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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Rape 101: A Primer for People of Faith

The Rape of Tamar -  (2 Samuel 13:1-22)
The Republican Party has approved a platform for 2012 that is virtually unchanged from 2004 and 2008.  What has changed is the number of media outlets and activists pointing out that there’s no exception for rape or incest.

Mostly importantly, the comments by Rep. Akin which describe "forcible rape" and others like Sen. Ryan, the VP nominee, who speaks of "rape as another method of conception," reveal a stunning lack of basic biological knowledge as well as compassion and understanding for the rape victim.

Since the issues of faith and religion have been made to take center stage in the political arena, the question arises about a faith-based response to the issues of reproductive justice.

What are people of faith to make of all this? How can we begin to broach a subject that is often seen as off-limits in religious communities of faith? What can pastors and religious leaders - lay and ordained - do in their congregation or campus group to stop sexual violence and promote sexual health and well-being?

I have a few suggestions.

I am offering some facts and talking points and pastoral considerations, as well as some passages from tradition and scripture which speak to the issue of sexual violence. I hope these will provide a springboard for discussion and thoughtful reflection.

This is not an exhaustive list, but one which I hope will provide some resources so that people of faith might have an opportunity to have intelligent conversations and make informed decisions.


+ Rape is an act of violence.
Historically, rape was defined as unlawful sexual intercourse with a woman against her will. The essential elements of the crime were sexual penetration, force, and lack of consent. Women who were raped were expected to have physically resisted to the utmost of their powers or their assailant would not be convicted of rape. Additionally, a husband could have sex with his wife against her will without being charged with rape. Beginning in the 1970s, state legislatures and courts expanded and redefined the crime of rape to reflect modern notions of equality and legal propriety.
The Rape of Dinah
+ Although the overwhelming majority of victims are women, rape can and does happen to men.
As of the early 2000s, all states define rape without reference to the sex of the victim and the perpetrator. Though the overwhelming majority of rape victims are women, a woman may be convicted of raping a man, a man may be convicted of raping a man, and a woman may be convicted of raping another woman. Furthermore, a spouse may be convicted of rape if the perpetrator forces the other spouse to have non-consensual sex. Many states do not punish the rape of a spouse as severely as the rape of a non-spouse.

U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics state that 91% of rape victims are female and 9% are male, and 99% of rapists are male.

Among patients at psychiatric hospitals, rates of sexual assault among women patients average around 38%.

The percentage of U.S. women who have experienced rape at least once in their lifetime (so far), is in the range of 14.5% - 33% (statistics vary depending on the source and the date of the study).
+ Rape is an act of violence because it is a sexual act which happens without consent. 
Persons who are physically or mentally helpless or who are under a certain age in relation to the perpetrator are deemed legally incapable of consenting to sex.

If a person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol - consumed voluntarily or given to them surreptitiously - they are deemed legally incapable of consenting to sex.

In the United States the use of drugs, especially alcohol, frequently plays a part in rape. In 47% of rapes, both the victim and the perpetrator had been drinking. In 17%, only the perpetrator had been. 7% of the time, only the victim had been drinking. Rapes where neither the victim nor the perpetrator had been drinking account for 29% of all rapes.
+ Over two thirds of all rapes occur in someone's home. 
30.9% of rapes occur in the perpetrators' homes, 26.6% in the victims' homes and 10.1% in homes shared by the victim and perpetrator. 7.2% occur at parties, 7.2% in vehicles, 3.6% outdoors and 2.2% in bars.

This often leads to an under-reporting of rape because of the myth that rape is committed by a stranger. It deepens the sense of betrayal, shame and guilt.

People who have experienced a sexual assault are more likely to develop depression, an anxiety disorder, suicidal thoughts, and alcohol and drug problems. High rates of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) are also found among people who have experienced rape. Studies have found that 31% to 57% of women who had experienced a rape also have PTSD at some point after the rape.
+ Rapes are rarely reported to law enforcement. 
The 2007 report for the Department of Justice shows only 18% cases of rape reported in the general population sample.

