Dear conservative Christians: Rape is not sex

Trigger warning.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, a young adult novel about a teen girl who is raped, has recently come under fire from a professor at Missouri State University who (to put it mildly) feels the book should not be included in school curricula.  Wesley Scroggins, presumably a conservative Christian and a speaker at a recent “Reclaiming Missouri for Christ” seminar, includes Speak on a list of books he deems “filthy” and “demeaning to Republic education,” whatever that is.  He also claims that Speak and other books “should be classified as soft core pornography,” and complains that “most of the school board members and administrators claim to be Christian. How can Christian men and women expose children to such immorality?”

To talk about a book that depicts two rapes and the devastating effect of rape on a young woman’s life as porn is pretty disgusting, as the author herself points out: “The fact that he sees rape as sexually exciting (pornographic) is disturbing, if not horrifying.”  Unfortunately, it’s also very revealing of how for a lot (not all) of conservative Christians, female consent to sexual activity means nothing or very little.  For a lot of conservative Christians, rape isn’t really rape – it’s sex.

I was reminded, for example, of a study guide (PDF) created by an Iowa Baptist Church for John Ensor’s odious book on Christian singleness and courtship, Doing Things Right in Matters of the Heart.  In discussing sexual “purity,” the guide says the following:

If a chaste man is protecting women, what is an unchaste man doing? Does it make any difference if the woman is willing? (emphasis mine)

In other words, having consensual sex with a woman outside of marriage is just as sinful as raping a woman.  No, scratch that.  It’s actually saying something even worse: that consensual sex with woman one isn’t married to is the same sin as raping that woman. There is no difference.  And by implication, God is totally cool with rapists so long as they stick to raping their wives.

Or take the heartbreaking story of Tina Anderson, who at 15 years old had already survived molestation by her step-father, and who became pregnant after a 38 year old man in her church (“allegedly”) raped her.  Anderson was forced to “confess” to being pregnant in front of her entire church congregation as part of “church discipline” for her “sin” (she was not allowed to tell the church she was raped, of course).  She was sent to live far from home, and coerced into giving up her child for adoption.  She was urged to write a letter of apology to her rapist’s wife (ht Camille Lewis).

[Anderson] says her New Hampshire pastor, Chuck Phelps, told her she was lucky not to have been born during Old Testament times when she would have been stoned to death.  While questioning the girl before church officials crafted the speech she would deliver, Anderson said Phelps’ wife asked her, “Did you enjoy it?”

Anderson’s rapist got away with simply losing his position as a deacon and confessing to “being unfaithful to his wife.”

Rape doesn’t really exist in this world, where all sexual contact, forced or consensual, is sex, and the only distinctions made are between licit sex (straight vanilla sex between a married couple) and illicit sex (everything else).

It’s a world where rape can be seen as titillating, where consent doesn’t make sex any less sinful – and lack of consent doesn’t make sex any more sinful.  A world where raping a minor is the same thing as cheating on one’s wife.  Where a 15 year old girl can be blamed for the “sin” of having been raped, and cast as a temptress and homewrecker.

And it’s a world that owes its continued existence to a church culture that tolerates abuse and teaches that silence is a virtue.  It took 13 years for Matt Barnhart, a former member of Anderson’s church to come forward and alert someone to the cover-up of her case.  It took him 13 years to even get to the point where he and his family left the church, even though he felt from the beginning that the church’s handling of the case was wrong.

Just last year, Barnhart quit his membership after 15 years when his family was in “fierce need” of counseling.  “How can we go to a pastoral staff when we think they might have let the rapist of a 14-year-old go . . . How can they hurt these kids and call themselves a real place that teaches the gospel?”

While it’s good that Barnhart eventually came forward, it’s alarming to think that it took so long for even one person to speak out, and even more alarming that it took Barnhart so long to realize that this church was not a safe space for his family.  It’s scary to think of an entire church tolerating this kind of abuse and being complicit, through their silence, in covering it up.  But, sad to say, I don’t find it shocking.  This is what happens in insular, exclusive church communities that are distrustful of the outside (“secular”) world and preach an easy forgiveness for the most powerful people in the community; where female sexuality is demonized, and female empowerment is seen as a threat.

In such communities it’s almost impossible for people to acknowledge that rape is not sex, or that rape is serious crime that shouldn’t ever be tolerated.

