Robin and I recently had a discussion around two distinct issues that had come to our respective attention: Robin heard about incidents where, after being expelled from college for committing a sexually violent act, those accused decided to fight the expulsion in court. I have been closely following a new trend called “stealthing,” in which men are removing condoms during sex without the knowledge of their partners. (For more information, see here and here).
I will let Robin speak more to the first issue, as he is more knowledgeable about that situation, but the rise of “stealthing” is an escalating trend of sexual violence rooted in patriarchal and sexist ideals. The action itself is bad enough- it is, at bare minimum, a violation of consent- but often it’s the intention behind the action that brings it back to power structures, hierarchy, and oppression.
There are websites devoted to helping men learn how to “stealth” effectively- tricks for getting the condom off without their partner knowing as well as discussions about intent which range from “condoms are uncomfortable and limit the ability to receive pleasure, and sex is about pleasure, so you should be able to experience it fully” to “it’s your right to spread your seed and reproduce and no one has the right to prevent you from doing this.” It elevates the comfort, safety, and security of men over that of women (I have only heard of stealthing occurring in heterosexual dynamics; I have not yet heard of this trend reaching gay men)- not to mention “dominance” of men over women.
There are plenty of people that I currently sleep with that I would refuse to sleep with if they didn’t wear a condom. Wearing a condom during genitally penetrative sex is a
requirement, partially because of pregnancy, but mostly because of the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Now, if I had a conversation with a partner, knew what they had been tested for, and made a conscious choice to possibly expose myself to whatever risks that carried, that’s one thing. But for someone to remove a condom without my knowledge- and without knowing that he may have done this before, with other people- I lose not only the ability to consent, but also the agency to determine whether I am willing to risk my health.
I have had a terrifying situation in which a sweetheart and I were about to engage in penetrative sex, and they had put a condom on. Right before they entered me, they realized that the condom had come off, and we immediately stopped and assessed the situation, and they put another condom on and we were able to continue. But in that moment, I realized that I would not have known unless he said something- it would have been very easy for someone in his position to continue, and I wouldn’t have known any different until later. (Thankfully, he was just as panicked as I was).
In that situation, it was incredibly important that I be able to trust my sexual partner. However. I think it’s also important to state that victims of stealthing are not to blame for these situations. The person who does the action (removes the condom without knowledge or consent) is responsible for the harm they cause.
It’s a difficult and nuanced thing to parse out. I have nothing against casual sex- goodness knows, I’ve engaged in plenty of casual sex with people I didn’t know very well. And I don’t want to imply in any capacity that if someone is the recipient of sexual violence based on having casual sex, that that is in any way their fault. But I do want to underscore the vulnerability many sexual partners experience and the importance of building, establishing, and maintaining trust in sexual relationships- particularly if you are not monogamous, or aren’t in a steady relationship and are just casually dating. The
vulnerability that someone could very easily do this without your knowledge. The vulnerability that you are trusting someone with your body, your safety, and possibly your future (if you were to get pregnant)… these are things that are becoming increasingly more important to think about as trends such as “stealthing” are on the rise.
It’s also entirely possible that people in established relationships- ones where trust has been developed- do this to their partners. Again, the blame for this lies solely on the person who removes the condom. This is in no way meant to shame people for engaging in sexual activities, or insinuating that they “should have known better.” That type of thinking is indicative of rape culture, and I recognize that my consistent- nearly repetitive- assertion that it is never the victim’s fault is my own attempts to actively combat that type of thinking. Putting ourselves in vulnerable positions does not mean that we are at fault when someone takes advantage of that vulnerability.
Regardless of circumstance, thought, I think that it’s extremely important that we call this what it is- sexual violence. Not an accident, not a misunderstanding, not a “gee, that sucks,” but intentional sexual violence. Putting ourselves in a vulnerable position does not mean that we are to blame when someone takes advantage of that vulnerability. Sex has risks associated with it, and we do the best we can to mitigate those risks. But when we are in a vulnerable state, and someone introduces new risk without our knowledge or consent, this is sexual violence.
In this culture, we are conditioned to view sexual violence in a very specific way. We
expect it to look like how it is portrayed in media- a person walking alone in an alleyway gets jumped by a group of strangers- but the reality is, sexual violence doesn’t always (or even often) look like that. Sexual violence is usually more insidious and manipulative- and often comes from a friend or trusted individual.
We need to start recognizing and naming sexual violence when we see it. We need to distance ourselves from the Hollywood version and make an effort to see- and combat- actual forms of sexual violence. And it starts by recognizing that trends like stealthing are dangerous, damaging, and contribute to rape culture in a variety of ways. The intimacy and vulnerability of sex can be an incredibly powerful aspect of our physical, emotional, and spiritual connection with someone. But when that vulnerability is exploited, then it perverts that which is sacred.
A recent article in the Washington Post caught my attention and my concern. Entitled “College Men Use Anti-Bias Law to Fight Sex-Assault Findings,” the author recounted a trend among male collegians who have been punished and/or expelled from college for rape and other sexual violence to sue to collect damages, have their expulsion removed from the college record, and even obtain re-admission (link here).