The accuracy of the statistics on male on male rape that occurs in prisons are difficult to obtain and verify, but the wide agreement and understanding by public health officials is that prison rape is the leading cause of the soaring rate of the transmission of HIV and AIDS in this population.
Every year, more than 200,000 individuals report their rape to the police. Almost all are asked to submit to the collection of DNA evidence from their bodies, which is then stored in a small package called a rape kit.  Unfortunately, in the United States today there are an estimated 400,000-500,000 untested rape kits sitting in police evidence storage facilities and crime labs across the country. (Human Rights Watch)
RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) reports that out of every 100 rapes, only 46 are reported to the police, 12 lead to arrest, 9 get prosecuted, 5 lead to a felony conviction, 3 rapists will spend even a single day in prison. 
+ While there are varying legal definitions of rape, the bottom line is that rape is rape. 
Rape is an act of violence. Rape is not about love, it is about an abuse of power. No one ever "asks" or "wants" to be raped, no matter the manner of their attire. No one "deserves" to be raped, no matter the circumstances. Rape is a crime. While conception may occur after rape, in no way can it be considered merely a "method of conception". 
Jesus and the woman to be stoned (Jn 7:53-8:1)

+ The first rule in providing pastoral care to victims of abuse is to give power back, in order to counter the power that was taken away. Denying a rape victim access to information about all options and lack of support for an informed, independent decision-making process only increases suffering.

+ All religious community leaders need to have available a list of community resources, including the number and location of rape crises counseling centers, pastoral counselors and social workers with expertise in rape and sexual assault recovery and post traumatic stress disorder, and medical professional who can discuss the options open to a woman who becomes pregnant after rape.

+ One of the hallmarks of any major religion is compassion. All rape is real and harmful, and no victim of sexual violence deserves to be doubted, questioned or judged for her subsequent decisions if a pregnancy results.

+ A woman deserves whatever resources she needs to heal, including the ability to make her own personal health care decisions which may include the option of abortion.

+ The ideal of "sanctity of life" and notions of "respect for life" includes the life of the pregnant woman - her physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual life.

+ Supporting abortion in cases of rape does not diminish a 'pro-life' position. Compassion and respect for a victim of rape is a manifestation of mature religious values.


Bible studies, educational forums and/or sermons that consider scriptural references to rape can be a good way to raise awareness of the issues concerning rape in communities of faith.

Dinah (Genesis 34)
In all scriptural study and preaching, it is important to remember the historical and cultural context of the passage. In ancient cultures (as in some, even today), women were considered property. The ancient mind understood that the male "seed" contained all that was necessary to create a human being, the woman merely providing the "fertile ground" in which the seed would develop.

It is also important to discuss our own cultural context and the evolution of thought concerning the equality of women:

Keep in mind, as well, Genesis 5:2 "(God) created them male and female; and blessed them: and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created". Adam is the Hebrew word for "mankind" or "humanity" (as opposed to iysh, which refers to a male human being).

The following are a few of the scriptural references to rape, not surprisingly, many of them in the context of war.

The rape of Lot's daughters (Genesis 19)

The rape of Dinah  (Genesis 34)

Murder, rape, and pillage at Jabesh-gilead  (Judges 21:10-24)

Murder, rape and pillage of the Midianites    (Numbers 31:7-18)

More Murder Rape and Pillage   (Deuteronomy 20:10-14)

Rape of Female Captives (Deuteronomy 21:10-14)

Laws of Rape   (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)

Death to the Rape Victim   (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)

Rape and the Spoils of War (Judges 5:30)

The Rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-22

The Adulterous Woman (Or, had she been raped?) (John 7:53-8:11)

A discussion of the rape and suicide of Lucretia in Augustine's City of God (1:19 - see also Virgina Burrus' remarks) may also be helpful. 

You may also find helpful a discussion of the portrayals of rape in Greek mythology (eg. Haides abduction and rape of Persephone, The rape of Europa and many others by Zeus, The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus, etc.) as well as the depictions of rape in classical art.

Do visit the webpage of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (, where you will find a plethora of resources, including a Speaker's Bureau, a Fact Sheet about Safeguards for Women, educational seminars and webinars - some targeted for Black and Hispanic audiences - as well as statements about reproductive justice from all of the major religious denominations.

I hope this is helpful to you.  Our congregations and campus groups need to support effective, reality-based sex education and other programs that prevent sexual violence. This becomes even more critically important in these highly politically-charged times.

It is always risky to discuss issues like rape and abortion in communities of faith. Religious leaders are those who take risks for the sake of the betterment of their communities of faith.

We need them now, more than ever.


Deborah Griffin Bly said...

Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for writing this. So cogent, so needed. Bless you. I thank God for you and your gifts.

Anonymous said...

