They think abuse means intimacy

08 September 2009

Girls are at risk in a culture that accepts male violence, says Elaine Storkey

YEARS ago, I was challenged at the end of a talk to make a res­ponse to St Peter’s insist­ence that women are the “weaker vessel” (1 Peter 3.7). The questioner clearly saw this as implying some kind of female inferiority which was incom­patible with the gender egal­itarianism I was expounding.

Last week, the issue came up again in a very different context. A report published by the Uni­versity of Bristol and the NSPCC, Partner Exploita­tion and Violence in Teenage Intimate Relationships, surveyed 1300 young people aged bet­ween 13 and 17 and found that 90 per cent of the girls had been in an intimate relationship.

A third of the girls had suffered sexual abuse in a relationship, and 17 per cent said they were forced to have sex. A quarter of the girls reported violence at the hands of their boy­friends, and one in 16 said she had been raped. Experiences from the boys in the survey also indicated the presence of violence, with one in 17 said that she had been pressured into having sex.

In the words of one commentator, the report showed “immense peer pressure” among teen­agers to behave in ways that can result in “disrespect­ful or violent relationships, with girls often bear­ing the brunt”.

The findings have produced some stunned res­ponses, even from those who commissioned the research. Professor David Berridge was shocked to find exploitation and violence in relationships starting so young, and described the rate of vio­lence as “appalling”. Diane Sutton, head of NSPCC policy and public research, was shocked that “so many young people view vio­lence or abuse in rela­tionships as normal.”

And shocking it is. That such abuse should be identified as intimacy is a denial of human value. Yet this is not a problem that originates with teenagers, but one that is often handed down by those who are older.

The girls who were found to be particularly at risk were those with older boyfriends, and those who had already experienced violence from adults within their family. It seems part of a societal legacy of relational dysfunction and disrespect, which all too quickly creates a per­vasive culture of abuse. Perhaps we should not be so surprised when this is mirrored in the experi­ences of teen­age intimacy.

So how should we respond as Christians? It goes without saying that we need to teach and model something better — relationships that are faithful, respectful, and non-coercive. And that we should actively pursue the fruits of the Spirit in our own marriages and friendships. The very least the Church can do is to open a new window on love, joy, peace, kindness, faithfulness, gentle­ness, and self-control.

But we might also need to revisit that state­ment by St Peter. Within his culture, the woman was indeed the “weaker vessel”; not spiritually, but within the structures of patriarchal society. Today also, women might still be said to be “weaker” — not in any sense of inferiority or inadequacy, but in cultural terms, with potential economic and physical vulnerability.

Yet women’s sexual vulnerability is no justi­fica­tion for discrimination — even less for abuse. There should be no incompatibility between pro­moting an egalitarian society that celebrates dif­ference, and acknowledging that girls have always been in need of protection. The two go together.

The problem comes when male power and gender violence are accepted as normal, and we fail to censure those who are predatory and abu­sive. St Peter had a better idea: that men live con­siderately in relationships, and “bestow honour” on women.

Dr Elaine Storkey is President of Tearfund.

Dr Elaine Storkey is President of Tearfund.

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