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?
15 thoughts on “How does the church respond to #YesAllWomen?”
good words as usual Mel… how do we take this massive problem and move it from “damage control” to prevention??? That’s what I’m trying to think about…
Thanks Matt. I think having men like yourself asking these questions is a huge step in that direction! I look at beautiful young girls I know (including yours 🙂 and think “we have to get better at this!”
I’ve been wondering how it should change our preaching – I can think of any number of sermons I have heard which have touched on modesty in dress for women etc, but it honestly can not think of a single time I have heard any preacher mention this, call out this behaviour, or name it and challenge men not to engage in it. What do you think??
I am so tired of churches covering up crimes. My late fiance died while helping a catholic school. All evidence was disposed of within 3 hrs then the man who my fiance was helping raped me. He still has his job. I received not one decent explanation for anything. Major Crime Unit couldn’t investigate because of the disposal of evidence. My rapist went to court, charged with 4 counts if rape, he was acquitted, his lawyer was paid for by the church. My life has been changed forever, but he gets his life back as if nothing happened.
Helen I am so sorry to hear your story. Since I wrote this blog, I have more and more stories from women like you. I hope you can find people to support and encourage you, and my prayer is that by raising awareness of this issue, we can help the church do better, and be all it is called to be, a place of hope and healing.
Thanks for being so brave to share your stories. Pretty much any woman I’ve spoken to in the last few days about the #YesAllWomen hashtag has, not just one, but multiple stories like yours, myself included. I can probably count up to ten times I’ve been groped/approached inappropriately, two happened in the Middle East when I was living there, but the rest were here in Australia. And I totally agree, the church needs to respond to it. And this is such a great start — by sharing our stories.
Thanks Carly, I think your comment is such a powerful reminder that this is not a problem “over there,” but is within our communities – many would assume this would be a problem in the Middle East, but don’t acknowledge that our culture lends itself to men feeling entitled to treat women this way just as much. Very confronting for us to consider, I think.
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Reblogged this on joannahubbard and commented:
If Churches want to be places of restoration in our Communities we can not abide this “toxic silence”.
Thank you Melinda for your courage and leadership.
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Reblogged this on Grasping Noumenon and commented:
As a domestic violence counsellor, woman and mother to a boy who is being taught how to be a decent human being I see this and similar experiences to be not the exception, but the rule. Please read it. Consider. Reflect. Do what is within YOUR power to change that, whether it be a conversation with your son or daughter, whether that be a discussion with those at your workplace, whether it be a paragraph in your next homily or the subject of your next prayer.
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I’m an older woman and former lay worker in a church. I share your experience. And of the thousands of women I have spoken with in my life, less than a handful have not experienced sexual assault in some form during their life. Males in the church have been the perpetrators of many of these situations.Thank you for sharing what you have. Let’s get the word out there.
Melinda, these stories of abuse are horrendous! Your story of abuse is horrendous! I’ve got more to add from the last month of pastoral ministry with the stories I’ve heard – one even going back 75 years (and the elderly saint is still impacted by it – horrendous)
Thoughtful and wonderfully written as always! Thank you for your courage in sharing and boldness in seeking a way forward.
Thanks Melinda for your bravery. I’m disturbed and sorry that you have had these experiences and horrified that they have happened in the context of the church. Don’t ever feel that you are making a big deal out of nothing!
I have no stories to tell. Perhaps I am the statistical lucky woman but I suspect it is more to do with the fact that I have been either attached or married since the age of seventeen and that this changes who I am in the eyes of other men. I do however, remember endless talking in youth group days about girls dressing modestly and not being provocative (and being teased for saying I was a feminist) and yet don’t remember a single mention of violence or even disrespect towards women either in conversation or more formally. This needs to change.
I would also say that although it is exasperating to have to add your caveats, I’m glad you did. The fact that many (most?) men are not violent and treat women well should be part of the solution, not used as a counter argument by men who feel threatened. The godly respectful men I have worked with and been friends with have always treated me “like a sister with absolute purity”. I’m glad to be able to hold them up to my sons (and daughter) as examples.
I feel incredibly naive! I knew that things like this happen but honestly had no idea of the amount it happens: the blood boils. Two things I would like to add to the conversation, one is about the myth that guys ‘can’t’ help it or control their sexual urges, it rubbish, and this is something that must change culturally and why not start by challenging it publicly in the church. Secondly, I think that for the safety of women everywhere we should dismiss the language of ‘good Christian men’ or ‘bad men’ the reality is that all human beings have the capacity for evil – we do no-one any favours by pretending otherwise, women need to know that any guy could hurt them and men (myself included)would do well to remember to watch their own conduct constantly for anything that might be considered violent to women, not ‘just’ rape or groping, but also refusing to let a girl go after she has turned him down (which Hollywood loves to portray as romantic, but the law calls stalking), because violence is also an attitude and needs addressing. for anyone interested I strongly recommend Gavin DeBecker’s book ‘The gift of fear’ it is about violence and safety. It has great wisdom and isights for both women and men.
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