Time Magazine, #metoo, and supporting survivors

person-of-year-2017-time-magazine-cover1

This morning Time Magazine revealed it’s person of the year. Amid many choicesincluding the occupant of the Oval Office, Special Council Robert Mueller, and former NFL player Colin Kapernick, the editors at Time chose The Silence Breakers, those who have come forward in increasing numbers to share their stories of sexual harassment, abuse, and violence.

You can read the entire article here: 2017 Person Of The Year

I am grateful that the conversation about sexual violence has started to take a national, and international, stage. As the article notes, “This reckoning appears to have sprung up overnight. But it has actually been simmering for years, decades, centuries.” Women, and indeed some men, have been bravely telling their stories for years, and have been ignored, dismissed, blamed, shamed, and cowered into silence by the powerful, by institutions that would rather look the other way, but people who are invested in a system that benefits from power over others.

I’m grateful for the breadth of folks Time included in their story. It’s not just the famous like actors and media professionals, but hotel workers, and strawberry pickers, and office clerks whose stories have received less attention, and who have had far less support in dealing with the fallout from sharing their stories. This isn’tsomething limited to the boardrooms, and movie sets of our country (world), but this scourge of sexual violence, and harassment, and intimidation is something that infects every part of our society, every level of our economy, every home, and office, and classroom. It’s woven into our culture, one that puts men over women, allows men to assert their perceived dominance, and to gain some twisted pleasure from seeing women uncomfortable.

But I’m also worried. It’s just after noon as I write this and already I’m dealing with pushback from Time’s decision. Someone argues that Taylor Swift shouldn’t have been included because “all that happened to her was her butt got pinched, that doesn’t matter”. Another person says that no one should be allowed to remain anonymous (the Time story includes several people who chose to remain anonymous for many reasons) because, “surely they have something to hide” and “they’re probably making it up to get famous”. And yet another person says the women should have come forward earlier because they could just “get another job”, blaming the victims for the perpetuation of the cycle of abuse because they didn’t speak out before.

I’m not a cynic. Many people will tell you I’m among the most optimistic, hopeful people they know, but these days have me weary. I’m sure some of it is the dark and cold of a Wisconsin winter that so far has no snow to insulate the ground, keep my pipes from freezing, and refresh the scenery.

But more of the weariness comes from the direction some (most) of the conversation is going since the #metoo hashtag went viral. Lots of the conversation has been about empowering folks, suggesting women need to take self-defense classes, and firing those who have been accused. Please don’t get me wrong. Those are all good, and incredibly important things, but… I’m not seeing support for survivors.  

One woman called me in tears because she had been bullied online by other survivors who said that if she didn’t publicly state #metoo then she was betraying her gender, allowing the abuse to continue, and probably condemning someone else to being a survivor in the future. She was being blamed for the actions of perpetrators because she wasn’t comfortable coming out online as a survivor herself. Where the movement should be empowering, and encouraging, it also has the potential to be coercive and manipulative, demanding people out themselves before they’re ready, or when it’s not safe for them to do so because of personal, home, work, or other concerns.

And survivors who have been able to share their #metoo stories more publicly are finding there aren’t systems of support. There are incredible organizations like the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN and their 24/7 hotline 800-656-4673, or live chat on their website if calling isn’t a safe option), and local shelters, hotlines, and places to get help, but one of the places I feel should be stepping up to offer support is staggeringly silent … the church.

Yes, individual churches, communities, and clergy are doing great things, but nationally, as denominations we are still asking survivors to sit in our pews in silence, making lists like THIS about 18 ways the church can fight sexual assault (from The Christian Century) which falls flat when it includes the idea that putting women in positions of leadership will somehow end sexual violence, and when putting #metoo on the church sign is supposed to be sufficient signal to survivors that their stories will be heard with compassion, and grace. We’re saying with our words (and more often with our silence) that being a survivor, asking to be heard by the church, is a special interest, something private, something we aren’t willing to address with our faith, something that is outside the work of justice to which the churches are called.

It’s not enough. Churches, and clergy, have to be openly and passionately stating that they will listen to stories about rape and sexual violence. That these stories will be met without judgement, or condemnation, or blaming, or shitty theology, or questions about what you were wearing, or why you were out alone.

