I’m not proud of have snatched the mic from a 4’10” elderly church mother, but it had to be done.
Our Sabbath afternoon symposium on sex trafficking had been well attended by members and non-members with a good cross section of ages and genders. During the Question and Answer time, people stood up at the roving mic. Some asked for more information; some shared thoughts on the presentations. But then Sis Black* stood up. She began, "I just can’t feel too bad for some of these stories. I mean the way some of these young girls dress, they’re basically just asking for--". Sorry Taylor, I had to pull a Kanye. There’s no way I could let her perpetuate that craziness in my church! No. No matter how you dress, you are not “asking for it” unless you actually do ASK.
The Yes Means Yes movement and subsequent laws(now passed in New York, California, and Michigan) are long overdue: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/10/14/adults-hate-affirmative-consent-laws-the-college-students-i-meet-love-them/ . Essentially, Yes Means Yes is the re-doctrination of our society to understand that sexual consent means actually giving the other person an enthusiastic yes. This doesn’t necessarily mean jumping up and down (although that could be a possibility); “enthusiastic” here is simply to differentiate willing participation from begrudging non-resistance. I have counseled with countless people—young and old—who have carried around guilt and shame for their own sexual assault. “I didn’t fight him”; “I shouldn’t have been there”; “it was my fault for giving off the wrong vibe” are among the excuses I’ve heard over and over. I’ve even counseled young men who have become confused about their sexuality because they became aroused during a sexual assault or began to question their orientation because they "must've wanted it" even though they were forced to have sex. There are too many people who have convinced themselves that it was their fault for being raped: what they said (or didn’t say), what they wore, where they were…
This is an unsurprising belief given the fact that we frequently tell young people stories with morals like, “if Johnny had been at Bible Study instead of the party on Friday night, he wouldn’t have gotten shot”. And of course, the idea that “your guardian angel/the Holy Spirit leaves you when you go to [insert 'unholy' place here]” is a belief that is ubiquitously taught in our denominational culture. This is such bad theology on so many levels…but I digress. Suffice it to say, it’s difficult to disabuse rape victims of their shame if we continually blame victims of other violent offenses because of their choices to go to the night club, dance hall, movie theater, etc.
But what makes it even more difficult to dispel these notions about rape is our reluctance to discuss sex at all. Some might say that sex is the domain of conversations within families. But if that is where the abuse is happening, then how is that a reliable source? And what about those homes that may not be abusive but where the family has been taught the same misinformation generation after generation?
Our churches should be where people find emotional and spiritual healing. Unhealthy sexual experiences are definitely an area where healing is necessary for many of our congregants. Furthermore, our silence on various issues allows people to come up with off-the-wall understandings of what we believe. I had a conversation with a non-Christian the other day. He challenged that the church believed in marital rape based on I Corinthians 7. This is a skewed interpretation of the passage. It would seem that the "problematic" verses, in his mind, are verses 3-5. The admonition that spouses belong to each other was uncomfortable for him. However, we see the true meaning revealed in other texts where Paul uses similar imagery. Seeing your spouse as "one's own body" (Ephesians 5:28-30) is supposed to evoke consideration and submission, not selfishness and oppression. Furthermore, even in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, where Christians are told that "you are not you own; you are bought with a price" forced compliance is still not implied. Even as it relates to God, there is volition in obedience: even God doesn't force our actions. Similarly, 1 Corinthians 7 does not suggest the violation of free will. Paul’s advice to not “deprive” each other is spiritually and psychologically sound. There are far too many people who withhold sex from their partners as a form of punishment. Any psychotherapist would counsel against that behavior for couples that want to maintain a healthy relationship. However, nowhere does he counsel the wife to forcibly take what is not willingly given nor the other way around. In my conversation, I made the analogy of teaching children to share. While parents tell their kids that they ought to share toys with siblings and friends, in no way does that excuse or give license for another child to steal what is not offered. If a person steals something that they were not given, they are a thief. If someone forces you to have sex with them and you haven’t consented to it, they are a rapist. Even if that rapist is someone you’re married to. That may be a foreign concept to some, but I encourage you to review these 7 illustrations that have nothing to do with rape that demonstrate the importance of consent: http://www.boredpanda.com/consent-rape-comics-alli-kerkham/ (be advised that there is 1 expletive used).
Our church needs to come to the point where we are comfortable talking about various aspects of sex without making it seem like something to be ashamed of. After all, sex was created right along with Adam and Eve, marriage and the Sabbath—pre-fall—God declared it good. We ought not allow society’s corruption of God’s creation make us feel squeamish about these discussions and, in the process, inadvertently perpetuate incorrect ideas and values about sex. There are too many people who need to be set free from their self-blame. And, without fail, those who are most judgmental and harsh towards others are the people who are most in need of liberation from feelings of shame about their own pasts. Their own unresolved hurts cause them to victim blame and spread their own pain to other people. I would not be surprised if that was one of the drivers behind Sis. Black's comments. If so, I hope she one day feels comfortable enough to speak with someone and become set free from her own pain. In the meantime, I’m guarding the mic.
Courtney Ray is a native New Yorker who ministers in the Greater Los Angeles Region. She is an ordained pastor serving in Southern California Conference.
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