Sexual Assault and the American Way

And another sex scandal pops into the news. This time it’s the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, cringing in shame upon the recent release of a “bombshell” report detailing two decades of sexual abuse by pastors and other church officials, along with ongoing official coverup of the crimes and denigration of any victims who had the courage to speak up.

“Crisis is too small a word. It is an apocalypse,” one former church official said.

Yet another American apocalypse, you might say — linking the SBC with institutions as diverse as the military, the Catholic Church, Hollywood, and of course, politicians. Whatever such institutions stand for, whatever their values, what is suddenly on public display is the fact that these values don’t apply to the institutions themselves. Hierarchical power rules and officially espoused values morph, essentially, into public-relations clichés.

And I don’t even mean these words in a condemnatory way. The issue transcends individual social structures. As the diversity of the above organizations indicates, sexuality — and its taboo nature — permeates American culture as a whole, and although things have loosened up in the last couple generations, the phenomenon of sexuality remains mostly private, hidden behind a wall of shame.

As I wrote some years ago: “This a world in which young people ‘come of age’ — come into their sexuality — in utter isolation. While violence is lovingly spread across the entertainment and news media, sex remains sealed in cringing aversion.

“We live in a world in which powerful men are trapped in their own adolescence.”

And, as the Associated Press informs us, the result can look like this:

“Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention . . .  stonewalled and denigrated survivors of clergy sex abuse over almost two decades while seeking to protect their own reputations, according to a scathing 288-page investigative report issued Sunday.

“These survivors, and other concerned Southern Baptists, repeatedly shared allegations with the SBC’s Executive Committee, ‘only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility.’”

The independent firm that conducted the investigation spoke with survivors of varying ages, including children, and reported that the trauma they experienced went beyond the initial abuse and included “the debilitating effects that come from the response of the churches and institutions like the SBC that did not believe them, ignored them, mistreated them, and failed to help them.”

Remind you of anything?

In 2012, the Pentagon released a report estimating that 26,000 cases of sexual assault had occurred in the U.S. military — up from 19,000 the previous year — of which some 3,000 had actually been reported . . . because, you know, same deal. The victims mostly didn’t want to bring even more trouble into their lives.

Rapes are reported to military commanders, who, as with religious leaders, have an institutional image to protect. A sexual assault allegation quickly becomes an infuriating inconvenience — something way too easy to ignore. While Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has been introducing legislation every year since 2013 that would put investigation of such accusations into the hands of independent prosecutors, it has been continually blocked from coming to a vote.

The consequences of this double crime — sexual assault followed by official indifference — is deeply pernicious to the victims themselves. Last year, the New York Times told the detailed story of a female Marine who went through that process, winding up (no surprise) in a state of deep depression.

“Soon, her fear gave way to self-loathing. She woke up every morning angry that she’d woken up at all. She began to believe that she deserved the attack and that the world would be better off without her.

“Over the next four years, (she) tried to kill herself six times. She can still feel the scars on her wrists, but they are now mostly hidden by tattoos. Somehow, she always stopped just short of cutting deeply enough to die.”

Eventually, she left the Marines and began reclaiming her life. The Times, noting that nearly a quarter of U.S. servicewomen have reported being sexually assaulted while in the military, called the phenomenon “a poison in the system.” And it ended the story in a way I’ve never seen before: “If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at . . .” and it lists the phone number.

Something large is fomenting here. It goes beyond crime and punishment. I think it involves understanding who we are, or maybe more to the point, understanding the nature of the world we have created for ourselves, sometimes referred to as “dominator culture.” Mixed with sexual desire and confusion, it can turn into a mess.

“In the dominator model the pursuit of external power, the ability to manipulate and control others, is what matters most,” writes bell hooks. “When culture is based on a dominator model, not only will it be violent but it will frame all relationships as power struggles.”

Curbing sexual assault — ending it — is not a power struggle. It’s far more complex than that, a process that can only begin with honoring and valuing the victims, setting aside what we think we know, and listening to them.

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.