Friday, January 31, 2014

Rape and Religion


What can 

Earlier this month, January, 2014, major news sources told of a gang rape of a young Hindu Indian woman who violated village norms by having an affair with a married Muslim man and did not pay her portion of the fine. President Obama called. Recently, newly elected problem of predatory priests within the worldwide Catholic church, which of course is not alone among religious groups dealing with the problem of predatory clergy. The U.S. high rate of rape within the U.S. military. Laws against rape are close to universal. But rape happens. And rape happens often.


The Bible contains classic tales of romantic love as in the story of Isaac who was smitten with love for Rebekah whom he met at the local watering hole (Genesis 24). But there are also horrific stories of rape and laws about rape. I’ll reference one story as evidence. A man on a trip offered his concubine as a substitute for himself to local men who were insisting this traveler-guest’s local host give up his male guest so the male villagers could have sex with him. The details can be found in Judges 19. The woman was raped and abused through the night and left barely alive outside the house.

In ancient Israel, a man who sexually violated a young woman was required to compensate her father and treat the woman as his wife (Exodus 22:16-17Deuteronomy 22: 28-29). Though many condemn the apostle Paul for his limitations on the role of women in the church, others find evidence of progress in his push for loving and respectful treatment of women in his admonishments to husbands to love their wives (e.g., Ephesians 5: 25). Rape has been a problem throughout recorded history. Religious and spiritual leaders deal with sexual assault in many ways. They recount the horrors or rape, make laws against rape, warn of punishments both in life and eternity, and encourage people to seek sexual satisfaction in the context of a loving marital relationship.

Different cultures define rape in different ways. In the U.S., the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) revised their legal definition in 2012. Different definitions can lead to higher or lower crime statistics.  Here’s the definition: “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” (FBI, 2012, January 6)


A scientific understanding of human nature involves an examination of biological and psychosocial influences. Sometimes, better understanding leads to policies to control violent behavior. Some confuse understanding with condoning or excusing behavior. Psychologists seek to promote rather than decrease well-being. 

Whatever is true about human nature does not mean behavior ought to be permitted or excused.

Psychological scientists (See William McKibbin and others 2008 reference below) have drawn upon the principles of evolution to explain behavior but human behavior patterns are complex. And rape is a complex behavior. Understanding complex behaviors requires an understanding of natural selection and the development of brain structures and circuits (that is, mechanisms) that interact to produce complex behavior patterns. In terms of sexual activity, adaptive patterns of behavior would persist when they led to reproductive success. Any set of adaptive patterns depends on the interaction of many brain-based psychological mechanisms.

Rapists have always faced costs. If men with a high biological propensity to rape have persisted, it would appear that they have impregnated many women throughout history and that whatever penalties existed, they were insufficient to eliminate or significantly reduce rape. From an evolutionary standpoint, rapists would target young women as victims because the likelihood of conception is highest for women in the early to mid-20s. And in fact, the primary victims of rape are young women. Of concern are the admissions by men that under certain circumstances about a third would commit rape.

It is obvious that people have a persistent and pervasive drive to have sexual relations. But under what combination of male characteristics and situations would a man rape rather than seek consent? McKibbins and others (see below) have studied the research and suggest five types of rapists. Each type is understood in terms of internal motivations and situations. These are hypotheses which will require further study and likely modification or rejection as scientists seek to understand why men rape.

Five Types of Rapists

1. Disadvantaged men. These men have limited ways to obtain sex with a consenting woman. The evidence comes from data indicating most rapes are committed by men with low socioeconomic status.

2. Specialized rapists. Researchers have found that men incarcerated for rape are more aroused by violent and coercive sex than are men who do not rape. Other data suggest these men may act as if they were competing against others because they appear to ejaculate quickly and they appear to impregnate women at high rates.
The pregnancy rate from rape (6%) may be twice that of pregnancy rates (3%)
from consensual sex (Gottschall & Gottschall, 2003).

