November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
May 30, 2019
In the early days of 2018, the media outlet Babe published an article in which a woman using the pseudonym Grace is interviewed about a date she went on with the world-renowned comedian Aziz Ansari. Grace describes an extended scene, after she and Ansari returned to his place following dinner, involving unwanted oral sex and genital groping. She describes Ansari as physically and verbally pressuring her for sex, repeatedly ignoring the words and body language she used to communicate nonconsent. After trying a number of different ways to make it clear that she did not want to engage sexually, Grace reports saying, “No, I don’t think I’m ready to do this, I really don’t think I’m going to do this.” She remembers Ansari suggesting they put their clothes on and chill, initially seeming to accept the boundary. But after turning on an episode of Seinfeld, Grace says Ansari again started kissing her, put his fingers down her throat, and tried to undo her pants. She resisted physically and expressed her anger verbally, and his immediate response was, in her description, to forcefully kiss her. Grace names Ansari’s actions as assault tentatively but clearly. In her words, “It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault,” and “I believe that I was taken advantage of by Aziz. I was not listened to and ignored.”1
Given its timing, the article positioned itself as a contribution to the quickly growing number of#MeToo stories that called out harassing, abusive, and assaultive behavior in powerful men. Babe presented Grace as having privileged authority to interpret what she experienced as sexual assault. The article did not interrogate whether Grace was right or wrong to name her experience assault. Rhetorically and performatively, the absence of this kind of interrogation signaled that Grace’s interpretation of her experience—not Babe’s, not Ansari’s, not a jury’s—was the interpretation that carried the strongest weight.
Who has the authority to say whether what a survivor experienced does or does not count as sexual assault? The survivor? The accused? Law enforcement? A jury? The survivor’s boss? The general public? How we answer this question makes a material difference in whether survivors are able to keep their jobs, pay rent, finish their degrees, secure protection from future violence, and find support in their families and communities. If survivors’ interpretations of their experiences are considered authoritative, survivors are more likely to be believed, and being believed is crucial to every step a survivor must take in pursuit of safety, justice, and recovery.
The vast majority of survivors look, first, for belief from their closest circles of support: friends, family, and communities of faith. This means that the stakes are high when survivors come forward to their loved ones. However, because the interpretive authority of survivors is culturally contested, articulating an appropriate response can be difficult for those loved ones. In the moment that a survivor comes forward, the community to whom they have chosen to disclose their experience is made to take a concrete position in a raging societal debate. This is, ultimately, the dilemma with which I am concerned. How do communities—particularly communities of Christian faith—decide what degree of interpretive authority to grant to people who come forward with testimonies of sexual assault? Ought they, like Babe, privilege the survivors’ interpretation? Or ought they attempt to hold all interpretations equal prior to outside investigation?
Because Babe published Grace’s story without further comment or contextualization, it affirmed Grace as a privileged authority to interpret the events she experienced in Ansari’s apartment, intrinsically suggesting that she ought to be believed. In this way, it took a position of solidarity with survivors, and this was not lost on its readers. The article found strong resonance with countless survivors of the kind of sexual assault Grace describes. Young women who identified with Grace felt empowered by Babe’s coverage of Grace’s story to insist that they too ought to be heard and believed—that their voices, like Grace’s, were authoritative.
