Rape Culture in the Church
We know that Sabrena’s story below represents just one perspective of an incredibly difficult but necessary conversation for all youth workers and church leaders. If you would like to offer another perspective or a piece of your own story, we welcome your thoughts in the comment section below the post or in a private email to Jacob.Eckeberger@youthspecialties.com. We pray that you’ll join us in continuing to challenge the church to become agents of reconciliation for all generations and all peoples.
“You wanted it. You know you did.”
A deacon, a spiritual leader, the man who led me to Christ, completely persuaded me in seven words that his sexual advances were my fault. It was masterful actually, how he managed to shame a young girl, who barely even understood what sex was, into believing that she was culpable for his deviance. I feared revealing the truth to my youth pastor or Sunday school teacher, believing it would only bring shame to me, and never bring justice to my perpetrator. Instead, I absorbed the lies that he whispered. For many years the shame was paralyzing. Only recently did it spurned me to question the very culture we embrace in the church.
It is my hope that by shining a light on a dark subject, the church could take the lead in creating a safe place for ALL people.
For too long, rape survivors have had nowhere to turn; but it doesn’t have to be this way any longer. Together we can have an honest discussion about rape with the hope of bringing healing to so many survivors who suffer in silence, week after week, in our churches.
The rape culture of the world is very evident; young girls are sexualized in clothing, movies, music videos, and gossip magazines. More females are enslaved today than in any other time in history. I began to voice the question “What makes the church different?” More importantly, is there something more we could be doing to support rape survivors?
For many years I considered my story just an outlier. As I matured, I sadly discovered that I was not alone in my experience. In college, I connected with many women whose stories were eerily similar to mine. In seminary, they whispered stories of fallen youth pastors who conducted secret affairs with female students. Over my eighteen years in ministry, I listened to their stories of how they were silenced to protect the church leader or youth pastor. I began to perceive the commonalities.
As a result, I reached out to male and female ministers, youth pastors, and lay leaders, of both conservative and progressive leanings, asking them to share their experiences with rape and rape survivors, all with the same two questions:
Are our youth programs unintentionally promoting a rape culture?
If so, how can we change our posture on this position?
I was flabbergasted by how unified their responses were.
A Common Definition
Before we jump headfirst into the discussion, it is essential that we select a common language to unpack these questions. When considering the term rape culture, I don’t necessarily imply a group of people who accept and promote sexual violence. The idea of rape culture is much subtler, more pervasive. A youth program infected with rape culture communicates, either explicitly or implicitly, three beliefs:
- Young men are entitled to young women’s bodies.
- Young women are responsible for stirring the sexual desires of young men.
- Rape is trivialized or ignored by the leadership at the expense of the victim or to protect the perpetrator.
Of course our youth programs do not actively promote sexual violence against their young women; however, could a suggestive rape culture subsist between the surface? The leaders I interviewed suggested a few different ways that rape culture may be implicitly communicated to our young women and advocated for some possible strategies to counter that culture.
Belief #1: Men are entitled to women’s bodies.
A youth program may promote rape when it assigns ownership of a young woman’s body to a man. I have witnessed and taught abstinence sermons over the years. Many employ I Corinthians 7:4, to promote abstinence to women, implying that her body doesn’t actually belong to her but to her future husband. Most often the second part of that verse, where Paul asserts that a man’s body belongs to the wife, is often deemphasized or skipped all together. We forget that these verses deal exclusively with marriage, written in a time when women were often married off in their teen years. The young men and women in our programs are neither married or looking to be soon married. Consequently, their bodies belong to them alone.
In Christianity we use Scripture as our guide for life and moral decisions. Sometimes that calls for the employ of common sense. Take for instance, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. Lot resided in a city teeming with religious apathy and sexual violence. One night, he welcomed some angels into his home. Soon after these men take shelter in Lot’s home, the cities erupt in riots, and rapist gangs are on the prowl. They come to Lot’s door demanding access to the visitors. In a stroke of expert parenting, Lot offers his virgin daughters instead. Without passing judgement on the morality of this decision, his actions do indeed reveal his true priorities. Lot prioritizes the value of hospitality to a stranger over the innocence and livelihood of his daughters.
