I have been horrified by the thousands of women (and men) who have posted #MeTOO on Facebook recently in response to the egregious sexual misconduct of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Every status I have read has filled me with both thankfulness and grief. I am thankful for the courage and the bravery of those who have shared their stories. I am grieved that the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment is still so widespread and still so unacknowledged, and that it has taken thousands of voices on social media revealing their personal pain publicly to convince the world of the extent of this problem.
Bolstered by centuries of patriarchal dominance over women, powerful and thoughtless men have heaped sexual harassment and abuse on women because they could. In more recent decades, as women have gained success in career fields previously closed to them, they have been accosted by sexual predators at every turn. Now, sad and horrifying stories abound on Facebook and elsewhere – told by women of all ages and walks of life – about assault and abuse, not only in the entertainment field, but in business, government, academia, and the church as well. Male authority have taken tawdry advantage of women in exchange for using their influence or workplace position to assist those women in ‘breaking the glass ceiling’. “Locker room talk” has been accepted with a wink and a nudge, and predatory behavior against women has been a young man’s ‘rite of passage’ for far too long. We can only wonder how many more women are carrying these terrible stories around, afraid to tell them. We hear stories from friends and strangers, stories of pain, abuse, assault and harassment; we can no longer say that we did not know or ‘that is just the way things are’. #MeTOO demands a response from all of us.
Unfortunately, for Christians and many other faith groups, their respective holy books are ready sources for the misguided belief that women are possessions, and do not deserve a place in society equal to men. From the beginning of recorded history, women (and female children) have generally been counted in the tribes as part of the chattel. Their purpose was to keep the home, procreate, care for children and, primarily, be in the background, much like a slave or indentured servant. What we now consider inappropriate and even abusive sexual behavior was sanctioned within the culture and tribal system.
For too long, men have participated in and benefited from a culture that allows, profits from, and ultimately, rewards abusing women. And, more to the point, men HAVE and ARE doing this. Even words spoken lightly with the intent of a compliment have frequently had the effect of placing women in compromising positions. Male silence when they have seen a woman objectified… their failure to use their dominant power to create safe spaces with clear expectations about consent in touch, conversation and action … is inexcusable. Although women assuming more and more positions in society will help to eradicate their sexual abuse and assault, there is an important role that men must assume in correcting this long-standing problem.
It is the responsibility of women everywhere to stand up, no matter difficult that may be, and say ‘enough!’ A problem cannot be rectified if there is not a clear definition of the root cause. Announcing #MeTOO on social media does not solve the problem – but it is having a significant purpose:
1. to raise the awareness of the general population that their mothers and sisters and daughters and even grandmothers have been subjected to demeaning misogyny;
2. to affirm and strengthen those who have suffered in silence because of fear of reprisal, or guilt, or a feeling that ‘they were the only ones’.
Many harassed women who felt alone have now found the strength to add their voice to the #MeTOO campaign. And there also are many men who have realized their actions were inappropriately demeaning and have posted their objection to such words and actions, along with heartfelt support for their female friends and family.
However, raising awareness is NOT going to eradicate the problem. It is the responsibility of both men and women, mothers and fathers, all citizens of our country, to take action. Women and girls should be taught, reminded, and urged to call up short any who harass or abuse them; parents, families, and society MUST make a strong statement that this is no longer permissible or acceptable behavior.
Sexual harassment is not about sex – it is about power. . . the power men hold over women and children in this society. It is time for women to speak up and demand respect and equal power in the workplace and society. It is time for little boys and girls to be taught to respect one another as equals. Just as we teach children about inappropriate touching, we need to teach them not to accept inappropriate words.
We like to think of the church as a refuge from the brokenness and sinfulness of the world. We like to think that, within the Christian community, we are kinder to each other, that we are better at “doing unto others.” But the truth is: we are not immune. The sound of #MeTOO echoes within the walls of the church. Every female clergy I know has experienced at least one incidence of sexual harassment. Victims are sitting in our pews, our classrooms, and our church offices. Too often, neither a Christian community, gender, age, marital status, nor pastoral authority has protected us.
The church must take responsibility for their culpability in the acceptance of this behavior as a social norm. It is time for faith communities to oppose every form of sexism toward women. We must create an environment where there is zero tolerance for harassment, abuse and violence. We must remind our communities that Jesus preached we are to ‘love each other as brothers and sisters’. Our churches should be seen as safe havens, where we treat one another with compassion and respect. These should be places where no one has to worry about being harassed, demeaned, assaulted.
We should all feel sick and sad over the continuing stories of women suffering verbal and physical assaults. Today it’s in the spotlight, and that’s important. But as fast as news comes to our attention, it becomes ‘old news’, and we move on to the next thing. My fear is that #MeTOO will fade away as another topic takes its place – that all the discussion and identification of the types of harassment and its impact will become a shadow in the mind, and we will go back to the ‘same old, same old’. Men and women must continue to speak out; and the church must lead the way in creating new norms of social behavior.
We in The Episcopal Church and the diocese can exercise leadership in our communities to increase fair treatment, respect, and love in all aspects of our communal life.
How can we do this?
- By shifting from masculine-only and patriarchal language in conversations and services to non-gender inclusive language;
- By making our young people aware of their important role in creating new and kinder social norms of behavior between genders in all phases of their lives;
- By ensuring that our worship, formation, and activities do nothing to reinforce disrespect of any person or group;
- By supporting gender parity and mutual respect of all persons in our civic life (government, schools, organizations, entertainment);
- By raising awareness of problems of misogyny wherever they are found;
- By confirming and affirming those who speak out.
That is my hope – that true and lasting good may come from this #MeTOO campaign. That following the courage of younger generations, we can stand up, speak out, and make the church and our world a better place for all of us.
The Rev. Deniray Mueller serves as legislative liaison for the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.