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Feminism

what hast thou wrought: Christians and Trump

I’ve read a lot of articles about Donald Trump. If you look at my last “stuff I’ve been into” post, there’s about a half-dozen articles on him that represents the best-of-the-best of my reading on the subject. I’ve got a lot of angry-and/or-panicking friends on social media, so I’m inundated with quite a bit of material that represent a gamut of positions. My friends range from hard right, center-right, center-left, and hard-hard-hard-hard-left, and one of the biggest conversation topics shared among all these groups is this question:

How can Christians be voting for him?

I’ve already explained why I think Christians shouldn’t be voting for Trump, but now I’d like to take a stab at why Christians– namely white evangelicals– are supporting him in even greater numbers than they supported Romney. There’s been multitudes of ink spilled attempting to answer this, and the obvious answer is white supremacy. Evangelicals exist as a voting bloc because of racism. Trump with all of his flagrant racism is calling to one of the most basic motivations of the evangelical movement, and we ignore this to our detriment. Another obvious answer is misogyny. He embodies everything wrong with masculinity in American culture– braggadocio, chauvinism, narcissism, anger, insecurity– but it’s appealing to those among us who see powerful women and feminism as an innate threat to their manhood or their sense of social order.

The internet is filled to the brim with articles covering all those reasons, as well as plenty of articles pointing out all the ways that Trump’s actions, history, and proposed policies are antithetical to everything Christians have been saying they expect in a presidential candidate for decades. Like having family values. Or being a Christian. So, a lot of my friends are confused: how is this possible? On top of the fore-mentioned white supremacy and misogyny that are integral to evangelical culture, I’d like to highlight two more elements that make supporting Trump a foregone conclusion for so many evangelicals.

Abortion

Yes, this is also obvious. Wayne Grudem even included Trump’s supposed pro-life platform as a part of his argument for why Trump is a “morally good choice.” What’s been confusing to many of my friends is that Trump’s “pro-life” position is recent and possibly a lie, so how can evangelicals be staking an election on something they can’t possibly be sure of?

The answer is simple: Hillary Clinton is pro-choice, and will appoint pro-choice judges to the Supreme Court. Trump, while perhaps not personally pro-life, will most likely appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court.

They have to take that chance. They have to because being anti-abortion is all they’ve got. Modern evangelicals and other conservative Christians aren’t, by and large, holistically pro-life in the sense that they consider human life sacred and inestimably valuable. They’re pro-war, pro-death penalty, anti-healthcare, against policies that could end starvation and hunger, anti-gun control, and many even believe that parents should have the right to murder their children once they’re not, y’know, fetuses. They’re not pro-life in any meaningful way, but they are anti-abortion and pro-birth, and holding onto that position makes them incredibly powerful.

With their stance of being a single-issue voter in their back pocket, they control elections. They get to say who stays and who goes, who gets power and who doesn’t, all through this one platform: overturning Roe v. Wade. It’s the Southern Strategy reborn, and there’s no way in hell that they’re going to let go of this, no matter how deep into the muck and slime and mire they have to go to justify it. They’ve staked their soul on this ground. This is the line in the sand they’ve drawn.

Granted, there are plenty of anti-abortion Christians who aren’t being cynical and hypocritical about this. Their theological system simply cannot let them back down from this political position, because if they were to accept the concept that private faith and public life aren’t necessarily eternally bonded concepts, a lot of other things start unraveling. Or, if they were to shift their thinking about abortion from a biblical perspective, the whole house of cards might come crashing down. They can’t afford to question this, because questioning their stance on abortion means questioning everything. It means reassessing their identity, their character, their morality. It means re-examining almost everything they’ve ever done and said to women, to children, to their LGBT brothers and sisters … to orphans and widows and prisoners.

I’ve done it. It’s painful. Too painful, possibly, for many.

Redemption

The one element that I haven’t seen anyone talking about is the redemption narrative intrinsic to the evangelical faith system. To many of my friends and colleagues, it’s inconceivable that Christians could look at Trump– a man who sexually abused his wife, who raped a child, who harasses women with impunity, who sent Hillary Clinton a death threat— and think yes, this man represents my Christian values. How could James Dobson say he’s “tender to things of the spirit” or Jerry Falwell claim that he “lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment,” much less do so with a straight face? This man is an abominable monster, and yet Christians are flocking to him. How can this be?

The answer is in two parts. First, “Creation, Fall, Redemption” is essential to understanding the evangelical viewpoint. Mankind fell into sin in the Garden, but Jesus promises us redemption and ultimately resurrection. To them, this narrative is woven into Scripture from beginning to end, and our lives reflect this pattern, this Truth about reality. We are born Fallen but can be Redeemed no matter what, no matter when.

Trump can’t be excepted from this narrative. He’s a fallen sinner, just like the rest of us, and God can redeem him, too. The fact that he’s converting to conservative Christian-style politics is a checkmark in his favor– in a culture where religion and nationalism are horribly mixed, Trump’s promises for “Christians to be powerful again” ring true in their ears. In this only-Republicans-are-really-Christians climate, it’s the only “spiritual fruit” they need. To those who believe that We Are a Christian Nation, Trump’s “Make American Great Again” speaks to their dominionist, theocratic vision for their country.

Secondly… I’m surprised that anyone is surprised.

Yes, Trump is a child rapist. Yes, Trump abused his wife, making her feel “violated.” Yes, Trump has harassed and attacked multiple women. Yes, yes, yes. But if you look around Christian culture, it’s populated by people exactly like him.

Joshua Duggar attacks his sisters and girls from his church, and it’s written off as “normal.” Bill Gothard sexually abuses teenage girls for decades and he’s still the head of a thriving ministry. Pope Francis has participated in a horrific and disgusting cover-up of child sexual abuse, and he even lands a cover on the AdvocatePastors, youth pastors, evangelists, missionaries, priests– they can rape women, men, children, and it doesn’t matter. They’re protected, even given positions of power. They can rape children, be convicted and sent to prison, and still get to write feature articles for Christian leadership magazines. Their churches and missionary boards will cover it up and shelter them.

Christian culture is a haven for abusers.

It’s a shelter for rapists and molesters because of the redemption narrative they cling to. If a rapist or abuser says “I’m sorry, I’ve repented,” anyone who questions that is harshly censored. If a woman wants to divorce her husband because he enjoyed watching people rape children, she’s censored by her church and shunned. Or if your husband “repents” of sexually abusing a child for years, you’ll be the one seen as “breaking your marriage vows” if you decide to leave him. Even if he’s abusing you, according to John Piper you’re just supposed to stick it out. After all, if you listen to Debi Pearl, maybe if he beats you long enough you’ll bring him to a saving knowledge of Christ. Or, maybe Debi Pearl’s too extreme for you– how about Lori Wick, one of the most popular Christian fiction authors?

This is why Trump is succeeding so well among evangelical voters. He’s an abuser, but now he’s converted to their nationalistic, dominionist, theocratic, white supremacist and misogynistic faith, and through that has been Redeemed.

He fits right in.

Photo by Gage Skidmore
Feminism

a new normal: the aftermath of recovery

[content note: trauma, recovery, PTSD]

I’m almost twenty-nine years old. For fourteen years, around half my life, I experienced abuse in various ways. I was physically abused as a child and teenager. I spent my teen years in a spiritually abusive church where I was emotionally, verbally, and spiritually abused by almost every significant adult in my life. I was sexually assaulted twice as a teenager. As an adult I was in an abusive intimate relationship– the emotional and verbal abuse was intensified, and sexual assault and rape became the backdrop to my life. I went to a fundamentalist Christian “college,” where the spiritual abuse continued.