Babe published Grace’s account on January 13, 2018. The very next day, Caitlin Flanagan, a contributing editor at the Atlantic, published a scathing rebuke that opened space in mainstream public discourse for a firestorm of resistance to Grace’s brand of #MeToo. Flanagan expresses irritation that Grace did not leave Ansari’s apartment the moment she felt uncomfortable. She accuses women of Grace’s generation of being “weak” when it comes to resisting men who pressure them for sex, quipping, “Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab.” She calls the language Grace used to speak about her assault “revenge porn,” insisting that “the clinical detail in which the story is told is intended not to validate [Grace’s] account as much as it is to hurt and humiliate Ansari.” Because Grace did not, in Flanagan’s opinion, take every opportunity to remove herself from the situation, Flanagan suggests that Grace shares significant responsibility for what she suffered, and therefore, as a mutually responsible party, she has no business accusing Ansari of sexual assault. Outraged that Grace has had the audacity to do so anyway, Flanagan says Ansari, who, she emphasizes, is rightly beloved for raising consciousness around issues of gender and race in his popular TV series Master of None, “has been—in a professional sense—assassinated, on the basis of one woman’s anonymous account.”2
Flanagan’s fundamental charge against Grace is that Grace’s interpretation of her experience as sexual assault is wrong. And Flanagan’s frustration with Babe is precisely that the outlet treated Grace’s interpretation of her experience as authoritative. This, Flanagan argues, was a costly mistake that threatens the role of due process in adjudicating cases of sexual assault. For Flanagan, the privileged authority to interpret when sexual assault has or has not occurred ought to be granted not to survivors, but to legal and journalistic processes of investigation.
Flanagan’s voice was taken seriously by the American news media. She followed her initial January 14 article with two more before the end of the month, each accusing Babe of turning the formerly promising #MeToo movement “into a racket” by granting interpretive authority to self-identified survivors before systems of due process had taken their course. NPR’s All Things Considered featured her as an authoritative voice on the matter two days after her initial criticism of Grace’s account was released.3 Articles expanding on Flanagan’s form of criticism began to run across the gamut of mainstream media platforms, each one mounting a sharp challenge to #MeToo suggestions that survivors who come forward ought to be believed prior to formal investigation.4
This early 2018 resistance to privileging the interpretive authority of survivors who have Grace-like accounts of sexual assault slowed #MeToo’s momentum and shifted its focus. It moved back into silence the stories, like Grace’s, that the 2017 days of #MeToo had brought to voice, stories in which the term sexual assault was applied to all manner of sex without consent and not limited to those acts that Flanagan is willing to call monstrous. No accounts like Grace’s have gained mass public traction in the United States since this critique, and the pace of all other kinds of #MeToo disclosures—including those that Flanagan does affirm—has steadily slowed. The crisis of interpretive authority prompted by 2018 resistance to #MeToo survivor testimonies was brought home to the academy as controversy erupted this past summer in response to former graduate student Nimrod Reitman’s allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and retaliation against his New York University adviser, Avital Ronell.5 The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court following multiple allegations of sexual assault and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s public testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee further confirmed that, still today, the contestation of survivors’ interpretive authority is, in the United States, pervasive and powerful.
The authority of survivors’ testimonies of sexual violence has, of course, always been contested. In the 1990s, a powerful collection of psychologists argued, in opposition to self-identified survivors and their supporters, that repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse recovered and reported by survivors in adulthood were a universal farce. Whether or not we ought to trust survivors’ testimonies of sexual coercion was at the root of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century disputes around which the burgeoning disciplines of psychology and psychoanalysis were originally formed.6 Each generation has faced similar questions: With whom does the authority to interpret survivors’ experiences of sexual assault lie? Is the one who claims to have experienced harm a privileged authority on her own experience? Or does the very nature of this kind of testimony render her voice uniquely suspect? Despite advances in our scientific and humanistic understanding of sexual violence that lean in survivors’ favor, these questions have had remarkable staying power.7
Those who have been skeptical of survivors’ interpretive authority, both in the ’90s and today, generally advocate what I like to call the argument for due process.We have already seen a bit of its form in Flannagan’s criticism of Babe. The argument tends to go like this: Sexual assault is a crime. If it has occurred, it should be prosecuted, and the perpetrator should be convicted and sent to prison. Sending someone to prison, however, is a serious act that should be taken only when we can be certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that the one accused of a crime did, in fact, commit that crime.8 It should be a general rule in all legal disputes that a single individual’s personal testimony is not enough to convict someone of any crime, and certainly not a crime accompanied by a lengthy prison sentence and lasting social repercussions. We do not want a legal system that counts one person’s lone testimony as sufficient for locking up the accused because a system like that is vulnerable to corruption, malice, bias, and error that will surely result in criminal convictions of the truly innocent. The crime of sexual assault warrants no exception.
