I’ve been thinking about the Stanford rape case for weeks. Though the news cycle has moved on; though Orlando ripped our attention, rightly, away; though we are now concerned with Brexit — I keep thinking about Stanford.
I was twelve years old when I first learned the phrase “he said/she said.”
In the fall of 1991, Anita Hill gave her testimony at the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. I remember very little, though I was, like most of the nation, struck by the odd incident of the pubic hair on the soda can. While that detail floated back into my consciousness only recently, the takeaway from those hearings was clear: we were not there, we cannot know, in situations like these it is her word against his. Her word, even in our liberal household, was suspect.
Eighteen months later I was sexually harassed for the first time, by a fellow student, who sat across an otherwise empty classroom during an after-school make up period hurling obscene comments and observations my way for the duration of our forty-minute captivity, the longest and most mortifying forty minutes of my life. I did not tell anyone: the things he said were too horrible to repeat; I shamefully wondered what I had done to invite this attention. It’s not, exactly, that I didn’t expect anyone to believe me, but it felt like something that should be privately borne; it was too embarrassing to share, and to what end?
The woman who was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner, the Stanford University student, never got to make that choice. As she recounts in her impact statement, she awoke in the hospital, reporting already in progress. While everything about her situation is awful, I am so grateful for her courage, her wisdom and perseverance. Others began the telling of her story, but several weeks ago she took her place as rightful narrator, in a very public way. He said, but then she said, with finality, with truth. His story, his perspective, was wrong.
I’ve never been sexually assaulted, and I consider myself lucky in that: it is pure luck, for the odds aren’t good. In every social circle I’ve ever run in, women have been raped or assaulted by acquaintances, intimate partners, family members or respected elders, friends and strangers. Survivors are everywhere.
Most never reported the crimes, not in official ways, not to police. Reporting is no simple thing: our college campus police and health services didn’t even have rape kits, we learned too late; sometimes the first person you tell doesn’t believe you. Sometimes there are bystanders who turned a blind eye, and then you’re worse off, because what court would believe that a witness to a crime wouldn’t intervene. You must have wanted it.
The book I recently bought my daughter about sex and growing up helpfully encourages kids to seek help if they are sexually abused. My heart breaks, though, that it is necessary to add: If the first person you tell doesn’t listen or believe you, tell a second person. Talk about it until you find someone who does listen and believes you. He or she will try to keep you safe and protect you from the person who tried to touch you or did touch you.
There are a lot of ways survivors’ voices can be hushed, can be muffled and silenced. In lieu of their voices, we hear from the perpetrators, from the skeptical, from those who have an interest in maintaining the status quo. We hear from those who are willing to sacrifice the bodily integrity and personhood of women for some other end: a swimming scholarship, a Supreme Court nomination, family or community “peace.”
This silencing of women and selective retelling of their stories is not a modern invention, even in Christian circles. Consider Bathsheba: for centuries she was cast as so provocative, so seductive, as to lead a mighty king, God’s beloved servant, nearly to ruin. Even Leonard Cohen’s in on it: You saw her bathing on the roof/ Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you. But in the biblical story, she never speaks. David sees her, wants, and takes. There’s no seduction. There is a king assaulting one of his subjects.
She was beautiful, though. They marry, we are assured. But where there is a power imbalance like that, where one person has no voice, there can be no consent.
Many feminists have written about the rape of Dinah, patriarch Jacob’s only daughter; the narrators of Genesis indicate that Shechem the Hivite saw her, seized her and lay with her by force. It’s a rape, but the crime is largely one of dishonor… of the men in Dinah’s family. She never speaks; indeed her only action is that which opens the story: Dinah went out to visit some other women.
Silly Dinah, doing a risky thing like visiting some women.
In some churches yet today, women and girls are encouraged to dress and act modestly so as not to enflame the passions of men. Sexual sin is defined as any sexual activity outside of marriage; marriage is the norm, not consent. Because of this, rape is just another sexual sin, just like messing around; married men can’t, by definition, rape their partners. This failure to account for the existence of intimate partner abuse condemns the model as a whole.
In those communities, rape isn’t a problem of power or violence. Rather it’s like drinking or promiscuity – a vice equally borne by men and women.
In some ways, it’s totally astounding that anyone who in good faith wants to understand the issues at play could continue to misunderstand the difference between bad, drunken, “sinful” or ill-advised sex with assault. But when you consider that such communities, and those who wrote on behalf of Brock Turner, and the man himslef, are too often not even remotely concerned with hearing from actual women who have actually experienced either sex or sexual assault, things begin to make more sense.
The heart of sin in those communities is breaking the rules set by a long ago vision of God. For other Christians and people of faith, though, the heart of sin lies in treating others as less than human, as objects to be used for our pleasure.
Brock Turner’s continuing sin is his ongoing, relentless refusal to see the woman he violated as equal to him in worth; though violated by him, he understands her and her suffering as a roadblock to the future he had imagined for himself.
That’s why the framing sexual harassment, sexual assault and intimate partner violence as he said/she said is so pernicious; we are too often not interested in what she says at all. And should she find her voice, there are forces trying to undermine her witness. Women’s voices aren’t trusted, women’s experiences aren’t believed.
If sin is refusing to see and treat others as human beings, with agency and integrity and voices, there is healing to be found in those who have been victimized reclaiming their agency and finding their voices.
The healing that comes with being heard and understood, valued as a full person, is, in the estimation of 20th century mystery writer Dorothy Sayers, what first drew women to Jesus:
Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man – there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!’ or ‘The ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about woman’s nature.”
Christians can own the ways we, and our tradition, have failed women, and we can do so guided by a vision of a better way: the way of Jesus, who welcomed and comforted and empowered. If our Christ saw women in the fullness of their humanity, so should we.
This will require tuning our ears to hear their testimony. In the midst of a culture of toxic masculinity, there is something deeply holy about the ways in which women’s voices are nonetheless breaking through. I give thanks in particular for the advent of the social media that is aiding and amplifying the voices of survivors. Twitter has been a vehicle for women to claim their stories, through #yesallwomen and a host of accounts, most recently @rapedatspelman.
A number of media outlets have, in the Stanford case, emphasized the perpetrator’s status, skills, dreams, words, but with her impact letter, the woman who survived this has taken the final word, and graciously, powerful, reminded other women that even in a broken world, with horribly preferential treatment for privileged white men, they are not alone, and their stories matter.
In the Bible, a prophet (not unlike this brave young woman) is in a terrible place, followed and persecuted for speaking the truth. He hides, fearing for his life. He cries out to God for deliverance. God comes, but not in a thunderous mob, not in an army, not in destructive fire. God comes in a still, small voice, speaking a word of comfort, a word of justice, a word of hope.
In the voices of survivors, growing stronger, we hear these same words, and we hear the voice of God.