If this moment is really to be one of transformation, a seismic shift in how our culture is structured, and operates, then yes we need to do the work to hold abusers accountable; yes, we need to do the work to teach our children (and adults) of all genders about respect, and boundaries, and consent; yes, we need to change the criminal justice system, the police and courts, to be victim-centered and victim-centered; yes, we need to talk about diversifying our leadership on all levels with more women, more people of color, more disabled people, more people from different religious/faith/philosophical traditions, and more; and yes, we’re going to need men to step up and change, to do some thinking about the privilege that they have, and what they can do with it (an interesting article HERE describing ten things men can do to address sexual harassment in their workplace might be a place to start); but…

we’re also going to need to do a lot of work to support survivors, all survivors:
the ones who have shared their stories; the ones who are thinking about doing so; the ones who don’t have words to describe what happened to them; the ones who are afraid because they might lose their job, or their family, or their friends; the ones who remember every detail, and the ones who have only fuzzy recall of what happened; the ones who were assaulted yesterday, and the ones whose abuse happened decades ago; the survivors we decide are acceptable, and the ones who make us uncomfortable like sex workers; the women, and the men; the ones sitting in our pews, aching and hurting, carrying stories inside them that challenge our assumptions about what people are capable of, looking for hope, and asking us to help them find a way to a God who loves them in all their struggle.

For now, I thank Time Magazine for their courage in choosing the #metoo movement, and the people who are breaking the silence, for their cover this year, and I challenge us all to do better for the survivors around us, the outspoken and the silent.

 

 

Resilience, Love & Gratitude

A couple of years ago, just as Break The Silence Sunday was being born, a dear friend asked me if I thought I might ever be able to say that I was grateful for what happened to me. My answer, without any hesitation, was a firm “no”. Two years, a lot of work, a lot of advocacy, and the reality of the world we’re living in, my answer is still no, but it’s much more nuanced.

It turns out that, like many things relating to being a survivor in the world today, I need a different word. I’m hoping that in some known language in the galaxy the word I need already exists, but maybe it’s up to me to create a new word. I need something that describes this:

I am not grateful for what happened to me, but I am finally grateful for the person I am today who would not have existed without what happened to me.

This is a strange place to be, this feeling that I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for the horrible things I endured. I don’t know if I would have been able to love so relentlessly, to open my heart and allow it to be broken day in and day out, over, and over, and over again, if it were not for what happened to me. It is a peculiar feeling to think that what the men who raped me tried to do failed so spectacularly. They tried to convince me that violence, and hatred were stronger than love, and grace. And they were wrong. The effect of what they did, the outcome of their actions thirty years later is that I understand how deeply I am able to love this broken world because of what they did.

I’m not entirely sure what to do with this feeling except struggle to find a word to describe it, and live into it being my new reality. But it does also have me thinking about resilience and our capacity to love.

In the days since the Weinstein scandal broke, and the #metoo hashtag went viral I have been honoured to listen to more than sixty stories, nearly all of them told for the first time. Women (and a few men) have read my “This Is What A Rape Survivor Looks Like” button and responded with their own stories of dates and partners they thought they could trust, of parents and other adults who exploited them as young children, of things they didn’t even know how to describe until recently, of events that took place in the last few months, and nearly fifty years ago.

Through all the stories runs one unifying theme – the incredible strength and resilience of the human spirit. The people who have shared their stories with me, and all of the survivors I know, are stronger than they can ever imagine. They are taking what has happened to them and not letting it destroy them. Yes, there are hard days (weeks, months, years), but they are all looking for a way to see themselves as more than what they experienced. Most of the folks I’ve listened to are just beginning their healing journey, and are uncertain about where it will lead, but almost all of them want this to be something that changes them, but doesn’t define them.

These are hard days. I’m trying to pastor my parish, stay informed about the world we’re living in, contact my senators and representatives often enough that their staff know me by name, advocate for people being trampled on by the system, listen to survivors, advocate for change, keep the laundry at least under reasonable control, snuggle my kittens, and take care of myself. I cry myself to sleep, and I don’t think I’m doing enough because there’s so much that needs doing.

The odds seem insurmountable, but then I remember that I shouldn’t be here. Seriously. The things that the men who raped me did should have killed me, but they didn’t. I’m still here, still breathing, and still believing in the relentlessly beautiful, gentle, transformative power of love.

I’ve written a poem about this, and it’s still a bit raw. I think I’m inclined to leave it untitled because every title I try to come up with seems to fall short. A writer friend said that the grammatical tense of the poem is a bit muddled – moving between past and present – and I think that’s how it’s supposed to be. What they did happened more than thirty years ago, and I’m only now realizing some of what it means for how I live today. And I must confess that the poem feels ugly to me because I don’t want the images of what they did to me to haunt you, and I live with the shame that many (most) survivors feel, that if you knew, really knew what had been done to me you would think less of me. My head knows that’s irrational, but my heart isn’t so sure, but it’s time to stop playing it small. The system of oppression depends on my silence and I’m done with that. As the writer Anne Lamott said, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Untitled, 29 November 2017
by Moira Finley

They tried their best,
laying hands on me,
violating,
beating,
breaking,
demanding
what they believed
they had a right to take –
their power,
anger,
control
all trying to destroy me,
break my body,
convince me
that violence and hatred
would win the night.