Would you imitate Lot’s choice? Of course not. What civilized and caring father would offer his daughter to the rapist at the door? Common sense dictates that this decision, while appalling to us now, was descriptive of the rape culture of the time and not prescriptive for how the church should behave in modern times. Yet, the church sometimes falls under the weight of false priorities. At times, we value roles over empowerment. This strategy unintentionally communicates to women that their bodies do not belong to them at all; instead, we need to construct curriculum that guides young women and young men on how to govern their bodies in wisdom and purity.
When examining Scripture, it is tempting to project bias backwards, instead of through the lens of progressive development. Much of the Bible was written during a time when women were practically slaves. To take an ancient and antiquated understanding and chain it on all woman today, freezing us forever at that archaic level of cultural progression, is to grossly misuse Scripture.
The result is devastating. When a young woman is conditioned to believe that her body is not her own, she shows little surprise when her “No” is ignored. Perhaps this is why only 32% of young women report rape. *
Belief #2: Young women are responsible for stirring the sexual desires of young men.
A youth program promotes rape when it endorses female modesty and sobriety as a male chastity belt. While well-intentioned, this strategy is often one-sided, with little or no modesty training given to men. One prominent Southern Baptist pastor shared his criticism of this strategy by reflecting that “the young women are often portrayed in the wrong in how they dress, while the male dress code is never called out. When we focus on how women dress, we are really saying that it’s the women’s fault.”
Another female youth director of a thriving middle school youth group in Indiana, suggested that we spend more time teaching our young men and women what consent looks like. It is possible that when we place the responsibility of modesty on only women, instead of both sexes, that young men can easily misconstrue a female wearing certain clothing or excessively flirting as consent.
98% of rapist will never serve one day of jail for their crime because young women believe that the crime was a result of their behavior or clothing and never report it to the authorities. The church has a responsibility to transform this dialogue with truth.
Belief #3: Sexual abuse or rape is trivialized or ignored at the expense of the victim or to protect the perpetrator.
How a youth leader responds when confided in about rape will determine if rape culture is abolished or upheld in their church. The youth leader should avoid questions such as “Were you drinking?” or “What clothing were you wearing?” These questions carry insulations and serve to only confirm the indoctrination the world has been brewing within them since time began. Perhaps this is why only 27% of young women ever label the horror they experienced as rape. *
There is Hope
It is important to remember that in the face of the madness in the world, the church is not powerless. In fact, II Corinthians 10:4 asserts that within the church we have powerful weapons at our disposal, munitions that can destroy formidable strongholds such as rape culture.
- Empowerment: Jesus abolished gender inequality by exalting women to places of honor in his ministry; likewise, so we are free to transform culture, elevated from slaves to sisters by his anointing. Women who lead in youth group can empower woman to take ownership of their own bodies through sanctification as Paul instructed all believers in I Corinthians 9:27.
- Mentorship: There are leaders out there doing it right—loving and supporting the inherent equal power that all women and men are born with. Many of the young fathers I interviewed were worried about raising children under the shadow of the world’s rape culture. They witness this culture seeping through the cracks in our churches, slowly drowning our young people. They see it and they step into the gap. Raising up young people who honor women and men equally can only be done through intentional mentorship. It must be seen, explicitly taught, and faithfully imitated.
- Education: Educate both male and female students on rape topics and explore ways to support survivors. When the pastors and church leaders frequently talk about rape prevention, encourage students to become involved in rape support programs, and pray for the healing of thousands of rape survivors, students get the idea that taking a stand on this topic is important. Many survivors have articulated that they were silenced to protect the “institution.” Their muzzle was a sacrifice to God in the eyes of the church. In reality, the church’s responsibility to protect the victim of rape, especially under-aged victims, often falls under the legal category of mandatory reporting. Many states do not uphold the clergy as a confidential relationship in cases of rape or child abuse. Protecting the victim and abiding by the laws of mandatory reporting, will protect the church and its leaders from legal ramifications. I recommend that all youth programs research the state laws on mandatory reporting of rape crimes, so that they protect themselves as well as the survivors.
According to recent research, 44% percent of all rape victims are under the age of 18. Since rape is one of the most under reported crimes, it is very probable that this percentage is much higher. Perhaps young survivors will be more likely to come forward if they are confident that they will be loved, understood, and supported by their leadership. History will define the church by how we handle the issue of rape culture. Like Humpty-Dumpty on the wall, we must decide right now on what side we will fall.
If you are a rape survivor and need to talk to someone, please make use of the following resources:
National Sexual Assault Hotline
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.