8 Comments

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  2. Ugh, this stuff makes me blind with rage. Conservative Christians refuse to reassess their opinions, make it impossible for anyone to feel free to come forward about their abuse, and then use the silence as a way to reinforce everything they believe. If it’s not treating rape as sex, it’s trying to force people to forgive so they can be held up as some example of how far forgiveness should extent, and a model for all Christians to go by.

    I have told very few people about the abuse I’ve gone through for that very reason – I’ve already gotten Christian friends who believed that if I could just better rely on God somehow I would be happy, who believed there was just something inherently wrong with who I am that caused it to happen – that I’m at fault for not forgiving, etc., that I’m not as “good” or “pure” as they are, because somehow this has damaged me as much as if I had decided to have sex outside of marriage. Christian culture taught me that when I opened up to my best friend (whose a guy) about these things, too be afraid because he I thought he might see that as “tempting.”

    It’s a sick environment, where women don’t have any say over themselves, where they still aren’t considered to have any agency to be able to play in active role in what happens to themselves and their bodies.

    And don’t even get me started on the way Christians love to fall over themselves trying to “forgive” rapists – to prove how cool and loving they are. Pesky victims getting in their way, they’re too difficult to deal with – so their silenced while the rapists are accepted back as a way to “show Jesus’ forgiveness.”

    And in my class we were discussing censorship with some high school students and the topic of Speak was brought up, and one conservative Christian argued that she didn’t feel that she should be exposed to things she didn’t have experience with – and frankly, it’s that…elitism that makes me so angry – as though their comfort should be considered more than discussing things that affect a lot of young women – things that need to be brought out into the open.

    • that I’m not as “good” or “pure” as they are, because somehow this has damaged me as much as if I had decided to have sex outside of marriage

      That is really messed up. I mean, I don’t even know what to say to that. (Setting aside the fact that thinking of sexually active single women as damaged goods is also seriously messed up). But being sexually active is soooo not anything like having been sexually abused. That’s gross and must be hurtful. I’m sorry.

      Victim blaming is a very common evangelical vice :/ I think it’s partially another one of those things that’s built into the theology – everyone is sinful, no one is ever blameless, so even victims have to be a little bit to blame for their abuse. But that can’t really account for the extent of the victim blaming since survivors face so much more negative consequences and judgment for abuse than the actual abusers do.

      she didn’t feel that she should be exposed to things she didn’t have experience with

      That blows my mind. She’s literally making a virtue out of chosen ignorance. Wow.

  3. Many years ago I remember my oldest aunt, a very politically active founder of the Feminist movement in the country where i grew up (a “disgrace” for the name of our family), gave her middle sister a book entitle something like “What’s the effect of power in your bed” (Lo que hace el poder en tu cama), by a guy named Josep-Vicent Marqués. My middle aunt had been married for many years by then, to a proper family (in my family, like in many, you not only marry a person, you marry a family, a name). This meant that she stayed home to take care of the children while the husband went out to do “serious” business, and support his little wife and children. Needles to say that many problems were part of my aunt’s marriage, who could not divorce because all her family income was in the hands of her husband. So, she decided to “learn” to deal with him.
    My oldest aunt gave her the book expecting that she would learn from it and perhaps try to negotiate with her husband a more egalitarian relationship.
    My middle aunt was outraged, offended beyond words, and throw the book to the trash while everybody around her commented on the pornographic and immoral character of such literature–and my oldest aunt’s values.
    Today, the middle sister and her husband have grown old together, and have raised horrible children (2 boys and a girl) who have no respect for their mother or for themselves. She also takes care of an older, aging husband, and has become his secretary as well… finally, she has control over the money of the family, but her independence is again co-opted by a husband in constant need of attention. Of course, he’s not the only one responsible for such disastrous relationships; she is as well, and so is my family and, in a general level, a world that tells women that their value comes from the way men perceive them–and thus treat them. If they are “lucky”, they will be objectified into a wife, and placed in a marriage contract where prostitution is the hallmark: the husband has all the power over the wife’s body and life because he supports her and her offspring (it is not his offspring unless there is a boy to make him proud, and continue his name… or his love of baseball… and this is not a joke). The husband can even place the wife in a position where she is not able to have a personal source of income or social relationships outside of the marriage. This may sound like the 1950s, but look around, and look at the way *we* all frame our relationships and expectations (even in a “liberal” couple the husband “helps” the wife with the household… because it is her job and he’s doing her a favor).
    Of course, women who are not objectified as wives (or mothers thereof), are objectified in many other terrible ways: essentially, a woman needs the “protection” of a man to be “safe” from most other men. This is as old as writing (probably older), and is proof of a patriarchal story that has changed little. To attest to this is the fact that even if women, after the feminist movement, have been able to obtain jobs and certain rights, in the affective level they still form relationships in the same frame as previous generations, and often find themselves in the position of having to choose between their freedom and individual identities or their role as wife.
    Rape is, of course, the end of the spectrum… or, is it? The husband protects the wife in exchange of one thing: sex and servitude… he provides her with “everything”, and thus has every right over her… rape, in the context of marriage, is still almost impossible to prove in a court of law, and is a very new legal concept. Rape happens every day in many marriages–or at least often enough; but women have been “educated” to perceive that as the right of the husband and her way to express gratitude (because rape includes a wife who is condemned in a family as not being relevant in the dynamic of the family as a result of her position of women).
    Rape is, in essence, the way many men still understand their sexual rights and their interactions with women (or with other men, because these roles cross genders easily), and such sexual activity is also the table men use to qualify and classify women: the virgin (for you to be the first and only), the wife (the bonded woman), the mother (the indebted woman), the slut, the prostitute, the divorced one…

