God of all creation, no sparrow falls but you take notice, look with compassion upon all who suffer from sexual violence, in our communities and the world. Open our hearts and awaken our minds to act on behalf of our sisters, that our world might become a haven of peace and safety for all. We ask this in the name of the one who transforms our lives, Jesus Christ. (Borrowed, with slight modification, from a prayer by Ann Fontaine for 16 Days.)
Why is Rape Wrong?
This should not be a tough question, but sadly it is. Many people see rape as wrong for all the wrong reasons and that leads them to think that certain kinds of sexual violence are acceptable, even laudable. Throughout the last few posts, I have been setting forth a case for sex being primarily and ultimately about communication, both in the Bible in our ethical view of the world. This may seem counter-intuitive to some readers for whom sex is, or at least should be about other things, notably procreation or pleasure. Rape provides a very concrete case where those intuitions can prove disastrously wrong.
First, let me say what I think rape is and why I think it is wrong.
What Rape Is
Rape happens when one person takes advantage of another sexually without their consent. As with many things related to sex, there are no clear dividing lines. We most commonly associate rape with a violent sexual assault by a man against a woman involving penetration. That is definitely rape. It is important for us to expand that, somewhat, however.
Rape need not be perpetrated by a man on a woman. Many cases are present in law and history of all possible gender and sex combinations.
Rape need not be violent. Violence usually suggests physical force, but humans have found numerous ways to force one another to have sex, from physical violence to physical threats, emotional violence to emotional threats, even spiritual violence and spiritual threats (in the case of unwilling marriages, for example). One of the reasons Christians have been so strongly opposed to prostitution comes from the very real possibility (and common occurrence) of financial coercion. No, I’m not saying all prostitution is rape; simply that within the context of prostitution, sex workers are often treated as commodities by pimps and madams and forced to continue working due to economic and legal forces. Holding a debt over someone’s head and forcing them to repay it sexually still constitutes rape, even when there is no physical violence.
Rape need not be against someone’s will; it need only be without their consent. This follows directly from the idea that sex should be about communication. Drugging someone who would not otherwise be open to sex counts as rape.
Rape happens any time sex happens with someone’s body but not their will. It can happen because the offender wishes to hurt the victim or simply through apathy, but Christians believe that the will must be just as involved as the body.
Why Rape is Wrong
Rape is wrong because sex is about communication. Sex involves vulnerability, physical, mental, and spiritual. To force someone into that kind of openness is to send the message that you have more control over their body, mind, and soul than they have themselves. THIS IS FALSE. Nonetheless, it is the message sent and can easily be believed by the victim. Rape has been used historically as a tool of domination because it can be immensely effective to that end.
Rape is so terrible because it causes damage while breaking down the best avenues for healing. The type of intimacy, love, and acceptance most capable of restoring a sense of personal and sexual health usually comes through sexual contact, which can become terrifying in the wake of a sexual assault. Trust in one’s ability to express oneself, even verbally, to receive and interpret the signals of another can be dangerously compromised.
Communication is broken and the core part of our identity, our relationship with others, our very existence in the image of God seems broken. I say “seems” because Christians affirm that our soul exists in relation with God always. No matter how broken we feel, we are always whole in this sense: we are with God.
Alternative Sexual Ethics
Many are tempted to take communication out of the role I have set for it – the prime motivation for sex – but I would challenge them to think of the consequences particularly regarding rape.
If procreation really is the core value in sex – as many conservatives will claim – it becomes easy (not necessary, but easy) to start thinking of reasons why procreation might justify rape. In the conquest of Canaan, the Israelites force local women to become their wives and bear their children (Numbers 31, Deuteronomy 20). It is a perfectly logical and consistent ethics that counts women as property and procreation as an obligation. It is, however, utterly foreign to modern sensibilities and, I profoundly hope, incomprehensible to modern Christians. I am unconvinced any account of Biblical literalism could render this Godly to me. Procreation can never be an excuse to neglect or override the will of one partner in sex.
If pleasure really is the core value in sex – as many liberals will claim – it becomes easy (not necessary, but easy) to start thinking in terms of comparative pleasure. If this gives person X a great deal of pleasure but is only slightly distasteful to person Y… Such an ethics appears in the book Brave New World. Admittedly, that is a utopia, but I think many a modern abuser has used this type of reasoning, saying that a potential partner really will enjoy something even if they profess not to. I will reiterate the common slogan: “no means no.” It does not matter one whit whether they will enjoy it or not. What matters is whether they are engaged in the process as a willing and open partner.
Rape is a serious problem for our culture, and I believe it is for most cultures. We have an evolutionarily conditioned drive to have sex. At the same time, we also have brains and wills to make more of our reality than that simple drive. For the Ancient Israelites, Greeks, and Romans, rape meant neither more nor less than a man using sexual property which he did not own. It was an offense against property. The modern sense of rape is very different and, I think, much better. It will, however, require Christians to be ever so careful interpreting the Bible on this subject. The rules are there. The ethics set forth so clearly in Genesis and the New Testament tell us we must value humanity as individuals in community and in communication. Our sexual ethics must be built on this foundation and not a false adherence to ancient categories – or for that matter, modern ideas of individuality.