Sunday, April 5, 2015

John Piper Steps In It on Rape and Sex

Tweeted January 21, 2015:

John Piper Rape Tweet.jpg
This tweet was later deleted after it generated controversy (yes, this is a pattern - see a myriad of my previous posts), but it was preserved by a few people, including blogger Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism.

For those who are wondering, the first verse cited is:

“When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the ruler of that area, saw her, he took her and raped her.” (NIV)

The second is:

“[A]nd after a while his master's wife took notice of Joseph and said, "Come to bed with me!" (NIV)

After a good deal of thinking about the implications of this and discussing it with my wife, I decided there was enough to warrant an entire post. I will discuss the potential ramifications of what Piper has done later in the post, but first I want to look at the stories cited, and why I believe Piper has deliberately mischaracterized the stories.

(By the way, this is a classic Kinsley Gaffe: when a person inadvertently tells the truth about what they really believe.)

What are these stories about?

The first one is pretty straight forward. While the King James just used “defiled” to describe what Shechem did to Dinah, modern translations clarify that the original meaning in Hebrew is “rape.” There is no real disagreement among translators that the meaning is that Shechem took her without consent. (I’ll leave aside a small minority that claim it was consensual to make their point that Dinah was at fault. Yes, those people exist. Bill Gothard is one of them.)

The second story is a bit more interesting in this context, because Piper uses a word to describe it which does not actually describe what went on.

Joseph was a slave in Potiphar's household. He rose through the ranks to become the administrator of the household. But he was still a slave, not a freeman. Potiphar’s wife asks him to sleep with her. 

Scratch that. 

She demanded he sleep with her. For days on end. Then she waited until there were no witnesses, and forcibly grabbed him, requiring him to ditch his robe to get away.

And then, she lied about him, claiming an attempted rape, and had him locked up indefinitely.

This is NOT a “seduction.” This is a serious abuse of power.

Joseph didn’t have the luxury of choosing a good option. She was going to use her power over a slave to gratify herself, or make sure he paid the price. After all, who would believe a slave? And if he had slept with her? If his master found out, he would be dead. If his mistress soured on him, she could have him killed with a word. This was a no-win for Joseph.

Anyone who has read To Kill A Mockingbird would recognize the power differential and the non-consensual nature of the situation. And anyone who is honest about the history of slavery would agree that a sexual abuse of power is characteristic of the master/slave relationship throughout history.

Likewise, if a boss threatened to fire an employee if he or she didn’t put out, we would call this sexual harassment, not “seduction.” If he or she grabbed the employee, we would call it sexual assault, not “seduction.”

I don’t think that Piper is so stupid that he doesn’t realize this. I also think that he knows full well that the word “seduction” does not mean in plain English - or particularly to his Evangelical audience - mean “serious abuse of power.”

In cases like this, I try to use Hanlon’s Razor (never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence), but I don’t think there is an innocent explanation here.

I believe Piper is intentionally misusing a word to further an agenda.

This agenda is one of blaming women for the sexual sins of men, and using that blame to control women. Let’s look at some of the implications of the statement, and see what they mean. 

Here is what I mean by that. I don't think Piper has ill intent. However, I believe he is smart enough to see that the Joseph story isn't a true "seduction" narrative. I believe he genuinely believes that there is no real difference, however, between what Potiphar's wife did, and what a woman does when she "seduces" in the sense of either indicating she would like to engage in consensual sex, or dresses and/or acts in such a way that a man feels aroused when he looks at her. 

Potential Implications of Piper’s Statement

First, let me clarify that all of these are potential implications. Some of them logically have to be true. However, some are obviously mutually contradictory. In these cases, I would argue that one of the options has to be the true one.

  1. All sexual sin is the same, regardless of consent.

This is one of the ones that I believe is generally subscribed to by most Evangelicals, unfortunately. Thus, rape is a sexual sin, as is sex outside of wedlock, as is “lust,” as is being flirty (particularly as a woman).

That’s how you can say that “rape” and “seduction” are the same sin.

2.     Rape is about sex, not violence.

This one is pretty ludicrous, but again is a common error that Evangelicals fall into when they talk about sex. I hate just about every implication of this, but the one that is the worst to me personally is the implication that every man is a potential rapist. Each of us has to clamp down on our sexual desire, or we are a rape waiting to happen.

