Rape. That’s a kind of premarital sex, right?

*Trigger warning for survivors of rape or sexual abuse.*

In case you haven’t noticed, rape has been in the news lately – or, more specifically, Rep. Todd Akin’s comments about how women’s bodies can shut down their reproductive functions in the case of “legitimate rape.” This brings to mind something I’ve been meaning to write about rape, actually, ever since I wrote that post about “the tale of two boxes.” In that post I said that “conservatives divide sexual acts into “wrong” or “okay” based on what God thinks of them, and progressives divide sexual acts into “wrong” and “okay” based on whether or not they are consensual.” As I created two boxes for conservatives and two for progressives, and went to put sexual acts into them, I found I had a problem when it came to rape. Take a look below:

Do you see “rape” in those boxes? Yes, it’s there in the “non-consensual” box under progressive sexual ethics, but what about conservative sexual ethics? No, you’re not seeing things – it’s not there. It’s not there in either box. And there’s a reason for that. As I tried to figure out where to put rape, I realized that the fundamentalist evangelicalism in which I grew up doesn’t treat rape as a separate category. Instead, rape is grouped under either “premarital sex” or “marital sex.” It’s not treated separately.

I asked myself what messages I’d gotten about rape while growing up, and I finally had to admit to myself that the only messages I remember getting were along the lines of “don’t put yourself in a compromising situation where you might get raped, because then you would no longer be pure.” I don’t know if that was the message that my parents and community intended to send, but it’s certainly the message I got. Sure, rape was seen as bad because it was a violent crime. But the sex part? It was, well, premarital sex. Sure, it wasn’t voluntary, but it was still premarital sex.

I read a Christian novel when I was a kid, in which a college student is raped and gets pregnant. She decides to keep the baby, but her evangelical boyfriend leaves her because she is no longer pure. She has had sex. Now sure, the book paints him as self righteous, etc. But the (evangelical) guy who ends up taking the woman under his wing and eventually marrying her and helping her raise her baby comes from a bad background and isn’t a virgin himself. Sure, he was painted as a hero, but I couldn’t help but get the feeling that a “sullied” woman needed a “sullied” man because a “pure” man would never “settle” for her. Now I’m sure that wasn’t the author’s intent, but I can’t help but feel that the author couldn’t figure out any way to have a “pure” virginal man marry her “sullied” heroine without making the book seem off-balanced or improbable.

Now I should clarify something. Even if you’d had premarital sex, you could still become a “born again virgin” by re-committing yourself to abstinence. But that wasn’t just something open to rape victims, it was open to anyone who had had premarital sex, whether voluntary or not. So while you could still be viewed as pure even after you’d been raped, you could only be viewed as pure inasmuch as a girl who had voluntarily had sex with her boyfriend could be pure. And the message I seemed to get was that that was second best.

What about marital rape? I have to be honest, growing up I didn’t know there was such a thing. Once you got married, I thought, it was just lots of hot, passionate, mutual sex, like, all the time. Who wouldn’t want that? And the books I was reading, books on being a good wife, said things like, you have to make sure to have sex with your husband and keep him satisfied, or else he’ll go have sex with someone else, and not saying that’ll be your fault or anything, but that’ll be your fault. I guess reading those should have clued me into the fact that one partner might be into it while the other wasn’t, but it didn’t. Instead I just resolved to make sure to keep said future husband happy.

I am almost positive that if the pastor of the church I grew up in read this post, he would say that these aren’t the things he taught at all. He would probably say I misunderstood or something. The trouble is, these are still the messages I got. And if these are messages the church – or at least the church community where I grew up – are sending, well, something is seriously amiss.

In many ways, though, I think this is a natural consequence of categorizing the rightness or wrongness of sexual acts based simply on “God forbids” and “God does not forbid” without any concern for issues like consent. I mean for goodness sake, I never even heard of “consent”! It was all “don’t have sex until your wedding night, and after that you’ll amply make up for waiting.” Consent? What’s that?

One last point. The Bible never forbids marital rape and it appears to view the rape of an unmarried woman as robbing her of her purity. Consent never comes into the picture. In the Old Testament, marital rape isn’t mentioned, and every other instance of rape is counted as sort of theft – stealing an unmarried woman’s worth on the marriage market, or robbing from a husband what is rightfully his. In the New Testament, rape isn’t mentioned, and lists of sins simply speak of “promiscuity” and “sexual immorality.” So it’s really not surprising that, growing up in a fundamentalist evangelical community where the Bible was read literally and often, I got the messages that I did.

But I have to say, I’m really really glad that my daughter will be getting very very different messages.

Edit: Just so no one misses or confuses the point I’m trying to make, it’s this - in my experience, evangelicals and fundamentalists see rape as wrong because it is violent, because it is premarital (or extramarital) sex, and because it constitutes a theft of purity (i.e. in my discussion of the Old Testament), <i>not</i> because it is non-consensual.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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