The national conversation, indeed the raging national debate and finger-pointing, focused on sexual abuse, assault, and rape has many layers.None of this is about sex, not real sex, joy, passion, love, between or among consenting persons—it is about the use of sex to violate another/others.
And yet, as I will argue later in this piece, our social squeamishness about sexual honesty, our phobia about talking openly about sex, is a critical element in our national failure to deal with widespread, and so often hidden, abuse and assault.
Let me examine two other aspects that also have touched me. Both involve gender roles as enforced by our culture. Both are about bodies—as I never tire of saying, justice, or the lack of it, always involves bodies.
I need not spend much time on the first, it having been discussed in many places by many people. But what I do want to say is how clearly the two people reflected the expected, indeed demanded, gender role of women as calm, reasonable, self-effacing, gracious, cordial, concerned about the other person, gentle, etc., and men as strong, assertive, angry when necessary (and so often necessary). not giving any quarter, not caring about others, not even acknowledging others (especially women and children).
Justice Kavanaugh raged; Dr. Ford smiled. Justice Kavanaugh sneered at Senators, especially women; Dr. Ford spoke deferentially and softly.
As many have noted, Justice Kavanaugh appeared to be coming from the place of righteous indignation, a visceral reaction to what he, and many others, perceived to be an assault on his place of honor and white male privilege as one who began with a silver spoon in his mouth and has carefully made sure it was never removed. How dare you question, undermine, my carefully constructed persona and and record!
This leads me to another, and related, set of gender roles, namely those governing the relationships among fathers and daughters (and sons, too). Monica Hesse discusses how often daughters (and sons, too) do not tell their fathers about the sexual abuse, assault, and rape they endure. They don’t even talk about the catcalls and rude whistles and comments they endure on the street or the gender-based discrimination and lack of respect and advancement in the workplace.
Some men are now asking their daughters, and maybe sons as well, if there is anything they should know, anything that their children did not tell them earlier, perhaps from shame, or fear of talking about sexual matters, or, as Hesse points out, because they fear their fathers cannot handle the pain they have endured (or are still enduring). Aside: this seems to me a deep tragedy in the current situation—it’s not just women like Dr. Ford and so many others who endured something earlier, but also the women, and men, who are currently enduring such horrors. What is the silencing and dismissals by so many authorities, e.g., President Trump, doing to them?
Hesse reviews communications she has received from many victims, and notices how many are now telling their fathers for the first time about rape and abuse, as well as how many are choosing not to tell. Those in the latter group still don’t think their fathers can handle the emotional upset, or they fear their fathers will rage like Justice Kavanaugh (but go much further by attacking their attacker and even killing him and ending up in jail), or they feel so much gratitude for all their father has done for them that they don’t want him to feel even a hint of ingratitude. One son says that he won’t tell because “manliness” is so important to his father.
I am grateful to and proud of the children who are telling their fathers. It helps make their relationships more whole by being more honest.
And I admit to being disappointed by those who are choosing not to tell. I can’t and won’t criticize them for an intensely personal decision. Still, I hope they will stay open to the possibility of self-revelation, and self-empowerment, at some point.
I believe they will gain, their fathers (and mothers) will gain, and frankly, all of us will gain, too.
The more honest we are with each other the better our society works.
This leads me to raise an issue that regular readers of this blog may recognize from prior posts: namely the inability of our society to engage in honest conversation about sex, sexual expression, and sexuality.
As I said above, sexualized abuse, mistreatment or rape are not forms of sex. They are methods of abuse and domination and violation/violence.
But I believe part of the problem we have with being honest about violations of bodies and the people who inhabit them is our squeamishness to talk about sex in the first place. It seems clear to me that this is definitely true when it comes to raising sons.
I turn 72 on the date of publication of this post and as I read articles and books and testimonies about how we are teaching our children about sex and relationships things don’t feel all that different than when I was a pre-adolescent and teenager. In so many locales sex education focuses mainly on “just say no” and “wait until you’re married.” Actually, in my youth, we had only “wait, it’s a sin before marriage,” which did not stop many of my peers from being sexually active (and I imagine some being predatory and violent).
I read of how some parents talk to their daughters about being safe, taking precautions; they may even tell sons something similar. And of course, how “no means no,” but even more how consent is more than simply allowing something to be done by one person (or more) to another (others). Consent is an active agreement by both (all) parties. Anything short of that is non-consensual, abusive, and violative behavior. It does not appear to me that that message is getting through to boys, or many grown men either.
What is also so often missing is testimony about the power and beauty of sex and sexuality, how when engaged in with sensitivity and care for each other(s) it can enrich life, because sex is a powerful, and can be a liberating, force in our bodies and lives.
I think that can begin by teaching the beauty and power of masturbation, the safest form of sex, not only in terms of avoiding pregnancy and STDs but also in terms of not harming any person (with one caveat: using images that encourage violence and violation as a form of stimulation do cause harm).
Just think how different it could have been for Dr. Ford if Brett Kavanaugh (or whomever violated her) and other high school boys had either jerked off by themselves or engaged in a circle jerk.
I am not sure we have gotten far beyond the days when Dr. Joycelyn Elders, U.S. Surgeon General, was forced to resign by President Clinton on December 10, 1994 for responding openly, and affirmatively, to an honest question about masturbation.
Bodies are at risk in so many ways, of course not just sexually but also in terms of lack of food, healthcare, water, and exercise, not to mention war, police violence and crime—and at the most basic level of social interaction, simple respect by each of us for all the bodies with whom we come into contact as well as those we never know.
Our political climate as revealed in the past several weeks certainly is working against such respect, certainly as it involves our sexual beings. It is time to own our failings and work together to create change.
It must be noted immediately that the title of the article is misleading in that it appears to include transgender persons in the study. However, the study itself dealt only with sexual orientation, and there is no mention of gender variant or transgender persons in the report. Nor did the study indicate any awareness of queerness. My guess is that were a similar study done for those categories there would be an even greater disparity of outcomes as regards employment and health. It seems clear that in the U.S. attitudes towards transgender persons are considerably more negative than those toward LGB persons. I doubt most people, outside the LGBTQ world, even know much about being queer (and of course, many within the community debate use of the term).
Despite legal gains and significant shifts in public attitudes, the reality remains that being, or being identified as, lesbian, gay, and bisexual carries considerable penalty and loss for many (and in some places, there even have been gains for transgender persons but the penalties are far more pervasive, often involving violence).
It is in the everyday interactions among people, among living and breathing human bodies, where deep, negative, often unacknowledged, attitudes and practices remain operative.
The study described in the article, led by Brittany Charlton, an assistant professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, confirms the results of earlier studies in showing that “overall, both male and female sexual minorities were about twice as likely to have been unemployed and uninsured over the prior year compared to straight peers. They were also more likely to report poorer health and quality of life.”
Charlton and her team also note that “Most of the study participants were white and their families had middle-to-high household incomes.” She says that this indicates “we may have underestimated levels of employment, being uninsured, and having poor health-quality of life.”
So, as always, race and class play a significant negative role.
I doubt many readers here will be surprised by the results of this study, although maybe some might have thought that later results would be less negative than those from 1996 and 2004. That does not appear to be the case. This would indicate the depth of resistance that remains in the U.S. towards LGBTQ equality. And this study does not include the social attitudinal and legal effects of the Trump administration’s overt negativity towards those in sexual and gender minority communities.
Indeed, reports indicate that anti-LGBTQ homicides in 2017 nearly doubled from the prior year. According to a report by NBC News, “People of color were disproportionately represented in the findings and constituted the majority of victims. In total, 37 of the 52 victims were people of color. Thirty-one of the victims were black and four were Latinx. Twenty-seven of the victims were transgender women, and 22 of those victims were transgender women of color. Cisgender (non-transgender) men accounted for 20 of the homicides, most of which were related to “hookup violence,” the report states.
So what is my point? Again, we know we have a long way to go—that gains are not enough, and that some gains are already undermined, and more may be.
My point in highlighting this survey and other reports is simply this: we have to find more ways to talk openly and positively about sex and bodies and spirituality.
