Our natural state is not “rape-worthy”

Have you ever woken up and thought, I’m going to write about this today, only to have your inbox or social media change your mind?

I was going to write a great post about grace and love and what happens when those things collide with actual people.  Don’t worry, I’m still going to write that one; two blog posts yesterday reminded me that we sorely need it.  But today, I can’t.  I can’t because the warmth I felt reading about when real, Christ-like love happens was overshadowed by what I read this morning.

I knew, of course.  Who hasn’t heard about the brutal gang rape of the woman in India that resulted in her death?  It’s been splashed all over the news since it happened.  But that’s not what made me stop this morning as I perused my feeds at the kitchen table, sitting with my son while he nibbled his toast.  No, what hit me was this article (warning: graphic rape).  This quote stood out to me:

A culture in which women are expected to remain virgins until marriage is a rape culture. In that vision, women’s bodies are for use primarily for procreation or male pleasure.

E. J. Graff has gotten to what I believe is the heart of the matter:  That rape culture, and purity culture as a contributor, have lumped rape, sex, and women’s bodies into the same category.  Autonomy is for men; submission and purity are for women.  The same culture that insists that a woman do everything within her power to prevent male “lust” is, if not overtly then at least complacently, accepting of rape as a means to control women.  It becomes the “natural” consequence of “inappropriate” conduct.

  • If only she hadn’t been wearing that outfit
  • If only she had remained sober
  • If only she hadn’t been alone at night
  • If only she hadn’t been alone with a man
  • If only she had learned to defend herself better

In American culture, where women are free to dress and behave in any manner they choose, we find excuses for rapists because, in some way, we believe she was “asking for it” (or at least behaving in a foolish manner likely to result in her assault).  Yet if it were even remotely true that the woman is at fault, we should not see any rapes in cultures where women are covered head to toe or who are expected to remain only among other women.  This is clearly not the case.

The problem is the conflation of rape and sex.  Rape is not primarily about an inability of men to control their surging hormones.  If that were true, far more men would be rapists, including spousal rape.  The brutalization of a woman by means of violating her vagina is about controlling her.  It is a demonstration of power, whether it be power over her specifically or a display intended to prove power in general.

What I find interesting is that the vast majority of people who excuse rape, or at least minimize it, on the grounds that a woman is “asking for it,” would not ever be likely to rape anyone.  A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a young man from the church we were attending at the time.  He said,

What a lot of girls don’t realize is that if they dress a certain way, guys are going to treat them a certain way.

I knew what he meant, particularly when he said that he tries to show girls respect no matter how they are dressed.  I tried to gently get across the point that it isn’t about a girl’s clothes, but about how a boy feels about girls in general that is the problem.  I don’t know whether he believed me or not; we haven’t discussed it since then.  I hope he took that conversation to heart.  At any rate, his primary concern was for the girls, that they might find themselves facing unwanted contact.  It is admirable that he didn’t (and presumably still doesn’t) want to see anyone victimized.  I see this as one of the reasons why (misguided though they may be) that some people try to look at it as primarily a problem of inappropriate sexuality.

Unfortunately, the belief that rape is sex is what is at fault.  There is no amount of changing the way a woman dresses or acts that will prevent rape.  I’m not convinced (short of the kind of thing found in Minority Report that would weed out potential rapists) that there is anything we can do to prevent rape in its entirety.  We can, however, change the way we view rape and the women (and men) who are violated in this way.

The picture that appears at the top of this post came from a friend who put it on her Facebook page.  I believe this is the other side of the same coin, though I think the picture misses the mark in continuing to equate rape and sex in a sense.  One way in which I think we can move forward is if we ask men to consider exactly why they would not violate a woman.  I doubt that most of them would say that it’s merely because they can get all the sex they want consensually or because they possess “self-control.”

The other way that we can begin to make the necessary changes is to stop equating a woman’s vagina with her worth as a person.  This is an antiquated view that stems from the concept of women as property, first of their fathers and then of their husbands.  That is not to say that it is not admirable (or even “best”) for both women and men to refrain from sex until marriage (or, if one is more progressive, until in a committed, healthy relationship).  But tying a woman’s value to what has or has not been inside her vagina creates a place of shame.  It is what leads women who have been raped (including rape by family members) to believe they are unacceptable because they’ve had “sex.”  Both men and women should be taught that their value comes not from the undefiled state of their genitals but from their hearts.

I want to add one last note of hope.  I believe that the young people in our churches today are crying out for this message.  I am so blessed to have an ongoing relationship with several adolescents and young adults who are already working to change the attitudes within the church.  We need to hear their voices over the din of our culture and we need to encourage them to speak out.  They are the antithesis of the morally bankrupt youths who actively and passively encourage situations like the rape of an Ohio teen.  We can do this, Church.  We can be the change we want to see.

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