I didn’t escape abusive environments or relationships until I was twenty-three. I’ve been out for almost six years, but didn’t really start attempting to work through everything until four years ago, and I didn’t start making any real progress until two years ago. The healing process is slow, and sometimes excruciating. One of the counselors I went to a few times– the one who told me I was a “poisoned well” and I shouldn’t consider dating Handsome— said that healing would be like “unkinking a hose,” and a more understated metaphor I’ve yet to find.

Over the past few years, I’ve met a lot of people with stories like mine. For many of my friends, peers, and colleagues, we spend a lot of time looking for help, looking for things to help our lives make sense. In that search, I’ve frequently bumped into books, lectures, seminars, tapes, YouTube videos, blog posts, etc, that all talk about healing from abuse and trauma. The problem I’ve encountered is that many of those things aren’t honest about what this process looks like.

They’re not deceptive, by and large, but they do tend to leave one with the impression that healing is a gradual slope upward, and that it leads to peace and recovery. They paint a hopeful picture filled with grace, compassion, and love– and to be perfectly honest, I think those sorts of resources are needful.

But, when I’m looking in the eyes of one of my dearest friends who feels utterly lost and confused because “hasn’t it been long enough? Shouldn’t I be better than this?”– or other women who are beating themselves up one side and down the other because they “don’t want to be a victim,” and they want to “move on” … I have to look at them and say that

I don’t think better looks like other people’s “normal.” I don’t think you can move on.

Better looks like me cleaning out my bathtub. A fleck of mold got on my hand, and I started screaming. Handsome came into the bathroom to find me curled up in the fetal position with my hand stretched out as far away as I could get it. He carried me out of the bathroom and washed my hand for me in our kitchen sink while I sobbed, then tucked me into bed and cuddled with me for an hour before I could even talk.

Better looks like me washing my hair before every road trip and packing dry shampoo. It looks like me standing in the shower at a hotel, shaking and trying not to scream when the shower curtain touches me, while Handsome washes my body and I keep my eyes screwed tight trying to pretend that we’re at home.

Better looks like Handsome and I getting ready for bed, and he takes off his belt and folds it in half to he can hang it up– and I jump away from him and cringe. I don’t know what, but something about his hand movements has my body convinced that I’m about to be hit. He’s never even remotely done anything that could make me think he’d ever hurt me– not with his words, not with his hands. But it doesn’t matter. I jump away from belts.

Better looks like me turning off the subwoofer during Jurassic World because the throbbing bass makes my chest hurt and my anxiety spike.

Better looks like me searching all over my house desperately searching for my cat during my Fourth of July barbecue because as much as I know that she’s afraid of the outdoors and wouldn’t have run away while the door was open, I also know that I won’t be able to convince JerkBrain that she’s ok and still home until I see her for myself.

Better looks like reminding myself to eat even when I’m sick, even when I feel like I don’t deserve to eat. It looks like me playing Farm Heroes Super Saga while I chew and swallow the meatloaf for dinner last night while I try not to think about what I’m doing– hoping I’ll manage to clean my plate this time. It looks like taking small portions when I’m out with family so they won’t ask questions.

Better looks like a nightstand crowded with meds that I take, every day, even though every time I swallow the miracle that makes my days survivable a sliver of myself whispers that if I were a better, more consistent, more hardworking person, I wouldn’t really need them.

Better looks like getting toward the end of the day and telling Handsome “I can’t make any more decisions.” I can’t decide what I want to do, what show I want to watch, what game I want to play, what book I want to read, what snack I want to eat, what blanket I want to cover my legs … so he makes all those choices for me because he cares about me.

Better looks like being thankful for flexeril because I don’t seem to have night terrors anymore, at least not that I can remember. I can’t remember nightmares, and I’ve never been so thankful that I don’t have to relive my rapes once or twice a week any longer.

Better looks like fighting with JerkBrain every workshift because I know that my body needs me to be gentle with it, that working my fingers to the bone does not determine my value and worth as a person. It looks like reminding myself that my employer finds my contributions substantive meaningful, even though I have fibromyalgia.

Better looks like nearly jumping out of my skin every time I see someone who looks my rapist at an airport or national monument because as much as I know that the chances are vanishingly small that I’d actually bump into him anywhere, I can’t shake the idea that maybe just maybe he decided to fly somewhere at Christmas that would take him through that airport.

***

I’ve been afraid to paint this particular portrait of my life because I don’t want to be discouraging. What suffering person wants to be told some of this might be forever? I know all those studies that talk about the long-term consequences of child abuse aren’t exactly uplifting. My brain is fundamentally different because of the beatings I’ve received, because of the times he raped me, because of the hellfire sermons I had imprinted into my bones. I have PTSD, I’m an abuse and rape victim, and those realities aren’t ever going away.

This does look better though. It does. Not better looks like me drinking myself into numbness for three days straight and blaring rock music so loud I couldn’t hear myself think. Not better looks like a panic attack making me vomit in a school hallway. Not better looks like not being able to have sex with my partner. Not better looks like waking up screaming.

I am getting better. I’m not the somewhat-terrifying ball of rage I was a few years ago. Some wounds don’t bleed anymore, some scars have faded. I’m genuinely happier, more content, more at peace. But a large part of why my life is so blissful– and I do often think of it that way– is due to the accommodations I’ve made. I take medications. I play smartphone games to distract me from my anxiety and pain. I spent a ridiculous sum of money on my cat, who we nicknamed “Anxiety Sponge” because holding her makes something in my chest unlock. I walk away from my computer and my phone on the weekends and read fantasy books voraciously.

Healing, in many ways, looks like learning to cope. It means finding crutches and using them. I’ve learned, slowly and painfully, that I can’t meet an impossible standard. I’m never going to be like someone who wasn’t abused for fourteen years.

We got a little beat up by people, by life. If there’s one thing I want every survivor to know, it’s that your hurts are real, and they deserve to be treated. Maybe that means surgery, or walking with a cane, or cortisone injections, or whatever you find that works. Find what works and do it. Maybe, like me, it means smartphone games, taking Xanax with you everywhere, and packing dry shampoo so you don’t have to wash your hair in a strange place.

Whatever it is, it’s ok.

Photo by Mitya Ku
Feminism

things not even tolerated by the world: Christians and hypocrisy

A little while ago I read “All Christians are Hypocrites” by Jayson Bradley. I don’t really disagree with him or any of the points he makes, but I want to highlight something.

Jayson opens his article musing that many people associate “Christian” with “hypocrite,” and I don’t think he’s wrong. However, he spends the bulk of his article pointing to behaviors that are frequently condemned by Christian culture: drinking, going to move theaters, secular music, affairs, drug addiction, liberal politics, etc. Part of his argument is “Feeling forced to hide these things from our Christian neighbors is part of what makes us look like hypocrites to The World,” and that’s where I disagree with him.

Sure, I knew people growing up who believed that Christians didn’t drink alcohol and would be judgmental if they saw me tossing back a pumpkin ale, but Jayson’s focus on movie theaters and rock music is downright laughable because those things are not why “The World” views us as hypocrites.

It’s because we condone things that “not even the pagans” would tolerate (I Cor. 5:1).

Josh Duggar molested his sisters and girls from his church, and I personally knew people from previous churches who defended his actions as “normal.” More than one Christian told me I was wrong for daring to talk about it.

Saeed Abedini– who pled guilty to abusing his wife and now has a restraining order against him— was handed a massive pulpit by Christianity Today to call his wife a liar and say she’s in league with Satan. That’s not even the first time they’ve done something that despicable– their Leadership Journal published a piece by a convicted rapist where he referred to raping a minor as an “affair.”

Baylor University administration and staff has spent years covering up rapes and assaults committed by not just football players, but debate champions and other students. They threatened retaliation if the victims went to the police, they rewarded rapists with staff and coaching positions. What they’ve done is an order of magnitude worse than what happened at Penn State and they’re facing practically no repercussions at the moment. It’s hardly unique for a Christian university to do this, either. Patrick Henry has done it, as has Bob Jones, and Pensacola Christian … at this point I’d be shocked if there’s any conservative Christian university that hasn’t spent decades retaliating against rape victims.