It is especially important for us to link sex and bodies with spiritual life, if for no other reason than that so many retain old artificial divisions based on ancient understandings that the body is the site of unclean and even evil thoughts and acts while the spirit is pure and holy.
But frankly, we need to do this for a larger reason—namely that everyone will be helped when we, all of us, can see the divine in all things, including our bodies and sexuality. And we will not get there without also showing that the wide variety of bodies and sexual practices are good and blessed and holy (assuming there is always consent for any sexual activity).
I can say I am continually frustrated within my own faith movement, Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), because of deep unwillingness to acknowledge and share our various sexual lives and practices. Indeed, this blog began initially by me alone, in response to that frustration, to try to start conversation. Few seemed to notice, especially within MCC.
Then, Malachi joined me and thanks to his openness and courage the range of experiences and topics grew significantly. Still, few joined the readership.
My frustration is particularly acute because we promote each of our blog posts through various MCC social media fora, and have been doing so the entire time. Still, few join.
What is particularly vexing is that MCC was founded on sex, namely to overcome the reality that open and self-affirming lesbian and gay people were regularly denied full membership and leadership in Christian churches generally and were often hounded out and deeply damaged. It was because of sex that the Rev. Elder Troy Perry called the first service on October 6, 1868.
Yes, it will be 50 years this fall since that first service in living room of Troy Perry’s little pink house (isn’t that delicious?) in Los Angeles.
In the Jewish traditions out of which Christianity emerged, 50 years was the time of jubilee. At the end of seven cycles of Sabbath years, according to Leviticus 25:8-13, slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and the mercies of God would be particularly evident.
That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee to you. In it you shall not sow, neither reap that which grows of itself, nor gather from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you. You shall eat of its increase out of the field. In this Year of Jubilee each of you shall return to his property.(11-12)
What will Metropolitan Community Churches celebrate this Jubilee year? Will it be how we have survived (right now more or less by the skin of our teeth)?
Or will it be to return to the original vision God had for Troy and us—to truly blow the trumpet of liberation for sexual minorities and all people who see the divine in our intimate, embodied relationships, to become the teachers of the Church universal, the beacons of hope and joy, and justice, in and for all bodies?
We need to start recognizing and naming sexual violence when we see it.
Robin and I recently had a discussion around two distinct issues that had come to our respective attention: Robin heard about incidents where, after being expelled from college for committing a sexually violent act, those accused decided to fight the expulsion in court. I have been closely following a new trend called “stealthing,” in which men are removing condoms during sex without the knowledge of their partners. (For more information, see here and here).
I will let Robin speak more to the first issue, as he is more knowledgeable about that situation, but the rise of “stealthing” is an escalating trend of sexual violence rooted in patriarchal and sexist ideals. The action itself is bad enough- it is, at bare minimum, a violation of consent- but often it’s the intention behind the action that brings it back to power structures, hierarchy, and oppression.
There are websites devoted to helping men learn how to “stealth” effectively- tricks for getting the condom off without their partner knowing as well as discussions about intent which range from “condoms are uncomfortable and limit the ability to receive pleasure, and sex is about pleasure, so you should be able to experience it fully” to “it’s your right to spread your seed and reproduce and no one has the right to prevent you from doing this.” It elevates the comfort, safety, and security of men over that of women (I have only heard of stealthing occurring in heterosexual dynamics; I have not yet heard of this trend reaching gay men)- not to mention “dominance” of men over women.
There are plenty of people that I currently sleep with that I would refuse to sleep with if they didn’t wear a condom. Wearing a condom during genitally penetrative sex is a
requirement, partially because of pregnancy, but mostly because of the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Now, if I had a conversation with a partner, knew what they had been tested for, and made a conscious choice to possibly expose myself to whatever risks that carried, that’s one thing. But for someone to remove a condom without my knowledge- and without knowing that he may have done this before, with other people- I lose not only the ability to consent, but also the agency to determine whether I am willing to risk my health.
I have had a terrifying situation in which a sweetheart and I were about to engage in penetrative sex, and they had put a condom on. Right before they entered me, they realized that the condom had come off, and we immediately stopped and assessed the situation, and they put another condom on and we were able to continue. But in that moment, I realized that I would not have known unless he said something- it would have been very easy for someone in his position to continue, and I wouldn’t have known any different until later. (Thankfully, he was just as panicked as I was).
In that situation, it was incredibly important that I be able to trust my sexual partner. However. I think it’s also important to state that victims of stealthing are not to blame for these situations. The person who does the action (removes the condom without knowledge or consent) is responsible for the harm they cause.
It’s a difficult and nuanced thing to parse out. I have nothing against casual sex- goodness knows, I’ve engaged in plenty of casual sex with people I didn’t know very well. And I don’t want to imply in any capacity that if someone is the recipient of sexual violence based on having casual sex, that that is in any way their fault. But I do want to underscore the vulnerability many sexual partners experience and the importance of building, establishing, and maintaining trust in sexual relationships- particularly if you are not monogamous, or aren’t in a steady relationship and are just casually dating. The
vulnerability that someone could very easily do this without your knowledge. The vulnerability that you are trusting someone with your body, your safety, and possibly your future (if you were to get pregnant)… these are things that are becoming increasingly more important to think about as trends such as “stealthing” are on the rise.
It’s also entirely possible that people in established relationships- ones where trust has been developed- do this to their partners. Again, the blame for this lies solely on the person who removes the condom. This is in no way meant to shame people for engaging in sexual activities, or insinuating that they “should have known better.” That type of thinking is indicative of rape culture, and I recognize that my consistent- nearly repetitive- assertion that it is never the victim’s fault is my own attempts to actively combat that type of thinking. Putting ourselves in vulnerable positions does not mean that we are at fault when someone takes advantage of that vulnerability.
Regardless of circumstance, thought, I think that it’s extremely important that we call this what it is- sexual violence. Not an accident, not a misunderstanding, not a “gee, that sucks,” but intentional sexual violence. Putting ourselves in a vulnerable position does not mean that we are to blame when someone takes advantage of that vulnerability. Sex has risks associated with it, and we do the best we can to mitigate those risks. But when we are in a vulnerable state, and someone introduces new risk without our knowledge or consent, this is sexual violence.
In this culture, we are conditioned to view sexual violence in a very specific way. We
expect it to look like how it is portrayed in media- a person walking alone in an alleyway gets jumped by a group of strangers- but the reality is, sexual violence doesn’t always (or even often) look like that. Sexual violence is usually more insidious and manipulative- and often comes from a friend or trusted individual.
We need to start recognizing and naming sexual violence when we see it. We need to distance ourselves from the Hollywood version and make an effort to see- and combat- actual forms of sexual violence. And it starts by recognizing that trends like stealthing are dangerous, damaging, and contribute to rape culture in a variety of ways. The intimacy and vulnerability of sex can be an incredibly powerful aspect of our physical, emotional, and spiritual connection with someone. But when that vulnerability is exploited, then it perverts that which is sacred.
A recent article in the Washington Post caught my attention and my concern. Entitled “College Men Use Anti-Bias Law to Fight Sex-Assault Findings,” the author recounted a trend among male collegians who have been punished and/or expelled from college for rape and other sexual violence to sue to collect damages, have their expulsion removed from the college record, and even obtain re-admission (link here).
Frankly, I felt angry as I read about men who seem determined to erase what they did and move on with no penalty. Male privilege, male supremacy, strike again!
I tried to balance that with a few instances in which there might be false reports of assault (most experts in this area is that the percentage of false reports is well less than 10%; many cite the figure of two percent), and that sometimes there might even be violations of due process in college administrative procedures. But that just reminded me how inadequate the so-called criminal justice system, and its collegiate parallel for student discipline, is in actually solving social problems.
Another reason for my anger is that rape is severely under-reported (most authorities say 90+% go unreported). Most authorities say sexual violence is the most under-reported violent crime in the United States. Given this, while I feel for someone falsely accused, I find myself not all that interested. Given how many rapists get away with ruining the lives of others, why should I, we, care? This may sound harsh, and perhaps I would feel differently if a friend of mine was among those falsely accused.