But they hadn’t reckoned
on the invincibility
of my soul,
that every blow,
every wound
would root me
ever deeper
in a grace I do not understand,
every insult
and intimate violation
would strengthen
my capacity to love.

 

 

#metoo & what can the clergy do?

More than ten years ago activist Tarana Burke created a hashtag, #metoo, with the goal of helping survivors of sexual violence and harassment find solidarity, to know they are not alone. (Please read more about Ms Burke’s work in this article from CNN and you can follow her on Twitter at @TaranaBurke).

Over this past weekend, in response to allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, the hashtag went viral and Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms were swimming with #metoo posts. The idea was that everyone who had experienced sexual harassment, abuse, discrimination, rape, and other forms of violence should put this on their status to draw attention to the scope, the reality of the problem.

As with all things, the controversy started immediately. What should have been a movement for survivors to break their silence, to tell their own stories, to feel as if they were not alone in the world dealing with the repercussions of someone else’s actions, turned into a debate about who was allowed to use the hashtag (could men who have been harassed/abused also participate?), and more.

Some people were unprepared, shocked to discover that folks they know and love had experienced this violation. They were overwhelmed to discover that nearly every woman they know has a story.

Some were jerks, claiming people were only doing this to get attention, and contributing to rape culture by saying that if women would only dress modestly, or behave themselves, or not put themselves in dangerous situations then it wouldn’t happen. Mr Eric Trump even went so far as to say that if a woman can’t handle the harassment, she “doesn’t belong in the workforce”. (See reference here).

And for survivors, it was a mixed reaction. Some people were able to immediately embrace the hashtag and publicly claiming their story. Others were afraid, and rightly so, because of the public risk of being outed as a survivor, of the repercussions where they work, and with their family and friends. Some, myself included, felt a bit guilty or shamed if we didn’t immediately jump on the bandwagon and tag ourselves #metoo (and sadly there was more than a bit of shaming of those of us who didn’t make a post, including one person who told me I was “betraying the sisterhood of survivors” by not participating).

There was a lot of ranking of experiences with survivors saying “well it wasn’t that bad” or “my friend had it worse” and “it didn’t matter too much”, all ways we’ve learned to normalize predatory behaviors as part of our everyday life. (For what it’s worth, this isn’t the oppression Olympics … your experience didn’t have to end you up in the hospital for it to be valid, and it’s not a competition on who had it worse. None of us should have to have experienced what we did. Period.)

And then just about every survivor I know was somehow triggered by the posts, their own stories brought back to them in fear, memories we thought we had safely stored away dragged back without any warning on a random Sunday in October, causing us to lose sleep, relive our worst moments, and question everything all over again.

Amid all of this there has been some commentary from church communities. I thank the UCC’s general minister and president, the Rev John Dorhauer, for the words in his blog Into The Mystic.

But, it also brought up something that had been stirring in my mind long before #metoo made it into everyone’s consciousnesses – that clergy need something to say, to have a statement they can post on their Facebook pages, on their church websites, outside their office doors, or wherever they can to make sure survivors know they are someone committed to hearing their stories with dignity, and respect. We needed a Break The Silence Sunday promise from the clergy, a few well chosen sentences that would be our promise – to survivors, to God, and to ourselves – that we will wade into the hard work or honoring survivors, of listening, and of believing.

With the help of some good friends I’ve wrestled this week with the words. It’s not perfect, far from it, but it’s a place to start. I’m including it here, in full, and also a link to a PDF form of the document here: BTSS Clergy Commitment

If you choose to use it, I would appreciate you letting me know how and where you’re using it. If you choose to adapt it, particularly significantly, please check with me in advance. If you have ideas, thoughts, suggestions, questions, or criticisms about how it could be better in its next version please let me know that too. You can send me messages on Facebook or an email here.



Break The Silence Sunday Clergy Commitment

As a Christian pastor, as someone who tries to follow in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth, and as a human being committed to working for the dignity and equality of all people, I declare to survivors of sexual violence that:

  • I am a person to whom you can tell your story of sexual abuse, harassment, assault, violence, and more.
  • I will listen without judgement, and without condemnation.
  • I will hold all you tell me in sacred confidence, within the bounds of law.
  • I will listen to whatever you need to say, and however you need to say it.
  • I will honor your story, and remind you of the dignity and worth you have as a child of God, created in God’s own image, and I will remind you that you are more than your story.
  • I will walk beside you on your healing journey, accompanying you as best as I am able, and as you need to counseling appointments, court dates, or wherever else you need me to be with you.
  • I am here for you, and with you.
  • I stand with you.
  • I believe you.

