I went to a college that had extremely close ties with Bill Cosby. I spent nearly all four years studying and learning in a building that was named for him because of his generous endowment to my institution. My school has recently decided to cut all ties with him. Upon reading the report of their separation with Cosby, I have been reflection on how painful, and shocking, and deeply disturbing it is to hear the many testimonies against him, accusing him of sexual violence of all sorts.
I have been equally pained, shocked, and deeply disturbed by hearing the rhetoric that has been pouring out in support of Cosby:
What would Bill Cosby want with those hoes?
He didn’t rape them, they wanted it.
Why would they come to his house/hotel if they didn’t know what was about to go down?
And on and on, I have heard men and women alike repeat the age-old tactic of apologizing for the perpetrator and faulting the victim. In each conversation I have had around the issue my first instinct was to use reason- to explain how it makes no sense to blame a victim for sexual violence. The if-she-was-raped-it’s-her-fault narrative is so ingrained in so many that that argument usually falls on deaf ears. And then I get angry and start yelling, which is my usual response to stupidity and injustice. And then I become resigned telling myself- this is just what it means to live in a rape culture. My sense of resignation is the most painful, and shocking, and disturbing aspect of this story.
We live in a culture of rape- it just is what it is.
No woman is exempt from sexual violence or the threat of sexual violence in America. We have learned to accept the fact that we live in a culture of rape and navigate the dangers as safely as possible. I recently broke up with my boyfriend (a long story and not for mass consumption) and I decided to hang out with a guy that I dated briefly but remained friends with. It was a rainy afternoon so we decided instead of going out we would order in and watch Netflix. Before I went to his house, I had THE text conversation that I have learned, due to our culture of rape, is essential to have before meeting with a man privately:
Me: Before I come over I need you to be alert to the fact that I will not have sex with you.
Him: Ok, that’s fine.
Me: Give me your word that you will not be sexually aggressive or coercive in any way.
Him: You have my word.
I have had to learn how to be explicit about physical and sexual boundaries. I have had to learn to get into the continuous exercise of stating out loud what I will and will not allow, what I do and do not want to happen to my body. I have had to learn this because I am a woman who has come of age in a culture of rape.
But many women know all too well that explicit refusal does not necessarily protect one from sexual violence or the threat of sexual violence.
My best friend called me recently and said, “My friend keeps finding herself in situations in which she almost gets raped. It’s happened a couple of times in the last couple of months. She asked my advice and so I am asking your advice. First, have you ever been in a situation before where you were almost raped?”
I replied, “Yes, I have.”
She exclaimed, “really?! Tell me about it.”
“Well the first time, I was in college and…”
She cut me off and said, “wait, the first time?”
I stated, “yes, It’s happened more than once”
And I began to tell her the story of a guy that I was dating in college. We were heading to the movies but we could not agree on a movie or a time, and as we sat on my couch in the living room chatting and disagreeing about movies when he began to playfully grab my arm. It was funny at first and I giggled and played along. But within a moment the harmless flirtation turned dangerous and he began to pin me down. He had a look in his eyes, vicious and animalistic- he was no longer the person I had been dating, he was someone else entirely, a creature that I could not recognize. As he began to unbutton his pants he whispered coolly, “this is your fault. You are too pretty.” I began to say No again and again and again. I looked him in the eyes and said,
“This is no. The official no. The next-time-I-see-you-it-will-be-in-court-No.”
After a few moments something changed inside of him- the vicious look went away- he recollected himself, I suppose and he let me go. He tried to laugh it off with,
“girl you know I am just playing with you,” to which I responded by promptly cussing him out and kicking him out of my house. I don’t know what it was that made him change his mind. I was just lucky. There are many women who have been in the same situation who were not so lucky.
My friend replied, “That is the same situation that my friend keeps getting into. My question is, aren’t you sort of asking for it if you let someone come into your house or if you are over at the person’s house?”
“No!” I exclaimed. “I was sitting on my couch in my living room, fully dressed in the middle of the afternoon. I was not asking for it. But even if I were in my underwear, in my bedroom in the middle of the night, a woman is never asking for it, unless she is actually asking for it!”
It’s the myth that if a woman is alone with a man privately than she should expect to be sexually accosted, “If you are alone with a man then you are asking for it”- It’s that sort of resignation that is the most painful, and shocking, and disturbing part of the story.
“Furthermore,” I told my friend, “girls get sexually violated everywhere not just in their homes.”
And then I began to tell her about the time that I was running on the neighborhood track one morning, this summer. I was in my own world entirely, riding the high of music, wind, and endorphin when I looked up and stopped just in time to see that I was approaching a white van that had pulled all the way up to the track, blocking the gate’s one exit, a man inside staring at me with the same vicious animalistic stare that I had seen before. I stared him down and carefully backed away as one does a leash-less dog that is about to attack. After a few seconds, something changed inside of him. He recollected himself, I suppose. And started the engine, backed up and drove away. I was just lucky. There are many women who have been in the same situation who were not so lucky.
