I’ve laboured over these thoughts for more than a month now trying to get a purchase on the issues, and a means of penetrating them to encourage us to contemplate them in a more meaningful way. I’m not sure I’ve done that, in fact, I’m sure I haven’t. So please take this post as food for thought.
I’m curious about why sexual violence so readily escapes our analysis.
Why does our focus turn so quickly from the violence and the perpetrator of that violence to the victim? Such a turn is evident in the renarration of the term “victim” as a pejorative label. We see a swift move to the victim with the hasty advance of themes like forgiveness. Others relativise victimhood by observing that everyone is a victim, and as such, should get on with life like the rest of us through a form of stoic pragmatism.
We struggle to focus on violence and its perpetrator for more than a moment without drifting off to treat the victim. What follows is in an attempt to defer that deferment, but as you will see, that is not possible.
Who’s the real victim?
We have come to expect silence and inaction in the wake of allegations of sexual violence. It seems that authorities need to be provoked to acknowledge its happening and its effect on peoples’ lives.
Of course, this is a broad brushstroke, so please hear me when I say that there are some in the world who are serious about taking up the theme of sexual violence. But let us not use this group of people to justify the deafening silence on sexual violence in and outside the church.
Speaking up is a part of what the church must do to repudiate silence over sexual violence. Yet I am well aware that speaking up does not address the reason for the silence that has historically infected our voice. Condemning sexual violence does not address why the church struggles to find a voice, like the one that is readily vocal on issues like abortion and same sex marriage.
Why are we not characterised by being observably consumed with righteous anger at hearing of instances of sexual violence, let alone cultures that frame social spaces wherein sexual violence is par for the course for entry into and remaining within them?
I’m not only thinking of the recent spate of allegations of sexual violence in the entertainment industry, but also the continual revelations of sexual violence towards children in churches, organisations and clubs, and the enduring reality of domestic violence. In all of these, and others, there is a victim and perpetrator of violence, but that is contested terrain for the reason that violence can only be reported and spoken about as an “accusation.” One person, claiming to be the victim, makes an accusation against another person, the alleged perpetrator of violence. It’s a classic case of she said/he said or he said/she said, etc.
It is no surprise that the revelation of sexual violence does not usually come to light by way of a confession by the perpetrator. Where violence does come to light through a confession, like the recent admission by one pastor who was sexually involved with a high school student under his pastoral care many years ago, one has to wonder whether the confession was brought on by contrition, or the thought of being found out. Whatever the case, violence is tempered as an accusation because we usually learn of violence because a victim has chosen to “come out.” But this means that the violence is only alleged, which means that the victim’s victimhood and the perpetrator’s perpetration are brought into question. Who is the real victim: the victim or the perpetrator?
This plays out when we pose questions of how and why such people find themselves in the situation in the first place. Who are these people who cry “Victim!” only after wining and dining the perpetrator and enjoying the spoils of such cavorting? And why did the girl wear that dress? She could have said “no,” kept her dignity, and chosen another occupation or outfit.
However logical and sensible such thinking may or may not be, think for a moment how such questioning redistributes the guilt away from the one who committed an act of sexual violence to the one who suffered the violent act. In this moment of reasoning, the victim is made out to be an actor in his or her own abuse. By reframing the victim as the perpetrator, the sufferer of the violent act is named as the violent one or at least complicit in the violence suffered.
The question posed for answering is not who is the perpetrator, what have they done, and how should they be disciplined, but how has the victim in fact caused the perpetrator to fall? The real question that captures our attention concerns whether the victim really is a victim and to what extent, which necessarily brings into question whether the perpetrator of violence really is a perpetrator of violence?
It is relatively easy to re-narrate a woman who desires to be an actress as complicit in the violence they suffer. It is much more difficult to re-narrate sexual violence towards children by blaming them for, or making them complicit in, the sexual violence they suffer. These children, however, suffer the same fate as the women above. Children who have experienced sexual violence find themselves similarly repositioned, but not by armchair or professional analysts. The boys and girls identify themselves as the cause or reason for the abuse. Once again, the perpetrator’s role is downgraded having been repositioned by the victim’s own self-repositioning to take the blame for the violence.
Silence is golden, but only for the guilty.
Herein lies the problem: the guilty don’t want to be revealed as guilty. But who is guilty? Where the victim is repositioned as the “guilty perpetrator,” and the guilty perpetrator is repositioned as the “victim,” silence reigns. The guilty one will not talk because of their guilt, and the victim will not talk because of their “guilt.”
Silence is golden when it comes to sexual violence because it harbours the “guilty” who are the foil for the guilty.
Silence, though, is costly… the theme of Gobsmacked Part 2.