WATER Teleconference with Gina Messina-Dysert
“In Search of Healing: Confronting Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence”
April 24, 2013
WATER is deeply grateful to Gina Messina-Dysert for her gracious sharing of remarks on confronting a rape culture. We consider this a central issue for feminist work in religion, and we hope that her contribution here will spark others to join in this important work.
Summary of Gina’s Opening Remarks
Gina Messina-Dysert sends her thanks to Mary, Diann, Wendy, and WATER for these teleconferences.
In preparation for this teleconference, Gina thought that rape culture and spiritual violence would be a timely and important topic. Not only has violence against women been prevalent in the news recently, but it seems to be a subject that is constantly in the media. This demonstrates that rape culture continues to have an impact our society.
2. Rape Culture in the News
a. Steubenville: The reporting on Steubenville in the news has lead many to ask what would lead to these boys to think it was appropriate to photograph images of sexual assault and then post them to the internet? The answer is rape culture. The treatment of the victim in Steubenville exemplifies what rape culture is.
b. Rehtaeh Parsons: Similarly, the recent suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons in Canada, a teenage girl who was raped and had photographs of this rape spread around her school, demonstrates rape culture. These cases are not isolated but are forms of violence that women and girls face daily.
3. Defining a Rape Culture
Dr. Messina-Dysert defines a rape culture as: “A culture where rape and other forms of sexual violence are common and wide spread. In addition, sexual violence is condoned, it’s normalized, and it’s encouraged by prevailing norms and attitudes. And misogynistic practices are validated and rationalized through various acts of sexism.”
a. Societal Influences
Gina explained that a rape culture has a high rate of rape, but a low rate of prosecution and conviction. Victim-blaming and community rejection are experienced, as the two above cases have shown. This rape culture maintains a cycle of violence against women, and women lack full legal, social, and economic equality with men. Women are seen as inferior and as deserving of the violence against them.
The factors that contribute to a rape culture are numerous but include assigned gender roles, the language we use to describe men and women, myths about rape, and society’s treatment of victims of sexual violence.
Dr. Messina-Dysert encouraged us to examine our daily surroundings and consider how rape culture is present in ads and media because we engage with rape culture frequently and often in ways we do not recognize. One example that she gave is the popular young adult fiction series Twilight. This series sends the message that women cannot live without men and that women enjoy abuse as part of sex.
b. Rape Culture and Religion
Gina clarified that her analysis of rape culture and religion will be limited to Christianity, the Hebrew Bible, and New Testament. She points to other scholars work in the field including Marie M. Fortune, Joy A. Schroeder, and Susanne Scholtz.
Gina Messina-Dysert discussed the way that biblical texts support a rape culture giving the examples of Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39) creating the image of a woman “crying rape” as untrustworthy, and Susanna (Daniel 13) putting forth the notion that rape victims should be silent. Scriptural studies on rape texts in the Bible have neglected the experiences of women. For example, traditional scholars of the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34) have focused on this text as the rape of Shechem even though Shechem is the rapist. In the case of Absalom’s rape of David’s 10 concubines (2 Samuel 16), patriarchal biblical scholarship talks of a political coup instead of rape.
Gina cited purity myths as another key element in rape culture within Christianity. Purity myths perpetuate the idea that women’s lives are of no value if she is not a virgin. The story of Lucretia, a Roman woman who committed suicide after her rape, has been repeated as an example for women such as the church father Jerome who said that rape is the one exception to suicide because not even God can heal a broken hymen. These stories support the idea that there is nothing that women can experience that is worse than rape.
A third aspect of Christianity that supports rape culture is the legends of the virgin martyrs that developed out of the tradition of early Christian women’s martyrdom. These legends show that women martyr themselves to protect their chastity, even if they experience gruesome deaths. Eleven-year-old Maria Garetti is a modern example of this. Maria “chose” (Dr. Messina-Dysert used this advisedly) to kill herself instead of being raped. The Catholic Church later canonized her for her protection of her virginity. She is lifted up as an example for other women. We carry these stories with us from an early age, reinforcing the notion that virginity is more important than women’s lives, thus supporting rape culture.
4. Sexual Violence = Spiritual Violence
a. Double Victimization: Due to rape culture, sexual violence is different than other crimes and has come to be understood as a fate worse than death. In addition to the physical violence of the crime, the community in its rejection of the victim commits spiritual violence. Double victimization means that victims are “blamed and shamed because of the violence perpetrated against them” as well as from the physical violence.
b. Han: Gina believes the best way to describe the pain of rape victims is han. The Korean concept of han connotes a multiple suffering that compresses the worst sufferings in the world—especially sufferings from social injustice—into one suffering that damages the spirit. The spiritual victimization of han for rape survivors includes the rape itself, the community- and self-blaming, the inability to articulate pain, and the isolation and invisibility.
5. Healing: Han-Pu-Ri as a Model
Dr. Messina-Dysert asked, “What can we do to find healing in a culture that perpetrates such an incredible form of violence that is ongoing and relentless?”
