New book by the Rev. Danielle Tumminio Hansen: Speaking of Rape

Fortress Press
Posted Mar 26, 2024

The way sexual violence is talked about in the United States piles on the pain and trauma for survivors. The widespread conventional assumption is that “survivors aren’t credible narrators of their own experiences…victims lie,” says Dr. Danielle Tumminio Hansen in her new book, Speaking of Rape: The Limits of Language in Sexual Violations (Fortress Press). A theologian and Episcopal priest who focuses on pastoral approaches to trauma, Hansen addresses the persistent crisis of sexual harm in the U.S., and the “haunting silence” of the survivors. She offers different ways of talking about sexual violations “so that those who feel voiceless might find the words they need to speak for themselves.”

A professor of spiritual care at Emory University, Hansen weaves in the stories of people who have survived such harm—sharing her own experience of sexual violation by someone she knew. “Statistically, you would be more likely to believe me if I said this person was someone I’d never met,” she writes. “Raised to believe stereotypes of what constituted ‘real rape’—forced intercourse in a physically violent attack by a male stranger—I did not have a word to express what had happened to me.” Her body, however, found ways of speaking: flashbacks and fear, hyper-vigilance, emotional numbness, anger, anxiety, and insomnia.

In Speaking of Rape, Hansen:

  • Proposes a fresh definition of rape: “an act of power, using sex, that violates agency, body, and desire.” Challenging common usage, she suggests broader terms such as “sexual harm” and “sexual violation,” nothing that “as a baseline, a healthy or morally blameless sexual encounter should neither harm nor violate.”
  • Explores how society primes victims to distrust their own experiences, and also primes individuals to carry out sexually harmful acts.
  • Examines language as a system of power, with some emboldened to speak while others are made voiceless. This plays out in the narratives that English speakers use to describe sexual violations, and their effect “on our collective ability to communicate to others what sexual harm is and what it does in the life of a person who has experienced it.”
  • Looks at how restorative justice processes might “counteract linguistic forms of injustice that prevent perpetrator accountability and hinder the ability of the person who experienced the harm to be heard.”

Taking an interdisciplinary approach, Hansen brings the wisdom of psychologists, feminist philosophers, and theologians into the conversation about sexual violence. In offering a new understanding of the scope and nature of such violations, Hansen shows the way to change how we respond to them.

Danielle Tumminio Hansen is a professor of spiritual care at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and an Episcopal priest. She has written extensively on the intersection of religion, trauma, and issues in reproduction and sexuality. Her latest book is Speaking of Rape: The Limits of Language in Sexual Violations (Fortress Press, March 2024); she is also the author of Conceiving Family: A Practical Theology of Surrogacy and Self and other books. Dr. Hansen  has written for Modern Theology, the International Journal of Practical Theology, and Religions. Her work has also been featured in international news outlets, including CNN and The Guardian.