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Body Politics

Confronting Rape Culture

Political theology, insofar as it can articulate an analysis of and resistance to rape culture, offers many resources for confronting sexual violence.

Confronting sexual violence is a political practice because, in its fullness, it involves transformation of the social and structural powers that enable sexual violence. Sinful and misogynistic attitudes about sexual expression are so thoroughly imbedded in our social and political structures that we can refer to these shared attitudes as “rape culture.” Political theology, insofar as it can articulate an analysis of and resistance to rape culture, offers many resources for confronting sexual violence. In the constructive moment, political theologies—precisely as theologies—can provide a holistically imaginative vision that other forms of structural analysis are unable to provide, taking account of the full dimensions of human social life, particularly in its spiritual and transcendent dimensions. 

A structural analysis of rape culture can do much to demonstrate that individual instances of sexual violence are made possible by a broader social and political framework. Yet, there are some dangers to be avoided in this kind of structural approach: namely, an erasure of the singularity of individual experience and the flattening of accountability for individual perpetrators of sexual violence. These pitfalls are not inevitable within political theology and can be avoided with careful attention to the ways in which perpetrators of violence might coopt language of structural analysis to avoid responsibility.

Rape culture structures our communities to normalize—and even encourage—pervasive sexual violence. In rape culture, the threat of rape significantly contributes to the cultural construction of identity for those who are non-dominant. As Susan Brownmiller argued in 1975, rape has functioned as a “conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear” (5). We might add that threat of rape also functions to intimidate other socially vulnerable individuals, including queer people, by threatening to enforce norms of gender conformity, as well as people of color and undocumented individuals, by communicating that their bodies are the property of others. The threat of rape functions socially to reify hierarchies of power and submission. The threat of rape has a terrorizing effect such that one does not have to be raped in order to be marked by rape. 

In other words, the fear of rape organizes women and other nondominant people’s lives in significant ways, determining how they dress, how and when and where they move, how they socialize, how they shape their bodies, their sense of safety, and their expression of their sexuality. It coerces women and other socially nondominant individuals into dependence upon dominant men (understood as their only means for protection) ironically enforcing relationships of obligation that can then function as the grounds for violent sexual manipulation of them by these supposedly guardian men. 

With this sustained threat in the background of everyday life, when sexual violence does happen, it is often experienced as a fulfilled threat, surprising only insofar as it was a fear already imagined and one that I thought I had sufficiently guarded myself against through “daily protective practices” performed like spells. Thus, philosopher Ann Cahill argues, “the prevalence of rape and the threat of rape literally forms aspects of feminine bodily comportment. Rape not only happens to women; it is a fundamental moment in the production of women qua women” (126).

Because the threat of rape constructs the nondominant body, the result is that “even bodies of women [and other nondominant individuals, especially those coded in a patriarchal context as “feminine”] who have not been raped are likely to carry themselves in such a way as to express the truths and values of a rape culture” (Cahill 143). The values of rape culture, including the idea that “the feminine body is not only essentially weak, but also somehow accountable for its own vulnerability,” creates an impossible bind for feminine bodies: all are “guilty pre-victims” responsible for their own demise even before any actions are taken (Cahill 157, 60). Thus, feminine bodies themselves are perceived to be inherently dangerous, provoking violence by mistakes and miscalculations in the continual process of curtailment.

As theologian Mary Pelleauer argued in 1991, while all women and nondominant individuals live with the threat of rape and this threat has made their worlds “fragile,” those who have, in fact, become victims of rape live with a “shattered” world (87). When rape is experienced, it is “an assault on the whole body-self of the victim,” and one’s behavior and self-understanding are radically altered (Cahill 130). 

Anthropologist and rape survivor Cathy Winkler argued in 1991 that rape is “social murder” since in an act of rape the rapist intends to control his victim in a totalizing fashion, exterminating her sense of herself in relation to others and imposing his own definition of her desires and thoughts. During her own attack by a home intruder, Winkler’s rapist repeatedly argued that Winkler enjoyed what was happening to her. He justified his own actions by explaining that she was the one who, in fact, compelled his violence. She recalls, “His first words after clubbing me with his fists were: ‘You made me beat you up.’ He reiterated this line many times throughout the attack: ‘It’s your fault. I didn’t want to hurt you’” (13). The values of rape culture provide the grammar that make possible the statements of Winkler’s rapist: she didn’t have the right kinds of locks on her windows to prevent his forceful home entry, so she “like[d] it,” she “made” him attack her, and he wanted to take her to the hospital to receive medical attention for her injuries after the attack was over because, after all, he is a decent person (12-13). It is, then, according to this grammar that all sexual interactions are interpreted in rape culture: violent sexual expression is merely an extreme version of otherwise morally permissible forms of sexual expression.  

As theologian Marie Fortune puts it, in rape culture, “dominance and submission and power and powerlessness create the formula which sparks erotic desire in both men and women,” and rape is a situation when this spark has unfortunately gotten out of hand (19). But, as Fortune points out, this logic cannot be compatible with a rich theology of creation:

If sexual violence is part of the natural, created order, then women are created to be victims and are by their nature always at risk on a cosmic as well as a mundane level. This assumption requires an understanding of God as one who is hostile and cruel to have created two classes of persons—the victims and the victimizers. Nothing in the core of Jewish or Christian beliefs can substantiate this conception of God’s nature or human nature. Our Scripture does not begin with ‘In the beginning God created victim and victimizer and saw that it was good;’ but rather, “In the beginning God created humankind, male and female (119).