This is where the argument identifies a crucial problem. To believe an alleged sexual assault survivor’s interpretation of her experience based on her account alone is to believe on the basis of a single person’s testimony that the accused has earned criminal conviction. Therefore, the argument would suggest, we are ethically constrained to not believe alleged survivors’ accounts of sexual harm unless we have procured evidence external to the survivors’ narratives, which can and would prove their accounts to be true.
The argument for due process says, further, that this ethical constraint becomes even more urgent when we remember that memory—and an alleged survivor’s memory, in particular—is not forensically infallible. Those who wield this argument also frequently insist that sexual relationships are inherently messy and involve myriad misunderstandings that may result in an alleged survivor being confused or mistaken about what really happened. Or as we see in Flanagan’s critique of Grace, some who take this position worry that those who come forward as survivors could be using accusations of assault as mechanisms for refusing to take responsibility for their own failures to make their nonconsent clear or to remove themselves from unwanted situations. Although the emotional toil of those who understand themselves to be survivors is to be sympathized with, as we saw many who voted to confirm Kavanaugh say of Dr. Ford, the only way to protect the integrity of our legal system and prevent convictions of the innocent is to refrain from believing survivor testimonies until we have corroborating evidence that can satisfy normal legal standards. And if such legal standards cannot be met, the claims should, at the very least, according to Flanagan and her ilk, be shown to stand up to the standards of rigorous investigative journalism.
The argument for due process calls survivors’ interpretive authority into question and grounds the appropriateness of belief in such accounts in legal and forensic data alone. It does this in all circumstances, not just in court. But look, we need to get honest with ourselves about what kind of knowledge of sexual violence is available to those of us who were not present to witness the event. None of us who are witnesses of sexual violence testimony has the ability to know with rigorous legal or forensic certainty the degree to which a survivor’s testimony corresponds with the historical circumstances from which it arose. Sometimes, external corroborating evidence is available. If we have access to a recording, photographs, text messages, or DNA evidence, we can corroborate or challenge particular aspects of a survivor’s testimony, but even these forms of evidence do not offer certain proof of a survivor’s claim. In light of a video that appears to depict rape, the accused can argue that the footage shows consensual role-play. DNA evidence can prove that genital contact occurred, but the accused, again, can argue that his accuser consented in the moment and changed her story after the fact.
I share these examples not to suggest that we should be skeptical of forensic evidence in cases of sexual violence as much as to demonstrate the unlikelihood of certainty even after considering this kind of evidence. Defenses like these are common enough to reveal that, in the majority of instances of sexual violence, our access to strict certainty with respect to survivors’ testimony is limited. Sexual violence is a kind of event that typically does not lend itself to the type of knowledge we have been formed to desire. The due-process lens wants definitive evidence and certainty with regard to any specific instance of sexual harm. It tends not to admit, however, that reaching objective certainty is impossible.9
The argument for due process takes its cues from the kind of knowledge that is needed for criminal conviction in court, yet the context of legal adjudication is rarely relevant in discussions of sexual violence, as only about 1 percent of sexually violent acts are ever brought to court.10 I want us to notice, then, that the argument for due process extends the standards of the courtroom to all realms of social existence—the workplace, the school, the church, the family, groups of friends. And I want us to consider whether this extension, which requires that all survivor testimony meet stringent legal and forensic standards, makes sense when self-identified survivors come forward to tell their experiences of sexual violence to their community, particularly to Christian communities.
When communities learn that one of their own has suffered sexual violence or been accused of committing sexual violence, community members who need to decide how to respond are often left with questions: How can we know for sure that what the self-identified survivor says happened really happened? How can we know that their interpretation of the events is not mistaken? What warrants our belief in the face of our uncertainty? These questions resonate with a dilemma some Christians have been wrestling with for millennia: How can we have knowledge of God when certain evidence of God’s existence and nature is seemingly unavailable? How can we be confident enough in our knowledge of God to build a life on its foundation when we cannot prove that what we take to be our knowledge of God is not mistaken? What warrants belief in God in this uncertain epistemological landscape? Although there are important differences between knowledge of God and knowledge with respect to survivor testimonies of sexual violence, I invite us to ask whether there may be something we can nonetheless learn from theological reflection on knowledge of God. I believe that considering these theological questions will offer new options for approaching knowledge of sexual violence and affirming the interpretative authority of survivors’ testimonies.
