The Canadian judicial system has shown support for those who have experienced Rape and Sexual Assault by recommending the removal of Judge Robin Camp, also known as the "knees together judge" for his comments in a sexual assault case. He asked a woman during her rape trial why she couldn’t just keep her knees together to avoid being raped; he also mistakenly referred to her as the “accused” several times during the trial. Outrage was expressed by many organizations that serve those who have experienced sexual assault, including Woman Against Violence Against Woman (WAVAW). An inquiry into the case resulted in a unanimous recommendation that Judge Camp be removed from the bench.
The Judicial Council’s report sends a message to other judges that such behavior will not be tolerated in a Canadian court of law.
Unfortunately, such comments, and the rape myths that underlie them, are still very common in many places, including in our congregations and communities. These attitudes are harmful and can re-victimize those who are already hurting. If we want to minister effectively with those who have experienced rape, we need to examine what we believe about it, and how false thinking may influence our actions and words causing further harm. One common myth is that rape happens rarely and doesn’t affect many people. The truth is that 1 in 6 women and one in 33 men have experienced an attempted or completed rape. There are a lot of commonly held myths about rape; education can help separate false thinking from what is true.
Another common myth, one reflected in the attitude of Judge Camp, is that if a person doesn’t fight back, it must not be rape. We’ve heard of the “fight” or “flight” response. What we’ve probably heard less about is the “freeze” response, which is also very common when threatened with sexual assault. Why didn’t you scream? Why didn’t you run away? These questions have an answer — it’s because of the freeze response; one of the ways our brain is designed to function under intense threat. There is no shame in the fact that your body felt numb and you were unable to move. The “freeze” response was designed by our Creator to assist us in staying alive in situations of threat and attack.
Because trauma affects everyone differently, it’s important not to judge someone else’s response to sexual assault. We need to be careful about our own assumptions and expectations. We may expect hysterical crying, yet those who have been sexually assaulted may be just as likely to feel sleepy, to laugh uncontrollably, or to simply be unable to express any emotion at all. These are normal responses to severe trauma. Fragmented memory and dissociation are also normal responses. You can imagine how knowing such information might change our attitude and the way we interact with someone who has experienced rape or sexual assault.
I once heard a pastor say, “She didn’t act like a victim.”
Our conversation didn’t explore exactly what the pastor was expecting; but his comment highlights the need to be careful to examine our own attitudes, lest our preconceived ideas, and the myths we believe, cause further shame and harm to those who are already hurting.
I once had the privilege of speaking to a group at Michigan State University (MSU) as a staff member with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). The topic was how to assist Christian students who had experienced rape or sexual assault. I was happy to see both Christian ministry leaders and secular sexual assault advocates at the meeting (there are many Christian students at MSU and the advocates wanted to learn how to better assist them). Since the Bible is so central to all that happens within IVCF, I decided to lead the group in a Bible study. We went to 2 Samuel 13:1-22, the story of the rape of Tamar. It was a familiar story to the sexual assault advocates, a story they saw repeated in their day-to-day work. And they were amazed to see it in the Bible! Why is this story recorded there in God’s Word? I think it’s because God wants us, his people, to know these principles about rape.
Today, as then, rape most often occurs at the hand someone who is known. It’s not a stranger jumping out of the bushes at night.
It’s also not passion out of control, but most often has been planned ahead of time by the one who perpetrates it. (“Go to bed and pretend to be ill,” Jonadab said to Amnon — and so the plan was made.) The intense experience of powerlessness and loss is devastating to the one who survives rape. (Note how Tamar responded; she “put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing” — she was grieving a great loss.) The experience is often minimized by others. (Note Absalom’s response to Tamar, “be quiet for now … don’t take this thing to heart.”) And often there is no justice, because those who have power to bring it about don’t take appropriate action. (Note King David’s lack of response, “he was furious”, but though he had the power to bring about justice, he did not act.)
Safe Church Ministry offers a Bible study discussion guide on the story of the Rape of Tamar. It’s also included as a part of Bethesda: Come to the Waters, a downloadable Bible study guide for women. Safe Church Ministry seeks to make our congregations safer places for everyone, including those who have experienced rape. That happens best when those in our congregations know what is true about rape and make efforts to seek greater understanding.
What have you done in your congregation to become better equipped for ministry with those who have experienced rape or sexual assault? Can you think of ideas that could help make us better prepared?