© Break The Silence Sunday, the Rev Moira Finley, October 2017

 

Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) 2017 ~ #3

IMG_0022The second year of Break The Silence Sunday (BTSS) has now been observed in several congregations, though I’ve learned that others will be remembering it in the next couple of weeks because of their parish schedule. I find myself, as I did last year, a bit spent after the work (physical, emotional, spiritual, liturgical) of preparing the materials, distributing them, and then leading the service in our parish. It surely didn’t help this year that BTSS was just a week after work of Holy Week, and Easter.

The observation of BTSS in our parish was good, and Spirit filled (I’m including my reflection/sermon from the service at the end of this post). After the services three people shared their stories with me, things they hadn’t ever told before, and for that I am deeply honored, and grateful, a reminder that this work is important regardless of the number of congregations and communities participating. If even one person has the courage to break their silence, to speak their truth, then BTSS has achieved its goal.

But still I find myself disappointed, and angry. At least two churches that participated in 2016 didn’t this year because, as one of the pastor’s said, they “dealt with that once and they don’t need to do it again.” Other communities didn’t participate because they say there are more important issues, that they can’t talk about things that will upset their parishioners, that it doesn’t affect anyone they know, that it’s too complicated, that it’s private … and the excuses go on, all things I’ve heard before. I try to be patient, remembering that everyone comes to the work of justice and love at a different time, from a different place, with their own experiences, fears, doubts, and more. But my patience is wearing thin at the moment. I’m sure I’ll get it back with some more time in the garden, and another couple weeks to remember why this work matters.

The bigger part of my disappointment and anger, though, comes from my denomination, the United Church of Christ (UCC). They were good enough to include the materials for BTSS on their Worship Ways website (though it might have been nice if they’d told me directly that they were going to do so). However, in watching the UCC’s e-mails, justice alerts, and Facebook pages we have a sum total of THREE posts that are marginally about rape and sexual assault. One was an infographic about what consent is, one was a reposting of an animated video about consent, and the final one was a picture on the personal page of our general minister & president of UCC folks with our partners from the United Church of Canada observing Thursdays in Black (a project to bring awareness to sexualized violence … FYI, the Canadians are amazing at posting a picture of their staff every Thursday throughout the year to bring attention to rape and violence). None of the UCC’s posts ever mentioned Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and only the picture actually used the word rape. For a denomination with such strong ties and commitment to justice for all creation, for all people, we are collectively doing a terrible job standing with survivors, speaking up about changing the culture, and creating new theologies that challenge ideas of redemptive pain and suffering. I wish I could say I was surprised. My experience with trying to get BTSS going, to find a listening heart in the national leadership has been full of this same silence, and disappointment.

At this point, it’s important for me to once again thank our Wisconsin Conference UCC minister, the Rev Franz Rigert for his support, encouragement, and help with all things BTSS. He has been, and continues to be, a tremendous ally and I am grateful beyond words for his help. Yeah Franz!

I’m not entirely sure what to do with the disappointment, and anger, other than to keep at it, to keep producing BTSS materials, to keep speaking out, to keep writing, to keep listening to stories, to keep breaking the silence. I suppose I just need to sit with these feelings, to continue to hear the stories of where BTSS made a difference this year, and to think about what more might yet be done. I welcome your thoughts and ideas, and it’s never too early to start writing something for next year’s materials – a prayer, a plea, a song, a poem, a sermon, a survivor reflection on a scripture.

In the meantime, I give thanks for the people of the Tri-Jo Parish UCC, my parish, who allow me the privilege of being their pastor, and of bringing this quest (passion? obsession?) of mine to them. They are more amazing than they will ever know.

*******

Moira’s reflection/sermon from BTSS 2017

Luke 8.42b-48 (from the New Revised Standard Version)
As Jesus went out, the crowds pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. She came up behind Jesus and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before Jesus, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

Last year, as we first observed Break The Silence Sunday, I said that I desperately wished we didn’t have to, that there was no need for the church to have a day set aside to demonstrate our support of survivors of sexual violence; no need to have this day to be reminded of our call, our obligation, to speak up and work for change.

But, of course, there is a great need for a day like today, a day to listen to hard stories and statistics; a day to remember that people we know – our friends, family, coworkers, classmates, and people who sit next to us in these pews – carry the violence of rape and sexual assault in their hearts, and minds, and bodies every day.

There is a great need for today because the suffering continues, the fear of reporting continues, the unwillingness of prosecuting attorneys to take cases to court continues, the lack of convictions continues, and in the few cases that get that far, the short sentences handed out continue. And the victim blaming and shaming continue, the questions about what they were wearing, why they were out after dark, why they were at someone else’s house alone – all of that continues too.

