By Loren Seibold, 17 December 2017  |  

A few weeks ago one of my friends on Facebook wrote an anguished post about how two of her favorite Minnesotans, Al Franken and Garrison Keillor, had been accused of sexual harassment. She was grieving because men she’d admired had proven to be lecherous jerks. She was also, it seemed to me, feeling the pain that comes with transparency and exposure—oh, the things we’d rather not know!—and how indiscriminate the effect of this dump of accusations.

Such feelings are characteristic of this kind of moment. A spotlight on one Hollywood director has become, in the course of a few months, a floodlight on all of us men. Even men who don’t attack women find ourselves standing in this harsh, unforgiving glare, remembering our many up-down appraisals of women’s bodies and the thoughts which accompanied them.

Some men fear being falsely accused, though that’s rare compared to the number of women whose true stories are never believed. What is happening is that the more such stories get reported, the more the transgressions lump into an indiscriminate glob of unpleasantness, as though there’s no difference between rape and a furtive glance down a cleavage. It’s feeling a little dangerous to be a man nowadays—something women have felt for centuries.

Why is this happening now? It’s complicated. Social psychologists talk about the Overton Window, a way of modeling what kind of discourse is acceptable in society. That window isn’t just a sliding pane that opens at discrete increments, but a pulsing, flexible thing, like Donald Trump’s carp-like mouth. The coarsening of the discourse—that we now have a world in which racism is cheerfully celebrated on the streets of a southern city, where lying from the country’s highest offices is unremarkable and expected, where people feel more entitled to their beliefs than to facts, and the POTUS brags about his sexual exploits—is evidence of a change in what is allowed through that window.

But ironically, it’s that widening of the Overton Window that has brought us to the present moment. I don’t think it’s an accident that it was about a year into Donald Trump’s reign that men’s treatment of women finally got traction. Why not back when Access Hollywood’s Trump outtake was released, or when Trump was quoted in New York Magazine as saying, “Women, you have to treat them like s***!”? Charlie Rose’s, Matt Lauer’s and Bill Cosby’s transgressions were known for years, and reported publicly. Why did so few notice? Why was Bill Clinton given a pass when he was accused of actual sexual assault? We’re in a momentum moment: the accusations have become loud enough, from enough women, with enough people believing them, that the disgusting truth has finally made it into public discourse, pouring forth like the contents of a broken sewer pipe.

Those least likely to believe abused women are, it appears, conservative Christians. After all of these years of Christians moralizing about sex, churches still don’t want to know about men abusing women and girls.

Those least likely to believe abused women are, it appears, conservative Christians. Pedophile Roy Moore was endorsed by no less a Christian authority figure than Focus on the Family founder and speaker Dr. James Dobson, who has effectively demonstrated that he’s less concerned about Christian morality than political expediency.

Astonishingly, after all of these years of Christians moralizing about sex, churches still don’t want to know about men abusing women and girls. I’ve heard these stories often enough to know they’re true. An acquaintance of mine was raped during her teen years by a church elder. When rumors were heard, there was but a brief questioning by the other elders (during which he denied it, and she denied it because she knew he’d already denied it and she’d never be believed). It was never mentioned again.

There seem to be a handful of unspoken assumptions that have governed the processing of accusations of sexual impropriety toward women, no matter in what context they occur.

  1. Women lie about such things. They don’t need to be believed, and they will retreat if we resist a bit—proving that they weren’t telling the truth in the first place. This is the central principle, upon which all the rest are built.
  2. Such an accusation would ruin a man’s life, and we don’t want to risk that, since the man is probably skilled, well-connected, and important to the organization.
  3. If it was only words, well, what’s the big deal? Everybody says things they regret. Get over it. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” right?
  4. It’s complicated: we can’t know who to believe because it happened in private. So let’s structure our response so as to set the accusation aside as quickly as possible, even if that means not really listening to the accuser.
  5. If it’s impossible to deny, it’s easy enough to settle with a payout and a nondisclosure agreement, so as not to call attention to how common such foul behavior is.

There’s a psychosocial context, too, to all of this. Since Eden it’s been hard to figure out the nuances of healthy sexuality, differing female and male sexualities, and the sexualized culture. (I tend to believe that the apple and the tree are metaphorical for something more than a mouth-watering piece of fruit, and that it’s no accident that the woman gets blamed.)

Ideally, some say, a woman should be able to walk down a dark sidewalk naked and not be bothered. But who would recommend it? Reversing this logic, others have tried to make women responsible for their own harassment, saying provocative dress inflames men (who, under this model, are presumably unembarrassed to profess that they have no self-control). Of course that’s utter nonsense: rapists don’t attack just sexy women. In Islamic cultures women are covered, sometimes head to toe, and are still abused as much as they are in the west; in Afghanistan, prostitutes work under burqas.

Bad men blame women, good men idealize them, and smart men realize that neither is entirely true nor especially helpful.

