What I Need Men in the Church to Understand About Sexual Violence

Hey, everybody. Welcome to new readers, especially those who found their way here from Episcopal Café. It’s been humbling to receive such an outpouring of support in the wake of my last post (although awful to hear such a chorus of affirmation), and especially humbling to hear from those of you who have endured sexual harassment, abuse, or assault. You are not alone, even when the world conspires to make you feel that way.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last week over the culture of sexual violence in the church — or, more accurately, the culture of sexual violence in the world, which the church has enthusiastically supported for centuries — and what I most need men to understand about it. Not only because men are statistically more likely to be perpetrators and less likely to be targets (although this is also true), but also because, by no coincidence, men are more likely to be in charge.

Listen up, men. You are, overwhelmingly, our rectors and senior pastors. You hold, disproportionately, the positions of highest lay authority on our church boards. You are, with depressingly rare exceptions, our bishops. All the hashtags and social media campaigns in the world aren’t going to make one little dent in the church’s complicity with sexual violence unless you decide you want to do something about it.

Are you ready? Let’s go.

Women are programmed to fear sexual violence.

You know how when you buy a new computer it comes bundled with a bunch of “free” antivirus software that you can’t figure out how to uninstall? This software does nothing but make your life harder. It runs in the background all the time, using up memory and processing speed. It is always pestering you with pop-ups. Its one job is to scan for threats, and boy does it do that job with gusto. Sometimes it tries to protect you from threats that aren’t even there.

But once in a while, maybe one time in the entire life of your computer, it protects you from an automatic download of something very very bad. This time, the threat it alerts you to is real. And suddenly you understand why the computer came with that software in the first place.

This is how the fear of sexual violence works for most women. It is programmed into us from an early, early age, and it warns us of potential threats. So when I get a hug from a parishioner, for example, that lasts just a second too long, a little pop-up message appears in my head:

sexual violence warning graphic

Is this person likely to attempt a more extreme act of sexual violence against me? Probably not.

Probably not.

… Probably not?

But from now on, I’m going to take some extra precautions around him, just in case.

So if you, as a man, do not react this way, does it mean that women are overreacting? No. It means that you are running a different operating system. If you are a Linux user (congratulations; I do not want you to tell me about it) or if you have a Mac, you simply don’t have the same vulnerability to viruses as those of us who are typing away on our Windows PCs. You don’t understand why we’re running so much antivirus software all the time. It takes up memory. It slows everything down.

Trust me. We know.

Less severe [sexual] violence carries with it an embedded threat of more severe [sexual] violence.

Let’s take the “sexual” part out of the equation for a minute and think about nonsexual violence instead. If you are a man, imagine that you are meeting your new boss, Bill. Gosh, Bill is tall. Also very muscular. He towers over you like the Incredible Hulk.

“Good to meet ya!” Bill says loudly. He uses his right hand to shake yours and his left hand to clap you on the shoulder. Except, instead of your shoulder, he gets you right on that soft part of your upper arm. And he hits you hard.

Ow!!!!! That really hurt!!!! What’s with this guy? Bill must not know his own strength.

But then you meet his gaze and realize that’s not what’s going on at all. Bill squeezes your hand with an iron grip, smiling right at you with a gleam in his eye. Anyone looking on would think he was just giving you a friendly handshake, but you can feel bruises from his fingerprints beginning to bloom under your sleeve. And you are pretty sure you’re not misinterpreting that gleam. It says:

Try messing with me. I dare you. I can do much worse than this.

Sexual violence at the less severe end of the spectrum — here I’m talking about things like suggestive comments and creepy hugs — works the same way. It lets the target know that the perpetrator is in control, and that the target better stay in line. People who make a habit of behaving this way know exactly what they are doing, especially if they persist after being asked to stop.

There are reasons women don’t report this stuff.

You can’t do anything about Bill’s aggressive handshake, right? If you were to report it to HR (this is assuming either that you work in a secular environment, or that we are in a fantasy world where the church has functioning HR), they would think you were oversensitive and crazy. That incident report is going right into the circular file.

And maybe Bill will never do anything else physically aggressive toward you. Maybe just knowing that he could will be enough to get you to do everything he wants.

But if he did do something just a little bit more aggressive than last time — maybe he grabs you by the shoulders and gives you a shake, leaving fingerprint bruises on both arms — how would you handle it? How would you decide if it were bad enough to say something about? Would you feel weird bringing it up, when you had never said anything before?

Would you be willing to talk to Bill about it directly, or would you be too scared?

Would it be worth feeling victimized? Would it be worth feeling weak?

Would it be worth living with the threat of retaliation from Bill, and the knowledge that without a good reference from him it will be awfully hard for you to find another job?

Oh man, Bill is very highly respected in your field. Would it be worth the firestorm of accusations that you’re trying to ruin his career?

Maybe. Maybe it would be totally worth it.

But maybe, by the time you decide your career and reputation and sense of self can handle the fallout, this violence from Bill has been going on for years.

Maybe it’s gotten really bad. Maybe it’s starting to make you feel crazy. Maybe Bill is slick and charming and nobody on the outside can tell.

Maybe, when you finally speak up, people will say, “Well, it couldn’t have been that bad. Otherwise, why didn’t you speak up before?”

Just something to think about.

