This post addresses the issue of sexual assault and/or violence, which some survivors may find disturbing. Please do what you need to do to take care of yourself.
Today’s topic seems rather ominous, but it’s been talked about a lot in our society and even more recently in churches, given a fair number of sex abuse scandals. First, let’s define rape culture, then I’ll give you some background for why I’m addressing it, followed by a deep dive into whether we actually live in a rape culture.
And, of course, whatever answer we come up with, we should think about what all of this means for ourselves, our marriages, the church, and our community as a whole.
Defining Rape Culture
Let’s look at a few definitions, because that will give us a broader sense of the term. Rape culture is:
- “A society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse.” (Oxford Languages/Google)
- “A sociological theory of a setting in which rape is pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality.” (Wikipedia)
- “Stereotyped, false beliefs about rape that justify sexual aggression and trivialize he seriousness of sexual violence.” (University of New Hampshire’s sexual harassment & rape prevention program).
Some of you are nodding your heads. Some of you are saying to yourselves, “We don’t have that here.” Some of you aren’t sure.
Let’s look at behaviors often mentioned as part of this culture:
- Placing the burden on women not to be raped, rather than telling and teaching men not to rape
- Blaming the victim, such as questions about attire or behavior before the assault, as if she was “asking for it”
- Discouraging victims from reporting sexual assault or harassment (too much hassle, not enough evidence, etc.)
- Sexual objectification of women in the media and beyond
- Normalizing or trivializing rape in popular culture and society
- Responding to allegations by claiming false reports are widespread (they aren’t)
- Encouraging men to be sexually aggressive and women to be acquiescent or pliant
Can you see that at least some of these really do happen in our society?
How all this gets talked about can go overboard at times, for sure, with people accused of rape culture when the term doesn’t quite apply. And for those wondering, yes, I’m well aware that this concept and term came from 1970s feminists, with a book from the New York Radical Feminists and a documentary titled Rape Culture.
But listen to the personal stories of victim-survivors, watch some old films and see how sexual assault was excused or even promoted (e.g., Gone with the Wind, Sixteen Candles), pay attention to the details of uncovered sex scandals, and simply consider where we’ve fallen short.
Rape Culture in Bible Times
Why is this topic on my mind? Well, there are current events—including a number of sex harassment and abuse scandals—where the term rape culture gets applied in commentary. Some writings of marriage authors have also been accused of promoting rape culture. But honestly, I was triggered to talk about this by my Bible study a couple of weeks ago in which we were looking at the Book of Esther.
Rather than simply seeing how Esther was uniquely positioned to speak up on behalf of her people and save them from destruction, this time, I saw a different side of the story.
It struck me that Mordecai and Esther are often put on the same plane as being Jewish exiles, and then later it seems like Esther is higher because she is queen. But that’s not the culture she lives in. As I wrote in my notes:
The book is titled Esther, but she gets used both by the king and by her uncle/husband.* Although queen, her power is really limited because she is a woman in two cultures where that doesn’t matter that much.
(*more on that next time)
I wanted to dig deeper, so I spent hours online, looking at different biblical translations, background of the story, interpretations, and more. When I first drafted this post, I included a lot of that here but then decided to make that a separate post for Thursday. Anyway, here’s another snippet of what I wrote after my personal study:
[Esther] was expected to sleep with a man according to his timing, desires, and ways, without regarding to any rights she might or should have had. And the king could have turned her away, leaving her in the position of someone like Abraham’s concubine Hagar or David’s daughter Tamar.
And it wasn’t just the king forcibly taking her into the palace to have sex with him. The whole culture supported this approach to women, as shown by how the king’s advisers pressed him to issue a royal decree that “every man be master in his own household.” Even Mordecai, though enduring his own mistreatment as a Jewish exile, was still master of his household—telling Esther what to do without expressing much upset for the abusive consequences or possibility thereof.
A third snippet from my notes:
In her misogynistic world, Esther’s judged almost entirely on her beauty, she can’t pick her own husband, she has no rights to her own sexuality, and she can’t even speak up and advise the king like a man. No, she has to woo and seduce and essentially manipulate the men into doing “the little woman” a big favor. She throws feasts, goes slow in making her requests, and begs twice for her people’s lives (once on her knees in tears). The king relents, in a way, and her people are saved.
By the time I finished my study, I was ranty (as you can tell). I topped off my thoughts with:
Down with the patriarchy, and all that. But seriously, can we not just discuss how horrifying pieces of this story are? How Esther is a pawn in both the king’s palace and in her family?
If I was teaching this lesson, it would be more like: Can you believe these people?! Their dysfunction gives reality shows a run for their money! And yet, God said He would preserve His people, and so He used this situation to keep that promise.
Sadly, Esther’s story isn’t the only one. We could talk about Sarah being forcibly taken into the Pharaoh’s palace to sleep with him, her slave woman Hagar being made to sleep with Abraham, David’s daughter Tamar raped by her own half-brother with no consequences to him, and several others.
Now, to be clear, it isn’t only women who can be raped! For instance, Potiphar’s wife used her powerful position to pressure a slave, Joseph, have sex with her. Had she succeeded, that would have been nonconsensual sex—aka sexual assault.
But with Esther, the fact that she was a woman living in a misogynistic culture is an important aspect of the story.
What about Our Culture?
A number of women in Bible times were sexually used and abused. And although the perpetrator bore the greatest blame, there was more going on here. The culture itself permitted and enabled such actions. It normalized viewing women as a means to a sexual end.
If we conclude these women’s environments qualify as a rape culture, we can’t go back and fix that. What we can do is ask is whether we are living in a rape culture. That’s what a whole lot of people claim.
So are we living in a rape culture?
