I recently spent a week in the beautiful little town of Bathsheba on the eastern coast of the island Barbados. Upon telling people I would be traveling to Bathsheba, I received a look – and then “ooooh, Bathsheba.” Can you hear it? By “ooooh, Bathsheba,” they seemed to imply that risqué, adulterous Bathsheba from the Bible, wink wink.
Of course, because I do research in the area of sexual violence, this kick-started some mental gymnastics. (To all of the religious and feminist scholars out there, I recognize that I’m late to the game in regards to these thoughts.) When King David saw a beautiful married woman on the rooftop, did he think that she would be interested in him? Didn’t King David abuse his power? Bathsheba didn’t really consent, did she? Why do Christians seem to gloss over this bad side of David? I certainly haven’t heard many sermons on “When King David raped Bathsheba.” Just writing that makes me feel sacrilegious.
The problem of sexual violence is an epidemic. But nothing about it is new.
Rather than emphasizing the problematic nature of King David’s actions, “artists and interpreters over the centuries have turned this particular woman into a painted sex kitten who bewitched a divinely chosen king,” say Diana and David Garland in their 2007 book Bathsheba’s Story: Surviving Abuse and Loss ( Brazos). And this continues to this day: What was she wearing? Did she lead him on? He didn’t mean to. It wasn’t really rape.
Male-dominated cultures such as Bathsheba’s and our own continue to teach women that they are responsible for men’s lust. Sadly, the Garlands point out, Christian cultures often endorse these messages and subsequently, “somehow, they think they have caused the sexual harassment, the unwanted sexual come-ons or touching, or even the rape.”
CHRISTIANS AND TODAY’S SEXUAL VIOLENCE
I don’t intend to take up biblical hermeneutics or a theological discussion related to David and Bathsheba, but I do want to explore the ways in which Christians perceive and respond to sexual violence in our current context.
One has to live in a hole not to be aware of the many cases of sexual violence coming to light in the media. The comedian and actor Bill Cosby has recently been found guilty of multiple counts of sexual assault. Celebrities such as Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer and Aziz Ansari and politicians such as Roy Moore, John Conyers, Al Franken and countless other high-profile people have been accused and, in some cases, held accountable for sexual harassment or sexual assault. Larry Nassar, a Michigan State University doctor, received a sentence of up to 175 years in prison for sexual abuse after hundreds of women came forward gave statements in court. The #MeToo movement has rocked the nation and world.
This problem of sexual violence is an epidemic. But nothing about it is new. And it is not just news stories of those people out there. It’s people I know, disclosing their own experiences or asking for my advice on how to respond to a friend.
And I teach at a Christian college.
Does sexual violence happen at a Christian college? At this point you likely will anticipate my answer. Yes, sexual violence does happen on Christian college campuses and within other Christian institutions. And yes, Christians do experience sexual violence. A large part of the problem is that we don’t name it for what it is. We call it “bad jokes,” “a creepy professor” or “a date that didn’t go as planned.”
Of course, it should not be this way. Acknowledging and naming the problem, however, is not shameful. It is shining a light on the truth.
Last year, I responded to an article in the Christian Reformed Church’s magazine, The Banner, about rape culture on college campuses. Although I was encouraged by some simply to be thankful that the magazine was covering the topic of sexual violence at all, I remained troubled by some of the article’s messages. It seemed to suggest that sexual violence is not a relevant issue on a Christian-college campus. Students at a Christian college must be different, must be doing better than that world out there. But for those coming from a Reformed perspective, it certainly should not be a stretch to recognize that our world, our very nature, has been infected by sin. Things are not right. Things are not as they ought to be.
To believe that sexual violence doesn’t exist in Christian communities is to deny a reality, an experience that most often is endured in isolation, shame and denial. All too often, these realities are only brought to light in Christian communities in extreme cases such as the Christian radio host who was charged with sex-trafficking minors. Now, that is the problem, we are inclined to say.
So I wrote a response. I tried to describe rape culture as the societal context, the environment in which we are socialized to normalize and perpetuate sexual violence – and this societal context affects Christians and Christian institutions. Of course, not everyone took the intended point: “I’ll be sure, when next time giving advice to a young person or parents from my church or otherwise about college options,” someone wrote, “to suggest that Calvin College might be an option but they should be aware there is a rape culture there, as attested to by one of the College’s own professors, and they should take that into account.”
Let’s get this straight. Christians experience sexual violence. Christians perpetrate sexual violence. Christians perpetuate rape culture. There, I said it. In fact, if we’re honest, the church doesn’t have such a hot reputation when it comes to how it has handled sexual abuse. Don’t ask me to make a list!
