This Should Go Without Saying: Stop Blaming Rape on Women

A culture that accepts or excuses rape even a little is simply not acceptable. It’s more prevalent than you think.

TRIGGER WARNING This article, and pages it links to, contain information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.

Many years ago, I had a professor of mine and his wife over for dinner. He was a visiting theology professor from South Africa and our conversation focused on the ministry challenges there. I was shocked to learn that there were parts of Africa where AIDS had infected up to 40% of the adult population. My friend told me that there were villages where almost every adult had died from the epidemic. He then told me about a persistent rumor that if a man with AIDS had sex with a virgin, it would cure him. This not only spread the disease, but also led to an increase in rapes. I remember being sick, and wondering how on earth anyone could believe something so ignorant.

Lately, I’ve seen the same kind of ignorance right here in the United States, e.g., when Representative Todd Akin said that victims of “legitimate rape” rarely became pregnant. His precise words were, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Last year, there were many political leaders — most of them conservatives — who were completely unequipped to talk about rape with any kind of common sense. (Wikipedia has a page dedicated to chronicling the embarrassment.)

More recently, I’ve been keeping up with reports about the woman in India who was recently gang-raped to death on a bus in India. Not a defunct bus in the back of a junkyard somewhere, mind you, but an active bus that was on its route. The details of the crime are horrific, and thank God, women are clogging the streets in protest over the lack of government urgency to bring the rapists to justice.

As if the horror of murder and rape weren’t enough, a popular guru in India named Asaram Bapu felt the need to say something about it, presumably in the defense of men. Here’s the quote from Reuters:

“Guilt is not one-sided,” the guru, Asaram Bapu, told followers this week, adding that if the student had pleaded with her six attackers in God’s name, and told them she was of the “weaker sex”, they would have relented.

Bapu’s comments remind me of what Wisconsin State Assembly member Roger Rivard said in December 2011 while talking about the prosecution of a 17-year-old boy who raped a 14-year-old girl. He shared this nugget of wisdom from his father: “some girls rape easy”. It’s hard to believe that such stupidity can be uttered by grown men, and especially grown men who are in positions of power designed to protect women and men from crimes.

I see a similar sort of ignorance in evangelical churches today. However, they aren’t talking about rape; rather, it’s men talking about “modesty”. Brother in Christ, if you’re reading this, let me say that if you see a sister with a skirt you deem too short, it isn’t her fault that you “stumble”. “Stumble” is a word that lets you off the hook for taking lecherous, perverted, and lustful looks at a woman. “Stumble” is a word that lets a man pretend that it isn’t entirely his fault that he’s reduced to a slavering buffoon because he saw a little cleavage. What sort of sicko would you think your girlfriend/daughter/wife’s male gynecologist was if he “stumbled” during a pelvic exam? He’s seeing everything — legs, vagina, et al. — and somehow he doesn’t act like the woman has offended him by disrobing in his office.

Hey brother, have you ever once worried about whether or not your attire is “causing a sister to stumble”? Have you ever worried that people will view you as a “Jezebel” because you wore a t-shirt that showed off your biceps? Or that your topless swimming at the pool allowed a woman to see your abs? Do you honestly think that no woman is “visually stimulated” and therefore, you’re off the hook? The hypocrisy of the “modesty police” says more about the immaturity of our “man culture” than it does about the supposed semi-sluttiness of our sisters when they wear skirts that are two inches above the knee. Men, in the day of the Lord’s visitation, you aren’t going to get away with the excuse, “The women you gave us, they showed us a bit of leg, and we did lust.”

Playing like it’s the woman’s fault that a man lusts is exactly why people say stupid things like “some girls rape easy” and “guilt is not one-sided.” Think of this horrific reality in order to get a grip on the unfairness and injustice of this. Men get raped, too. They get raped by family members, by friends, and sometimes, by grown men that they don’t know. Have you ever heard of a raped man being blamed for wearing shoes that were too sexy, pants that were too tight, or because they didn’t wear a shirt while they were washing the car? Would it even cross your mind to blame the victim in this case for dressing too provocatively?

