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 CafĂ©. 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.


Had to be said.

A Taxonomy of Creeps

Reading through hundreds of #metoo stories this week, I caught myself thinking that I was lucky.

“Lucky” that I have never been sexually abused or raped. “Lucky” that my experiences of sexual harassment have been relatively minor. “Lucky” that I can tell stories about those experiences without traumatic flashbacks or the threat of harm.

If you are a clergy woman or femme reading this blog, you don’t need me to tell you that sexual harassment and assault are problems in the church. You probably got a fresh reminder of that last Sunday, when someone gave you a hug in the receiving line that lasted just a little too long.

And yet.

And yet, I feel kind of like the Ancient Mariner: I have been working in the church for a decade now, so even if no one wants to hear them, I have my own set of stories to tell. I’ve picked a handful to share with you here, and included the details I always want to know when I hear these stories: what I did and whether it worked.

Note: Some identifying details in the stories below have been changed to “protect the innocent,” by which I mean “protect me from the guilty.”

The Powerful Guy

The situation: I was 21 and working in my very first post-college job — yes, a church job. And there was this (older, male) guy on a powerful board of the church who would always come say hello to me, every time he was at my workplace for a board meeting. He would do that thing where he stood a little too close, and he would take hold of my forearm, and hold onto it for a little too long. It’s been a decade and I don’t even remember this guy’s name. But I still remember how creepy it felt.

What I did: Nothing. I was afraid that if I told him to stop, or asked my boss for help, he would tell the whole board — and, because this guy knew everybody, God knows who else — that I was “bitchy” or “sensitive” or “high-maintenance.” Word travels fast in the church, and I had no idea what the career repercussions might be down the road. So I did my best to grin and bear it.

The result: I got real good at scheduling out-of-office appointments when I saw board meetings on the calendar. If I forgot to do that, I put up with the close-talking and forearm-gripping. I used up untold mental energy on avoiding and/or dealing with this guy, once a month, every time that board met, for my entire tenure at that job.

The Predatory Guy

The situation: I was at a clergy thing that featured a cocktail hour, which was unfortunate in itself because giving free drinks to two hundred clergy is never a good idea. I was chatting with a (young, female) friend of mine when an (older, male) priest shouldered his way into the conversation and started talking at me — only me — taking up all the airspace. My friend and I exchanged miserable glances, but we didn’t want to be rude.

The dinner bell sounded, and my friend and I said farewell to this creep and headed downstairs to the banquet hall. When we found a table and took our seats, I was startled to see this guy dropping into the seat on the other side of me. He had followed me to dinner.

“I thought I’d join you,” he said. “You seem harmless enough.”

Then he leered at me. “I’m not.”

What I did: I decided that if there was ever a time for rudeness, I had found it. Without another word, I turned my back and ignored him.

The result: He gave up and wandered off to a different seat before the food arrived. I never had to think about him again … until a more recent clergy event, when, mysteriously, I found him sitting at my table a second time.

The Immature Guy

The situation: Through youth ministry, I got to know an (older, male) guy who had somehow managed to get ordained as a deacon in my denomination. This surprised me, because this guy was … uh … not that smart. He seemed kind of childlike to me, so although I thought it was weird when he always wanted to greet me with a big grabby bear hug and a kiss on the neck, I figured it was because he didn’t understand socially appropriate physical boundaries, not because he was trying to be a creep.

What I did: I treated him like a damn child, and it seemed to sort of work. When he tried to hug and kiss me, I would push him away by the shoulders and say, “It is not appropriate for you to kiss me. You can greet me by shaking my hand.” He was always apologetic, but somehow, the scenario repeated itself every time we met.

One day, I mentioned his name to an (older, female) coworker at my church. She started shaking. She was a survivor of sexual abuse, and she had suffered the same invasions of physical space from this guy, but she reacted to them very differently. For her, getting grabbed and kissed by a strange man slammed down on a big red trigger button, and sometimes caused her full-blown panic attacks. She said that she had even broken down and explained all this to the guy, and that his behavior hadn’t changed. If anything, it had escalated. It was almost like her reaction of panic and fear made him more eager to invade her personal space, not less.

