How Religion Might Influence Rape Culture

06/27/2016 02:08 pm ET Updated Jun 28, 2017
Stanford students John Lancaster Finley(L) and Brandon Hill(C) carry signs during the 'Wacky Walk' to show their solidarity f
Stanford students John Lancaster Finley(L) and Brandon Hill(C) carry signs during the 'Wacky Walk' to show their solidarity for a Stanford rape victim during graduation ceremonies at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California, on June 12, 2016. / AFP / GABRIELLE LURIE (Photo credit should read GABRIELLE LURIE/AFP/Getty Images)

Following the Stanford sexual assault case I compose this piece with as much honor, respect, and solidarity as I can muster. After reading the powerful letter the victim of assault wrote and read aloud to her perpetrator Brock Turner nearing the end of the year-long trial, I was moved, angered, hurt, inspired, and shaken up. But this isn't about me. This is about systemic injustice. It's about her. It's about all the women who have been victim to sexual violence and assault.

The victim in this case empathetically and boldly ends her letter paying tribute "to girls everywhere," letting girls know that she is with them. Her year-long fight to make her voice heard settling this case in court was not fought in vain, but rather in solidarity with every woman who has ever been a victim of sexual violence. She continues: "On nights when you feel alone, I am with you...I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting."

You may have heard the term "patriarchy" thrown around a lot lately. Patriarchy is defined as a social and economic system where men hold the power. In order to understand how this works, think about the United States' political system where men hold most of the leadership positions. Also, to think about patriarchal social organization, think about current marriage practices where women take men's last name.

Historically, women have made a lot of progress fighting against patriarchal oppression. Consider the three women who currently hold positions as secretary of state as well as women who are choosing to keep their maiden names. While these achievements are laudable, patriarchy has been around for about 6,000. It takes a long time for a system to catch up after humans make changes to undo practices of domination. In addition, patriarchy is not simply the political, social, and economic order of the United States, but the majority of the globe.

When one gender or sex holds power, this excludes the other gender or sex from access to this power. It creates a society whose laws are gendered and ideologies (i.e. value systems) privilege one gender or sex (or multiplicity of genders) over the other.

This might explain why the victim of the Stanford sexual assault case had to fight so hard to have her voice heard in court, or why her story was skewed and manipulated to make Brock sound like he was less responsible than he actually was. Modes of power such as money (he was able to secure great lawyers) and prestige (he was a star swimmer) were in his favor.

So how does this all relate to religion? Early political leaders were patriarchs, holding both religious and political power. Consider the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt who ruled from around 3100 BC - 30 BC. Their words taught people how to live and relate to each other. While this might seem completely irrelevant to issues we face in the year 2016, it is not. Ingrained in our ways of thinking is the intertwinement of politics and religion which stems back to these intertwined power structures.

Despite Thomas Jefferson's decry to separate church and state in 1802, political leaders today take religious stances and promote religious ideologies in their campaigns. Many times we are unaware that a political stance comes from a religious ideology since ideologies and attitudes are invisible.

One value that many political conservatives promote is traditional family values. This involves a male breadwinner, a female homemaker, and biological children. The "nuclear family" has roots in the Bible and sometimes Christian scholars and practitioners use these roots to justify hatred against other types of family structures.

Structuring families where male dominance (i.e. the male breadwinner) is considered normal and natural might actually reinforce rape culture in society. By no means am I saying that the existence of all nuclear families reinforces rape culture. Nor am I saying that violence (domestic, sexual, or verbal) is inevitable in nuclear families. What I am saying is that the attitude which is displayed in the nuclear family (that it is natural the male is the dominant breadwinner) perpetuates attitudes which support rape culture.

As a result of these hidden structures, we as a society are having trouble knowing where to begin to break this cycle. You can see this through the prevalence of blaming the victim--"she shouldn't have been drinking," "she shouldn't have worn that skirt," "she shouldn't have gone to that party," instead of seeing rape culture as a structural problem.

If she is expected to play the supportive role as wife in the household, yet society also promotes women as breadwinners, why would we also expect women to take responsibility for men when they violate us? Isn't this asking a bit much of women? Aren't we simply exhausting women, making them even more susceptible to violence?

Another way that religion and religious ideologies influence rape culture is through perpetuating the idea of purity. "She shouldn't have been drinking" and "she shouldn't wear that" comes from the idea that people, or society as a whole, decides what an ideal woman should look, act, and be like. Purity--whether that is the pure virgin or the pure whore--gives very little space for engaging any type of sexuality and sexual expression lying in-between the virgin/whore dichotomy.

Realistic college situations exist in the space in-between: young-adult men and women more than likely will go to parties, they will drink, they will engage in exploring their sexualities, and we will have to learn to educate them and listen to their stories. It is not enough to tell our children to save sex for marriage, to not go to parties, to not drink, to not explore. It is our responsibility to teach them how to engage these middle-grounds.

While religion in the past has taught us how to live ethical lives and be moral people, it seems as though society is going through some sort of transition. When that which used to keep us safe begins to perpetuate violence, it is time to reevaluate these systems. The problems and promises of religions are most worthy of thought and consideration.