Part of the solution must be “the erotization of equality” so that individuals “find erotic pleasure in approaching each other as equals, sharing both proactive and receptive sexual activity” (37).   Yet, this would require a radical reconfiguration of much of our communities’ current assumptions about sexual expression since it is likely that, in our current context(s), “[f]reely chosen, fully informed, and mutually agreed upon sexual activity with another might in fact be a rare experience” (101). Trauma theologies can name clearly that it is this freedom of love for which we are created.   

Healing from sexual violence is, then, a task that involves restoration on many different levels—personal, spiritual, interpersonal, and socio-political. And, the sheer breadth of all that is in need of repair can be overwhelming. 

Victims are faced with the task of learning to become comfortable in their own bodies again, to recognize the sensory body as a reliable and worthwhile vehicle through which to experience the world. They must learn to manage intrusive memories and to experience time as it happens. They must repair their relationship with God– that which is “Not-God” needs to be identified as such, idolatries need to be shed, and an authentic encounter with God needs to be cultivated (gradually and with God’s assistance). They must learn to set appropriate boundaries with human others and open themselves to intimacy with those who can be trusted. These are the tasks to which trauma theology, precisely as theology, has much to contribute.

Yet, because, as theologian Flora Keshegigan notes in her book Redeeming Memories, “abuse does not occur on a blank canvas, but in a social context that allows for and encourages it” (45), full posttraumatic healing cannot be limited to a series of personal-individual or interpersonal tasks. The fullness of posttraumatic healing calls for a transformation of the social context that enabled violence in the first instance. Until communities can dismantle rape culture, transform social and institutional structures, and establish a culture of free consent and accountability, individuals will continue to be victimized, those who support victims will always have more to do, and comprehensive healing will remain out of reach. 

In other words, as long as women and other nondominant individuals experience rape and the threat of rape as deterrents to walking outside alone; as long as parents have legitimate fears of the sexual violation of their children by police, clergy, and educators; and as long as sexual violence functions as a common expression of relational dominance in areas of political conflict and in the family homes of those living in so-called “politically stable” areas alike; posttraumatic healing is not objectively complete for any of us. Healing must be universal if it is to be complete anywhere. Here a political theology of trauma is needed, especially to provide a positive vision of social life that honors the human person in her spiritual, personal, and relational fullness.

However productive confronting sexual violence from within political theology might be, there are some limitations to this kind of approach. 

First, sexual violence is not reductively structural. Victims of sexual violence have experienced personal violations that are uniquely textured and specific to their individual life stories. This specificity of experience cannot be captured adequately by structural analysis alone. 

Second, while survivors can sometimes experience freedom in locating the ways that they have been sinned-against within the broad and insidious rape culture that structures our society, at other times a structural analysis of rape culture can function to minimize individual survivors’ experiences of suffering, setting up an opportunity for others to suggest (directly or indirectly) “it could have been worse.” In Christian settings, in particular, survivors are especially vulnerable to counsel that whatever suffering they encounter pales in comparison to the pain endured virtuously by Jesus on the cross. 

Third, while a structural analysis of rape culture can help us to name social sins that transcend individual action, a broad analysis can be easily misinterpreted in the public sphere as excusing perpetrators of violence from personal responsibility for their violent actions. 

For example, as Garrison Keillior commented to the Washington Post after being fired for a series of complaints of sexual harassment, “If this is harassment, then every friendship must be abusive.” Earlier, in 1994, while defending Bill Clinton, his comments struck a prescient tone: “A world in which there is no sexual harassment at all, is a world in which there will not be any flirtation.” Keillior seems to suggest—in a way—if there is violence everywhere, there is violence nowhere. In other words, if our social structures and conventions are deeply and insidiously formed by the threat of rape, the person who acts out these threats of sexual violence cannot and should not be blamed. To hold this person accountable would be to threaten the very fabric of our society. Or, as Keillior himself put it in 1994: we should strive “not to make the world so fine and good that you and I can’t enjoy living in it.” One wonders, who is the “you” to whom Keillior addresses his comments? Whose enjoyment is important? Who gets to name enjoyment for themselves and who gets told, despite their explicit objections, what they enjoy? Political theology can do much to confront sexual violence, especially if theologians can keep watch for the way in which perpetrators might manipulate their analyses to accomplish their own ends and avoid responsibility.


Symposium Essays

Confronting Rape Culture

Political theology, insofar as it can articulate an analysis of and resistance to rape culture, offers many resources for confronting sexual violence.

No Longer Bearing the Cross Alone

Like Simon and Veronica, those in the pews and those in the academy are called to accompany those who are abused by sharing in their pain so that survivors no longer bear this cross alone.

Kavanaugh, Ronell, and Political Theology’s Prospects for Making a Difference in Sexual Violence Today

Political theology’s prospects for contributing helpfully to movements of resistance to sexual violence depends on the willingness and ability those who contribute to political theology as a discourse to discern and prioritize the kinds of questions that are deemed most urgent by sexual violence survivors themselves and those who have devoted their work to ethically addressing this harm.

Is Christian Political Theology too conservative to undermine sexual violence?

If we want to focus on stopping sexual violence we need to ask much more disruptive questions about the conserving influence within Christian political theologies that accompanies their radical critiques.

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