimize women and girls. It will always be the woman’s fault. Meanwhile the self-deluding “nice guys” observe society’s acceptance and normalization of male aggression toward females, admire what they see not as rape but as other mens’ sexual conquests and regard their own sexual opportunism as perfectly normal and reasonable within that context. This is the reason why many men sincerely believe that false rape accusations are a real thing. If they – normal, nice guys! – have felt and done these things (or think it’s OK to do these things), then it cannot be rape! Only monsters commit rape and these nice guys are not monsters!
The Steubenville case, the Rehtaeh Parsons case, the UCLA water polo player case and countless other sexual assault cases, both reported and unreported, starkly illustrate how rape culture ensures that many young men and women really do not believe that forcing sex on a woman without her consent is always rape, especially if she was initially flirting or drinking at a party or has had sex before. A rape victim’s recovery from sexual violation is horrendous enough, but rape culture ensures that the society which is supposed to protect her will victimize her again through victim-blaming, slut-shaming, sympathy for the perpetrator and even erasing the victim from discussion of the impact of the crime which is viewed – like almost everything else in patriarchal culture – not from the female victim’s perspective but from the male’s. Isn’t it time that we took concrete, effective steps to dismantle Rape Culture once and for all? We’ve tried the ridiculously ineffective tactic of urging women not to get themselves raped. Perhaps, at long last, we can begin to urge men not to rape.
The first step is to raise young men who understand and respect that women are human beings whose feelings and wishes are as important as mens’. A man’s feeling of entitlement to use a woman’s body because he felt that she was offering it does not trump her feelings or her right to refuse consent or even to withdraw consent at any time if she becomes uncomfortable with the man. We need to change the sad reality that, because of our rape culture, men’s sense of superior entitlement is protected at the expense of women’s humanity. His feelings are of paramount importance, while it is often barely acknowledged that she has any legitimate feelings at all. She is a thing that causes uncomfortable feelings in a man. When rape happens it is deemed justifiable by society because of however the man felt (he felt he was led on, he misunderstood her “mixed signals”, he felt she had provoked him, etc) while the woman is held responsible both for whatever he was feeling and for the consequences when he decided not to exercise any self-control over those feelings.
Obviously, rape culture creates a win-win situation for would-be rapists. Unfortunately, it also creates an environment where the dehumanization of women is so normalized that even some nice, decent men ultimately perceive virtually every woman as “unrapable” in most contexts. In other words, because of the constant stream of misogynist rape apologia in our culture, too many boys and men unconsciously form the belief that almost nothing that they can do to a woman can ever be called rape – even though they still honestly believe that they consider ‘real rape’ a heinous crime.
The second step is to make men understand that the behavior that many of them do not consider “rapey” is, in fact, rape. That the women whom some men tell themselves were “asking for it” or whose consent some men believe they can assume because of how they, men, are feeling are not there simply for them to take. That when a man decides that because a woman has put herself in one situation willingly (a party, date or whatever) therefore it is perfectly reasonable for him to presume she has given her consent for anything else he expects the evening to lead to – even if he has to push it a little – that is rape.
Below is an ad aired in the UK which addresses Rape Culture in a gut-wrenching, all-too-common scenario: a party, drinking, the initial trust of the young woman, the expectations of the young man, and the eventual rape. This ad underlines the truth that rape occurs whenever one person coerces another person into sexual activity against the second person’s wishes. The only thing that will prevent rape is if rapists stop raping.
Teaching men how not to rape: Hey, it’s so crazy, it just might work!
Indeed, it is the only thing that will work.
TRIGGER WARNING! Please be aware that this ad portrays a common scenario where a rape occurs, and though very well-done, it may be painfully triggering to some viewers.