In the year since we last gathered to observe Break The Silence Sunday there have been several cases that have made national news, a high school in Texas where sexual violence was routinely used by the football team to haze new members, and most recently in the last week with Bill O’Reilly being fired from his television show because of repeated sexual harassment, inappropriate touching, and more.

There has been more coverage in all kinds of media of sexual assault, rape, and abuse. More and more people are talking about it, and that is, I believe a good thing. It’s hard, surely, and sometimes we want to turn the television off, walk away from the newspaper, and think that it simply isn’t happening, that it’s not in our towns, not in our schools, not in our churches.

I understand. I pay a lot of attention to the cases in the news, for both personal and pastoral reasons, and even I want to turn away, to hide from it all, sometimes. But I believe our call as Christ’s disciples requires us to pay attention, to the cases that make the national news, and maybe even more to the ones that don’t, the ones that only make it to page six of the local paper, to that two minutes after the sports report on the nightly news.

Our gospel reading this morning may seem like a strange choice for today. There was a woman who had suffered for twelve years with something no doctor seemed able to do anything about. Then, as Jesus is walking by, she reaches out and touches his cloak and is healed. But that’s not the end of the story. Jesus knows that somehow power has left him, been transferred to someone else, and so he looks around, and questions the crowd.

Eventually the woman stands up and confesses that it was her, that she was the one who touched Jesus’ cloak. And it’s really at that moment I believe she is healed, when she tells her story, owns what has happened to her. In front of the crowd, and the disciples, and Jesus himself she tells of her experience without shame, or guilt.

There is incredible power in being heard, in having someone listen to us, to what we have experienced, and even more power when that listening, and hearing takes place within our community of faith, in the midst of people who share this journey with us, who trust in the same G-d who has named and claimed each of us, who keeps our lives.

Because I am a bit outspoken about this, I am honored to hear a great many stories, from people I know and love, from people who reach out over the internet, from strangers at the grocery who see me wearing my This Is What A Rape Survivor Looks Like button. The stories are all different, but they share one thing – almost always the survivor has never told their story, has carried the pain of their experience in silence.

Whether it’s the man at the church supply store who was abused by his neighbor when he was a child, or the woman at the grocery who was raped by her husband, or the shop clerk who was assaulted during college, they’ve all carried their stories in silence because they were afraid of the judgement, and shame that would be thrown at them. They’ve lived in fear of telling their stories, particularly in the church, because of how people respond, with bad theology, and with guilt.

I have no doubt that I will continue to be on the receiving end of people breaking their own silence, sharing their stories, but we all need to be in one way or another. We all need to be paying attention, opening our hearts, and minds, and spirits to change the culture we live in, to create spaces in society, and in our church, where people can share the pain of their experience, and receive the healing love of G-d.

Earlier this year, just after the worship materials I had prepared for today were sent out to the churches, with a pastor who called and asked why we were doing this again, why did we need to have another Break The Silence Sunday. They wanted to know if we couldn’t leave it alone. They said we had done it once and that should be enough.

I wanted to cry, and to scream, at the same time, but what I said is that the process of breaking the silence isn’t something that we can do once and think we have done all that needs to be done. It is a continual process, and that the church needs to continue listening, hearing, standing up, speaking out, until all of G-d’s children are free from the pain, shame, and misplaced guilt of rape and sexual violence.

So today I congratulate all of you for being here, for witnessing to what is difficult, and heartbreaking, for participating in the work of mending the tears in the fabric of society, and I remind you that we will keep doing it, year after year, day after day, until rape and sexual violence are no more. Amen.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) 2017 – #2

This morning, before my brain had been adequately caffeinated, and while I was thinking about the list ahead of me for the Tuesday of Holy Week, I ended up in an internet conversation with another UCC pastor about Sexual Assault Awareness Mont (SAAM) and my work with Break The Silence Sunday (BTSS). I asked this other pastor if they would be observing BTSS in their parish this year. Here’s how the conversation went:

Other pastor (OP): Well, no, it won’t do any good would it. We’re never going to change things, and it doesn’t affect anyone I know anyway.

Me: Yeah, I guess you don’t really know me do you?

OP: What? Oh yeah, but that happened a long time ago, you must be over it by now.

Me: Um…

OP: Plus, it couldn’t have been that bad. Look at everything you’ve accomplished.

Me: Well, I’ve got to go. Food Pantry board meeting this morning. Bye.

