Sexual violence and the church
From self-gratification to self-giving
I was a fan of CBC radio’s flagship program “Q” just about from the beginning. With its arts, culture and entertainment content and smooth-talking interviewer, Q was a hit with me instantly. I was absolutely shocked when host
Jian Ghomeshi was ousted from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for allegedly assaulting several women. On the heels of that scandal, related stories of misconduct emerged (involving members of Parliament, Bill Cosby, Dalhousie dental students), sparking public conversation about sexual violence against women in Canadian society.
We receive mixed messages regarding sexual violence and women. Our culture seems to place a high value on gender equality. Yet dark corners in our society (such as the porn industry) normalize degradation and abuse of women. Phrases like “the right to privacy,” “sexual preference” and “personal taste” (cf. Ghomeshi’s pre-emptive Facebook post) justify an attitude that we are owed self-gratification as sexual freedom.
To be clear, men can experience sexual violence, and women are certainly not immune to attitudes of self-gratification. But I wish to speak to the attitude of sexual entitlement that justifies sexual violence against women in particular, both because it has become a topic of national conversation and because it is an attitude that can be hidden or even “Christianized” within the language and structure of church communities, blinding us to sexual violence in our midst.
In my own experience as a pastor’s wife, teacher and mentor, I have seen the effects of sexual entitlement in the church first-hand – from public disrespect for female leaders to abuse in marriage relationships and even sexual assault. Too often these events are passed over in silence.
I’d like to suggest the following principles to safeguard against men’s vulnerability to sexual self-gratification and the objectification of women.
1. Purity is for everyone
“Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father,” the apostle Paul writes in 1 Timothy 5:1–2. “Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.”
Purity is the standard when it comes to all our relationships. However, the way words like “purity” and “modesty” are used can put all the onus on women. For example, when we emphasize only how what a woman wears might affect a man, it suggests that men have no responsibility to control themselves and that women’s bodies are instigators of sexual sin. By doing so, we can inadvertently reinforce an attitude shared with pornography: that women are sexual objects.
“Purity” and “modesty” aren’t only for women, but are part of an overall attitude of humility and moral character – virtues for which we all
need to strive.
2. All members have value
Christ saw women as equals; that he included women in his larger crowd of disciples shows that women were worth listening to and worth teaching.
Are women’s perspectives respected in our church communities? Are women reasonably active and represented on boards and at conference meetings? Are women giving input to the direction of our denominational community in a wide range of spheres? Or are women’s voices relegated to “women-centred” contexts only?
The answers to these questions are not unnoticed; children, youth and new members in our church communities quickly pick up on whose perspective is valued and whose is ignored or relegated to the sidelines.
Making the church a safe place means treating women not as objects supporting and servicing male desire but as active, thinking, gifted members of the body of Christ (as affirmed by the 2006 BFL resolution on women in ministry leadership).
3. Love is self-giving
The attitude of sexual entitlement can be particularly harmful to marriages and families. The idea that all sexual practices are permissible within marriage, along with teaching that emphasizes the wife’s duty to submit to her husband (neglecting the mutual submission Paul teaches in Ephesians 5), can make wives little more than objects for gratification.
It’s regrettable that some popular Christian books on marriage buy into this narrative of entitlement, “Christianizing” and propagating it. The Bible is clear: wives and husbands belong to each other in mutual love and submission. And no one – not even married people – is entitled to sex because sex is a gift.
But beyond individual marriages and family relationships, the church itself is God’s family. “The right to privacy,” “sexual preference” and “personal taste” foster attitudes of entitlement because this type of language leaves love out of the picture.
As the church – Christ’s presence in the world – it is our job to counter narratives of entitlement with the story of God’s self-giving love; a story told through the love we demonstrate to each other as brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers in God’s family.
—Jessica Morgun is a member of the Broadway Gathering, Saskatoon.