A ViewPoint by Princess O’Nika Auguste
After a jury found Stanford University athlete Brock Turner guilty in the sexual assault of an unconscious woman, there was a public outcry over the light jail sentence handed out by the judge. According to the judge, a harsher sentence for the young accomplished swimmer “would have a severe impact on him.” When the judge released Turner after serving only half of his already light sentence, there was more public anger. The judge’s decision has added fuel to current discussions about how seriously we take sexual assault. We focus so much on the voices of men, especially famous men in sports, entertainment, or positions of wealth and power who have been accused of rape and sexual assault, that we forget the voices of the women they have allegedly assaulted.
These voices are hushed the same way the voices of Tamar, Dinah, and the Levite’s concubine were silenced in the Bible. These women were raped by powerful men—Dinah by a Canaanite prince (Genesis 34); Tamar by her brother, Amnon, the heir to the throne of Israel (2 Samuel 13); and the Levite’s woman by a group of men from the tribe of Benjamin who gang-raped her and left her to die (Judges 19). Scripture tells us no more about them. All of these women were silenced by the narrator and the other characters in these accounts.
Similarly, in our own day, we have seen attempts to silence the alleged victims of sexual abuse by famous men like Stephen Collins, R Kelly, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby—and yes, even the acquitted Nate Parker— among others. The focus is more on those men and their careers than on their victims. We live in a world where rape victims are asked, “Why didn’t you choose to come forward before now?” Many people assume that women who say they were assaulted are lying.
In honesty, false accusations are rare. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women have been raped. Rape is underreported, and estimates of false accusations range from about 2 to 5 percent of the reported rape cases, although there are some statistics that suggest such accusations could be as many as 10 percent. But a rate of 10 percent of false reports would mean that 90% of these reported cases actually happened. At the same time, it is important to realize that two out of three sexual assaults are not reported to police and so are not part of these statistics. Actually, for various reasons, it is hard to find truly accurate data on sexual assaults.
Silence—hushing victims—is as much a part of our world as it was in the ancient world. Every single one of these Old Testament women vanished from the narrative, and the focus went on to the powerful men in their lives. Phyllis Trible considers such rape narratives to be a “texts of terror” (See her book, Texts of Terror, Fortress Press, 1984).
Today, as in the biblical narratives, instead of focusing on the details of the rape and the sufferings of the women who were victimized, we focus on the accomplishments of the powerful men who caused their suffering. We may even support them without thinking about it. How many of us still watch reruns of Seventh Heaven or The Cosby Show, whether on television or on DVD recordings that we had purchased before any of this had hit the fan? How many of us still listen to R. Kelly? How many of us still watch Woody Allen’s and Roman Polanski’s movies? If we are honest, most of us will answer yes. We are sympathetic to these men because we don’t want to ruin their lives—the same way the biblical text is sympathetic to the men.
For example, in Genesis 34 after Dinah is raped, the text says that Shechem (who had “seized her and lay with her by force”) fell in love with her (Genesis 34.2-3). The writer gives no thought to Dinah’s feelings, nor do we know what she is thinking. (Susanne Scholz, however, disagrees in her book Rape Plots: A Feminist Cultural Study of Genesis 34 [New York: Peter Lang Pub., 2000]. She believes that Dinah’s presence continues throughout the text. She writes, “The literary analysis showed, however, that despite this silence Dinah is present throughout the story. Indeed, everything happens because of her. Informed by feminist scholarship, the reading does not even require her explicit comments”[p. 168].)
Another example of the silencing of rape in the Bible is what happened to the Levite ‘s concubine in the book of Judges. Phyllis Trible, who dedicated a chapter to this unnamed woman in Texts of Terror, states, “The crime itself receives few words. If the storyteller advocates neither pornography nor sensationalism, he also cares little about the women’s fate. The brevity of this section on female rape contrasts sharply with the lengthy reports on male carousing and male deliberations that precede it. Such elaborate attention to men intensifies the terror perpetrated upon the woman” (Trible, p.76).
These women were considered nothing but property and unequal to men. Although women have come a long way from ancient Israel and have been afforded many rights, we are still in a patriarchal society where the victim of rape is silenced and her voice not heard. While Nate Parker has been acquitted, I am very uncomfortable about the loss and burial of his alleged victim who committed suicide. The narrative of the media and almost everyone has pushed away “Jane Doe’s” face, her suffering from the sexual assault (including taunting and harassment after it became known), and her voice. She left college and suffered severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Her older brother told the media she committed suicide 4 years ago at age 30. She in many ways was like Tamar in 2 Samuel who fought hard not to be sent away, but in the end was sent to live as “a desolate woman in her brother Absalom’s house” (2 Sam. 13:20) and forever vanished from the narrative. The only difference is that we don’t know what happened to Tamar after she went to Absalom’s house, but we do know what happened to Jane Doe. We know, too, that Absalom told Tamar to hush and downplayed the incident to her while planning revenge against Amnon. But nothing more is said about Tamar.