Gina spoke of how impressed she was by Han-Pu-Ri as a model that can create healing in a rape culture. She cited the work of Chung Hyun Kyung on this topic. Han-Pu-Ri arose from the Korean Shamanistic tradition to respond to han in order “to offer a voice to voiceless” and allow people to speak about their han. In this practice, the community is responsible to release the han, either by eliminating oppression or comforting those who have experienced the violence. Han-Pu-Ri allows for collective healing/repentance and spiritual healing.
The three steps of Han-Pu-Ri are:
1) Speaking and hearing: Opportunity for victims to speak the oppression and to be heard by the community.
2) Naming: Allows the victim to identify the source of the injustice.
3) Changing: The attainment of peace by the victim through transformation of unjust situation.
Dr. Messina-Dysert suggests that women who are victims of sexual violence can come together in a process of accompaniment as they release their han and experience healing. Take Back the Night exemplifies Han-Pu-Ri in many ways. This process can also take place on a smaller level because community can be between two people.
1. One woman shared about her website Our Stories Untold that provided a space to talk about sexual violence in the Mennonite Church, a place where these stories could be told. She struggles with how to encourage women to share their stories.
Gina’s work for over a decade with rape survivors has shown her the importance of survivors telling their stories, even if only to one person because it allows for healing. Asking women to share this is delicate because it can be powerful for others to hear but it also can be painful. It is always appropriate to encourage survivors to share because it to helps them and other women heal, but rape culture also makes it difficult to share. She explained that when we say, “Break the silence” and “Speak out,” it sounds so easy, but is really terribly difficult because we have a long way to go to remove the shame from this.
2. Another woman asked, “What do we need to say about men in this?” If there is spiritual death, then ought we also talk about spiritual homicide committed by men? She noted Carol Adam’s use of the “absent referent.” She also raised concern about generalizing about women’s experience of rape where all women may not experience spiritual death in such a way.
Dr. Messina-Dysert clarified that it is not just men doing the killing but the rape culture. We all participate in a rape culture, and we need to recognize how we operate in this rape culture. She acknowledged that we are constantly telling women and girls how not to get raped as opposed to telling men and boys not to rape. We need to breakdown the culture that causes men to treat women like objects.
Gina explained that spiritual death is not a universal experience. She said that people have different experiences in coping with sexual violence, but patterns of blame, isolation, and shame can be recognized from testimonies that are shared. Gina pointed to the work of Traci C. West who has discussed race issues and victimization and how white women often do not address how experiences differ due to race, sexuality, class, religion, etc.
3. Another woman followed up on the previous question and appreciated the focus on community of Han-Pu-Ri. She asked about where justice-making and accountability for the perpetrator and the culture, which is an important part of healing, fits into the Han-Pu-Ri model.
Gina agreed that accountability and justice making are key components. In Han-Pu-Ri, hearing in step one is crucial because it calls upon the community that commits this violence to hear what is wrong and to collectively repent of this wrongdoing. Part of this is to acknowledge what it means to prosecute these crimes because sexual violence not taken seriously as exemplified by reports discussing the ruined lives of football players in the Steubenville case.
4. A participant said that she found the talk liberating and empowering as a survivor of rape by an Episcopal priest. She expressed that the retaliation from the hierarchy was dehumanizing and painful. Because so few people report the sexual violence against them, she asked about how we might challenge the status quo in order to give survivors a safe space to speak. She also asked about Gina’s thoughts on the relation between war culture and rape culture that both devalue the bodies and lives of women.
Gina thanked the woman for her courage of sharing the story, especially about the retaliation that she faced. Dr. Messina-Dysert asserted that to make safe spaces for sharing we have to transform the culture. We also have the responsibility to recognize how our own voices are important in this situation and the ways that we are involved in the culture. One way to go about this is to do more training with law enforcement, police officers, medical personal, etc. to challenge biases and assumptions about the victims because these are often the first people to respond to victims.
As for the second question of rape culture and war culture, Gina preferred to answer via email because of the importance and complexity of the question.
5. Another woman asked about what Gina would teach teachers to counteract rape culture?
First, Gina suggested that teachers need to pay attention to dynamics in classrooms between boys and girls. Also consideration of the content of work in the classroom is important. Focusing on male characters due to the belief that boys won’t be interested in female characters because women are not as strong does not help. Another element is to be a good listener to children without making accusations.
6. The final question asked was about what liturgical and ritual resources are available for survivors of rape?
Gina recommended Marie Fortune and the FaithTrust Institute’s resources. With respect to Christian resources, Gina said she focuses on the liberative teachings of Jesus as foundational to Christianity. Diann L. Neu also responded that within her work, she focuses on healing and reclaiming the body.
WATER thanks Gina Messina-Dysert and wishes her well on her new position at Ursuline College.
Please feel free to share this teleconference with friends, colleagues, students at http://www.waterwomensalliance.org/teleconferences-audio-and-notes/.
Join us for our next teleconference with Jeanette Stokes, director of the Center for Women and Ministry in the South, Wednesday, May 29, 2013, 1 PM EDT.