Different people experience the same actions differently.

In my last post, I told a story about how the same unwanted physical affection that triggered moderate annoyance in me triggered traumatic flashbacks and panic attacks in my female coworker. Neither of us had the “right” or “wrong” reaction. There is no single appropriate way to react to an instance of sexual harassment. We’d had different life experiences — she was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and I was not — and so, even when we encountered the same situation, we did not experience it in remotely the same way.

Crucially, this principle holds even if the intentions of your action are completely innocent. This is why Safe Church and sexual harassment prevention trainers are always going on about “intent” and “impact.” Let’s say you are a male pastor with three female associate pastors (wow! good for you! that is a big church!). You are in a great mood because you’ve just learned that this year’s stewardship (fundraising) drive has been successful beyond your wildest dreams. You announce this news to the team and give each of your associates an exuberant hug.

One is an exuberant hugger herself. She hugs you right back and goes on her merry way.

Another finds getting hugged by her boss a bit unsettling. You’ve set off a little pop-up from her antivirus software. She will quietly make sure not to be alone with you from now on. But she will never ever say anything to you about it. That would be weird.

The third is having a panic attack in the bathroom right now.

How can you avoid this scenario? I don’t know, how about waiting for your female colleagues — and especially your female subordinates — to hug you first?

People of any gender can perpetrate sexual violence, and people of any gender can experience it, BUT patriarchy is predisposed to punish women and exonerate men.

Of course women sometimes commit acts of sexual harassment or assault. Of course men are sometimes the victims.

But privilege works in mysterious ways.

Female perpetrators are more likely to be punished; male victims are more likely to be believed.

Perpetrators of color are more likely to be punished; white victims are more likely to be believed.

Disabled perpetrators are more likely to be punished; able-bodied victims are more likely to be believed.

LGBTQ perpetrators are more likely to be punished; straight victims are more likely to be believed.

Should I keep going?

Do I really need to keep going?

Being dismissed, disbelieved, or silenced about sexual violence can be more traumatic than experiencing the violence in the first place.

This is true along every part of the violence continuum. My encounters with sexual harassment have been relatively mild — limited to the occasional inappropriate comment or unwanted touch. They were upsetting, but not traumatizing.

What DID feel traumatic were the instances where I tried to ask a superior for help and found myself blown off, or, worse, told to shut up and drop it. When you are under attack, especially if you’re worried that more serious attacks are going to come, there’s nothing more terrifying than feeling like no one is going to step up to help you fight.

Don’t appoint yourself as the arbiter of what “counts” as sexual harassment, abuse, or assault. Remember, as a man, you are not running the same operating system. If your female colleague or subordinate says a certain behavior is a problem, treat it that way.

You have to have a plan.

This is for all of you who enjoy the enviable task of being the boss. Sexual harassment will happen on your watch. Sexual abuse and assault might too. Your homework is to sit down, by yourself or with your most trusted church leaders, and talk your way through the following scenarios. No, for real. What would will you do?

  • You overhear two female choir members joking to a new singer that she shouldn’t give her cell phone number to the choir director. Something about the conversation raises a red flag, and after their rehearsal, you pull the two of them aside to ask them why they said that. They fidget and stare at the floor but finally say they thought everyone knew that the choir director is infamous for sending sexually explicit texts, sometimes with pictures, to women from the choir. (Let’s be real: Probably everyone did know except you. What pastor ever really knows what’s going on in the choir?) Let us assume that your choir director is also the organist, that your church is in a small town where a vacancy for this position would be hard to fill, and also that it is the Thursday before Palm Sunday.
  • Your seminarian asks to meet with you. With obvious discomfort, she tells you that a parishioner has been making “suggestive comments” to her. When you ask her for an example, she hesitates before writing some of them down and handing you the list. You read what she has written and go pale. This man cannot possibly have said such graphic things, in church, to an intern his granddaughter’s age. He is a successful businessman, a pillar of the church, and your largest individual donor. He is also the chair of your capital campaign, which you just kicked off, with great fanfare, last month.
  • A female parishioner tells you that a man in the congregation has repeatedly invaded her personal space. The man is a longtime parishioner who has major mental illness and has been living on the street for more than a decade. You pride yourself on fostering a church community that is welcoming to people who are homeless or marginally housed, and you have cultivated a good relationship with this man. While his behavior is sometimes erratic, has never behaved inappropriately or threateningly toward you. When you ask the parishioner if she has told him to stop, she says that she is afraid to. You wonder if her fear of him is really because of his behavior toward her, or simply because he is obviously homeless.

Think it over. Talk it over. I repeat: You have to have a plan.

If a woman extends her hand to you, shake her hand. Do not hug her.

She is offering you a handshake, not a hug.

Shake her hand.

DO NOT HUG HER.

Had to be said.

2 thoughts on “What I Need Men in the Church to Understand About Sexual Violence

  1. Excellent post – especially the handshake vs. the hug emphasis. I’ve not been sexually abused, but I also dislike way-too-familiar touch. Please, simply shake my hand. Don’t make me endure a hug, as it brings up way too many memories of being attacked.

    I need my personal space, and the foolish belief that I can easily evade an attempted attack by keeping a reasonable distance helps my peace of mind when otherwise out and about in crowds or when dealing with strangers.

    Like

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