Several months ago (in mid-October) the hashtag: #MeToo was posted by actress Alyssa Milano, inviting anyone who had been sexually assaulted or harassed to post this hashtag in their Twitter or Facebook accounts. Within just a few hours it was trending and within 48 hours #MeToo had blown up social media and was the lead-in story for the national news. Tens of thousands of women were posting #MeToo, and some were sharing their horrendous experiences.
This all came on the heels of sexual misconduct accusations leveled against powerful media mogul, Harvey Weinstein, by Milano. Before long, more accusations, and more de-throaning of the rich and powerful played out on the evening news. These accusations were leveled at the powerful, from Hollywood to Washington, DC. Some folks seemed shocked. But most women I know felt validated. “Every woman I know has suffered this kind of experience in one form or another,” shared more than one woman on social media. I, too, felt this validation. I knew of not one single woman who hadn’t experienced this misconduct in some degree. I even thought of what my own mother, now long gone to her heavenly reward, had shared with me decades earlier her experience as a child. I recalled how dismissive my whole family was to a variety of “red flag” instances she had tried to share in an effort to educate them. That was my first “Ah, ha moment”. Me too.
So, what’s this got to do with the term “Respect Life”? Everything. Until we, especially within our own faith communities, respect ALL life…..starting with women, everything else will be window dressing. Our attitudes concerning women: their place in our society, our homes, our work, and our faith communities is a reflection on the rest of society-especially the most marginalized. If we are quick to dismiss our daughters, wives, and mothers, how can we reconcile what we, as Christians, are so fond of saying, “All are precious in his sight”?, and of quoting, Genesis 1:27:
“God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (We will all agree that “man” in this passage referrers to “humankind”.)
I reached out to my sisters in social media. I asked for those who would be willing to share, even confidentially, their experiences, especially within faith communities. On woman, whom I’ll call Elizabeth, shared:
“When I was in second grade, the daughter of a prominent church family watched me after school. Mary was supposed to be my babysitter, but often her father watched me (and some of my classmates). He molested me. He was a deacon of the church. I did report it to my mom but she didn't take it anywhere because she worked with his wife, and no one said anything about that in the 70's.”
Why didn’t mom do anything? Women, especially then were dismissed. Even in the aftermath of the “sexual revolution” of the 60’s, women were still dealt a separate deck of cards. Men were still in power. Their word was held in higher esteem than a woman’s. There were (and are) still states were there were no community property laws. When a woman married it wasn’t even close to an equal partnership. The husband was her lifeline financially, socially, emotionally and as much headway as the feminist movement was making; most women knew that there were boundaries – subjects that they could and would never discuss. Sexual misconduct and abuse were foremost. And, because of the shame and secrecy visited upon them, most truly believed they were the “only ones”. It was an isolating and lonely feeling and this is how misogynistic men and society held their power. Women were routinely shamed and discounted. This was evidenced time and time again in rape investigations and trials. The victim was on trial, not the rapist, even when the victim was a child.
Society didn’t respect women and certainly not the girl child as evidenced by another woman who came forward to share her story:
“It wasn't a subtle message I received. I no longer attend religious services, in part because we had a priest who was fond of the story of Jezebel, which he saw as a story about women perverting men. When the boy next door starting showing his penis to the other 8-year-olds at religious classes and I complained, I was told that I must have done something to provoke him, as Jezebel did. I was 8 years old.”
Misogyny was the norm. It still is. Think not? Read most school dress codes and you will find what girls cannot wear. “It’s too distracting.” we are told. Whether one feels that spaghetti straps or shorts are appropriate for school wear, the message is clear: “YOU are responsible for how others react and behave towards you.” The message is clear. If you dress a certain way, YOU are responsible for what happens to you and those around you. We don’t hold boys (or men) responsible for their own behavior. Nope. Somehow we have given a pass to young boys at an early age that they simply cannot and shouldn’t rein in their most primal urges. They are simply given a pass. Why then, should we be shocked at “locker room talk” as they grow older? We (women) are told, “boys will be boys”. There is no talk of respecting girls or respecting (as they get older) women. That old double standard still exists.
We even see misogyny in our sacred scriptures. Now most of us consider the society and times and wouldn’t visit those attitudes upon our women of today. Or would we? Another woman reached out to me, I’ll call her Kate, and shared:
“This occurred when I was in my early 20s. It was in the college/young adult bible study class at a conservative Protestant church. The associate minister was teaching, and my good (male) friend and I were the only two in attendance that day. The topic of divorce came up.
‘The Bible states that the only acceptable reason for divorce is adultery,’ says the minister. ‘What about abuse?’ I asked.
Awkward silence. My friend is looking from the minister to me and back, waiting.