I wish I could say that I were surprised, but I’m not, and I don’t think I’m even disappointed either. I’ve come, sadly, to expect reactions like this from people who are otherwise reasonably self-aware. My heart hurts, and I’m angry, but not because these words were said to me, but because they might (and probably are) said to other survivors who don’t have the support systems to help them understand what kind of nonsense (B.S.) this is.

I’m also angry, sad, mad, disappointed, frustrated, and exhausted because this kind of thinking is part of the public narrative about rape and sexual assault. A good rape victim will have tried to fight back, will have resisted and screamed, and will have documentable physical injuries. And then, of course, the good victim will put it all behind them, move on with their lives, put the past in the past, and become delightful, productive members of society who don’t remind anyone that they were ever assaulted.

Sometimes it works that way, and sometimes it doesn’t. Some survivors fight back, and others don’t. Some aren’t able to resist for a lot of reasons. Some have physical injuries, and some don’t. For some survivors their experiences become the defining moment in their lives forever, and for others it works differently. Some of us become advocates for survivors, others heal quietly on their own, and still others hide their story because it’s not safe to tell anyone, sometimes not even themselves.

And here’s the thing … all of those ways of being a survivor are OK. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do it. Whatever you did, and do, to survive is fine. The important thing is that you are still here, that you did survive, and you continue to do so. That’s the message we need to be giving to survivors, one of acceptance, and love, rather than judgement and denial.

Late last week I posted on my personal Facebook page wondering where my allies were, where the people who aren’t survivors, who haven’t experienced the abuse and violence are who are willing to speak up, to stand with us, to do the work that needs to be done in changing the culture we live in. Not surprisingly, a fair number of survivors spoke up , but thankfully some good non-survivors did too, thanking me for the reminder that they have work to do. And then a couple of other people sent me messages asking what they could do. They were afraid of saying the wrong thing, of saying something that would cause more harm than good, that would trigger, or offend a survivor. So I thought maybe it would be good to start a list of ways allies and advocates can speak up about changing rape culture. These are my thoughts, and I welcome your ideas & input.

Ways To Be A Good Ally In Changing Rape Culture:

(1) Believe survivors. Seriously, just believe us. Somewhere around 2% of reported rapes are determined to be false, and considering that 2 out of 3 rapes are unreported, the false reports are statistically tiny. So if someone tells you they were raped or assaulted, believe them. Tell them you believe them. Say the words, “I believe you.” Really, say it. They need to hear it.

(2) Challenge your own assumptions. When you think about a rape what do you think of – a stranger jumping out from a dark alley? In reality, seven out of ten rapes are committed by someone the victim knows. What are your ideas about how a victim should behave, if they should physically fight back, what and how they need to say or do in order to express that what is happening is not consensual? When you hear about a rape case on the news, do you ask yourself what the victim was wearing, why they were walking where they were, why they had so much to drink, or other things that pass judgement on the victim rather than the perpetrator? Think about where you got these ideas – movies, TV, your family home, media coverage of high profile cases, your own experiences. Think about how you got your ideas about victims, and perpetrators, and how you might challenge yourself to think differently.

(3) Start noticing rape culture around you. When you open your eyes to it, you’ll start to see it everywhere. There’s a terrific list of twenty-five everyday examples of it here http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/03/examples-of-rape-culture/ … it’s things like songs that talk about blurred lines when people say that no means yes; school dress codes that focus only on what young women are wearing that causes distractions to young men; politicians talking about “legitimate rape”; thinking that rape is about sex when it’s really a crime of violence and power; rape prevention that focuses entirely on the actions someone can take to prevent themselves from being raped rather than teaching people not to rape; rape jokes of any kind; coverage of rape cases that lament the lost futures of perpetrators; advertising that objectively uses women’s bodies (and to a different degree men’s bodies); and so much more. You can read more here about it at this link: http://www.wavaw.ca/what-is-rape-culture/

(4) Educate yourself. Learn about the scope of the problem. Visit some websites and discover how rape affects survivors. Here are a few to try out:
Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN)
National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)
It’s On Us
Men Can Stop Rape
Joyful Heart Foundation (with links to the No More campaign)
Just don’t forget to look critically at the websites you visit to make sure that you’re learning from an organization that supports and empowers survivors. RAINN will also help you find an organization in your area that works with survivors.

IMG_0022(5) Speak up. Use your voice. If someone makes a rape joke in front of you, stop them and ask them to explain why it’s funny. If they use derogative words to describe so
meone, or say “she was asking for it”, interrupt, and ask them questions to find out why they’re saying what they’re saying. Make yourself heard on social media – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Write a post saying that you stand with survivors, you believe them, and you want to change the culture that contributes to rape and sexual violence. Go to the pastor of your faith community and ask them if they’re participating in Break The Silence Sunday.