I do not intend here to propose whether or precisely how Christian orientations to knowledge and belief ought to interface with the argument for due process, much less actual legal, HR, or Title IX standards. Rather, I am proposing that Christian communities consider the following questions: Is there anything our tradition gives us for confronting the problem of knowledge and authority in the wake of survivors’ testimonies? Are there theological resources we can draw on to authorize survivors’ voices in the face of our own uncertainty? Might we already have the tools to extend interpretive authority to survivors of sexual violence? In a brief and preliminary way, I will suggest five lessons we might take from Christian reflection on the knowledge of God as we think about how we ought to orient ourselves to survivor testimonies.
Throughout history, Christian theologians have maintained that there are limits to what we can know about God, and this claim is highly uncontested. We cannot have a full and complete knowledge of God. There will always be something that remains out of reach, and yet this does not make all knowledge of God impossible. Although we cannot know God completely, theologians have insisted that we can gain some knowledge of the divine and that the opportunity to develop the kind of knowledge which is available to us remains valuable even as it is limited.
A related observation is worthwhile with respect to survivors’ testimonies of sexual violence. When we hear testimonies of sexual violence, we often cannot have the kind of knowledge that we want. The argument for due process forms us to want to know in objective terms whether that to which a survivor testifies happened in the way the survivor says it did. But as witnesses of that testimony—and not the event from which the testimony arose—we simply do not have access to a means of objective or comprehensive deduction. Just as full and complete knowledge of God is impossible, full and complete knowledge of another person’s experience of sexual violence is also not available to us. We cannot have it no matter what we do. There are limits on the possibility of our knowledge.
And yet, this does not mean we cannot have meaningful knowledge in the wake of sexual violence. It suggests, rather, that to value and make wise use of the kind of knowledge we can have, we need to be clear about its nature and its limits. Achieving this clarity will require that we actively reflect on the kind of knowledge that is possible for us as we bear witness to survivors’ testimonies, as well as how we attain that knowledge. If it is not possible for us to gain an objective kind of evidence-based certainty with regard to the accuracy of a survivor’s description of the violence she survived, then making that kind of knowledge necessary before extending our belief renders us incapable of regarding any such testimony as true.
Withholding belief under these circumstances is thus not a demonstration of responsible epistemological restraint. Rather, it is a refusal to participate in the kind of knowledge construction that is available in the wake of sexual violence. We might compare this refusal to a decision to withhold belief in God on the grounds that the scientific method has not proved God’s existence. A person is free to take that perspective, but many theologians have argued that God is a kind of reality that is fundamentally not available to measurement by the scientific method.11 We set ourselves up for epistemological failure when we overestimate the scope of the knowledge available to us. And in the case of sexual violence, epistemological failure has ethical consequences: imposing an epistemologically impossible bar for survivors to meet in order to win our support amounts to little more than a disguised method for avoiding the reality of sexual violence.12
What, then, is the kind of knowledge available to witnesses of sexual violence survivors’ testimonies, and how is it attained? Does the history of Christian reflection on knowledge of God offer any resources for approaching this question? I propose that it does.
In Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, David Hume suggests that the kind of knowledge of God that is possible is a kind that is not produced, strictly speaking, by the cognitive faculty of reasoning. The avenue to knowledge of God lies, rather, outside of logical and empirical reflection. This is at least part of what it means to say that the scientific method cannot produce knowledge of God. Quite a number of ancient, medieval, and contemporary theologians would agree. Take Teresa of Avila, for example. For Teresa, one learns to know God through mystical experience, through cultivating one’s attention to the activity of God’s in-dwelling in the soul. This is a kind of knowledge that is given as a gift to its recipient when the one who has knowledge—in this case, God—chooses to bestow it.13
In situations of sexual violence, the one who has the most direct and complete knowledge of that violence is the one upon whom that violence was waged. The survivor has the knowledge. That knowledge is given by the survivor as a gift to those to whom she testifies, or to whom she tells her experience. Just as, for Teresa, reception of God’s gift of divine knowledge depends on a recipient’s openness and preparedness to receive it, so too we might say that one’s ability to receive the knowledge of sexual violence gifted to witnesses of survivors’ testimonies depends on our openness and preparedness to receive the knowledge that testimony offers.
