The small city of Missoula, Montana recently grabbed headlines after the Department of Justice sent a letter to the Missoula County Attorney's Office, asserting it had “substantial evidence” that the county has completely failed at the job of dealing with sexual assault. A lot of details of the allegations against Missoula officials were disturbing, including a prosecutor who allegedly told the mother of a 5-year-old rape victim that “boys will be boys,” but another thing that jumps out is the role religion played in justifying the minimizing of rape allegations. According to the Justice Department, a deputy county attorney responded to one rape victim by reading her Bible verses “in a way that the victim interpreted to mean that the Deputy County Attorney was judging her negatively for have made the report.”
Sadly, this kind of reaction from Christian conservatives to sexual assault—blame the victim and make it about sex, not violence—is surprisingly common.
Kiera Feldman, writing for the New Republic, captured this problem perfectly in her piece about the sexual assault problem at the hyper-Christian university Patrick Henry. She chronicles one case where the alleged assailant attacked the victim in her sleep, which should be a clear-cut case of non-consent. But, since Patrick Henry is a school focused on preventing and punishing all sexual contact between students, the criminal and abusive aspects appear to have been ignored in favor of seeing this mainly as a sexual transgression. The assailant kept referring to his behavior as “taking liberties,” as if the problem with what he did was that it was sexual, not that it was violent. The dean decided therefore that both the victim and the assailant were to blame, reportedly telling the victim, “You are in part responsible for what happened, because you put yourself in a compromising situation,” and adding, “Actions have consequences.” Both students were given counseling, and the victim reported that her counseling was just more blaming her for the assault through lessons in “modesty.”
This is not just a problem for Patrick Henry College. The other big name in fundamentalist universities, Bob Jones University, reportedly has the same problem. Writing for Al Jazeera America, Claire Gordon reports similar stories coming from rape victims at BJU. One alleged victim reported that the dean asked her, “Is there anything that you did that made him do that?” and also that the content of her counseling sessions, which she thought were private, were shared with the administration. The counselor herself claims that the school then terminated the sessions because they felt she was becoming too sympathetic toward the victim, which suggests that from the get-go, the intention was to get dirt on the victim to discredit her claims. Shortly thereafter, the victim was expelled from the university.
Things only have grown uglier since then, as BJU recently terminated, rather abruptly, a contract with a firm it hired to help improve its responses to sexual abuse on campus. As the New York Times reported, critics of this decision suspect it was because BJU didn’t like the firm’s findings. Victims of abuse told the Times various horror stories about the administration’s response to their reports. “They said not to go to the police because no one will believe you, to defer to authority like your father or especially someone in the church,” said one woman who reported abuse.
“The person who supposedly counseled me told me if I reported a person like that to the police, I was damaging the cause of Christ, and I would be responsible for the abuser going to hell,” another victim reported.
It’s not surprising that this would happen in conservative Christian environments. Fundamentalist Christianity is positively obsessed with the idea that female sexuality is the source most of the nation’s woes, and that the world is going to hell because women dress immodestly and have sex for their own reasons instead of just for baby-making and husband-placating. When you see sex as the problem, it becomes hard to see rape as anything but another sexual sin. If you see women as the controllers of sex and the people who have the responsibility of enforcing chastity, then the natural conclusion is that rape is caused by women, and that it’s as much, if not more, a woman’s fault for tempting a man to rape her as it is the man’s for violently assaulting a woman.
It drives home how much there’s no way to reconcile the belief that women are obliged to be modest and chaste with an ability to deal responsibly and fairly with rape. Throughout the Christian right, there’s a strong streak of believing that women are to be held responsible for men’s sexual choices. From Ross Douthat in the New York Times arguing that women have the power to convert men from cads to good guys merely through the power of not having sex with them, to all the endless sermons about modesty and not causing men to “stumble,” the message in the Christian right is clear: Men’s choices, especially men’s sexual choices, are the responsibility of women. So if a man chooses to rape you, it’s understood not as him asserting dominance over you, but as the man taking the liberties you must have extended to him. ]
To admit otherwise, that men are in charge of themselves, would open up the door to forbidden topics, like how it may not actually be necessary to police women’s sexuality under the guise of controlling men. It might even require admitting to having entertained the feminist thought that women might actually be oppressed and that they do not actually have all the power to control male behavior just by being modest and chaste.
More darkly, dealing honestly with the problem of rape would mean having to treat female autonomy as a thing to be valued. Built into the very core of the religious right is the idea that female autonomy is a threat to be stomped out, and not just in its attacks on women who choose abortion or premarital sex or, gasp, to live as lesbians. The entire model of proper female behavior for the Christian right is built on submission. It’s evident in the adherence to the belief that husbands are the head of their wives. Recently, Christian right icons Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar explained their belief that wives are obliged to have sex with their husbands whenever they want and on their terms. Fundamentalist Christians deeply distrust and are hostile to the idea that the proper owner of a woman’s body is the woman. If rape is a violation of female autonomy, but you believe female autonomy is sinful, then it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to take rape seriously as a crime.