The high proportion of under-reporting is due to many factors. Authorities often cite these: fear of retaliation, uncertainty about whether a crime was committed or if the offender intended harm, not wanting others to know about the rape, not wanting the offender to get in trouble, fear of prosecution (e.g. due to laws against premarital sex), and doubt in local law enforcement.
Based on conversations with both women and men over the years, my observation is that there are two main reasons: fear of not being believed, and shame that it happened. Both are, in my view, the clear result of living in a predominantly patriarchal world. The first and largest number of victims are women and children. But men are raped and violated, too. Patriarchy is male power granted dominance, a system in which men (first and foremost white men with economic privilege) hold the power and women, and men who are seen by some men as ‘not real men” or “less-than men” are largely excluded from it. The most ugly and severe outcome of patriarchal systems is misogyny, the hatred of women for being women.
If men respected women more. Now that’s a concept!
Feminism has helped women make gains, and the rise of the LGBT equality movement has helped create significant social change. However, it was 1995—only 22 years ago—that Hillary Clinton shook the global, and U.S., political world with her declaration, in Beijing, that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” And she echoed that point of view in 2011—only six years ago—by declaring in Geneva that “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.”
Most interesting to me is that no one of her stature and influence had said either thing up to that time. The outcome of the 2016 presidential election provides a certain irony; the same Hillary Clinton was defeated by a man who famously claimed to grab women “by the pussy” at will.
That candidate, now the President of the United States, recently spoke up as a character witness for a media personality who has been repeatedly charged with sexual assault and abuse—to the point that his employer, Fox News, removed him from the air (so far, he has not used his millions in severance payments to sue). The President experienced no discernible decline in popularity due to his unsought observation. It seems to have been more of the “locker room talk” that he claimed was the source of his “pussy” comment—in other words, boys will be boys.
Other facts bear out how in the United States progress for equality is slow. Only 29 chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies (5.9%) are women. In the current Congress, there are only 104 women (19.4% of 535 members).
Here a few other relevant facts more directly about sexualized violence:
Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted
Young people are at the highest risk of sexual violence; Ages 12-34 are the highest risk years for rape and sexual assault.
1 out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime
Young women are especially at risk. 82% of all juvenile victims are female. 90% of adult rape victims are female.
Females ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.
Women ages 18-24 who are college students are 3 times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence. Females of the same age who are not enrolled in college are 4 times more likely.
Men and boys are at risk of sexual violence. About 3% of American men—or 1 in 33—have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.
1 out of every 10 rape victims are male.
Males age 18-24 who are college students are five times more likely than non-students in the same age group to be victim of rape or sexual assault
21% of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18% of non-TGQN females, and 4% of non-TGQN males.
Knowing all this, what do we do about it? And specifically, what do people of faith do about it?
I will write more about this in future posts, but I will say here that the first thing is to talk about it. Not hide it. And that means breaking the silence in church not only about sexual violence but also sex in general, as well as focusing on gender equality and overcoming misogyny.
Those are central to our mission on Sex, Bodies, Spirit, because we believe they are central to living as God creates and calls us to live—honoring all, caring for all, sustaining life.
We Want to Hear from You!
Help Make this a Conversation!
Have you, and/or someone(s) you care about and love, been the victim of sexual violence? Was it reported? If so, what happened? If not, how are you, or they, dealing with it now? What do you think can be done to reduce, if not eliminate, sexual violence? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us next week, THURSDAY, May 18th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
On May 18, our topic will be . . . .
“Old Story, New Threats: Creating Responses to Religious Oppression”
The growing movement to claim “religious liberty” as a way to discriminate is not new. The history of Metropolitan Community Churches reflects decades of LGBT people being kept out and kicked out of churches which claimed that our sexuality and gender identity and expression offended their theologies. In a new era of discrimination masked as religious liberty, LGBT people are not the only groups experiencing religiously-based oppression. As we seek to come together and unite, our responses in this historical moment are critical to the future not only of our faith but also our country and wider world. Malachi and Robin intend to draw on the experience of MCC and others to suggest ways we can work together to promote true liberty and justice for all. Join the conversation!
Malachi and Robin each participated in the recent Women’s March in Washington, D.C. They offer some observations below.
There has been much discussion- before, during, and after- on inclusivity and intersectionality at the Women’s March held in DC (as well as the hundreds of sister marches that occurred around the world). I was fortunate enough to be present at the march in DC with my family and several dear friends and, miraculously, managed to stay with the same group of eight people.
I have many complicated feelings about the march- some positive, some negative, and some that are just observations. Because, clearly, the march was a huge success- although the standards for what makes a march successful are nebulous- and it was empowering to see so many people uniting against a common cause.
I think, perhaps, that’s the most poignant piece of the march, for me. It was not a group of people uniting FOR, but AGAINST: against oppression, against corruption, against invasive laws, against Donald Trump. But the things each person was FOR varied widely: some for pro-sex worker visibility, some were pro-LGBTQ equality, some were pro-Black Lives Matter, etc. I’ve talked some about this in other places, but when you have a collection of people whose unifying factor is what they aren’t, rather than what they are, it risks reinstating a hierarchical system that priorities of those with the loudest voices.
There were many wonderful things about the women’s march: some really powerful signs (the one that has stuck with me, for example, was the woman who carried the sign, “I refuse to be gaslighted” which, to me,
spoke volumes about history of emotional abuse as well as the ongoing rewriting of facts coming from the political arena.) My goddaughter joining in on the chant, “Who runs the world?” “Girls!” and watching her sense of empowerment growing. Her discussions of “my body, my choice” in the car on the ride home. Watching the people I was with proudly sporting signs and buttons that spoke to the visibility of sex workers.
The march was powerful to be at for many reasons, but it was also a complicated place to be. With the exception of our goddaughter, everyone else in our group can pass as white (although I don’t know how they necessarily identify). We did not experience firsthand some of the direct harassment and erasure that I hear many POC folks talking about.
I did feel a little uncomfortable about the pink pussy hats, however. I understood the point behind them, but there is an underlying message that implies that genitals are pink (not true) and ownership of a vagina defines womanhood (also not true).
I have heard POC women say that the pink pussy hats didn’t bother them; I’ve heard others say it felt exclusionary (some knit brown and black pussy hats instead of pink). I’ve heard some transwomen say they felt excluded, and others say they didn’t have an issue with the genital-focused discussions.
Again, there isn’t an objectively “right” or “wrong” answer to this; this is
a natural byproduct of the unifying force being “against” rather than “for.” When we march against, that ends up looking distinctly different from person to person and group to group. But I do think there are some important points from the women’s march that should be addressed.
I feel like there has been some criticism of the criticism aimed at the women’s march. Because yes, we should celebrate that it was a success and felt empowering. And it was, and we should, and many are. But I also think there is a vital part of the conversation that involved intentionally recognizing that intersectionality, while present in some aspects, felt glaringly missing in many regards- never mind that telling people how they “should” feel is an erasure of differing experiences altogether.
I think of the history of social justice movements, and recognize that there is some degree to which the freedoms afforded to one group often feel like they come at the cost to another. Many in marginalized communities have felt the sting of being told to “wait their turn.” I remember when HRC dropped gender from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act because they didn’t think they could get it passed if trans people were included, and “something is better than nothing.” Trans people were effectively told that our presence wasn’t worth fighting for, that gay rights was more important than trans rights. I have not supported HRC since then (as they have continued to have policies that I found problematic).
The criticisms I see of the march feel very much like they are coming from a place of understanding- and not wanting to repeat- the mistakes of the past. Because so often, people don’t keep showing up once they’ve gotten the freedoms that personally affect them. I truly believe that the best way to ensure freedoms for everyone is to bind together the fates of different communities and identities. Thus, we arrive at the basis of intersectionality.
None of us are single-dimensional people. We all have privileges and oppressions that contribute to our ability to navigate the world. It’s not
that the experiences of one community are “the same” as the experiences of another community; it’s understanding that, when something impacts one community, all communities are residually impacted. It’s the essence of the quote “oppression anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere.” We may not have the same struggle, but there is room for your struggle in my resistance. And if there isn’t… am I just interested in representing my own interests? To me, that undermines the purpose of social justice.
