Breaking the Silence
So the #metoo social media wave that keeps rolling through our society is bringing to light sexual harassment and sexual assaults that have been hidden for years. Just this week, other public figures are being exposed for their inappropriate and predatory behavior.
Part of the way that men get away with sexual harassment and sexual assault is the code of shame and silence undergirded with victim blaming. I believe one of the few ways to begin to transform our rape culture is for women to break the silence and begin telling our stories. Of course, this will not be a healthy or safe or wise option for many women. Every woman must decide for herself whether to break silence or not. You do what you need to do to take care of you and your safety and well-being.
Me? As for me, I think it may be empowering to break the silence and tell my stories. There are far worse stories out there, but along the spectrum of sexual harassment and sexual assault all the incidents, however, seemingly minor, undergird a culture that condones the mistreatment of women, the exploitation of women, and the disrespect of women.
The first incident of sexual harassment that I endured was while I was in college. I commuted across town to LSU while living at home with my parents and brother. Many days I would drive out early and stay on campus all day. During my first year, I was returning to my car at about dusk. I was parked in the huge lot near the football stadium that had a boys dorm built into it under the stands. As I was walking along this guy rides by on a bike and slows down, yelling at me: “Hey, don’t you want some of this” as he waves his penis at me — hanging there out of his open pants. I was so shocked and disgusted. I quickly made my way to my car. I never parked in that lot again. I never took a night class.
During my early years of ministry, I had an appointment where the previous pastor would return to the churches. He maintained friendships and pastoral relationships with the members of my church. So already it was obvious he had poor professional boundaries. Every time he saw me, he would grab me into one of those creepy full body inappropriate hugs — even as I was sticking out my hand for a handshake, even as I went stiff, even as I tried to push him away. He’d say:”Oh hugs are nice.” And I was a young pastor. I was striving to maintain professional decorum in front of parishioners who were always around. I was well trained to be polite, to not cause a scene. I even said directly, “A handshake will suffice” and he still grabbed me. I finally resolved that the next time he grabbed me in one of those inappropriate hugs, I was going to knee him in the groin and I did not care whom among my church members were near by. I am grateful that I have not yet had to test my resolve because since then I have not had to endure one of his inappropriate hugs.
In another appointment, the church had arranged for several “meet and greets” to help me get to know folks. At one of these sessions, “Charlie” tried to feed me grapes — YES, you read that correctly — he attempted to come in close and hand feed me grapes. I repeatedly and politely kept saying “No, thank you.” Finally the meeting started and Charlie ceased. Then when the meeting was breaking up, he tracked me around the room and again maneuvered himself up close and tried to feed me grapes. Again, 2-3 times I politely said “No thank you.” At which point he said, “Well then, I will just have to turn you over my knee and spank you.” When he said that, I became very still and very alert. I looked Charlie directly in the eyes and said calmly but firmly, “In which case, I will press charges.” He looked down and scurried away. But throughout my time as his pastor, he repeatedly stood too close, touched me inappropriately, grabbed necklaces I was wearing pretending he wanted to see it more closely but never asking permission. I observed that other members of his family had questionable boundaries — a son who was married would kiss other women to whom he was not related on the lips in the church foyer. With Charlie, I never knew who to report his inappropriate behavior to — his son was on SPRC and was the wanton kisser (thank goodness he never attempted to kiss me). The other thing with Charlie — he was older and I hoped that if he did physically attack, I could fend him off. But it does raise the question — what recourse do clergywomen have to report the sexual harassment of parishioners? We all know the little tricks to try to keep ourselves safe — never linger after a church meeting, always leave with 2-3 others. Wear frumpy, dowdy, ugly clothes. Do stiff armed handshakes with our other arm crossed over our breasts as protection from those invasive hugs. Meet in public places the middle of the day. But when our best efforts fail to keep the creeps and predators at bay, where do we turn for assistance and support?
Then there was the homeless guy who wanted to wait at the church for 3 hours until the AA meeting. We would not allow him to wait inside because we share space with a pre school and do not allow folks untended access to the building while the children are there. He gave me along spiel about trying to resist running off and getting a drink or drugs. The church has a bench out front he could sit there. He also claimed to be waiting for his sponsor. My mistake, I said that I would stick my head out and check on him every so often — seeking to honor his stated need for accountability help in resisting alcohol. He used me. He exposed himself to me. He masturbated in front of me. I should have called the cops immediately. But he was a young black man and ringing in my mind were all the cases of cops killing young black men. So I did not call the cops then. And Eli proceeded in the coming days to continue to try to get access to the church. I wound up having to tell him that he could not be on site unless an AA sponsor accompanied him at all times. I conveyed this info to the head of the AA groups and they decided that Eli was no longer welcome at their meetings because he had similarly harassed women at other AA groups in town. Then the morning came when he tried to gain access to the church when the pre school was there. The teachers called me. I came in through the back. He saw me through the window of the front door and began banging with both fists on the glass and yelling obscenities. We were all very scared. The teachers had already called the cops. I called 911 again and shared how terrified we were. Cops arrived. I banned Eli from the church property. That ban is good for 5 years. I stopped helping with the dinner for the homeless in order to not encounter him. He is still in the neighborhood. He scares me.
At the 2016 General Conference, someone I know introduced me to one of the international delegates — a pastor. And as is often typical at these conferences, I got pulled into a group photo for this international delegate. I was standing next to him and during the photo he groped me!!! I was horrified and immediately fled the scene. Found a safe person and had a complete melt down — sobbing — not pretty crying, ugly crying. I felt betrayed and violated and just plain awful. I went to the ombudsman and reported the incident. I did so saying that I personally was not interested in pursuing charges however if it were a pattern with this delegate, then I would gladly lend my voice to corroborate the stories of others who might similarly be assaulted by this pastor.
On the spectrum of sexual harassment and assault these are mild but still disturbing and life altering.
I could do a series of stories about gender discrimination in addition to these accounts of sexual harassment and sexual assault. It is not easy being a clergywoman, but nonetheless, I persist.
Breaking the Silence