Rape Culture. It’s a term that I used in my recent blog, in which I express my anger over the pervasive focus in the media on the effect the guilty verdict affects the “promising futures” of the perpetrators and not what all of this does to the promising future of the sixteen year old rape victim in the Steubenville rape case. What is rape culture? A blog entitled “so you’re tired of hearing about rape culture,” explains it quite succinctly complete with some horrifying visuals (I did not have the stomach for re-posting them, but they are important to see). We live in a society where women are attacked for pointing out the obvious – men should not rape women and boys should be brought up NOT TO COMMIT RAPE. This should be as obvious as we should not murder, we should not commit genocide, and we should not commit rape. So why is this so difficult? As Christians, we have to examine the ways in which Christian culture has and continues to be complicit in the rape culture. In her article, Melinda Hennenberger noted a 1974 quote by Fr. Hesburgh that they talked to the boys therefore they didn’t need to talk to the girls and paralleled that quote with a contemporary example of the same silencing of women. She reports:
The resident assistant, who asked that her name not be used because she, too, had reported being raped at Notre Dame two years earlier, stayed with her at the hospital, and then took her to the resident assistant’s parents’ home, which is within driving distance. There, her mother made breakfast and her father watched in horror as the young woman received text after text from the player’s friends. “My wife and I looked at them, and they were trying to silence this girl.” After the father informed Notre Dame officials about the texts, he said, they promised to get the guys to “knock it off.”
As I stated a few days ago, these instances are not rare or uncommon, at both Catholic and non-Catholic colleges around the country. But more and more I realize this dismissal of behavior as boys will be boys begins long before rape occurs, and if we are to dismantle the structural violence of the rape culture we need to, as Ellacuria would say, “pull it up by its roots in history.”
Boys will be boys…..We spoke with the boys
Culturally, one hears so many references to fixed gender norms that sometimes it is difficult to take notice of them. I have had conversations about end of life decision-making to which the answer is, “well men are better at decisions, so XXX should be in charge of that.” As my friends start having children, I find myself shopping for children’s toys and finding a very gendered toy store. One such little boy loves fire trucks and helicopters, but I wonder is it because he’s a boy or because he is an urban toddler. In a big city, fire trucks and helicopters stick out within the everyday hustle and bustle of a big city. This same child loves to sit and read and play in the kitchen. If we assume and essentialize boys like fire trucks through socialization we stack the deck significantly. By the same token, if we explain away aggressive, bullying, mean, or physical behavior as boys will be boys we socialize its acceptability (the same is true for catty, gossipy behavior by girls). The double standard established holds women and girls to a high moral standard while ignoring, belittling and explaining away bad behavior by boys.
It is demeaning for boys and men and the result is catastrophic for women and girls.
When we dismiss as a minor thing physical pushing on the grade school playground, we socialize children to be bullies. When we dismiss sexually inappropriate words, images, and graffiti in junior and senior high schools as teenage boys being teenage boys, we socialize boys to think that sexual harassment is acceptable. As moral development evolves then, we are socializing boys to be aggressors and by default socializing girls to be victims.
Where does the Church fit in?
This Lent, I heard a parish homily which referred to Mary Magdalene as a prostitute and the gift of redemption/forgiveness offered by Jesus even for a woman such as she. Now, let me be clear, there are stories of prostitutes and women caught in adultery in the Gospels, these are important and powerful. As Pope Francis has reminded us, we all throw ourselves on the mercy of God. But why, in 2013, are we still perpetuating a myth without Biblical grounding that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute? A woman who in John’s Gospel is the first to see the Resurrected Christ, who is given the title Apostle to the Apostles, in 2013 still being preached as if we are in the virgin/whore paradigm. Every semester I teach a freshmen introductory course, I ask the students how many have been taught that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, almost every single Catholic student’s hand goes up. (In the 15 years since I was in their position learning that wasn’t based on Scripture at Fordham, this hasn’t changed).
This Advent, I heard a parish homily against the Affordable Care Act and in favor of religious liberty where there was absolutely no tie over to the Gospel – and in that homily the Georgetown student Sandra Fluke was by name attacked for her sexual promiscuity and desire to have sexual license without consequences. Whatever one thinks of the healthcare legislation, surely the Catholic position on birth control is not merely about women? And certainly not just about controlling women’s bad behavior? The context did not matter and I was sickened by the analogies I could make between portrayal in the homily and historical views of women as temptresses (that the woman in question was a lesbian who needed birth control for a medical condition did not come into the sermon). When we speak in a demeaning manner about a woman whose life one disapproves of from the pulpit, it contributes to this culture.
All too often discussions about sexual violence in both our churches and our broader society become conversations that begin and end with abortion and purity. Until we dismantle that paradigm, we will not dismantle the rape culture. I was embarrassed and shocked by the public conversations that occurred in the process of passing the Violence Against Women’s Act as I am by the news stories of all the states that do not revoke gun licenses for domestic violence protection orders.
On a fundamental level, as a Church we can combat the rape culture by demanding that women and girls be treated with dignity and demonstrating models of how that happens. By modeling to boys this behavior in everything that we do – this means not explaining away early versions of aggressive and demeaning behavior in children. It also means not tolerating disrespectful and demeaning discussion of women from the pulpit. Even further, it means celebrating the models of women like Mary Magdalene, who remained faithful and other female models in faith. It means listening to women’s voices and looking for those on the margins. The Sisters of St. Joseph and Migration and Refugee Services do great work for and with victims of human trafficking and sexual violence. But even that gets missed, when the focus inside and outside the church becomes entirely a matter of abortion and purity.
As a Christian community, we must actively fight against every element of the rape culture down to the way we speak about Mary – not as passively accepting the will of God, but in the strength of her YES, her consent. In my introductory class, as we were reading Luke’s Gospel, some of my freshmen asked – does Mary’s yes matter? Does she say yes before the Holy Spirit descends? This led to a wonderful, yet awkward, discussion of just why Mary’s YES, Mary’s consent before conception was crucial. What began as an innocent question in a 1000 level course, seems today, to be quite a crucial one for combating the rape culture.