I'm a little concerned at the reference to Ryan's comment that rape is "another form of conception." Indeed, he did say it but you are taking it out of its context. He was talking about abortion and the need for it: how a woman gets pregnant was the issue and rape is one way that a woman gets pregnant. That's all.
Please be aware that I am against most abortions but would likely consider one in the case of a rape; I don't like the idea of killing the baby for someone else's sin but I am willing to consider the situation. Face it: these are the rare cases of abortions.

Malcolm+ said...

In Canada, "rape" was removed from the Criminal Code in the 1970s and replaced with "sexual assault." This was done for a number of reasons, including the a desire to avoid the stigma of rape, but also to give greater leeway for prosecutors and judges - for example, there is no need to prove penetration in order to convict an accused of sexual assault. The feminist movement showed significant leadership in this change. Comparing statistics would be difficult since the US crime of rape and the Canadian crime of sexual asault have different definitions, but the conventional wisdom here seems t be that the change was one of the factors leading to improved reporting.

A few months ago, our some of the more troglodyte ministers in our "dumb on crime" federal government started to muse publicly about restoring the crime of rape to the criminal code, though no one can quite see the point. So far, thankfully, nothing has come of it.

(Coincidentally, around the same time the grain industry "rebranded" rapeseed as canola. For all but rhetorical purposes, the word rape essentially stripped of any legal meaning.)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Deborah - It was simply begging to be done/

Mark Harris said...

excellent primer, more, one that invites further discussion. How many pages do you think this is? It seems the perfect size for a tract rack sort of booklet. You also avoid talking down or dumbing down.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bex said...

@DrJoan: Ryan was not talking about the "need for abortion." He was talking about his belief that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, no exceptions. If Ryan's view prevails (Romney apparently doesn't share it), you wouldn't be able to "consider the situation."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dr. Joan - Thanks for your comment and for leaving your name. I don't believe I took Ryan's remarks out of context. Yes, he was talking about abortion. What he said, exactly, was, "The method of conception doesn't change the definition of life". So, rape is "another method of conception". You know, like lovemaking, except without the love. But, Chris Christie says that the Republicans are not about love, they are about respect. This, after Ann Romney said that it was all about 'love'.

I don't know too many people who are "for" abortion - as if it were an easy decision, like deciding whether or not to have chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Victoria Matthews- Green, a conservative Orthodox Christian, married to an Orthodox priest (formerly Episcopalian) says that its more like a woman who's foot is caught in a trap, chewing off her foot to save her life.

If you want to lower the rate of abortion, then work, as I do, on the issues that are the reasons most women get abortions: poverty, education, lack of access to adequate health care.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Malcolm - Oh, Canada! So many things are so much better there. Thank you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mark - Not sure of the length, but maybe someone will cut and paste and turn it into a wee bookie. Got any suggestions? I think most people are tuned into the internet. Sigh.

Thanks for our conversation the other day which really helped me to stay focused and, hopefully, hit the right tone and a message that can be understood by and helpful to many people.

Anonymous said...

I notice that your posts are not entirely accurate and thus could be taken out of context. First, Paul Ryan is NOT a Senator but rather a Congressman; secondly, you referred to "Victoria" Matthews-Green who is really Frederica Matthews-Green.
Additionally, there are several "methods" of conception including sperm donation, "turkey baster" insemination, other artificial insemination, consensual intercourse, and--yes--rape. I'm not sure you can assume that Ryan's comment is any less gross than Obama's comment about having abortion available in case one of his daughters is pregnant with a "mistake."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bex - You are absolutely on point. Ryan (and the Republican Platform) would reduce a woman to the status of a human incubator, stripping her right to make her own informed, albeit difficult, decision. It is so hardhearted and totally devoid of human compassion that it makes the blood in my veins run cold. (Not to mention misogynist).

The Republicans like to talk a good line about "small government" and "liberty" and "freedom" - but apparently, they want government in a woman's reproductive system and "liberty" and "freedom" are reserved only for (white, wealthy, straight) men and not when it comes to women having those same rights.

Have you looked around the room at the RNC? I'd guess more than 95% Caucasian.

Even Fox News is beginning to distance themselves. Yesterday, they fired Sarah Palin. Wow! And, read THIS. From Fox News. Wow.{linkBack}_Paul_Ryan%E2%80%99s_speech_in_3_words

Anonymous said...

Fox News fired Sarah Palin? Really?
I'd check that out!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ah, Joan, I'm making sense, aren't I? Now you're questioning the veracity of my posts. Fox did "cancel" Palin's interviews, but that link to the article is absolutely valid.

Yes, Ryan is a Representative not a Senator. And, I should know better about Frederica Matthews-Green. This is a response in a comment section - not a blog post. Are you raising questions about the veracity of my blog post? Making you nervous, aren't I?

