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Assault and virtue

November 2, 2012

Two memorable posts. First, Victoria has written at length about Thecla in Sexual Assault and Women’s Agency, or, Desire and the Disrupted Mob: The Story of Thecla and Trifina, concluding,

It’s so frustrating that Thecla’s story, like that of most of the Christian women saints, gets read as if it is all about virginity as a woman’s greatest (only) treasure, and sexual purity as a woman’s greatest (only) virtue. This story is about so much more than that! I’d read before that “virginity” in these ancient and medieval stories was a concept that functioned for the women in question more like agency and autonomy does for modern Western women today, because of the way that marriage worked in those days. But this is the first story I’ve read that made me really get it.

There’s more to Thecla’s story that I didn’t summarize here: there’s basically a happy ending, as she preaches both on her own, and with Paul, in various places. Then there’s an epilogue that has her going off to live as the local holy woman and monastic in the latter years of her life; until the devil stirs up another sexually-tinged plot against her among the doctors of the town (who are losing business because she’s a healer, too), and there’s a miraculously happy ending to that story too, as she is translated to heaven.

Her feast day is September 23rd (in the West, 24th in the East), and the Orthodox church reveres her as St. Thecla the Proto-Martyr, Equal to the Apostles. Although I don’t find these on any official lists, I think of her as the patron saint of women clergy, preachers, and missionaries; persons who suffer from sexual assault and all forms of sexual violence; and uppity women.

Trifina is not officially considered a saint, but she too shines as a figure of faith in this story. I think of her as a patron saint of those who protect and speak up for the vulnerable and the stranger, especially those vulnerable to sexual violence; of widows; of bereaved mothers; of adoptive mothers; and of converts.

In a post on a contemporary crime, Shirley writes,

A young girl was abducted at a bus stop and raped in a large city this past weekend. It probably happens every day but I want to tell you about this story because of what was said, and the meaning it conveys.

A group from the neighborhood tried to find the perpetrator, as it was apparently one of their girls who suffered this rape. “This is the worst thing you can do to a young girl,” one said, “to take away her virtue.”

It is, indeed, a very bad thing. It is traumatic. It is something that will change her life forever. However, they meant something far deeper than that. They meant that her worth had been taken away from her. A woman, or a young girl, is worth much more than that. She has worth far beyond her sexual organs, and her sexual being.

It is good to protect women, just as it is good to protect any other human being. But we can’t own them.  American girls have rights over their own bodies. That right cannot be given to anyone else. It is hers alone.

A rape is a tragic thing, and we, too, hope the perpetrator is caught. We also hope that the girl is not devalued further because she has lost her virtue.

Men and women, little children – both boys and girls, can be victims of violence. But I think only females can lose their virtue. What a lot of nonsense!

I have been reading a lot on trauma, necessary for my job, and relevant to my own past. I work with children who have often experienced multiple surgeries and medical intervention. In some cases, a child can experience invasive surgery as a hostile assault. This can cause ongoing trauma. They are always relearning to trust adults. Or not.

I sat across from the parent, silently reading the diagnosis of autism, the useful and advantageous diagnosis that brings funds. But I also had to record the medical diagnosis. The next section refers to behaviour. Behaviour typical of autism? Not exactly. Its a glib response, to read that into everything. So I asked. What is the medical diagnosis, what about surgery? The story poured out. The slow descent into rebellion and withdrawal.

(In an aside, not all children experience medical intervention as violence. Some don’t. It’s hard to know what makes the different. Another pint-sized student at our school went to hospital today. She is the cheeriest little girl you could possibly meet.)

However, in challenging those who bewail the virtue of the young girl who was a victim of sexual assault, I ask you to consider the real pain of a child trauma victim, whether it is a boy or girl, raped, injured or invaded by instruments. Still, there is a case to be made for a certain kind of assault being particularly damaging. In the case where a close and trusted adult assaults a child, the betrayal may be worse even than the physical trauma. The child may also feel that by-standing adults are the real perpetrators of the assault – after all, they are allowing it.

In order to help trauma victims, it helps to understand trauma, what it really means, and not rant on about little girls losing their “virtue” – what a pile of crap. May God forgive those who hold such views. It is bad enough to suffer trauma, but to have that trauma endlessly misconstrued is no great blessing either. Physical trauma crosses gender boundaries. What is happening to the little girl that Shirley writes about is that certain people are retraumatizing her by saying that she has lost her virtue. That trauma is specific to girls. The retraumatization of females who are victims of assault occurs when they are in some way rejected by virtue of being victims of assault. Not that this can’t happen to males as well. Let’s stop retraumatizing victims, male or female. You would think that Christians could do better than this.

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