Even women are confused about this. In at least five conversations I’ve had recently about this topic around faithful church members, a woman or two spoke up to say, “It’s the women. They’re just after money.” Could it be true? Sometimes, I’m sure. But their quick and facile response concerns me. From whence the willingness for women to blame other women?

As regards the wider culture, we have made sexual tension into a science. Where can you look where women are not evaluated for their attractiveness? Not to television, movies, or magazines targeted to women themselves. Women are naturally sexually desirable to straight men, but our culture has pushed it to the point where they’re mostly that—and then we wonder why women aren’t taken seriously as professionals and colleagues or even as friends.

And are women, innocently or not, complicit in this? Can a woman be both ogleable and respected? I don’t know the answer. (Bad men blame women, good men idealize them, and smart men realize that neither is entirely true nor especially helpful.) Men may be ultimately responsible for this, as some women say—they control the fashion industry and the media—but who can blame young men growing up in the culture for being confused? I’m not even talking about pornography, which is horrible in its own way. More damaging (because it’s perfectly normal) is the everyday way ordinary men (and women) think about women as objects of desire, their attractiveness their value—as though the woman who makes immense contributions to the world is a novelty, like chicken that can play tic-tac-toe.

In order to make headway we will have to at least be aware of this, for it is as much a problem in the church as it is elsewhere. I am convinced that refusing to ordain women is a symptom of a way of thinking about women that has kept them abused and harassed. Covering women (as in Islamic cultures), displaying and evaluating them (as in western entertainment) and keeping them in their place (as in Christian churches) are all just different responses to the same phenomenon of having effectively sexualized and objectified women. I can’t forget Jimmy Carter’s statement to the Parliament of World Religions: “The truth is that male religious leaders have had—and still have—an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world.”

Covering women (as in Islamic cultures), displaying and evaluating them (as in western entertainment) and keeping them in their place (as in Christian churches) are all just different responses to the same phenomenon of having effectively sexualized and objectified women.

It’s good that female abuse and harassment are finally getting attention, but is it constructive attention?

Right now what we’re seeing is more outrage than response. We might suppose something good is happening because we’re all talking about it, because it is splashed across every news banner, because old accusations are resurfacing. But lots of noise doesn’t guarantee constructive change. The way to handle such transgressions is steadily, promptly, and fairly, with just and careful responses. The projectile vomiting of it across every medium right now disturbs, but without intentional management it won’t necessarily bring change. Perhaps some policies will change, such as appears to be happening to the byzantine complaint system that we recently learned applied to women working around horny United States congressmen. But the best way to handle this (for the protection of both victim and accused) is before the outrage, not after it. You don’t end careless driving by making a big fuss every time someone is killed doing it, but by posting speed limit signs and catching and fining speeders.

Of course, we’re all enjoying the show a bit right now, too. Human beings love to feel self-righteous outrage. Isn’t it fun to see the mighty falling? But therein lies a related concern. Actresses and anchorwomen, congressional staffers and media staffers and female executives—indeed, anyone who works for a rich or important man—might be marginally safer for the moment. But will this trickle down (to use a favorite conservative phrase) to the women most often abused and harassed: factory workers, waitresses, store shelf stockers, secretaries and receptionists, retail workers? Please note that all the attention so far has been on the influencing class—women who can speak for themselves even if they haven’t always done so. What difference will any of this make to the waitress who is ass-grabbed by a stranger? The hotel-room cleaner whose male “guest” drops his towel when she comes in to change the sheets?

Please note that all the attention so far has been on the influencing class—women who can speak for themselves even if they haven’t always done so. What difference will any of this make to the waitress who is ass-grabbed by a stranger? The hotel-room cleaner whose male “guest” drops his towel when she comes in to change the sheets? Almost none.

Almost none. If you’re harassed by Bill O’Reilly, you’ll get a few million dollars right after you sign your non-disclosure agreement. But if your $2-an-hour-more-than-you manager gooses you in the stockroom, you wiggle away, continue working until your shift ends, cry a little when you get home while wondering if it’s your own fault for something you said or did, worry about what happens if you should lose your job, and try to avoid going into the stockroom alone after that.

There’s no simple answer here, and I don’t pretend to have one. (Or, for that matter, to be innocent of the evil thoughts that Jesus said plague all of us. Among all human beings, there are sins we aren’t tempted to commit, sins we decide not to commit, and others we simply haven’t yet had the opportunity to commit.) This moment in our history could be world-changing (the news outlets love the phrase “watershed”) or it could be a lot of noise that ends up solving nothing and is forgotten as quickly as was respectability in the Oval Office.

I wish Christians could be part of shaping a constructive response, though I fear conservative Christianity has squandered its credibility in trying to shape the political scene in its favor. Given our segment of the church’s capitulation to the lies of the political right, wouldn’t it be ironic if secular ethics succeeds to address this problem while Christian ethics is still trying to figure out how to avoid talking about it?


Loren Seibold is a pastor, and the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

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