A blog post entitled ‘She Only Said “Yes” Once’ recently made its way around Christian circles. In the post, Pastor Reggie Osborne laments the state of sex education in the United States and argues instead for an approach which considers consent as an event which happens most meaningfully at the wedding altar. Osborne writes:
On, July 28th, 2001, the answer we gave each other before God and everyone was: “Yes.” “Yes,” until the day that we die.
Yes, I could kiss her. Yes, I could sleep with her. Yes, I could steal glances of her in the shower because I think she looks great even after 5 kids. She said, “Yes,” to me, forever.
I wasn’t asking for a one night stand or permission to touch her after a party. I was asking for forever, and that’s what she gave me. That’s what I gave her.
She has never had to say it again. She said “yes” only once. She meant it to last. I meant it to last. It has lasted fourteen years. It will remain in effect until death parts us.
In the comments section, several readers challenged Osborne to comment on the danger of this perspective on consent, particularly for victims of spousal rape. Pastor Osborne quickly clarified his position, affirming every person’s right to refuse sex, but seemed surprised such a point might be raised.
While Pastor Osborne’s follow-up comments demonstrate that he does not endorse spousal rape, the fact that it wasn’t on his radar when writing the post is evidence of a wider pattern within the Christian community. That is, ignorance of and scepticism about the prevalence of rape culture. In short, for many Christians, rape culture is an unfamiliar concept. Those that know something about it often deny or undermine its existence.
Rape culture is an environment in which sexual assault and other forms of abuse of women are normalized in the media and in popular culture. It occurs ‘where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent’. These acts of violence can occur not just at the physical act of rape itself but also at the level of other kinds of physical touch as well as at the more subtle level of language, gesture, and imagery.
Whatever you think about the ways in which the Bible represents violence towards women, the Christian church has contributed to the normalization of such violence. Perhaps the most frequently cited recent example of rape culture within Christianity is the purity/modesty movement, which places primary responsibility for sexual purity on women, portraying men as largely helpless against ‘immodest’ females.
Perhaps less frequently discussed but familiar to most Christians are sexually charged Christian youth group games, popularized by such organizations as Young Life. One apparently popular game is ‘Kissing Rugby’, a version of which involves a girl sitting in the centre of a circle, guarded by another girl, while a boy tries to manoeuvre his way past the guard to kiss the girl. In some contexts, youth leaders join in as well. Another game, ‘Balloon Squeeze’, is described like this:
Each pair gets a balloon to put between them. Without using hands, they have to pop balloon first. Can do it “most in a minute” too. Beware of any “risqué” popping techniques ‘cause you know those kids and they’ll do it to get laughs!
In this way, even from an early age, Christian girls are simultaneously taught to bear the burden of warding off sexual violence and placed in vulnerable and confusing situations where boys are encouraged to touch and grope their bodies.
But even in churches which recognize the dangers of these widespread practices and avoid them, Christians nevertheless have inherited and been influenced by a likewise destructive longstanding theological tradition. From the early church through the Reformation and beyond, theologians (almost always male) have interpreted biblical narratives about sexual violence in ways which ‘reinforce patterns of subjugation, silencing, and violence against women’.
In short, although some have begun to explore how rape culture is fostered and perpetuated within the Christian church, there is considerable work to be done, particularly when it comes to its subtler expressions. As a linguist, I’m interested in how language expresses and reflects rape culture in Christianity. For example, in a corpus of popular (primarily American) sermons on divorce, I am currently examining instances where Christian pastors mention domestic violence from the pulpit. My analysis of these will form the basis of a chapter for the first Shiloh Project edited collection on Rape Culture and the Bible.
More specifically, I am looking at how language is used to conceal or expose violence, obscure or clarify perpetrators’ responsibility, conceal or honour victims’ resistance, and blame or else contest the blaming of victims. I’m also interested in the extent to which pastors appeal to the authority of God and the Bible to justify their statements regarding spousal abuse and its relevance for divorce.
So far, language about domestic violence in these sermons points to the following conclusions: First, only a small minority of pastors mention domestic violence directly. And second, among those pastors in the corpus who do mention domestic violence, all but one minimize perpetrator responsibility, conceal violence, blame victims, and conceal the resistance of victims.
Take, for example, the following excerpt from one frequently accessed sermon from the public archive, Sermon Audio.
The Bible gives only one sin that can break the marriage vow and give ground for divorce, and that sin is fornication. Drunkenness is not a sufficient reason for divorce. A husband may come home at night drunk and beat his wife or waste his money, make his home a hell, but according to God’s Word that’s no ground for divorce. I’ve had many a girl say, Oh I know that he drinks. But I’ll reform him and marry him because I love him. But remember one thing, young woman, when he gets drunk and comes home and beats you up, raises hell and … leaves you without food even clothes to wear, you have no ground for divorce. That marriage is still binding.
Here, the pastor employs victim blaming and pathologizing throughout. A particularly interesting technique is how this pastor blames the victim in the way he introduces his invented dialogue with a victim. Note his use of evaluative ‘oh’ (highlighted above), where ‘many a girl’ says ‘Oh, I know that he drinks’. The pastor presents a multitude of women, each responsible for her husband’s violence because of her naivete and stupidity in believing that she can change the man she foolishly loves.
Although the speaker directly connects the husband with his violence, the command ‘remember’ he directs at the woman, further minimizing the perpetrator’s responsibility and placing it squarely on an individual (young) woman’s shoulders. The pastor neglects to mention any resistance to this violence, though the language of violence is surprisingly explicit and exposing.
The pastor also appeals to authority, contrasting God’s Word with quite dramatic examples of violence. He here teaches that even the most devastating acts of violence cannot alter the requirement to obey commands (allegedly) ‘according to God’s Word’. The implication seems to be that God does not consider the suffering of victims of violence to be relevant to His commands.
Considering the statistics regarding domestic violence, it is highly likely that a victim or potential victim of violence sat in the pew when each of the sermons in the divorce corpus was originally preached, not to mention the many women who have since downloaded them. Messages about spousal abuse such as these reinforce a culture in which Christians blame women for the violence they suffer and command them to be silent about what they endure.
In short, these pastors are preaching rape culture. As one countercultural pastor, one of the only pastors both to directly mention and condemn violence against women, asked:
What Christian is it that beats his wife? What Christian is it that deserts his wife, walks out on her? What Christian is it who acts in such immoral ways and is behaving in a way completely contrary to the Word of God?
Might we also add, what pastor is it who preaches rape culture? In my view, any Christian who wishes to disassociate from rape culture will need to answer these questions more directly and convincingly. And urgently.
Valerie Hobbs is Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics in the School of English at the University of Sheffield. Her research has consistently focused on examining the ways in which seemingly inclusive large institutions establish community boundaries via language and, in some cases, marginalize and exclude vulnerable members. She is currently working on compiling several corpora of religious texts.
Image: Wedding rings and the Bible. [Via Pixabay]