I truly believe we have to stop looking at just those issues that will directly affect our own lives and take in the broader scope of human injustice. In doing that, we can then see which solutions are beneficial to all versus which solutions only benefit us directly- and furthermore, recognize when those solutions come at the expense of another community. If white people are not willing to listen when POC say that something is harmful or damaging, then we are fueling and supporting racism. If men are not willing to listen when women say something is harmful or damaging, then we are fueling and supporting sexism. And so forth.
So do I think the women’s march was bad? Absolutely not. I felt empowered to be there with the people I was with, and I was glad I went. But I am also a white person in a sea of white faces, and I was surrounded by white privilege that didn’t directly impact me. If I let that slide, then I am part of the problem fueling racism, and I’m not interested in being a part of a group of people willing to actively ignore problematic aspects of their resistance.
There is space in my resistance for your struggle. I am against this government, against this president, and against the people who feel emboldened by his assent to power. But I am also for my communities, for my friends, for ending dehumanization and isolation. Each struggle impacts another, and we can put in the work and intention to make sure that our movements do not come at the cost of other’s freedoms. That is the kind of resistance I want to work toward.
I went to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. on January 21. I wanted my body to be counted among those who choose to resist the rising intolerance of difference and the drumbeat of injustice being encouraged and led by the new President and his minions.
From the moment at 7 am when I drove into the Metro parking lot at Greenbelt station and realized it was already more than half full and that cars were arriving steadily, I began to feel the power that comes from joining my body, my soul, with others who have an ever-widening understanding of who we, as a people, a nation, are called to be (my sign below on the left, from the back page of the Washington Post of Friday).
I had wanted to beat the rush, and here I was right in the middle of it. And I was glad. The train was full when we started (Greenbelt is the end of the Green Line) and it got fuller at each of the twelve stops until Gallery Place/Chinatown where I was getting off to meet a group—especially at College Park/University of Maryland. There is something wonderfully energizing about the arrival of 20 or 30 collegians into an already crowded space—noisy, laughing, so clearly enjoying each other—that I needed right then.
As I walked about 15 minutes towards the Hyatt Regency on New Jersey Avenue where I was meeting my group from Temple Shalom, I began seeing other marches, carrying signs, many smiling and saying “Good Morning” in response to my greeting. Two women at different moments asked to take my picture (they liked the combination of purple clergy shirt and collar and dangly purple earrings with my white beard).
The signs kept coming—more versions of the one that first caught my eye on the train, “Pussy Grabs Back”—so many creative expressions of resistance, often coupled with humor and word play. Even the edgy, angry signs seemed to carry a certain joi de vivre, such that my body and my soul began to feel much lighter than the day before. There is life here, I thought, especially in contrast to the bleakness of the President’s divisive speech the day before (much of the media called his tone “dark” but dark is beautiful; it was bleak, no grace, no joy, no hope except if we let him do what he wants).
That is when I began to realize one of the main things that divides me, and many others, from him.
All of us that day, or at least me and most of us, carry some real and deep fear about what the next four years will be. We march because we choose to stand up and push back against those determined to undo many of the gains for justice and inclusion that have been made. And we want to make more.
The President also is afraid, very afraid. In fact, I think fear drives everything he says and does, even though he works hard to disguise his fear. The fact that he puts his name in very large letters on everything he erects (yes, erects) is, I believe, a response to his fear that he will be forgotten, disregarded, abandoned. His response to this base level fear of erasure is to make himself as big as possible. But it is all about him, even when he claims it is about other folks who feel left out or behind (many of whom have valid complaints).
The difference at the march is that we were there for things we care about, our own needs of course, but also because we know our needs are linked to the needs of others. So, we want to gather together to create a new world, a more just and generous world.
He wants people to gather together to honor him—hence his claim the media lied about the size of the crowd at the inauguration.
Was the march a perfect vehicle for women and allies and advocates to express our determination to resist being sucked into his fear-based vortex? Certainly not. It was not well-organized. The inexperience of march organizers showed (and in their defense, they did not have much time to build the necessary structure).
The pink pussy hats were pretty and the sea of pink could be captivating, but of course not all “pussies” are pink, and not all women have them either. I did not see and hear enough about transwomen, for example, although I was grateful to Angela Davis for mentioning them, and especially transwomen of color, several times. And she mentioned the need for solidarity with Palestinians, too. As so often, she told deep, often difficult, truths very clearly. I also was glad to be surrounded by, and participate in, chants of Black Lives Matter.
I was uncomfortable with many of the references to the President’s allegedly small dick. On the one hand, the size of his organ is of little or no consequence and of no interest to me. On the other hand, I do not appreciate men being criticized or ostracized because of penis-size prejudice. And I continue to wonder if at least some of his need for big buildings and large crowds is due to some body issues, including perhaps having a smaller-than- he-wants penis. I certainly know something about taking on shame about having a small one myself.
There were other troubling moments. What to do about abortion opponents? I am clearly pro-choice because I believe women have the basic human right to control their own bodies. That makes it hard for me to engage in dialogue with people who claim abortion is murder. That language really does not allow for much room for conversation (for more than hour, I was stuck in a spot at the march where the most visible sign in the distance was one that made the murder claim—very surreal). Yet, I am inclined to try to listen to women who say this, because they have some standing in the debate as those who, unlike me and all male-bodied persons, can actually bring a fetus to maturation and delivery. The decision to deny co-sponsorship to an anti-abortion group needs more discussion before the next march.
And that is one more piece of good news. Already people are talking about an annual Women’s March. We can keep doing this to help us stay energized and focused on creating the change we want and need, and opposing the change the President and other fearful people claim is necessary (the return to “good ole days” when women and many others knew their place, behind and under the control of white straight men with money and power).
Of course, much can be improved with the march—better organization, more intentional and complete inclusion, even more local marches, etc.
What’s really at stake here are bodies, the well-being of bodies, especially those more regularly marginalized and abused. I realize I carry a lot of privilege, my white male body is part of the group many of whose leaders continue to insist on the right to dominate all others. The fact that I am gay and older does not deny me the privilege that comes with my gender and my color, though in some moments those identities can reduce that privilege.
So, what the Women’s March reminded me of is pretty basic: I need to put my body on the line more than I have been doing in the past few years. It’s time to put my body on the line with others whose bodies are already there.
Thus, I intend to show up for Black Lives Matter, abortion rights, trans siblings, immigrants, all of us affected by climate change and especially to push back against the denial of science, hungry children and families, homeless people, sex workers, Palestinians whose homes are destroyed and whose land is occupied too often by others, and certainly victims of abuse of many kinds, among others.
I hope you’ll join me. That’s how marching works. And wins.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
Did you participate in a local march or action? Did you feel included or did you feel “othered” by those around you? What are your thoughts on protest in the coming weeks, months, and years? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us THURSDAY, February 16th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Recordings of the workshop presentations by Malachi and Robin are being made available periodically.
We are a nation that has made the gold-star standard of beauty one that is based on racist ideals.
Nowhere is the power of white supremacy more evident than in the industry that thrives by producing, marketing, and selling products to bleach dark human skin. An article in The New York Times about the practice in West Africa, and the action of the government of Ghana in creating a ban on these products alerted me to the practice there (see “What Is the Color of Beauty?”), but the author was quick to point out that this is not limited to West Africa.
Indeed, a look online yielded many products that claim to remove blemishes and dark spots, although I found almost none offered by major retailers and companies in this country that encouraged their use to reduce the darkness of overall skin tone. At the same time, some of them did use the term “freshening” which, in the African context, is sometimes used in preference to “bleaching.” There are products which claim to whiten black skin without saying so in so many words.
This is in line with historic validation, through advertising for example, of white skin as preferable to darker, most especially African or black, skin. In other ways, too, the bodies of people who are seen as more African are devalued, for example big lips among men and women and big hips among women are often viewed negatively.
The underlying ideology—that dark skin is less beautiful than light, or white, skin—is very troubling. It surely is a product of European colonialism, not only in Africa and Asia and Latin America, but also in North America, especially the United States—and here made even more powerful through our history of enslavement of Africans and Native peoples.
