Commentary Violence

Dear Conservative Christian Leaders: Why Are You Silent About Rape?

Lynn Beisner

I am writing because conservative Christian leaders have been stunningly and tellingly silent on one of the most pressing moral and social issues we face today: rape.

Dear Conservative Christian Leaders:

According to the Pew Foundation, the majority of Americans are members of your churches and look to you for spiritual and moral guidance. I am writing because you have been stunningly and tellingly silent on one of the most pressing moral and social issues we face today: rape. At least twice in the past three months, you have had occasion to speak out about the issue of rape, and you willfully cast those opportunities aside.

The most recent example is the press conference/prayer service that six pastors from your ranks held in Steubenville just two days before the trial of two young men accused of raping an unconscious teenage girl. You cited as the reason for calling your prayer service a desire to end the “discord” that was tearing the town apart. You could have moved the town closer to resolving the conflict by using the moral authority you wield in that community to clarify that inserting anything into the body of an unconscious person is rape. You could have used the occasion to denounce sexual assault in more general terms. Instead, you prayed for mercy for “the alleged victim, the alleged perpetrators of the crime and all those who may have somewhat contributed to it” and urged the town to engage in “amelioration.” Your plea for unity and peace sounded an awful lot like, “Sit down, shut up, and stop talking about rape.”

A more global example is what happened this past Christmas. The world’s attention, prayers, and good wishes were focused on the New Delhi rape victim. As the Pope gave his Christmas sermon, the victim hovered between life and death. But rather than use his time at the world-wide microphone to condemn rape or even to pray for the victim’s recovery, he used the festive occasion to rail against homosexuality.

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The problem does not seem to be that you feel shy or squeamish talking about sex. You have talked in exhausting depth about a long list of what you see as America’s sexual sins—everything from pornography to gay marriage. You have written entire series of books telling women how to be pure and other books, such as Every Man’s Battle, instructing men on how to keep themselves from lustful thoughts. And on the other side of the equation, there are countless Christian sex manuals that tell married couples in very explicit detail how to have a mutually satisfying sex life.

Yet, in the thousands of church services that I have attended, in the countless hours of Christian radio I have listened to, and in the hundreds of books I have read by Christian authors, not a single one has exhorted the faithful not to rape. I conducted dozens of Google and Yahoo searches and was unable to find a single instance in which a conservative Christian leader has advocated publicly for consent in sexual interactions.

My second year in Bible College I was intrigued by why no one spoke about rape—not in our ethics classes, not in chapel sermons, and not in the churches we visited. I began asking pastors and professors why they were silent on the subject. I continue to ask that question of the many pastors and priests whom I meet as a researcher. Consistently, I get a variation on one of two answers.

The first answer is usually delivered in a very defensive tone. I am told that you do not need to preach about rape for the same reason that you do not preach against robbing banks. It is self-evidently wrong, and nobody in your congregation would do such a thing.

The idea that all rape is self-evidently wrong is belied by the fact that a significant percentage of Americans do not even believe that penetrating unconscious woman is rape. And the notion that no one in your congregation would do such a thing is equally and obviously false. Google the words rape and Evangelical, or rape and Catholic, and you will discover that not only are many of your flock committing rape, but a significant number of your pastors and priests are committing the crime as well.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence that rape is not self-evidently wrong and beneath your followers is the comments sections on many feminist websites. The most frightening and graphic rape and death threats come from people who identify themselves as conservative Christians. They tell us that God will judge us for not believing in Jesus, and then threaten to rape our daughters, often in the same paragraph.

Since rape is not self-evidently wrong in our culture, and your followers clearly commit this crime, you must speak out against it. You have established yourselves as moral authorities and fought to retain control over sexual education. This obligates you to condemn rape and to teach about consent. It is your responsibility to teach that there can be no meaningful consent when there is a significant power imbalance such as that between a teenager and a teacher or between a pastor and a member of his congregation. You must be absolutely clear and unequivocal when delivering the message that marriage does not grant one person permanent and irrevocable consent to sex, that no one is obligated to have sex with anyone else, and  that a person can withdraw sexual consent at any time, even if they are naked and were begging for it twenty seconds earlier.