Fourth article in Secular Woman’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month
by Claire Bardelux
My older sister has a room of her own now, which upsets me terribly—at five years old, I am afraid to sleep alone. Sunshine floods through my bedroom windows and I have just woken for the morning. I start shifting about in bed, yawning, rubbing my sleep-crusted eyes and untwisting my flowery cotton nightgown. As I squirm, I sense that something’s not right, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I stretch and look about my sun-brightened room. Toys are scattered where I discarded them last, my favorite doll splayed in unnatural pose against the floor, stuffed animals in a variety of shapes and colors, crayons, books… And there on the sunny yellow rug is a small white blob that I don’t recognize. I roll out of bed and pick up the blob, confused. It is a pair of white cotton panties—the ones I wore to bed last night? Anxiety washes over me as I tentatively pull up the hem of my pretty nightgown to check. Sure enough, I’m bare. I’m instantly irrationally ashamed and desperate to be covered. I pull on my underwear and smooth down my nightgown, glancing around furtively to make sure no one else has seen this. How did my panties get across the room during the night? Could I have taken them off in my sleep? I squirm uncomfortably, feeling dirty, ill at ease. What happened last night and why don’t I remember? I pick up my doll and hug her tight.
It’s the middle of the night, and, at seven years old, I am sleeping in my big girl room for one. One alone. One unallied. One unprotected.
I am suddenly startled into alertness. I hear whispers and feel someone touching me between my legs—the center of my body, my most vulnerable of vulnerabilities. I panic. But to my horror, my eyes don’t fly open though I’m willing them to do so with all my might. I’m trying to scream, “Stop! Go away,” but my mouth won’t work. While I feel the scream building and intensifying inside of me, I am silent as Munch’s painting. My arms and legs won’t move. I’m trying to flail, to kick out, to close my legs, but my limbs betray me, remaining limp. I am utterly powerless. I can’t even cry, despite my terror. I am paralyzed—it’s not fear, it’s sleep paralysis. I am perfectly aware as they are touching me and mocking me. I feel invaded, attacked, frightened, ashamed, dirty. And, I am furious at myself for being unable to stop them. After several minutes, the paralysis eases and my attackers, perceiving that I am waking, are frightened away. But I can’t stay awake forever, and they know this. There is no such thing as safety. I am tormented all night—when I am being invaded, when I’m fearing that invasion, and in the morning when I don’t even know what happened while I was sleeping.
From around five years old until I was thirteen, I endured repeated nighttime attacks at the hands of my three brothers—sometimes they acted as a group, but, as we got older, my primary attacker was my older brother acting on his own. Or, at least, that’s what woke me up. I struggled with the sleep paralysis that held me captive and powerless even as I was being violated, and I never really knew what happened when I was asleep. Some mornings, I would wake with the tell-tale missing panties and feel sick with the not knowing, with the lack of control over my body. Those nights that I couldn’t stay awake to defend myself, when they or he (depending on the night) wouldn’t leave me alone, I’d flee to my mother’s bed for protection. She needed her sleep, maybe she didn’t quite understand what I was telling her, maybe she interpreted my pleas along the lines of, “Mom, he’s playing with my toys—make him stop.” But every time I begged and pleaded for help, she sent me back to bed, back to the big bad wolf. I was crushed, frantic. There was no help to be had. My father was largely absent, but even had he been there, he would have been of no help—he didn’t like having his sleep disturbed either, and he had taught us all that we were most definitely not entitled to bodily integrity and dignity. He was also a strong proponent of the “Children are to be seen and not heard” school of thinking, so excessive chatter from me was met with duct tape over the mouth. No, this was a battle I had to fight on my own, but I was failing. told them emphatically to leave me alone, but they didn’t listen. Locks wouldn’t keep them out—they’re the ones who taught me to pick every lock in the house. And I couldn’t stay awake forever or even trust myself to wake up to act in my own defense.
So, for years, I felt hurt, angry, frustrated—I felt all the pain of being a victim and all the anger at being ignored and dismissed, all the frustration and panic at not being able to control my body or access to it. I also felt horribly ashamed, as if this were my fault because I couldn’t stop them. This shame was intensified when my older brother defended his actions, telling me that he knew I really liked it. My everything revolted against this notion, but really, I had no way of knowing how I had responded in my sleep, no way of knowing fully what was happening to me. This made me feel even worse about myself and my predicament. I hated me, and I really, really hated him. I wished he were dead.