This shows up not only in these “skincare” products but also within communities of color, where “colorism”—favoring lighter shades of skin over darker—can create hierarchies of value and even privilege (see, for example, “Skin Tone Prejudice Troubles African-American Heritage”). I am reminded of earlier years—during the 1960’s with the rise of “Black is Beautiful” and later—when there was great energy expended by many individuals to stop straightening their hair in order to let it grow in its natural, gloriously Afro styles, a welcome development away from white cultural domination.
What causes us—and not just Africans and African Americans or other darker-skinned people—to treat our bodies, or the bodies of others, as sites to be manipulated in order to conform to socially constructed standards of beauty? Why do we let others determine our relations with our own bodies?
Is this not abuse?
I ask the question, aware that it is a term that can be overused. However, I don’t think it too strong to say about various social mechanisms the help create in us negative feelings about God’s great, some would say God’s greatest, gift to us, our human bodies—especially when these feelings lead us to do things to our bodies, or condone things being done to others (female genital mutilation, for example), that not only demean us but also do us harm. For example, a chemical used in many of the skin bleaching products, Hydroquinone, can decrease the production, and increase the degradation, of melanin pigments in the skin, thus increasing the skin’s exposure to UVA and UVB rays and raising the risk of skin cancer.
I write as an older person, an elder, who is beginning to notice how there are some places on my body I don’t like so well. Regular readers here will know that I struggle with genital size issues, but in this instance I am referring to wrinkles and loose skin on my thighs. For the first time in my life, I bought capsules online that promised to change my body, in this case, to tighten my skin. After using for a few weeks, I observed no change. And I realized that this was my version of having a skin “tuck.” Ouch. I threw out the remaining pills.
I admit to sometimes feeling judgmental about women who have breast implants or tucks to remove wrinkles, yet here I was taking pills that promised that I would look better, that is, I would not look like me any longer. Elder abuse takes many forms, including horrific violence, and I am not claiming that my feelings of embodied negativity constitute such abuse. But I am claiming that the social validation of youthful, slender, tight- and light-skinned, well-muscled (but not too much muscle) bodies often leads to serious emotional and even physical harm for those whose bodies do not measure up. For example, in my case, cannot wrinkles be beautiful, at least as signs of experience and even wisdom?
But back to the people, women and men, in West Africa. They are paying a huge price for centuries of white colonial domination. “We” white people not only took their bodies for slavery in the “New World,” looted their minerals, and continue to hunt their diminishing mammals and other native creatures for sport, we also stole their embodied dignity—and that theft continues today in the form of social values that violate their natural, God-given beauty, and support and encourage them to engage in self-violation.
This is of course a justice issue—the health authority in Ghana is clearly trying to right an injustice and save lives—but also it is a moral and theological issue. We remember Dr. King saying, “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” How well we do this tells us about our character. And it is not limited to Africa.
For many years, whenever I say or sing the Lord’s Prayer, and I come to the part of asking forgiveness for my debts/sins/trespasses, I bring to consciousness images of slaves raped and beaten and killed, Native peoples slaughtered and forced to live in closed-in enclaves, women beaten and denied good jobs, children dying of malnutrition and starvation, etc. Now, I will also call to mind the faces of African women and men whose complexions are altered in obedience to ugly social rules and values.
I know I am not causing this, actively. I know my parents did not do this, or even my grandparents. But what I do know is that I continue to benefit from social values that raise white over black, especially when it comes to skin colors and body typologies, and every moment that I am not engaged in opposing, undoing, white supremacy and white privilege, is a moment when I am not involved in the resistance to them. When I am not in resistance, I am complicit.
And here’s a real and very painful irony. In parts of Africa there are campaigns to rid the populace of what some claim is the scourge of homosexuality. Those campaigns are often encouraged, supported, funded, by white Christians from the United States. The claim is often made that this form of sexual being and living is not native to Africa but was imported in colonial times.
African friends and colleagues of mine, both homosexual and heterosexual, tell me that African life has always included a variety of sexualities. It is one of the sexual gifts God has made, and still makes, available in every corner of the earth.
So, instead of promoting the murder of gay men and lesbians, those U.S. Christians could be doing a real service by helping to overcome a genuine foreign import: the devaluing of black skin.
We must all can learn to celebrate our bodies, all bodies, ourselves. Until we do, God and God’s creation are mocked.
This week, after recovering from a wonderful Thanksgiving, Rev. Robin shared an article, “What Color is Beauty?” with me, related to the practice of skin-bleaching in West Africa, particularly in Ghana. The practice, although now technically illegal, lightens the skin tone of people- particularly women- by attacking the molecules that produce melanin in the skin.
This practice was recently banned, but the article discusses the inherent tension between the formal laws and the informal social custom which, in this case, amounts to an inherent belief that lighter skin tones are more beautiful. At several points in the article, the preferences of men are stated- and in almost all cases, men state that they are more attracted to women with lighter skin tones.
It’s a disturbing article and a powerful exposé of racial identity and bias in West Africa- a geographic area that is categorically perceived as a “black” area. As a white American, it’s difficult for me to wrestle with the ideas of racial beauty preferences toward whiteness (or lightness) in West Africa- and I have to ground myself in the reminder that this is not an “over there” problem. We face much the same racial dichotomy in the United States.
In this article, the author discusses many ways in which America’s beauty
standards are inherently racist. Among them, the author notes that a Google search of “beautiful skin” gives fairly monochromatic results. I decided to do my own search and found that, yes, those results are all eerily… whitewashed. (Check out beautiful skin and flawless skin google searches. And yes, while it is possible to put a “dark” “tan” or “African American” filter on the google searches, it doesn’t change the fact that the default results are predominantly of white women.)
We see, over and over again, how black women are expected to adhere to the beauty standards of white women. Moreover, white appropriation of historically non-white traditions, actions, and aesthetics are often the route through which those things become mainstream (see: locs (dreadlocks), twerking, yoga, cosmetic surgery for butt implants and enhanced lips, etc.) Something isn’t considered fashionable, trendy, or beautiful until it is done on a white body, even if it’s something that originated in POC communities.
Juxtaposed with these pervasive white supremacist ideals of beauty, I also see models like Khoudia Diop, who is one of the darkest-skinned models. The Senegalese model is part of The Colored Girl campaign, aimed at encouraging women to embrace their skin color and affirming the idea that darkness is beautiful. But although she has grown to love and embrace her skin tone, she also discusses being made fun of extensively in New York City for the darkness of her skin, and faced some familial and social pressure to use lightening creams, even in the United States.
We are a nation that has made the gold-star standard of beauty one that is based on racist ideals. From body shape to facial construction to hair texture, we are all encouraged to aspire to whiteness. Unearthing these stereotypes to then battle these ideas is difficult. They are so pervasive, such an inherent part of our culture that it can be difficult to be a white person and see how they manifest.
Yet I think of something like pronounced lips, and recall that it is seen in a negative way on black women, but in a positive way on white women
(Angelina Jolie, for example). I also can’t help but notice that these features are often sexualized (e.g. “She’s got blowjob lips”). The same is true with the tendency of black women to have a more pronounced butt, something that is incredibly sexualized.
So there is an interesting tension in our own culture between our ideals of beauty and our ideas of sex appeal. On one hand, “whiteness” is clearly the standard to which all people are expected to aspire (this used to be called “civilizing” people, because non-whiteness = savage from a colonialist perspective. This has not gone away; it has simply been called something else.) Yet on the other hand, we dehumanize, objectify, and sexualize the aspect of women’s bodies that don’t necessarily adhere to white standards.
It reminds me, in many ways, of the experiences that trans women have talked about in trying to date straight men. One friend put it very directly: “They will fuck me all night and tell me I’m the most beautiful person they’ve ever seen,” she said, “and then they leave the room and refuse to hold my hand in the daylight.”
We are told what we should be attracted to: thin, white, cisgendered. Any deviation from that attraction and it becomes a taboo, and we dehumanize and fetishize people to meet our own desires. The craigslist ads alone show this: “white man for black woman; casual sex only” “masculine white man for black woman; cannot host” “married man wants friends with benefits- black girls only” and “White 4 Black” (these are all lines from a local craigslist today). The gist of these ads are, “I’m a white guy looking for casual sex with a black woman, but I can’t have you around my home).