The second and most common reason given for why you do not speak out about rape is that you have an overarching sexual ethic, heterosexual marriage, that makes discussions about rape unnecessary. You believe that rape is not an issue when all sexual activity is confined to heterosexual marriage.

There are several problems with using your overarching sexual ethic as rape prevention. First, you ignore the very real problem of marital rape. Furthermore, your devotion to this master ethic of heterosexual marriage renders you unwilling to educate about consent. You believe that, like access to birth control and comprehensive sex education, this undermines your message of abstinence outside of marriage. That you would be left saying “Don’t, but if you do…”

The foremost problem with your overarching sexual ethic is that it creates false equivalencies between rape and other acts that you consider sexual sins. The clearest example of this false equivalency at work can be found in the sections of the Catholic Catechism which enumerate and categorize sins. Rape is not considered an offense against another person’s bodily integrity. Instead, it is listed alongside lust, masturbation, fornication, and pornography as “offenses against chastity.” The wording of the Catechism makes the gravity of these offenses seem relatively equal. For example, while rape is said to do “grave damage,” fornication is said to be “gravely contradictory to the dignity of persons” and a “grave scandal.”

Evangelicals have created a similar false equivalency. For example, consider the case of Ernest Willis, who raped a 15-year-old girl. Court testimony reveals that the girl’s church compelled her to publicly confess to the sin of putting herself in a “compromising position” (she had accepted a ride home after babysitting Willis’ children) and to subject herself to her church’s ritualized form of public shaming. In addition, she was forced to write letters to Willis’ wife to apologize for having put Willis in a situation where he would break his marital vows. Even though it was clear that Willis was at the very least guilty of statutory rape, he was asked only to confess to breaking his marital vows, and was subjected to exactly the same public shaming in the same service as his victim. He was not brought to true justice until his victim discovered 14 years later that she could still press charges. Predictably, she was vilified and he was supported.

The example of Willis illustrates the true danger of the false equivalency created by having heterosexual marriage as the master sexual ethic. Victims of rape are seen as complicit in their attack by virtue of being in a “compromising situation,”  whether that is alone in a car with a man, as in the Willis case, or being drunk, as in the Steubenville case.

You need to face the fact that your master sexual ethic is not only failing, it is doing harm. It is not preventing sex outside of marriage and it is certainly not preventing rape. Your ethic is supporting the ideas and culture that make rape so prevalent.

I call on you to teach consent as your primary sexual ethic, to teach that a woman never deserves to be raped regardless of what she is wearing or doing, to reprove your followers for using threats of rape to harass people whose ideas they do not like. I urge you to educate your young followers that meaningful consent is enthusiastic and that it can be given only by people in full control of their faculties and when there are no negative consequences for refusing. I challenge you to use your public forums, your news conferences, television appearances, and radio shows to launch an anti-rape campaign that makes the rules of meaningful consent abundantly clear.

You teach that knowledge of the truth makes you responsible for acting on it. Now that you know the truth of the harm being done by your silence, you are responsible for taking action. If you remain silent, we will have no choice but to conclude that either you do not take your faith seriously or that you have a vested interest in seeing rape continue.

Commentary Violence

This is Not The Story I Wanted—But It’s My Story of Rape

Dani Kelley

Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.

A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.

There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.

When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”

Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.

This isn’t the story I wanted.

Unlearning My Training

I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.

If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendency to demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.

The heart of those teachings isn’t only present in this admittedly small sect of Christianity. Rather, right-wing Western Christianity as a whole has a consent problem. It explicitly teaches its adherents they don’t belong to themselves at all. They belong to God (and if they’re not men, they belong to their fathers or husbands as well). This instilled lack of agency effectively erases bodily autonomy while preventing the development of healthy emotional and physical boundaries.

