Many a father of daughters has asked himself, “With all the terrible things that happen to women and girls in the world, how can I keep my girls safe?” Given that I’m a women’s rights activist, this question may occur to me more often than it does to other dads. That’s probably because I frequently come across some very sobering statistics.
For example, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), one of every nine girls (defined as female persons under the age of eighteen) in the United States is sexually abused by an adult. Of those, ninety-three percent are abused by someone they already know, whether a relative or other acquaintance.
When girls become adults, things don’t get better. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in five American women alive today has experienced rape at some point in her lifetime. Of the rest, forty-four percent have experienced some other sort of sexual violence, whether assault, harassment, or another form of sexual aggression.
As an activist, I often talk about how such widespread violence against women and girls has its roots in rape culture—that is, the ways our society tells men that they’re entitled to sex with women. Rape culture includes the frighteningly common notions that:
- Men are within their rights to pressure women into sex; after all, women like to play “hard to get” and know they want it.
- You can’t blame a man if he sexually assaults a woman dressed in revealing clothing. Guys can’t help themselves sometimes; she was asking for it anyway.
- We should believe a celebrity or pro athlete accused of sexual assault more than we should believe his accuser, given that there are so many “gold diggers” out there.
- It’s not really a man’s fault if he has sex at a party with a woman who’s too drunk to know what’s going on. What did she expect would happen?
- We should go easy on promising, talented young men who’ve committed sexual assault. They have their whole lives in front of them, and we don’t want to ruin their futures.
- There’s no such thing as “date rape.” Sex can happen on dates! But legitimate rape—where a guy jumps out and attacks a random woman—that is truly a horrible thing.
Just as violence against women and girls has its roots in rape culture, rape culture in turn has its roots in a patriarchal worldview. This doesn’t mean that men with a patriarchal worldview necessarily harm women and girls; the vast majority, of course, do not. But rape culture, which tells men they’re entitled to objectify, take, and own women’s bodies, can only exist in settings where men are seen as superior to women. A culture in which women and men are truly equal in value and authority would not permit such an ideology to exist. In our society, men still have far greater privilege, so rape culture still dominates.
Rape culture is, tragically, even propped up in some churches by patriarchal theology. Again, having a patriarchal hermeneutic doesn’t necessarily lead to violence against women and girls. But a male-dominant framework for understanding the Scriptures has often been used to justify it.
For example, numerous Christian women over the years have been instructed, on the basis that they are to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22), to stay in their abusive marriages. And based on a patriarchal interpretation of 1 Peter 3:6, wives are also to give their husbands not just respect but obedience, even as Sarah called Abraham “lord.”
A male-centric theological framework can also be used to twist the application of other doctrines to support rape culture. Many Christian rape survivors, for instance, report that church leaders say they should forgive and be reconciled to the men who assaulted them; after all, Jesus teaches us to forgive “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). And even Christians engage in victim-blaming when they say that assault survivors shouldn’t have caused men “to stumble” by wearing the clothes they did (Romans 14:21; Matthew 5:28).
These are examples of how a patriarchal hermeneutic can be used to spiritualize and sanctify rape culture. That’s one of the reasons I treasure biblical egalitarianism. It absolutely repudiates rape culture! That doesn’t mean we ignore passages about submission and forgiveness, but that we read them in light of the Bible’s clear and overarching message: God declares that women and men are equals without hierarchy. And this means that men aren’t entitled to anything from women just because of their gender.
As a practical outworking of our theology of gender equality, and as a response to the rampant violence against women and girls that arises from rape culture, my wife and I have taught our daughters the concept of consent from the time they were toddlers. That may seem premature at first blush, but it can be done in age-appropriate ways. In fact, I believe it’s a vital part of my work as a Christian father.
Here’s what we did. Not being experts in child development, my wife and I talked with people who were, asking how we could help our girls be safer as they grew up in our society. From their advice, we began to make certain things habitual, in order to teach our girls they are right to insist other people respect their no’s:
- We taught them that their “private parts” are theirs alone, and that no one else gets to touch those parts of their bodies. Even my wife and I made it a constant practice, when our girls were younger, to ask their permission to wash or dry these areas of their anatomy.
- We limit the tickling in our household. If one of the girls says “stop” or “no more,” then we stop. We want to reinforce to our girls that when it comes to their bodies, what they want and don’t want is paramount; people must obey their “no.”
- We’ve been teaching them about sexuality in ways that fit their ages. We started with a faith-based book for preschoolers called Why Boys and Girls Are Different. There is a version for boys and another for girls, and they both explain very simply how boys and girls are similar and different. It also calls private parts by their actual names, “penis” and “vagina,” helping kids to learn that that there’s nothing shameful or “dirty” about those parts of their bodies, and that it’s perfectly normal to talk about them.
- We try to foster a relationship with the girls in which they’ll feel safe to tell us anything. This means we also teach them there’s nothing they should keep secret—unless it’s a surprise, like a birthday present, for someone else. Often sexual abusers encourage their child victims to keep the abuse “their little secret,” meaning the kids suffer in silence for years.
- We teach them what to say and do if someone tries to touch their private parts. They are to speak a firm “no” and then to immediately go and tell another adult.
- These tactics are by no means a guarantee that my daughters won’t be victimized during their lives. But I hope that by building consent into their value systems early, they’ll be able to keep themselves safer in the future.
And just as importantly, I want this intuitive sense of consent to help them feel convinced, deep in their souls, that their bodies belong only to them and their Creator, and that patriarchal models that give men, even husbands, entitlement over their bodies are wrong.
None of this will really stick with my girls if my wife and I don’t model what we teach. We strive to be equal partners in our marriage, living out what respect and consent look like. By teaching and modeling consent, rooted in biblical egalitarianism, I hope they grow up as women that reject rape culture and patriarchy, instead embracing respect and mutuality.