Trauma theorists have proposed that there is an epistemological and ethical difference between hearing a trauma survivor’s testimony and becoming a witness to it. A hearing person within earshot of a survivor’s testimony will, in fact, hear it, but to become a witness is to become a recipient of the knowledge that testimony extends. Trauma specialist Dori Laub tells a story that illustrates what is at stake in the difference. As he explains, a group of Holocaust researchers watched a recording of a survivor narrating her experience of the Auschwitz uprising in which Jews staged an (ultimately failed) armed revolt against the Nazis in command of the camp:
A sudden intensity, passion and color were infused into the narrative. She was fully there. “All of a sudden,” she said, “we saw four chimneys going up in flames, exploding. The flames shot into the sky, people were running. It was unbelievable.” There was a silence in the room, a fixed silence against which the woman’s words reverberated loudly, as though carrying along an echo of the jubilant sounds exploding from behind barbed wires, a stampede of people breaking loose, screams, shots, battle cries, explosions. It was no longer the deadly timelessness of Auschwitz. A dazzling, brilliant moment from the past swept through the frozen stillness of the muted, grave-like landscape with dashing meteoric speed, exploding it into a shower of sights and sounds.14
In response to this woman’s testimony, a number of historians pointed out that the woman was wrong about the number of chimneys that exploded. Only one had gone up in flames, not four. This fact, they argued, discredited the woman’s account as a source for developing historical knowledge of the event. A psychoanalyst at the table disagreed:
“The woman was testifying,” he insisted, “not to the number of chimneys blown up, but to something else, more radical, more crucial: the reality of an unimaginable occurrence. One chimney blown up in Auschwitz was as incredible as four. The number mattered less than the fact of the occurrence. The event itself was almost inconceivable. The woman testified to an event that broke the all compelling frame of Auschwitz, where Jewish armed revolts just did not happen, and had no place. She testified to the breakage of a framework. That was historical truth.15
The historians heard the woman’s testimony but failed to become witnesses because they did not receive the truth it carried, the truth that the Auschwitz uprising was not a failure but a success to the extent that it shook the totality of Nazi domination in the lives of those who were there. To become a witness to survivors’ testimonies, then, it is not enough to cognitively process the details of survivors’ narratives. To become a witness, one must enter into the world in which survivors live and take this world as a legitimate source for knowledge, ethics, and whole life living. It is not entirely different from the Christian notion of bearing witness to the love of God in a world organized by incompatible metrics.
Knowledge of God is not sitting around in the world, available to be picked up by whoever happens to pass it by. Knowledge of God, theologians like Teresa, Augustine, and Justin Martyr insist, is made possible through action, attention, discipline, and practice.16 What would it mean to consider that the ability to receive knowledge from testimonies of survivors of sexual violence also requires practice on the part of witnesses? I would like to suggest that in many, and perhaps, most cases, developing knowledge of sexual violence requires a life practice of sustaining attention to the way sexual violence works. It requires training one’s mind to understand, one’s ears to hear, and one’s heart to be open to the complex and often confounding dynamics of sexual violence as they play out in real lives. In other words, developing or receiving knowledge with regard to any specific instance of sexual violence requires that an internal space into which that knowledge can be gifted has already been formed. We develop this kind of internal space through lifelong, practical disciplines of attunement with survivors of sexual violence, such as regularly reading survivors’ memoirs and intellectual work, interrogating our socially learned assumptions about survivors, cultivating an understanding of the medical, social, and psychological dimensions of trauma, and contributing our time and skills toward survivor-led efforts that seek to resist sexual violence in the world.