The New York Catholic Conference spent 2.1 million dollars making sure it would be impossible for pedophilic priests to ever face justice. Pope Francis, who is being hailed as some sort of progressive icon, won’t reverse Benedict’s decision to make child sexual assault allegations a “pontifical secret” and the Church explicitly told priests that they’re under no obligation to report child sexual assault if they know of it.

And just in case you think that this sort of massive cover up is isolated to the Holy Roman Catholic Church and college campuses, it’s not. The Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE) has spent several decades hiding the fact that several of their missionaries are habitual child rapists. After hiring GRACE to investigate, they fired them weeks before they were about to release the report. Years later they eventually got around to releasing a report compiled by Pii (which you can find here), but when Christianity Today posted something about it, they happily went with ABWE’s position of “oh, that will never happen again even though we’re not really admitting we did anything wrong and we’re doing absolutely nothing to make sure it won’t happen again,” as if a mea culpa could ever be enough. Only a handful of Christians are even talking about this, and when we do it’s mostly to make sure ABWE escapes any serious consequences for being complicit in the rape of children.

And it’s not just Baptists, just in case you’re the sort of person who hates on Baptists. The PCUSA (that’s the liberal one) and New Tribes Mission have both issued “apologies” for the dozens of children who were raped by their missionaries.

This is why Christians are hypocrites.

Not because we drink when we’re not supposed to. Not because some of us get tattoos. Not because we have the occasional affair (which is clearly always the wife’s fault anyway, have you seen how she’s let herself go?).

It’s because when our pastors, college administrators, celebrities and missionaries rape our children we shrug and call it “normal” and we call those children adulterers. We make girls who have been impregnated by their rapists stand in front of their church and confess. We write letters to judges begging them for leniency when our “preacher boys” turn out to be rapists. We scream and scream and scream about predators in bathrooms, but when there are actual predators raping our children, we do something worse than nothing. We call the victims liars, we make sure their abuser can do it again, and when those rapists say “oh, oops, I’m sowwy” we publish long think-pieces on forgiveness.

Jesus said to let the little ones come unto him, that only people who become like a child will enter the kingdom of heaven. Seems like we’ve forgotten that.

Photo by Will Beard
Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones
Feminism

Jaime Lannister is a rapist, and let’s not forget it

[This is an edited and slightly updated version of the post I wrote after Game of Thrones’ “Breaker of Chains” aired.]

[content note for sexual violence]

I’ve read G. R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which are now airing as the HBO series Game of Thrones. I enjoyed them, although I caution people to engage with Martin’s world critically. He’s been hailed by a lot of people as a “feminist” writer, but I am extremely hesitant to think of him in those terms (read Sady Doyle’s piece there– it’s both hysterically funny and insightful).

Since the beginning, I have appreciated both Sansa Stark and Cersei Lannister as characters. Cersei, up until Storm of Swords, was a relatable character for me– she was forced into a difficult position by the expectations of her father, of her culture, and of her husband, but she did what she could to find happiness in the midst of an abusive marriage and constant rape. There isn’t a lot about her that I would describe as noble, or perhaps even likable– but she felt realistic to me, and I found myself grudgingly admiring her.

And then Storm of Swords happened, and Martin makes it blatantly obvious that we’re all supposed to hate her now because she’s ridiculously incompetent. She’s completely robbed of all sense because, well, the only explanation he offers for this drastic departure is lady-hormones. I don’t follow Game of Thrones as a show, but I’m a part of online nerd/geek communities, so I have a passing familiarity with what the show is like.

Last year, everything in that part of my internet circles exploded because of the rape scene, which a lot of people insisted diverges from the books. I find that accusation amusing because Robb Stark doesn’t even marry the same woman in the show, but this scene seems to matter to people. I wouldn’t be bothered by the scene diverging from the book, since as television it is a completely different medium, and the artists — the writers, the directors, the actors, the editors– are already telling an entirely different story than the one Martin originally penned. In many ways I think the direction they’ve taken is intriguing.

However, in this one scene they stayed true to the book.

Jaime does, in fact, rape Cersei in the sept next to Joffrey’s dead body.

She kissed him. A light kiss, the merest brush of her lips on his, but he could feel her tremble as he slid his arms around her. “I am not whole without you.”

There was no tenderness in the kiss he returned to her, only hunger. Her mouth opened for his tongue.

“No,”

she said weakly when his lips moved down her neck, “not here. The septons…”

“The Others can take the septons.” He kissed her again, kissed her silent, kissed her until she moaned. Then he knocked the candles aside and lifted her up onto the Mother’s altar, pushing up her skirts and the silken shift beneath.

She pounded on his chest with feeble fists, murmuring about the risk, the danger, about their father, about the septons, about the wrath of gods.

He never heard her.

He undid his breeches and climbed up and pushed her bare white legs apart. One hand slid up her thigh and underneath her smallclothes. When he tore them away, he saw that her moon’s blood was on her, but it made no difference.

That is rape. There is no other word for this scene. Jaime raped Cersei, full stop.

And, honestly, by this point in the books a rape scene would cause me to think yawn, well of course a woman got raped it’s Martin writing this for heaven’s sake what did I think would happen? There are various things to be said about how often people are raped in Martin’s fantasy world, but I’m not really here to critique the existence of rape in his books. It’s what he does with it, and this scene in particular, that deeply, deeply troubles me, because of what happens next:

“Hurry,” she was whispering now, “quickly, quickly, now, do it now, do me now. Jaime Jaime Jaime.” Her hands helped guide him. “Yes,” Cersei said as he thrust, “my brother, sweet brother, yes, like that, yes, I have you, you’re home now, you’re home now, you’re home.”

This, I have a problem with– because this is a rape myth. It actually gets a fucking number on the Women Against Violence’s list of “Rape Myths”– it’s #17:

“When a woman says no, she really means maybe or yes.”

It’s the idea that women secretly all want it, they just have to be persuadedHorrifically, “with my dick” can finish that sentence without the person immediately retching at the utterly revolting idea just expressed.

In Martin’s world, hysterical shrew-bitch women like Cersei Lannister do not get to have their “no” listened to (and we get to say “no” for whatever the HELL reason we want), and strong, handsome, virile, maiden-of-Tarth-defending men like Jaime get to fuck them anyway because actually, she really does want it and I just know because . . . well, no reason– and look, see, she’s getting off on my awesome manly ravishing of her!

But, horrifyingly, this isn’t a rape scene to a disturbing number of people. Chris Ostendorf described it as “complicated consensual sex.” To a lot of people, that she’s saying no to the circumstances somehow makes it not real rape. She would have had sex with him, if it wasn’t for his hand, or where they were, or the septons, or their father somehow finding out, etc.

I have a gigantic– no, colossal— rage-inducing problem with this for the simple reason that when I told my rapist “no,” this is exactly what I sounded like. I couldn’t physically stop someone almost twice my weight, and so I did everything within my power to persuade him to stop. I told him it hurt– he did not stop. I told him “no,” he did not stop. I told him “please, not now,” he did not stop. I said “what if your parents come home?” but he did not stop. I told him I didn’t think it was right (ie, “wrath of the gods,”) and he did not stop.

Finally, I gave up and tried not to let him see me cry because I knew he would hurt me even more if he did. When he assaulted me again, and again, and again, and again, and Again, and AGAIN, I learned that it would all just be over if he got what he wanted. He would eventually leave me alone and go and play Halo if I didn’t fight him. He didn’t care about how much he hurt me, or about how often I vomited after because what forced me do to him disgusted me.

So, for all of you people who argued that Jaime didn’t rape Cersei:

FUCK YOU. FUCK YOU TO FUCKING HELL.

