When I was 15-years-old I was invited to attend a Baptist summer camp. Growing up Mennonite I had never been exposed to overt “savior” language, nor had I previously received such direct and controlling gendered messages. At this camp I was told it was a women’s responsibility to “not lead men astray.” In other words, 15-year-old me learned she was directly responsible for a 15-year-old guy’s erection, an apparently horrible and sinful occurrence in a young man’s life. Wearing a pair of shorts one inch “too far” above my knee would be the catalyst to sinful and lustful thoughts. The blame inevitably landed on my young female shoulders (that of course also needed to be covered due to man’s uncontrollable lust).
Religion–both Christian and none–and the sanctity put upon a woman’s virginity is partially to blame for a cultural belief that rape is all about a man’s “lust” and inability to “hold back” from his sexual desires. Dominant Christian cultural beliefs hold women to a different sexual standard than they hold men. Rape is too often confused with sex, which often let’s the man off the hook in situations of sexualized violence, and therefore allows rape to continue.
In December I posted the above cartoon and asked “Why is rape different?” One-third of women murdered in the United States are killed by intimate partners, but we don’t call it “acquaintance murder.” Why must we then label rape committed by a partner or friend as acquaintance rape? I quickly answered my own question after getting frustrated with the language a woman used in a blog. The content of her piece was good. Focused on forgiving the man who raped her twin sister, I really couldn’t argue with her compassion or enlightened understanding in the situation. But I did feel the language used was detrimental to the cause.
She kept referring to the perpetrator’s “lust” and how his “lust” for her sister caused him to act in sinful ways. Words such as purity and lust have become engrained in traditional Christian text and tradition, and that is where I think our society, religion, and culture have done some serious damage. That is why here on my blog I want to repeat an important message, loud and clear:
RAPE IS NOT SEX.
RAPE IS NOT SEX.
RAPE IS NOT SEX.
Rape is far too often muddled with pleasure. We’re under the guise that those who rape are doing so for purely sexual reasons. This is why I do not use the phrase “sexual violence.” Rather I use “sexualized violence,” a term we prefer using at WMC’s Women Under Siege. As Gloria Steinem says, there is nothing sexual in nature about rape.
The roots of rape go deeper than sex. Instead, rape falls into the categories of violence, power, entitlement and control. Rape is linked to male dominated gun violence, domestic violence, and verbal abuse. It’s an expression of masculinity and a fear of losing one’s strength and domination in the world. It’s often a view of sexual entitlement, where a man is under the impression that he is somehow owed a sexual exchange. Lauren Wolfe and Steinem write about these cultural causes of rape, terming it “The Cult of Masculinity.”
Putting importance on a woman’s chastity and believing that rape is caused by lust implies that when rape occurs, it is the woman’s fault. It also implies that women do not have the same natural and divine desire for sex. In some cases, yes, a woman’s libido may be lower than that of a man’s, but this is not always the case. For example, as a woman I am not ashamed to admit that I have a strong libido. Yet I do not rape a male friend when he’s sleeping, nor do I go out to bars and pressure men into having sex with me. If a man or woman is “lusting,” and they are comfortable with sexual relations, than he or she could seek out a willing partner wanting to engage in consensual intercourse with him or her. And if that partner can’t be found? Then (shockingly) abstinence is possible.
The fact that women are rewarded for not having sex outside of a marriage, yet a woman is slut-shamed for premarital intercourse, means that the only true value of a woman is her sexual purity. This is what causes the victim-blaming, stigma and shame I spoke about here. Even in a case where a woman wakes up to a man penetrating her, or when a 16-year-old girl in small-town Steubenville, Ohio, winds up drunk at a high school party and is raped by multiple boys, she is blamed for her failure to remain chaste.
Then when the perpetrator is an acquaintance, the rape supposedly gets “more complicated.” The majority viewing the case are under the impression that the woman was wiling to give up her sexual purity, resulting in her becoming a “slut,” while the man’s lust was natural. Because she flirted with the man, wore low-cut blouses, or danced provocatively, she led the man down a road of lustful desires and is in return responsible for the end results. How many times have you heard a police officer, news reporter, college administrator, or perpetrator say that the female victim just “regretted her drunken mistakes the previous night” and was casting the event off as rape?
Unfortunately this transfer of blame happens more often than not, which is why many women don’t report abuses that detrimentally affect the remainder of their life, and why repeat offenders continue to exist on our college campuses, churches, work organizations, and homes. In reality, the FBI reports that the number of “unfounded” rape accusations are around 8 percent, which has been determined a high percentage. Yet, 54 percent of rapes and sexual assaults are not reported to the police. Factoring in unreported rapes, this means only about 3 percent of rapists ever serve a day in jail. These statistics and percentages are atrocious, yet more often than not we still question the victim’s “motive,” like they set out in the night having some sort of agenda.
If we want to change stigma and victim-blaming then we must refocus cultural and religious ideas about sexuality and a woman’s right and control to her own body. We must eliminate judgment of women based on what they wear. We must hold a woman’s purity on the same level as a man’s. We must view women in the same light that God view’s women – as whole human beings. As a first step, let’s take the words “lust” and “purity” out of the same sentence and context as rape.