In the real world, though, it turns out that rapists are a very small percentage of men (and far fewer women), and that the primary characteristic of rape isn’t sex, but violence. The point is power over the victim, which is why the rapist doesn’t even necessarily have to get off in some cases. The violence itself is enough of a turn on.

3.     Alternately, “seduction” is violence just like rape.

This is where the choice of stories is telling. Someone outside of Piper’s theological bubble would instantly recognize the violence of what Potiphar’s wife does.

I think, however, that Piper knows what he is doing here. I believe he is intentionally equating “seduction” with violence.

I have blogged extensively about “modesty culture”, and I can testify that there is a generally belief within the culture that women’s bodies are considered a violent assault against the virtue of men. That’s why they have to be kept covered.

In this worldview, a woman who expresses a desire to have sex with a man is being as violent with his virtue as a rapist is to a female.

In this worldview, a woman who dresses in a “seductive” way (that is, if a man finds her attractive), she is being violent with his virtue - just as if she raped him.

4.     If a man and a woman have consensual sex - it is her fault.

This follows from the above. His sin is rape. Her’s is “seduction.” So, if he doesn’t rape her, then it has to have been because she “seduced” him, right? “Same sin, different manifestation.”

5.     Expression of sexual desire in a female is an aberration - a perversion.

Clearly, at least to most of us in the modern world, a man who rapes has perverted the meaning of sex into violence and power.

Since, in Piper’s view, “seduction” is the same sin as rape, a woman who expresses a desire to have sex is also aberrant.

Wait, this sounds a bit like Piper’s good friend Doug Wilson, who claims that dominance and submission is an erotic necessity within marriage. (I blogged about Wilson’s views of gender here.) “Good” women don’t seduce their husbands, therefore, right?

So what if women may seduce their husbands? What does Piper’s statement imply in that case?

6.     Both seduction and rape are permissible within marriage.

Not too many people seem to be aware that marital rape used to be perfectly legal. Actually, a better way to put it was that sex within marriage was never considered rape, because a marriage was a lifetime consent to sex on demand without restriction.

7.     “Real” rape may not even exist.

After all, if the woman can “seduce,” then there will be few cases where the man cannot claim that he had no choice but to rape, because of the way she dressed, acted, and so on. Or even that she was out in public without a man to protect her. (See Killings, Honor and also Akin, Todd)


8.     Just like we have a legal right (and a duty) to punish and prevent rape, we have a right and a duty to punish and prevent “seduction.”

Where do you think the “modesty police” come from? From this idea. Women’s sin is allowing themselves to be attractive to men.

This is also why women are blamed for giving in to sexual desires outside of marriage in a way that men are not. (Purity culture is real.)

9.     Desiring sex (unless married) is as serious of a sin as rape.

If being “seductive” is the same sin as rape, then someone who desires - or, heaven forbid, seeks - sex outside of wedlock is as guilty as a rapist. And we all know that this is primarily directed at women, who are expected to fend off the advances of men to protect their “virtue.”

10.     Consent isn’t even remotely important when it comes to discussing sex.

There are only two kinds of sex in Piper’s world: married (heterosexual) sex, and unmarried sex. Consent isn’t important, and it doesn’t even enter the discussion. Essentially, God approves of sex between husband and wife, and disapproves of everything else, and that is all that matters.

11.     Preventing “seduction” and non-married sex should be as great of a priority for the church (and by implication, society) as prevention of rape and sexual assault.

This may well be why the church has completely botched its response to sexual predators. We see this in cases ranging from the Catholic Church and pedophile priests to the Sovereign Grace cover up of known predators. And also in young men who believe that being sexually attracted to a female is the moral equivalent of assaulting her.

Oh, and Todd Akin too.


This false equivalency leads to a lack of concern about violent and predatory behavior, and an over-obsession with “purity” and “modesty.”  Particularly for females.

A Problematic View of Sexuality

This is one of the primary reasons that the way the Evangelical church talks about sex makes me want to bang my head on my desk.

It holds a view of gender and sexuality that is rooted, not in the teachings or actions of Christ, but in the sexist and misogynist views of past cultures. (Well, our culture too, if we are honest.) The gist basically goes like this:

Men want sex, not commitment, and they are naturally violent and out of control when it comes to sex. They think of it all the time, and will take any encouragement as permission to force themselves on women.