I don't know what your doctorate is in (mine is in pastoral counseling) but I can't imagine someone who has a post graduate education who can't see the difference between the statements made by Ryan and the POTUS. One is heartless and totally devoid of compassion. The other is an informal comment, not a political platform.

Really? Is that the best you can do? Nothing on substance? Everything on fluff? I must be hitting a few nerves.

Look, we're basically on the same side on this issue. Rape is rape. Abortion is an option if rape results in pregnancy. That abortion would still be a tragedy but no more and no less than the tragedy of rape in a woman's life.

I'm consistently amazed that the very people who support Capitol Punishment and the (Roman Catholic) Theory of Just War don't understand abortion in the case of rape.

Bex said...

@DrJoan: Re the comment made by President Obama when he was a candidate in 2008: He was talking about sex education, not abortion. Read about it at

Anonymous said...

At least we agree there!
Oh, yes; my doctorate does help me to discern between the two comments. POTUS was just being casual, was that it? He IS the President, after all.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Joan - I said "informal" not "casual". Different. I don't think he was POTUS at the time. Even so, a "mistake" usually refers to the act of unprotected sex, not the pregnancy. Lighten up! I pity Ryan's daughters and pray they are always safe and out of harm's way. But, yes, we agreee. Let's leave it at that and count it for the good.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bex - Thank you. I thought that was the case but you clarified it even further. Catch that, Joan? Good. I mean, as long as we're going for veracity in the comment section.

Linda Ryan said...

Elizabeth, your post is excellent, informative and gut-wrenching.

I wonder -- and this is a sincere question -- are the Biblical texts like those Phyllis Trible described as "Texts of Terror" ever preached in church? I wonder, would it be treated as "boys will be boys" or would there be any empathy for the Jeptha's daughter or Dinah or any of the others? I bet that would be one sermon a congregation wouldn't forget (if they stayed to listen to it).

I'm wondering too how we can get the message out that pro-choice doesn't mean pro-abortion? I don't know of anybody who is out-and-out pro-abortion but many who support a woman's right to choose even within certain guidelines (rape, incest, life of the mother). Also, how many of those so pro-life adopt children of rape or incest and keep them from the foster-care system which is so badly broken in so many areas? Does pro-life = pro-child or just pro-foetus?

Sorry for the digression. Thank you again for a very powerful post.

Linda Ryan

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Lynda - I have taught a class on Domestic Violence and Rape in Scripture and you could have heard a pin drop. The questions afterward were amazing. I've never had the nerve to preach one of these texts, but I have preached on the abduction and rape and murder of a young woman in the community. I got more requests for that sermon than any other I've ever preached.

I think the more we say "pro-choice IS pro-life", the more the message will get out. It was so much easier when they self-identified as "anti-abortion" so I often resort to that in order to make the point of the negativity of their position.

I think the more important message is that we all want to reduce the incidence of rape. The way to do that is to look at the factors that necessitate rape: Poverty, education, domestic violence, lack of access to adequate health care.

Begin to work on those issues and you'll see abortion rates seriously diminish.

JCF said...

Face it: these are the rare cases of abortions.

Wow, brand spanking-new Concern Troll we have here.

We interrupt this whinging propaganda w/ some FACTS:

Research published in the Journal of American Obstetrics and Gynecology suggests over 30,000 pregnancies result from rape annually. “Rape-related pregnancy occurs with significant frequency,” the trio of researchers from the University of South Carolina concluded. “It is a cause of many unwanted pregnancies.”

A separate 2001 study – which used a sample of 405 rape victims between ages 12 and 45 – found that 6.4 percent became pregnant.


What's "rare" is HONESTY among the anti-choice crowd: wanting to disempower women from their own bodies, w/o being called out on it. Hence the "rape from pregnancy is rare" li(n)e.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for that "fact check" JCF. While I agree with you that many people - men and women - think the "natural order" of the world is "man on top", I don't sense that's where Joan is coming from.

Some people - and I think this is where Joan is coming from - are so wedded to the thought that "all life is sacred" that they can't - or have a hard time - getting their heads wrapped around the thought of abortion being 'justified' in cases of rape and/or incest.

I get that. I have to ask, however, what about the "sanctity of life" of the woman? She's not a human incubator. She's a human being. With intelligence and emotions and skills and abilities to make the decision she needs for her own life.

