Dear Conservative Christian Leaders:
According to the Pew Foundation, the majority of Americans are members of your churches and look to you for spiritual and moral guidance. I am writing because you have been stunningly and tellingly silent on one of the most pressing moral and social issues we face today: rape. At least twice in the past three months, you have had occasion to speak out about the issue of rape, and you willfully cast those opportunities aside.
The most recent example is the press conference/prayer service that six pastors from your ranks held in Steubenville just two days before the trial of two young men accused of raping an unconscious teenage girl. You cited as the reason for calling your prayer service a desire to end the “discord” that was tearing the town apart. You could have moved the town closer to resolving the conflict by using the moral authority you wield in that community to clarify that inserting anything into the body of an unconscious person is rape. You could have used the occasion to denounce sexual assault in more general terms. Instead, you prayed for mercy for “the alleged victim, the alleged perpetrators of the crime and all those who may have somewhat contributed to it” and urged the town to engage in “amelioration.” Your plea for unity and peace sounded an awful lot like, “Sit down, shut up, and stop talking about rape.”
A more global example is what happened this past Christmas. The world’s attention, prayers, and good wishes were focused on the New Delhi rape victim. As the Pope gave his Christmas sermon, the victim hovered between life and death. But rather than use his time at the world-wide microphone to condemn rape or even to pray for the victim’s recovery, he used the festive occasion to rail against homosexuality.
The problem does not seem to be that you feel shy or squeamish talking about sex. You have talked in exhausting depth about a long list of what you see as America’s sexual sins—everything from pornography to gay marriage. You have written entire series of books telling women how to be pure and other books, such as Every Man’s Battle, instructing men on how to keep themselves from lustful thoughts. And on the other side of the equation, there are countless Christian sex manuals that tell married couples in very explicit detail how to have a mutually satisfying sex life.
Yet, in the thousands of church services that I have attended, in the countless hours of Christian radio I have listened to, and in the hundreds of books I have read by Christian authors, not a single one has exhorted the faithful not to rape. I conducted dozens of Google and Yahoo searches and was unable to find a single instance in which a conservative Christian leader has advocated publicly for consent in sexual interactions.
My second year in Bible College I was intrigued by why no one spoke about rape—not in our ethics classes, not in chapel sermons, and not in the churches we visited. I began asking pastors and professors why they were silent on the subject. I continue to ask that question of the many pastors and priests whom I meet as a researcher. Consistently, I get a variation on one of two answers.
The first answer is usually delivered in a very defensive tone. I am told that you do not need to preach about rape for the same reason that you do not preach against robbing banks. It is self-evidently wrong, and nobody in your congregation would do such a thing.
The idea that all rape is self-evidently wrong is belied by the fact that a significant percentage of Americans do not even believe that penetrating unconscious woman is rape. And the notion that no one in your congregation would do such a thing is equally and obviously false. Google the words rape and Evangelical, or rape and Catholic, and you will discover that not only are many of your flock committing rape, but a significant number of your pastors and priests are committing the crime as well.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence that rape is not self-evidently wrong and beneath your followers is the comments sections on many feminist websites. The most frightening and graphic rape and death threats come from people who identify themselves as conservative Christians. They tell us that God will judge us for not believing in Jesus, and then threaten to rape our daughters, often in the same paragraph.
Since rape is not self-evidently wrong in our culture, and your followers clearly commit this crime, you must speak out against it. You have established yourselves as moral authorities and fought to retain control over sexual education. This obligates you to condemn rape and to teach about consent. It is your responsibility to teach that there can be no meaningful consent when there is a significant power imbalance such as that between a teenager and a teacher or between a pastor and a member of his congregation. You must be absolutely clear and unequivocal when delivering the message that marriage does not grant one person permanent and irrevocable consent to sex, that no one is obligated to have sex with anyone else, and that a person can withdraw sexual consent at any time, even if they are naked and were begging for it twenty seconds earlier.
The second and most common reason given for why you do not speak out about rape is that you have an overarching sexual ethic, heterosexual marriage, that makes discussions about rape unnecessary. You believe that rape is not an issue when all sexual activity is confined to heterosexual marriage.
There are several problems with using your overarching sexual ethic as rape prevention. First, you ignore the very real problem of marital rape. Furthermore, your devotion to this master ethic of heterosexual marriage renders you unwilling to educate about consent. You believe that, like access to birth control and comprehensive sex education, this undermines your message of abstinence outside of marriage. That you would be left saying “Don’t, but if you do…”
The foremost problem with your overarching sexual ethic is that it creates false equivalencies between rape and other acts that you consider sexual sins. The clearest example of this false equivalency at work can be found in the sections of the Catholic Catechism which enumerate and categorize sins. Rape is not considered an offense against another person’s bodily integrity. Instead, it is listed alongside lust, masturbation, fornication, and pornography as “offenses against chastity.” The wording of the Catechism makes the gravity of these offenses seem relatively equal. For example, while rape is said to do “grave damage,” fornication is said to be “gravely contradictory to the dignity of persons” and a “grave scandal.”
Evangelicals have created a similar false equivalency. For example, consider the case of Ernest Willis, who raped a 15-year-old girl. Court testimony reveals that the girl’s church compelled her to publicly confess to the sin of putting herself in a “compromising position” (she had accepted a ride home after babysitting Willis’ children) and to subject herself to her church’s ritualized form of public shaming. In addition, she was forced to write letters to Willis’ wife to apologize for having put Willis in a situation where he would break his marital vows. Even though it was clear that Willis was at the very least guilty of statutory rape, he was asked only to confess to breaking his marital vows, and was subjected to exactly the same public shaming in the same service as his victim. He was not brought to true justice until his victim discovered 14 years later that she could still press charges. Predictably, she was vilified and he was supported.
The example of Willis illustrates the true danger of the false equivalency created by having heterosexual marriage as the master sexual ethic. Victims of rape are seen as complicit in their attack by virtue of being in a “compromising situation,” whether that is alone in a car with a man, as in the Willis case, or being drunk, as in the Steubenville case.
You need to face the fact that your master sexual ethic is not only failing, it is doing harm. It is not preventing sex outside of marriage and it is certainly not preventing rape. Your ethic is supporting the ideas and culture that make rape so prevalent.
I call on you to teach consent as your primary sexual ethic, to teach that a woman never deserves to be raped regardless of what she is wearing or doing, to reprove your followers for using threats of rape to harass people whose ideas they do not like. I urge you to educate your young followers that meaningful consent is enthusiastic and that it can be given only by people in full control of their faculties and when there are no negative consequences for refusing. I challenge you to use your public forums, your news conferences, television appearances, and radio shows to launch an anti-rape campaign that makes the rules of meaningful consent abundantly clear.
You teach that knowledge of the truth makes you responsible for acting on it. Now that you know the truth of the harm being done by your silence, you are responsible for taking action. If you remain silent, we will have no choice but to conclude that either you do not take your faith seriously or that you have a vested interest in seeing rape continue.
Photo from Nigsby licensed under Creative Commons