Most of us would rather repair a burst sewer than have an honest discussion about rape. The ruptured sewer disgusts us, so we slink back in revulsion, diverting our gaze.
Because it’s disturbing to talk about, we sanitize the most personal, traumatic of experiences for public, political consumption. But the cultural foundations that lead to sexual violence extend layers beneath the political landscape. Our daughters, sisters, wives, and friends live in that dark world, crying out for protection, resilience, and healing from the church. Out of concern for them, it’s time to overcome our discomfort and battle the sewage.
With the politically-infused rhetoric surrounding “rape culture,” it’s easy to distract ourselves by arguing about statistics. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden earned a Pinocchio rating from The Washington Post for perpetuating the oft-quoted statistic that 1 in 5 women on campus will experience sexual assault. One journalist observed, “The one-fifth to one-quarter assertion would mean that young American college women are raped at a rate similar to women in Congo, where rape has been used as a weapon of war.” If that statistic were true, would any conscientious parents send their daughter to college? The political Right reacts to these overblown statistics by accusing the Left of serving a radical feminist agenda and propagating victimhood.
Harvey Silverglate, libertarian lawyer and defense attorney, writes in The Boston Globe, “College bureaucrats have taken to adjudicating felonies with a vengeance, largely out of fear of losing federal government funds,” following threats from the Obama administration and a request that colleges reduce the evidentiary standard for prosecuting campus rape. A writer for U.S. News & World Report comments, “It is not clear that these policies have made campuses safer places for women, but they have certainly made them treacherous places for falsely accused men.”
More realistic statistics may throw some water on this blaze. Late last year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) issued a report that showed rapes and sexual assault are significantly lower than 10 years ago. According to the BJS, about six in 1,000 college women will experience sexual assault each year.
These findings might help some parents sleep better, but experts agree that a large percentage of rapes and sexual assaults go unreported. Debunking alarmist statistics won’t solve that problem.
Why the Silence?
It’s difficult to understand — if a woman was raped, why wouldn’t she go to the police? That question arises out of our misconceptions about rapists, says Susan Kim, a counselor with The Allender Center working in private practice in Seattle. “We have images of who abusers and rapists are: perverts. Monsters. But they really are acquaintances, friends,” she says. The social consequences of reporting someone in your own social circle are greater than if the assailant jumped out of a dark alley.
In fact, rapists and abusers are often charming, smart, and manipulative. Kim says, “Abusers are teachers, neighbors, pastors, and parents … trusted relatives and friends. They are very good at reading people and knowing who is vulnerable.” The same character qualities that enabled abuse also serve them well when they are accused, says Mary DeMuth, a sexual-abuse survivor who writes extensively on the topic. “They are good at bringing people to their side. We don’t want to believe that the good-looking football player is [a rapist], so we protect his reputation.” When the rapist is an outsider it’s easier to accept. When the rapist is “one of our own,” it’s too dark and awful, she says.
As a result, women are often revictimized when they make rape allegations. DeMuth says there is not much benefit in reporting rape other than protecting other people. “You are opening yourself up to ridicule and disbelief. It is such a personal risk … it is very damaging not to be believed.” Yet talking about sexual abuse is important, she explains. “Every sexual abuse victim feels alone. When one victim stands up, 25 more stand up. There’s something powerful about telling the stories out loud.” Just this year, after one woman came forward with allegations against Bill Cosby, within months 28 other women were emboldened to report similar incidents spanning three decades.
A victim’s own shame can prevent reporting, says Kim. A woman can begin to think of herself as “a whore, a slut, a pervert — broken, unrepairable, dirty,” Kim explains. “That is the legacy of sexual abuse. Abuse can happen in a moment, but it can have a ripple effect throughout a person’s life and impede their ability to be intimate, not just sexually, but with people in general.”
Even if sexual violence will not strike 1 in 5 college students, are we willing to perpetuate the silence if it’s only 6 in 1,000?
What’s to Blame?
What has happened on campus that “rape culture” is even debated? Porn. Overconsumption of alcohol. A sexually promiscuous “hookup culture.” They all play a role in sexual violence. But they are easy scapegoats, says Greg Thompson, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. Thompson, also a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia (UVa), was drawn into the conversation last fall when the university was entangled in controversy. First, student Hannah Graham died at the hands of an accused serial rapist/murderer, then a scandalous Rolling Stone article [later discredited] spotlighted UVa’s alcohol-infused, testosterone-pumped fraternity system with a vivid exposé.
While the drama is new, Thompson says, the story is old. “If you read the Old Testament, you see a chronic assault on women sexually. The objectification of human beings has a long history.” Some of the panic around a “rape epidemic” on campus is a symptom of ignorance about the plight of women around the world, suggests Thompson. Six in 1,000 is minimal compared to the 40 percent of women in Southeast Asia who will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. “Part of what happens … is that when women are unprotected, they are consumed,” Thompson explains.
In the U.S. today, though, objectification is combined with easy access to pornography depicting sexual violence and deteriorating families, which is where constraints were previously taught. Thompson says: “A major ethical stream in Western culture is the ‘actualization of the self.’ I should be able to have whatever I want, and no one can constrain me.” When you combine ‘I should have whatever I want’ with the objectification of human beings, it is not at all surprising that we have problems with sexual assault.”
