This may ramble a bit, but hopefully it won’t be too stream of consciousness for you to follow. The rambling comes because it’s hard in the face of these days for even me, who loves putting words together, to figure out how to say what’s in my heart and on my mind. I am grateful for all of you who give it your best to read what follows…
It’s been an interesting season in America. In case you were living in a cave (an idea that becomes increasingly attractive by the minute by the way), you have heard the words on an old recording of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump where he says essentially that, because he’s a celebrity, he can grab women and force himself on them. People were shocked by Mr Trump’s choice of words, pussy apparently being a word we aren’t supposed to say. Thankfully many more people were outraged at what Mr Trump was describing – his sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, and his casual description of sexual assault. Of course, for those of us who have been paying attention this recording came as no great surprise. It is who Mr Trump is, and this was just the latest in a long line of his denigration of people who aren’t just like him.
This revelation from Mr Trump, about his total disrespect of women, raised the visibility of rape and sexual assault. Conversations were had on every morning TV show, and just about everywhere else. The phrase “rape culture” became a talking point. Legions of athletes – professional, amateur, high school, college, men, and women – stepped up to say that the things Mr Trump dismissed as “locker room talk” had no place in their locker rooms, or in their lives. (My deepest gratitude to all those athletes who lifted their voices – it gives me hope.)
But there has been another side to Mr Trump’s words. They have reopened wounds that many survivors thought had healed, or at least scarred over. I’ve had an average of twenty, yes twenty, calls a day since the story broke. Survivors are trying to keep going, to live their lives, but it’s damn hard when every story on the news drags you back through some of the worst moments of your life. We’re listening to people talk about sexual assault and rape as hypothetical things, when in reality it’s our lives, our every waking breath. I’ve found my own coping skills stretched to their limits, and many nights ending in tears of frustration, fear, anger, confusion, grief, and so much more.
A well-meaning person told me I should be grateful for Mr Trump’s words because it’s opened up this conversation that we so desperately need to be having. Thankfully I have a lot of practice in finding a quiet, peaceful place inside my soul and I didn’t smack this person upside the head with the nearest candlestick. I can not be grateful to Mr Trump, or all those who are like him (because there are so many more just like him who don’t see anything wrong with violating consent, and who don’t have the media watching them). I cannot be grateful. I can only listen when my survivor sisters and brothers call, crying in the night, because they have been triggered, are dealing with flashbacks, are afraid to even leave their homes because they know full well what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the actions that follow words like the ones Mr Trump used.
I am glad to see the public conversation about rape and sexual assault, but as I write this the public’s attention is beginning to wane. Non-survivors tell me they’re tired of it being the lead story, that it’s time to move on, that they don’t want to talk about it any more. I get that, I really do, and I don’t care. If you’re tired of hearing about it, try living it, for even an afternoon, and then we’ll talk about whether or not we should change the subject.
While there has been a great deal of conversation about this in the public sphere I must note that there has been deafening silence from churches (particularly my tradition, the United Church of Christ, one which prides itself on advocating for justice) about Mr Trump’s words. In theory this has to do with maintaining neutrality during the election, and not taking on a political position. However, this is NOT a political issue. This is a moral issue, one that the church needs to be addressing alongside all the other things we so proudly, and rightly take a stand about.
And that leads me to the question of what next? Where do we go from the revelations of Mr Trump, and all those who have apologized for him, and excused his words and behavior?
Let’s pause to consider a story … today (Monday, 24 October) I was running errands, in and out of many shops, and I had two drastically different encounters.
At the Barnes & Noble, I was checking out and the clerk (a woman) noticed my button that says “This is what a rape survivor looks like”. She paused for a minute and then thanked me for wearing the button, for trying to show the world that there is no shame in being a survivor. Then she took a breath and said, “maybe someday I’ll be brave like you”.
