In case you didn’t subject yourself to the Oscars, Lady Gaga and Joe Biden took the national stage to speak out against campus sexual assault.¹
I feel compelled to post on Biden’s final statement regarding victims of sexual assault–“They did nothing wrong!”
I believe the majority agrees that sexual assault is a crime against humanity. However, there is debate on the issue of responsibility around sexual assault–who is at fault? Was the victim drinking? Were they wearing revealing clothing? Were they walking in a dark, secluded area?
It’s this very debate that I believe perpetuates our modern rape culture.
A rape culture is an environment where rape is pervasive and normalized by societal attitudes (wiki). I’d say that 1 in 5 women being sexually assaulted during their college career is pervasive. And normalization happens in porn, music, magazines, and I hate to say it, even our churches.
French Vogue’s magazine cover, “A Man and a Woman” is a great example of the normalization of rape culture. There is debate on whether this image is really violent or just art, and the mutual experience of pleasure by an adult male and adult female. My point is not to dictate what goes on in your own bedroom, but Vogue’s choice of public art does begin to normalize what people think is going on in everyone’s bedroom. Does violence equal love? Or, does violence equal pleasure? And, when it comes to violence who’s pleasure is it? Normalization.
In response to Biden, I’m expecting to hear from conservative Christians, including my own faith community of Mormonism, “Biden went too far. We are all responsible for the positions we put ourselves into.”
Let me rephrase this statement into the context of the current conversation around rape: “What makes men rape?”
In context to sexual assault, “we’re all responsible for the positions we put ourselves into,” and “why do men rape” are really the same. In other words, men rape because of the positions women put themselves into.
Or, in Mormonism it’s stated as, “Women need to take responsibility for the influence they have on men’s inability to control their thoughts and desires.”
Well, let me be more generous, and use the actual language that our Mormon youth hear over and over again: “Girls, it’s important to wear modest clothing to help our young men maintain virtuous thoughts.”
That seems innocent and fair, right?
However, when we take this primary position in the discussion on modesty in Mormon culture all the way to the end analysis, it leads to our current cultural conversation that men sexually assault women because of all sorts of external factors–opportunity, alcohol consumption, previous consent to sex, revealing too much skin, etc. That may feel like too far of a leap for you, young women supporting the good thoughts of young men to rape, but exactly where does the idea that women are responsible for what goes on in a man’s head stop? Debaters will stop wherever it becomes too uncomfortable for them, but if there is no subjective, “oh, it matters until you get to this point” then you have to take it to the end of the stick which is men rape for reasons other than their own choice.
In fact, one evidence that we do exist in a rape culture is the fact that this is how we’re framing the issue as a people. Everything is to blame for rape, except the perpetrator himself.
Just take, for example, this 2014 survey on “Why do men rape women.” Spicy food and the lack of legal prostitution were my favorites.
One of the comments on Lady Gaga’s performance at the Oscars is another example.
“That she sings a song about rape but moments before, The Weeknd does a performance with . . . women dressed half naked in bondage equipment and restrainers. Why didn’t she protest this???? What a f***ing hypocrite.”
But what if the solution to the problem of rape were found in a small tweak to the language of the question? What if we changed, “Why do men rape women?” to “Why do men choose to rape women?”
The gravity of the change might not be immediately apparent, but the addition of one word makes all the difference in the conversation and the focus of our solutions to sexual assault.
Framed as “why do men rape women” places responsibility for rape on the shoulders of victims, or at least on external factors.
“Why do men choose to rape women” places responsibility for rape on the shoulders of perpetrators, or internal factors.
A question like this gives us both the paradigm and the language to address the real problem—personal choice and accountability.
Men rape because they choose to.
If we use choice as our standard, then any answer that implies external responsibility rather than internal responsibility has to be booted.
So, sorry, immodest clothing doesn’t cut muster. Neither does promiscuity, intoxication or previous consent to sex.
My point here is that the question is at least as important as the answer to sexual assault.
Continuing to debate the responsibility of modesty, of drinking, and location awareness to the pervasiveness of rape is simply a dead end to change.
The real solution then?
Any answer(s) for real change must be internally oriented. They won’t be found in “what she should do.” They can only be found in, “what should I do?”
I believe my faith community’s cultural orientation of holding women accountable for men’s moral or immoral thoughts is completely misguided.² The primary conversation should be consistent with our second Article of Faith. “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.“ In other words, I am responsible for my own thoughts, feelings, and choices, no matter what else is going on around me.³
How do we then teach modesty to our girls without holding them responsible for boys’ morality? Well, that’s a whole different post.
In the final analysis of Biden’s last words, real change to rape culture requires that we hold that potentially uncomfortable standard that, for victims of sexual assault, “they did nothing wrong.”4
- The new website to promote the campaign against campus sexual assault is http://www.itsonus.org. Visit it and take the pledge.
- I expect this statement may be hard to swallow for many of my tribe. However, as I’ve served in the young women’s organization of my church the modesty conversation is always more heavily weighted on the side of “be modest because you want to support your brothers” than any other reason. When young women in my own ward discussed modesty, their first articulated thoughts were about being modest for the sake of young men. To me that speaks of a cultural incline toward women holding at least some accountability for men’s morality. What happens in the mind of the young man who constantly hears that the primary reason women are modest is to help him control his thoughts? The conversation for our youth about morality and modesty must primarily center on personal choice and accountability, which by the way, is the 5th of the Young Women’s eight values recited in church every Sunday. How ironic that we don’t see that value anywhere in our young men’s program. That’s my point. It’s not a doctrinal position, it’s simply an unconscious cultural system, which is exactly what sustains a rape culture.
- As a victim of both sexual abuse and domestic violence, I understand the emotional and mental changes that occur under the influence of abuse. It’s a fine line to draw between where the influence of abuse affects our thoughts, beliefs and behaviors, and our perception of reality. There is so much to discuss on this nuance that I am not going to attempt to do it here. For the purpose of this post I maintain the position that we are all ultimately responsible for our actions.
- I am anticipating my conservative Christian friends to debate that the promotion of the language “victims of sexual assault did nothing wrong” is simply a liberal agenda to promote and normalize behaviors viewed by the conservative right as inappropriate and immoral, such as immodest dress, excessive alcohol consumption, and sexual promiscuity.Drinking certainly has a proven association with campus sexual assault.However, we have to be honest about what we’re doing when we focus the conversation on what a person may have done wrong in a rape case, we are reassigning responsibility onto the shoulders of the victim, rather than squarely on the perpetrator. Until our national conversation tips the scales toward the ultimate and complete personal accountability of the rapist, we’re just continuing to perpetuate rape culture and dead end solutions to sexual assault.