Thursday, June 9, 2016

Rape Culture and the Story of Sodom and Gomorrah


But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”
Genesis 19:4-8

There are many dark tales in the Bible, but the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has a special place within that collection. 

And within the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the darkest verse is surely the description of Lot going out to the mob and offering up his two virgin daughters: “Look,” he begs them, “I have two daughters who have not yet known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please.”

The moral lesson seems to be that the gang rape of women is not nearly as bad as the gang rape of men.

Unless you have been hiding out in a wilderness cave without internet access, you know the story of the Palo Alto judge who handed out a six month sentence in the county jail to Brock Turner, a star athlete at Stanford, for the rape of an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. The judge said that although he understood how difficult it was for the young woman, he feared that a longer sentence would have a severe impact on the young man.

In her powerful and moving statement to the court on the sentencing of Mr. Turner, the young woman described how she learned what had happened to her when she was lying unconscious, passed out from drinking too much:

"One day, I was at work, scrolling through the news on my phone, and came across an article. In it, I read and learned for the first time about how I was found unconscious, with my hair disheveled, long necklace wrapped around my neck, bra pulled out of my dress, dress pulled off over my shoulders and pulled up above my waist, that I was butt naked all the way down to my boots, legs spread apart, and had been penetrated by a foreign object by someone I did not recognize. This was how I learned what happened to me, sitting at my desk reading the news at work. I learned what happened to me the same time everyone else in the world learned what happened to me. That’s when the pine needles in my hair made sense, they didn’t fall from a tree. He had taken off my underwear, his fingers had been inside of me. I don’t even know this person. I still don’t know this person. When I read about me like this, I said, this can’t be me.
“This can’t be me. I could not digest or accept any of this information. I could not imagine my family having to read about this online. I kept reading. In the next paragraph, I read something that I will never forgive; I read that according to him, I liked it. I liked it. Again, I do not have words for these feelings.
“At the bottom of the article, after I learned about the graphic details of my own sexual assault, the article listed his swimming times. She was found breathing, unresponsive with her underwear six inches away from her bare stomach curled in fetal position. By the way, he’s really good at swimming. Throw in my mile time if that’s what we’re doing. I’m good at cooking, put that in there, I think the end is where you list your extra-curriculars to cancel out all the sickening things that’ve happened.
They listed his swimming times because. Well, because he was an important and talented guy at Stanford, for crying out loud. 

She was saved by two Swedish graduate students who were riding by on their bicycles and saw the young man assaulting her (the description is more graphic than that.) They chased the guy and caught him. They pinned him to the ground and called the police. And when the police arrived one of the rescuers had his head in his hands sobbing uncontrollably because he could not unsee what had happened.

In her statement, she thanked them and said that she sleeps with pictures of two bicycles taped above her bed to remind her that there are heroes in her story.

At the end of her remarks, she addressed all the other young women, who often live in fear that something like this might happen to them:

"And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining. Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you. Thank you.”

What makes this story newsworthy is that the folks at Buzzfeed picked up the young woman’s statement and it went viral.

Her story is not unusual.

In recent weeks we have had a national debate about the imagined threat of transgender women (who were classified as male at birth) using the women’s rest room.

How bizarre is it that public officials are worried about the imagined threat of a transgender woman (who was born male) sharing a restroom with your daughter, and those same folks seem to show very little concern for the rape of young women by young cisgender heterosexual men?

The Palo Alto incident is just the one at the top of your newsfeed. In the Baylor sexual assault scandal, both football coach Art Briles and University President Ken Starr (yes, that Ken Starr) were forced to resign after the university repeatedly covered up sexual assaults by members of the football team.

Sports Illustrated’s online journal recently published a Question and Answer interview with columnist Tim Cowlishaw.

It starts this way.


Question: “Is there any way for Baylor football to recover from all this? . . . how can Baylor stop this bad momentum?”
Cowlishaw: “A new sales job, different recruits. It probably won't be as bleak on the field as it might seem. Won't really be bleak at all this season, they could easily contend. There will be a drop off, but if there are no NCAA sanctions and no lost scholarships, Bears might recover quickly. But do they get back to top 10 level? I don't know about that. I would bet against that for some time.”

Okay, we get it. It’s a sports magazine. And I understand that the whole interview was about the football team. But is it not indicative of our profound insensitivity (to put it mildly) that we are talking about the impact on the Football Team, rather than the impact on the young women who were assaulted?

Is it hyperbole to say that we live in a “rape culture?”

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah would seem to bear witness that we have always lived in a rape culture. And that is probably true. It says something profoundly troubling about the way that males have treated females throughout human history.

But the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has a surprising and overlooked lesson within it.

Students of the Bible already know that the original sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, which caused God to plan destruction for those cities, had nothing to do with sexual violence. Ezekiel declares that their sin was that they “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).

What most people miss is that the crisis in Lot’s home is resolved non-violently. No one gets raped. Just as the mob is about to break down the door, the strangers (angels) pull Lot back inside the house. Then the men outside are struck with blindness so that they cannot find the door, and everyone escapes.

The mob wants to gang rape the strangers, and Lot offers to let them rape his daughters instead, but God has a better idea: nobody gets raped. It all ends without violence.

That is a lesson we have yet to learn.

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