Frankly, I felt angry as I read about men who seem determined to erase what they did and move on with no penalty. Male privilege, male supremacy, strike again!
I tried to balance that with a few instances in which there might be false reports of assault (most experts in this area is that the percentage of false reports is well less than 10%; many cite the figure of two percent), and that sometimes there might even be violations of due process in college administrative procedures. But that just reminded me how inadequate the so-called criminal justice system, and its collegiate parallel for student discipline, is in actually solving social problems.
Another reason for my anger is that rape is severely under-reported (most authorities say 90+% go unreported). Most authorities say sexual violence is the most under-reported violent crime in the United States. Given this, while I feel for someone falsely accused, I find myself not all that interested. Given how many rapists get away with ruining the lives of others, why should I, we, care? This may sound harsh, and perhaps I would feel differently if a friend of mine was among those falsely accused.
The high proportion of under-reporting is due to many factors. Authorities often cite these: fear of retaliation, uncertainty about whether a crime was committed or if the offender intended harm, not wanting others to know about the rape, not wanting the offender to get in trouble, fear of prosecution (e.g. due to laws against premarital sex), and doubt in local law enforcement.
Based on conversations with both women and men over the years, my observation is that there are two main reasons: fear of not being believed, and shame that it happened. Both are, in my view, the clear result of living in a predominantly patriarchal world. The first and largest number of victims are women and children. But men are raped and violated, too. Patriarchy is male power granted dominance, a system in which men (first and foremost white men with economic privilege) hold the power and women, and men who are seen by some men as ‘not real men” or “less-than men” are largely excluded from it. The most ugly and severe outcome of patriarchal systems is misogyny, the hatred of women for being women.
This reality is reflected in results from a 2015 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll of college students. “Asked about things students could do to prevent sexual assault, 93 percent said it would be effective if men respected women more.” (See “College students remain deeply divided over what consent actually means”)
If men respected women more. Now that’s a concept!
Feminism has helped women make gains, and the rise of the LGBT equality movement has helped create significant social change. However, it was 1995—only 22 years ago—that Hillary Clinton shook the global, and U.S., political world with her declaration, in Beijing, that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” And she echoed that point of view in 2011—only six years ago—by declaring in Geneva that “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.”
Most interesting to me is that no one of her stature and influence had said either thing up to that time. The outcome of the 2016 presidential election provides a certain irony; the same Hillary Clinton was defeated by a man who famously claimed to grab women “by the pussy” at will.
That candidate, now the President of the United States, recently spoke up as a character witness for a media personality who has been repeatedly charged with sexual assault and abuse—to the point that his employer, Fox News, removed him from the air (so far, he has not used his millions in severance payments to sue). The President experienced no discernible decline in popularity due to his unsought observation. It seems to have been more of the “locker room talk” that he claimed was the source of his “pussy” comment—in other words, boys will be boys.
Other facts bear out how in the United States progress for equality is slow. Only 29 chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies (5.9%) are women. In the current Congress, there are only 104 women (19.4% of 535 members).
Here a few other relevant facts more directly about sexualized violence:
- Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted
- Young people are at the highest risk of sexual violence; Ages 12-34 are the highest risk years for rape and sexual assault.
- 1 out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime
- Young women are especially at risk. 82% of all juvenile victims are female. 90% of adult rape victims are female.
- Females ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.
- Women ages 18-24 who are college students are 3 times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence. Females of the same age who are not enrolled in college are 4 times more likely.
- Men and boys are at risk of sexual violence. About 3% of American men—or 1 in 33—have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.
- 1 out of every 10 rape victims are male.
- Males age 18-24 who are college students are five times more likely than non-students in the same age group to be victim of rape or sexual assault
- 21% of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18% of non-TGQN females, and 4% of non-TGQN males.
Knowing all this, what do we do about it? And specifically, what do people of faith do about it?
I will write more about this in future posts, but I will say here that the first thing is to talk about it. Not hide it. And that means breaking the silence in church not only about sexual violence but also sex in general, as well as focusing on gender equality and overcoming misogyny.
Those are central to our mission on Sex, Bodies, Spirit, because we believe they are central to living as God creates and calls us to live—honoring all, caring for all, sustaining life.
We Want to Hear from You!
Help Make this a Conversation!
Have you, and/or someone(s) you care about and love, been the victim of sexual violence? Was it reported? If so, what happened? If not, how are you, or they, dealing with it now? What do you think can be done to reduce, if not eliminate, sexual 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 join us next week, THURSDAY, May 18th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. 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 sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
On May 18, our topic will be . . . .
“Old Story, New Threats: Creating Responses to Religious Oppression”
The growing movement to claim “religious liberty” as a way to discriminate is not new. The history of Metropolitan Community Churches reflects decades of LGBT people being kept out and kicked out of churches which claimed that our sexuality and gender identity and expression offended their theologies. In a new era of discrimination masked as religious liberty, LGBT people are not the only groups experiencing religiously-based oppression. As we seek to come together and unite, our responses in this historical moment are critical to the future not only of our faith but also our country and wider world. Malachi and Robin intend to draw on the experience of MCC and others to suggest ways we can work together to promote true liberty and justice for all. Join the conversation!