So not only do we set whiteness as the beauty standard, but when we are attracted to people who don’t fit that, we try to hide, minimize, or deny that attraction. Not only is this dehumanizing, but we are then perpetuating the same racist myths and stereotypes that hold up white beauty as superior in the first place.
The racism in the United States is pervasive and deeply rooted in systematic ways. The only way we can begin to combat these ideas is to first recognize that they are there. It’s easy to feel outrage, shock, and horror at women across the world bleaching their skin and risking skin cancer through damaging melanin in the blistering heat of West Africa, but we must also remember and feel that outrage that young women in the United States are often also pressured to lighten their skin so they can be beautiful. We must see it to fight it. We must fight it to end it. And we absolutely must end this dangerous, damaging belief that the value of a person is intrinsically tied to the color of their skin.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What do you think influences your sense of your own body, your relationship with your body? And what influences how you see and evaluate the bodies of others? What bodies are most sexy for you? Is your own body sexy for you? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us THURSDAY, December 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Sacred, Not Secret, Part 2: Beyond the Norm
We invite you to join us on Thursday, Dec 15th for the second part of the series, “Sacred, Not Secret” where Malachi Grennell and Rev. Dr. Robin H. Gorsline continue to discuss alternative expressions of sexuality and intimacy from a Christian perspective. On December 15, they will begin to explore non-normative relationship structures, focusing on non-monogamous relationships. This one-hour workshop will examine different aspects of non-monogamy, as well as discuss ways that we can be more open and inclusive to non-monogamous families in our churches and communities–because do not doubt that you know and interact with such families, in church and elsewhere.
As Metropolitan Community Church strives to move forward and maintain relevance with shifting social mores, the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development offers Sex, Bodies, Spirit online on the third Thursday of every month at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. This workshop is approved as a continuing education course for MCC clergy (.5 credit for each session) and focuses on equipping and empowering leaders to bring these conversations to their communities. Although a primary focus is on clergy education, everyone is welcome to attend and participate.
. . . people who are assigned female at birth, or AFAB) are often taught to associate their own self-esteem with their attractiveness . . . .
Malachi: I recently wrote about two different experiences I had while picking my goddaughter up from school. In one instance, a group of men in a car slowed down and began oogling, jeering, and catcalling, and I responded with an indication that they needed to keep moving. In the other, I was followed for several blocks on my way to her school by someone on a motorcycle who was repeatedly trying to get my phone number. When I had picked her up and was walking back home with her, he reappeared, and I did the best I could to shield her from any additional inappropriate comments.
These stories are not isolated incidents. This is just the reality of Parenting While Trans. Or simply just the reality of Being Trans.
When Robin and I were talking about what we wanted to write about today, these experiences were on the forefront of my mind, and he was talking about his experiences with bullying. I was reminded that I was spared a lot of bullying in my childhood years. I can never stop being grateful for that, given many of the horror stories I have seen, heard, and read about.
But as we continued to talk, my mind started going. “Bullying” is one form of harassment, one that many people (across gender identities and expressions) face. It’s a form of harassment meant to denigrate someone, made to make someone feel “less than,” or “not worthy” of kindness. It’s a brutal and atrocious tragedy that leads to instances like Columbine and increased risk for suicide (especially among LGBTQ people).
I didn’t get bullied through much of high school. But I do remember when I started getting harassed- right around the time I started having sex. And it occurred to me that harassment tends to take two distinct forms, particularly when it comes from men.
Bullying is something I see men doing to other people (they perceive as)
male. Again, this is not to say that women are not bullied… but when I think of bullying, I think of a young man being called “fag” and “sissy,” being mocked for not exhibiting traditional masculine traits. Often the bullies are bigger, stronger, more masculine (the incredibly stereotypical, iconic jock image). In short, the “purpose” of the bullying, if you will, is to tear other men down.
Women (or those perceived as women), tend to receive harassment based on their sexuality. It’s supposed to be a “compliment” that she would catch someone’s interest. Where men are expected to fight back against the bullying, women are expected to graciously accept and take it as a compliment.
I was pretty queer in high school. Blatantly, outspokenly, rainbow-wearing, gender-neutral pronoun-using queer. I was also a particularly awkward teenager and not viewed by my peers as a sexual being. My body wasn’t commented on because it wasn’t the type of body that it would occur to many people to make comments about. I wasn’t so unattractive that I was picked on, but I wasn’t attractive in the way that people noticed.
When I started to portray more elements of “mainstream” attractiveness, I found myself the target of catcalls, people stopping me on the sidewalk to ask for my number, people asking me if I was an escort (I confess, at that point, I had no idea what that was or what they were talking about). In short: when I began to be viewed by others as a sexual object, I began to receive more attention… and some of that attention was most definitely harassment.
The next logical step here is that women (and people who are assigned female at birth, or AFAB) are often taught to associate their own self-esteem with their attractiveness, and their attractiveness with the
external affirmation they receive. But that attention is not always (or often) desired or requested. It becomes a mixed bag of emotions that boils down, “That person is creepy, but I still got it!” It’s an affirmation that we are still attractive and, because our value is predominantly tied to our attractiveness, it implicitly states something about our value and worth as human beings.
It starts young: “He pulled your hair? He must have a crush on you.” equates physical abuse with signs of affection, and it escalates from there. People who are AFAB have learned to equate harassment and abuse as signs of affection for most of their lives, and it is a deep sociocultural lesson that is incredibly difficult to unlearn.
There is, for me, another element of the story that further complicates matters. The people who harassed me on the street were (both times) men of color (of different ethnic backgrounds).
The night I got home after the motorcycle incident, my partner decided to order some food, and asked me if I wanted anything. I wasn’t hungry, so I said no. About half an hour later, I was sitting on my stoop, doing some work on my computer, and a car pulled up on my block, idling right outside my house and the driver (a young man of color) nodded at me.
I felt my stomach drop and my face got defensive. I glared at him until-oh! I remembered my partner had ordered food!- and stuck my head inside to let him know his food was here.
That moment stays with me, though, because it was a moment where my recent experience was coloring my reality, and I realized that I have some work I need to do to deal with my own racism.
As someone who was AFAB in a country with such deeply-held racism, I recognize that, even now, so much of my socialization has taught me to hate and fear black men. I don’t want to believe that that is true, but I know
that it is. I grew up in the South, and racism is very much not dead. And there is a part of me that must recognize my socialization taught me that black men will rape white women.
It’s a brutal, difficult, ugly thing to face about myself. Particularly when I want, so badly, to be angry. I have these warring factions between my own oppression and harassment as a trans person, and my own privilege and prejudice as a white person living in a predominantly non-white city.
I have no idea how to reconcile these things, but I cannot pretend that they are not there.
And so we are left with this incredibly mixed, jumbled up discussion of harassment, gender, race, social expectations. If ever there was an argument for intersectionality, I think this would qualify. Because these things are not simple, and I have not unlearned so much of my own social conditioning.
I think it comes down to this: we are all broken. We lash out from brokenness, we buy into stereotypes from brokenness, we allow our fear to control us from brokenness. Healing is a long, slow process. It’s a hard process, but I do not want to view the world from a broken place any longer.
Bullies I Have Known, and Know
A bully is as a bully does, from kids
to politicians and other famous people
to the guy on my high school bus
who talked tough, bent others’ fingers
and arms behind our backs,
until we cried out, begging him to stop.
I want to ask a couple of bullies these days
to stop—not being sure they are older
emotionally than the guy was on the bus
fifty-plus years ago (whose name I remember
but will not say)—even though their names
are on the front page every day,
one of whom could become
Bully in Chief, succeeding a long line
of less aggressive Commanders
in Chief from Washington to Obama.
Bus bully was actually a nice guy when he grew up,
apologized in his twenties—imagine that,
a bully apologizing, admitting his error without
being forced or shamed, simply because he knew
he had been wrong, he had done wrong.
