I’ve avoided writing on rape culture for a while, because it’s a difficult issue to tackle from a Christian perspective. In my experience, Christian churches don’t often talk about power and consent, and even more rarely do they truly acknowledge the reach and implications of rape culture for the body of Christ.
But recent events have pushed me over the edge. A woman I know posted a Facebook status about the first time she was raped eight years ago. She’s twenty-five. The first time, friends. Not the one time she was raped, but the first time.
I have countless other friends who have been sexually assaulted, Christian and non-Christian women alike. By men at Christian colleges, by male colleagues, by male friends, and even by male authority figures. This doesn’t even begin to cover the women with “almost” stories, the women who thought they might be. The women who can remember the moment when they felt, for the first time in their lives, like prey.
I shouldn’t know so many stories.
Recently, someone asked me if there was ever a time when I thought it might happen to me.
“Only three times, I think.”
That’s what I said. Only three times did I have good reason to think I might be assaulted. Only three times did I think that someone might “help themselves” to my body. Only three times did I have that sick feeling in my stomach of being afraid and having nowhere to go.
But if we’re just talking about unwanted touch, then it’s many more times. And that’s where many women are at. Unwanted touch is just unwanted touch. At least it’s not a violent threat, we tell ourselves. At least if I push him a little harder next time, he’ll probably back off. At least I can laugh it off. At least.
It’s time to break the silence.
This is not just a secular problem. This is a problem between men and women, Christian and otherwise. This is a power problem that has reached into our society and into the very heart of the body of Christ.
We need to talk about rape culture. It’s a scary topic, because it implies that Christians might have a consent issue, even a power issue. That there might be more going on beneath the surface of Christian culture than we want to face. That we might need to actually talk about consent, power, and male entitlement in the church.
I want to be clear, I am not saying that all men are guilty of this sin, or have the potential to be guilty of it. I can name countless Christian and non-Christian men who would never touch a woman without consent. I am saying that we have a moral responsibility to deal with the underlying power issues that have created rape culture, and that includes in our homes and churches.
Because our young brothers and sisters in Christ are dealing with the consequences of our silence.
Because raising strong Christian women won’t necessarily protect them from unwanted physical touch.
Because raising Christian men who read their Bibles and pray every morning might not halt the corruption of unchecked physical and social power.
We have to talk about this.
Power and Consent
There are many ways to physically violate someone else. And silence on an issue can leave huge holes in our understanding of appropriate and mutually safe physical touch. This is not about modesty, purity, fear, lust, or temptation. This is about consent. This is about power.
Patriarchal theology has an undercover power problem. As scandal after scandal emerges from patriarchal churches, the common denominator is clear: power.
In a patriarchal culture, female agency is often virtually non-existent. In an environment where men have all the power, leaders can use their authority to groom and manipulate women.
Patriarchal culture creates conditions that are ripe for abuse.
Stories don’t lie. A "biblically-justified" power differential between men and women is always dangerous. I feel that my critique of patriarchal theology is fair considering the significant amount of recent sexual abuse scandals. I believe that patriarchal religious culture enables the abuse of women. This doesn’t mean abuse always happens. But patriarchy makes abuse possible and far more likely.
Men have felt entitled to the female body for much of history. In the ongoing narrative of male domination, women’s bodies are the commodity—something to be acquired, possessed, and used.
Patriarchal culture awards men a lot of power over the female person, and this extends to the female body. The leap to sexual control and entitlement is not that far. Patriarchal theology endangers women and encourages entitlement in men.
It’s important to talk to Christian boys about who “owns” the female body. Of course, our bodies ultimately belong to God. But it’s important that Christian girls understand that no one is entitled to their bodies, and that Christian boys learn that women’s bodies are absolutely not under their authority.
And it's important for Christians in particular, to understand that male entitlement isn’t right or biblical. Christians often make sweeping statements like, "woman was created for man" without really examining the implications of those types of claims. Nowhere in the Bible do we see evidence that the female body exists for the pleasure of men. Rather, we see an ongoing affirmation of relationships, physical and otherwise, that are mutually honoring.
We can observe this in Paul’s instructions in 1 Cor. 7. He prescribes mutual submission between men and women, implying both the importance of consent and the ability of a woman to exercise agency with her own body.
Breaking Our Silence
A Christian girl is not immune to coercion, pressure, and manipulation, particularly if she has been socialized to submit to male authority. But this isn’t just a problem in patriarchal churches. This is a problem in any context where men and women don’t share authority.
This is a tough topic. But I encourage you to have these conversations with your sons and daughters when you and they are ready. Because we owe it to them to break our silence on rape culture.