If reasoning is not the primary faculty that is going to get us to a place of knowledge with regard to the testimonies of survivors of sexual violence, Christian theological reflection on knowledge of God suggests we ought to consider what love can do for us. The theological tradition of theorizing love as a committed ethical and political expression of God’s nature is full to the brim.17 The kind of love I have in mind is not a sentimental feeling, but the kind of practice I have just described—a practice of sustained ethical attention to sexual violence. When we intentionally add love to the mix, we might see that this sustained practice of becoming ethically and intellectually attuned to sexual violence must be one that also results in an increase in one’s support for survivors, solidarity with them, active resistance to the perpetuation of sexual violence, and commitment to holding perpetrators effectively accountable.
In other words, to say that knowledge in the wake of the testimonies of survivors of sexual violence requires love is to say that this knowledge cannot be fully developed or received apart from a life lived in radical solidarity with those who are most vulnerable to the harm of sexual violence. Love as a practice of solidarity means the cultivation of an intellect and disposition that is capable of hearing, interpreting, and deciding how to extend or withhold our belief when we find ourselves witnesses to testimonies of harm.
Contemplative theologians suggest that in addition to love, another practice is central to knowledge of God: the contemplative act of moving out beyond oneself. Pseudo-Dionysius, a theologian of the late fifth century, describes this act of moving out beyond the self as necessary for human knowledge of God because we are not God. There is a real difference between humanity and divinity, which means that knowledge of divinity depends upon this act of outward motion. For Pseudo-Dionysius, we move out beyond ourselves not only toward God but also toward each other. Sociality is a form of human spirituality that mirrors contemplation in that it manifests when we look to see ourselves in others and discover a unity that does not dissolve difference.18
Bearing witness to testimonies of sexual violence requires, particularly for those who have not experienced sexual assault, a disciplined commitment to moving out beyond the limits of our own experiences in order to encounter a true other, a survivor whose world, when known, will reshape our own. Contemplation, for Pseudo-Dionysius, whether it is an act that pursues knowledge of God or other, is always also the development of self-knowledge.Thus, to bear witness to sexual violence testimonies in a way that enables us to receive the knowledge available therein, we must be practiced at both moving out beyond ourselves to meet the other and at coming home to ourselves again. The contemplative task is one of navigating the space between self and other in a way that allows the truth of the world of the survivor to meaningfully impact what we, ourselves, know.
Sexual violence survivors are interpreters of their own experiences and knowledge-bearers with respect to what sexual violence is and the kind of resistance it demands. Their authority is challenged, deeply so, by the notion that is pervasive in the West that the rules of due process ought to govern the extension of belief to survivors’ testimonies in all circumstances. The argument for due process gains traction, in part, because it simultaneously hides and exploits the fact that rationally certain, legally admissible, forensically supported knowledge with respect to the majority of survivors’ testimonies is not possible. When a loved one discloses an experience of abuse or a member of one’s congregation or faculty is named as a perpetrator of sexual harm, the due process lens leaves communities in epistemological crisis: How can we know that what we are hearing is true? How do we attain knowledge that warrants our belief and action when certainty is not possible? How is it ethical for us to grant survivors privileged interpretive authority when doing so has social consequences?
What I have proposed is that those invested in the Christian theological tradition look to its rich history of reflection on the nature and possibility of knowledge in the face of uncertainty for resources. The content of the five potential lessons I have outlined here is less important to me than the invitation they make for theologically minded and spirited communities to think creatively about what it takes to construct our knowledge of sexual violence rigorously, honestly, ethically, and in a way that affirms survivors’ authority to be what they are: privileged interpreters of their experiences and knowledge-bearers of sexual harm and its transformation.
Hilary Jerome Scarsella
Hilary Jerome Scarsella is a Louisville Institute Fellow with a PhD in religion from Vanderbilt University. Her research focuses on the interconnections between theology, gender, violence, and trauma. She is the director of theological integrity at Into Account, an organization that specializes in addressing sexual violence in Christian-connected contexts and in supporting survivors.