I do not remember his explaining
why he had been so mean—perhaps, as so often,
his father or mother, or both, had been
bullies or overly aggressive, or he was reacting
to too much passivity at home, or maybe
he was hiding a secret, though I doubt
he was hiding homoerotic feelings or desires
toward me and others. Or was he just scared
of changes in his life and his budding body, like National
Bullies seem to fear change in our society.
Queers, immigrants, Blacks, Muslims—all pretty scary
to those accustomed to feeling (not necessarily being,
depending on economics) in charge,
though he who seeks to be Bully in Chief
is used to having his way, telling others where the line,
or wall, is drawn, who will design it, who will pay for it.
And then there are women, and trans people, and gender queers,
those whose bodies are pawns to be moved or touched
or groped or fucked or cut or dumped or shot at will
(or all of the above),
depending on what the aggressor feels he needs
to prove. He may want to show off before an audience
or he may feel insecure and act when no one
is looking, or his need for control may be satisfied
by talk alone, boasting what he can do, or wants to do—
and will do when he feels threatened enough to act.
But let’s not be fooled. Talk costs.
A woman or girl, women and girls, walking,
as well as those who defy gender norms,
on the street, cat-called names that presume a relationship,
pay dearly in the insecurity that stalks and ridicules
claims of a so-called free society.
Or maybe it is the leers in classrooms by professors
or cops on beats, subtle but clear, poking innuendo
by salesmen, or dissing of bodies by the powerful.
Is it any wonder that women have to try harder
to speak up in boardrooms and science labs,
other male domains, risking drawing ire and attention,
violation of their spirits, minds, and bodies?
Nor is it only women who pay, though they pay the most.
Boys and young men have to be brave to push against
the Master Bullies and bullies-in-training in their school
and neighborhood and town,
to resist the National Bullies and he who would be
Bully in Chief; and we who are men, especially white men, grown in this
angry, fearful, putrid soil, must stand too,
in solemn, fierce resistance, not only for our sisters,
mothers, daughters, female and trans friends and neighbors
here and across the globe, but also to be sure
sons, brothers, nephews, male friends and neighbors
here and across the globe learn to live in soulful,
beautiful human wholeness that does not depend
on domination, violating others to feel safe.
I do not like bullies.
But I no longer cower in fear. I will stand
and I will resist. If you stand with me,
and I with you,
we can stop them.
We and others can, and will, be free.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What was (or is) your experience will bullying and harassment? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us THURSDAY, October 20th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online: Session 3, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity: Part 3” from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Workshop description: In this session, Robin and Malachi continue to lay out some historical context of sex within Western Christianity, exploring how a faith whose origin rests on incarnation has become known for a deep anti-body and anti-sex bias. In this session, we will move beyond early church fathers and what might be called the social construction of early Christianity to later medieval and Reformation eras, and perhaps into more modern times. There will be time for questions and discussion as well.
As Metropolitan Community Church strives to move forward and maintain relevance with shifting social mores, the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development offers Sex, Bodies, Spirit online on the third Thursday of every month at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. This workshop is approved as a continuing education course for clergy (.5 credit for each session) and focuses on equipping and empowering leaders to bring these conversations to their communities. Although the primary focus is on clergy participation, everyone is welcome to attend.
Content warning: Contains discussions of rape, sexual abuse, and trauma. Some discussions and/or images may be triggering.
Rev Dr.Tom Bohache: As a rape survivor, I am always troubled when people say, “Rape isn’t about sex; it’s about violence,” for I think it both trivializes it and misses the point. It IS violence, but it is ALSO sex. The horror and outrage is that sex has been used as the vehicle to perpetuate violence, and the survivor’s sexuality has been (forever?) perverted by this act. Some of the lasting effects might be body shame, self doubt, fear of intimacy, and an unwillingness to engage in certain sexual acts. (In my case, it tainted receptive anal sex for me.)
Rev. Miller Hoffman: it feels tricky to me, Tom. Sex has become weaponized in rape, and folks like me are trying to distinguish between something that is mutual and consensual (sex) and something that is not (violence). I think the confusion between rape and sex may be at the heart of Brock Turner’s light sentence, for example: much less likely if he had assaulted her with a bat.
Rev. Dr. Bohache: Yes, there are many layers to the issue. But what bothers me is when people make a statement like the one I quoted without realizing the complexity. It feels dismissive.
Rev. Hoffman: Absolutely. Especially if that’s the response when we are trying to talk about rape’s impact on our sexualities.
Robin:The dialogue above, on a Facebook page that hopes to continue conversations that began in October 2015 as part of an ongoing symposium, “Who Are We Really? Re-Engaging Sex and Spirit,” sparked conversation between me and Malachi, and we decided to share some of our own experiences and thoughts.
Before that, as we talked, I began by saying something to the effect that it might be a future topic, and that I might be able to write about it even though I had no personal experience of rape or sexual abuse.
No experience of rape or sexual abuse.
As the words came out of my mouth, they got stuck in the air just beyond my lips.
Then I was able to offer a correction to Malachi. I said I have no specific memory or evidence that I was abused but I have long carried the feeling I was. Based on embodied reactions to an uncle, I have long wondered if I had been abused by him when I was three years of age and left in the care of him and my aunt for a week or two (I was not terribly fond of my aunt, but I felt no revulsion for her, as did towards my uncle).
This uncertainty—and at times I feel more certain—has created in me a
great empathy towards those who report with absolute certainty what happened to them. My inclination is toward believing the testimony of victims generally, but it is especially strong in the case of those battered, abused and murdered due to rape and sexual abuse.
This experience (of the feeling of violation at least) has also caused me to believe that these horrors happen far more often than most of us think, something with which those who collect statistics and are otherwise knowledgeable generally agree. It has also caused me to be more open to listening to, and finding truth in, those who share experience and knowledge that contradicts my own.
One occasion causes me to be aware of this frequency as well as the need to listen to others–indeed to realize how thin the line can be between one person’s “no” (or lack of “yes) and another’s putting their “need” or sense of privilege ahead of any consideration of the right to safety and security for the body of another human being. This time I was the perpetrator.
During a time in my life when I was single, I became close to a young man whom I met through the Radical Faeries. I will call him Steve, a handsome and quirky guy who favored several European philosophers. We hung out together in Brooklyn and visited the beach on Fire Island. We had many conversations about philosophy, religion, and family. Over time, I became sexually obsessed with him. I made my desires clear, and he made his refusal clear, too. “I want to be friends, but I am not sexually attracted to you.”
That was a clear “no,” but I failed to heed it. One day, as we lay, naked, side by side, on the beach, I reached over and placed my hand on his genitals. He responded immediately by lifting my hand off his body and said “Don’t ever do that again.”
Immediately, I felt shame, and apologized. I told him I did not want to lose him as a friend. He said he too hoped we could remain friends. “Time will tell,” he said.
Soon, we no longer had any contact. I still feel shame and remorse–but it was not until Malachi and I had considerable conversation about consent that I remembered Steve and how I violated him.
I know I am not alone in violating the body of another–which is not an excuse, but is an acknowledgment that our culture has a lot of boundary violations going on, from hugging without permission to unacceptable sexualized touch to rape and other forms of intimate violence. This is, as I see it, all part of a “rape culture” which seems to create, or at least work alongside, other cultural influences and norms so that its adherents and practitioners get what they want, or stop others from getting what they deserve, by dismissing the embodied autonomy and innate worth of others.
This may not be rape as sexualized violence, but efforts to deny the value and beauty of bodies is nonetheless violation and it creates ongoing negative effects in how people view and relate to their own bodies. It is mental and emotional rape even if it is not physical.
A number of political and social leaders, including but not limited to Donald Trump, have drawn upon this to give public voice to what many older white men (and some younger ones, too) believe, namely that the claims of other people—racial groups other than white people, women, even gays and lesbians and certainly transgender people—are overblown, if not false, and are endangering our well-being as a well-organized, orderly society.
Their reaction to these and differences is not to listen, or even to ask questions, so they might learn about the experience of others, but to respond with dismissals, slurs, and belittlement. Alas, any of us can do that when we encounter difference, but it is possible to train ourselves to be more open. But we have to want to be open.