We also don’t also know what happened in that room which gave rise to the charges against Nate Parker and his friend who was with him and was also accused of sexual acts with an unconscious 18-year-old woman when they were college students. The friend received a prison sentence while Parker was acquitted, although both men claimed the sex was consensual. I believe personally that something terrible happened to Jane Doe, since her death certificate lists PTSD as a cause of death, among other things. Nate Parker has not helped his case with me because in most of his interviews he focuses on himself and his movies. We may never know what truly happened, but the disappearance of the victim from this tragic case until long after her death is troubling, as is the narrative of Tamar when the narrative focuses instead on Absalom, Amnon, and Absalom’s thirst for revenge and the throne of Israel, which would have gone to Amnon, as King David’s firstborn son, had he not been killed by Absalom’s men in retaliation for the rape.
Silence, the disappearing of women in the biblical text and in our own society, is bothersome. The focus of powerful men’s accomplishments and desires is sickening. As much as things have changed over thousands of years and the more rights we have obtained, I have to ask the question, have things changed as much as we might think?
For me, this issue is personal. I think I identify with Jane Doe very much, and that’s why I could not focus on, or would even go to see Nate Parker’s new film, Birth of a Nation. I will restate that we don’t know what happened and he was acquitted by a court of law. But as a victim of sexual assault several times, I know that in the first one that went to a court of law, my alleged rapist was acquitted. He got away with what he had done to me, and I slowly disappeared from the narrative because everyone expected me to move on.
This is still the expectation. I am expected to be silent, and many times I have been on the edge of suicide or of dying and have been sent away, like Tamar, “a desolate woman.” However, my narrative, my story, has not disappeared, nor will it. Because although there are those who wish to silence me, I can go to the “house” of my supportive brothers (and sisters), feeling desolate, yet knowing that someone will fight for me and along side me and not hush me, or silence me, or let my narrative disappear.
Sadly, none of the women in the biblical narrative came out of their rapes with their stories intact; they are no longer there to tell us their feelings. Their stories have vanished while the narrator went on to focus on the powerful men in their lives.
It is the same as what has happened in many cases to those alleged victims of these famous men. We don’t know many of their names, nor their faces. They have been silent—often out of fear for their reputations, their careers, their families, perhaps even for their lives. They have vanished. Therefore there is much room to work together to empower women and speak out to ensure our rights are not violated. These rape narratives must be looked at closely again, and we must reinterpret and bring to life the stories of Dinah, Tamar, and the Levite ‘s concubine because their story is our story; and if we do not give them life, our stories will finish like theirs—in silence. We will vanish from the text as they did.
We need to support each other and help victims gain the courage to speak out, and we need to refuse to listen to those who want victims to keep silent and not stir up trouble.
There is hope. More and more women are joining together to speak out. The Washington Post reported that by late May of 2016, accusers of Bill Cosby numbered 58 women.
And perhaps no woman who has spoken out has stirred up as much discussion as the woman whose was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner, the Stanford University star swimmer. Her rape was witnessed by two passersby as she lay unconscious behind a dumpster with Turner on top of her after a fraternity party. While the judge was concerned with the “severe impact” on the young man if he were given the usual sentence for felony sexual assault, and while the student’s father begged the judge to give him only probation because, according to the father, jail time would be “a steep price to pay for only 20 minutes of action out of his [son’s] 20 years of life,” the rape victim wrote a compelling 12 page single-spaced letter which she read in court and then allowed to be published online on BuzzFeed. This is one woman who has refused to be silent. She wanted it to be known what the “severe impact” on her life was, and how the assault that the father dismissed as “20 minutes of action” had turned her life upside down. Her statement went viral on the internet and was read all over the world. She broke the silence, and dared speak about how rape impacts a victim’s life.
She wrote, directly addressing the man who had assaulted her:
“Lastly you said, ‘I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin a life.’ Ruin a life, one life, yours, you forgot about mine. Let me rephrase for you, I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin two lives. You and me. You are the cause, I am the effect. You have dragged me through this hell with you, dipped me back into that night again and again. You knocked down both our towers, I collapsed at the same time you did. Your damage was concrete; stripped of titles, degrees, enrollment. My damage was internal, unseen, I carry it with me. You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”
© 2016 by Princess O’Nika Auguste and Christian Feminism Today