Writing for The Witherspoon Institute, Adelaide Mena and Caitlin Seery La Ruffa attest to the danger of these attitudes on campus. “Once we get used to heedlessly using one another’s bodies, it is dangerously easy to see using another’s body for our gratification as unproblematic.” Blurry and inconsistent sexual boundaries clash “dangerously with the carte blanche given to young American adults. … The selfish individualism expected among young adults tells us not to take ‘no’ for an answer,” they write. “Respect for ideas of sexual integrity — the concept that sex might by its nature mean something more than a game — has gone out the window. With it went respect for the very concept of boundaries.”
But these attitudes are not found only on campus, Thompson insists. One journalist described sexual objectification as only the tip of a much deeper iceberg. When we treat another person as if he or she is no more complex than a carrot, we are objectifying. It’s an easy trap. Even the church can play a profound role in this objectification without knowing it, says Thompson. We lament porn, Thompson continues, but sometimes we participate in political objectification — trivializing gay neighbors or political enemies. “The church can operate out of the same cultural logic that says the chief mandate is to ‘self-actualize.’” Often, those who impede its goals receive less than charitable treatment.
The Power of Love
Thompson says the church should recognize that we need help and healing, too. Shawn Slate, Reformed University Fellowship pastor at UVa, tells a story that illustrates how recognizing culpability leads to healing.
On sorority bid night, Slate remembers turning on the TV news and bolting upright when he recognized one of his students on a stretcher — a casualty of binge drinking. The next day, other RUF girls pointed fingers: “I can’t believe she did this!”
But Slate countered, “What did you do to stop her or what did you do to help her?” After considering their responsibility to help and protect a member of their community, 10 girls apologized to their friend and acknowledged that they were partially responsible for what happened. Slate says, “It was a sweet time — it became a powerful moment in this group of girls’ lives.”
“One of the things we’ve talked about as a ministry is for us to be a people who love our neighbors well. We need to proactively care about what is happening to people,” says Slate. “How do we love one another and not just manipulate and use other people?”
Love is surely what’s needed on campus, but a different kind of love from what colleges define through sensitivity training, new policies and procedures, and rules of “affirmative consent.” A UVa colleague of Thompson’s, James Davidson Hunter, writes, “Yes, policies can be important, but in the end, the creation of a system of rules, procedures, and entitlements is a poor substitute for a culture marked by mutual respect and benevolence. The problem is, no amount of bureaucratic proceduralism will lead to the virtues of trust, generosity, and compassion. … (I)nstrumental policies cannot spawn substantive virtues.”
Only the Gospel can transform hearts so that they will be characterized by “substantive virtues” rather than selfish consumption. A letter to UVa’s campus from Bill Wilder, executive director of the Center for Christian Study there, offered a picture of the Gospel to a school in crisis: “We remember that [Jesus] entered a world marked by brokenness, pain and sin in order to bring healing, restoration and justice. Because He died on the cross, we can mourn with those who mourn, we can repent of complicity or passivity in the face of injustice, we can pursue justice in the confidence that He will make things right in the end. Because He rose from the dead, His Spirit leads us to speak and to act in love, to witness to restoration and forgiveness, to testify to the sacred dignity of our bodies in the light of resurrection hope.”
Respect for ideas of sexual integrity — the concept that sex might by its nature mean something more than a game — has gone out the window. With it went respect for the very concept of boundaries.
How can the church display this truth and beauty of the Gospel to overcome the ugliness of the gushing sewer? How can we use our power in the name of love — for victims of sexual assault and for the vulnerable and powerless among us?
First, says DeMuth, the church must create a different atmosphere for people who have been hurt. “Jesus was always on the side of the weak and marginalized,” she says. Yet in these matters, the church can be slow to act. Too often, DeMuth believes, the abuser gets the benefit of the doubt; the church is overcautious and takes great care to protect its reputation. According to DeMuth, the victim needs dignity, and her story deserves a full and respectful hearing. That means prosecuting crimes, even if they take place within a church or university, she says. “Because we think it’s a private crime, we want to keep it private. But this is a crime. This is the worst kind of thief, who is stealing the worth of people.”
Bolstering women’s sense of worth is another key, says Thompson. The church should address “the issue of how can we guard the Imago Dei in women when we live in a culture that is obsessed with consuming it.” There are women sitting in the pews who think they don’t matter, Thompson says. In fact, women across the board have no idea where they stand. In Thompson’s view, one of the best things we can do to keep our daughters safe is tell them in concrete, institutional ways that they matter.
Most fundamentally, the church must offer a vision of sex and love that transcends selfish consumption. In a culture where sexual objectification is employed to sell hamburgers, boycotting Carl’s Jr. isn’t enough.
Instead, we can point to the goodness and beauty of sex that our Creator designed and endowed with immense meaning. C.S. Lewis distinguishes between Eros — the complex state of “being in love” — with mere sexual desire. “Sexual desire without Eros, wants it, the thing in itself; Eros wants the Beloved,” he writes in “The Four Loves.” Whether on campus, on the street, or in a brothel, the thing a man wants “is a sensory pleasure; this is, an event occurring within one’s own body. … He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus.” On the other hand, “Eros makes a man really want, not a woman, but one particular woman. In some mysterious but quite indisputable fashion the lover desires the Beloved herself, not the pleasure she can give.”
Through our lives of love, then, we can display that true love satisfies us in ways that a drunken campus hookup never could. “In one high bound it has overleaped the massive wall of our selfhood; it has made appetite itself altruistic, tossed personal happiness aside as a triviality and planted the interests of another in the centre of our being,” writes Lewis. In this way, sex, in the context of love, is a glimpse of the “selfless liberation” we were designed to experience in perfect harmony with our Creator.
Susan Fikse is a wife, mom, and freelance writer in San Diego. You can find more of her writing on Twitter @SusanFikse.