To the women: It’s not your fault that men lust. If you’re worried all the time that your attire is causing men to stumble, just know that men like hands, feet, legs, kneecaps, hair, eyes, lips… pretty much every part of a woman’s body. You cannot possibly cover it all up. (If you think that the answer to lust is longer skirts, tops that show zero cleavage, and baggy britches that don’t show curves, remember that somewhere in Yemen right now, there’s a guy who’s drooling because he saw a woman’s arm exposed below the elbow.)

Not every man out there is a lecherous devil. But men do recognize the beauty of women. Unfortunately, it seems like many evangelical men can no longer differentiate between appreciating a woman’s beauty and thinking that somehow, because you’ve shown him that beauty through an outfit, you’ve now forced him to sin against God. I’m not saying that modesty doesn’t exist. But modesty is more than the length of a skirt or the cut of a blouse, just as sanctification is more than keeping the Law.

Dear brothers, stop blaming your lust on women. Stop pretending that, if only she’d worn a higher cut blouse, you’d be fine. And for the sake of Christ, never, ever entertain — for even the briefest of moments — the notion that a woman shares the blame in a rape because she was dressed too sexily. If you come home today and there is a naked woman in your bed who isn’t your wife, and she is begging you to have sex with her, it is your fault if you do it. How much more is it the man’s fault if the woman is clothed and screaming “NO!” That someone would even entertain the idea that somehow the blame is “shared” in that situation should make us all furious.

Brothers, step back. Look to your own heart if you want to know the truth about why women are objectified, and why a women’s workout clothes reduce you to leering. Stop blaming women. Now wouldn’t be soon enough.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

About Brad Williams

Brad is the pastor of a Baptist church in a small town in Alabama. Brad has a lovely wife, two children, two dogs, a cat, a turtle, and five bee hives. Besides the incredible fact that he managed to persuade his wife to marry him, he is proud that he served six years in the Army National Guard, managed to graduate college with an English Lit. degree, graduate seminary, and finish the original Bard's Tale as a youngster by making maps on graph paper.

  • http://jaketolbert.com/blog Jake T

    Best article about rape culture and the church I’ve read. Well done, sir. Well done (the fact that Brad wrote this, not Erin, drives the point home even harder).

    Seriously. This is great.

  • Jeff Cavanaugh

    Yes! What Jake said.

  • http://godispatientiamnot.blogspot.com Amy The Writer

    Exactly! Thank you so much for writing this. I dealt with the whole “modesty” in church thing in 2006 and wish I could have explained it as eloquently as you do here. Thank you thank you thank you.

  • Yelir

    This was very well written and articulate. Thank you for saying everything I have been aching to say so much better than I could!

  • Jonathan James

    I’m a bit perplexed by this, particularly the modesty section. Are you saying that in the scenario you imagine, “If you come home today and there is a naked woman in your bed who isn’t your wife, and she is begging you to have sex with her, it is your fault if you do it,” that guilt is not shared here? The woman in this situation is blameless?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture Brad Williams

    Jonathan,

    She will certainly give an account to God for her actions, as will we all. However, if you commit a sin, you don’t get to blame someone else for it, no matter what their guilt in the situation is. Eve offered Adam the fruit. Did his blaming her vindicate him of wrong-doing?

  • Jonathan James

    Brad,
    I certainly don’t disagree with you on that point. You can’t excuse your own sin by saying “I was tempted.” Each Christian is accountable for his own obedience, and you can’t go spreading the blame around.

    But I’m perplexed by how scornfully you treat the modesty issue. Clothing has cultural meaning. I work in education, and my teacher-friends dress to say something about themselves to the students. One always wears a tie, to signify authority. Another deliberately dresses down, just a tee-shirt and jeans, to be more approachable. This is how clothes work.