I remember how angry my friends and loved ones were at me, “What is wrong with you! I don’t care if it is morning or not. Stop going to work out by yourself. Girls get abducted every day! You could have been killed!” The message was clear: if something were to happen to you while you were working out, it would be your fault because this is how our world works and you should know better. It’s this sort of resignation that is the most painful, and shocking, and disturbing part of the story.
I told my friend about the time that I was sitting in my pastor’s study early one Sunday morning, finishing my sermon (by finishing read starting and finishing). I am typically the first to arrive at church on Sundays, and I was in the habit of unlocking the side door so that I wouldn’t have to go to the door when the ushers begin to arrive an hour later. This particular morning a man, a stranger, wandered into the church. I went to see who had come so unreasonably early and finding this man poking around, I politely asked how I could help him.
He replied, “Yes. I just got out of prison. And I need clothes and shoes and food and a place to stay.”
I replied “You have come to the right place. We can help you with all of these things but I need you to come back in about an hour. The church isn’t open yet but we will be more than happy to assist you during our office hours.”
He responded, “Ok well, I need help now. Can I please speak with the pastor?”
I responded, “You are speaking with the pastor.”
He looked at me incredulously, “You are the pastor?”
“Yes, sir. And again, I and my team would love to help you, I just you need you to come back in about an hour.”
“Ok, I’ll leave. But can I at least have some water first?”
“Sure,” I replied and I pointed him to the direction of the water fountain while I remained by the door. After a few minutes he still hadn’t returned and I peeked around the corner to find that he had gone into my office. At this moment, I realized I had a problem because he was in my office and my phone, keys, wallet-everything was also in my office.
I declared in a menacing tone that I wanted him to leave before I called the police. And then he approached me as if to attack saying,
“Come here girl let me see what is underneath that dress.”
I pushed him away and yelled directly in his face,
“Get the hell out of my church!” He looked at me for a second and something happened. He recollected himself, I suppose. Because he turned and walked out of the building. I was just lucky. There are tons of female ministers and females in churches who have not been so lucky.
I called my trustees and called the police and the police came to take the report. The man had left the building but not the property. They searched him and found a knife on him. My trustees were so angry, “You could have been lying on the ground of your own church bleeding to death! You can’t be by yourself in the church anymore. We will just have to make sure that someone is here early for when you arrive.” The message was clear: We live in a world where not even sacred spaces are safe from sexual violence or the threat of sexual violence. It just is what it is. It is that sort of resignation that is the most painful, and shocking, and disturbing part of the story.
We live in a culture of rape and violence. A culture deeply reminiscent of another culture that people have been talking about as much as Bill Cosby- the culture of Sodom and Gomorrah. With the recent passing of the Supreme Court case legalizing gay marriage, Christians have been comparing America to Sodom and Gomorrah with great intensity. But what many do not realize is that Sodom and Gomorrah is not a story about homosexuality, it is a story about a community where sexual violence and the threat of violence was normative, it was standard, it was expected.
Let’s look at the text:
The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.” “No,” they answered, “we will spend the night in the square.” But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. (Gen. 19:1-3a)
In the text, Lot pleaded with them not risk staying in the square because there was such a keen threat of violence. You can almost hear his plea, “It is not safe for you here. You should know better than to risk subjecting yourself to violence.”
Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” (Gen. 19:4-5)
The men came looking for the angels almost as if on que, verifying Lot’s concern for their safety and their lives. Lot knew that this would happen because he knew that sexual violence of this sort was an intrinsic part of the culture that he lived in.
Lot goes on to say,
“No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. 8 Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”(Gen. 19:7-8)
He says to the men, “here, rape my daughters instead. You are going to rape somebody, it is what it is, just take them” It is this resignation that is the most painful, shocking, and disturbing part of the story.
And we are guilty of this same resignation. When we cry out strongly against homosexuality, attempting to unfairly and unjustly control and constrain, demean and disrupt the sexual habits of homosexual consenting adults and yet we remain silent about the sexual violence girls of all ages are experiencing in their nurseries, their dormitories, their homes, and even their churches- we are making the same public statement of resignation, “Here, rape my daughters instead.”
If the Christian community could be even half as angry about Bill Cosby and his victims of sexual violence as they were about the Supreme Court decision, then things would be different in this county. If the Christian community could cry out even half as loud about the prevalence of rape and sexual violence against women as they unfairly and unjustly cry out against the homosexual community, then things would be different in this country.
America is just like Sodom and Gomorrah.
But not because of the homosexual community. It is like Sodom and Gomorrah because of the complete and unquestioned acceptance of sexual violence that is a foundational part of our culture.
And I can see God’s clouds of judgement, I can smell sulfur burning in the air whenever I hear someone say,
“She wanted it.”
“She was asking for it”
“She should have known what was about to go down”
Or in other words, “here, rape my daughters instead.”
It is time for the Christian community to support and stand with each victim who has bravely come forward with their story of enduring sexual violence at the hands of Bill Cosby. And it is time for the Christian community to support and stand with each and every woman who has ever texted, stated, or screamed,
I will not have sex with You.