I remember the conversation so vividly. I was seventeen, it was a Saturday morning in summer, and our youth group was clearing the garden of an elderly church member. Taking a break, I found myself sitting cross-legged in a circle on the grass with five other young women around my age. I don’t remember how the conversation started, or who said something first. It wasn’t a topic we had talked about before, nor was it one we ever mentioned again. But someone was brave enough to share her experience of being groped by one of the guys in our group – not asked for, not consented to. Someone else told a similar story, then someone else. And for the first time in my life, I realised that this kind of thing wasn’t something that had just happened to me, or to a couple of us, or even to most of us. It was the experience of us all.
Every. Single. One.
So when #YesAllWomen started trending on twitter last weekend, I was immediately taken back to that conversation all those years ago. And I was reminded once again that my group of friends were not an anomaly, but that this is the common experience of everyone who grows up female in our society.
I realise that the immediate context for the twitter conversation was a specific instance of violence, and I realise that not all men are perpetrators of harassment and violence against women, but it exasperates me that I have to name those as caveats, because as far as I can tell, no one is suggesting otherwise. But too often this kind of conversation is derailed by those kinds of responses. No, not all men are like this. But when enough are to make this the experience of yes, all women, then surely it’s time to have an open conversation about it.
For Christians, it is easy to think these things happen to women “out there,” but not to the women in your church. That is a mistake. I could tell you story after story of women I know, but part of the point of #YesAllWomen was to hear women speak their own experiences. And so while I have hesitated to do so, for any number of reasons, let me tell you just a few of mine.
The guy in my youth group who repeatedly grabbed my breasts while playing rough games. The young man who heard me speak on a Christian radio program and emailed me to tell me what he would like to “do to me.” The man who got my number from the church bulletin and phoned me in the middle of the night with sexually explicit threats. The “sweet old man” at church who backed me into a corner and shared details of the dreams he had about me while stroking my hand.
I’ve never told anyone most of those stories before. They are awkward and embarrassing and to be honest there is still a part of me that feels like saying them out loud will make people think I’m making a big deal out of nothing. But the truth is my experience is the same as nearly every woman I know. This is the culture in which we live.
And all of these stories I told took place within the context of the church. The community called to model the Kingdom of God, where peace and justice and love are to be demonstrated. If anywhere should be a place safe from harassment and violation, surely it should be here.
So how does the church respond to the reality of a culture which is marked by everyday sexism and sexual harassment of women? Where all kinds of bad behaviour is minimised as “boys being boys” and women are expected to laugh it off or be flattered? Where many women, myself included, are afraid of being labelled strident trouble-makers for even mentioning this topic?
I’ll be honest. I’m a leader in the church and I struggle to know how to respond to this. I’m a woman in the church and most of the time I try to forget that this is how it is.
But maybe, like the twitter conversation, we need to start by being frank and open about this. How can we even begin to reach out to our community with a message of hope and healing, if we are not willing to name the reality of our experience? If we are not willing to call out what Tara Moss eloquently called the “toxic silence”? (for which she has since received rape threats).
I would say to pastors and preachers, leaders in the church, both men and women, read the #YesAllWomen conversation, and as you read, picture the women in your church speaking. How will that reshape the way we preach, teach, and care?
Beyond responding within our own community, I love the question Suzanne Burden concludes her excellent blog on this topic with:
“What if the Church started leading the way culturally in decrying injustice against women and raising them up as image-bearers of God for his good purposes?”
Let me end by saying I don’t know what happened to all of those girls in that circle that summer morning. I do know that by the time we were 20, one of the six had been raped and another physically assaulted, both by young men they met at church. The one in three statistic borne out in reality, not “out there,” but in our own community. How is the church responding to that?