A follow-up on complementarianism and rape culture

A follow-up on complementarianism and rape culture September 28, 2012

{trigger warning for rape}

This is a follow up to my recent blog post, “Complimentarianism’s ugly relationship with rape”

I recently wrote a blog post in which I proposed that complementarianism benefits from rape culture. This post got me called a slanderer, a totalitarian communist propagandist, and even got me compared to a rapist lurking in the dark corners of the internet waiting to attack innocent men like Douglas Wilson and call them rape advocates against their will. This follow-up post is not for those people. Anyone who would compare calling out rape apologism to rape itself is beyond my ability to reason with. I’ll leave those people in God’s hands for now.

However, I did have several commenters who respectfully disagreed with me and gave me reasons why rather than simply attacking me. This post is for them. In it, I hope to explain my train of thought as clearly as possible, because I still stand by my point and believe I have good reason for doing so.

I’ll begin by explaining what I feel gives me the right to analyze complementarian culture and to draw conclusions from that analysis. I spent over 20 years of my life as a complementarian. I was told that if I went to a non-Bible college I might get raped. I was taught an abstinence-only education that led me to think I had to apologize when my 320 lbs. ex-boyfriend held my head down and forced me to perform fellatio on him. I experienced these things and countless others. I heard the Bible stories about rape victims taught in a way that implied the woman should not have let herself be alone with a man. I saw the harm complementarian teaching did to me and to others. I sat through countless sermons by countless complementarian preachers. I now am pursuing (and nearly finished with) a degree that gives me the basic skills needed to recognize systems of domination, to analyze patterns that occur within them, and to understand and deconstruct the ideologies that allow these systems of domination to function.

I understand fully that I cannot make an empirical statement about the personal opinions of all complementarians when it comes to rape and rape culture. Nor was that the purpose of my blog post. But I do have the education to analyze certain structures of society, and I do have a deal of  experience in this particular part of society that I feel gives me the right to analyze it. I cannot draw conclusions about whether or not every complementarian leader is a rape apologist. But I can make the claim, with some authority, that complementarianism as a system benefits from rape culture. By that conclusion, I can logically proceed to the idea that every complementarian leader also benefits indirectly from rape culture. 

Let’s talk about rape culture…

I’ll take a few moments here to explain rape culture. It really is beyond the scope of a single blog post to explain rape culture fully because of how deeply it permeates our society, but I’ll do my best. If you’d like to learn more about rape culture, I’d suggest starting here.

In the United States (and in much of the Western world), we live in a society that relies on domination in order to function. No, I’m not just talking about complementarians here. I’m talking about our society as a whole. Americans can call the land that they stand on “America” because of the domination the founders of this country exercised over Native Americans. Our very foundation is laid on domination, and it’s not an uphill climb from there.

The continued genocide of Native people that still occurs today…

Slavery, lynching, and racism…

The exploitation of the working class, here and abroad…

Our wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan…

The oppression of women, LGBT people, non-Christians, and children…

Our society has benefited immensely from the oppression of certain groups of people, and therefore, our society often works to perpetuate oppression.

One of the tools our society–all of it–uses to perpetuate this oppression is rape culture.

Rape culture is used, not just as a way for men to control women, but as a way for people in power to control many of the oppressed groups that our society benefits from taking advantage of. Slave masters would rape slave women to keep slave populations in line. U.S. soldiers in Vietnam raped Vietnamese women as a way of demoralizing their enemy. Even our prison system largely maintains its power using the fear of rape.

Though the majority of Americans are not the ones committing these rapes, and the majority of Americans do not actively approve of this rape, those in power benefit from each rape that occurs. The more people fear rape (or fear seeing the women in their lives raped), the more control those in power have over them.

Thus, rape culture is born.

Our comedians joke about rape. Our billboards use it to sell vodka. Our movies romanticize it. Our courts dismiss it. All the while, victims are terrified of reporting because they know we live in a world that doesn’t take rape seriously.

To put it another way, I’ll borrow Beverly Tatum’s “moving walkway” analogy. Her analogy is about racism, but I took the liberty of applying her analogy to rape culture, because I believe it fits with any system of domination.

