[caption id="attachment_205" align="aligncenter" width="424" caption="From http://teapartyjesus.tumblr.com"][/caption] As an ardent feminist and a Christian, one of the most common arguments I hear is that feminism is old hat, it’s outmoded, and it’s not necessary anymore. I most often hear this argument from Christian guys in my social circle, wondering why in the world I’m so gung-ho about women’s rights. I’ve done a bit of work beginning the discussion of what it’s like to live as a woman in today’s society, but I’d like to take the opportunity to answer the question of why women’s rights still matters.
I wrote an article for Relevant Magazine last week about how Jesus was the first feminist. He trusted women - in that time, the most oppressed group in society – to deliver arguably the most important message in Christian history: He has Risen. I didn’t have room to expand there, but it should be noted that the thesis – Christianity and feminism are perfectly compatible - is well supported by Scriptural precedent, if not church tradition (Deborah as judge over all of Israel, for example).
So why is there still a women’s rights movement? We’ve come so far: we have the vote, we can wear jeans, we can work outside the home, and we (mostly) have access to birth control. Why should Christians be concerned?
For one thing, Christians need to be arguing against the oppression of anyone, including women. And when that oppressed group includes people you see and encounter every single day, the Christian is beholden to fight for those rights.
But what rights? What could possibly be left?
Let me acquaint you with a new idea: rape culture. Rape culture is a culture that condones, encourages, and celebrates rape. Sure, there aren’t people standing on the street holding signs that say “YAY RAPE!” but ask yourself this: What is your first reaction when you hear that a girl was raped?
What if you hear that she had been drinking earlier that evening?
Or that she was wearing a mini-skirt or “slutty” clothes?
Or that she had a reputation for being slutty and having one-night stands?
Yeah, buddy, that’s rape culture. It is an environment that refuses to take a woman at her word, in which the girl must first prove herself a victim before her attacker may be brought to justice. In what other violent crime is that same level of scrutiny applied to the victim? A guy gets assaulted, and you don’t ask, “Well, what did he do to the guy that he got attacked?” A woman gets mugged while walking home, and we don’t ask, “Well, did you give the guy any signals that maybe you wanted that sort of reaction?” A 12-year-old gets murdered, and we don’t talk about how she behaved in a manner that was older than her age.
Rape is a truly unique crime because it is so violently personal, and yet is the one met with the most skepticism. And, unfortunately, Christians are one of the largest groups in reinforcing this culture of skepticism that surround the crime of rape.
Think, for example, about clothing.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but the message I received as a woman growing up in the church was that I shouldn’t dress in a certain way in order not to be a stumbling block for my Christian brothers. For ages, I’ve worn clothing that does not look good on me to conform to this pretty arbitrary standard of modesty – only crew neck t-shirts, no skirts above the knee, and certainly no two piece bathing suits.
I never once thought about the agency of the man. Why is his lust my responsibility? I understand that, on one level, I have an obligation not to cause my brother problems, but on another level, I cannot be held personally responsible for the reaction of men as we walk down the same street. Enforcing modesty codes on women when men had no such code for themselves reinforces the idea that my body is not my own – that they have agency over me and can dictate my choices.
And a modest dress code is just one way that the church engages in a culture that condones rape. If a woman is not careful about her dress – if she wears a mini-skirt and goes out drinking with her friends, well, then, what did she expect when she got raped? That slut.
This attitude only serves to remove guilt from the rapist and blame the victim. If I choose to wear a v-neck shirt and a mini-skirt because I look good in them, then men need to be able to control themselves enough to behave in a manner that respects me as a person.
The church is teaching, at a very basic level, classic criminal thinking. My father, who teaches classes at the State Penitentiary, encounters this same attitude about women and their responsibility for their own assault on a day-to-day basis: “She was asking for it.” “If she hadn’t been dressed like that, I wouldn’t have wanted to rape her.” “How can you expect me to control myself?” “She was signaling to me that she was easy, so what was I to do?”
Don’t believe the church talks this way? Just this week, Rebecca St. James, famous Christian singer and purity advocate, was on Sean Hannity espousing this very same view: “I think there has to be responsibility for what the woman is wearing. … They’re asking for sex.”
The thing that is missed in all of this is that rape is not about sex. Rape is not about one man being unable to control his lust. Rape is about power and always has been. Rape is about a man asserting his right to a woman as his property and taking what he wants from her. Sexual arousal does not enter into the equation, especially when the rape occurs violently.
And this, in a small way, is what feminism is all about. It is recognizing our agency and our ability to make our own choices and be human just like a man. And it seeks to give agency back to men as well. Particularly with dress codes, it says to the man, “I believe you are mature enough to make the right decision.” Reinforcing modest dress codes as something women MUST do babies men and tells them they cannot control their own impulses. It teaches men to blame women for their problems with a certain sin. And if a man has a problem with me wearing a v-neck shirt, then it is his problem to deal with, not mine. If he is a friend, we can talk about it, but I am not responsible for anyone’s actions but my own.
We, as a society and as a church, tell women how not to get raped, rather than telling men not to rape. For a society that promulgates "personal responsibility" so much, we have a major problem with where the responsibility lies in rape. And I am ashamed of the church for being so complicit in such reprehensible behavior.