Last month, a Swiss woman biking through India with her husband was gang raped by five attackers. In December, a female medical student, accompanied by a male friend, was riding a bus in Delhi, India, when she was brutally gang raped by eight passengers who then threw her off the moving bus. She suffered severe trauma to her brain and body, and within days she died of organ failure. One of the accused attackers committed suicide while imprisoned awaiting trial. India’s government is discussing how to prevent and punish rape in a nation where the violation of women is a commonplace occurrence.
Neither is the United States immune to the sexual exploitation of women, men, and children. Two high school football players, ages sixteen and seventeen, were convicted in juvenile court in Steubenville, Ohio, of raping a sixteen-year-old “Jane Doe,” and then circulating text messages about and images of the incident. Columnists and editorial writers nationwide are divided over whether the boys’ conviction is just, or whether their lives are ruined, and how we ought to respond to the anonymous victim.
While laws are in place in the United States to prevent rape, prosecute those who commit it, and protect victims, studies show that most rapes go unreported, and that those that go to trial seldom lead to conviction. Understandably, if rape is too taboo to tell the police, few of the 25 percent of women who have been raped on college campuses during their years of study will bring up the topic in polite conversation over a cup of coffee.
An inability to discuss rape is a particular problem for the pro-life movement. Instead of listening to survivors and believing them, pro-lifers sometimes make the argument that rape studies overestimate the prevalence of rape. This argument is a detriment to the cause of protecting women and children. We must acknowledge the sinful world and society we live in, and denial is rape culture at its worst.
In the 2012 presidential election season, two candidates responded to questions about their pro-life position in cases of rape and incest with much-quoted gaffes. In an unprepared remark, then-Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) referred to conception from “legitimate rape” being a rare phenomenon, saying awkwardly that the female body has ways of “shutting that down.”
My father, a Lutheran pastor, often quotes the Scripture, “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” What Todd Akin certainly intended as compassion for the unborn baby came across as crass insensitivity to women’s concerns. No survivor of rape wants to be told that her experience (nor her resulting child) is “illegitimate.”
How can the pro-life movement, which has already established a strong tradition of healing post-abortion retreats, offer wisdom to a generation of Christians who seek to put an end to the prevalence of rape? How can rape be condemned and prevented without alienating survivors who are hurting years after the violation of their bodies and spirits?
1) Provide Christian support groups for sexual assault recovery. Counseling for trauma survivors is key to healing. Moderated support groups provided by Christian counselors make the telling of stories acceptable. “Into the Wildflowers”is one group program that can be used for anywhere from ten weeks to a year. Participants learn how to forgive themselves and others for their role as victims of sexual assault and incest. They discover how their marriages, their family lives, their career plans, and their spiritual and intellectual selves have been damaged by an assault they were powerless to prevent. The healing process takes years.
2) Don’t leave all the talking to the experts. Talk about rape prevention at home. The political candidates who lost elections in the fall after their rape comments were trying to engage in conversation about an important topic. We must all begin to talk openly, without shame and without fear, about rape. Talk with teens about setting boundaries, saying no, and how to react when limits are breached. Discuss the risks of alcohol use and the reality of date rape drugs. Talk with adults about the realities of life’s bad experiences and how to recover from them. Instead of blaming the victim, find ways to create safety in one’s own life, family, and community through education and communication.
3) Support organizations that reach out to women survivors to prevent further sexual exploitation.Fear leaves some rape victims vulnerable to further abuse. Survivors gain strength from collaborating with others to prevent sexual exploitation of the vulnerable. Many Christian organizations provide women with the opportunity to escape sexual exploitation. Women and children often enter the sex business when they are raped into submission. Abused women need career skills, life-affirming health care and education, and the opportunity to begin life anew with a renewed identity in Christ. The Church’s mission of human redemption has tremendous hope to offer survivors of sexual abuse. The first step is believing what victims say.
4) Pray for the right use of our bodies for God’s glory, that our eyes, ears, sexual organs, hearts, hands, and voices belong to Christ and that they be used as He wills. Pray for protection for women, men, and children of all ages. Pray for forgiveness in the ways we as individuals have failed ourselves, our spouses, our families, and our churches in the area of sexual exploitation. Only through forgiveness can healing be ushered in.
Sarah Degner Riveros is a visiting assistant professor of Spanish at Valparaiso University.