From Part 3:
In the church, the narrative we write for women is important. If the narrative is narrow and unyielding, if the roles are predetermined and leave zero room for diversity, then those who are seen as outliers become the outcasts. The outcasts become the vulnerable. The vulnerable become the victims.
The church abandons its charge to minister to the “least of these” and becomes a haven for misogynists, racists, and abusers, many times to the detriment of our women.
Rape Culture, Sexual Abuse, and Assault in the Church, or “Surely Not Us!”
All these previous posts bring us to the most important part of this discussion: rape culture.
In talking about rape culture and sexual assault and abuse, the conversation extends much further than just this particular sin. It extends to all forms of violence against the vulnerable: women, children, elderly, LGBTQI people, people of color, immigrants, disabled. For the church to be effective in countering any kind of abuse, we must recognize commonalities and risk factors, and act swiftly and with purpose.
Diagnosing and Dissecting the Problem
Every 2 minutes an American is sexually assaulted. 1 out of every 6 women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (and 1 in 33 men, often in the LGBT community). Nine of every ten victims of rape are female. Every 8 minutes, the victim is a child. Approximately, 63,000 children a year are victims of child sexual assault, a majority being between ages 12 and 17. 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls have been sexually assaulted before 18. 82% of all juvenile victims are female. 60% of perpetrators are known to the victim. Only 30% of assault cases are reported to the police and only 6 out of every 1,000 offenders will spend time in jail. Only 2% of accusations have been proven to be false, which is the same rate as all other reported crimes.
But, perhaps, the most shocking is the fact that 93% of sex offenders describe themselves as religious. Sexual offenders within faith communities have more victims (and often younger victims) than in any other setting.
These statistics are sobering. We know without a doubt that when we gather in community, we are among women and men who have been survivors of sexual and physical assault.¹ Churches must keep this in mind: how do we talk about women in light of these statistics? How do we address things like rape or sex or consent or abuse in the church when we know that this is a reality for many of our members?
Here’s the first thing: Church, we have to stop calling sexual assault just a “mistake.” We need to take responsibility by understanding what forces are at work.
Sexual and physical violence against women is about power and control and often stems from the belief that women are not equal to men. One of the best empirical studies on the mind of a rapist finds that it’s “regular” people who often perpetrate sexual violence. They may have deviant sexual or sadistic tendencies, but more times than not, rape is committed because of his distorted conceptions about women. The act is usually triggered by anger and it’s often impulsive, born from a need to demonstrate toughness and masculinity.
When helping victims heal from their assault and understand the cycle of abuse, most professionals use the Power and Control Wheel. This tool demonstrates that abuse is patterned and stems from a need to control and intimidate. Abusers justify their actions through minimizing, blaming, and guilt. This model for explaining abuse describes how the abuser justifies his actions. It’s the male privilege wedge of the wheel gives us insight into why he feels entitled to exert power over her.
His privilege says that he deserves simply because of who he is. His privilege lets him dismiss any narrative that is not his own experience. His privilege allows him to be egocentric and aloof. His privilege blinds him to other points of view and personal testimonies. His privilege tells him that his needs are the most important.
Power differentials are huge indicators of abuse. The more power a person has over another person, the more marginalized the powerless person becomes. In abuse, the abuser has control of everything his victim needs: safety, approval, respect. His power over her lies in his belief that his life is privileged above hers.
Typically, an abuser assumes and retains power by narrowly defining the roles of women, controlling and determining her identity and making all the decisions.
He mainly does this through silencing. Her voice is not heard because he doesn’t give her a chance to speak. All too often, once she escapes the abusive situation, the silencing continues. It continues through police reports that suggest she could have done better, family members who don’t believe her, and communities that lecture rather than listen. Our culture protects and perpetuates the idea that women can’t be believed and rape isn’t common. This is called rape culture.
Rape culture is an all-encompassing description of an environment that excuses violence against women due to mitigating factors.
The idea that the church supports abuse and reinforces rape culture is a frightening one. Talking about God’s intentions for men and women in the church can be good; but when women’s stories are readily dismissed and men are automatically, uncritically elevated to positions of authority, victims are often denied compassion and care.
Rape culture begins with the belief that men and women are not really equal; that it is normal and good for men to dominate women sexually, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. In rape culture, a woman’s body is seen as “belonging” to the male. This gives men permission to seek sex any way they can get it.
Many times, the “future potential” of the abuser is elevated above the personhood of the victim, and society sends the message that a woman’s body is less important than a man’s ability to make money. This is rape culture.
Rape culture says that women are always responsible for what happens to them. Rape culture says that men’s lives matter more than women’s. Rape culture protects perpetrators and ostracizes victims. And rape culture absolutely hates the idea of consent.
(This is Part 4 of a multi-part series. Part 5 will examine the issue of consent and how the church teaches healthy sexuality and sexual behaviors. )
¹ While there could be a whole series focusing on sexual and physical violence against males (especially gay men and young boys), I am choosing to focus on the specific issues surrounding women. This is intentional. Often, in these discussions, we miss the fact that violence against women is more pervasive, patterned, and systemic than violence against men. Violence against men is evil and stamping it out is absolutely vital to creating a healthy, thriving community. However, violence against women is often ignored and deserves a platform of its own.
Kaitlin Shetler received her bachelor’s degree in social work from Harding University in 2009 and her master’s degree in social work from the University of Tennessee in 2010. She currently serves as the director of the ACCESS Ability program at Lipscomb University and is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW). Kaitlin has over twelve years experience working with at-risk populations, including survivors of domestic abuse, older adults, and the disabled. She lives in Hermitage, TN, with her brilliant husband and sweet baby girl and attends Hermitage Church of Christ, a community that has welcomed her with open arms and little to no eye rolling. Her passion is working alongside people to better the church and the world through advocacy, service, and dismantling oppressive systems. She often speaks and writes on feminism, abuse, disability, race, and sexual assault within church contexts.