The Worst Sexual Sin: Sexual Violence and the Church

By Gudorf, Christine E. | The Christian Century, January 6, 1993 | Go to article overview

The Worst Sexual Sin: Sexual Violence and the Church


Gudorf, Christine E., The Christian Century


ABOUT ONE IN every four women is raped during her lifetime, Last year more than 4,000 U.S. women died from conjugal battery alone. One in four girls and one in nine boys is sexually molested. One in 20 girls is molested by her father or stepfather.

In the face of such statistics, the church must take some responsibility for the ethos in which such violence occurs. Our society tolerates sexual violence in myriad ways. As theologians Beverly Harrison and Carter Heyward suggest, we have eroticized domination. It is sexy for a man to be bigger, older, stronger, richer and socially more powerful than a woman; the reverse is decidedly unsexy. Our society incorporates domination and submission in sexuality in ways that excuse violence.

There are a variety of circumstances under which coerced sex is regarded not as rape but as a man's right, including: if she dresses provocatively, if she is intoxicated, if she asks him out, if he has spent money on her, if she goes to his apartment, if she goes to a party, if she goes "parking," and if he is or was married to her (C. L. Muehlenhard and M. Linton, "Date rape and sexual aggression in dating situations: Incidence and risk factors," Journal of Consulting Psychology 34:186-196 [1987]). Thirty-nine percent of high school males in one study reported that it was justifiable to force sex on a girl if she were drunk or stoned (R. Giarrusso et aI., "Adolescent cues and signals: Sex and assault,'' in R Johnson, Acquaintance Rape and Adolescent Sexuality, Western Psychological Association, 1979) and 75 percent of college males in another study said they had used 'alcohol or drugs to obtain sex (D. L. Mosher and R.D. Anderson, ." Macho personality, sexual aggression, and reactions to guided imagery of realistic rape," Journal of Research in Personality 20:77-94 [1986]). Men seem unable to differentiate between coercion and consent. Researchers have asked men to read an account of a date and then evaluate how much the woman wanted sex. In the seenario the woman drank iced tea rather than alcohol and wore a pleated skirt, a tie-at-the-neck blouse and penny loafers. She did not hug or kiss her date, and when he made sexual advances she said no three times and moved away from him. In evaluating her desire for sex on a scale of 1 (no desire at all) to 9 (very much desire), the men on average marked down 4.5 (C. L. Muehlenhard and A. Felts, "An analysis of causal factors for mens attitudes about the justifiability of date rape," unpublished data, 1987).

SUCH INABILITY TO distinguish consent from coercion prevents eight out of nine rape victims from reporting their rape. Victims of rapes by strangers are more likely to report the crime than are victims of rapes by acquaintances, who fear that they will not be able to convince police, prosecutors, judges and juries--not to mention friends, parents and husbands--that they did not invite, consent to or enjoy sex. Child incest reporting rates are less than 5 percent, even when the offender has victimized more than one child in the family (Diana E.H. Russell, The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women, 1986). Blaming the victim of sexual violence is commonplace, not only because it makes it unnecessary for society to examine seriously the prevailing level of violence, but also because it allows women (and children and those who love them) the illusion of safety. If victims of rape, incest or battery brought it on themselves, then good, responsible women and children need not fear. But rape, battery and sexual abuse are to some extent random-- they occur among rich and poor, educated and uneducated, urban and rural, old and young. All of us and all those we love are at risk.

A real concern about sexual violence would produce a number of changes in the church's life and teachings. First, churches could explicitly condemn sexual violence from the pulpit, in adult education series, in Sunday schools, in youth programs. …

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