As I said, these are just a few of my ideas of ways that non-survivors can be good allies in the work of supporting survivors & changing our culture. Let’s generate a huge list of ways we can all work together to end rape & sexual violence forever.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) 2017 – #1

It’s April which means that it’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM).

I had a dream last year that I would write a post here every day during the month, but then reality snuck in, and that didn’t quite happen. So this year I decided not to even try to make a daily post. Instead I’m working on twenty or so posts for this month. It might be more, or less, depending on the news, whether or not I’m really ready for Easter in our parish, and my own strength (physical and emotional). 

Last Friday (March 31st), President Trump made did something that presidents do – he made an official pronouncement declaring April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

SAAM was first observed in 2001, and President Obama was the first to make a formal declaration of this month seeking to support survivors, and change the culture that contributes to rape and sexual violence. 

There is, however, a tragic and painful irony in this year’s proclamation. That is, of course, the man making it. Mr Trump’s history as a sexual predator is long, stretching back to the 1990s, and varied, with complaints from the well publicised Billy Bush interview about grabbing women by the pussy, to innumerable counts of groping and unwanted touching, to sexual harassment, to voyeurism (walking in on the dressing rooms of Miss Teen USA contestants), to the rape of a twelve year old, and the rape of his ex-wife Ivanka. 

In the days since Mr Trump’s election, every survivor I know has struggled with what it means that our country elected him, how so many of our fellow compatriots could ignore or deny his history, putting behind the desk in the Oval Office a man who has shown such disrespect for women. It’s been, and continues to be, difficult to look at Mr Trump and not see the faces of the men who raped me, to see in the face of the man who’s job is to see to our common welfare the face of someone who has used his power to control, victimise, and violate so many. 

And it stretches, of course, far beyond the White House, to every part of our society, and indeed our world: 

  • A judge in Mexico cleared a man of sexually assaulting a 17 year old girl because the man didn’t enjoy it;
  • Reports from the Sudan, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are that, amid the famine and war, cases of rape are increasing with young boys being the newest victims; 
  • News of systemic long-term sexual abuse within the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics program 
  • More and more colleges with high level athletic programs are being investigated for ignoring, and actively covering up sexual violence perpetrated by their athletes; 
  • The settlement of a set of sexual harassment lawsuits against Mr Tim Lynn, director of the U.S. Interior Department’s Office of Law Enforcement & Security, who defended himself by saying it was “in his nature” to harass female employees (Mr Lynn continues to hold his job); 
  • News from LaVernia, Texas where at least ten current and former high school students have been arrested in an ongoing investigation into sexual violence and hazing in their athletic department; 
  • The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) estimating that the average lifetime costs associated with being a rape survivor – including criminal justice costs, properly loss and damage, lost work and productivity, and ongoing physical and mental health treatment – comes to $122,461 per person.

It’s enough to make me want to scream, throw things, pull the covers up over my head, eat all the cake in the universe, and never leave my house again.

But instead, dear reader, I sit here at a coffee shop in Appleton, wearing my “this is what a rape survivor looks like” button, fielding the strange looks, the pity, and the idiotic comments because eventually it happens that the button makes a difference. 

Today it was a woman and her small son, maybe age five. Watching him pick out his juice, she said, holding back tears, “someday I’m going to have to tell him, I mean where he came from.” 

I invited her to sit down and share my table, and we set her son up at the next table with some crayons. She told me her story, and I told her mine. And I said that yes, someday she would need to tell her son where he came from and that when the time was right she should say that he came from the deepest, strongest part of her soul that nothing could ever destroy. 

I wonder some days if this work is worth it – worth the long uphill climb against what feels like insurmountable odds; worth the frustration, the fear, and the utterly baffling resistance to change of my fellow humans; worth the heartache, the sleepless nights, the continually breaking open of memories. 

But when I see a momma who has long carried a story she thought no one would listen to look over at her little boy, conceived in violence, and see in him hope big enough for the both of them because someone finally cared enough to listen, to remind her that she is not alone, that she is a survivor, stronger than anything that happened to her, that’s when I know this work matters.  

That’s when I know Break The Silence Sunday makes a difference, and when I am reminded that we can indeed create a world free from rape and sexual violence. As my momma taught me, it will take everything we have, but we have everything we need.

Thinking about hats & words…

Content advisory – curse words (derogatory words for women), rape

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about words. Truthfully, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about words: working to find just the right one, balancing the familiar with the obscure, arguing in my head with my high school literature teacher about whether or not judgement should have an E in it. But there are a set of words that I’ve been worrying about more than usual because they seem to have become part of our wider social conversation.

