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Published Date: March 5, 2013

Published Date: March 5, 2013

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Is the Church Safe for Survivors? Examining the Church’s Role in Opposing Rape Culture

Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to see an online sermon excerpt from a well-known complementarian pastor, challenging his audience to stand up for victims of assault and abuse. It was a powerful message. The pastor read from one female congregant’s heartbreaking letter recounting her rape, her abusive marriage, and the destructive, victim-blaming “counseling” she received from her former church afterwards. He challenged his church to rise above this example. He called particularly on the men of his congregation to follow Paul’s example and “treat younger women as sisters” (1 Tim. 5:2), never exploiting or taking advantage of another person. As an egalitarian watching at home on my laptop, I wanted to clap. Sure, this pastor was a long way from espousing biblical equality, but it was still encouraging to hear this message from such a popular pulpit. What a relief to assault survivors in his church! Surely this message of love and support from such a prominent Christian would inspire his listeners to critically evaluate their assumptions on survivors and assault. Right?

Wrong. Many people fought back. Blog posts and online comments responding to the sermon reported that the pastor, while correct in denouncing this woman’s assailants, did not hold the victim accountable as well. One commenter noted that if the woman “had not given [her rapist] the opportunity…she would have never been harmed.” Some wanted to know if the woman had been drinking before her rape, others questioned why she chose to be alone with a man on the night of her assault, and still others questioned her judgment for marrying a man who abused her. Sure, most listeners paid some sort of lip service to the idea that the abusers were primarily responsible, but most people wanted to know where her parents failed, where her pastor failed, where she failed. Essentially, listeners wanted to know where everyone went wrong, except for the rapist and abuser.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. A post from a popular Christian women’s blog in the spring of 2012 encouraged modesty for teen girls on the grounds that it was “risk management” against sexual assault. The article compared dressing immodestly to parking a new car with the keys in the ignition and complained that:

…A girl can dress provocatively, go to a guy’s apartment, get drunk, get naked, pole dance, come on to him and then accuse him of rape when he doesn’t stop at the last minute. C’mon, girls. Use your brains. Yes, he may be culpable of rape, but you sure didn’t do any favors by throwing your car doors open.

Instead of addressing the obvious perpetrator in the above hypothetical scenario (the man who didn’t stop when he was asked, whether it was at the “last minute” or not), the article perpetuated a number of myths about sexual assault and shifted the responsibility from prospective assailants to prospective victims. If women would just be smart instead of dressing provocatively, drinking alcohol, flirting, or spending time alone with a guy, men wouldn’t make the mistake of raping them.

Sadly, Christians are just as likely as the rest of society to buy into rape culture and perpetuate rape myths. In an age in which one in four women are assault survivors, this means that twenty-five percent of women may not find the support that they desperately need in our churches. If we are ever going to stand alongside our vulnerable sisters (and brothers) in the way that God has called us, Christians need to educate themselves about the realities of sexual assault and shape our rhetoric by facts, not myths. A great place to start is by looking at some of the more common myths about rape and sexual assault, and checking our language and attitudes to make sure we are not perpetuating these myths. Here are a few:

Myth: Rape is motivated by sexual attraction and gratification.

Fact: According to the University of Minnesota’s report on the sociology of rape, rape is motivated by power and control (John Hamlin, “List of Rape Myths”). It is not about sex. It is a violent crime perpetrated to dominate and humiliate another person. Most rapists actually have access to consenting sexual partners, and the desire to commit assault does not spring from frustrated sexual urges. Rape gratifies the urge to harm and debase other people. It does not gratify the normal, healthy desire to have consensual sex.

Myth: Women tempt men to commit assault by the way they dress and act. If women dressed conservatively and did not flirt, they would be less likely to be assaulted.

Fact: Rapists do not choose their victims based on their appearance. According to an interview with a psychologist at the Utah State Prison, there is no single profile that rapists target, and they certainly do not target only young, traditionally attractive women (Ron Sanchez, interviewed by the Public Broadcasting Service, “No Safe Place: Violence Against Women”). Rapists tend to target women who are vulnerable, easy to assault, and unlikely to report. This might be a senior citizen in a nursing home, an eight-year-old at her parents’ house, or an inebriated student at a party. Dress and appearance are not nearly as important as accessibility and vulnerability.

However, even if rapists did tend to target young women who were dressed provocatively or flirted, this still does not mean that flirtatious behavior is sending “mixed signals,” or that a woman who says “no” while wearing a short skirt is any less sincere than one who says “no” while wearing sweatpants.Condemning women for their own behavior before an assault shifts the responsibility from perpetrators to victims. When a person fails to respect others’ boundaries, fails to make sure that their partners are freely consenting to sex without pressure or coercion, and fails to take refusal, rejection, or reluctance seriously, the blame rests on them alone.

Myth: Women falsely accuse men of rape.

Fact: According to the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, false reports of sexual assault are no higher than for any other crime (Julie Taylor, “Rape and Women’s Credibility”). However, a culture of skepticism surrounding assault claims makes it harder for women to report, and makes it harder for cases to go to trial. Furthermore, there is often confusion about what it means to make a false accusation of assault in the first place. If a woman tells her boyfriend to stop, and he continues to have sex with her anyway, this is no less of an assault than if the woman had told the same thing to a stranger hiding in the bushes. No matter what a woman is doing, wearing, or who she is with, when she says “no” to sex and is ignored, the sex is non-consensual, and the act is assault. 

As Christians, let’s take our proper place in society as defenders of the vulnerable, the victims, and the innocent. And in the case of sexual assault, this begins by discussing rape in a way that leaves responsibility solely with the perpetrator, and by dispelling myths and falsehood while espousing the truth. I encourage Christians to do more research for themselves—to learn about rape statistics, myths, and facts—and to speak up when falsehoods appear in our own publications and churches.