Assault and Autonomy.


There have been several times I’ve wondered how so many people, and in particular, so many Christians can support political candidates who pretty openly engage in or support sexual assault, harassment, etc. And then I remember the fundamentally different understanding regarding sexual ethics. It’s not so surprising after all.

It comes down to a fundamental difference in understanding bodily autonomy. It may sound obvious to just assume one’s freedom from bodily assault or harassment is defended. It’s not that simple within ultra-conservative Christianity. The concept of authority is heavily emphasized: authority of God, church, family, etc. Growing up, the authority order looked like this: family, God, church, state, then individual. You may wonder why God is second. This comes from the concept that you can’t always trust your concept of God, and it’s important to submit to your familial authority’s interpretation of what God wants.

This is why so much of the rhetoric in fundamentalism can sound eerily similar to rape culture. Even though I’m sure some of the former family and church influences in my life would be appalled at the comparison, it’s pretty evident. As soon as you use God’s name to defend why your body belongs to someone else, instead of choosing to believe that God defends the personal dignity and independence of each individual, the discussion automatically becomes one of bodily ownership.


What was she wearing? Was she asking for it?

This approach is implicit in modesty culture. Make sure you’re dressed modestly. You are not to cause “your brother to stray” by wearing anything too provocative. Nothing too low-cut, too high-cut, too tight, too flashy, too enticing. I wasn’t allowed to wear lace because one of the women in my church said lace made her sons think about lingerie. Spaghetti straps were off-limits. Bikinis were so off-limits, I didn’t know for years that wearing a bikini wasn’t inherently sinful. Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think modesty in and of itself is wrong. It’s all about the approach that’s used. Every time I was sent back to my room to change from an outfit deemed immodest, I was never told, “I want you to respect your body, so I want you to wear something different,” but rather “This gives off the wrong idea. You don’t want to give any men the wrong idea.” It’s pretty loud and clear, then, that you’re held responsible for any attention, wanted or unwanted, you receive.

That’s the beauty of validating bodily autonomy: you support someone’s right to dress in whatever way reflects their personal values, whatever manifestation that may take.

Where was she? Was she drinking? Why didn’t she fight back?

This one’s pretty straight-forward: if you’re in a “sinful” or “compromising” environment, why, of course you’re “asking for it.” Drunkenness would be considered a “sin,” in part for that very reason: it’s your responsibility to not allow anyone to take advantage of you.

What may not be so straight-forward is the concept of chaperoning. It’s not just a matter of oh-well-wrong-place-wrong-time-too-bad, but rather, “Where was your protector?” In a patriarchal society, it’s considered a woman’s responsibility to utilize the protection of a male authority figure.  It’s designed to be a hearkening back to chivalry, and to be perfectly honest, I remember being somewhat attracted to the nostalgia and romance of it all. The problem is evident, though…this approach is rooted in an ethic of bodily ownership. After all, the only way you can ensure physical safety is by securing and keeping a protector, right?

What was she doing?

This is perhaps the royal flush of conservative, rape culture rhetoric. If you have engaged in any kind of “inappropriate” sexual conduct before marriage (and this could refer to everything from making out to penetrative sex), you’ve embraced an ethic of sin, and so have no right to deny someone else’s inappropriate sexual advances. That may sound like a stretch, but it was only a few weeks ago that I was told (in response to the frequent sexual assault allegations appearing in the news in the last few months) that the problem lies not with assault and the violation of boundaries, but in cultural “sexual immorality.” “Fornication, homosexuality, jacking off…what else would you expect [but assault to follow]?”

Not going to lie. I found the automatic correlation made between “jacking off” and “sexual assault” grimly amusing. Only…it wasn’t intended as a joke at all.

I remember one time when I was about ten years old, a women’s Bible study was hosted at my home. The discussion was focused around how to behave within a marriage, and the distinction between individual identity, and identity as a wife. The leader of the discussion said that there are some ways that a wife can set personal boundaries for herself, but that sex is definitely not one of them. She said that it would be sinful for a married woman to deny her husband sex for any reason. Any reason. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me at the time…I mean, if you can’t have any boundary regarding sexual consent, why would you have boundaries regarding anything else? What’s the point? It wasn’t until late high school/early college that I learned there’s such a thing as marital rape. I thought that once you married, you automatically agreed to have sex whenever and however your husband would want, and that not to “give” your body would be sinful.

The concept of bodily autonomy and dignity is not assumed or accepted one for many, many people. This doesn’t mean, though, that masses are intentionally and consciously using objectification as a means for control, but rather that the perceived reward of communal safety and morality is valued over individual accountability and respect. So, when public figures involved in some way or another with assault/harassment are overwhelmingly supported, don’t be surprised. Instead, change the discussion from “Who owns whose body?” to “Everyone’s body is their own. Including yours. How do you approach others?”


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