I'm staring at the minister. ‘Well, uh, the Bible clearly states that divorce is the only acceptable reason...’
‘Well, if I marry a man who ever hits me, I'm out. That's not ok.’
My friend says, ‘But wouldn't you know before marrying him what you were getting into?’
‘Doesn't matter. He hits me, I'm done.
Giant. Awkward. Silence. Topic gets changed and we move on.
Now, it's been 10 years since this conversation took place. I know for a fact that my friend no longer holds such a ridiculous view. But that minister and church? I don't know, since I walked away from that several years ago.”
There are stories of adulterous women being stoned in the bible. But there are none of the men who participated in that sinful action. None.
So okay, we say we take into considerations those times and that patriarchal society. Why then, do so many of our faith communities focus on this unmerciful approach? Why isn’t the approach Jesus used embraced? He broke the norms of the day and spoke to the Samaritan woman. He forgave her misdeeds and challenged her to a better life. How merciful are we? How much respect do we visit on our women, here…right now…in this day and time?
For all our talk about the sanctity of marriage and how that isn’t being respected today, let’s get real. Until more modern times, marriages were contracts that involved financial and political advantages. It had little to do with love. Women were property. How sacred is that? The subject of marriage today could be discussed at length in a book, but suffice to say, there are many women who expect more than being a baby maker and someone’s property. The dust is still settling on this, but it we should keep this in mind when we visit how women are treated in our own modern, civilized society.
So what happens now and where to we go? Respecting life. All life. Life is sacred. It is sacred to every girl. Every girl child has a fundamental right to grow up without fear of molestation, harassment or suggestive remarks like “locker room” talk. Women have a fundamental right to be treated equally and respectfully in our homes, faith communities, work places and government. Period. No ifs ands or buts about it. No justifying misogynistic views by quoting sacred scripture. Jesus called us to Love. That is respecting life.
There is no going back to dismissive attitudes now. As one female morning news anchor stated in regards to the wave of accusations: “Pandora’s box has been opened, and Pandora is pissed.” Because of social media, women are no longer censored and silenced. It’s out there. Now we know, and because we know, we must be held accountable. Women to women, men to women, women to men and men to men. Respect and accountability.
It’s going to be difficult, but the last thing we need is for these accusations not to be taken seriously. In social media, there is already a wave of “but what about the innocent being accused?” It will be a second disrespect to wrongly accuse someone of this kind of misconduct, abuse or assault. It will happen, and that is tragic too. But if anyone truly believes that stepping forward, even with the support of social media and (so far) most institutions who are showing the door to abusive men, is putting the “innocent” at risk, then they really don’t get it. They haven’t a clue. As one woman shared:
“That whole thing: “He said, she said-these women are only doing this for the attention and money.” If folks really buy into that, then it just demonstrates how they really do view us, women. They view us as whores. They really have no clue or understanding how difficult it is to speak up, to throw off the undeserved shame, to risk everything we’ve been told we will lose: our careers, our truth, our “word”……..it’s difficult. Some have never told a soul. Some still can’t….it’s too painful. The snickers, whispers, gestures….the stares, the avoidance, the dismissiveness. It colors your whole life, your own attitudes and your own self-confidence. And to risk all this and be dismissed as basically a whore? Think about that.”
We have the opportunity for change; for sweeping change. This can start in our own homes and faith communities. We must hold ourselves accountable for change and for supporting women. Although women are now ordained in some denominations, are they actively recruited? Or, as in some, are they merely relegated to the altar society? Men and women bring different talents and viewpoints to the world, and this is valuable within our own faith communities. Just as Jesus listened to his own mother even though his time had not come, so must we be serious about listening to the viewpoints of women and actively encourage their participation in clergy and religious life as well as their input on the parish level.
And what of forgiveness? I’ve heard little talk of this yet. We must support women and without dismissing their pain, help them navigate into forgiveness. For many, it’s too raw and too painful. Many want to see justice first; for some, it will never come. Think about that. No justice. Ever. It’s easy for those untouched to talk about the necessity of forgiveness. It is needed. But we must be extraordinarily sensitive to what women have endured. Forgiveness will be a process. If we are to truly respect life, forgiveness is necessary. So is listening. Woman will, in time, need to see these men as human, worthy of respecting their lives. This may be the most painful process of all. It is not giving a pass to the abuse, but it will help free the prison women have been sentenced to.
We don’t have all the answers right now. This is all so new, raw and painful. But we need to have this conversation. This is an extraordinary opportunity for faith communities to step forward to listen and to help heal. We need to hold women’s lives with respect and we need to ask, “How can we help?” and then listen. It will not be for men to dictate the road to forgiveness and healing. This can only come from women and we need to listen very carefully.