I think Joan gets that, too. She sounds like a compassionate person. In my experience, even compassionate people who are wedded to the "all life is sacred" idea try to diminish the justification of abortion in cases of rape and incest by saying things like "well, that's rare". Whether it's "rare" or not is not the issue. The issue is the right to make a decision for yourself about your own body is the essential component in this discussion.

The woman's life - her ability to make choices about her life, just like every other American - is sacred, too.

Even with your statistics, JCF, we know that there is a serious under-reporting of rape, so those figures have an even larger impact when you factor in the aspect of the "silence of the lambs" who have been raped.

Besides, if rape "rarely" produces pregnancy, then why are we even worried about the issue of abortion? Because I think Joan knows, in her heart of hearts, that the statistics you present are a more accurate depiction of the truth than she wants to admit.

I understand. I do. I think we've got a lot more work to do to get the word out that a person can be anti-abortion and pro-choice in some circumstances - like rape, incest and when the life of the mother is in danger.

Let's keep abortion safe, legal - and, rare, by working on the issues that lead a woman to consider abortion in the first place: poverty, domestic violence, education, and lack of access to adequate health care.

Marie Alford-Harkey said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Marie Alford-Harkey said...

Elizabeth thanks for this post. It takes on a tough subject with honesty and sensitivity. And thanks for addressing the commenters with such respect.

Marthe said...

Where is the discussion, ever, of why MEN (and it is overwhelmingly men) do these things? How have fathers and male "role models" failed to teach their own that to assault a woman (or another man or a child) is sooooo horribly wrong that it stops, that it is, to use an old phrase, so beyond the pale, that it becomes a truly rare act? Because it is not rare, it is not effectively prosecuted, it is so common that a Texas elected official famously advised women that it was "like the weather, just lie back and enjoy it" ... ugly fact: until MEN teach other men to stop, think, never excuse the rapist for any reason, women will remain at risk, at fault, under assault. Guys - why do you tolerate this? Why?

IT said...

"Dr Sedgh said the study's findings showed strong correlations between abortion rates and access to effective contraceptives, and between abortion rates and the law.

'The abortion rates is clearly lower in places were abortion laws are more liberal,' she said, pointing to Africa and Latin America where rates are high.
Dr Sedgh said family planning services around the world appeared to be failing to keep up with rising demand for effective contraception driven by the desire for small families and better control over the timing of births." (source

Here are a couple of interesting fact sites.
1) Guttmacher on worldwide abortion rates. Interestingly, the rates of abortion are higher in places where abortion is more restricted. Those are often unsafe abortions.

2) article (with citations) from Alternet comparing teen pregnancy and abortion rates in countries with more "open" views about sexuality. Take home message: our teen birth rate is outrageously high and so is our abortion rate compared with countries that have sane policies on sex education and decent access to contraception.

As Elizabeth says, the way to reduce abortions isn't legally. It's culturally: with education, contraception, economic improvements, healthcare, and dealing with violence and coercion.

Matthew said...

Thanks for this post. I do think there are lots of "grey" areas with respect to rape -- but not the ones Republicans want to talk about, but ones we should start to talk about, especially cases when we are not into "it" but don't communicate lack of consent or are intoxicated. I have certainly felt raped but the person doing it would not have thought that because I communicated consent instead because that seemed like the path of least resistance to just get it over with. A number of years ago there was a legal proposal that would have required men to affirmatively get consent before beginning the sex act (that went nowhere obviously and I don't think that is the law in any state but it reframed the discussion). I have heard that is the law in a handful of countries, mainly in Scandianavia. It reframed the discussion because it made it about power and how easy it is for those without power to simply create the impression of consent.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Marie - As I said, someone had to do it, so I stepped up.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, IT. It takes creative, critical thinking, not black and white ideology.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - Rape is rape. Male, female. It's rape. It's not about love, it's about power and violence and abuse - even if it's not "physically forceful".

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Marthe - good, thoughtful, provocative, challenging questions. I'd love to hear men tackle the answers with honesty and transparency, devoid of the usual BS about how men are "naturally predators" and it's all "instinctive". I'm just not buying that line. I don't think many people do.

Unknown said...

Thank you for such an informative post. It should be required reading for all clergy and therapists who may have occasion to counsel someone who has been raped.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I'm hoping it makes sense and can be a resource for ALL religious leaders - lay and ordained. Thanks, Susan.

Matthew said...

Elizabeth, I agree but it may not be "legally" rape and the question I was raising was about legal reform to give people more rights. The law might need to change too.

Matthew said...

This article said what I was trying to say, better than I could have