Earlier this month, Representative Todd Akin, a senate nominee from Missouri, “misspoke” in a very careless way regarding rape.
“It seems to be, from what I understand from doctors, it’s really rare,” Mr. Akin said, referring to pregnancies resulting from rape. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down …”
While this assertion is scientifically incorrect, it draws attention to the reality that the misconceptions surrounding sexual assault aren’t just numerous, they’re dangerous. Even if we set the obvious biological absurdities aside, Akin’s statement still reveals a deep misunderstanding of sexual assault. But because of Akin’s comments, the normally vastly underreported crime of rape has been thrust into the public eye; it’s all over the news, from back-to-school college rape statistics to a CNN article about a woman whose rapist filed for custody of the child conceived during her assault.
Akin’s comments have started a new discussion on the subject of sexual assault. So, what is our responsibility as Christians partaking in these conversations?
This is the perfect opportunity to reach out to survivors, politicians and—yes—even the perpetrators. Here’s what you need to remember as the discussions continue.
Classifications are dangerous. When we start to classify types of rape as legitimate—and, conversely, illegitimate—we begin to make some dangerous, heart-wrenching implications for survivors of these crimes. Nestled within the phrase “legitimate rape” lies the implication that some rape is illegitimate, or unreal, or that some rape, because of whatever factors, isn’t really rape. We infer that some rapes are invalid. When we start to think of rape in terms of legitimate or illegitimate, we begin to think of the trauma in a hierarchy. We start to classify these traumas as less wrong or more wrong, making room for potentially painful error in our hearts and actions. We need to begin affirming that every instance of rape and sexual assault is deeply and horrifically wrong—no exclusions, no exceptions and no case-by-case basis.
Rape has horrific consequences. You can see some of these consequences with the naked eye—bruises, scrapes, pregnancy, STIs. The emotional consequences are the more permanent ones—shame, fear, anger, distrust, despair, self-loathing. Regardless of the outer or inner manifestations of the consequences of this heinous crime, the fact remains: Rape is hurtful. It is traumatic. It leaves deep, jagged wounds. It’s like ripping someone’s soul out, chunk by bloody chunk, then trying to smooth it over with sandpaper through careless remarks like, “Oh, it was nothing” or “She was asking for it.”
Rape is always wrong. By definition, no one asks for it. Even if a woman is drunken and inappropriate on a bar downtown, that does not mean the rape is somehow more understandable. That does not mean anyone has the right to put their hands on her. No matter what someone is wearing, no matter how they are behaving, their actions do not give anyone else the license to violate them. Whether it is a violent rape from a stranger in the bushes or the quiet, unsuspected rape from the boyfriend in the living room, rape is rape. Rape is wrong. No one, no matter who did it or how it happened, deserves to be raped.
We can all agree that all instances of rape are legitimately traumatic—that they carry weight and matter. We can disagree with the categorization of rape into “legitimate” or “illegitimate.” We disagree with the notion of accepting ignorance and indifference to this crime and its survivors, and we can agree that God commands us to care for the broken and the innocent.
So, what do we do with that?
Do we champion every rape survivor on the Internet by lambasting Representative Akin, calling him an idiot or attacking his political party and accusing him of hating women?
Do we turn this into a pro-life/pro-choice debate and sling political propaganda dressed in spiritual clothing all over the web?
There is a time and place for voicing strong—sometimes offensive—opinions or even engaging in stimulating debate about being pro-choice or pro-life—but this is not that time. This is an opportunity for the Church to speak truth to people who are hurting and confused. When hot-button topics like this splash across our Internet browsers, it’s easy to want to hide out and stay silent or start mudslinging and name-calling. But as Christians, we’re called to act lovingly. We were given the command to go, to reach out to those in need. Now is the time to act.
We get to walk alongside confused, misled politicians and pray for them. We get to support them, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, because they are human—and that means they are image-bearers of God. Regardless of whether they are flag-waving ‘Merican members of the GOP or “bleeding heart” liberals, they are created in the image of God. We have the opportunity to treat them with grace and dignity and kindness because that is our calling as the Church. We get to look at high-profile political figures and tell them: “I know it has to be hard to be in your position. I understand that it must put tremendous pressure on you to be pulled into the warlike tension of politics and personal opinion. I am praying for you, for wisdom, guidance and clarity.”
We get to walk alongside women, men and children who are survivors of rape and pray for them. Regardless of the circumstances of their assault, we get to support them and love them. We can listen without judgment when they come to us and love them because they are created in the image of God. We are called to treat them with grace, dignity and kindness because that, too, is our calling as the Church. We get to look the oppressed in the eye and say: “It was not your fault. I believe you. I am sorry for what happened to you. I am here for you, and I am praying for you.”
As a rape survivor myself, I lived for years under the assumption that no one would believe me, that it was my fault and that I somehow deserved to walk through the deep ache of that betrayal alone. Years after my assault, I stumbled into a Jesus-loving family who saw my pain and reached out. I met with a group of people who believed me, supported me and loved me despite my scars.
That kind of compassion from the Church could radically change the course of this debate. Let’s do what we were created to do. Let’s go out into this broken world and be salt and light. Let’s tackle the hard issues and not be afraid to address the painful scars. We follow Christ, and Christ’s road leads to suffering, death and then resurrection. We cannot afford to be afraid to walk that same road, no matter how frightening or painful it may seem. Go forth with conviction and compassion.
Toni lives in Columbia, S.C., where she is studying to get her MSW and her MPH, concentrating her research on sexual violence and human trafficking. She loves India, honesty and traveling, and she enjoys great conversation over stout beer or coffee. Follow her blog here.