    So when a woman wears a dress with a slit up to here and a neckline down to there, it says something about her. And in this case, it’s inviting sexual appreciation. That’s what that type of clothing means (again, culturally. It might mean something else in another culture). It’s meant to provoke lust. That’s what it’s for.

    So what’s the problem with saying that wearing such clothes (in the wrong circumstances) is a stumbling block? What’s wrong with saying that it’s unloving to your brothers in Christ to dress that way, that when you do, you are a temptation? I agree with you that “modesty is more than the length of a skirt or the cut of a blouse,” but it certainly isn’t less.

    Thanks for your reply. I appreciate the dialogue.

  • Richard Clark

    “So when a woman wears a dress with a slit up to here and a neckline down to there, it says something about her. And in this case, it’s inviting sexual appreciation. That’s what that type of clothing means (again, culturally. It might mean something else in another culture). It’s meant to provoke lust. That’s what it’s for.”

    Says who? You? It’s also extremely telling how specific you were about degree of depth and height of the neckline and slit: “here” and “there”. That means nothing – it’s a subjective judgment based on your previous cultural experience. And THAT’s the point. It’s not necessarily “inviting” anything, and to assume so is exactly the problem Brad is talking about here. Someone else might say “tight pants” exist to provoke lust. But how tight? And what is the difference between a pant and a pant suit or shorts or a skort or a dress with legs and do these differences have meaning?

    Clothes mean something, certainly – but almost always that meaning is only clear to the wearer. The point of this post is simply not to guess at that meaning ourselves, and ascribe the intent of seduction to those who are simply unaware of what you might mean by “there” or here.”

  • Jonathan James

    Richard, thanks for your input. I totally agree that clothing’s meaning is cultural and contingent, but disagree that it therefore becomes subjective. For example, if you were interviewing for a job at, say, a bank, you’d probably wear a suit. A suit says professional, businesslike. An interview for an animation studio might require a different kind of dress, since they’re probably looking for creativity rather than business. The meaning of a suit is cultural, it doesn’t mean the same thing everywhere, but it isn’t subjective. I didn’t just make up the fact that suits are professional, it’s a cultural understanding.

    Similarly with sexiness. I just watched a sitcom where a woman humorously unbuttons her blouse a bit to attract her would-be man. That joke only works if there’s a cultural understanding that cleavage is sexy.

    So when you wear certain clothes, you are participating in a cultural conversation. The clothes have a cultural meaning. I’m not saying there’s no gray area, but there’s gray area in just about every moral question. That shouldn’t send us into a subjectivist paralysis.

  • Brad Williams

    Jonathan,

    It is subjective though, Jonathan. Are one piece bathing suits appropriate? Can you wear them to the office? We get that the answer is both “yes” and “no.” The problem isn’t with the dress, the problem is with the brother. Now, if she is having the intent to provoke people to lust, then that is between her and the Lord. If she is just trying to enjoy the beach, then the gawker is the one with the problem, and he ought to deal with his inner pervert.

    You do not have the authority to judge intentions, and neither do I. When you see cleavage, you might think, “This woman is causing me to stumble. She is tempting men to lust on purpose!” She might simply be thinking, “I look pretty, and that’s pretty cool.” Just as you might wear something because you think you look handsome, but did you ever put on a shirt and think, “Hmmm…this shows a bit too much bicep. I might cause a sister to stumble.” I find that hilarious to consider. (I mean, personally, because I don’t have stumble biceps.) But apparently, any cleavage, any where, any time, causes men to lose their minds.

  • Jonathan James

    What if we made an analogy. Suppose a friend is insulting me. Just saying really nasty things. Let’s say he insults my mother too, and I lose my temper and wallop him.

    Now, punching people like that is wrong. I sinned. The fact that he insulted me is no excuse. I can’t blame my violence on him. My fault.