And Christian colleges? Well, it’s hard to find a straight answer. Although colleges and universities are required to report crimes through the Clery Act each year, these reports are limited to crimes taking place on campus and – probably more important in relation to sexual violence – crimes that are reported. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2013), approximately 80 percent of rape and sexual assault among female college students is not reported to the police. In a recent study on a Christian college campus, a range between 3 percent and 6 percent (some students were unsure) of incidents meeting college definitions of sexual misconduct were reported to college officials. Whether it’s to the police or to college administrators, reporting is extremely low.
SEXUAL VIOLENCE ON COLLEGE CAMPUSES
What is the experience of students on a college campus? On a Christian college campus? Although there currently is not enough data about sexual violence on Christian college campuses, there is much research that points to the need to pay attention to this issue, as it affects the college climate and sense of safety of students, particularly women and other marginalized groups.
Research on college campuses has demonstrated that various aspects of the campus climate related to sexual violence affect students’ overall well-being, especially those who are victim-survivors of sexual assault. Institutions of higher education often do not adequately respond, and the implications of this inattention run deep. Various studies have found that the way in which colleges and universities respond to allegations of sexual assault, how they support victim-survivors – including the education and resources they provide to prevent victimization – and how much trust students place in their institutions to respond well, all highly affect student well-being, especially that of victim-survivors.
For example, a 2013 study of undergraduate students at a public university by C.P Smith and J.J. Freyd found that institutional betrayal exacerbates post-traumatic stress symptoms after a sexual assault. For victim-survivors, this study found, institutional betrayal may manifest itself in “an environment in which sexual assaults seem like ‘no big deal’ or ‘covering up experiences.’”
The prevalence of resources available on campus also affects victim-survivors’ emotional well-being. M.E. Eisenberg and colleagues (2016) found that women who had experienced sexual assault in the past 12 months and those who attended colleges with better sexual-violence resources – determined by the prevalence of paid staff dedicated to addressing sexual violence, a hotline/24-hour contact, an escort service, awareness-raising activities, support groups and pamphlets/posters around campus – reported significantly better levels of emotional health than those at colleges with fewer resources.
In addition to institutional response, peer beliefs and attitudes related to sexual assault significantly affect the college climate and the well-being of victim-survivors, particularly in their decisions related to disclosure and reporting. In particular, many studies address the concept of rape-myth acceptance, or how one’s beliefs and attitudes reflect a general acceptance of various cultural myths surrounding sexual assault. Examples of these myths include the belief that victims provoked the assault, that what happened wasn’t really rape or the perpetrator didn’t mean to do it.
In a 2016 study, researchers K.L. LeMaire, D.L. Oswald and B.L. Russell found that fewer than half of women who experienced victimization meeting the legal definition of rape labeled their experience as such. The researchers found that the women’s own sexism, acceptance of sexual harassment and rape-myth acceptance significantly predicted whether women labeled their experiences as rape.
How victim-survivors perceive their peers’ beliefs also affects their well-being. A 2009 study by L.A. Paul, M.J. Gray, J.D. Elhai and J.L. Davis found a significant positive correlation between survivors’ estimation of their peer’s rape-myth acceptance and their psychological distress after the assault. In a survey of more than 1,000 students at a Christian college, one-third stated that it was likely that other students would “make jokes about sexual assault or rape.” About 40 percent said “people get too offended by sexual comments, jokes, or gestures.” More than one-third of students expressed a belief that those who report sexual assaults might be somewhat responsible if they had been drinking or that they might be making false accusations.
Rape-myth acceptance exists in a complex web of belief systems that create hostile environments for students, and the students most affected by harmful beliefs about sexual assault are often those whose identities are marginalized on multiple levels. Fear of sexual assault greatly affects the college experience of women students as well as their perceptions of campus climate. Women report a diminished sense of safety related to sexual objectification and fear of rape and lower perceptions of social control, according to a 2015 study by S.M. Walsh.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students on a Christian college campus may experience a double dilemma: Higher levels of sexual assault and increased fears related to reporting exacerbate the negative effects of sexual violence. A 2017 study by R.W.S. Coulter and S.R. Rankin revealed a significant association on college campuses between lower inclusion of LGBTQ students and higher levels of victimization of LGBTQ students. This study found that LGBTQ students who had witnessed harassment targeted at sexual or gender minorities and perceived a low level of inclusivity on their campus were more likely to be victimized. Greater inclusion of sexual and gender-minority students was robustly associated with a lower level of sexual assault among LGBTQ students. In the survey previously cited of more than 1,000 students at a Christian college, students who identified as LGBTQ were twice as likely as heterosexual students to experience a sexual assault within one academic year.
