Todd Akin, 'Legitimate Rape,' and Gospel Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault
United States Representative Todd Akin and U.S Senate candidates started a national discussion about sexual assault this week after Akin's unwise choice of words in an interview Sunday night.
The Missouri Congressman who attends a PCA church said to a St. Louis TV anchor that a woman's body is capable of preventing pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape." He claimed a woman's body can typically fend off pregnancy during such rape, as he argued against allowing abortions in cases of rape, claiming such pregnancies are uncommon in the first place.
Rep. Akin's statement is as follows:
It seems to me first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let's assume that maybe that didn't work or something. You know, I think there should be some punishment but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.
Akin later apologized, saying he was referring to "forcible rape." He acknowledging that women "do become pregnant" after rape. Regardless of what one thinks about Akin's comments, the ongoing controversy provides an opportunity for us as Christians to better understand what rape and sexual assault really are, and to know how to respond with the gospel when someone we know becomes a victim.
Based on statistics, you know a victim of sexual assault: At least one in four women and one in six men are or will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime. According to most recent statistics, every two minutes someone in the United States is sexually assaulted, and there are nearly 250,000 victims (age 12 or older) of sexual assault every year. Moreover, every year in the United States, more than 30,000 women become pregnant as a result of rape. Not only can rape result in pregnancy, some studies show that it also may lead to higher rates of pregnancy than consensual sex. (In an article in the journal Human Nature, the per-incident rape-pregnancy rate was 6.42 percent, and as high as 7.98 percent with statistical correction.Of women having consensual sex, the per-incident pregnancy rate was 3.1 percent.)
Defining the Terms
I (Justin) have taught graduate courses on sexual violence as well as counseled numerous victims of sexual assault as a pastor. I (Lindsey) have counseled victims of sexual assault while working at a crisis center as well as a domestic violence shelter. My graduate research was on sexual violence and public health responses to it. Together last year, we wrote Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault (Crossway).
Our definition of sexual assault is any type of sexual behavior or contact where consent is not freely given or obtained and is accomplished through force, intimidation, violence, coercion, manipulation, threat, deception, or abuse of authority (Rid of My Disgrace, 28).
Sexual assault is not just rape by a stranger with a weapon. Approximately 80 percent of victims are assaulted by an acquaintance: a relative, spouse, dating partner, friend, pastor, teacher, boss, coach, therapist, or doctor. And sexual assault is not just rape itself; it is any form of nonconsensual sexual contact.
When defining sexual assault as any sexual act that is nonconsensual—forced against someone's will—it is important to understand that such "acts" can be physical, verbal, or psychological.
Sexual assault occurs along a continuum of power ranging from noncontact sexual assault to forced sexual intercourse. It includes acts such as nonconsensual sexual intercourse (rape), nonconsensual sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, exposure, voyeurism, or attempts to commit these acts. The definition of rape, in contrast, is straightforward in nature. As defined in the American Journal of Psychiatry, rape is "forced sexual intercourse that may be heterosexual or homosexual which involves insertion of an erect penis or an inanimate object into the female vagina or the male anus; in both sexes, rape may also include forced oral or anal penetration."
Understanding and measuring consent is another important factor in understanding sexual assault. Consent is an individual's freedom and capacity to make a choice based upon respect and equal power, with the understanding she or he can change her or his mind at any point. In judging whether a sexual act is consensual, there are three main questions to ask. First, are both people old enough to consent? Second, do both people have the capacity to consent? Third, did both agree to the sexual contact? If the answer to any of these is "no," it is likely sexual assault. Consent requires communicating "yes" to engaging in a particular act. Consent is not given when one person says "no," says nothing, is coerced, is physically forced, is mentally or physically helpless, is intoxicated, is under the influence of drugs, or is unconscious. Nor does it occur any time that consent is not explicitly given. A person does not consent to sexual conduct if he or she is forced, threatened, or is unconscious, drugged, a minor, developmentally disabled, chronically mentally ill, or believes they are undergoing a medical procedure.
Ignorance and Victim-Blaming
Akin's comments reflect what many victims encounter upon telling someone about the assault: suspicious questions, victim blaming, bad science, and sheer ignorance. These responses leave many victims further isolated and confused. Because of the special attention paid to nuancing the type of assault—"legitimate" or "forcible"—for partisanship purposes, many victims feel blamed, as if they do not fit into the rigid qualifications of rape or sexual assault.
Social psychology research confirms that negative views of people who have been sexually assaulted persist in contemporary society. The result is that victims feel socially derogated and blamed following their sexual assault, which can prolong, continue, and intensify the substantial psychological and emotional distress he or she is already experiencing. There appears to be a societal impulse to blame traumatized individuals for their suffering. One rationale is that this provides non-victims with a false sense of security if they can place blame on victims rather than on perpetrators. Negative reactions to sexual assault victims, such as attributing blame or responsibility to the victim, generally have been found to be greater for assaults by acquaintances (and especially dates), sexually active victims, less "respectable" victims, non-resisting victims, assaults in which victims used alcohol prior to the assault, and assaults in which victims engaged in non-stereotypical gender-role behavior prior to attack.
