WHEN I WAS 15, my church youth group was not a safe place. Like most youth groups, there were college-age volunteers who served as counselors and Bible study leaders.
One counselor, Paul, took it upon himself to constantly tell me I wore too much makeup, my clothes were too tight, and that I was a flirt. These actions took place in public for six months while other counselors and students watched and laughed. The interactions came to a head when he commented on my lipstick color and I snapped back at him. He grabbed me, forced me onto his lap, and told me I liked it.
At the time, I just thought Paul was creepy; I now recognize his behavior was sexual harassment. I also recognize that the other members of my youth group, including the leaders, saw his behavior and failed to intervene. Why did this happen? Both Paul’s behavior and the leaders’ silence belong to a larger set of attitudes in our culture—and churches—that allows sexual violence and sexual harassment to become normal, even expected, behaviors.
This set of attitudes is known as “rape culture.” When we fail to confront these toxic attitudes in our churches, we undermine our love for our neighbors, ignore the Bible, and misrepresent God as misogynistic.
The language of “rape culture” emerged in the 1970s as a way for feminists and sociologists to consider why acts of sexual assault were common within U.S. society; since then, it has become an increasingly important phrase for many people working with survivors of rape and domestic violence. While some have raised concerns about the language—fearing that it risks blaming culture instead of the perpetrator—using a phrase such as “rape culture” can help us recognize the broader cultural context surrounding individual acts.
To understand experiences like mine, we must first recognize that rape culture is not just about rape itself, but our reaction to all forms of sexual harassment. This includes:
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