Content warning: Contains discussions of rape, sexual abuse, and trauma. Some discussions and/or images may be triggering.
Rev Dr.Tom Bohache: As a rape survivor, I am always troubled when people say, “Rape isn’t about sex; it’s about violence,” for I think it both trivializes it and misses the point. It IS violence, but it is ALSO sex. The horror and outrage is that sex has been used as the vehicle to perpetuate violence, and the survivor’s sexuality has been (forever?) perverted by this act. Some of the lasting effects might be body shame, self doubt, fear of intimacy, and an unwillingness to engage in certain sexual acts. (In my case, it tainted receptive anal sex for me.)
Rev. Miller Hoffman: it feels tricky to me, Tom. Sex has become weaponized in rape, and folks like me are trying to distinguish between something that is mutual and consensual (sex) and something that is not (violence). I think the confusion between rape and sex may be at the heart of Brock Turner’s light sentence, for example: much less likely if he had assaulted her with a bat.
Rev. Dr. Bohache: Yes, there are many layers to the issue. But what bothers me is when people make a statement like the one I quoted without realizing the complexity. It feels dismissive.
Rev. Hoffman: Absolutely. Especially if that’s the response when we are trying to talk about rape’s impact on our sexualities.
Robin: The dialogue above, on a Facebook page that hopes to continue conversations that began in October 2015 as part of an ongoing symposium, “Who Are We Really? Re-Engaging Sex and Spirit,” sparked conversation between me and Malachi, and we decided to share some of our own experiences and thoughts.
Two weeks ago, Malachi began the conversation with a powerful post, “Only Yes Means Yes”: On Consent and Cultural Influences.”
Before that, as we talked, I began by saying something to the effect that it might be a future topic, and that I might be able to write about it even though I had no personal experience of rape or sexual abuse.
No experience of rape or sexual abuse.
As the words came out of my mouth, they got stuck in the air just beyond my lips.
Then I was able to offer a correction to Malachi. I said I have no specific memory or evidence that I was abused but I have long carried the feeling I was. Based on embodied reactions to an uncle, I have long wondered if I had been abused by him when I was three years of age and left in the care of him and my aunt for a week or two (I was not terribly fond of my aunt, but I felt no revulsion for her, as did towards my uncle).
This uncertainty—and at times I feel more certain—has created in me a
great empathy towards those who report with absolute certainty what happened to them. My inclination is toward believing the testimony of victims generally, but it is especially strong in the case of those battered, abused and murdered due to rape and sexual abuse.
This experience (of the feeling of violation at least) has also caused me to believe that these horrors happen far more often than most of us think, something with which those who collect statistics and are otherwise knowledgeable generally agree. It has also caused me to be more open to listening to, and finding truth in, those who share experience and knowledge that contradicts my own.
One occasion causes me to be aware of this frequency as well as the need to listen to others–indeed to realize how thin the line can be between one person’s “no” (or lack of “yes) and another’s putting their “need” or sense of privilege ahead of any consideration of the right to safety and security for the body of another human being. This time I was the perpetrator.
During a time in my life when I was single, I became close to a young man whom I met through the Radical Faeries. I will call him Steve, a handsome and quirky guy who favored several European philosophers. We hung out together in Brooklyn and visited the beach on Fire Island. We had many conversations about philosophy, religion, and family. Over time, I became sexually obsessed with him. I made my desires clear, and he made his refusal clear, too. “I want to be friends, but I am not sexually attracted to you.”
That was a clear “no,” but I failed to heed it. One day, as we lay, naked, side by side, on the beach, I reached over and placed my hand on his genitals. He responded immediately by lifting my hand off his body and said “Don’t ever do that again.”
Immediately, I felt shame, and apologized. I told him I did not want to lose him as a friend. He said he too hoped we could remain friends. “Time will tell,” he said.
Soon, we no longer had any contact. I still feel shame and remorse–but it was not until Malachi and I had considerable conversation about consent that I remembered Steve and how I violated him.
I know I am not alone in violating the body of another–which is not an excuse, but is an acknowledgment that our culture has a lot of boundary violations going on, from hugging without permission to unacceptable sexualized touch to rape and other forms of intimate violence. This is, as I see it, all part of a “rape culture” which seems to create, or at least work alongside, other cultural influences and norms so that its adherents and practitioners get what they want, or stop others from getting what they deserve, by dismissing the embodied autonomy and innate worth of others.
