I feel like Captain Obvious pointing this out, but there’s so much confusion and defensiveness about religion and patriarchy out there, I’m going to have to say it: That there’s a bunch of rapist priests in the Catholic church and the Pope was involved in the cover-up should not be surprising. The Catholic church is the classic example of what feminists like me like to call “rape culture“. Rape culture crops up when male power over women and children is exalted, when sexuality is demonized, and when men are encouraged to think of women (and children’s) bodies as their property. All these aspects of patriarchy aren’t only part of the Catholic church, they’re celebrated. The exuberant love of male dominance that is the Catholic dogma is going to turn men into rapists who get a rise out of sexually dominated people they believe are lesser than them.
But let’s take this argument one piece at a time, looking at the similarities between secular rape culture and Catholic teachings.
In a rape culture, women are assumed to be public property. Rape culture never officially condones rape, but it condones the attitude that women exist to please men, and refusal from women to do so is bitchy. Secular rape culture is Nice Gusy® talking about women’s sexuality as something that’s handed out as a reward for good behavior. Rape culture is men thinking they have a standing right to interrupt what women are doing and hit on them, and that women who reject them straightforwardly are bitches. Rape culture is men telling strange women on the street to smile.
In secular rape culture, women are presumed up for sex with anyone who asks unless they make a big display of how not into they are. In rape culture, victims are chastised for what they were wearing, what party they went to, drinking, and even going on dates, which rape culture teaches is basically a yes to sex with whoever demands it. In rape culture, what women say they want is not considered relevant data, not compared to what they were wearing or drinking.
The Catholic church also teaches that women exist to serve men and do not have the right to say no. A sexually active woman has no right to say no to any sperm that decide to set up shop in her uterus. Catholic women are taught their bodies and their sexualities don’t belong to them, but that these things exist solely to produce more and more babies. You not only are assumed to have a standing invitation to baby-making if you’re sexually active, but they don’t even give you the slim technical right to say no that secular rape culture gives you. But really, the main difference between the two versions of rape culture is that the secular one believes that women have to take all comers, penis-wise, and the Catholic one believes this about sperm.
Rape culture demonizes sexuality. This was the big idea underlying Yes Means Yes, and I think it’s a valid one. It’s clear that secular rape culture demonizes female sexuality. Rape apologists argue that women are dirty sluts but ashamed of their slutty behavior, so they “cry rape”. Rape culture looks the other way when men use sex to humiliate women, from cat calling to men talking trash about female bodies to score points with friends. Rape culture also demonizes male sexuality. While officially condemning rape, rape culture portrays male sexuality as inherently mean-spirited, aggressive, and out of control. No distinction is made between a desire to fuck a woman and a desire to humiliate and overpower her. Rape culture is one where men who have consensual sex with women are encouraged to see it as somehow getting one over on her. Rape culture talks about men “scoring”, as if women are the opposing team, and while overt force is officially condemned, rape culture thinks it’s cute when men try to overcome women’s opposition to intercourse through lies and other forms of coercion.
Needless to say, the Catholic church completely agrees that sexuality is shameful and dirty. When you think of sex as a bad thing, it’s a short leap to seeing it as a way to dominate and hurt others, including children.
In a rape culture, there is more concern for the well-being of rapists and male dominance than for victims of rape. Frat boy or athlete or esteemed member of any male-dominated subculture—which is most of them—rapes a woman. Immediately, the system moves to protect the rapist and condemn the victim. It happens over and over. The victim is accused of lying, being crazy, or blowing this out of proportion. The man’s importance to his community is trotted out as a reason he shouldn’t be punished.
Apparently, the Catholic church doesn’t venture from this script one bit.
It’s important as this scandal continues to go on that we talk about this using the term “rape”, because “child abuse” just doesn’t cut it. This is a subtle but important issue. Rape culture is less a result of female oppression per se, and more the result of the exaltation of male dominance. Men are encouraged to see dominance as the defining trait of masculinity, and since sexuality is tied up in our gendered images of ourselves, sex itself becomes an expression of male dominance for some men. Raping and harassing is exciting because it makes you feel powerful, and more like a real man. Rapists have different preferences for who they like to rape, but whether or not a rapist prefers to assault children, women, or other men, he is raping to get access to that specific thrill.
Rape culture specifically likes to make big distinctions between different kinds of rape. Part of this is innocent enough—attacking children is a special kind of horror, after all. But when we put rape of women in one category and rape of children in another and rape of men in another, we’re discouraging people from seeing the connections. But there is a line between tolerating the abuse of women and tolerating the abuse of children. In a culture where male sexuality is assumed to be domineering and debasing, then some men will, for various reasons, skip right past raping women on to raping children.