In contrast, women don’t really like sex. Or at least good women don’t. And even if they do, they should realize that their sexuality (and really, their bodies) are a commodity to be traded to men in exchange for commitment and financial support. Since women need that support/protection/control by men, they owe it to themselves to sell their sexuality only to a high bidder, one who will give them commitment (marriage) and good financial support.

The whole system is upset if women a) don’t need the financial support and physical protection of men and b) seek out and enjoy sex for the same reasons that men do. And thus, “feminism”™ is evil and all that. After all, it seeks to make women the social, political, and economic equals of men, which ruins the whole hierarchy. And, it elevates female sexual pleasure and desire to the same level as that of men, which is clearly unthinkable.

This could be its own blog post, of course. As I see it, though, there are a number of problems that flow from this. Tweets like Piper’s are one of them. A failure to distinguish a qualitative difference between “seduction” - that is, sexual desire and desirability - and rape, is a symptom of an underlying view of gender and sexuality that is offensive - and just plain wrong. It is a male-centric view of sexuality, and a belief that women’s sexuality must be rigidly controlled, from her clothing on down.

There are other symptoms too, including Piper’s advice to women to endure beatings from their husbands. There are more too, but I will leave them to future posts. I do wish that Evangelicals would actually ponder why they keep having these Kinsley Gaffes. But I don’t think they really want to examine the poisonous root. Because that would threaten the gender essentialism, rigid gender roles, and hierarchy of power that has become the “gospel” to so many of them.


14 comments:

  1. Yeah, Piper seems to be saying pretty clearly that seduction is the female version of rape. Which is obviously stupid on its face. Then again, he seems to say well-meaning but actually horrible things all the time, esp. when he tweets. I've attempted to read a book by the man and let me tell you, he SUCKS at concision (Don't Waste Your Life was 300+ pages and probably could have been condensed into 30 or so). Twitter is NOT his friend and he should probably stop.

    Also, I know lots of people who can't see the coercion / power differential with the Potiphar's wife (heck, I couldn't until I was older). They can't see it in the Bathsheba or Esther accounts either. They make the fault with Bathsheba out to be mutual (or solely her fault - bathing outside is baaaad), and they make Esther into a love story between her and Xerxes/Ahasuerus (see Christian film One Night with the King for the most egregious and annoying example). So given that, as well as Piper's general incompetence/cluelessness and serious need of Strunk and White, I'm not as confident as you are that this particular tweet was malicious. I agree with everything else you said, though.

    I think you're 100% on-point with how evangelicals generally seem to think about consent - i.e., not at all. This particular comment thread at The Wartburg Watch (my most regular comment "hangout" space) last weekend is illustrative of this point:

    http://thewartburgwatch.com/2015/03/27/spiritual-friendship-even-celibacy-is-not-enough-for-some-christians/

    One commenter claimed that the reasoning behind legitimizing gay sex/marriage could also be used to legitimize bestiality and pedophilia, and that the only reason they are perceived as different is because the "ick factor" has been lost for gay sex. As you might imagine, they got quite a bit of pushback (including from me and the blog owners), because children and animals can't consent to sex and/or marriage. The original commenter, however, persisted in completely ignoring consent as a factor in the discussion.

    I disagree just as much with atheists / secularists I have read who claim consent is inherently incompatible with Christian sexual ethics, because the only thing that matters to Christians is whether God is okay with any given act. That seems pretty ethically simplistic IMO. So when Christians like Piper and the Wartburg commenter act as if consent is irrelevant, I have to wonder if they realize that they're actually agreeing with militant atheists about their own religion / ethical system.

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    1. So much to love in your comment. I have thought over your comment about malice, and I made some clarification in the post. It's a bit of a lawyer thing, but "malice" means less ill will than intentionality, and I hope I made that clear. I believe he may well genuinely believe that sexual harassment and coercion are no different than dressing "seductively."

      I too have seen too many cases where the coercion in the Bathsheba and Esther stories are missed. I don't remember ever missing it in the Joseph story, however. I think that was because *he ends up in prison.* That's pretty hard to miss, although maybe I identified with it more because I am male.

      There does seem to be a disconnect on the issue of consent with Evangelicals, and I completely agree with you on how ludicrous the argument that allowing gay sex will lead to allowing pedophilia really is. Add to that the common claim that non-Christians can't *possibly* be ethically consistent, which is about as arrogant of a statement as you can make.

      Also agree strongly with you that consent is - and moreover should be - not only compatible with Christian sexual ethics, but a necessary and crucial part of those ethics. If nothing else, the Golden Rule demands it.

