Rape culture – a culture where violence against women and victim blaming is the norm – is alive and well in our society. Women are taught from a young age that rape is the worst thing that could possibly happen in our lives. As a patriarchal institution, the Church supports rape culture. Although texts, traditions, and teachings can be a resource for women who have been victimized, they can also serve as a roadblock and encourage further victimization.
There has been a long history of women and girls being taught by the Church that their lives are of little value once their hymens are broken. Citing the rape of Roman matron Lucretia, Church father Jerome stated that rape is the one exception for suicide. In fact, according to Jerome, “Although God is able to do all things, he cannot raise up a virgin after a fall.”* Although he argued that at the time of the resurrection of the body every affliction and mutilation would be healed, Jerome claimed that not even the power of God could repair a broken hymen. Likewise, Tertullian commended Lucretia for her suicide and claimed she was an example for Christian women.
Harmful ideas about women, rape, and victimization have been promoted by biblical rape texts and their interpretations. These “rape texts” of the Bible have been utilized to typify how “real” rape victims behave and suggest that women who claim rape are suspect. From the story of Ms. Potiphar (Genesis 39), that offers the image of a woman crying rape as one not to be trusted, to the story of Susanna (Daniel 13) that presents the notion that a rape victim should be silent, biblical texts set forth images of women and sexual violence that support rape culture.
In some texts, threats of sexual violence against women are completely ignored in favor of focusing on threats to men. For instance, in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), although Lot had offered his virgin daughters to be gang raped by the angry mob, attention is instead focused on the threat of rape against the visiting angels. In other texts where rape has occurred, attention has been focused on the story of the men in the text, rather than the victimization of the women. In 2 Sam 16, David’s ten pilegesh (commonly translated as concubines), were taken upon a roof and “gone into” by Absalom “in the sight of all of Israel.” However, the rape of these women has virtually gone unacknowledged and the text has instead been examined as a political coup.
There are also narratives about women and girls being protected from rape by divine intervention which punishes the victim and rewards the would be rapist. For instance, In the Acts of Peter, Peter’s daughter is kidnapped by Ptolemy who intends to rape her because of her beauty. Peter’s daughter is struck by God and left in a disfigured state so that she would not be raped. Ptolemy repents and is “made whole again” whereas Peter’s daughter is left disfigured so that she will no longer tempt men.
The legends of the virgin martyrs describe stories of women who endure gruesome and sadistic deaths in order to maintain their purity for God. These women experienced torture directed at their femaleness – St. Agatha had her breasts ripped from her body, St. Katherine had her body mangled by spiked wheels. These legends claim that the women demonstrated their love for God by accepting horrific deaths that allowed them to enter heaven with an intact hymen. Thus, they were elevated to sainthood.
St. Maria Goretti, the most recent virgin martyr, died in 1902 at the age of 12 after refusing to be raped, instead accepting death in order to protect her virginity. She was canonized just 48 years after her death – a very short time. At her canonization, Pope Pius XII claimed Maria was an example to girls and women and referred to her attempted rape as “an attractive pleasure.” In addition, her rapist, who claimed that Maria had come to him in a vision and had forgiven him, was present and stood at her mother’s side during the canonization. Maria Goretti became a model for chastity and her legend became part of the curriculum within parochial schools until the Second Vatican Council.
Her story continues to be told as a lesson to girls and women as is demonstrated in this video which praises St. Maria for her “Christian virtue”:
The tradition of chastity as women’s honor and shame within the Church fuels societal notions that women who are raped are damaged and have tarnished their relationship with God. Legends of virgin martyrs and their pornographic torture are disturbing and equate sexual terrorism. They are taught with the intent of conditioning women and girls to believe that there is no worse thing in life that could happen to them than being raped; not having your breasts ripped from your body and not having your body mangled on a spiked wheel can equate the suffering endured as a result of being raped.
The androcentric texts and teachings presented here are simply a glimpse of what perpetuates rape culture within the Church. Although the Church is perfectly placed to challenge rape culture, it is currently so complicit that it cannot change it.
*Jerome. Epistle 22:5. (CSEL 54:150).
For additional information on rape culture see Buchwald, Emilie, Pamela Fletcher, and Martha Roth. ed. Transforming a Rape Culture. Minneapolis: Milkweed, 1993.