A CHRISTIAN RESPONSE
Only when we recognize how far this description of the prevalence and effects of sexual violence on a college campus is from God’s intended order can we by God’s grace work towards restoration. It’s as simple (or remarkable) as creation, fall, redemption, restoration. God wants us to flourish. Violence, harassment, intimidation and retaliation are marks of the world marred by our own doing. But we can do better. Here are a few ideas on how to live into that hope and restoration.
Recognize elements of culture and socialization that perpetuate sexual violence.
Reformed Christians should be among the first to acknowledge that sin touches everything. The belief that Christians can insulate themselves, in any form, from the presence of sin is clearly opposed to central Reformed belief. The church, Christian colleges, relationships – though intended for good – are broken and touched by sin, just like everything else in creation.
What does rape culture look like on a Christian college campus? It looks like jokes about sexual assault or misuse of the word “rape” (“that test raped me” is a statement heard among Christian-college students).
Rape culture shows up in students receiving sexual advances, gestures, comments or jokes that are unwelcome. It appears in acts of sexual violence, most often in forced or coerced sexual contact by a dating partner or acquaintance rather than a stranger. One student at a Christian college shared her experience by saying, “Nobody knows that we have engaged in sexual intercourse, and I don’t want anybody to know. He pressured me into it even though I wanted to wait until marriage. Ever since the first time I just now let him, even if I don’t want it because he will still touch me sexually and sometimes use force to get it. So now I don’t want people to judge me or tell me that we need to break up.”
Rape culture is the environment in which purity and virginity are emphasized to the extent that an individual believes it more important to get married to a perpetrator of sexual violence than to disclose unwanted sexual contact.
Rape culture is the practice of covering up sexual assault or providing excuses for problematic behavior. Rape culture is doing too little to acknowledge and respond to the problem.
This kind of rape culture, sometimes in faint and seemingly indirect ways, normalizes sexual violence. This normalization contributes to 1. instances of sexual assault and 2. emotional abuse or neglect of survivors of sexual assault and a failure to support and care for these individuals.
Know what responses are helpful and unhelpful.
Those of us in higher education need to recognize that most victim-survivors of sexual violence will not be making their experience known to any faculty, administrator or staff on campus. Many students will not tell anyone, believing that the incident was not serious enough to report, not wanting to initiate a case or investigation and fearing that others would think they were to blame.
Know that there are individuals trying to show up to class, sitting in chapel, leaving the counseling center, studying in the library who are suffering, many in silence. So when you are given the opportunity to acknowledge the reality and pervasiveness of sexual violence, do so. If there is ever an opportunity to stand in solidarity with those who have experienced sexual violence, show up. You don’t even need to say anything. It will mean the world to someone.
Students will be most likely to disclose the experience to a close friend or roommate, highlighting the importance of educating our students (victims’ peers) on how to respond well.
If you do receive a disclosure, say something like, “I’m so sorry. Thank you for trusting me. How can I support you?” Do not say, “What happened exactly? Are you sure you didn’t want that to happen? How can you move past this?”
Let’s talk about forgiveness for a minute. Christians have often done a disservice to victim-survivors of sexual violence when responding with encouragement to forgive and move forward. First, it’s crucial to acknowledge the pain. Then remind yourself of God’s righteous anger at injustice. Hold perpetrators accountable and seek their repentance. This excerpt from Rachael Denhollander’s courtroom testimony directed at Larry Nassar, the perpetrator of her abuse, provides a good starting place for reflection on what forgiveness entails:
“You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen in this courtroom today.
“The Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you thrown into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.
“The Bible you speak of carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and his eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.
“I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me – though I extend that to y ou as well.”
Instead of moving quickly to forgiveness and reconciliation, seek justice. Then educate yourself on helpful resources and supports. If you do not have resources on your campus directed toward prevention, education and support related to sexual violence and the experience of victim-survivors, now would be a good time to develop them. Know the experts in your community and work with them. Resources that have proved helpful include paid staff dedicated to addressing sexual violence, a hotline/24-hour contact, an escort service, awareness-raising activities, support groups and pamphlets/posters around campus.
As you think of how these issues may relate to your own role on a college campus, be reminded that Bathsheba might have her own story to tell. Let’s pay more attention to Bathsheba.
Rachel M. Venema teaches sociology at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.