Rape culture is like “a moving walkway at the airport.” (Tatum) Rape culture is pulling us along as a society of domination. Those in power can stand still on that walkway, ignore the floor moving under their feet, even turn the opposite direction and insist that they despise rape, but unless they are actively running in the opposite direction–away from victim blaming, from rape jokes, from the idea that some groups of people are meant by nature to rule over other groups of people–it continues to pull them along. 

Complementarianism as a system of domination

I’m going to argue now that complementarianism is one of many smaller systems of domination that operate within our larger system of domination. Though I’d guess most complementarians would shy away from the word “domination,” it shouldn’t be too difficult to convince you that, regardless of what nice-sounding words complementarians would use to describe themselves (and indeed, some skip the nice words and go straight for “conquering and colonizing”), the ideology of domination is inherent within complementarian beliefs. 

Complementarians aren’t shy about the fact that their belief system states that one group of people (men) are naturally meant to rule over another group of people (women). The rhetoric may very from “servant leadership” to “conquering and colonizing,” but the basic idea is the same: something inherent in men makes them more fit to lead, to preach, to make decisions, to run a church or a family or even a country than women. Something inherent in women makes it their job to submit to men (depending on how strictly complementarian one is, women must submit to at least their husbands and fathers. Most complementarian churches require female congregants to submit the leadership of the church to men, and some complementarians believe that women should not be in any positions of leadership over men even in society).

So, if the fear of rape benefits systems of domination, and complementarianism IS a system of domination, logically, complementarianism benefits from rape culture. 

And, like in our larger society, though every individual may not advocate rape, because the fear of rape is so effective at controlling people, many complementarian leaders use it, perhaps not even consciously. Some complementarian leaders–Douglas Wilson, Mark Driscoll, and others–are jogging, even running down the moving walkway of rape culture, demanding that wives don’t deny their husbands in bed, attributing rape to a punishment from God upon feminism, etc. A (hopefully) small minority are actually raping women, as we learned recently when the story of Jack Schaap broke (trigger warning on that link).

The rest? It seems to me that they’re standing there, reaping the benefits of rape culture, occasionally making comments about women’s clothing or participating in subtle victim blaming. Some may even have turned the other way.

But if any complementarian leaders are actually running in the opposite direction–trusting victims, affirming a woman’s bodily autonomy, condemning the systems of power that perpetuate and feed off of rape culture–well, they’re being too damn quiet about it. 

Image found at http://mislabeled.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/the-real-bull-honkey-on-campus-sexual-assault/
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  • It’s pretty amazing the leaps of logic people will make.

    “I cannot draw conclusions about whether or not every complementarian leader is a rape apologist. But I can make the claim, with some authority, that complementarianism as a system benefits from rape culture.”

    That last part was quite clearly your thesis. To read from into that or infer from it that you were calling every complementarian leader is a rape apologist is asburd. I’m glad you didn’t botrher trying to explain to such people; in my experience the vast majority of them have already judged you and will use anything further you say against you. All you can do is love them and move forward.

    I’m still pondering all you have said and the implications, but I can’t arguue with any fo it, and had already thought some of the things you followed up with. Thanks for being open and bold. I pray much peace and joy (truckloads) over you.

    I don’t recfall whether it was you or someone else who recently wrote just how telling the statement “We let women lead” is, but that, I think, says more about the overall issue than 99% of all the words I’ve read.

  • Sarah again takes liberty with reality.

    As I replied to her I did not call her a communist totalitarian propagandist. I talked about how propaganda is used in communist countries as I had lived in one for close to a decade. I, an egalitarian, said she was using propaganda in a similar way. I specifically replied to her stating that I was not calling her a Communist but talking about the manner she wrote as a propagandaist. Sarah appears to create a narrative world to her liking twisting situations as she chooses.

