When I was still at school, a woman came in to lecture the boys and girls in sixth form on sexual education. We were segregated, and we boys all found it hilarious when she said, ‘Boys, the thing between your legs is a lethal weapon’. She was saying this, if I remember correctly, in the context of getting a girl pregnant. So I think there’s even some irony none of us noticed at the time, which is that the process of making life was actually being called lethal. But I also didn’t notice how sadly ironic it was in light of other contexts, particularly rape.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has been in a civil war for many years and civilians were and are regularly terrorized, including the use of rape as a weapon of war. A survey of 22 schools in the country, with a total of 1,305 female participants, found that 38% of the girls had experienced sexual violence. These statistics are appalling but widespread sexual violence is not just limited to the Democratic Republic of Congo; it is a pervasive reality for many women and girls across the globe and in the UK. The World Health Organisation estimates that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives, mostly at the hands of an intimate male partner.
Sexual violence is not simply normal violence: it assumes – albeit usually unconsciously – a complex series of beliefs about the relation of men to women. Although some sexual violence is male on male, the majority world-wide is male on female. Sexual violence has continuities with ‘physical’ violence but it is distinctive as well.
Sexual violence puts the victim in a position of enforced, involuntary submission. Submission is not always necessarily degrading. The soldier submits to his officer, but the officer (if he is worth his salt) still treats the soldier with respect. What makes sexual violence so awful is that the victim is treated as an object to be abused, inferior in worth and value to the perpetrator. They are less than a human being in the eyes of the rapist.
How, as Christians, should we respond to sexual violence – particularly for Christian men, like me?
We could, like many of our society, jump to the conclusion that masculinity is inherently bad (or even evil) and that it is inseparable from the behaviour and thoughts described above. Here in Oxford, sports clubs have been promoting GoodLad Workshops and for many clubs, attendance is compulsory. The central idea is that it is possible to cultivate masculine culture which treats women with respect, coined positive masculinity. However at least one reviewer of the programme seems to intimate that the central problem is masculinity itself.
The Bible assumes from Adam and Eve through to Revelation that there are such things as positive masculinity and femininity – and it assumes an understanding of what is involved in both of these. Although it is rarely prescriptive, these assumptions are always implicitly there and sometimes they are stated more explicitly. My attempt for the rest of the article is to focus on a certain male role model – Boaz. I will particularly focus on the emphasis the Bible places upon Boaz protecting rather than abusing Ruth, which is relevant to our discussion.
In the Book of Ruth, there is a romantic story about how the woman Ruth comes to marry the man Boaz. Both are treated as having excellent character. What is intriguing is how Ruth as a vulnerable widow asks for Boaz to be her protector. In this way, Boaz imitates the very same love which God gives towards those he loves.
Boaz blesses her at their first meeting, saying:
The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge! (Ruth 2:12)
Later on, Ruth alludes to this in asking for the protection of Boaz (in so doing also asking for marriage):
“I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.” (Ruth 3:9)
Just as God is a redeemer, so Boaz acts towards Ruth: offering her refuge and protection from the unrelenting storm of the world. It is said that a farmer going through his burnt out field, came across a burnt hen. Yet, to his surprise, when he overturned the hen, its chicks walked out unharmed. This is a picture of sacrificial love, which we see modelled in different ways; between mother and child, Christ and his people and a husband and his wife.
Sexual violence is a reversal of this love. It is an abuse of the physical power which God endowed men to have for good. Instead a man chooses to use it to hurt the woman that he ought to protect. Indeed, in many cases of sexual violence, it is a husband who is the perpetrator. This is a betrayal of ‘biblical’ masculinity: which should reflect Christ’s humble, servant-hearted sacrifice as in Ephesians 5:25.
As men, we need to reject and oppose the role of perpetrators of sexual violence, instead modelling something much more beautiful. Imagine a vision of men who act with total gentleness towards women, who refuse to joke about a woman disrespectfully – even to their social cost. Let us think of areas where we can be lights in the darkness. Restored’s First Man Standing initiative is a community of more than a thousand men who are encouraging each other to do just this. Read more about the ways in which they’ve committed to live differently here.
If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this post and it is safe for you to seek support or advice, you can call the National Domestic Violence helpline (which is open twenty four hours a day and free to phone) on 0808 2000 247. You can also access information and services through the Rape Crisis website.
Paul is a third year Theology student at Oxford University. He loves Jesus and rugby and is a member of the Unashamed Campaign team.
 ‘The medicating role of stigmatization in the mental health of adolescent victims of sexual violence in Eastern Congo’ in Child Abuse and Neglect, Vol. 38 Iss. 7, July 2014, pp. 1139-1146.