Later, I was leaving the grocery store and stopped to rummage in my purse for my keys before I went outside. A man stopped and said, “good for you, staying safe out there”. I asked him what he meant and he said that it is important for women to protect themselves because you never know who might be out there. I asked him if it was important for men to control themselves and he said no, that women have to protect themselves, it’s the woman’s responsibility. Truly the guy made my skin crawl, but thankfully the whole exchange took place near the customer service desk and the manager came over, asked me if I was ok, and walked me to my car, just in case the creepy guy decided that I wasn’t being careful enough.
These two encounters rather neatly sum up what it’s been like lately – a moment of healing and hope followed by a moment of entitled idiocy.
So what do we do? Where do we go from here?
Listen to survivors – I think this would be a great place to start. There are several public personalities (celebrities, authors, athletes, and so on) who are survivors and they’re talking, and being listened to, but I guarantee there’s a survivor or two or twelve in your circle, much closer to you, who needs to know someone is listening. If you have not experienced rape or sexual assault I am grateful for that, and now I need you to open your ears, and your heart to those you know who have experienced this violation. Listen to what it’s like from someone who has been there. Listen to the fear, and the uncertainty, the triggers, the flashbacks, the confusion, the misplaced guilt and shame. Listen. Don’t try to fix it. Just listen. Let our stories get inside of you, carry them with us that they might not be such a weight on our hearts.
Ask survivors what survivors need – I have been at a couple of events lately where well-meaning people, who are not survivors, have explained to me how best survivors can be helped. They’ve had great plans, and even some ideas that seem good, but when I asked if they’d talked to any survivors about their ideas they said no, and they didn’t see the sad irony in what they were doing. Now every survivor is different, and we all do this surviving thing differently, but surely if you’re thinking of opening up space to support survivors, or looking to do advocacy on our behalf, it would be a good idea to talk to one or two of us before you go giving us things we may not need, or want, or that might re-traumatize us in the process? So stop and think. If you have questions about rape and sexual assault, turn to the experts, the people who’ve been there. And if you don’t know any survivors well enough to ask (though you’re reading this so you could ask me, just a thought), you could turn to places like the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (http://www.rainn.org) as a starting place.
Change the conversation – I don’t want to talk about prevention any more. I don’t want to see lists of ways women can protect themselves, not only because it’s not our responsibility, but because it also implies that men and boys aren’t victimized as well. I don’t want an ad for a self-defense class because not everyone feels comfortable doing those kinds of things, nor should they have to. I don’t want dress codes to police women’s bodies so that men aren’t tempted. We’ve been having that conversation my entire life. I’m 42 years old. It isn’t working. It’s time for us to have a different conversation, one about changing the culture we live in, about respecting every body, about not raping or assaulting people. Let’s talk about challenging the rape jokes because they aren’t funny, and teaching all our children about consent alongside safety lessons. Let’s recognize that racism, sexism, heterosexism, poverty and all the other oppressions are intimately connected problems. Let’s own our responsibility for having created (or allowed) the culture we live in to exist, and claim our ability to together create a new culture.
As for me, and the work of this part of The Revolution, I’m starting to gather materials for the 2017 Break The Silence Sunday worship. If you like to do things liturgical I’d love for you to contribute a prayer, a litany, a few words, some original art work, a song, whatever you’re inspired to do. I’ll be taking a writing trip to Eden Seminary in St Louis in mid-January to gather all the materials together so that they’ll be in the hands of churches near the beginning of February. Put the date on your calendar now – Sunday April 23rd, 2017 – so you and your community can participate. Of course, you’re welcome to participate on any other day that works for your community’s calendar as well – a couple of communities have just had their observations of BTSS in the last several weeks. If you and your community would like to participate, and you’re not a part of the Wisconsin Conference U.C.C. (who will all receive materials automatically), and you’d like to receive the new materials, please drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org so I can make sure you get added to our list.
I invite your thoughts, comments, ideas, hopes, dreams, visions for how we might move Break The Silence Sunday forward, and create the new culture we so desperately need. And I welcome your prayers for me, and for all my survivor sisters and brothers who struggle through these, and all our days.