3. Opportunist rapists. These men appear able to detect when women are vulnerable and the risks of retaliation or punishment are low. A well-known aspect of war is the rape of women by male warriors, which is found in biblical sources as well as accounts of modern wars. Some scientific support can be found in evidence that women who have an adult relative nearby is less likely to be raped than those without such a family member.

4. High-mating-effort rapists. Psychopathic traits characterize these rapists who tend to have long histories of sexual activity. For these men, social context may have less influence because they force women to have sex in many situations. Early sexual promiscuity and early sexual experience is a predictor. 
The risk of date rape is higher under three conditions.
            1. The man initiated the date
            2. The man spent money on the woman
            3. The man provided the transportation.

5. Partner rapists. These rapists appear to respond to perceived competition. Partner rape accounts for a large percentage of rapes. 
As many as 26% of married women have reported rape. 

And until recently, married men were assumed to have the right to sex with their wives without consent. The research suggests that these rapes are more likely when a man knows or suspects his wife or partner has been unfaithful. Men are more aroused by sexual images suggesting a competitive situation.


There is so much more to be learned about rapists and rape victims. And we need to know effective methods for protecting all persons from sexual violence. The consequences of sexual violence are largely born by girls and young women. The effects are many and include physical and emotional trauma, which can last for years. Many must cope with infectious diseases for life. Religious beliefs about contraception can influence the rate of pregnancy following rape. Religious beliefs about abortion obviously influence how a girl or woman manages her pregnancy.

In most religions, clergy are men. And most rapists are men. Beliefs about rapists, clergy, sex, women, psychopathology, and psychology can influence how well a religious group identifies clergy predators, investigates reports of sexual violence, acts to protect victims or high risk persons from initial and repeated sexual violence, and cares for the victims of abuse. In addition, religious beliefs will likely influence what a group does for women who are pregnant as a result of sexual violence regardless of the perpetrator. In the U.S., the cost of having a child and raising a child is expensive and rising.

A challenge for religious organizations will be to learn more about human sexuality and sexual violence. Many religious groups have policies and programs in place. These should be evaluated for effectiveness. 

Another challenge for readers is to check the website of their faith group and see what resources are available for members who are victims of sexual violence. Students and parents of students can do the same search at their school websites. Where resources are lacking, an opportunity is available.

I will include some references and other resources below.

Links to related posts
Relationship Betrayal a post about infidelity, including emotional betrayal
Lessons from Sodom A post about the demand for sex by the people of Sodom
Love A post about spiritual and other dimensions of love
Apologies following clergy sexual abuse a post about the problem of clergy abuse and the problem of apologies

Links to Resources
There are many resources on the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention CDC Sexual Violence Page. And they offer links to other organizations and resources.
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence NCADV.
One religious resource is FaithTrust Institute (A Multifaith organization)
A Catholic Resource can be found at 

Gottschall, J.A. & Gottschall, T.A. (2003). Are per-incident rape-pregnancy rates higher than per-incident consensual pregnancy rates? Human Nature, 14, 1-20. Link

McKibbin, W. F., Shackelford, T. K., Goetz, A. T., & Starratt, V. G. (2008). Why do men rape? An evolutionary psychological perspective. Review of General Psychology, 12, 86-97. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.12.1.86 (This article includes extensive references to research.)

Sutton, G. W., McLeland, K. C., Weaks, K. Cogswell, P. E., & Miphouvieng, R. N. (2007). Does gender matter? An exploration of gender, spirituality, forgiveness and restoration following pastor transgressions. Pastoral Psychology. 55, 645-663. doi 10.1007/ s11089-007-0072-3

Thomas, E. K., & Sutton, G.W. (2008). Religious leadership failure: Forgiveness, apology, and restitution. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 10, 308-327.

Thomas, E. K., White, K., & Sutton, G.W. (2008). Religious leadership failure: Apology, responsibility-taking, gender, forgiveness, and restoration. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 27, 16-29.

Sutton, G. W., & Thomas, E. K. (2005). Can derailed pastors be restored? Effects of offense and age on restoration. Pastoral Psychology, 53(6), 583-599. doi: 10.1007/s11089-005-4822-7.

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