To George R. R. Martin, the twisted fuck who wrote this scene and is perpetuating the exact rape myth that has caused me unending agony: fuck you. To Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (who plays Jaime), who thinks because “it wasn’t just [rape]” it’s somehow justifiable: fuck you. To Sonia Saraiya who thinks there’s “wiggle room” in whether or not we think Cersei “enthusiastically consented”: fuck you. To Chris Ostendorf, who given the chance would describe my rape as “complicated consensual sex”– fuck you, too. Fuck you all.

***

I want to be crystal clear that my problem with this scene in the book (for this post, at least) isn’t that Martin has written yet another rape scene. It’s that what he’s written is a rape myth— a chauvinistic fantasy about male-centric sex that ignores or denies women the ability to consent. Cersei told Jaime no seven different ways, but then suddenly starts begging for it– literally. This is an extremely dominant myth about the difference between rape and consensual sex. In order for something to be considered “legitimate” rape, the victim has to fight tooth and nail until the bitter end. In order for it to be real rape, the victim could never– not once not ever— have consented to sex. If they consented to sex once, well, they’re only saying no for inconsequential reasons and they should just get over it, it’s not that bad.

Martin believes that this is not rape because of the rape myth he believes in– that our culture believes in. Cersei’s apparent enjoyment of her rape (and remember, this scene is written from the rapist’s point of view, not the victim’s, and most rapists think that their behavior is acceptable and normal) in the real world of modern America could be a survival mechanism for an abuse victim– and usually is. Sometimes victims freeze up. Sometimes they, like me, try to resist but then give up because it’s useless and we just want it to fucking end.

Martin does not think that Jaime raped Cersei here, because he believes that women can be manipulative whores who say no in order to be “hard to get,” but in reality really just need to be sexually assaulted into silence and then fucked into realizing what the rapist knew all along– that she actually wanted it.

This is one of the most grievous lies of rape culture– and the actors, the directors, and the writers all used it.

Keep that in mind as you enjoy the season premier tomorrow.

Feminism

all complementarian sex is rape

Yes, I’m leading with that because I might as well– it’s what the naysayers will swear up and down I’m arguing for in this post anyway, and I’ve already made my peace with it. Several men from inside my own progressive Christian camp have already tried to misrepresent my argument this way, and I know that it’s what the complementarians will start screaming if they even read it. So, I’m Andrea Dworkin-ing it up and owning it. My argument has already been labeled “unproductive” and “pointless” (by “feminist” men– are you surprised? I’m not), but I believe that what I’m about to lay out for you is critically important.

I think that it’s common sense for all of us to view sex on a spectrum. Many people don’t– even and possibly especially in feminist discourse there’s a tendency to mock and belittle “gray rape,” and for all the reasons for why they argue there isn’t such a thing, I tend to agree. But in many/most of the spaces I frequent, there’s a tendency to create a harsh and impassable divide between sex and rape, and it leads to this idea that what makes rape rape is obvious to anyone, and all those people out there who are “confused” are merely rapists-in-sheep’s-clothing or people who are aiding-and-abetting rape culture.

Except a look at the world around us tells us that isn’t true. A conversation with any of my womanly friends tells us that isn’t true. As much as I don’t think that the differences between sex and rape are murky, those differences don’t seem clearly apparent to an awful lot of people, rape victims included.

Why is that?

Because, when it comes right down to the bare bones of it, most of a woman’s sexual encounters with men are unhealthy, abusive, coercive, or, yes, even rape. And it is hard, and mind-numblingly terrifying, to stare at a world where most of our sexual encounters are not fully consensual and not be sucked into a soul-drowning abyss. So I’m going to lay out this spectrum and hopefully make the world a little bit brighter.

On the extreme end of the consensual side of the sex spectrum is “take-me-now-I-must-have-your-body-rip-all-my-clothes-off-and-fuck-me” sex. Consent is verbally given by all parties, it is communicated through body-language by everyone, and it is re-affirmed at each stage. It is obvious, and it is glorious, visceral, full-bodied consensual sex. No one at any point could even have doubts about whether or not they’re interested in sex right the fuck now.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is “stranger-danger-ski-masked-man-in-the-bushes-actual-cannibal-Shia-LeBeouf-look-he’s-got-a-knife” rape. The victim bites and claws and kicks and screams, but the rapist still brutally and violently rapes them, leaving them at the point of death. The victim immediately has zero doubts about whether or not what just happened is rape, so they go to a hospital, and in this perfect-victim story the staff finds all sorts of evidence and the DA presses charges and they’re locked away forever.

(Let’s just leave aside for the moment that even this undeniable example there are still cases where the victim is disbelieved, threatened, and even charged with making a false accusation. Rape culture is a bitch.)

Clearly, we all know that most sex and most rape does not look like these extremes. Most consensual sex does not look like the lead-up to a fade-to-black-scene in a romcom. Any person in a long-term relationship can tell you that. Sure, some sex is of that hot-and-heavy variety, but everyday average sex falls somewhere else on the spectrum.

In much the same way, the vast majority of rape isn’t even remotely like the “stranger in the bushes” scenario described above. It isn’t even usually committed by strangers, but by people the victim knows, and it usually isn’t violent in the way that leaves bruising or other visible marks.

For the rest, us sexually active folks can probably fill out the consensual side of the spectrum for ourselves. We’ve probably all had our “eh, why not, sure” moments when it comes to sex. I’m not arguing that all sex must be of the bodice-ripping variety for it not to be rape. Sex can be ordinary and ho-hum and still be perfectly consensual. I can’t get into all the varieties of what consensual sex can look like (especially inside a long-term trust-based relationship), or this will turn into a book.

However, I think a lot of the sex American women are having is not consensual. I’ve talked some about this idea before, but I want to introduce what I think could be a helpful term into the discussion:

Cultural Coercion.

I am far from the first feminist to propose this idea (see, notably, Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse). However, I want to take this idea and apply it specifically to complementarian marriages– that’s the background I come from, and in my opinion complementarianism is the most pernicious, poisonous theology gaining steam in America. It is hell-bent on destroying women through stealing away their right to self-determination. Most importantly, the ideas they promote about sex are, and are intended to be, sexual cultural coercion.

I want to highlight this difference between personal coercion and cultural coercion  because sex that is personally  coerced is always rape, but sex that is culturally  coerced is not rape in the same way.

I say this because “rape,” while absolutely a phenomenon that is (at least partly) created and sustained through culture, is not an act committed by some nebulous, abstract force. Criminally-prosecutable rape requires a rapist. In order for a sexual act to be rape, it must be committed by someone who overruled or ignored another person’s bodily autonomy.

For example, the first time he raped me, it was of the clear-cut variety (although, thanks to G.R.R. Martin, I now know that there are plenty of people who think saying “no, no, no please stop, no” can be “complicated consensual sex”). I said no. I said no repeatedly. Even though I spent the next three years utterly convinced that I must have done something to deserve it, that it was all my fault, that I didn’t know that saying no meant it was rape, supposedly the golden standard is “no means no,” right?

However, the second time he raped me, it was not that clear-cut. I said no. Initially. And then he badgered me and begged and whined and eventually threatened me … so I stopped actively fighting him off. I simply didn’t have the wherewithal to continue resisting, and I was horribly afraid of his threats. He’d hurt me in the past– I still have the scars to prove it– and my fear immobilized me.

He is a rapist. The first time he used physical force to rape me, the second time he used coercion (constant pressure, threats, emotional manipulation, verbal abuse). That second time is an example of personal coercion.

But what about cultural coercion? What does that look like?

A husband opens his bedroom and sees his lovely wife, the mother of his children, in their marriage bed reading a book. Her lamp is on, the light shining on her sunlight-made-corporeal-hair, her lips pursed in that adorable way she has when she’s reading a book she loves. He smiles, gets under the covers, and pulls her into his arms.

