Sex and Power and Christian Education

game-of-thrones-rape-100My wife and I are always behind on television shows because we wait for them to come out on Netflix. We have only gotten through the end of the third season of Game of Thrones and have therefore not watched the scene that has raised such a kerfuffle these past few days, the scene in which Jaime rapes his twin sister Cercei over the corpse of their son. When we were watching the third season of Game of Thrones though, my wife did comment on the show’s use of naked females versus naked males. She has a problem with the way the HBO series depicts women.

She isn’t the only one of course. It has received a lot of attention. Saturday Night Live did a hilarious skit about the creators of the show, one of whom is a horny thirteen-year-old boy whose sole job is to see how many scenes, no matter what is actually going on, he can fill with naked boobs.

Critics are asking, why all the gratuitous female nudity? Doesn’t this undercut the effect of having strong female characters by objectifying women?

This is not just a matter of entertainment, as the rape culture in the military and on college campuses—and the scandals surrounding men like Woody Allen and Bill Cosby, who weathered their short scandals and are back to work—seems to indicate.

Now it appears that those in power at several Christian institutions are hoping for their scandals to blow over quickly. In recent months, a spate of scandals have cropped up in Evangelical education: rape scandals at Bob Jones University, Patrick Henry College, and Pensacola Christian College, Bill Gothard’s shameful undoing, and other scandals as well. In each instance, the institutional response has been to obscure and obfuscate.

As ever more stories of male misconduct at Christian churches and schools comes forth, the obvious question is how many do we have to see before we call it a trend?

These problems aren’t just suddenly sneaking up and biting them on the ass either. My sister attended Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles over thirty years ago, and she knew he was creepy then. I have personally been aware of similar behavior by prominent men at other Christian institutions, situations that were public secrets.

These Christian colleges, even as they publicly decry the moral decline of our culture, scramble to do damage control. An ever more troubling picture emerges about men and power and sex within the church as part of their tactics is to shame and discredit the women who they have harmed.

It appears that when they talk of moral decline what they’re really talking about is who gets to say what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. Why is this problem so deeply entrenched in a culture that supposedly stresses moral purity?

In an article written for Aeon Magazine, science writer Matthew Hutson discusses new studies related to human nakedness and objectification, and according to Hutson, it is more complicated than the mere objectification of women.

He writes, “Objectification has been defined in feminist literature to include several elements, including the denial of autonomy and the denial of subjectivity…she becomes, in the viewer’s mind, an object, a ‘piece of meat’, devoid of any internal life.”

Recent research seems to indicate that something different is going on. “In most cases, thinking of a person as a body does not lead to objectification in a literal sense, in which the person becomes an object. Rather, [the person] is dehumanized…becomes a sensitive beast.”

The naked person becomes a sensitive beast in the viewer’s mind. This is rooted, according to Hutson, in a Platonic dualism between the spiritual-intellectual ideal and the vulgar physical body. It seems the research is bearing out Jonathon Swift’s depictions of naked Yahoos that feel with great passion but are stupid brutes, and Houyhnhnms that can reason but do not have disgusting human bodies.

These Christian organizations are not showing any naked women, but boy, how they do obsess over the female body as a source of temptation and shame. Sensitive beast is a good representation of their attitude toward women—poor, weak creatures, ever ready to feel with great passion but not equipped for the manly work of thinking.

I remember hearing a Baptist preacher explain why women should not be leaders. “Satan chose Eve because he knew she would be easy to fool,” he said. Satan knew she would think with her heart instead of her head, which of course leads women to all kinds of silly decisions. “That’s why he had to make sure Adam wasn’t around,” he also said, because Adam would not have fallen for Satan’s ruse.

I was talking with a friend about this recently and she told me her father, a minister, recently admonished her brother that he had a responsibility to his wife because, we men “were made by God to be the lords of this earth.” He said, “Your wife needs you…she needs your lordship to deal with her emotions.” Another friend was watching her daughter at gymnastics recently, and a man from a local Christian institution asked her what she does. “I am a college professor,” she told him. His response: “Well, good for you.”

The Game of Thrones show runners defended the rape scene, claiming it “becomes consensual by the end.” Men are used to telling women what they really wanted, or pretending it is what they really wanted even if it is not.

You might say that it is ludicrous to compare a Christian institution to a dark and brutal show like Game of Thrones. I say that when it comes to the treatment of women it is apt. For many of these men in power, the fact that women are speaking out at all, standing up to usurp the authority that is clearly a man’s birthright, is the real problem.

It is easy to dismiss a sensitive beast and still feel good about yourself. What is not easy is allowing a sensitive beast to question your authority, or worse point out that the moral high ground from which you have been proclaiming all these years is actually a mound of stinking refuse.

Vic Sizemore earned his MFA in fiction from Seattle Pacific University in 2009. His short stories are published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, Silk Road Review, Atticus Review, PANK Magazine Fiction Fix, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Conclave, and elsewhere. Excerpts from his novel The Calling are published in Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Prick of the Spindle, Burrow Press Review, Rock & Sling, and Relief. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction, and been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading and a Pushcart Prize. You can find Vic at http://vicsizemore.wordpress.com/.

Note: This post was originally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.