Trump’s ongoing belittlement of women—his crass responses to women who oppose him and the support he receives for and because of it—offer not only evidence of the ongoing power of rape culture but also send a clear signal to many, mostly men but probably also to some women who support these men, that he is “THE MAN.” And Mario Rubio’s effort to belittle Trump’s penis seems to have been, perhaps unconsciously, his attempt to say, “No, he is not THE MAN. I AM THE MAN!”
This takes me back to Tom Bohache’s initial comments when he wrote about the effects on the survivor’s sexuality. So many people, so many of us, carry scars from this culture even if we do not carry scars from rape of our body, our person. And I believe far more of us than have said it are victims of specific acts of various forms of rape. How many of us carry a feeling of violation even if we cannot name it with any assurance or precision?
And although more women are victims of rape than men (misogyny and
patriarchy are alive and well), there are many men who, unlike my brave friend and colleague Tom, have yet to openly admit their histories. Another of my dearest friends has told me about his repeated gang rape in a Midwestern middle school bathroom. I know he is bravely working to overcome the damage done to his own sense of self and sexuality, but it took him years even to recall the memory. My friend is one of the most open, caring people I know, but I know (and he knows) he also has much anger inside.
I wonder how many of the angry white men who cheer Trump and others—many of whom have legitimate grievances against an economic system that has shut them out—may also have rape or abuse histories yet to face and tell? Preying on their anger does them no good and undermines the well-being of many others, indeed wreaks social havoc.
As Miller Hoffman writes, “Sex has become weaponized in rape, and folks like me are trying to distinguish between something that is mutual and consensual (sex) and something that is not (violence).”
All of us need to stand, as best we can, in that space to distinguish, and promote, something that is mutual and consensual, speaking up, standing up, and opposing that which is not.
Malachi:Rape, sexual assault, consent violations: it’s a heavy topic, one that is full of emotions and (for some), triggers. It’s an abhorrent act that cuts at the heart of who we are as sexual people- perverting an act that is meant to be spiritual, holy, pleasurable, and fulfilling in order to commit violence on another body, to exert power and control over another person.
If sex is intended to be a reclaiming of our bodies and pleasurable selves, rape is the inverse, removing our capacity for choice, power, or pleasure from the equation. It is not connective and mutual, but one-sided and isolating. It is a violent act.
And this is just the act itself. This does not take into account the fairly
horrendous process of reporting rape in an environment that associates rape of masculine people as a sign of weakness (which often leads to the underreporting of rape on assigned male bodies), and rape of feminine people as a consequence for existing (the comments on the victims clothing, state of sobriety, location, and/or lack of company are more than enough to insinuate that a woman is responsible for her rape by wearing clothes that support her sexuality, choosing to consume alcohol, walking down the street, or simply being alone).
A couple weeks ago, I began to contextualize the concept of rape culture as part of a larger response to Rev. Tom Bohache’s and Rev. Miller Hoffman’s dialogue on facebook about the language and implications when talking about rape.
The conversation highlights aspects of a survivor’s story- including long-term effects and language that we use to designate the difference between consensual acts and acts that are rooted in seeking to hold power over another person.
First, I have to state that I appreciate the importance of the distinction for many: particularly for women and those assigned female at birth, there is an inherent cultural disbelief of a survivor’s story, or a sense that a victim “deserved it.” Because the cultural response is to automatically doubt the victim’s story, phrases like “it’s not sex, it’s violence” become important because they are another way to say, “This was not my fault. I did not have a choice in this.”
In a somewhat-separate facet of my life (my involvement with kink and BDSM communities), I am actively working with several organizations who are trying to (a) navigate allegations of consent violations within the community; (b) instate better policies to keep people safer at events; and/or (c) seek to update reporting processes and be transparent in accountability and addressing consent violation reports. One particular discussion thread that is vital to the conversation is centering the victim’s experience and requests in the healing process. Rev. Tom Bohache makes this
important point that his voice feels diminished and/or silenced by creating the hard line between sex and rape.
In many ways, I understand that hard line and why it is drawn. Rev. Miller Hoffman points that we need ways to distinguish between the act of sex and the atrocity of weaponizing sex- a distinguishment of intention, rather than acts. We don’t want to see any relation between the consensual, sacred aspect of our sexualities and the brutal perversion of sexual expression through rape.
But what is “sex”? Is it simply a mechanical, technical act, a pelvic thrusting motion, a combination of hands and lips that combine to produce a physical sensation? If sex is nothing more than a physical act, then I absolutely see that it is harder to differentiate between the two based on the physical components.
For me, though, sex gets a little more complicated. In BDSM, I have seen people have orgasms fully clothed with no genital touch. I have seen people having sex without having an orgasm. I have seen people having orgasms from pain stimuli. I have seen the exact same two scenarios happen- someone tied up in artistic rope- and for one person, the act is sexual, for the other, it is not.
I still struggle to define what sex is. For me, it most often comes down to the vague, “people are having sex if they consider the actions occurring between them consensual, sexual acts,” which inherently diverges from “rape” in both consent and intention.
We have to all be desiring to do what we are doing for it to be sex, for me. Anything else isn’t automatically, de facto “rape”… there are a whole lot of different interactions that happen between “sex” and “rape.” Those grey areas are not talked about enough, and those gray areas are the entire premise of rape culture.
But as important as the phrase, “That wasn’t sex, that was violence” can be to some survivors (although, clearly, as Tom said, that phrase undermines his own experience in how rape has impacted his ability to be a consensually sexual adult), it is a phrase we cling to because it separates us into us-vs-them. Good people and bad people. Good people don’t rape and rape is violent. Rape is about power. I’m a good person. Therefore, I don’t use sex in violent ways or use it to exert power over others.
But when the focus is only on the black-and-white, sex vs. rape, it minimizes the numerous areas between those two things. I have had situations in which I pushed, coerced, or misread someone else’s interests. Now certainly, when someone said no, I stopped, but the point is, there is a violence when we push our own desires onto someone else. Kissing someone when they don’t want to be kissed. Touching someone when they’re intoxicated. These situations impact someone’s capacity for sexual expression in future situations- sometimes extensively. Rape is not the only form of sexual violence, and without minimizing the atrocities of rape, I think we can also come to understand the ways in which we have used (or seen others use) sex as a means of power and/or selfish intention.
Does this mean we are inherently bad people? No. Does this mean that rapists should get a pass for the atrocities they commit? Absolutely not. Holding people accountable is absolutely necessary, and there is an immense amount of trauma and pain associated with healing from rape. But I think, in many ways, it can be an oversimplication to say “Rape isn’t sex, it’s violence.” Not because that narrative is untrue or not important, but because sex is not purely a mechanical act, and I have found that there are many ways for sex to be weaponized and used as a power tactic.
Recognizing that we need to find a way to differentiate these things is important. But similarly, we have to ensure that, in our desire to separate out the differences in both understanding and semantics, we are not doing so in a way that continues to silence the voices of survivors.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
How do you feel about the culture you are currently a part of? Do you feel as though you are living in a rape culture? Can you think back to times in your own sexual history where there wasn’t enthusiastic consent from all parties? How do you feel about the phrase, “Rape isn’t sex, it’s violence.”? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please feel free to join us THURSDAY, September 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online: Session 2, “The Roots of Sex-Negativity in Western Christianity: Part 2” from 3-4:00 EST. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. Although not required, we encourage participants to read Sex as a Spiritual Exercise as well as If We Can’t Talk About It, We Shouldn’t Be Doing It to mentally prepare for this discussion. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Workshop description: In this session, Robin and Malachi continue to lay out some historical context of sex within Western Christianity, exploring how a faith whose origin rests on incarnation has become known for a deep anti-body and anti-sex bias. In this session, we will move beyond Judaism and Jesus to early church fathers and what might be called the social construction of early Christianity. There will be time for questions and discussion as well.
As Metropolitan Community Church strives to move forward and maintain relevance with shifting social mores, the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development offers Sex, Bodies, Spirit online on the third Thursday of every month at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. This workshop is approved as a continuing education course for clergy (.5 credit for each session with participation) and focuses on equipping and empowering leaders to bring these conversations to their communities. Although the primary focus is on clergy participation, everyone is welcome to attend.