Our father was in a perpetual state of abandoning or having recently abandoned us or having temporarily renewed his residence with us. He was certainly not reliable, and when he was there he was violent and domineering. We were all frightened of him and his anger, his yelling, his throwing things, his kicking down doors, his indiscriminate whippings with the dreaded leather belt or a switch from a tree outside (he explained once that he was whipping me on general principle—in other words, because he could, he felt he should). He rode in like a tyrannical king, making decisions from on high that only made my life worse. It was he who decided my older sister needed her own room, thus stripping me of protection and comfort at night. I was afraid to sleep alone and with good reason. On another visit, he decreed that my sister should have the larger room, the one we’d once shared, and he moved me farther down the hall, adjacent to the bedrooms of my brothers—that’s right, the ones who were attacking me on a nightly basis. I cried and cried when he ordered us to change rooms, but I could never have explained to him why it was so important for me not to sleep at that end of the hall. He was just plain scary, and questioning his decisions was unwise.
I was envious of my sister, both because our father seemed to love her more and because she escaped the nighttime attacks. Why me? It felt so hideously unfair. Why should I, of all my siblings, be singled out for perpetual victimization? And, why would no one listen to me or help me when I asked? I was trapped and miserable. So, for years, it was “poor me.” I was filled with spite and responded to life with sarcasm and frequent escapes into reading. Finally, when I was thirteen, my older brother’s vicious lashing out forced my mother, who was at her wit’s end trying single-handedly to manage five children, to seek outside help. He had threatened my older sister, the one who was loved, the one who mattered, with a knife over a television channel dispute.
My older brother was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and we all had to go there regularly for family meetings, walking with trepidation (at least on my part) through two sets of heavy magnetically locking doors to get to the meeting room. It felt like a prison. One day, a couple of weeks into my brother’s hospitalization, his psychiatrist started our family session by asking us all how we felt about having to be there. Emulating my big sister, whom I envied and admired, I responded that I didn’t want to be there and didn’t think I should have to spend my time there because of something my brother had done—this was all heavily coated with my usual dripping sarcasm. The doctor decided that I was full of anger, and right there in front of my unbelieving eyes, she convinced my mother that I too should be admitted the hospital. It was like slow motion with me looking frantically from serious doctor to nodding mother. I was trapped. They’d already locked me in—I couldn’t possibly get past those two sets of heavy locked doors or break through two-inch thick, bullet-proof windows. There was no way out. My terror increased when I learned that they would be doing a thorough strip-search as part of my admission. Even though I wasn’t the one who had done something wrong, I was being punished (You don’t have to tell me life isn’t fair—don’t I know it). My small store of dignity and my futile grasping at control over my body were ebbing away.
I was locked away for eight weeks, during which time I experienced an even greater reduction of dignity and privacy. Aside from the strip searches performed on me every time I re-entered the unit (since I was attending regular meetings for victims of sexual abuse in the adult unit, these forced showings of my naked body to a complete stranger were quite frequent), my captors searched my room and even garbage can daily. I couldn’t say or write anything with the expectation of it remaining private. They’d pull my crumpled up notes out of the trash and put them in my case file to analyze and judge. They watched me literally every hour of the day and scored my behavior for each time increment on a scale of zero to three—they showed these scores to my psychiatrist and to me to make sure we both knew just how imperfect, how bad I was. Every single morning in full view of all the other adolescent patients, they weighed me (if you’ve ever been a thirteen year old girl with body image issues, you’ll know this is traumatic), took my temperature and required me to answer personal questions about my mood and bodily functions. They’d come into my room multiple times at night to make sure I was still there and asleep.
So, really, this wasn’t substantially different from what I was experiencing at home except that it was systematized, more thorough and done by people I didn’t know. This was all under the guise of trying to help me, but from the perspective of a child who has been traumatized and taught that her body and possessions are not truly her own, that she has no right or recourse to control and protect herself, the perpetual scrutiny of my body and lack of privacy was horrific. On top of this, I knew that my classmates couldn’t help but notice my prolonged absence and speculate as to my whereabouts. Now they too knew something was wrong with me. Privacy? Who needs privacy?
