Saturday, June 14, 2014

About Rape: We Still Just Don't Get it

Over the past week I've had my attention caught a number of times about the whole issue of rape: what it is, what it isn't, what is the right way to address it-- and, most noticeably, a number of clearly wrong ways to address it.

The first thing that came to my attention was when well-known columnist George Will wrote an article about what he called "the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. 'sexual assault.'"  In that article he decries the fact that
[n]ow the Obama administration is riding to the rescue of “sexual assault” victims. It vows to excavate equities from the ambiguities of the hookup culture, this cocktail of hormones, alcohol and the faux sophistication of today’s prolonged adolescence of especially privileged young adults.
Using scare quotes around the words "sexual assault" twice, Will questions any definition of those words that go beyond "forcible sexual penetration." Will says that the real problem on college campuses isn't rape at all, but interference by the federal government:
Academia is learning that its attempts to create victim-free campuses — by making everyone hypersensitive, even delusional, about victimizations — brings increasing supervision by the regulatory state that progressivism celebrates.
George Will believes that ideas about rape that go beyond his narrow definition are "delusional" and lead to a victim mentality.  But what Will actually demonstrates is that he has no real understanding of what rape and sexual assault actually are. As Samantha Field at "Defeating the Dragons" points out, what Will thinks about rape and sexual assault simply buys into a number of myths and misconceptions: that if you don't fight back, it's not rape; that if you're drunk, it's not rape; that if you've had consensual sex with the person in the past, it's not rape; that if you don't report it immediately, it's not rape.

But here's what the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network says about it:
[Unless] both people are old enough to consent, have the capacity to consent, and agreed to the sexual contact. . . [it] is a crime. It does not matter whether the other person is an ex-boyfriend or a complete stranger, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve had sex in the past. If it is nonconsensual this time, it is rape. . . If you were so drunk or drugged that you passed out and were unable to consent, it was rape. Both people must be conscious and willing participants.
This definition is not about insisting that sexual partners, no matter how committed and mutually trusting, must stop at each point of an encounter and ask permission to proceed.  But it is about being certain you are not forcing yourself on someone who really doesn't want it.  It's not that hard to ask, when encountering reluctance, "Are you into this? Is this what you want?" And of course words or actions indicating "no" should be respected!

What rape and sexual assault really are is actually fairly simple: deliberate sexual contact without consent. But as a society, we seem to still have a lot of trouble wrapping our minds around this, and it doesn't help when well-known leaders in the media confuse the issue in ways that blame the victims and excuse the perpetrators.

The second thing brought to my attention this week was one of the big misconceptions that doesn't often get talked about: the gender stereotyping that says men can't really be victims of rape. When a rape victim's story is disbelieved, marginalized or treated with skepticism, it revictimizes the rape survivor, and male survivors are no exception.  The men's stories on this AskReddit thread are heartbreaking to read and are not misogynist or inflammatory against women or feminism, as some male advocacy groups can be.  But boys who are under the age of consent can be groomed sexually by female authority figures such as teachers, just as easily as girls can.  And men in general may be stronger than women in general, but an individual woman can be strong enough to force herself on a smaller man-- and men, just like women, can be drugged, or assaulted when they've had too much to drink.  Male victims should not be shamed about their manhood or mocked for being "wimps."  They should not have the police refuse to take them seriously, and they should not be laughed at by society.  

Rape is rape, no matter who it happens to, and these false assumptions about men and rape are just as bad as false assumptions about women and rape.  A woman should not be told it couldn't have happened because she was dating the guy, or married to him.  And a man should not be told it couldn't have happened because he's a man.

Finally, and worst of all, was an incident that happened Friday, June 13th, where Christianity Today's Leadership Journal published the story of an ex-youth minister now serving jail time for sexually grooming and then having sex with one of the minor girls in his care.  Somehow Leadership Journal overlooked that this perpetrator was presenting the situation as a consensual, adulterous affair rather than the ongoing rape of a minor who was legally incapable of consent.  The writer said nothing about remorse for the irreparable harm done to this poor child, instead focusing on his own losses as a result of his behavior.  Leadership Journal treated him like a fully repentant confessor when he clearly was far from it. 

