Recently I’ve come across several posts on the internet addressing the question of rape and whether or not we are victim blaming in asking questions such as: “What was she wearing”? or “Was she flirting with him?” or “Were they at a bar?”.
Inherent in all these questions is a desire for the asker to further understand the situation in order to place the responsibility of the evil on someone’s shoulders. We want to be able to blame someone to fulfill our psychological need to make sense of the world again. Rape is a violent act that shakes us all to our core and we need to explain it to ourselves so that we can continue to go on living without constant fear. It scares us for varied reasons, perhaps because of the possibility that we may someday become a victim or maybe that we recognize within ourselves the evil that could turn us into a rapist in the wrong situation. In both of these scenarios we want to be reassured that there are circumstances to blame for increasing the likelihood of rape. We need it to make sense so that we can be sure we’re safe by simply avoiding the things at fault.
So what role does modesty really play in all this? Does what women wear, or how they act, or where they go mean that they are somehow to blame for being raped? What is our culpability as women when it comes to how we dress and act? Could we ever deserve such a thing as rape?
I realize I may be opening the “Modesty Can of Worms” with this post but since the topic keeps swirling around and sexual assault awareness groups keep bringing it back to my attention I think it deserves to be discussed from the Catholic perspective. I welcome your thoughts as Catholics as well on this topic.
As faithful Catholics we can look at this question from the perspective of sin. Rape is a sin. No question there. To rape another is a mortal, grave, and a very serious offense that puts our eternity in jeopardy. A person who violates another human being in this way is acting against God’s will for the intrinsic value of the victim to be honored and offends God deeply. It is pretty obvious and easy for us all to agree that a rapist is in a serious state of sin. But is any immodesty on the victim’s part that precedes the rape also a sin? If so, is it a sin equal to the rape? Would it lessen the culpability of the rapist?
To further explore this let’s look at an example from the Bible. I was just thinking about the fascinating story of David and Bathsheba and wondered if anyone back then asked “What was she wearing?” when they learned of Bathsheba being raped by King David. Well, actually she was buck naked. Was David’s sin overlooked because this beautiful woman caught his attention and was in a state of undress? This point may be why some will argue that there is no proof of her being taken against her will and even say that she was the seductress. It is easier for them to give David a pass because of her state. I call it rape in that there is an obvious disproportion in power and that there is no proof that Bathsheba was consensual to the act. No qualifiers are necessary.
We know that King David saw Bathsheba bathing, likely in the nude, on a rooftop nearby. He summoned her and had sex with her, even though he knew she was the wife of another man. When the prophet Nathan admonishes King David for taking the wife of another man (and having that man eventually killed) he does not include Bathsheba in the scolding. In fact, he likens her to the precious lamb in his parable about the poor man and the rich man. (2 Samuel:12) This indicates that she was more likely the victim, innocent as a lamb, unable to say no to her perpetrator. Nathan never once says, “Yeah, I know. She was naked and all. God totally understands how hard it is for us guys to control ourselves.” No. Bathsheba’s dress or behavior is never brought forward as an excuse for David’s behavior, not even by David himself. God was displeased with David for what he had done and that is made very clear when the child conceived in this act dies shortly after birth. David accepts this as God’s justice for his sins of adultery and his murder of Bathsheba’s husband.
Now does this mean that Bathsheba is totally guilt free in all this? I honestly don’t know. And neither do you or anyone else who is pretending to have been there when it happened. But what we do know is that people have some sort of need to place blame when there is a heinous sin, rape especially. You can find dozens of articles and stories that expand (fictionally of course) on the Bible narrative of David and Bathsheba and add in lines such as, “Was it purely accidental that David saw her from his roof balcony while she was bathing naked? She knew that the king often relaxed in his roof balcony. She probably saw him at times from her garden. Or else, she might have learned from her father or grandfather the hours that David was usually in that balcony. Her husband was also rarely home as he was always at the battlefront. Could she then have staged her naked bath scenario to seduce the king? It appears that she willingly went to David when he called her.” This is classic victim blaming. It is full of conjecture and always assumes the worst of the victim.
As much as I would like to think otherwise, it would seem that many people really do believe that women deserve to be raped if they are wearing anything at all revealing or acting at all flirtatious. Being naked while you bathe would surely deserve a raping in some people’s minds. A recent poll in Britain found alarming results in the percentage of Britons who thought the victim was partially (if not fully) to blame for being raped. Some universities have adopted dress policies and even entire countries, Indonesia & Uganda to name two, have proposed bans on women dressing provocatively precisely because it could cause them to become rape victims. These startling quotes from Indonesian Parliamentary speaker Marzuki Alie are indicative of the type of victim blaming that sexual assault advocacy groups are speaking out against.
“[T]here have been a lot of rape cases and other immoral acts recently and this is because women aren’t wearing appropriate clothes.”
“You know what men are like. Provocative clothing will make them do things.”
Some rape victims are fighting back with campaigns such as the What I Was Wearing When I Was Raped website and numerous blogs and projects (and more projects) that address the idea that rapes occur no matter women wear or do not wear.
There is certainly value to modesty; I am not trying to downplay the importance of treating the body as a temple for God to dwell within, but when a woman has been violated in such an atrocious manner as being raped her sense of fashion should no longer be of concern. She does not need to be reminded that her short skirt may have caught the eye of the sicko who raped her. She does not need guilt piled on top of her shattered self-worth and new-found anxiety and fear of men.
All she needs is love and reassurance from us that she remains a beloved daughter of God. She needs to know she could have never deserved to be stripped of her humanity for the selfish pleasure of another. (Think of an unborn child being stripped of their humanity in the act of abortion, also a mortal sin, and then imagine finding a way to somehow blame that child for being conceived at an inconvenient time, etc. Ridiculous.)
It may be true that she actually did have some level of culpability for a sin of vanity or lust or pride, but admitting that sin now really doesn’t help her to heal from the abuse she has endured. Her sin did not force the sin of another. She did not ask for the rapist to strip her of her humanity. Women who were not in a state of any sin also become rape victims daily. You would love them and demand justice for them, do the same for all victims regardless of their state of holiness. Make sure you don’t make a bad situation worse by trying to make her trauma a lesson to her. Just love her.
As Catholics we of course need to uphold the value of chastity and modesty falls squarely within this. But let’s all resolve to meet the down-trodden victim with loving hearts and work to keep the blame where is rightly belongs.
(2 Samuel:12:1, NAB) The LORD sent Nathan to David, and when he came to him, he said: “Judge this case for me! In a certain town there were two men, one rich, the other poor. (2) The rich man had flocks and herds in great numbers. (3) But the poor man had nothing at all except one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He nourished her, and she grew up with him and his children. She shared the little food he had and drank from his cup and slept in his bosom. She was like a daughter to him. (4) Now, the rich man received a visitor, but he would not take from his own flocks and herds to prepare a meal for the wayfarer who had come to him. Instead he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and made a meal of it for his visitor.” (5) David grew very angry with that man and said to Nathan: “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this merits death! (6) He shall restore the ewe lamb fourfold because he has done this and has had no pity.” (7) Then Nathan said to David: “You are the man!”