The nighttime attacks stopped after the hospitalization—I was moved back into a bedroom with my older sister—the same one we’d shared eight years prior—and Child Protective Services started visiting to check on me in particular. They offered to take me away (another punishment?), but I wanted to stay at the home I’d just returned to after a long and frightening incarceration. Family life continued to be dysfunctional and fraught with discomfort. I might not be able to avoid being hit, threatened, yelled at, derided, but at least I wasn’t being molested in the night. The fears and shame and sense of violation never really left me while I was in that home—in part because healthy boundaries still had not been introduced. We none of us had the skills to relate to each other properly. I continued to feel anger over my treatment, and I felt isolated because I was the one who had been chosen for the role of victim, abused and ignored, mocked and shamed, punished with imprisonment and degradation. My focus stayed on myself alone and how everyone else had wronged me, was complicit in my trauma. As I grew older, I couldn’t wait to leave my dysfunctional family, to escape the house of horrors—I often wondered why I hadn’t elected to leave when Child Protective Services had given me the opportunity. At seventeen, the day after I graduated from high school, I fled the home of my unhappy youth, moving into an apartment near the campus where I’d be starting college in the fall.
I’ve spent decades attempting to heal myself, to make myself emotionally stable, to stave off anxiety and panic attacks, to forgive my family and myself, to learn to trust myself and others. I’m making progress, but it’s not easy and I certainly have setbacks. I’ve come far enough along to step outside of the “poor me” perspective at times. I’ve come to terms with much of the trauma I’ve experienced, but discussion of these things with my family has been very limited. I don’t think I’ve ever told my brothers that I forgive them, but I do. They were just children too, raised in a chaotic and unhealthy family that set them up for failure in their interpersonal relations and their understanding of appropriate behavior. In traumatizing me, they were also traumatizing themselves. I have forgiven them, but unless they’ve done a better job than me at blocking out the past, they still have those memories—have they forgiven themselves?
Back then, I was angry too at my sister. She had told our school guidance counselor about what had happened to me, and the counselor took me off guard when she asked me about it—I felt that it was my experience to choose to share, not my sister’s. I felt exposed and once again out of control of my life. It all seemed so unfair because it wasn’t her that this happened to. Now, I realize that she too needed to talk about our home life to heal. It actually wasn’t just me suffering from what was happening to me, and it wasn’t just my story; it was all of us, every single one of us was sinking on that cursed ship.
It’s like we were all tossed into a moving blender, pushing off against each other in an effort to avoid the blades, but no one could escape unscathed—a pulverized family. Whether you landed directly on the blade or not, you were still going to subsist in terror, viewing and feeling splatters of the carnage. We didn’t all make it out alive. My older brother, the most severe of my tormentors and the one I’d wished was dead, passed away while I was in college. I never told him that I’d forgiven him or that I loved him—talking about such things was impossible. It’s painful for me to think on what his life experiences were, how much he craved love and approval, how much difficulty he had in forging intimate relationships. Recently, I’ve been able to talk to my sister a little about my experiences and how they made me feel, something we’d scrupulously avoided in the past. It was good for us both to connect, to tell each other how much we love each other. I hope one day soon to have the courage to broach the past with my living brothers as well.
Third article for Secular Woman's Sexual Assault Awareness Month series
by Laurel Reed, follow her on twitter
As we enter into Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it is painfully clear that the youth of America are more unaware than ever. And we adults can directly blame ourselves for their ignorance. Sex education classes in the United States (where they’re available) are woefully inadequate. Only 18 states require sex education to be medically accurate. And, thanks to the overbearing presence of religion, most sex educators’ hands are tied when it comes to updating or presenting new material. We all remember the “Don’t Say Gay” bills that circulated through various mid-western state legislatures. If students and teachers can’t even say the word “gay”, how are they supposed to educate themselves and other people about different sexual identities?