He kisses her neck and she laughingly bats him off. “I’m reading,” she says, but he can hear the smile in her voice. He nuzzles that spot right behind her ear that– yep, there it is. She giggles. “Oh, you, stop it.”

“But you’re just so beautiful. Sitting there reading your book.”

She huffs and turns to him, a smile twisting her lips. “I’m not going to finish this chapter, am I?”

“Nope.” He grins.

He pulls her to him, and she responds …

Yes. Yes, I am absolutely saying that right there could be culturally coerced, non-consensual sex.

However, what I am not saying is that having sex with his wife in this circumstance makes this husband a rapist. It makes him the beneficiary of cultural coercion, which is a stark — and incredibly important– distinction.

In the scene I’ve laid out above, this husband and wife are complementarian. They attend a complementarian church, and she attends a weekly Bible study where they read books like Captivating and Lies Women Believe and Me, Obey Him? and Love and Respect and Real Marriage and all these books have told her the same thing: men, because they are men, require sex more often than women do. It is her wifely obligation, her duty to make sure that his sexual needs are fulfilled. If she does not meet his sexual needs, then any resulting pornography addiction, adultery, or any other sexual sin (and yes, horrifyingly, in complementarian culture this can include things like child sexual assault) is her responsibility. If he leaves her for a more sexually available woman, then the destruction of her marriage is her fault for not having sex with him often enough.

This cultural coerction– this pressure– is constant and unyielding. It follows her through every moment of her life, and it is present every single time she has sex. It is always there, always manipulating her, forcing her into sex she wouldn’t ordinarily have. Maybe that night she really wanted to finish her book– maybe it was an especially exciting battle scene that had her on the edge of her seat… but, instead, she does what she’s supposed to do. Sometimes, she’s willing and enthusiastic. But sometimes …. she’s badgered by an ideology into having sex she doesn’t want.

Her husband isn’t a rapist. But it doesn’t mean that the sex they’re having is consensual.

***

And this is where descriptors like “unproductive” and “unhelpful” started getting thrown around.

But — but … but that means that almost all sex that any man is having could be non-consensual! This is so broad it’s useless! You’re making a mockery of real rape!

In response, I shrug. Yes, it is broad. Sweepingly broad. Trust me, I am just as horrified and sickened at the prospect as you. However, our mutual disgust at the idea doesn’t make it any less true. If a woman is being compelled, against her will, by an abusive system like complementarian theology (and, let’s face it, American cisheteropatriarchy), then she is absolutely experiencing something that is emotionally indistinguishable from rape. It’s not criminal, and I don’t think complementarian men are all monsters (not that I think any rapist is a “monster“): however, it doesn’t make what is happening any less wrong.

And just because the sheer breadth of what I’m describing is utterly mind-boggling doesn’t mean that it’s “unhelpful” to talk about it. It just makes talking about it immediately and emphatically necessary. It’s buried bone-deep in our Christian culture. Removing it demands the fervent dedication of all of us to oppose it with all our righteous, soul-of-a-dragon fire and bedrock-steady resolve.

Sex in a complementarian marriage can be culturally coerced, and at those times is therefore indistinguishable from rape. The only difference is that instead of a mythical  man leaping out of a bushes with a knife, the “rapist” is the collective force of complementarian theology.

I’m not backing down from that.

Neither should you.

Photo by mutator
Feminism

consent isn’t enough

This is a concept I’ve been wrestling with for a long, long time. In a way, I’ve written about it a few times, most directly here and here. I’ve heard similar thoughts from many women– in comments, in letters, in real-life conversations. Ever since I heard the term enthusiastic consent I’ve latched on to it as my basis for sexual ethics, as I strongly believe that the only sex that should ever happen is sex that all parties definitely and enthusiastically want. The only times I have sex with my partner are times when we both very much want it.

Because, honestly, I’ve always known that simply “giving consent” isn’t enough. There were plenty of times in my abusive relationship where I’d technically consented. Technically, what he did wasn’t a crime. But most of the time, when I technically said yes, everything inside of me was screaming no, no I don’t want this. Afterwards, I’d be left feeling used. Manipulated. Torn.

But … I’d said yes. So, that meant that everything was ok, right?

Last week, though, I read an article titled “Let’s Talk about ‘Consent‘” by Freya Brown. It’s long, and slightly academic, and I’m not sure I agree with all of her conclusions (and am also frustrated by the fact that she never offers an alternative model), but something she said in the middle section got me thinking. She’s discussing how some studies indicate that many women feel sadness, depression, or regret after sex, and that it happens often enough for us to ask why.

Growing up in the purity culture camp, I already knew what studies she was referencing. They’ve been cited in practically every sermon or book on the subject, and used to prove that sex outside of marriage is intrinsically bad for women– that without the comfort and security of marriage, a woman will not to be able to fully enjoy sex, and in fact, could suffer emotional and psychological harm. This interpretation has always set wrong with me, because I always thought why do these studies only show that it’s bad for women? Why do the same studies say that the only regret men have is not having sex more often?

Of course, the gender essentialist answer will be something along the lines of “duh.”

But that’s a blithe answer, and gender essentialism doesn’t really stand up under a microscope. So … why?

The answer Freya Brown gives is “patriarchy,” in a similar sense of how I think of makeup and shaving. I like wearing makeup– I enjoy the experience, the artistry. But one of the reasons why I like it is that it helps my face conform to Western beauty standards just a tad more; my eyes appear larger, my lips poutier, my cheekbones and jawline sharper.

In my life, I rarely wear makeup. I don’t feel any pressure at all to wear makeup when I leave my house, and anyone who thinks I look sick or dowdy or tired or unprofessional can go fuck themselves with a cheese grater. Same thing with shaving– sometimes I like the feel of smooth legs, but if I want to go the beach with hairy armpits and legs, then that’s what I’m going to do.

Sex, just like everything else, takes place in a culture, a system– a system dominated by misogyny and the subjugation of women to male desire and expectation. Personally, I only have it when I want it, but just like many women don’t feel comfortable leaving their home without “war paint” on (or are punished at work for not appearing “professional”), many women have sex under pressured circumstances.

For example, a little while ago I was reading a webcomic, and two of the characters started having PIV sex. It had been established that these two had an ongoing sexual relationship and that she’d happily consented to everything they’d done prior. In this scene, though, he initiated anal without asking (similar to what Danny did to Mindy in a Mindy Project episode). The character seemed hesitant at first, but then went along with it after some cajoling.

The comment section exploded into a discussion of whether or not what happened was technically rape. With all the givens, some said absolutely yes it was rape, and some said hell no it wasn’t. What bothered me about that whole fiasco was that it happened along such divided lines– to these commenters, there seemed to be a mile-wide gap between sex and rape.

An article on a sex-ed website calls “grey rape” a “myth,” and says that “consent or lack thereof is really clear and intuitive.” In a sense, I agree. The difference between legal consensual sex and what will get you thrown in prison (if you’re reported and convicted, a big If) is clear. Couldn’t be clearer. If they didn’t agree, then you’re raping them and you’re committing a felony.

But there’s plenty of other times where someone says “yes,” especially in the bounds of a long-term relationship, but the sex that happens isn’t ideal, healthy, or what it should be. The biggest example that comes to mind is pretty much any woman in a typical Christian marriage.

One of the consistent messages evangelical women get is that they owe their husband sex, that his sex drive must be satisfied at any and all costs– that if she doesn’t fulfill her “wifely duties” her husband could fall into sin, either through pornography or adultery. She must give him sex under pain of a ruined marriage and destroyed family.

Even if any particular woman living under this framework says yes, and even seems to have a healthy, enjoyable sex life … how consensual is it, really? Under these circumstances, does she have an unfettered choice? Could she say “no” and escape the consequences of a manufactured penalty? Could she refuse without pangs of guilt, making her wonder if she had any right to say no?