    On the other hand, you probably shouldn’t say nasty things to people. That’s wrong too. Maybe his intentions weren’t bad. He wasn’t trying to incite violence, maybe he was just trying to be funny, or was having a bad day. I don’t think it really matters, that sort of behavior is wrong.

    The lust/modesty issue is similar. The lust is the brother’s problem, just like my violence in the analogy was my problem. No excuse. But the woman is guilty of a different sin, immodest. She isn’t responsible for the lust (just like the friend wasn’t responsible for my violence), but she is responsible for her immodesty. He should preach against both violence and insults. We should preach against both lust and immodesty.

    I don’t see any need to judge intentions, here. There are cultural standards for dress. Cleavage is sexy, right? And the more the sexier. That’s a cultural understanding. That’s why a Seinfeld episode on cleavage is funny, because we all understand that. Maybe it’s different in other cultures, and that’s fine. But in ours, cleavage is sexy. So when a girl wears a low-cut blouse, it doesn’t really matter if she’s doing it just because she thinks it’s cute. She’s still sending a message that has a cultural meaning of sexiness. That’s simply a fact.

    So is the problem with the dress or the brother? The problem of lust is with the brother. The problem of immodesty (whether careless or deliberate) is with the dress, or rather, the girl in it. That isn’t blaming her for his problem. He needs to own that. But she needs to own hers too.

  • Jon

    I really don’t see how modesty relates to the issue of rape.

    Rape is bad. Rape should never happen. There is no way the perp is not 150% responsible for the rape. The woman is never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever responsible. At all.

    The discussion of “lust and modesty” is pretty separate from the one of “who’s to blame for rape”. Especially since I don’t think you can draw a clear statistical inference between “dresses provocatively” and rape; I would imagine the stats show it doesn’t really matter what the victim’s wearing.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    The problem with your analogy here is that it’s begging the question to presume that saying really nasty things is like looking or dressing sexy. One is sin and one is not. There is no necessary sin in looking sexy. Sexy is just the handmaiden to handsome. One might also substitute attractive or elegant or beautiful.

    A better analogy might be food. A well-prepared meal, elegantly served, can whet the appetite. Even if that well-prepared meal is on someone else’s table. The sin comes in when you are either prompted to envy or gluttony. Neither of these two reactions are necessary and in both cases, the sin would be on the shoulders of the sinner. There may be odd cases where the preparer of the food may intentionally show off the meal in such a way to provoke those who cannot legitimately themselves eat. This might have been what was going on in the Corinthian church and is more analogous to what you mean by immodesty—even if scriptural immodesty has more to do with vanity and pride than it does with sexual provocation.

    Also, your simple facts may exist wholly in a very narrow cultural context. In mine, a woman who shows some cleavage means nothing so sturdily as it means she is a human with breasts large enough to have cleavage. Unless she’s showing cleavage in a place where the microculture dictates that she shouldn’t, her cleavage doesn’t mean she is dressing provocatively or without propriety. Maybe you live entirely in one of those microcultures.

    (For instance, if I see a woman with cleavage, being from the cultures I grew up in, I see the same thing I see when I see a woman’s forearms or face (i.e. just a woman). Those things cause me to lust only if I have predisposed myself to be triggered by such a thing on such a day—and then again, appetite is still not the same as lust.)

    Because we live in a deeply pluralistic society, our cultures, subcultures, and microcultures are constantly in flux, washing over each other and interrupting each other’s flow. It can be very difficult to negotiate the world of propriety when someone skips across cultural boundaries with the alacrity that most Americans in cosmopolitan areas do every day. To pretend that cleavage always means one thing crafts an intentional ignorance about how culture and propriety works.

