[This post is written by a male, humbly reflecting on something difficult and horrendous. It is not written to take a callous stand on an abstract “issue,” but with specific people and victims in mind, and in the hope that it will be helpful in thinking and talking about something that has become all too common.]
First things first: I realize it’s kind of a confusing title, so I want to make plain from the beginning that I absolutely and unequivocally consider rape reprehensible, and believe that the aggressor is wholly responsible in any and every case. Having said that, as the anti-rape culture movement (which is certainly a good thing) continues gaining traction and new stories come to light on a seemingly daily basis, I can’t help but notice certain ironies and contradictions in the way that such things are generally talked about. The root of these is an inconsistent conception of human sexuality and, ultimately, of the human being as such.
Simply put, the irony of the anti-rape culture movement is that it focuses on eliminating a symptom while ignoring the underlying cause. Specifically, it seems to me that the entire movement is aimed at eliminating one particular debasing outcome of a culture centered around sexual liberation, yet simultaneously affirming (or at least not questioning) that cultural focus. Since the 1960s, the West has increasingly embraced a lifestyle (perhaps “philosophy” would better capture it) of sexual liberation, the basis of which is a rejection of the traditional conception of human sexuality and all that it entails (marriage, family, responsibility, monogamy, etc). Rather than understanding sexuality as something sacred (or at least morally and otherwise significant), we have attempted to divorce it from any spiritual or higher meaning, instead insisting that it can–and indeed should–be simply a physical act of pleasure.
Sex is just physical. Our culture is saturated with that message, from movies and television to books and advertisements. There’s no need to let things get weird or complicated–sex doesn’t mean anything. I’ve lost track of how many times that movie has been made, or how many sitcom episodes revolve around that basic plot (though Seinfeld explored it first and most humorously). Pop music revolves around essentially the same message (though in its better moments, e.g. Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me”, it admits its helpless desire to grasp for something beyond its own sexual nihilism). Spring Break, club and bar culture, Tinder and other comparable apps all teach us the same thing: Sex is and should be something casual, unrestricted, even mundane. And so we have created a hook-up culture, wherein one-night stands are a normal cultural more. Sex is meaningless; it’s just physical.
Yet somehow, despite the sweeping cultural rejection of sexual significance, we find it so hard to fathom that rape would happen. We find it so shocking and hard to believe that men would place their physical desires over the dignity of another human being. We find it so difficult to grasp the fact that women could at times have such difficulty with self-love and respect that they would make unwise choices and find themselves in situations where horrible things are done to them.*
Sex is meaningless, physical pleasure–until it’s rape. Then it’s degrading, monstrous and despicable. Don’t get me wrong here. I consider rape all of those things and more. But the strange irony to me is that if sex is so meaningless, why do we (rightly) find rape so horrendous? Because in this tension we are forced to recognize the unwanted truth: Sex does matter, and sex is something more than physical pleasure and excitement. Rape is horrendous because human sexuality is about more than pleasure. Human sexuality is good because it is intended to form and express intimacy–emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Rape is horrendous because it violates a human being–emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
The bottom line is this. If we insist on rejecting the significance of sexuality, we cannot hold onto the right to be surprised when it is treated accordingly. We cannot promote and participate in a culture of casual sex and meaningless hook-ups and somehow expect men to see women’s bodies (and their own bodies, for that matter) as something more than objects of pleasure to be exploited to whatever degree they can get away with. We cannot train people to see the world through the lens of sexual conquest and pleasurable freedom, yet also insist on an affirmation of human dignity, sexual or otherwise. In short, we cannot insist that persons respect other persons when at the end of the day we haven’t actually given them any reason to do so. But this is exactly what has happened, and now we are stuck with a Sisyphean task of trying to eliminate a single symptom of a self-inflicted disease that we love too much to cure.
The good news is that the gospel of Jesus Christ gives us hope and meaning so that we are not confined to search for happiness or significance within the framework of autonomous sexual liberation. The gospel of Jesus rescues us from seeing our bodies as mere objects of pleasure, and replaces our self-objectification with an understanding of human beings made in the image of their Creator; as image-bearers created to know, love, and live in complete dependence upon the One who made us. That gospel tells us that human sexuality is not meaningless, that it is in fact far greater than what we so often reduce it to: In its intimacy between husband and wife, it mysteriously reflects the unbreakable union between Jesus and his Church, the people for whom his endless love prompted him to die. The gospel gloriously informs us that in his resurrection he has defeated all death, sin, shame and brokenness–that he brings hope of radical healing to the violated, and hope of forgiveness to the violator.
*I absolutely do not mean to imply that all or most sexual assaults are a result of women’s irresponsibility or poor choices. But it would be naive to say that such choices do not contribute to creating dangerous situations, or that cultural norms don’t lead women to put themselves into positions of vulnerability with alcohol, drugs, etc.