Maybe. Maybe once, or twice, or rarely, or as long as he still seemed reasonably satisfied. As long as she felt assured she was performing her “duties.”

That is not what sex should look like. A long time ago, I watched a movie (I think it might have been Sunshine Cleaning?) where one of the main characters has sex with her boyfriend, and eventually gets so bored that she flips on the TV and starts watching something banal until he finishes. What I saw happening there wasn’t rape, but what I did see was a guy being a complete and total asshole.

Our culture, and especially Christian culture, is set up to make it deadly certain that male sexual needs and fantasies are consistently gratified. Female pleasure, and even female consent is broadly secondary– making sure we want it, that we’re invested, that we’re enjoying it, that we’re having orgasms, that we don’t feel pressured or coerced in any way … is immaterial to an awful lot of people. As long as he gets to orgasm, as long as she’s willing to “go along with it,” there are a staggering number of men willing to accept that. In fact, some numbers say that 58% of men would “force women to have sex.”

Sex should not be a “duty.” It shouldn’t be an act we feel obligated to perform for other people. It should never be manipulated or coerced. It’s hard for each woman, individually, to operate inside this system where we’re beaten down into thinking things like I have to have sex with him or he’ll leave me.

But we shouldn’t accept this status quo. As the magnificent and wonderful Nicki Minaj put it: “I demand that I climax. I think women should demand that.” That’s the attitude that should be accepted and normal. Consent is only the absolute minimum baseline, not the goal. It should be so commonplace for women to be comfortable, and happy, and trusting, and respected during sex that anything else would be as incomprehensible to us as building a bicycle seat out of a cactus.

Update 9/8/15: There has been some confusion over the term enthusiastic consent. As a concept, it is not a description of a person’s emotional state or libido, it is intended only to describe the nature of the consent given. Enthusiastic consent is consent given without any pressure or coercion, that’s all. The opposite of enthusiastic consent would be “grudging consent.”

All individuals have autonomy. This means that it is possible to give unpressed, uncoerced consent no matter your libido or current level of arousal. This applies to anyone on the asexual spectrum, as well. The point of the post is simply to examine some of the various ways our misogynistic culture or unhealthy relationships can apply pressure and make it harder for uncoerced consent to be possible.

I believe it is important for every woman to examine the reasons why she has sex, and if “because I’ll ruin my marriage if I don’t” or “he’ll leave me” or “he’ll make me miserable” or “it’s my duty” or “I owe it to him” are among those reasons, than that is something we should actively fight– in our own relationships and more broadly in our culture.

Photo by Darin Kim
Feminism

the lie that made me give up

[content note for explicit discussion of rape, emotional and sexual abuse]

I was raped twice.

And that statement, right there, as straightforward as it seems, is fraught with the complexities and ambiguities and lies and mixed-up realities of living in an abusive relationship for almost three years. I say the word twice and I’m not lying but it doesn’t communicate the heavy weight of the truth. The truth is that I point to those separate instances as rape because they are, in retrospect, very clear: I said no. Repeatedly. I physically resisted. I cried. And still he didn’t stop– he did whatever he wanted and then said you Goddamn fucking bitch this is all your fucking fault when he was done.

At the time I didn’t understand that saying “no,” out loud, made it an open-shut case of rape. There was no consent. He knew there was no consent, that I did not want to have sex with him, at all. He just didn’t care. What he wanted mattered more, and he could trust that I was so entrenched in the lies of being worthless and unlovable and no good for anyone else but him that I wouldn’t tell anyone. He knew that I wouldn’t think of the word rape and apply it to what he’d done. And he was right– I didn’t realize he raped me until years later. Even though I’d said no, stop, please don’t, I don’t want this.

Until I gave up.

I gave up because I thought that if I stopped resisting it would be over faster. I gave up because I thought that maybe if I stopped being such a buzz-kill he’d be able to become fully erect and it wouldn’t hurt so goddamn much. I gave up because, really, fighting was pointless.

The reason why I knew it was pointless was all the times that came before. The times that I don’t call rape.

~~~~~~~~~~

We’d both grown up in purity culture. We both had absorbed similar messages about sex and abstinence and while I got a lot of if you have sex you’re worthless garbage ideas, he knew that it was a moral failing for him to “take advantage” of a woman and that any sexual contact at all with any woman who wasn’t his wife was some form of sexual predation– that wanting to be sexually physical in a relationship made him a “wolf.”

It was a reality we struggled with. I thought that because I’d “surrendered my purity” in a thousand insignificant ways (wearing fitted clothing, leaning over in front of him, kissing him) I’d have to stick this relationship out, no matter what. I was done. If I didn’t marry this boy, then it was all over for me. I’d ruined any chance of happiness I had with another person. But still, the niggling thought of I shouldn’t let him kiss me anymore was a pinprick in the back of my mind.

I also loathed our physical relationship. Everything he asked me to do made me feel degraded and dirty and hardly anything felt good. I’d thought kissing and “heavy petting” and third base was supposed to be this inexorable temptation, as compelling as the Apple in Eden. Not revolting. Not repulsive. But, I figured I was just one of those women where sex would be a sacrifice for my husband.

His feelings were different: he thoroughly enjoyed everything he made us do, but occasionally would enter a fit of conscience. We can’t keep doing this, he’d say, and I’d agree, and do everything I could to keep the relief off my face. Finally, I’d think, it could stop. He wouldn’t keep badgering me into giving him a blowjob. I wouldn’t have to keep the pain off my face when I could feel his fingernails scraping inside my dry vagina. If I thought about the future, after we were married, it was always with the optimism that things would be better then. Marriage would be a magic wand and solve all these problems.

What I came to realize, eventually, was that he didn’t really want us to stop. He just wanted to think he was a good person who didn’t take advantage of women– it was me. It was my fault. I was the temptress that lured him back in, again and again.

It was a Wednesday evening, after church. I’d worn a fundamentalist-appropriate going-to-meeting skirt, but it was a nice one that I didn’t want to rumple while we watched a movie. It took me a few minutes to decide what I wanted to change into, studying a loose pair of pajama pants and my jeans. We were in the middle of one of his purity fits, and so I decided to wear the jeans. They were tight and he wouldn’t be able to get his hand down them. But as I put them on I knew — I knew— he wasn’t going to be happy. I felt choked. I couldn’t swallow around the constricted feeling, and my heart was a terrified fluttering bird inside of my chest. My fingers turned ice cold and I could feel myself shaking as I pulled on the jeans and buttoned them up.

He was waiting for me outside the room, his mouth open to say something; then he saw me, and it shut. He stared, coldly furious, at what I was wearing. And then he hissed “what the fuck are you wearing?“, grabbed my arm and hauled me back into the room. He kept his voice low– can’t have anyone overhearing what he was about to do– and I braced myself. I knew how to weather this storm, I knew what the end result would be.

“Uh … jeans?”

He rolled his eyes. “What are you, an idiot? Of course they’re jeans. Why are you wearing jeans?”

“Because they’re comfortable?”

“As comfortable as pajamas? Seriously, Sam?”

I stared at the floor.

Mercurial, he switched tactics. “Baby, baby, don’t you want to … y’know?”

I managed the smallest nod and hoped to God it was perceptible.

“Don’t you know how much I love you? Don’t you understand that I just want to be with you?”

“I know.”

And so I changed. I endured an entire film of him stuffing his fingers inside of me, scratching and clawing, and I, again, did my best to pretend that it was good, so good, for me. I think I was convincing.

~~~~~~~~~~

It’s months later. It’s after the rapes, after so many threats and half-breaks-ups and so many pinches and so many times of being hauled out of rooms. We’ve just listened to a chapel message, and I’d learned to identify Dread curled up in the pit of my stomach. It was coming. That conversation was coming. Again. He’d have another purity fit, and I’d have to deal with the mountains of shame he’d hurl at me after it was over and he’d given up.