    • oh! okay, you didn’t say I was a totalitarian propegandist! you just said that what I write is propeganda that makes me seem like a totalitarian! I see…

  • Deanna

    Can I just say it? Douglas Wilson and Mark Driscoll have soiled their own reputations by the ridiculous statements they chose to publish. Referring to these statements or quoting from them does no greater harm to their reputation.
    That being said, it might be an easier argument to make that systems of domination, patriarchy included, lead to the subjugation of certain groups of people, in this case women. This acceptance of a lesser view of women leads to their claims of rape and abuse to be exaggerated or over-reported, and choosing to turn a blind eye is a form of allowing these evils to continue. Furthermore, by not taking women seriously, blaming their victimization on their dress, and scaring them into submission, men involved in patriarchal systems are no different than the kids that laugh and cheer while watching a bully beat up a victim. You are either with the bully or with the victim. Denying the culture exists is not an option.
    (It was Piper that renamed Patriarchy Complementarianism to make it more appealing; I say we ditch his term.)

    • I think it works both ways. Domination over women leads to more victim blaming, to taking rape less seriously, etc. But systems of domination also benefit from rape. It’s a viscous cycle

  • I particularly like the part about rape culture as a “moving walkway”- if you just ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist, that actually perpetuates it.

    • elizabby

      Agree. I’m new to this conversation and haven’t heard that expression before (gotta go read the link on rape culture) but it fits. It all fits. Sadly.

      I would be interested to hear Sarah’s take on how women perpetuate and support rape culture – and also how women can undermine it. I’ve got a feeling that women in certain circles encourage one another to sit down and be quiet about all of this… Sarah? Blog post please? Or direct me to one you’ve already written if I missed it!

      • that does sound like something I need to write about one of these days

  • It intriques and saddens me that we as Christians we still do this. It is human nature to create victims, or to play the victim for that matter. In fact the second follows from the first. Once you start feeling sorry for yourself, you will soon find others to blame, attack, or accuse, and feel good for doing it. It is a sort of “scapegoat mechanism” and is the cental pattern for the creating and maintenance of cultures since the beginning. But as Christians, whatever denomination, we worship the scapegoat. Christ on the cross exposed the lie once and for all, leaving us with no excuse. Yet, we still do it.

  • Jonathan

    I’m struggling with the logic here. So, in Christianity, we believe that Jesus, by nature, should rule over us, and that we, by nature, ought to submit. That makes Christianity a system of domination. Since systems of domination benefit from rape culture, that means that Jesus benefits from rape culture, right? How is this argument any different than yours?

    Or what about parents? In general, most people think children ought to obey their parents, simply by virtue of the fact that children are children, and parents parents. That makes parenthood a system of domination and therefore, parents benefit from rape culture.

    These arguments seem ridiculous to me, but they are formally exactly the same as yours. So what’s the deal? Does Jesus benefit from rape culture?

    I should hope not. Rape, in any form, is a horrific and damnable sin, and I’m sure Jesus would approve of punishing it by every available legal means.

    • oh, man, you’re gonna LOVE the book I’m working on about how systems of domination create our view of God and how our view of God reinforces systems of domination!

      • KellyMarie

        I love Jasdye’s point below! I also think there is a BIG difference between submitting to Jesus’ teachings bc you genuinly love, honor, and trust Him verses a religious group or leader making you feel manipulated or fearful so you will submit and be obedient. God doesnt force us and control us, if we obey it should be bc we want to and out of love. There is a choice. It seems in the dominian situations Sarah is referring to there is no choice. Even if we WANT to obey Jesus’ teaching we still cannnot do it perfectly hence the need for Jesus and Grace. I think it works the same way with te whole “submit to your husband thing” If you have a healthy loving relationship and your not being verbally or physically obused by your husband then submitting is something you want to do. NOT in a let your man control you way but in a I trust and love you way. I can say that I submit to my husband bc he is a man who believes in oneness as a couple and I always have a say in the decisions we make. Im not trapped, controlled, or oppressed. If anything he’s layed down is wishes for the better of our family more then me laying down mine. But we are a team.

        Id say whenever someone willingly puts themselves in a place of “obedience” out of love/trust and not fear or manipulation they are not being oppressed. Like the soilder who willingly puts themself in a place of military sumbission to offer a sacrifice to the country they love verses the poor, scared kid who gets drafted.

