Dianna Anderson on Rape Culture and Victim Blaming


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
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This is the sixth post of our weeklong series, Into the Light: A Series on Abuse and the Church, which features the stories of abuse survivors, along with insights from professional counselors, legal experts, and church leaders about how to better prepare Christians to prevent and respond to abuse. (Previous posts include: The Scar of Sexual Abuse by Mary DeMuthNo More Silence: An Interview with Boz Tchividjian of G.R.A.C.E.; “Today’s Journey”: Thoughts on Healing from Grace Biskie;  Proper Treatment for Sexual Abuse by Dr. Philip Monroe; and “God is Love” by Sarah Moon.) Through the course of the series, we will be discussing child abuse, spiritual abuse, sexual violence and abuse, and domestic violence. In addition, my friends Hannah, Joy, Shaney, and Elora will be hosting a synchroblog focused specifically on spiritual abuse, which you can learn more about here.

This afternoon’s post comes to us from Dianna Anderson. Dianna is a blogger in the Chicago area. She has a BA in theology/philosophy and an MA in English Literature. When not kicking butt and taking names through her feminist writing, she works a mild-mannered radio producer. I have learned so much from Dianna through the years, it’s hard to know where to start. While I know some evangelicals may wince at the idea of hearing from a feminist, I do hope you will take the time to listen to this perspective, as I think churches interested in addressing problems related to abuse can really benefit from some feminist insights into rape culture and victim blaming. The news out of Steubenville this week should serve as a haunting reminder of the importance of having this conversation. Dianna blogs at http://www.diannaeanderson.net and tweets @diannaeanderson

Trigger Warning: Rape, violence, victim-blaming

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A couple of weeks ago, law student and Democratic pundit Zerlina Maxwell went on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show for a “debate” about gun control. The issue of self-defense came up, and Maxwell – a rape survivor – said that guns are not necessarily rape prevention and that, as a culture, we need to start examining cultural biases and teaching men not to rape.

In the week following, Maxwell’s social media pages were under siege from people who took offense to the idea that men should be taught not to rape. Actor Adam Baldwin (Jayne from the cult TV show Firefly), in a disappointing turn of events, referred to Maxwell’s ideas as “bigotry.” Worse, numerous people began threatening her with racist rape and death threats. Her FB page quickly filled with such vitriol that she had to have her boyfriend go through and delete comments (it was too emotionally taxing to do so herself).

Apparently, the idea that men (who are, statistically, the most common perpetrators of rape, but certainly not the only ones) can be taught not to rape is a shocking revelation for many people. Why? Because we exist in what feminists call “rape culture.”

I know a lot of people will shut down and stop listening the instant feminist buzzwords come into play, but if you’ll do me the honor of hearing me out, I think you’ll find yourself rewarded.

Rape culture is the idea that we live in a culture that condones and endorses rape.

This is tough pill to swallow because it implicates our very selves, when – as the response to Zerlina Maxwell shows – we would much rather believe that rape is perpetrated by strange monsters who lurk in dark alleys and who can be shot at point blank range because all they’ll ever be is a monster.

But rapists aren’t monstrous beings that are easily identifiable by some physical feature like a spine-filled tail or horns. No, the vast majority of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, most often inside a home that belongs either to the rapist or the victim. Rapists are your brothers, your fathers, your pastors, your husbands, your cousins, your friends. They look and sound and feel like your average, everyday person – which is why the “stranger in a dark alley” narrative is kind of absurd.*

As a culture, though, we teach about rape from the perspective that it happens in dark alleyways, committed by strangers. The reason for this, I believe, is so we can feel better about preventing our own rape. If rape has a specific, defined narrative with specific, defined elements, then women just need to not do specific things and they’ll be safe.

This is how we land at rape culture. Because we, as a culture, believe certain myths about how rape happens and what rape looks like, we end up punishing victims for their failure to follow the prescribed rules that come from these myths.

This is called victim blaming.

Victim blaming looks like this (special thanks to my Twitter followers for providing examples):

“She shouldn’t have been wearing that skirt? What was she thinking?”

“I'm sure it was a misunderstanding. He's such a nice guy.”

“You need to have better boundaries and draw the line before things get too heated.”

“There are ways of preventing rape like not getting too drunk.”

"Well, there's two sides to every story.”

“I wouldn't be caught dead in that neighborhood.”

"Why did you stay with him for so long?"

"So, you don't think you have to ask God for any forgiveness?"

Victim blaming, as you can see, assumes that there is something the victim could have done to get out of the situation, that there is something that could have prevented the assault, or that there is something they need to apologize for. Victim blaming and rape culture are intimately tied together. Both assume that rapists are an unstoppable force and it is up to us, as potential victims, to get out of the way.

As other feminists have said, tactics that instruct women not to get raped are really just saying “Make sure he rapes the other girl.”

This way of talking about rape and rapists is unhelpful and ineffective, but extremely hard to challenge because it requires more than just catching rapists, locking them up, and throwing away the key. It requires that we, as a culture, examine our rhetoric and the ways in which we teach our children about consent and respect of women’s bodies. It’s hard work.

But, young men and boys are listening. They are absorbing what we teach them. And when we start teaching that enthusiastic consent is necessary and that rape is a decision men make, not an unmovable part of their nature, we see change. It is slow, and it is arduous, but teaching men not to rape really does prevent rape.

We, in the church, have a responsibility to teach men to respect women’s bodies – regardless of what they are wearing or what activity they may get up to. Rather than being on the forefront of preventing rape, we have set ourselves up as one of its greatest proponents. We do this with the way we talk about women’s bodies – objectifying them into categories of “modest” or “immodest,” “pure” or “impure.” We judge and vilify women who choose to be sexual, and we promote some of the worst victim blaming rhetoric that exists.

And we need to change.

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*This is not to deny that stranger rape happens, because it does.

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Consider subscribing to Dianna's blog...but only if you want to start seeing the world in a bunch of new ways!  You can see the rest of the posts in our series here. And don’t forget about the Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week synchroblog

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