Open dialogue about different sexual and gender identities is just the beginning of what American students are missing. According to a Guttmacher report, “half of students in grades 7-12 report needing more information about what to do in the event of rape or sexual assault”. So not only are students not educated on how to respond to a rape, they are also not told what rape is, what sexual assault is, and what consent is. This horrifying reality came to light during the recent Steubenville rape trial when one bystander stated, “I didn’t know it was rape- it wasn’t violent”.
I believe that sex education should be about so much more than basic human anatomy or when and where is the best time to lose one’s virginity. As we see all around us, human sexuality is complex and always evolving. Due to lackluster education or bashful parents at home, or both, American teenagers are forced to make sense of their sexuality by themselves. This nation is so polarized by the issues of abortion, contraception, and condoms that we have forgotten that sex education should be about more than those topics. Parents are so busy thinking that their child would never assault or rape someone that they don’t bother to tell them that rape is wrong and that it is important to always get consent.
Unfortunately, for some teenagers, it doesn’t matter what they learn in a sex education class – they may have already been sexually assaulted. It’s important to these teenagers’ recovery that their assault is addressed and validated – either in a class at school, or by their parents or guardians. A person who has been sexually assaulted may combat many other resulting issues for a long time after the incident, such as sleep disorders, self-harm, depression, and flashbacks. It is vitally important to the health and well-being of our teenagers and us that we not only improve our current sex education classes, but also improve our response to sexual assault victims. We must always remind them that assault is not their fault, let them know that there are resources available to them, and that we are supportive of them.
During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, each of us should strive to remember that just because our teenagers’ sexuality or our own sexuality might make us uncomfortable, doesn’t mean we should hide information from our youth or teach them that their sexuality is something to be ashamed of. I believe one of the most integral solutions to every problem is open and honest communication. What better forum to encourage such communication than in a comprehensive, inclusive, and nonjudgmental sex education class?
First article for Secular Woman's Sexual Assault Awareness Month series
by Shanna Wells
“Hey baby, shake that thing.” “Mmmm, I like ‘em that size.” “Ugh, you’re a dog!” “Nice ass!”
For women, the simple act of walking down the street can become an exercise in navigating a minefield of unwanted comments. According to Author Deborah Tuerkheimer, “street harassment occurs when a woman in a public place is intruded on by a man's words, noises, or gestures. In so doing, he asserts his right to comment on her body or other feature of her person, defining her as object and himself as subject with power over her” (1).
According to one study, 87 percent of American women between the ages of 18-64 had been harassed by a male stranger, and over one half of them experienced “extreme” harassment, including being touched, grabbed, rubbed, brushed or followed by a strange man on the street or other public place (2).
The right of men to control the female body is a cornerstone of patriarchy. Street harassment “frightens women and reinforces fears of rape and other acts of sexual terrorism” (3). It is a human rights violation in that it restricts the free movement of women in public spaces.
For years, women have tolerated street harassment as a fact of life. But recently, a number of organizations have developed to address the issue. www.stopstreetharassment.org is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending gender-based street harassment worldwide. The website provides strategies for women to address street harassment directly and to train bystanders, men, and boys as advocates against this form of sexual terrorism.
According to ihollaback.org, Street harassment is one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against. It is rarely reported, and it’s culturally accepted as “the price you pay” for being a woman or for being gay or gender non-conforming. With the now common prevalence of cell phones, Hollaback encourages women to use the cameras on their phones to document cases of street harassment and share their stories on the Hollaback website. According to a study Hollaback completed in conjunction with the Workers Institute at Cornell, “Taking action generally has a positive influence on a target’s emotional response to the experience of street harassment. Targets who chose to take action, whether while experiencing street harassment or afterwards (e.g., taking a photo of the harasser, reporting harassment to officials), appeared to experience less negative emotional impact than those who did not” (4). Of course, the decision to take action against street harassment must be left to each individual woman, as safety should be her first priority.
Street harassment is a clear a violation of women’s human rights. Fortunately, there are now organizations working toward its eradication. To see what you can do to help wipe out street harassment, visit www.stopstreetharassment.org or www.ihollaback.org.
1. Street Harassment as Sexual Subordination: The Phenomenology of Gender-Specific Harm, Fall, 1997, 12 Wisconsin Women's Law .Journal 167.