We were supposed to meet in one of the atriums to go to lunch. I saw him waiting for me, and it was all there: the slumped shoulders, the facial expression that I knew to be the one he put on we he wanted people to think he was convicted and sorrowful and spiritual. And we had the conversation, only this time I was done. I was done pretending. I knew how this was going to end– with him screaming at me and blaming me and mountains and mountains of goddamn you fucking bitch. So I decided to skip it. I decided that instead of agreeing, I was going to soothe his conscience. I was going to tell him that no, no it’s fine and I was going to make up some reason for him not to feel guilty anymore. I was going to smooth over whatever ruffled feathers he had and move on.

What I didn’t know at the time was that I was giving him all the ammunition he’d ever need. I gave him exactly what he wanted, actually– proof. I was the temptress, the Apple, a reincarnated Lilith. I was the problem, not him. I didn’t just soothe his conscience– I expunged it of all guilt. I gave him the power to destroy me and then abandon me and then tell everyone who would listen that it was me. I was the one to blame.

~~~~~~~~~~

I’ve talked to many women after I put all of these pieces together, and I started seeing patterns in what he’d done. Other people have been through this, and one of the most important lessons I’ve learned since I started blogging is the breathtaking power in “me, too.” I don’t know how many people will read this and identify with it, but I hope that if you do you’ll see what I eventually saw.

This is one of the ways we are kept silent. This is one of the ways that you don’t hear us talking about what we’ve been through. Because we feel guilty, and complicated, and confused, and we don’t know how to name what happened. We feel that it’s our fault, but we also feel used and robbed of … something. For women who grow up in purity culture, it’s common to look at all of this and tell ourselves that we’re just feeling the after-effects of “losing our purity.” Next time, it will be better. Next time we won’t let this happen.

And the word for what all of this is goes ignored.

Coercion.

Photo by Helga Weber
Feminism

on disguising logical fallacies in "feminist" arguments

While the following may not be a completely universal experience, in my experience it tends to be a common one: when a rape victim starts talking about their experience (especially on the internet), inevitably someone somewhere is going to say something along the lines of “you need to take responsibility for your own choices that led to this.” And then they are shocked– shocked, I say– when someone responds with “stop victim blaming us.” After all, how could they be victim blaming? Didn’t you just hear them argue for agency and autonomy? They are the real feminist in this conversation because real feminists “acknowledge that women have the power to make their own choices.”

I got this the other day on my Fifty Shades of Grey article– someone told me that I obviously had “self-esteem issues” and that I had ignored red flags because I was “obsessed with what was on the outside.” Because of that, they argued, I need to stop finding other things to blame because it was really my fault that it had happened. My choices led to that. The comment has since been deleted (because The Mary Sue has some pretty great mods), but you can read my response to that person here.

That argument isn’t unique– during my Real Marriage review, someone left this comment on my facebook page:

She [Grace Driscoll] sinned in having premarital sex, but more pertinent, she made an unwise choice that put her in harms way. She believes she is a whole person and holds herself accountable for that choice. That doesn’t change the man’s guilt in her eyes or mine. Giving us the accountability for those choices also gives us the power to choose. That power is precisely the same power that ultimately let me choose to remove myself from the abuse entirely, turn away from the lie that I’m not a real person with real worth, and prevent my past victim-hood from defining me. Responsibility for your own choices is empowering because it empowers you to make different choices in the future.

See the language she used, describing this victim-blaming argument as “empowerment”?

Now that I’ve established that this happens, I’m going to talk about why this argument is hilariously wrong. It’s a logical fallacy. Specifically, it’s post hoc ergo propter hoc, which is a kind of false cause fallacy. These people are literally making this argument:

You chose to be in this relationship.
You were raped in this relationship.
Therefore, you chose to be raped.

Put into stark terms like that, it should be apparent why this is a false cause fallacy: choosing to be in a relationship does not mean that you chose to be raped. Because one followed the other– because he raped me after I decided to date him– does not mean that one caused the other. What caused him to rape me was his decision to rape me, and just because being in a relationship with him gave him the opportunity to rape me in particular does not mean that I am to blame. This argument has the same problem as “if you don’t dress provocatively, you won’t get raped”– all it really says is make sure the other girl gets raped; the problem isn’t the clothes or my decision to date someone, it’s the rapist running around raping people because he or she wants to.

An argument that usually goes along with this is that people like me– people who say “it is not my fault that I was raped, I am a rape victim,”– get told that we’re living with a “victim mentality” and we should learn to shoulder the “mature responsibility” of a full-grown woman with “agency” and “autonomy.”

First of all, most of these people have no fucking clue what “agency” means, especially in a feminist context. When feminists say “women should have agency,” it’s a declaration about the ways that oppressive structures limit our choices. We’re saying “women should have as many open avenues as possible.” For example, often it is the female partner in a heterosexual relationship that gives up their career to stay home with the children. While every woman who does this is choosing to, she is making that choice inside of a social context that could be cutting off other options, such as the perception around stay-at-home fathers or the fact that statistically her husband probably makes more money than she does. These factors mean that her agency in that choice is at least somewhat limited (which is one of the reasons why I have some problems with “choice feminism.” If you’re interested in reading more about that, you should start with bell hooks. In fact, everyone should start with bell hooks.) To have agency means that we can vote, we aren’t barred from career fields (even dangerous ones like combat duty– I don’t need your benevolent sexism, thank you), or educational opportunities.

Autonomy is the reason why women should have agency. Autonomy is the ability for an individual person to make independent decisions, and it’s something every single human being has. It’s part of what makes us human beings. The fact that our culture has denied women agency was based on the idea that we didn’t have as much autonomy as men. We shouldn’t be allowed to vote because we can’t, went the argument. We couldn’t be trusted to make that sort of decision. We were too weak, too stupid, etc.

So when someone like this starts throwing around “women have agency and autonomy, y’know!” in arguments about victim blaming it should be clue number one that they don’t have any idea what they’re talking about. These ideas don’t belong in a conversation about how we were raped–regardless of sex or gender– because we weren’t the ones choosing. Someone else made the decision to rape us.
While I’ve been talking about the specific context of “you chose to date him, idiot” arguments I’ve run into, the same problems exist with

You chose to get drunk.
You were raped while you were drunk.
Therefore, you chose to be raped.

and all the others that are like it, and saying that “women have agency, therefore we have the power to choose to be raped” is especially hilarious in the “don’t get drunk” argument. In the “don’t get drunk” argument you are limiting her agency. Women should have the same agency as men– men can get drunk in public and not have to worry about being raped. The fact that women have to even consider rape as a possible “consequence” for getting drunk means that we don’t have the same options as men. Getting drunk and not being raped isn’t supposedly a legitimate option in the “don’t get drunk” narrative. Telling women “don’t get drunk” is telling women you don’t have agency.

Hopefully this post clears up some confusion on what makes all these arguments victim blaming.

Photo by Wolfgang
Feminism

despair and fury: being a woman in rape culture

[content note: rape, sexual assault, depression]

This is an extremely difficult post for me to write. The words have been simmering inside of me for a long time, and I hope that getting them out of me will … help. I wrote a post a little while ago that talked about the depression I’ve been struggling with, and as you can probably tell from my lack of regular posting, the past two weeks have been rough.

I consider myself fortunate in that my depression has always been situational– while it certainly isn’t fun, that it’s been a rather normal reaction to life events means that when life settles down, so can I. I’ve never worried about being depressed because I knew there would be a bend in the road, a light at the end of the tunnel, and I’d come out of it. Eventually. All I had to do was buckle down and muscle through it.

This time, though … I’m not sure how to get around this depression because while it’s still situational, the “situation” isn’t ever going to go away. This time, I’m depressed because rapists get away with it.

I don’t think that’s a fact that’s going to change at any point in my lifetime … and that’s just fucking depressing as shit.

