Sexual Violence

“Sexual Violence” a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely

Unitarian Church of Edmonton, April 28, 2013

Sexual violence.  This should be an easy sermon.  At first blush it seems so black and white, so clear cut.  Hurting people is wrong. No means no.  We have seen what has happened in India and applauded as the women rose in the wake of a horrendous gang rape and murder and forced the government to change the law.  We have mourned with the family of a young Nova Scotia girl who was allegedly raped and then mocked in cyber-bullying.  In despair and humiliation she took her own life.  We have been appalled at the reactions in an Ohio town where some were more concerned with the ending of high school football careers than with the suffering of the young girl they allegedly gang-raped.

Disgusted and even horrified we find it easy to grieve, to condemn, to seek straightforward answers.  Consider this simple and sensible YouTube response Samantha Stendall female college student:

This video clip shows a young woman passed out on a couch apparently drunk.  A young man looks into the camera and leeringly says, “Hey bros, check who passed out on the couch.  Guess what I am going to do to her!”  He then proceeds to place a pillow under her head, cover her with a blanket, bring over a table so he can place a glass of water nearby and then gently brushes her hair away from her face.  He again comes close to the camera and says, ”Real men treat women with respect.”

Excellent!  Humourous, witty, displaying wisdom from young people.  No wonder it went viral. Men must be more responsible and simply not take advantage of women (or anyone take advantage of anyone else, my LGBT sisters and brothers) who cannot or will not clearly and willingly consent to sexual activity. Straightforward message.  Excellent idea.  I applaud it.  It points to a much-needed shift in our cultural thinking: Rapists are responsible for their life destroying acts, regardless of levels of intoxication.  Their victims are not, regardless of levels of intoxication, regardless of how thy dress or how much they flirt. It’s hard to imagine that ion this day and age rapists still succeed in hanging their crime on the victim.  When will we ever learn?

That the decision-making process around consent is not always clear in the heat of the moment confuses things a bit, but really only a little.  One partner must always be able to successfully call a stop anywhere in the proceedings.  And the use of unwanted violence is never okay.

Hmm, what I just said… “consent is not always clear” – already this sermon is becoming less easy.


One delicious aspect about being human is our ability to embrace paradox, often without knowing it. We stand firmly on the side of fair wages and working conditions, and yet most of us wear some clothing item produced in a third world sweat shop.  We want a cleaner environment yet most of us drive cars.  We want to eliminate world poverty and yet we take for granted the so many things that define us as a ‘have’ nation, things like electronics and large homes, paved roads, household appliances, public education and health care.  I suspect few of us would be excited about giving those up in the name of global fairness.  I am not condemning this, nor am I the first in line to surrender those material things that help make life enjoyable. Rather, I am merely observing this aspect of human nature.

Paradox R Us.

We have a similar troubled relationship when the topics on the table are sex and violence.  I would think it safe to say that the people in this congregation are a peace-loving group.  Few of us could ever conceive of ourselves doing an act of violence to another human except in an extreme case of danger…and yet, probably some of us have hurt another. I am still haunted by the time I deliberately injured another player on a long ago high school football field.  I expect I am not alone in my regret. And I am pretty sure that a lot of people here this morning – though not all – have enjoyed a violent cop show, a movie with a lot of loud explosions or a video game with a lot of dead aliens or zombies.  (Though when you blast zombies you can take comfort in knowing they were already dead.)  I even suspect there are a few CNN junkies who have a love/horrified hate relationship with the latest real world disasters and crimes.  Violence both sickens and stimulates us in ways we sometimes don’t understand.

And sex is a lot more complicated even than violence.  Heck, half of the attraction of sex comes the sauciness of maybe breaking the taboos that an overly moral society tried to impose on natural drives.  Our sense of attraction and titillation is deeply rooted in who we are, buried in the far recesses of our lizard brains.  We can control our impulses, put limits on our actions when we are stirred and stimulated.  Indeed, that is the mark of civilization and perhaps sanity, how we can bring such things as rationality and morality to bear when the fireworks of lust explode in our heads.  We can restrain our actions, but it would be foolish to think that we can block the impulse.  Centuries of failed church inspired denial, self-loathing and even self-inflicted punishment have shown that.  We are attracted to what triggers us, and we can’t stop that attraction.  And all kinds of sights and situations can light our fires…sometimes even the juxtaposition of sex and violence.

Whether it’s a bodice ripper from Harlequin Romance or the latest multi-million dollar James Bond flick, our fiction is filled with heroes and heroines in dangerous circumstances inevitably getting caught up in adrenalin-fuelled sex scenes.  Face it, if most of us weren’t at least a little turned on by all of this, those books and movies simply wouldn’t make as much money as they do.  And then there is the porn industry which grossed $13.5 billion in 2006…over $3,000 is spent every second.  And let’s be completely honest, it’s not all degenerates and rapists doing that spending.  While this might not be true of every person, the majority in our society loves sexual stimulation.