Huh. That didn’t seem very innocent or childlike after all. In fact, it seemed kind of sinister.

Together, we decided to call this guy’s priest, an (older, female) woman who was quite new to the region from out of state. The pastor didn’t stammer. She didn’t cry. In a flat voice, she told us that this man had made her life a living hell since her first day on the job — spreading rumors about her to the congregation, consistently attempting to undercut her authority, and telling her that nobody had wanted to hire her, but that the church had settled for her because they couldn’t afford to pay what a male pastor would be worth.

Why hadn’t she done anything about it?


Ha ha!

Here’s why: In our polity, priests and pastors can’t fire deacons. Only the bishop can. Our (older, male) bishop at the time was no friend to women clergy, and was, for some reason, a great defender of this guy (guess who signed off on his ordination even after he failed his diaconal exams?). This guy’s miserable new pastor was new in town, needed the job, and didn’t want to rock the boat.

I was kinda hoping to convince this bishop to ordain me to the priesthood, so I didn’t really want to rock that boat either. But my lay coworker wasn’t afraid of the bishop. Once we had the full story on this guy, she wrote it all up and marched into the bishop’s office. The bishop made a few phone calls to rally the guy’s defenders, but it turned out he didn’t have very many defenders at all.

The result: In the end, the guy was permanently removed from parochial status, but not defrocked. He still gets to attend clergy conferences, wear a clerical collar, and go by “Reverend.” Good for him, I guess.

The Unstable Guy

The situation: In my early twenties, I attended a church with a large presence of homeless and marginally housed people. Most of them were cool. One (older, male) was scary.

I never knew quite what was up with him, but I did know that his behavior could be very erratic. He sometimes wandered into the middle of the service, shouting at no one in particular. Occasionally he would stand on a pew. None of that was too unusual in this church. More troubling, though, it was really hard for me to get him to leave me alone.

He always wanted to sit up close next to me, or “help” me carry things out to my car by grabbing them out of my arms. He was a whole lot bigger than me, and I had seen him yell at and occasionally threaten other members of the congregation, so I was — as mentioned — pretty scared.

What I did: I decided this was not the kind of situation I should try to handle alone. Instead, I asked my (older, male) priest for help. He was a proud feminist and a father of daughters. I figured he would be willing and able to help me handle it.

What I did not expect was for him to say in a patronizing tone, “Have you talked to him about it?”


I said something approximating that. My priest answered patiently, “Just talk to him. It’s not fair to complain about it if you haven’t talked to him first.”

The result: Did I mention I was too scared to talk to this guy about setting appropriate physical limits? I went to church a little less often and otherwise just lived with it until the guy was finally asked to leave the church. What triggered that, you ask? Well, he loudly threatened to kick the ass of the (older, male) senior warden/board president one morning during coffee hour, and the senior warden insisted that he not be allowed to return.

Good to know the priest was willing to listen to somebody.

The Very Affectionate Guy

The situation: Oh boy, this was way back in my first-ever church job, when I was still a college student! There was an (older, male) guy there who was a hugger. That’s what he would say, every time he swatted away the hand I had proffered for a handshake and instead went in for a long, intense hug: “I’m a hugger.”

When the holidays rolled around, I went to the staff holiday party, which included the entire church staff and a handful of volunteers who did staff-like things. This guy handled the payroll or something, so he was there. I arrived a little late, and it was clear that everyone had already been drinking for a while. Mr. Hugger Payroll Man strolled up to me and said, “Catherine! It’s so good to see you!” And then he gave me a long, intense hug.

But this time, he also grabbed my butt.

Right in front of all my coworkers.

In public.

At a party.

While his wife stared, curling her lip in disgust.

What I did: I took a big step back and said loudly, “WOW! I THINK THAT’S THE CLOSEST I’VE EVER BEEN TO A MAN!”

He turned bright red and jumped away from me. His wife snickered. Everyone around us giggled uncomfortably.