Well, if someone tried to take your wife or daughter as a sexual favor for a high official, I suspect you’d go all Rambo on that person. Moreover, most women in our day and age can choose their own husbands, have laws against rape and assault, go to workplaces with sexual harassment policies and training, and can leave a relationship if they want. (Note: If you are in an abusive situation and don’t feel you can walk away, please get help!) If a woman reports a rape, law enforcement will take steps to investigate the matter and resources are available for support and healing.
We’re hardly living in ancient Babylon.
But if you want evidence that we haven’t arrived where we should be, go check out the stories of such predators as Jeffrey Epstein, Larry Nassar, and Bill Cosby. Law enforcement let down victim after victim, allowing more assaults long after they should have known and acted.
Then there’s how Christians have dealt with sexual abuse, such as tragic tales within the Catholic Church, the SBC (here also), Ravi Zacharias‘s Ministry (here and here also), and Camp Kanakuk. If you feel I targeted your group with my examples, believe me—all of our denominations could find sex abuse if we shined more spotlights.
And it’s not just the Powers That Be, but often friends, family, and fans who refuse to even consider allegations because “they would never do that.” Now I’m not actually in the camp of “believe all women,” because yes, false accusations happen from time to time and it matters whether something is true. But we have to take all allegations seriously. Why wouldn’t we at least look into such a weighty charge with the concern it deserves?!
So yeah, we still have something of a rape culture, in that our society often minimizes the prevalence of sexual assault (and harassment) and/or discourages reporting and following through.
An important note here: Pornography is a huge propagator of rape culture. See Is There a Connection Between Porn Culture and Rape Culture? (fightthenewdrug.org). Not only does it often portray sexual violence, plenty of “actors” are sex-trafficked and thus forced to have sex (that is, raped). If you’re watching porn, it’s time to stop.
But “Rape Culture” Has Problems
Whoever coined that term should have thought through its implications. The syntax itself connotes a culture is doing the raping, which can come across as blaming people other than the rapist for the assault.
In fact, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the US’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, provided recommendations in 2014 to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. In that letter, they said:
In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming “rape culture” for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses. While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.
While that may seem an obvious point, it has tended to get lost in recent debates. This has led to an inclination to focus on particular segments of the student population (e.g., athletes), particular aspects of campus culture (e.g., the Greek system), or traits that are common in many millions of law-abiding Americans (e.g., “masculinity”), rather than on the subpopulation at fault: those who choose to commit rape. This trend has the paradoxical effect of making it harder to stop sexual violence, since it removes the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions.RAINN, February 28, 2014 Recommendations
They’re not saying that rape culture doesn’t exist but that focusing on it takes our eyes off the main ball: the perpetrator who raped. We should all be ganging up on that person.
Why Does Any of This Matter for Marriage?
To my mind, this topic matters for at least three reasons:
You or your spouse may have been through sexual trauma.
If you or your spouse was molested or sexually assaulted, that past trauma can make physical intimacy with your spouse a challenge. But in addition to the event itself, the trauma may have been made worse by others not being more supportive when it happened.
Or maybe your spouse isn’t as supportive or as sensitive as they could be.
I’m not saying the spouse is part of rape culture! I don’t even like that term and will cover that more below. However, a spouse can unwittingly minimize or dismiss the trauma their spouse went through. This can happen with actions like telling the victim-survivor they need to get over it because it happened so long ago or believing that it’s as simple as saying, “But I’m not him.”
Not providing a victim-survivor the support they need can feel unsafe to them. You most certainly weren’t the one who hurt them that way, but ask yourself how you can create a culture in your marriage that shows how much you care and helps your spouse heal.
Some marriage teachings are seen as promoting rape culture.
Some accusations hurled at this or that message from a marriage resource feel off the mark—that is, as RAINN stated, taking the focus away from where we most want it to be, the perpetrators of assault. Others sound spot-on rape culture to me, such as anyone who says that a man can force his wife to have sex because her initial “I do” was the consent. (See Can You Be Raped in Marriage? Spoiler: Yes.)
Yet, the longer I do this ministry, the more determined I’ve become to make it clear that sexual mistreatment of any kind is absolutely against God’s will and design. We must consider what kind of environment we’re nurturing and how it impacts people.
Indeed, James 3:1 says: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”
Readers and listeners can help by asking for clarification and challenging messages while giving some grace for mistakes made. There’s plenty I wish I’d said differently.
We should strive for a rape-resistant culture.
It’s not just marriage ministers or church pastors who should work toward eliminating rape and supporting victims. It’s all of us:
Learn to do right; seek justice.Isaiah 1:17
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
To those who live among us or interact with us, we are the culture. What are we doing to prevent sexual assault and help its victim-survivors?
Honestly, I don’t want to be ranting about rape culture—a term that tends to get misunderstood and misused and/or creates pushback among critics. Rather, as Christians, we should be talking about a rape-resistant culture.
We can’t be rape-proof in this fallen, sinful world. Despite our best efforts, rape will continue to happen somewhere, somehow, to someone. But we can build and maintain a safer environment for anyone who might have been assaulted but for our actions. We can investigate accusations seriously and thoroughly, and only then say whether an accusation is suspect or false. (Most aren’t. Most are true.) We can listen to and support victim-survivors. We can provide more marriage resources to help those who’ve been through sexual trauma. We can, and we must.
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.Micah 6:8
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
The Lord requires that we prioritize justice and mercy.
And it should be especially clear among Christians that we want justice against those who treat people like throwaways and we have mercy for sexual assault victim-survivors.
I’d encourage all of us to scroll back up to the list of behaviors associated with what is called rape culture (whether you like or hate that term) and ask where we could do better to help create a rape-resistant culture. Believe me, that will make a difference in the lives of individuals and for marriages.