There is a debate (or is it an arguement?) about the words, about taking them back, reclaiming them from their previously pejorative usage. But I’ve run into a problem – I’m trying to write about these words without actually naming them because I’m so clearly on the side of not wanting to reclaim them, of never needing to hear them again. So, I suppose, I shall have to write the words, despite my visceral dislike of them, and then perhaps I can banish them again. 

It all started with the hats. Well no, it started when the then candidate, now president, was heard on tape saying that if he wanted a woman he could do whatever he wanted because he was famous, “grab them by the pussy.” The statement sparked outrage in some circles, and in others was dismissed as nothing more than locker-room talk, the kind of banter men share with each other when they don’t have to be bothered with the presence of women. It also gave rise to the hats, mostly some shade of pink (presumably because all women like pink?), with pointy ears to make them seem like the other kind of pussy (cats), worn by many at the Women’s March on Washington, and sister marches around the world, on January 21st.

So the word became part of the common vocabulary. Newscasters said it on live TV. Papers printed it above the fold. It was all over the internet, and I even heard the pastor at the church I was visiting the day after the march in St. Louis say it from the pulpit during her sermon … “a sea of pink pussy hats”.

And every time I hear or see it, it feels like my heart stops, and my lungs collapse, and I have to consciously remember how to move while a firestorm of fear and anxiety threaten to overwhelm me. 

You see, I’m a rape survivor, and the men who raped me were quite free with their language, using every pejorative they could think of, lobbying at me every derogatory, insulting, belittling word they had in an attempt, I think, to justify what they were doing to me. If they could use their words to make me less than human then the things they were doing to my body could be excused – I was less than, a thing, an object, unworthy of respect, only to be used. 

So when I hear these words – pussy, bitch, cunt, whore, slut, nasty – I hear the voices of the men who raped me. I hear them, and then I remember. I remember the terror, how their hands felt on my body, the smell of their breath, wondering if this would be how I would die. Any one of those words and I remember it all. 

People on the other side of the debate, those who would seek to reclaim these words have told me that I’m being overly sensitive. They tell me I should just get over what happened to me, to leave the past in the past, and to move on. They tell me that these words are empowering to women, allowing us to reclaim some source of our, thus far suppressed feminine power. They say we can turn these words around, against those who would use them to denigrate and diminish us. It’s powerful, they tell me, to call myself a pussy, or a bitch, or a nasty woman because it takes away from the person who thinks it should make me ashamed, or embarrassed. It gives me naming rights over my own life, puts me back in control of who I am by taking away the words that others are using against me.

Intellectually it makes sense, at least to some degree. But that’s only intellectually. My heart, my soul, my spirit don’t get it at all. 

Why, when there are more than 170,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, would I choose the dozen or so words that have been used so intentionally to wound me? 

Why, when trying to name and define myself, would I use words of those who have sought to control and limit me? 

I’m not generally a fan of banning things. I think it often leads to giving them a kind of cult status, and more power than they deserve. So I don’t think a global ban on these words is such a good idea (though I enjoy dreaming about it) because it might well do more harm than good. 

But that begs the question – what do we do instead? 

First, we become better bystanders. We don’t let those words go by, no matter how casually. We interrupt people who are using them as jokes. We stop people who think they’re funny and ask them to explain why. Women have been doing it, but we need men to help us as well. We need men to be in those places like locker rooms, and back rooms, and sadly too often board rooms, and stand up for the women in your lives, the women you know, the women who are important to you. Don’t let the sexist jokes, the stereotypes, the catcalling, and the slurs go by. Don’t let women be judged by their physical appearance or their sexual experience (or lack thereof). 

Second, let’s get creative. So many of these words are used when women challenge the assumptions of how we are supposed to behave, challenge the male-dominated power structure, speak our minds when we’re supposed to be quiet. Fair enough. I do those things a lot because the patriarchal system is killing us. But surely we could find some other words to fling at me when you think that’s what I’m doing. What about powerful, strong, courageous, persistent, passionate, outraged, angry? How about frustrated, fed up, brave, zealous, inspiring? And if you’re looking for words to describe a woman who is comfortable with her sexuality, who enjoys her body, try confident, expressive, free, impassioned, or spirited. You can easily attach any of these words to woman or person.  

I understand the symbolism of the hats, and things that unite us are desperately needed in these hard, divisive days. I understand the importance of the pictures of a group of an estimated half a million people marching in Washington, D.C., but uniting ourselves behind a word that has been used against so many of those people falls flat, and leaves me wondering if I have a place in that crowd. 

So, for me, and many of my survivor sisters, I beg you. Let’s leave those derogatory words where they belong – in the garbage bin.

Call me by my name, and if you need an adjective to describe me, call me passionate, or angry, or courageous.