Blaming victims for post-traumatic symptoms is not only erroneous, but also contributes to the vicious cycle of traumatization. Victims experiencing negative social reactions have poorer adjustment. Research has proven that "the only social reactions related to better adjustment by victims were being believed and being listened to by others."
A Theology of Sin, Violence, and Sexual Assault
As Christians, we must address the effects of sexual assault with the biblical message.
Between Scripture's bookends of creation and restored creation is the unfolding story of redemption. In the Old Testament, creation begins in harmony, unity, and peace (shalom) with God, other human beings, and nature. But tragically, humanity sinned against God and his word, resulting in disgrace and destruction—the "vandalism of shalom," as Cornelius Plantinga calls it. This violation was a moment of cosmic treason before God, plunging humankind into a relational abyss. Sin wrecks the order and goodness of God's world, inverts love for God into love for self, and inverts love for neighbor into exploitation of others. Sin has defiled what ought to be.
Sex is one vivid expression of human union and peace, given by God to be pleasurable, intimacy-building in marriage and the means by which his image-bearers would be spread throughout his good world. But after the Fall, it becomes a tool for violence. Sexual assault is one of the most frequent and disturbing images of sin in the Bible. It is uniquely devastating precisely because it distorts the foundational realities of what it means to be human: sexual expression is perverted and used for violence, trust is shattered, and disgrace and shame are heaped upon the victim. Sexual assault creates in the victim's mind a tragic and perverse linkage between sex, intimacy, and shame. It shapes how victims feel about themselves, how they understand connection and boundaries with others, and, ultimately, how they relate to God.
But God does not leave humanity alone. Throughout the Old Testament, he promises to restore shalom through the promised Messiah of Israel. The gospel of Jesus Christ occupies the central place in the New Testament, as the message of first importance. God's desire for shalom and his response to violence culminates in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The restoration of shalom is fully expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and its scope is as "far as the curse is found." Christ came into this violent world that was shattered by sin, suffering a violent death at the hands of violent men in order to save rebellious sinners, rescuing them from divine wrath, and supplying them with divine peace, mercy, and holiness. The cross is God's attack on sin and violence; it is salvation from sin and its effects. The cross really is a coup de grace, a "stroke of grace," the deathblow delivered to the misery of our suffering. The sinless one suffered disgrace, in order to bring sinners grace. The resurrection is the vindication that shalom has been restored. Jesus is the redemptive work of God in our own history, in our own human flesh.
Thus, trusting Jesus isn't a faint hope in generic spiritual sentiments, but is banking our hope and future on the real historical Jesus who lived, died, and rose from the dead. Grace is available because Jesus went through the valley of the shadow of death and rose from death. And he responds to victims' pain and past.
Hope and Healing
So now, to the pain of all of us, including those who have been raped or sexually assaulted, the gospel says, "You will be healed." To your shame, the gospel says, "You can now come to God in confidence." To your rejection, the gospel says, "You are accepted!" To your lostness, the gospel says, "You are found and I won't ever let you go." To your sin, the gospel says, "You are forgiven, and God declares you pure and righteous." To your death, the gospel says, "You were dead, but now you are alive."
When someone is sexually assaulted, the most prevalent emotional responses include denial, distorted self-image, shame, guilt, anger, and despair. The gospel of Jesus offers to victims the gift of refuting distortions and faulty thinking and replacing their self-condemning, counterfactual beliefs with accurate ones that reflect the truths about God, themselves, and God's grace-filled response to their disgrace.
What victims need are practical victim advocacy combined with biblical and theological depth, not the platitudes, suspicious questions, bad science, and shallow theology that is so prevalent. We hope that while this controversy plays out politically, it will encourage victims to ask for help, and that they will receive gospel-based hope and healing. Thankfully, because of this controversy, sexual assault is now part of a national discussion. This should encourage family and friends of victims as well as church leaders to learn how to respond and care for victims in ways that are compassionate, practical, and informed. What victims need is for God to be strong when they are weak and for him to be close to the brokenhearted. We want people to experience God fulfilling his promises to them. We pray that God uses this controversy to heal victims and to apply the grace from Jesus deeper than the wounds people have experienced.
To victims, who know too well the depths of destruction and the overwhelming sense of disgrace, we offer this message of grace:
What happened to you was not your fault. You are not to blame. You did not deserve it. You did not ask for this. You should not be silenced. You are not worthless. You do not have to pretend like nothing happened. Nobody had the right to violate you. You are not responsible for what happened to you. You are not damaged goods. You were supposed to be treated with dignity and respect. You were the victim of assault and it was wrong. You were sinned against. Despite all the pain, healing can happen and there is hope. (Rid of My Disgrace, 15)
Jesus responds to your pain and past. Your story does not end with the assault. Your life was intended for more than shame, guilt, despair, pain, and denial. The assault does not define you or have the last word on your identity. Yes, it is part of your story, but it is not the end of your story. The message of the gospel redeems what has been destroyed and applies grace to your sense of disgrace.
Justin Holcomb is a pastor at Mars Hill Church and Director of the Resurgence. He is also an adjunct professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. Lindsey Holcomb counsels victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, and she conducts training seminars to service providers and pastors. She is currently an MA student at Reformed Theological Seminary. Together they wrote Rid of My Disgrace, a Re:Lit book. Four free chapters of Rid of My Disgrace are available here.