On top of that, the biblical literalism frequently required by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.

Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”

Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.

But Some Habits Die Hard

Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.

When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.

He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.

When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.

So…I brought him home.

This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.

That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.

Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.

As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?

When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.

I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!

Right?

If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.

That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.

He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.

Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.

Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”

With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.

I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”

“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”

Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.

It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?

Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.

I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!

All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.

The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are

Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.

Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.

On top of that, my conservative background whispered accusations of being a Jezebel, failing to safeguard my purity, and getting exactly what I deserve for forsaking the faith.

It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.

Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.

So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?

Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.

Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.

We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.” Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.

So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.

I was raped.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Trump Weighs in on Supreme Court Decision, After Pressure From Anti-Choice Leaders

Ally Boguhn

The presumptive Republican nominee’s confirmation that he opposed the decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt came after several days of silence from Trump on the matter—much to the lamentation of anti-choice advocates.

Donald Trump commented on the U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion decision this week—but only after days of pressure from anti-choice advocates—and Hillary Clinton wrote an op-ed explaining how one state’s then-pending decision on whether to fund Planned Parenthood illustrates the high stakes of the election for reproductive rights and health.

Following Anti-Choice Pressure, Trump Weighs in on Supreme Court’s Abortion Decision

Trump finally broke his silence Thursday about the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this week, which struck down two provisions of Texas’ HB 2 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.

“Now if we had Scalia was living, or if Scalia was replaced by me, you wouldn’t have had that,” Trump claimed of the Court’s decision, evidently not realizing that the Monday ruling was 5 to 3 and one vote would not have made a numerical difference, during an appearance on conservative radio program The Mike Gallagher Show. “It would have been the opposite.” 

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“So just to confirm, under a President Donald Trump-appointed Supreme Court, you wouldn’t see a majority ruling like the one we had with the Texas abortion law this week?” asked host Mike Gallagher.

“No…you wouldn’t see that,” replied Trump, who also noted that the case demonstrated the important role the next president will play in steering the direction of the Court through judicial nominations.

The presumptive Republican nominee’s confirmation that he opposed the decision in Whole Woman’s Health came after several days of silence from Trump on the matter—prompting much lamentation from anti-choice advocates. Despite having promised to nominate anti-choice Supreme Court justices and pass anti-abortion restrictions if elected during a meeting with more than 1,000 faith and anti-choice leaders in New York City last week, Trump made waves among those who oppose abortion when he did not immediately comment on the Court’s Monday decision.

“I think [Trump’s silence] gives all pro-life leaders pause,” said the president of the anti-choice conservative organization The Family Leader, Bob Vander Plaats, prior to Trump’s comments Thursday, according to the Daily Beast. Vander Plaats, who attended last week’s meeting with Trump, went on suggest that Trump’s hesitation to weigh in on the matter “gives all people that are looking for life as their issue, who are looking to support a presidential candidate—it gives them an unnecessary pause. There shouldn’t have to be a pause here.”

“This is the biggest abortion decision that has come down in years and Hillary Clinton was quick to comment—was all over Twitter—and yet we heard crickets from Donald Trump,” Penny Young Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, said in a Tuesday statement to the Daily Beast.

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, expressed similar dismay on Wednesday that Trump hadn’t addressed the Court’s ruling. “So where was Mr. Trump, the candidate the pro-life movement is depending upon, when this blow hit?” wrote Hawkins, in an opinion piece for the Washington Post. “He was on Twitter, making fun of Elizabeth Warren and lamenting how CNN has gone negative on him. That’s it. Nothing else.”

“Right now in the pro-life movement people are wondering if Mr. Trump’s staff is uninformed or frankly, if he just doesn’t care about the topic of life,” added Hawkins. “Was that meeting last week just a farce, just another one of his shows?”

Anti-choice leaders, however, were not the only ones to criticize Trump’s response to the ruling. After Trump broke his silence, reproductive rights leaders were quick to condemn the Republican’s comments.