This may not be rape as sexualized violence, but efforts to deny the value and beauty of bodies is nonetheless violation and it creates ongoing negative effects in how people view and relate to their own bodies. It is mental and emotional rape even if it is not physical.
A number of political and social leaders, including but not limited to Donald Trump, have drawn upon this to give public voice to what many older white men (and some younger ones, too) believe, namely that the claims of other people—racial groups other than white people, women, even gays and lesbians and certainly transgender people—are overblown, if not false, and are endangering our well-being as a well-organized, orderly society.
Their reaction to these and differences is not to listen, or even to ask questions, so they might learn about the experience of others, but to respond with dismissals, slurs, and belittlement. Alas, any of us can do that when we encounter difference, but it is possible to train ourselves to be more open. But we have to want to be open.
Trump’s ongoing belittlement of women—his crass responses to women who oppose him and the support he receives for and because of it—offer not only evidence of the ongoing power of rape culture but also send a clear signal to many, mostly men but probably also to some women who support these men, that he is “THE MAN.” And Mario Rubio’s effort to belittle Trump’s penis seems to have been, perhaps unconsciously, his attempt to say, “No, he is not THE MAN. I AM THE MAN!”
This takes me back to Tom Bohache’s initial comments when he wrote about the effects on the survivor’s sexuality. So many people, so many of us, carry scars from this culture even if we do not carry scars from rape of our body, our person. And I believe far more of us than have said it are victims of specific acts of various forms of rape. How many of us carry a feeling of violation even if we cannot name it with any assurance or precision?
And although more women are victims of rape than men (misogyny and
patriarchy are alive and well), there are many men who, unlike my brave friend and colleague Tom, have yet to openly admit their histories. Another of my dearest friends has told me about his repeated gang rape in a Midwestern middle school bathroom. I know he is bravely working to overcome the damage done to his own sense of self and sexuality, but it took him years even to recall the memory. My friend is one of the most open, caring people I know, but I know (and he knows) he also has much anger inside.
I wonder how many of the angry white men who cheer Trump and others—many of whom have legitimate grievances against an economic system that has shut them out—may also have rape or abuse histories yet to face and tell? Preying on their anger does them no good and undermines the well-being of many others, indeed wreaks social havoc.
As Miller Hoffman writes, “Sex has become weaponized in rape, and folks like me are trying to distinguish between something that is mutual and consensual (sex) and something that is not (violence).”
All of us need to stand, as best we can, in that space to distinguish, and promote, something that is mutual and consensual, speaking up, standing up, and opposing that which is not.
Malachi: Rape, sexual assault, consent violations: it’s a heavy topic, one that is full of emotions and (for some), triggers. It’s an abhorrent act that cuts at the heart of who we are as sexual people- perverting an act that is meant to be spiritual, holy, pleasurable, and fulfilling in order to commit violence on another body, to exert power and control over another person.
If sex is intended to be a reclaiming of our bodies and pleasurable selves, rape is the inverse, removing our capacity for choice, power, or pleasure from the equation. It is not connective and mutual, but one-sided and isolating. It is a violent act.
And this is just the act itself. This does not take into account the fairly
horrendous process of reporting rape in an environment that associates rape of masculine people as a sign of weakness (which often leads to the underreporting of rape on assigned male bodies), and rape of feminine people as a consequence for existing (the comments on the victims clothing, state of sobriety, location, and/or lack of company are more than enough to insinuate that a woman is responsible for her rape by wearing clothes that support her sexuality, choosing to consume alcohol, walking down the street, or simply being alone).
A couple weeks ago, I began to contextualize the concept of rape culture as part of a larger response to Rev. Tom Bohache’s and Rev. Miller Hoffman’s dialogue on facebook about the language and implications when talking about rape.
The conversation highlights aspects of a survivor’s story- including long-term effects and language that we use to designate the difference between consensual acts and acts that are rooted in seeking to hold power over another person.
First, I have to state that I appreciate the importance of the distinction for many: particularly for women and those assigned female at birth, there is an inherent cultural disbelief of a survivor’s story, or a sense that a victim “deserved it.” Because the cultural response is to automatically doubt the victim’s story, phrases like “it’s not sex, it’s violence” become important because they are another way to say, “This was not my fault. I did not have a choice in this.”