The result: That motherfucker never touched me again.

But wait, there’s more! The next week, I mentioned this encounter to the (wait for it — older, male) priest I was working for. He smiled ruefully and said, “Oh, yes. Mark, he’s a hugger.”

I was still in college. I was getting paid peanuts to run the church youth group for two hours a week. What did I have to lose?

“You’re right,” I said. “Mark sure is a hugger. Let me show you the hug I got from him on Friday night.”

I marched right up to my boss, wrapped my arms around him, and pressed my whole body up against his. I let my hands wander down his back and gave his butt a little squeeze.

He backed away from me, horrified.

“That Mark,” I said again. “He sure is a hugger. I just wanted to make sure you could experience one of his hugs too.”

The Pedophilic Guy

The situation: In that same first youth ministry gig, when I was living in Pennsylvania, I got to know another (older, male) lay youth pastor from a different church in my denomination. There were a few things about him that made me feel weird.

He preferred the company of children and young teenagers to that of adults. At youth events, he was always that one grown-up sitting at the kids’ table.

He volunteered with several different youth organizations, which any paid youth worker will tell you is strange. Even those of us who love kids enough to work with them for a living find them to be kind of a pain in the ass and want a break from them on our time off.

He sought out the children of isolated, overwhelmed single mothers. And I mean REALLY isolated. I remember one youth retreat in particular where I was assigned the task of organizing all the registration forms. I was surprised to see that several mothers from his church had listed him as their child’s sole emergency contact.

Then, one day, he started talking to me about the extraordinary attractiveness of some of the young teenage girls in his youth group. He mentioned that he had become “smitten” with a middle-school girl a few years before, but reassured me (and himself?) that these feelings were “normal” and “happened to everybody.”

That settled it. This guy was a pedophile out of central casting. Albeit not a very savvy one.

Imagine how you would feel if you had to deal with such a scenario now. Then, imagine how you would have felt back when you were nineteen.

What I did: I didn’t have a whole lot of power over this guy — I saw him only occasionally, and we didn’t work for the same church. What I could and did do was document every single interaction I had with him. I saved his emails. I printed screenshots of his Facebook profile. I happened to have a copy of his resume, and I called every employer he had listed. In each case, he had either been fired or left on terms where the boss was not sad to see him go. I asked all of these former employers whether I could share their concerns and use their names, and every one of them said yes.

Then, I assembled my packet of documents, went to my (older, male) boss, and said, “We have a problem.”

The result: I wound up having a meeting with my boss, my boss’s boss, and the priest and senior warden from the church where this guy worked. Just four fifty- or sixty-something men and teenage me.

The meeting — and this will shock you — did not go well.

I don’t remember much of what was said — something about why I was trying to ruin his career? — but I do remember the senior warden leaping out of his chair and shouting at me as he loomed over the couch where I sat. He was triple my size and triple my age. I knew, rationally, that he probably wasn’t going to hit me, but it sure felt like he might.

The other thing I remember about that day is that my boss and his boss sat there stone-faced, like they were watching the whole encounter through soundproof glass. They let this man raise his voice and insult me and physically intimidate me. And they just sat there and watched.

Everything else I’ve described in this post was more or less forgettable, but that is one I will never be able to forget.

That guy was eventually let go from his position, not because of my heroic efforts, but because a new (older, male) priest arrived at his church and instantly identified him as a risk to minors. I guess the senior warden didn’t push back against the decision too hard, because he still goes to that church. Maybe something about the new priest made the senior warden more inclined to take him seriously.

And the now-former youth pastor? As far as I’m aware, he still volunteers with kids.

The Next Guy

The situation: I don’t know yet. But I know there will be a next one. And a next one, and a next one, and another one after that.

What I’ll do: As I hope these stories have indicated, I’ll decide how to respond based on any number of factors: how much power I have in the situation, how I think the benefit of acting will stack up to the cost, how worried I am about my physical safety, whether I have a superior I think I can trust. This is a very detailed calculus that women perform in their heads all the time.

The result: Wish me luck.