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Has Nothing Changed?

Apr 28, 2017 — Categories: ,

As Sexual Assault Awareness and Action Month draws to a close, we might pause to consider where we are. Thirty years ago, Catherine MacKinnon said, “The fact is, anything that anybody with power experiences as sex is considered ipso facto not violence, [i.e. not wrong] because someone who matters enjoyed it.”

Has Nothing Changed?

Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune


As Sexual Assault Awareness and Action Month draws to a close, we might pause to consider where we are.  Thirty years ago, Catherine MacKinnon said, “The fact is, anything that anybody with power experiences as sex is considered ipso facto not violence, [i.e. not wrong] because someone who matters enjoyed it [emphasis added].

Judith Hermann agreed: if “the normative social definition of sexuality involves the eroticization of male dominance and female submission, then the use of coercive means to achieve sexual conquest might represent a crude exaggeration of prevailing norms, but not a departure from them.”

This is the tacit subtext to the history of western thought on the subject of the ethical wrong of rape.  It has rested on the experience and interpretation of the one with power and virtually ignored the consequences for the one without.  Hence the difficulty of establishing and implementing social and judicial remedies for this unjust behavior.  The question of ‘who decides?’ whether it was sex (i.e. normal/moral) or violence (i.e. aberrant/immoral) is finally a political as well as an ethical and legal question yet to be determined.

We find ourselves at a critical juncture.  We have worked for over 40 years to establish a moral norm that rape is wrong, that any type of sexual harassment or abuse is wrong, and that it resides outside of the social norms of our communities.  Yet we are surrounded by powerful men who have engaged in sexual harm to others for years as a function of their entitlement. Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly at FOX News, Donald Trump.

They all assumed they were entitled to take what they wanted. Some of them have been held accountable-- but one of them got elected to the Presidency.  And this—after 40+ years of the anti-sexual assault movement?! (If our society and our faith groups spent more time worrying about the misuse of power by powerful men (or women) rather than about deciding who can marry whom, we would all be better off.)

Anthropologists have found cultures that are considered “rape free” (1). Peggy Reeves Sanday states,

“The outstanding feature of rape-free societies is the ceremonial importance of women and the respect accorded the contribution women make to social continuity, a respect which places men and women in relatively balanced power spheres. Rape-free societies are characterized by sexual equality and the notion that the sexes are complementary. Although the sexes may not perform the same duties or have the same rights or privileges, each is indispensable to the activities of the other...In answer to my questions regarding the relative absence of rape among them compared to the United States, Minangkabau informants replied that rape was impossible in their society because custom, law, and religion forbade it and punished it severely.” (2)

Two interesting things found in these cultures: they have both male and female images of God and both female and male religious leaders.

Patriarchy is a powerful and persistent fact of life and deconstructing it is a formidable task.  At this point, we can only conclude that we have failed to clearly establish that rape and harassment are wrong and, in religious language, are sins. And we have failed to establish the human rights of all people.

So our job, whether secular or religious, is to continue to work to challenge patriarchal norms that cause such harm and distort our sexualities.  In so doing we can create a society in which rape and harassment are rare and peculiar events, considered deviant and abhorrent.  But this is a task that will stretch beyond our lifetimes. We do our work standing in a space we have created, and still have to defend, that claims that it is wrong to sexually assault or abuse another person.  This remains a counter-cultural assertion; the good news is, it is shared by many.

As we work and watch and wait,
Wait to hear good news,
Wait for the refreshment that comes with a cool drink of justice,
We know that the way things are is not the way they have to be.

Someday sexuality will be celebrated and shared as God’s gift by all people.
Someday equality will be an erotic experience and violence will be abhorred.
Someday people will choose one another freely and rejoice in their choosing.

That day is within our reach.
We need not wait for another life, another incarnation, another generation.
In the dailiness of our lives, with those we love, we are doing this differently.

(1) Sanday, P.R. (1981). The socio-cultural context of rape: a cross-cultural study. Journal of Social Issues, 37, 5-27.



Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune
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Sinful behavior & consequential determiners...

Posted by Susan at May 01, 2017 01:38 PM
I agree with the article's general premise: rape. sexual harassment and abuse are wrong, i.e., sinful under ANY norm. The article's premise continues with how the consequences of whether these behaviors are considered as sexual or violent are determined in the Western world by politicians and ethicists. To these "consequential determiners" I would ALSO ADD: political ideologues, who turn a "blind eye" to those "elite" people who also perpetuate rape, sexual harassment, and abuse. However, because these "elite" perpetrators share the same ideology, these "perps" are never "called out" nor are they held accountable for their rape, harassment, etc. An example of this? This particular article named several people who WERE considered "traditional" and/or "conservative" as perpetrators. Unfortunately, the article did not name ONE progressive, and in so doing implied that these sinful behaviors ONLY occur among the "so-called" conservatives, which is false and misleading...sinful behaviors DO occur among the "Progressives" as well. It was truly telling that the article did not name Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner ~ to name just a few. How sad! What could have been an excellent article deteriorated into a SUBTLE conservative bashing, and as such greatly distorts and truly "politicizes" the message: Rape, sexual harassment are morally wrong no matter WHO the perpetrator is or WHAT ideology they profess and that ALL "perps" should be held accountable and face consequences for their "sinful" behavior regardless of their status and/or political persuasion.