I came to the realization of why I’m depressed shortly before Christmas. I was speaking with my partner about a man we both know to be a sexual predator when I just … snapped. I was remembering all of the times this person had grabbed my ass without my permission or the times I’d watched him drunkenly grope and forcefully kiss his way through a party– and the fact that he was surrounded by a community of men who find this behavior acceptable and will call any woman who complains about it a “bitch.” And, suddenly, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I’d removed myself from that group of people, but the group still exists and that behavior still happens, and nothing is ever going to happen to him.

I hid myself in the closet and beat my head into the wall until everything in my vision was a little fuzzy and dark; I wanted to claw out of my skin, to rip my heart out of my chest so it would stop hurting so badly. My rapist, the last time I heard anything about him, was a youth pastor, and married to the woman he’d cheated on me with– a woman, because of what he told me, I suspect he might have assaulted. By all accounts he’s happy and successful and chances are he will never be brought to justice for all the women he’s harmed. And that … was overwhelming in a way that I can’t put into words. That night, I hated this world and everything about it. I was hysterical with fury and pain.

Since that night I’ve been struggling to deal with this reality that I’ve been able to emotionally ignore for so many years. I can’t escape it now, and the burden of waking up to a world where the men I know to be rapists are happy and hale and will– almost absolutely– never see the inside of a prison makes me want to shrink as far into my bed as I can bury myself.

Today it took me three hours to drag myself out of bed, and all I ended up doing was moving to the couch, cuddling with Elsa, and crying myself to sleep again. I thought I might be getting better, that surrounding myself with tea and good books and good movies and cuddling with Handsome was working.

But, last Wednesday, I was riding the DC metro and I watched a man violate every single one of a woman’s boundaries while she was helplessly trapped on a train with him with no where to go. I stood there, helpless and enraged, not knowing what to do, while I watched him slowly escalate his behavior until he attacked her and she tried to fight him off and I start yelling at him to stop, but he ignored me until Handsome grabbed his shoulder. And then he spends the next five minutes yelling at every single last person on the train about the “dumb bitch” who interfered.

And I stood on that train until he got off, and I sobbed, because I saw that other people had noticed, and I and Handsome had been the only ones to even move when he attacked her. I cried harder when another passenger confronted my partner and told him that he should have “left it alone.”

I don’t know how to live on this planet. I don’t know how to live on a planet where Fifty Shades of Grey is a box-office success and women tell me that I need to take responsibility for being raped because obviously I ignored the many neon-billboard signs that my rapist was an abuser because I thought he was hot. I don’t know how to live in the same country as a woman who tells rape victims that they need to repent. I don’t know how to live in a world where it’s rare and unusual for someone to step in, even when a sexual assault is obviously happening right in front of them.

And while I know this is a bit melodramatic… I feel like Elijah saying “I am the only one left.” And of course that’s objectively ridiculous. There are so many incredible people out there fighting for the same thing I am, who speak up when they see something happening. It’s just difficult to remember that when you’re the only “bitch” at a party telling someone to quit it, or the only person on a train willing to speak up.

It makes me angry, too, because it’s not as though being a feminist takes any of my fear away. I am just as embarrassed and awkward and afraid of rocking the patriarchal party boat as anyone else. I am just as terrified of confronting someone on the train and making myself a target. The difference is that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t do something, and it infuriates me that so many know that people around them are being harassed and assaulted, and they care … they just don’t care enough.

In the end, that is what I find truly depressing.

So, I’m throwing this post out there, hoping that it could make someone understand exactly what is at stake when they keep their head down and “mind their own business,” when they are bothered by that guy at a party who just won’t leave that woman alone but don’t want to get harassed for saying something about it. If these words do anything, I hope that it convinces at least one person that taking all the heat and flack and cursing and raging is worth it.

Art by Liza

Feminism

is it possible to be a sex-positive Christian? [part two]

This post is a continuation of the argument begun in this post. If you haven’t had the chance to read it yet, please do, as it laid the foundation for today’s post.

III. Fornication

On top of the reality that women were thought of as property in biblical times is another reality: most of the time, the Bible is not addressing consensual sex where the people involved are socially equal. Take, for example, the argument that James Brownson lays out in Bible, Gender, Sexuality: in the times when the Bible seems to be addressing male-on-male sex, it’s not talking about two men who are social equals in a “loving, committed relationship,” as Matthew Vines likes to say.

A famous example is Sodom. I grew up believing that God destroyed Sodom with fire and brimstone because a lot of the men who lived in the city were gay. Except … that’s not what happened. Ezekiel says that the “sin of Sodom” was greed, and the whole passage in Genesis is about men who wanted to commit rape. In ancient times as well as today, male-on-male rape is an act of domination, aggression, and violence. It is physical harm as well as psychological warfare because the act itself says you are no better than a weak woman.

Other examples in the Bible are stories like David and Bathsheba– I believe that David was punished for rape, not for adultery. Bathsheba could not refuse someone so much more powerful than her, and therefore could not give meaningful consent. When the prophet Nathan confronts David about raping Bathsheba, he tells the story of a beloved sheep: one man loved his sheep; the other man used his power to steal her away and then ate her. He wasn’t interested in keeping and cherishing her, but in consuming and destroying her.

I think what the New Testament is addressing when it talks about porneia is similar.

At its most basic, porneia is a bit of a loose term. It basically means “illicit sex,” with “illicit” here meaning “forms of sex that society frowns upon.” In the larger cultural context, “illicit” sex was limited to bestiality, incest, adultery, heterosexual pre-marital sex, etc. Pederasty was, depending on the time and the author, viewed with varying degrees of approval. However, I don’t think these actions were what the biblical writers meant when they chose porneia.

However, many times when porneia appears, it’s being strictly limited to a single form of sex: prostitution.

Temple prostitution has a bit of a mythos surrounding it in Christian culture. Occasionally you’ll hear allusions to the “temple at Corinth” in order bolster claims like these, or used as illustrations in sermons or historical lessons. The archeological evidence seems to indicate that temple prostitution wasn’t widely practiced the way many Christians think it was at the time the NT was being recorded; but what my research seems to show is that while there might not have been temple prostitution, there was a definite linguistic link between temple prostitution and prostitution more generally.

For example, Aphrodite’s temple in Corinth had been destroyed and had not been restored while Paul was there, but prostitution continued to be practiced, and it was still associated with the worship of the love goddess, however tangentially. We can see this cultural and linguistic connection in the Bible:

  • Acts 15: “That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication … Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.”
  • Acts 21: “We have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication.”
  • I Corinthians 10: “Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.We should not commit sexual immorality (not porneia here, this is porneuo, which simply means “to prostitute”), as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.”
  • Colossians 3: “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry …”
  • Revelations 2: “But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.”

In each of these instances, fornication is intrinsically linked to idol-worship, and thus, to prostitution. Except ancient prostitution and modern prostitution don’t bear any resemblance to each other. Today, a sex worker can freely choose to employ themself that way without any form of violence or coercion forcing them into it. That didn’t really happen in biblical times (if there were consensual sex workers, I couldn’t find a record of their existence). At the time that Paul was writing, the only way “prostitution” was practiced was as sex trafficking. The women (and perhaps men) who were prostitutes were in no way consenting. They were slaves.

Is it any wonder that Paul condemns those who “join themselves to a prostitute”? I don’t think Paul was condemning people for having consensual sex, but for paying a sex trafficker for the opportunity to rape people.

Other appearances of porneia don’t refer to idolatry specifically, but it does usually appear in the context of abuse and exploitation. We have Paul condemning incest in I Corinthians (incest being an abusive act), associating it with murder in Romans, and Jude links it to the attempted rape in Sodom.

I think the consistent message of the NT regarding sex is don’t harm, abuse, exploit, and rape people, not “don’t have pre-marital sex.”