From Part 4:
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.
Consent: Why it Matters
When Bill Cosby was initially accused of sexual assaulting nearly 60 women, there was a moment when conservative Christian schools were still inviting him to speak. When they were called on this, his supporters came out fighting. Bill Cosby wasn’t guilty, they said, but if he were, he wasn’t really guilty. The women weren’t really raped because they knew what they were getting into, they chose to drink, they knew he wanted sex, they could have left any time, they didn’t report it, and obviously they were just gold diggers. These women were not seen as innocent or victimized, but deceptive and promiscuous.
In the church, a woman’s voice—and the validity of her consent—apparently only matters if the woman is sober, a virgin, and accosted in a dark alley by a strange man. Any other circumstance and the victim is complicit in her own abuse.
But here’s the thing: consent isn’t some vague, invisible force that ebbs and flows based on how much alcohol a woman drinks or how rich and successful her rapist is. Consent is extremely black and white. Only an adult operating with his or her full faculties can consent to sex. And consenting one time does not grant free rein for all other times. This comes back to our discussion about power differentials. Only when both parties hold an equal amount of power, can they consent to sex. Anything else is off limits. Children cannot consent to sex. Teenagers cannot consent to sex with adults. Intoxicated people cannot consent to sex. People who are sleeping or passed out cannot consent to sex. Individuals with profound intellectual disabilities cannot consent to sex. Animals cannot consent to sex. All of these are sexual acts that are sinful because consent is absent and power is one-sided.
We MUST start teaching sexual ethics with consent at the forefront of the discussion. If we don’t, we are actively teaching unhealthy sexual practices. We do our sons and daughters a disservice when we ignore the concept of consent. We teach them that saying “yes” or “no” is not as important as saying, “I’m staying pure until marriage.” When we dilute the rightness and wrongness of sex to being “outside of marriage” vs. “inside of marriage,” we tell victims of sexual assault that they could have done something to prevent their abuse and that they are sinful. We fail to protect wives in abusive relationships, as they believe their right to consent left the minute they said, “I do.”
People cannot tacitly consent to abuse. People cannot accidentally consent to sex. Consent is a powerful, verbal “yes” from two equal parties. If there is no clear consent, there is no consent.
The language we use to talk about sex and abuse is extremely important. There are subtleties to these conversations–subtleties that can drive victims away from the church.
For example, when we call sexual abuse “infidelity” we are saying that the victim shares the blame. We dismiss the severity of the act by saying that this intentional pattern of abuse was really just a temptation. We harm our witness by requiring both parties to repent of their “sin.” There are so many instances of ministers having sex with teen members of their church, who, instead of repenting of abuse, repent of “adultery.”
It is important—vitally important—to understand that we are not immune. Our sanctuaries can be havens for abusers and, unfortunately, we can turn a blind eye to this. The longer we refuse to hold an abuser accountable for his actions or the more we try to sweep the abuse under the rug for fear of “looking bad” in the community, we become less “of Christ” and more of the world.
We see instances like the Duggars, the Catholic Church, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Baylor, and think, “Man, aren’t we glad we have it all together? Aren’t we glad our churches are safe?” But that’s an ignorance that can’t be ignored.
I have gathered several reports of criminal sexual abuse over the years involving Churches of Christ. I don’t have the space to address even half of these. In the past three years alone, there have been more than 20 horrific cases, all committed by spiritual leaders (elders, deacons, preachers, youth ministers). These are just the ones reported.
I cannot begin to emphasize the importance of this concept. We are losing people to Christ over the way we deal with these things, and our attitude towards survivors and women is creating a major spiritual crisis.
(This is Part 5 of a multi-part series. Part 6 will examine the common mistakes churches make when relating to victims of sexual and physical violence.)
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.