Rape culture: Of Donald and Don Giovanni

by Christine Schenk

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Will we heal a centuries-old culture of sexual abuse?

I watched with horror (and some admiration) as more and more women came forward to decry the sexual misconduct of Donald Trump after a campaign-changing Hollywood Access tape recorded him bragging about his inability to control himself around women. 

The silver lining of this otherwise salacious media circus is that it has sparked a national conversation about the unsavory behavior of some men, that women have, in the main, kept quiet about for far too long.

We didn't talk about it because unwanted sexual advances were so ubiquitous, so culturally embedded, why waste our breath? Better to employ avoidance strategies and move on.

I speak as a woman of a certain age who as a very young child learned the importance of distinguishing between good men and bad men. Bad men — like the one who exposed himself to my 7-year-old sister in broad daylight as she walked home from the library.

Bad men like the "peeping Tom," who ordered my mother to remove her clothing as she sat knitting in our living room one summer night while Dad took the baby sitter home. Wrong target. Every ounce of Mom's outraged Irish heritage reared up as she loudly cursed him until he ran away. As my Mom reported the incident to the police, I listened from the top of the stairs staring numbly at the police cruiser's flickering red light. A bad man had tried to take advantage of my mother while my father was away.

I was 10 years old and I was frightened.

My Catholic high school didn't help much. Girls were told that the boys were committing sins of impurity (a euphemism) and it was our fault because our uniforms were too short. (Wrong. The boys were discovering how their reproductive equipment worked, but that's another story.)

We also learned about good men. My strong and fearless father was very protective of his wife and four daughters. We felt secure knowing no one could harm us with my Dad around.

In pre-convent days, Dad visited me in Cleveland to paint the interior of my new house where I lived alone. Before departing he nailed guard bars over the basement windows and deliberately left his old shoes and clothing hanging from a nearby nail. He was silently signaling there was a man around to protect his daughter. (I still get a little weepy remembering this). My uncles were great — kind, gentle, and a lot of fun. They taught my sisters and my female cousins (there are a ton of us) how to relate to good men outside of our nuclear families.

It can be confusing to be a girl child. We learn very early to be on guard in public places, especially at nighttime. We learn that some men will violate our personal space and that men outside of our families can be dangerous — that is if you are lucky enough to have grown up, as I did, in a family that isn't cursed by generational sexual abuse.

TV doesn't help. It seems like it is always women who are being stalked and murdered.

In the mid 1980s, when I worked as a nurse midwife, we began routinely screening women for sexual abuse at their first prenatal visit. Up until then many in the medical community believed sexual abuse was relatively rare. We were shocked to find how prevalent it was. Often the abuse occurred in childhood, but it also happened far too frequently in spousal and boyfriend relationships. Sometimes these women could not tolerate routine pelvic exams because of post-traumatic stress flashbacks. If unaddressed by psychotherapy, some women would have significant complications during labor and birth.

I wonder if what is euphemistically described as Mr. Trump's "lewd language," has triggered a new moment of archetypal healing. Are we lancing a centuries-old wound that will at last allow the corruption to drain away?

Women are courageously calling out unacceptable male behavior and demanding change. I sincerely doubt this would be happening were it not for the fact that the other presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, is a woman who has fought for women her whole life.

Good men are joining the conversation too, and it helps. It helps a lot.

Shaun R. Harper is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania with expertise in college-age masculinity. He recently wrote in The Washington Post:

We have to stop excusing the disgusting degradation of girls and women as 'locker room banter.' Feminists and courageous others have done much to contest exchanges like the one between Trump and Bush. But it takes men like me to hold our friends accountable for things they say and do to objectify women. We must challenge their values, language, and actions.

Last weekend I attended Mozart's, "Don Giovanni," performed by New York's Metropolitan Opera and shown in HD at a local movie theatre. One of the most popular operas of all time, "Don Giovanni" tells the story of Don Juan, a philandering nobleman, serial womanizer, and rapist. Spoiler alert: the original title is (roughly) "The Punishment of Don Giovanni."

The breathtakingly beautiful music assuages a good deal of the pain unavoidably linked to this terrible topic. Donna Anna — who Giovanni had tried (and failed) to rape — has a fiancé named Don Ottavio. He sings a deeply healing aria:

Listen, beloved, please listen! Look at me one moment only! Your beloved speaks to you, he who lives only for you!

Upon her peace of mind, mine also depends; what pleases her is what gives me life, what displeases her is what gives me death.

If she sighs, then I, too, must sigh. Her anger becomes my own. Her tears belong to me. And there can be no joy for me if she is not happy.

This is the kind of healing brought by good men. And to them we give our love.

Although Giovanni at first seems to be getting away with degrading and objectifying women, in the end he has his comeuppance when, amidst splendid pyrotechnics engineered by the Met stage crew, he is cast shrieking into hell. But not before his loyal servant, Leporello, Elvira (the wife he wronged), and even Donna Anna's father (whom he murdered), repeatedly beg him to repent. But he will not.

Now Donald Trump is no Don Giovanni. But some of his sexual behaviors are the same.

I pray for him. We must all pray for him.

And we must pray to heal the unhealthy rape culture that breeds too many Don Giovannis.

[St. Joseph Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years. She holds master's degrees in nursing and theology.]

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