    • Great comment, Mark! I think the part about women needing male “protection” and provision is particularly insidious – the flip side of depending on someone for protection is that you’re also incredibly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by that person, and the same goes for depending on someone for provision. There’s a fundamental inequality in traditional marriage roles that inherently encourages abuse – it should be that both partners provide for and protect each other, but when you have only one partner in that role, the dependent partner is basically taking on the role of a child (another group incredibly vulnerable to abuse precisely because they are entirely dependent on others for protection and provision).

      The way we think about sex is still that only men want sex, and that men are entitled to have sex whenever they want, and women are just means or obstacles to that end. What women want is not a part of the equation at all (because good women don’t want sex). That’s the idea that makes rape culture possible – when women’s desires are totally erased and don’t matter, rape is no different from sex.

  4. Strictly, if you’re dealing with fundamentalist christians, then a single white lie is as evil as multiple rapes in their eyes. Sin to the fundies is sin. It’s a binary worldview. They live in a universe where a newborn baby is as evil and sinful as Adolf Hitler (please don’t take that as an invocation of Godwin’s law) and damned to hell should they die before they’re old enough to comprehend the sinner’s prayer.

    I’m awfully glad I don’t live in that world.

    But this reminds me of a conversation I had with some friends in the early 1990s. It was a fairly esoteric debate which had little to do with the real world.

    The topic – morally which is worse raping someone or seducing them into consensual sex?

    One of the guys (the one who proposed the question) held the bizarre position that the latter was morally worse because not only were you having sex but you’d also persuaded someone else to sin (making two sins) as well whereas the victim of a rape hadn’t sinned (hey, at least he didn’t blame the victim I guess) so while rape was undeniably the worse crime (seducing someone quite rightly not being a crime unless you’re dishonest about it) it was only one sin.

    That pretty much went down as well as you’d expect with everyone else.

    • Becka – welcome to the blog, and thanks for the comment!

      Strictly, if you’re dealing with fundamentalist Christians, then a single white lie is as evil as multiple rapes in their eyes.

      That is technically true, though I think it’s applied inconsistently. Everyone is supposed to feel like they are just as sinful as anyone else, like there are no big or small sins in the sight of God, and (esp. for those of us raised with Calvinist BS) that we’re all capable of literally any kind of evil apart from grace. But at the same time, there is definitely an implicit hierarchy of sins in fundamentalism and evangelicalism, and sexual stuff is definitely at the top of that hierarchy, in terms of badness. And it’s pretty obvious that most fundies and evangelicals don’t really think of themselves as as sinful as non-Christians and Christians who aren’t “real Bible-believers.”

      Re: your friend . . . Wow. I don’t really know what to say to that. That’s a very, um, unique perspective. And why the seduction scenario – I mean, what if (hard as it might be for this friend to imagine) both people just want to have sex with each other and no one has to be “seduced?” Ridiculous.

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