I was raped when I was a fourteen-year-old virgin. I told no one for over a decade. It was the 1970s, a time when being raped carried stigma and shame. The #MeToo movement shed light on what had been hidden in the dark and encouraged women to speak up about the sexual harassment and abuse. Recently a new Facebook friend asked me if she could share her assault story over Messenger; I agreed. It broke my heart to read of her ordeal, but the hardest part was when she wrote, “I am so ashamed that it happened.”
The modern movement highlighting the gross reality and long-term harm of sexual abuse has tried to shed the stigma and shame victims felt in the seventies and beyond. So why are victims still so ashamed? And why are many victims so afraid to come forward? I believe it is, in part, because of the way we talk about sexual assault. We talk about sexual assault in the passive voice.
Writers are told to avoid passive voice because it results in stilted and boring prose. But passive voice can be worse than boring—it harms those God wants us to lift up and encourage. When it comes to rape, our culture communicates in the passive voice. Rape statistics are cited in passive voice. One in five women have been raped. But by whom? Even the #MeToo hashtag—as in, I was raped too—leaves out the guilty actor. The prevalence of the passive voice sends the finger of stigma and shame pointing toward the survivors.
I wondered what the Bible had to say on this issue. Where was the finger of guilt and shame directed? Did God use passive voice in the stories of rape that appear in these hallowed pages? Is the guilty rapist of scripture left out of the story? Turns out the answer is no.
The Active Voice of God
We can begin to answer that question in the very first book of the Bible. Genesis 34:1–2 says: “Now Dinah, the daughter Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the land. When Shechem, son of Hamor the Hivite, the ruler of that area, saw her, he took her and raped her.” When Dinah’s brothers heard what had happened, “[t]hey were shocked and furious, because Shechem had done an outrageous thing in Israel by sleeping with Jacob’s daughter.”
Do you see the sentence, “Dinah was raped”? Me neither. Instead, we see the whole event communicated in the active voice. Shechem raped Dinah. Shechem had done an outrageous thing. There was no hiding behind passive voice for Shechem. And the result isn’t passive either. Dinah’s brothers didn’t lay the blame at her feet. In fact, Shechem paid what they considered the only fitting penalty for his guilt: death.
The Bible doesn’t slip into passive voice after Genesis either. In the well-known story of King David’s reprehensible transgression against Bathsheba, we see David clearly use his kingly power to get what he wanted. The Bible doesn’t directly say David raped Bathsheba, but his behavior matches the definition. David’s position as king and his royal actions stripped her of choice without consequence. Then, when consequence came anyway, and she became pregnant, King David had her husband killed. Throughout the story recounted in 2 Samuel 11, King David is the subject—the guilty actor. Instead of a passive construction that tells us generally that Bathsheba was raped, the chapter ends with these words: “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.”
It’s clear throughout the Old Testament that rape was not uncommon, and God knew who was to blame. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God said to Israel, “In you one man commits a detestable offense with his neighbor’s wife, another shamefully defiles his daughter-in-law, and another violates his sister, his own father’s daughter.” Even when addressing Israel as a whole, God’s words are given in the active voice.
Despite having spent years studying the Old Testament—including the accounts of rape where God uses active voice, the Jewish leaders we encounter in the gospels had forgotten how to properly place the blame.
In an effort to trick Jesus into contradicting the law of Moses, they brought before him a woman “caught in the act of adultery” in John 8:4. With whom? What were the circumstances? The Pharisees ignored the fact that she was possibly, even more than likely, the powerless victim than the culpable party in this affair.
Jesus, knowing the truth, replied, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” He didn’t let the guilty party hide behind passive sentence structure. Those who retraumatized her by dragging her out, likely naked and ashamed, could not avoid blame.
Unfortunately, we in the church sometimes forget the heart of Jesus. We doubt those who courageously speak up and say, “Me too.” We state passively “she was raped” leaving the finger of shame pointed at the victim and the door open for questioning the actions of the woman who we think was raped because she was drinking, dressing immodestly, or dating the wrong type of man. Victims of rape don’t speak up because they know where the finger is likely to lead.
But what would happen if we talked about rape in active voice, like God does? What if rape statistics were stated in terms of how many people had committed this terrible crime instead of how many people had been victims?
Would using active voice to talk about rape change each survivor’s view of herself? Could it empower survivors to speak up, without shame, about what their attacker had done?
Framing her rape in active voice helped my friend who felt the shame of rape weigh upon her soul. Three men knocked her down while she was on a run and gang-raped her in her neighborhood forest park. I rewrote her story in a poem and reminded her that the blame belonged with those who attacked her.
Not with her.
Not with her choice to run alone.
Not with her decision to run on a trail in the forest.
Not with her failure to fight back harder against three attackers.
Not with her.
Not ever with her.
Reframing her story in the active helped her to let go of the shame and begin to heal.
The language of sexual assault can cause survivors to hide in shame and fear. Or it can offer the freedom and healing God desires for us all.
So let me tell you the story I started this article with again.
My first boyfriend raped me when I was a fourteen-year-old virgin. I wish I had told someone because what he did was wrong. If I had, maybe it wouldn’t have taken me thirty years to realize God cared.
Cover image by Jason Leung.
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