Note: This was an article written as an op ed piece in 2006, in response to the below-named Baptist pastor's ill-informed comments quoted in the Age and other Fairfax newspapers.
Provocative comments can lead to sexual assault?!
Pastor David Hodgens seems to think that women who dress provocatively are asking to be raped. According to him, it is worth examining whether the central point made by Sheikh al-Hilali is valid – namely, whether there is “a link between provocative dress and sexual assault”. Unfortunately for Pastor Hodgens’ credibility as social commentator and arbiter of morals, this very point has been the subject of much research and debate for the last 30 years. And, as the women’s groups make quite clear (“Women attack pastor over sexual assault comments”, The Age, 13/11/06) the existence of such a link has been soundly discredited. Sexual assault is about an assertion of power, not an expression of uncontrollable desire. Indeed, if it were merely that a man is aroused uncontrollably by what he sees a woman wearing, he could just find a quiet corner and masturbate. Though Pastor Hodgens probably thinks that’s sinful, too.
In fact what such comments make clear, if you examine their subtext, is that religious leaders like Pastor Hodgens and Sheikh al-Hilali truly believe that men whose sexual urge is “uncontrollable” are entitled to force themselves on another person, violating that person’s bodily rights and boundaries, and fulfil their own needs at someone else’s expense. But no religion supports such a view, and certainly not either Christianity or Islam.
Yet the lines are so clearly drawn within genders – women dress provocatively, men can’t help themselves. One can’t help wondering, then, what Pastor Hodgens would say about male victims of rape (of course they exist). Did they, too, dress provocatively? I doubt he would think so. Because in his view, men are not to blame; women are. Incidentally, in the light of this misogyny it should strike no-one as unusual that at Pastor Hodgens’ church they have “Ladies Ministry” (giving service to others) for women, and “Men’s Nights” (receiving input from others) for men. Women serve, men receive service. And in such a spiritual climate, that dynamic plays out sexually as much as socially.
As a victim of sexual abuse by a clergyman (though not, let me make clear, either of these two church leaders) and researcher in the dynamics of the phenomenon, what really worries me about such comments from religious leaders is that they arise from, and foster, a conservative religious attitude to sexuality in which sexual sin is deemed to be the woman’s fault. In a subculture where women are considered secondary citizens anyway (based on Bible passages such as 1 Cor.14:34-35 and Eph.5:22-24), such attitudes entrench thinking which leads to victims of sexual abuse believing – even more strongly than most such victims normally do – that it is all their fault. This assumption of guilt encourages silence both before and after such abuse is uncovered. Silence from the woman, who believes herself to be sinful, degraded and damaging (who is going to publicise themselves as that?), and silence from the church, who cannot see their male clergyperson as predator and his female victim as prey.
In any sexual abuse setting (and I define sexual abuse as misuse of sexual power by the more powerful person in a relationship of unequal power) the less powerful person is unable to reconcile what happens with their respect for the more powerful person. In a religious context, this respect for the more powerful person is not only a respect for the person but also for their role as arbiter of moral standards. The knowledge that a clergyperson can breach their own moral code and perpetrate atrocity on one of their flock is so frightening in its implications that the victim disowns such knowledge and accepts the clergyperson’s rationale (“I’m just showing you God’s love” or “you’re extra special to me”), thereby setting the stage for also accepting the church’s ascription of guilt to the victim. After all, if some gut instinct senses that what happens is wrong, and the victim is entrenched in an attitude of servitude and spiritual submission to her male pastor, then she will inevitably reach the conclusion that the sinner is her, not him. When the church endorses this, either from the same perspective or out of a need to preserve the group by scapegoating the expendable member, the victim is abased and silenced.
I am not saying that every conservative church leader who promotes this way of thinking is an abuser. What I am saying is that this kind of attitude towards women’s sexuality encourages a culture of subtle acceptance of sexual assault by males by shifting the onus of responsibility onto the victim. And, because of the hierarchical nature of conservative theology, churches are more in danger of this than they want us to think. Readers may not be aware that the statistics of assault in church circles are as high as they are in the general population. Or that in the 10 years 1990-1999 there were approximately 450 church workers convicted of sexual offences in Australia but no convictions among sex workers. Or that the two most common factors among sexual abusers are alcohol abuse and conservative religious beliefs. These statistics clearly demonstrate that religion doesn’t prevent abuse – that conservative religion may, indeed, be a predisposing factor. And that what the churches would call sexual immorality – according to Hodgens, "Parading ourselves in a sexual way [outside] marriage" – is not, apparently, a similarly predisposing factor.
Perhaps the sex workers have it right after all, Pastor Hodgens – maybe they have a much better understanding of equality in sexual relationships (or, indeed, relationships in general) than the churches do.
Clare Pascoe is a survivor of clergy sexual abuse and speaks and writes on the topic. Her case was one of those examined by the NSW Wood Royal Commission (Paedophile Enquiry) and her activism has forced several changes to ordinances and protocols within the Sydney Anglican Diocese.
 Eros Foundation, Hypocrites, 2000
 Heggen, Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches, 1993
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