“Donald Trump has been clear from the beginning—he wants to overturn Roe v. Wade, and said he believes a woman should be ‘punished’ if she has an abortion,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which has already endorsed Clinton for the presidency, in a statement on Trump’s comments. 

“Trump’s remarks today should send a shiver down the spine of anyone who believes women should have access to safe, legal abortion. Electing Trump means he will fight to take away the very rights the Supreme Court just ruled this week are constitutional and necessary health care,” continued Laguens.

In contrast to Trump’s delayed reaction, presumptive Democratic nominee Clinton tweeted within minutes of the landmark abortion rights decision, “This fight isn’t over: The next president has to protect women’s health. Women won’t be ‘punished’ for exercising their basic rights.”

Clinton Pens Op-Ed Defending Planned Parenthood in New Hampshire

Clinton penned an op-ed for the Concord Monitor Wednesday explaining that New Hampshire’s pending vote on Planned Parenthood funding highlighted “what’s at stake this election.”

“For half a century, Planned Parenthood has been there for people in New Hampshire, no matter what. Every year, it provides care to almost 13,000 people who need access to services like counseling, contraception, and family planning,” wrote Clinton. “Many of these patients cannot afford to go anywhere else. Others choose the organization because it’s the provider they know and trust.”

The former secretary of state went on to contend that New Hampshire’s Executive Council’s discussion of denying funds to the organization was more than “just playing politics—they’re playing with their constituents’ health and well-being.” The council voted later that day to restore Planned Parenthood’s contract.

Praising the Supreme Court’s Monday decision in Whole Woman’s Health, Clinton cautioned in the piece that although it was a “critical victory,” there is still “work to do as long as obstacles” remained to reproductive health-care access.

Vowing to “make sure that a woman’s right to make her own health decisions remains as permanent as all of the other values we hold dear” if elected, Clinton promised to work to protect Planned Parenthood, safeguard legal abortion, and support comprehensive and inclusive sexual education programs.

Reiterating her opposition to the Hyde Amendment, which bans most federal funding for abortion care, Clinton wrote that she would “fight laws on the books” like it that “make it harder for low-income women to get the care they deserve.”

Clinton’s campaign noted the candidate’s support for repealing Hyde while answering a 2008 questionnaire provided by Rewire. During the 2016 election season, the federal ban on abortion funding became a more visible issue, and Clinton noted in a January forum that the ban “is just hard to justify” given that restrictions such as Hyde inhibit many low-income and rural women from accessing care.

What Else We’re Reading

Politico Magazine’s Bill Scher highlighted some of the potential problems Clinton could face should she choose former Virginia governor Tim Kaine as her vice presidential pickincluding his beliefs about abortion.

Foster Friess, a GOP mega-donor who once notoriously said that contraception is “inexpensive … you know, back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly,” is throwing his support behind Trump, comparing the presumptive Republican nominee to biblical figures.

Clinton dropped by the Toast on the publication’s last day, urging readers to follow the site’s example and “look forward and consider how you might make your voice heard in whatever arenas matter most to you.”

Irin Carmon joined the New Republic’s “Primary Concerns” podcast this week to discuss the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt on the election.

According to analysis from the Wall Street Journal, the popularity of the Libertarian Party in this year’s election could affect the presidential race, and the most likely outcome is “upsetting a close race—most likely Florida, where the margin of victory is traditionally narrow.”

The Center for Responsive Politics’ Alec Goodwin gave an autopsy of Jeb Bush’s massive Right to Rise super PAC.

Katie McGinty (D), who is running against incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey (R) in Pennsylvania, wrote an op-ed this week for the Philly Voice calling to “fight efforts in Pa. to restrict women’s access to health care.”

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled against an attempt to restore voting rights to more than 20,000 residents affected by the state’s law disenfranchising those who previously served time for felonies, ThinkProgress reports.

An organization in Louisiana filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of the almost 70,000 people there who have previously served time for felonies and are now on probation or parole, alleging that they are being “wrongfully excluded from registering to vote and voting.”