        I agree with you Sarah and I cant stand it if I hear Biblical teachings placing some of the blame on the woman who was raped. Luckly, Ive also heard pastors speak against that type of application.

    • “So, in Christianity, we believe that Jesus, by nature, should rule over us, and that we, by nature, ought to submit. That makes Christianity a system of domination. Since systems of domination benefit from rape culture, that means that Jesus benefits from rape culture, right?” This is a fallacy, your logic is wrong. The assumption is that all hierarchies are “systems of domination”. Liberasl tend to take that route saying that all hierarchies are evil and we should discard them. Many conservative circles think that hierarchies are the very voice of God and should not be questioned. Both lines of thinking are unstable. Basically there is good power and there is bad power. Bad power will use hierarchies to promote, protect, and maintain themselves. Good power use hierarchies to protect those without power. This is what the Bible teaches us, to use power to protect the “parts of the body that seem to be the weakest, which are the indispensable ones.” – 1 Corinthians 12:22

      • Thanks for this reasoned and nuanced response, Jareth.

      • Jonathan

        I’m pretty sure I agree with you here, but it doesn’t fit with what Sarah’s arguing. Her argument doesn’t distinguish between good and bad hierarchies. A system of domination is simply one where one person or group of people rule over another.

        A good hierarchy (in your definition), one that defends and protects those without power, benefits from rape culture just as much as the bad one. Rape culture perpetuates such hierarchies by keeping some people powerless, or fearful of powerlessness, and allows the hierarchy to do its job of defending. Thus, (following Sarah’s argument) even good hierarchies, like parents or Jesus, feed on rape culture.

        Unless I’m terribly misunderstanding the argument. There may be some nuance in the term “system of domination” that I’m not following that distinguishes it from mere hierarchy, and explains why it is particularly benefited by rape culture, while healthy, good hierarchies are not.

        • *puts on Christianese hat*

          Your problem exists in casting God as a person subject to human fallibility, which, in Christian theology, is the reason why human systems of domination fail.

    • Jesus doesn’t Lord over us. That’s something that I believe the earliest Christians understood that we particularly don’t like. Jesus humbled himself and became equal with us. Lording is dominionism. And in Christ, there is no dominionism. There is no male over female, no freeborn over slave, no Greek over Barbarian nor Jew over Greek.

      When we understand that, we’ve come closer to the heart of Jesus.

  • Do you know that in your initial reference to the previous post you spelled “complementarianism” wrong? I only bring this up because it would drive me crazy on my own site.

  • Thanks for your post, I think it is very timely and needed to be written.

    That being said, I don’t think this post was the best writing that you have done. In particular I think you could make the connection between the way complementarian culture and rape culture more explicit. For example, I think you could explain the how the complementarian interpretation of “do not cause you brother to stumble” lead to your guilt after being exploited by your ex-boyfriend. It should also be made clear that this is not only individual response from you but it is a systemic response that complementarians give to women who have been sexually abused, even in as simple a phrase as “she was asking for it.”

  • Jeannie

    I’m sorry that happened to you, Sarah. You are awesome for sharing that and for refusing to be silenced.

  • Esther

    What I can’t understand Sarah is why you’re doing these theological gymnastics trying to pull preachers down, who are in complete agreement with you that MEN SHOULD NOT DOMINATE WOMEN. Did you not listen to Driscoll’s sermon about Xerxes and Vashti? And can you not see glaring contrast between that and your early experience of complementarianism? Is it not possible that, just like every single church movement, theological stance and each individual verse in the bible, that SOME people will misinterpret and abuse them for their own gain, but it is not the source that is the issue, but instead the enemy’s ability to twist everything that is good?

    • I’m not drawing conclusions from my earlier experiences with complementarianism. I’m drawing conclusions from complementarianism’s core beliefs which place women in restricted roles under the headship of men.

  • “The normalization of prison rape…will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized”- Adam Gopnik, The Caging of America
    I read this quote in “The Mennonite” and though of these posts of yours. Thank you for speaking out about such a horrible reality.