In a somewhat-separate facet of my life (my involvement with kink and BDSM communities), I am actively working with several organizations who are trying to (a) navigate allegations of consent violations within the community; (b) instate better policies to keep people safer at events; and/or (c) seek to update reporting processes and be transparent in accountability and addressing consent violation reports. One particular discussion thread that is vital to the conversation is centering the victim’s experience and requests in the healing process. Rev. Tom Bohache makes this
important point that his voice feels diminished and/or silenced by creating the hard line between sex and rape.
In many ways, I understand that hard line and why it is drawn. Rev. Miller Hoffman points that we need ways to distinguish between the act of sex and the atrocity of weaponizing sex- a distinguishment of intention, rather than acts. We don’t want to see any relation between the consensual, sacred aspect of our sexualities and the brutal perversion of sexual expression through rape.
But what is “sex”? Is it simply a mechanical, technical act, a pelvic thrusting motion, a combination of hands and lips that combine to produce a physical sensation? If sex is nothing more than a physical act, then I absolutely see that it is harder to differentiate between the two based on the physical components.
For me, though, sex gets a little more complicated. In BDSM, I have seen people have orgasms fully clothed with no genital touch. I have seen people having sex without having an orgasm. I have seen people having orgasms from pain stimuli. I have seen the exact same two scenarios happen- someone tied up in artistic rope- and for one person, the act is sexual, for the other, it is not.
I still struggle to define what sex is. For me, it most often comes down to the vague, “people are having sex if they consider the actions occurring between them consensual, sexual acts,” which inherently diverges from “rape” in both consent and intention.
We have to all be desiring to do what we are doing for it to be sex, for me. Anything else isn’t automatically, de facto “rape”… there are a whole lot of different interactions that happen between “sex” and “rape.” Those grey areas are not talked about enough, and those gray areas are the entire premise of rape culture.
But as important as the phrase, “That wasn’t sex, that was violence” can be to some survivors (although, clearly, as Tom said, that phrase undermines his own experience in how rape has impacted his ability to be a consensually sexual adult), it is a phrase we cling to because it separates us into us-vs-them. Good people and bad people. Good people don’t rape and rape is violent. Rape is about power. I’m a good person. Therefore, I don’t use sex in violent ways or use it to exert power over others.
But when the focus is only on the black-and-white, sex vs. rape, it minimizes the numerous areas between those two things. I have had situations in which I pushed, coerced, or misread someone else’s interests. Now certainly, when someone said no, I stopped, but the point is, there is a violence when we push our own desires onto someone else. Kissing someone when they don’t want to be kissed. Touching someone when they’re intoxicated. These situations impact someone’s capacity for sexual expression in future situations- sometimes extensively. Rape is not the only form of sexual violence, and without minimizing the atrocities of rape, I think we can also come to understand the ways in which we have used (or seen others use) sex as a means of power and/or selfish intention.
Does this mean we are inherently bad people? No. Does this mean that rapists should get a pass for the atrocities they commit? Absolutely not. Holding people accountable is absolutely necessary, and there is an immense amount of trauma and pain associated with healing from rape. But I think, in many ways, it can be an oversimplication to say “Rape isn’t sex, it’s violence.” Not because that narrative is untrue or not important, but because sex is not purely a mechanical act, and I have found that there are many ways for sex to be weaponized and used as a power tactic.
Recognizing that we need to find a way to differentiate these things is important. But similarly, we have to ensure that, in our desire to separate out the differences in both understanding and semantics, we are not doing so in a way that continues to silence the voices of survivors.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
How do you feel about the culture you are currently a part of? Do you feel as though you are living in a rape culture? Can you think back to times in your own sexual history where there wasn’t enthusiastic consent from all parties? How do you feel about the phrase, “Rape isn’t sex, it’s violence.”? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please feel free to join us THURSDAY, September 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online: Session 2, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity: Part 2” from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. Although not required, we encourage participants to read Sex as a Spiritual Exercise as well as If We Can’t Talk About It, We Shouldn’t Be Doing It to mentally prepare for this discussion. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Workshop description: In this session, Robin and Malachi continue to lay out some historical context of sex within Western Christianity, exploring how a faith whose origin rests on incarnation has become known for a deep anti-body and anti-sex bias. In this session, we will move beyond Judaism and Jesus to early church fathers and what might be called the social construction of early Christianity. There will be time for questions and discussion as well.