When readers responded with outrage and dismay and began a Twitter campaign called #TakeDownThatPost, Leadership Journal responded with a full apology that I believe is sincere.  But the fact remains that if our society doesn't get it about what rape is, many of our Christian leaders really haven't been getting it. 

As Tamara Rice at Hope Fully Known eloquently explains in her open letter to Leadership Journal:
You let a convicted statutory rapist tell his “side” of things in a pages-long post where the victim’s youth was relegated to a side note and the word “abuse” is never mentioned. You let him discuss it as if it were a mutual, consensual affair, as if you have forgotten the influence that a 30-something youth pastor would have over a vulnerable teenage girl. Maybe you don’t know. Maybe you don’t understand how these things work. If you don’t … if you’re really that naive, I beg you to start studying cases like this. Follow the life of a teenage girl in a scenario like this as she journeys into adulthood.
 “But he says it was ‘mutual,’ ” is probably your argument. And, sure, she might have thought it was “mutual” at the time too. Do you understand that’s what happens when a man with power and control sets his eyes on someone vulnerable who is NOT his for the taking? . . . 
Do you get that he is in jail FOR A REASON? Do you even understand what a horror it is that you let her abuser go on and on and on for pages and pages talking like this was an adult consensual affair, when she was obviously young enough that it LANDED HIM IN JAIL? Do you have any inkling of what he’s done to her and her life and her self-esteem and her sexuality and her emotional health and her spiritual health and everything about her not just for right now but most likely for years to come? . . .

Any supposed warnings to other pastors out there about a scenario like this should have simply read:
“If you find yourself attracted to one of your students, get out of youth ministry ASAP and get yourself into counseling, because you are contemplating doing something against the law. You are entertaining the idea of ruining another person’s life. You are toying with the notion of doing something that makes you a sex offender. YOU ARE CONTEMPLATING A SEXUAL CRIME. Wake up and get yourself out of ministry and get yourself some help before it’s too late.”
THAT’S a warning. And if this man were truly repentant AND UNDERSTOOD THE GRAVITY OF WHAT HE’S DONE, that’s what he would have said. 
We don’t need even one more sex offender preying on our kids under the guise of doing great ministry, and we certainly don’t need even one more evangelical ministry that doesn’t get it. . . [This] speaks volumes about why this is a problem in our churches. It speaks volumes about all the advocacy work still left to do in regard to sexual abuse. [Emphases in original]
I really don't think there's much, if anything, I could add to that.  Ms. Rice has told it exactly like it is, and I'm glad Leadership Journal responded as responsibly as they did.  They took down their post but didn't try to hide, understanding that this was an important learning experience that needed to be recorded for future conversation.

We need to learn, as individuals, as a society and as Christians and Christian churches, what "rape" and "sexual assault" and "consent" or "nonconsensual" really mean.  We need to stop blaming victims and excusing perpetrators.  We need to deliberately and with forethought set ourselves against the assumptions and gender stereotypes and misconceptions that make this about anything other than a heinous, criminal reversal of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

That's the only Bible verse I'm going to quote today, because I think it more than covers the subject. The concept of consent is simply an embodiment of Christ's Golden Rule.

It's high time we wrapped our minds around it. 

2 comments:

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Just when I start thinking that our society is really starting to understand what rape is, someone like Will comes along and shows that far too many have no clue what it is. If a person does not consent, or cannot consent for any reason, it is rape, plain and simple.

JaredMithrandir said...

I agree with much of this post. But I disagree with the simplicity of your Statutory Rape laws. And I think we should ask a minor how she feels about her relationship with an older man before we assume she must have been traumatized. Simply dismissing the agency of teenagers does more harm then good.