    In the end though, is there sin on the woman’s part for her attire if a man sees her and lusts? Only if she intends to seduce away married men. Because intentionally interrupting the covenant of marriage is adulterous and therefore sin. For a single woman to allure single men, though, no harm no foul.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    Jon, the only reason the two (propriety and rape) are relevant to the same discussion is that there are huge swaths of the American public who believe them to be linked. Because of this misconception, they almost have to be talked about together (hopefully in responsible terms that will help edge people away from the assumption). But otherwise, you’re right: not related.

  • Jonathan James

    Seth, I’m partly in agreement with you here. What counts as sexually alluring is certainly culturally dependent. I’m totally on board with that. And crossing cultures certainly can lead to confusion there. But that confusion only exists because there are real cultural standards of propriety that are being confused. It shouldn’t lead us into a morass of subjectivism. Nor am I sure that navigating these mixed cultures is as difficult as you think, but our disagreement there is probably more one of degree than principle.

    I also agree that being sexually alluring isn’t always a sin. I disagree that the deciding factor is intent. I would maintain that carelessness with dress in a way that allures married people is sinful as well as deliberately doing so. Waving that food around (in your analogy) with no consideration for those who cannot eat would be a lack of love, in my book, whether the intent was to make them desire it or not.

    Lastly, you say “For a single woman to allure single men, though, no harm no foul.” I think this depends on what you mean by “allure.” Do you assign any limits to a woman’s (or man’s) freedom to attract a single person with her (or his) body?

  • http://timothy.green.name Timothy (TRiG)

    A scientific press release with the title “Promiscuous Men More Likely to Rape” was reported in the Telegraph with the headline “Women Who Dress Provocatively More Likely to be Raped”. That headline was simply made up. There was absolutely nothing in the research which would support that headline at all.

    Source: Ben Goldacre, “The Now Show”, BBC Radio 4. (Sorry, I can’t remember the date of the broadcast, but Ben hasn’t been on The Now Show that many times, so it should be findable.)

    TRiG.

  • true feminist
  • Heather

    Brad, I’ve never been more proud to call you family than after reading this. I frankly thought my head was going to explode during the last election. It reminds me of an issue I had with our football coach. I was told that my cheerleaders could not run the bleachers because “a bunch of girls running in shorts would be too distracting.” My response was, “How is that my cheerleaders’ problem? Maybe your boys should be more disciplined.” All through college, I would see safety seminars advertised, basically teaching women how to avoid being rape, but I never once saw a seminar for men called, “Hey, men! Don’t rape!” I just don’t understand the mentality that rape could ever, in any way, be the fault of the victim.

  • Joelle

    One of my coworkers was raped on her way home from work, still wearing her uniform of dress pants and a button down shirt…blaming rape on a woman’s attire is ignorant. There are women being raped all around the world, some of which are in countries where women are required to be covered from head to toe.
    Rape is rape regardless of what the woman is wearing. We do not get to take whatever we want simply because we want it, it is called self-control. Otherwise, I want that new BMW that looks amazing and I want my neighbor’s husband who looks like an underwear model.
    Men who justify rape for any reason have either raped a woman or will rape a woman at some point so I highly recommend that they ask God to help them in that area of their life.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/pgepps pgepps

    Someone needs to do some moderating and delete some posts.

  • Jean

    Thank you Brad for your wonderful article. So many times we read articles where men scold women, but lately I have even seen articles by my own gender of female writers who demean and put women down for having an opinion.
    There are a few writers who call themselves Christians, but are so very cruel to women, in their articles. They are male and female writers/ moderators, who do not want women to speak up against their scolding, blaming, and attacking women. They will reject and even delete you if you speak in defense of women.

    It’s refreshing to be able to come to a site where the people speak with respect to one another and the author is a gracious and fine gentleman. I am truly a fan and will tell my friends to come and read.

    Thanks,
    Jean

  • Jean

    Brad, thank you for your wonderful and respectful site.
    It is refreshing to read on a site where women can freely speak, without the male or female moderators deleting those of us who support and defend women.
    There are many people out there who constantly blame women for men’s sins. It is so unfair.
    I am a fan!


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