Response: May 2016 Issue

In the Image of God

Women are taught at a young age to be ashamed of their God-given bodies. It’s time the church worked to change this.

In the Image of God
Emma Sulkowicz with her Columbia University performance art piece. She carried a mattress as long as her alleged rapist remained on campus.

It was not until I met a girl in high school who told me about being raped that I realized what happened to me was wrong. As my friend told me about the most traumatic experience in her life, I thought, "That sounds a lot like what happened to me. I didn't even know it was wrong."

I always thought what happened to my 9-year-old body at the hands of my teenage neighbors was just "boys being boys." Now, of course, many years of therapy and prayer later, I know that what happened was not something I brought on myself, that it was not my fault, that it was not just a part of growing up, and that it was not OK.

But where did I get the message that a boy using my body to fulfill his own pleasure or curiosity was a "normal" experience all girls went through? I was embarrassed to tell anyone because I was embarrassed that such a "normal" experience made me feel so ashamed, dirty, defective and anything but normal.

I have worked hard to get to a place where I am OK writing about this without fear of judgment. I have been in countless therapy sessions and support groups, battled my body through disordered eating habits wanting it to disappear. I've prayed, I've talked to pastors, I've gone to seminary. What I know now is that no victim should be told the assault wouldn't have happened if she or he only did X, Y or Z. No victims, even for a second, should blame themselves or be blamed for the evil done to them.

The burden's on girls

Rape culture is a society in which rape is pervasive and sexual violence normalized, condoned and excused. The burden is put on victims not to get raped, not on rapists not to rape. We live in a rape culture. Let's go back to my story.

I was 9 when I was abused by my neighbors, but it was not until my senior year of high school that I told anyone or even thought that maybe what happened to me was wrong. That's roughly a decade before I realized that unwanted sexual contact was not something I should just expect as the norm in life as a woman.

One day in 6th grade I was sent home from school for wearing a pair of shorts that were considered too short. It was the Monday after my mom and I had gone shopping for some spring clothes. I really loved wearing new clothes, and we had found this adorable pair of denim shorts with a pink plaid pattern on the cuffs at the knee. My mom and I even measured them in the dressing room at the mall to make sure they fell below my fingertips when my arms were placed at my sides (the school's rule for determining "proper" shorts length). I was called to the front of the room — in front of the whole class — and asked to lower my arms to my sides. My teacher ruled the shorts in violation of the school dress code and I was sent, face red with embarrassment, to the front office to call my mom.

When I got to the vice principal's office I was told that the dress code was in place to prevent others (namely the boys) from being distracted when they were trying to learn. If I wanted to stay at school that day my mom must bring me something "more appropriate" to wear. I immediately wanted to disappear. When my mom arrived, I just had her take me home. I was too mortified to go back to class.

Shifting blame to responsibility

Looking back, the only time I remember any boy being considered in violation of the dress code was for a T-shirt adorned with a beer slogan. No boys were sent home for distracting me with their legs. Apparently, my 11-year-old legs made it impossible for 11-year-old boys to learn anything.

I was so self-conscious after being punished for the dress code "violation." The thought of sitting in a classroom full of boys who I now believed would be staring at my legs, at my body, covered or not, made my skin crawl. I couldn't not have a body. What was I supposed to do? I sent myself into a self-imposed exile that day, trying to do the next day's homework without having been present in class to learn how to do it. My education was disrupted because I was deemed responsible for the thoughts of another; girls lead boys into sin, we were taught, and no one taught the boys about their responsibility for their own sexual expression.

My 11-year-old self was mortified, but my 37-year-old self is angry at the injustice of the deeper issues at play, issues of sexism, body shaming and victim-blaming that still permeate our society.

In a May 2015 opinion column in Time magazine, Laura Bates, co-founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, posed the question of how school dress codes shame girls and perpetuate rape culture. "Some of our most powerful and lasting ideas about the world around us are learned at school — namely that girls' bodies are dangerous and harassment is inevitable," Ms. Bates states.

She goes on to say that while this may seem harsh, "it is the overriding message being sent to thousands of students around the world by sexist school dress codes and the way in which they are enforced." When a young girl is publicly embarrassed and shamed for showing too much knee, or for wearing a shirt that reveals her collarbone, as happened recently in Kentucky, she learns that her mere existence is distracting and that it is her fault.

How many times have you heard of a rape victim being asked, "What were you wearing?" or "Were you drinking?" It implies that there is not only something women can do to prevent violence against their bodies but something they should do. This is what informs the very definition of rape culture and proves its existence and prevalence.

Rape culture

So what does rape culture have to do with a child not being able to wear a shirt exposing her collarbone? First, let's define culture. In "Dismantling Rape Culture Around the World" by Pamela R. Fletcher, published by the Forum on Public Policy, culture is defined as "the way in which a society operates formally and informally, based on attitudes, beliefs, customs and rituals that its members sanction as acceptable and normal." In American culture, when dress codes tell a young girl to not wear tank tops because exposing her shoulders in class will distract others and invite unwanted attention, we are accepting that dress code as acceptable and normal.

When we ask a young woman what she was wearing the night she was raped, we are asking her what she did to invite and/or cause the violence she experienced. That is rape culture: "an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture," as defined by Marshall University's Women's Center. By telling a young girl to limit the amount of skin she shows, we are indirectly (or, arguably, directly) telling her that she is a distraction and is asking for something bad to happen to her.

Rape culture means that women and girls limit their behaviors in order to prevent harm against their bodies. It is a young girl living for a decade with assault, thinking it is her fault, that it is a "normal" part of life. It keeps women in a subordinate position to men by limiting what women can do and how they can act. It keeps women from living into the full image of what God created them to be.

Why are women afraid, and is this fear warranted? Statistics point to an alarming yes. According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), 1 out of every 6 American women has been a victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, and of all rape victims, 9 out of 10 were female in 2003. This is not just an issue in American culture. The United Nations entity for Gender Equity and the Empowerment of Women (UNIFEM) report "Not a Minute More: Ending Violence Against Women," states, "One in three women around the world will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime."

When I was a child, I wish someone had taught me that there was a name for what happened to me, that the messages telling me my body was a temple of temptation for boys and I'd better be careful how much of it I show was actually not the way my body should be looked at or treated.

In the film Maleficent, telling the story of how the evil fairy in Sleeping Beauty came to be so full of hate, Maleficent falls prey to a man who drugs her, cuts off her wings and leaves her to wake up confused and alone in the physical and emotional pain of losing the one thing that gave her the power to soar.

How many times do our cultural messages cut off the metaphorical wings of young girls? We disempower young women and girls by our culturally accepted messages that their bodies are something to be ashamed of, that their bodies encourage violence. Rape culture is teaching our young girls not to fall asleep or else their wings will be clipped — t's teaching them how not to be raped instead of teaching others not to rape in the first place.

In the image of God

This is not just a cultural or societal issue. This is a deeply theological issue as well. Logically, if we say and believe as Christians that all are all truly created in the image of God, then violence against any part of that creation is violence against the image of God. The violence against my body, the violence that clipped my wings for a decade, was violence against the image of God. And, more than 20 years later, my wings are still growing back. How many more girls? How many more wings? What are we going to do?

Amanda Mountain, MDiv, is a deaconess living in Chicago, Illinois, and former strategic partnerships manager and communications trainer for missionaries for the General Board of Global Ministries.

Posted or updated: 5/3/2016 11:00:00 PM