      I have been struck - as have you - by the way that many of these guys insist on confirming the worst that atheists believe about us. It's so frustrating, because I really do see that guys like Richard Dawkins (also a notorious misogynist) are capable of far less damage than guys like Piper. I can show that Dawkins misunderstands the Bible - probably intentionally. But how do I argue that Piper and Wilson et al. aren't teaching real Christianity?

      I also think that the older generation of Evangelicals has become so tone deaf on sex that they are completely missing the way that they have and continue to alienate the younger generations.

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    2. I finally got around to reading the Wartburg Watch article you linked. Lots of good stuff there.

      I am particularly enjoying your comments on cross-gender friendships. That may be a future blog post, as I experienced a lot of that nonsense about opposite sex friendships inevitably leading to sex. (Because women seduce and men rape?)

      I have many cross-gender friendships that I cherish from my involvement in both law and music.

      Thanks for linking and commenting.

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    3. To be fair, I do understand where people like the Wartburg commenter get their ideas. There are pedophile groups trying to get pedophilia destigmatized, and a few scattered instances I have seen of people calling themselves "zoophiles" trying to destigmatize bestiality. But I'm still pretty skeptical that either of those (esp. pedophilia) will ever fly as something legally allowed. Not only because of the consent issues I already noted, but also because 1) I doubt more than a tiny percentage of people will ever be interested in either of those things, and 2) both touch on cruelty and abuse law (animal cruelty, child abuse, etc.) which I can't foresee many people in their right mind ever seriously proposing overturning, esp. in the current environment where in many ways people are finally becoming LESS tolerant of animal and child abuse.

      IMO these folks would have a stronger argument in this vein if they said gay marriage could lead to the normalization of polygamy and (adult consensual) incest (which at least both involve consenting adults), rather than going all the way to pedophilia and bestiality. Though even there, I doubt many people would actually be interested, and reducing the argument to just taking away the "ick factor" is still overly simplistic.

      Curious legal-ish question, though: I was telling someone about the bestiality thread and mentioned the consent issue. They said that wasn't relevant because we perform veterinary procedures on animals without their consent, so the only valid objection to legally allowed bestiality would be animal cruelty. Does this fly legally?

      My main concern with this person's reasoning is that it seems to make "go ahead" the default option in situations where someone can't consent, whereas the current default in those situations seems to be "stop." That would, obviously, affect people as well as animals (unconscious people, sleeping people, people in a coma, etc.), and in a 100% negative way.

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    4. There are some interesting legal issues there, of course.

      One thing that must be mentioned, however, is that polygamy, at least, isn't against "God's law." It is expressly provided for in the Mosaic law, and is never anywhere forbidden in the Bible, except arguably for Elders and Deacons. If you take the Bible as literally as possible, then Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were right.

      However, as many have pointed out, just because something is "permissible" doesn't make it a good thing for a society. Historically, polygamy has been driven by two forces: the view of women as property (leading to a collection of them by the wealthy), and the constant warfare leading to a shortage of males. (Did you see that DNA research recently that indicated that 10,000 years ago, only one male for every 18 females passed on their genes?)

      So, we as a society have determined that polygamy has problems. That said, I think we are seeing a trend to decriminalize polygamy between consenting adults, focusing on the REAL issues within groups like FLDS, which is the exploitation of children through underage "marriage." Again, note the collection of women and girls by the powerful leaders of the group.

      Another thought: polygamy actually exists in practice much more than we admit. It doesn't involve marriages, though. Powerful and wealthy men do and always have used women as disposable property for their sexual gratification.

      Regarding incest, I think you are correct that there will always be a low incidence of it, if for no other reason than that our immediate families will always be an extremely small proportion of the whole population. I don't know about everyone else, but I for one have no desire to have sex with most of the rest of the world's population. I think here too, we at least have a pretty good reason to have a prohibition, which would be the genetic risk. Note, however, that the rules vary greatly by country and state. Also, for the Biblical literalists, note that the second generation of humans would have been incestuous by default, and that Abraham and Sarah were half siblings, and thus in violation of the Mosaic law. It gets tricky, doesn't it...