For a fair share of people the idea of safely moderated violence, or imbalance of power, is part of the turn on.  In the bondage and discipline community, there is a freedom to be had in surrendering power, or taking power over another in a sexual situation.  There is a lot of leather and vinyl sold in adult toy stores.  And if you hold an illusion that this activity is confined to a freaky few, consider the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy.  Most likely some of  you have read at least part of it.  Over 70 million copies have been sold in 37 countries.  And you can bet that a lot more than 70 million people have read it as copies are somewhat surreptitiously passed around.  It even beat Harry Potter out for fastest selling paperback in history.  If you haven’t read any of the series, it concerns a young college student, Anastasia Steele, who despite her strength of character and feminist mindset, falls madly in love with a multi-millionaire named Christian Grey who needs sadistic sexual relationships for satisfaction.  As the story unfolds over three books, they find a real love, each helping each other and giving the other what they need. But the fact is, the books are graphic, erotic and do contain consensual sexual violence.  And they are immensely popular – even a major Hollywood film version is in development.  Power exchange is a sexual turn on for a lot of folks.

I mention all of this to underline the complexity we encounter as we look at sexual violence.  Here I am only referring to western society. When does fantasy and safe play cross the line of acceptable behaviour and become abuse  The line is not as clear as we would like it to be.

I am not really competent to say much on the sexual violence in India and elsewhere.  I don’t like it, I can’t comprehend it either as a man or as a human being, but there is enough of a problem in this land for me to stay close to home.

Note: The “reading” for the morning was a short slide show showing people standing up against rape in North America, India and in a variety of print public service ads.  The first image is pictured here.

As I said before, we are a species beset by paradox.  Our heads want a perfected society with peace and respect and equality for all people.  However we are often betrayed by our bodies that react to media-defined versions of hunky or hot, that laugh at dumb blonde jokes in spite of ourselves, that are betrayed by eyeballs that can’t help but notice well defined male and female body parts in revealing clothes, and by imaginations that wonder what’s underneath those and dream of what might be.  I confess, when I first saw the lead image in our video presentation, the first thing I noticed was the short skirts…then I read the sign and agreed with it…but I noticed the skirts first.

And while all of that presents a challenge, I want to pause for a second to celebrate all of that, even the off colour bits, even the tasteless bits.  Those are part and parcel of that splendid gift of human sexuality, that messy juiciness that makes life a lot more fun than it might otherwise be.  When it’s inside your head, or shared with a willing partner it can be a garden of delights.  And as I also suggested earlier, the church has tried to repress all of that for centuries failing utterly, and often setting the stage for some very unhealthy expressions of sexuality.  Sex can be and should be beautiful.  Impulse needs to be managed.  It does not need to be repressed.[1]

The problems only start when these drives leak out of our heads unmanaged by that rational and moral side of ourselves, when they leak into the life of another, unwilling and non-consenting partner.  How many lives have had their sexual beings injured or outright destroyed by rape or sexual assault?

Stascan has some troubling numbers.  In separate documents they report both police numbers and self-reported numbers from a survey of citizens.

In a 2009 self-reporting survey, respondents claimed 472,000 sexual assault complaints.  Only 21,000 of those were reported to police…only about 5%.

Of those 472,000, about 1/3 were reported by men.

Of those 472,000 about 80 per cent qualified as simple sexual assault, grabbing, fondling, kissing.  Technically such crimes are not as serious, but they are probably just as frightening in the moment and as traumatizing for some.  About half of those happened in bars and other public places.

Of those 472,000, about 20 per cent involved threats and/or violence.  That’s about 90,000 cases.

Statistically, young women between 15 and 24 are the most vulnerable.

Finally, only 140 of those cases qualified as sex assault three, the most violent form of aggravated assault.  Those are the victims left dead or disfigured.

But the real trauma of assault and sexual violence are the scars we cannot see:

The woman afraid to go out in public…afraid to be in her own home in the dark.

The man who fears that his assailant will come back for more.

The teen who not only suffers rape, but who is then bullied with pictures and vicious comments on the internet.

The abused child who grows up facing steep challenges to ever being able to love fully or find sexual pleasure in any kind of “normal’ way.

The real victim of sexual violence isn’t the body, it is the spirit.

The body usually heals just fine.  It is the spirit that carries the scars that are hardest to heal.  Some victims move on and simply ignore those scars as best they can.  A few even turn them into strengths.

Many more simply cope as best they can, never really free of the fear.

Some never recover.

In all our paradoxical contrariness, we humans are capable of wreaking real havoc on one another in our exploitations, in war, in disregard for the environment and so on.  In my view, none of that compares to the face to face intimate nature of sexual abuse and violence.

Our Unitarian Principles start with a first premise: that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  Simple words…just like “No means no!” are simple words.  But like no means no, they carry an enormous weight if we dare to take them seriously.  If we truly stop to respect the worth and dignity of people then we cannot do violence to them.  And if we stop to respect them for who they are, then it won’t matter what they wear or how much they drink.  It won’t matter if they are easy targets.  If we stop to respect people, then we will not pursue sex without consent.  If we stop to respect the inherent worth and dignity of people, then we will not cause those hidden scars or destroy those lives.

And for those of us who are entrusted with the young, as parents and grandparents, as aunts and uncles and even as older mentors, it most definitely IS our job to openly teach that idea of inherent worth and dignity to the young people in our care.  We must show them where the boundaries of acceptable are in our words and in our actions.


[1] . Following the presentation of the sermon I was asked if I thought pedophiles could control their impulses.  The question came from a survivor whom I greatly respect.  I am no expert in psychology, but it certainly appears that some individuals truly are incapable of stopping themselves from committing terrible acts, while others have no ability to discern morality in a meaningful way.  A sermon will neither stop them nor even give them pause.  For them, society needs a different response.  Truly, this could have easily become a multi-part sermon series delving into all the nuances and exceptions to any general statement.  However I stand by my claim that for the largest part of society, our sexual urges can be controlled by ourselves.