      Now, regarding your beastiality question, we have an interesting ethical dilemma. (It's not a legal one yet, but it may become so.) Animals, like children or others who lack legal capacity, cannot "consent" to procedures or sexual activity. However, we do indeed do procedures on them - both animals and children, even infants. How do we do that? We appoint a person who *can* give consent to make those decisions. Otherwise, necessary medicine could never be done to children or animals. Where the ethical dilemma comes in is when we do procedures that are not necessary, and may or may not be in the "best interest" of the child or animal. For children, you typically see this in a request to sterilize a developmentally disabled child. For animals, of course, not only do we castrate them, but we eat them too, so you can see the issue. This is the vegan argument, of course, that we shouldn't eat creatures that can't consent. The flip side would be that whatever you can eat, you can screw. But you are right, that the general trend has been to be LESS tolerant of cruelty and abuse, and that consent is a key factor in this.

      For most with a theonomic viewpoint, though, the only question is what is permitted and what is forbidden. None of the rest matters. (This is why, in my opinion, the end result of theonomy is polygamy and the treatment of women as property.)

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    5. The only argument I've ever seen in favor of legalizing incest was apparently made by some Germans (don't have the reference handy), who said that the genetic risk argument didn't work because people with genetic conditions / disabilities are allowed to marry and have children, even though they are at an extremely high risk of passing the condition on to their children.

      But even if incest did eventually get legalized, in the US or anywhere else, like I said before and you said, I don't anticipate a tidal wave of siblings rushing to get married. It's also been suggested that psychologically, children raised together are desensitized to sexual attraction toward each other - which in that theory is why all the public cases of unintended incest are between siblings / twins who were separated at birth - but I'm not sure that's been solidly demonstrated to be factual.

      Thanks for the legal info. I had wondered about guardianship issues per animals and bestiality.

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    6. Another thing I should add, though, to be fair, is that the "pedophilia slippery slope" is a longstanding canard of the fundie right. I remember as a kid hearing over and over that the "gay agenda" was the decriminalization of pedophilia so that young boys could be legally victimized. Essentially, NAMBLA was what all gays were like.

      (This is what landed the Family Research Council on the hate group list, by the way...)

      I think it is very important to that worldview that gays be associated with predation, and no amount of reality will shake it.

      Just as a thought experiment, imagine if the same claim was made about the Catholic Church, which proved to have an ACTUAL history of protecting predators...

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    7. My college English professor taught me to avoid slippery-slope arguments, along with name-calling and other logical fallacies. :)

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  2. There are some basic truths here that shouldn't need saying but, in our current theological and emotional climate, do.

    1. Rape and harassment, including street harassment, flow not from the normal sexual desires we all have, but from the will to power. That power, as George Orwell explains in his novel 1984, expresses itself most obviously when one person makes another suffer and fear. As a friend of mine states succinctly: "Rape is not a sexual crime; it's a violent crime."

    2. Attraction between two people, even a hetero man and a hetero woman, does not have to be sexual. Even when it is, there is no sin unless a sinful act is done. Yet so many folks misunderstand Jesus' words in Matthew 5:28. "To look with lust" is not to experience a momentary desire, but to accept that desire and nurse it and plan and fantasize and let yourself become obsessed; that is the Biblical definition of lust, and it applies to any person or object--a synonym for "covet."

    The way these teachings have been misunderstood and mis-taught through the centuries has placed intolerable burdens on far too many (even one is too many!) good folks whose only "sin" is having the human drives God built into us. It is long past time for us to stop conforming to the world's thought patterns and allow God to transform us into balanced, truly loving people who do not fear our own or others' sexuality but rather model God's love for all beings regardless of their sexual practices and beliefs about themselves.

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    1. I agree. I think that so much of the problem here stems from a belief that God cares about sex more than anything else. And that God is eager to smite anyone who doesn't vigorously enforce a certain interpretation of God's sexual rules.

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    2. Indeed. You'd think sexual activity was tantamount to terrorism! *lol*

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  3. The most obvious distinction in Piper's comparison is that victims of "seduction" still have a choice (at least I hope he's not saying all men are ruled by compulsive instinct alone) but victims of rape don't have a choice. Also a definition of "seduction

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  4. Not finished :)

    A definition of seduction would be fairly subjective unlike rape which is defined objectively by law.

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    1. Well, one alternative is an idea that is all too common in our culture - and Christian culture as well: women have a "choice" too. If they wouldn't be so darn "seductive" (define that how you will), then men wouldn't want to rape them. Either way, the choice to make a highly gendered comparison shows that he wanted to show *some* equivalence. And that is the problem.

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