It caught fire on social media two weeks ago as a Twitter hashtag — short, simple, yet loaded with the suffering of millions of women worldwide: #MeToo. Echoing a movement launched by African-American activist Tarana Burke 10 years ago, actress Alyssa Milano (best known for her TV shows Project Runway All Stars, Charmed, and Who’s the Boss?) posted this tweet:
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. pic.twitter.com/k2oeCiUf9n— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 15, 2017
Within minutes, thousands of women chimed in on social media. Some simply tweeted #MeToo; others told in detail the sexual violence they’d experienced. By the time Milano’s tweet was 24 hours old, #MeToo had appeared nearly 1 million times on Twitter and in 12 million posts and replies on Facebook. Millions of additional #MeToo posts flooded social media in the days that followed.
One of the things that most struck me was how differently women and men reacted. Many men felt sad and angry. But unlike women, they were shocked. Their responses often went along the lines of: So many women. So many that I personally know.
Many men wanted to do something in response but weren’t sure how to begin: How can I help?
That so many men have asked what they can do about our society’s rampant sexual violence is a very positive sign. #MeToo appears to have created a pivotal moment in which we have the chance to engage the wider population of men on issues of violence against women and girls. It’s a topic that most men avoid thinking about, and even fewer discuss.
But we must talk about it — and when I say “we,” I do mean men.
Men, the vast majority of perpetrators of sexual violence come from among us. And if #MeToo hasn’t convinced us how widespread this problem is, let’s consider some numbers:
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of every five American women has been raped. That’s 23 million women who have experienced such a horrific act against them.
- The CDC also tells us that 44 percent of American women have experienced some other form of sexual violence. This means 53 million American women have been subjected to sexual harassment, sexual assault, or some other act of gender-based violence not including rape.
Keep in mind that some women have experienced both categories of sexual violence, and that these statistics don’t reflect the fact that many women have experienced sexual violence multiple times.
This is a massive societal plague that men need to own. For decades it’s been mostly women, particularly feminist activists, who have worked to raise awareness of this scourge. But if anything is going to significantly change, we men need to stop viewing sexual violence as a “women’s issue.”
No, men, it is our issue. We are the main cause. We need to own it, take responsibility for it, and change the way we teach and model masculinity for boys and men so that this evil stops.
Several writers and commentators have given us ideas for what men can do to stop sexual violence. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof offers some in a recent column, gleaned from his conversations with noted activists Ashley Judd, Sheryl Sandberg, Gloria Steinem, and Sheryl WuDunn.
Yet as someone who served as a fulltime Christian minister for more than a dozen years, and who later worked for a nonprofit that mobilized men and boys to advocate for women and girls, I’d like to take a moment to focus on the role of churches. I believe that churches must change how they address sexual violence.
What are ministries to do?
Churches should begin by addressing sexual violence in the first place. Most, in my experience, don’t deal with the issue at all.
I have been a Christian for 40 years, and I can’t recall even one occasion that I’ve heard it mentioned in a pastoral message. I mentioned it in one of my own sermons 10 years ago after several women in my church came forward to reveal that a leader who predated my tenure had abused them when they were minors.
I’m not singling myself out for praise. I should have led my churches to do much more. Looking back, here’s what I believe churches must do differently:
1. Ministers and their churches need to address sexual violence on a regular basis.
I only talked about sexual violence from the pulpit that one time. It’s striking to me now just how completely inadequate that was. Sexual violence has been one of the most pervasive and devastating sins throughout history, and its ubiquity speaks to the failure of churches and other social institutions to deal with it. For our society to become a safer place for women and girls, church leaders can no longer overlook this issue.
Such efforts should start from the pulpit, because that highlights the matter’s importance. They should also be a part of Sunday school lessons and small group discussions, just like other topics related to sexuality already are. (And of course, we must make clear that sexual violence actually has little to do with sex and everything to do with power and control. Men who commit sexual violence aren’t sex addicts; they are predators.)
These conversations must be age-appropriate. But churches can teach even young boys simple concepts like treating girls and women as equals, and that if anyone doesn’t want to give or receive hugs, kisses, or tickles, that their wishes must be respected.
Teenage boys must be reminded to respect the personal boundaries of others, and they also need to hear testimonials, perhaps via documentaries, from women and girls who have survived sexual violence. They need to hear the horrific statistics, so they know just how widespread the problem is.
These young men also need to learn what constitutes such sinful behavior in the first place, as well as how they can speak up to intervene when they see or hear an incident taking place. They need to understand that at least 78 percent of the time, a victim of sexual violence knows her attacker; he may be a relative, neighbor, colleague, boss, classmate, teacher, acquaintance, or even a friend or date. Crucially, they must learn to give accusers the benefit of the doubt, given that studies repeatedly show that 92 to 98 percent of sexual assault accusations are true, numbers comparable to other major types of crime.
Adult men need reminders of all of the above, as well as a challenge to be active as mentors for their peers and younger men and boys.
2. Ministers and churches must not neglect biblical passages that describe sexual violence.
These are difficult narratives for Bible teachers to handle skillfully and sensitively, and I have to acknowledge that I, too, failed to preach on them. This includes the Genesis 34 account of the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah, the gang rape of a Levite’s concubine in Judges 19-21, and the rape of King David’s daughter Tamar by her half-brother Amnon in 2 Samuel 13. I would also include the story of King David himself and Bathsheba, found in 2 Samuel 11; the Hebrew in which the account was written strongly supports, in my view, the interpretation that King David took advantage of her sexually.
There are also biblical accounts that depict potential male-against-male sexual violence (Genesis 19), as well as stories in which women are the perpetrators and men the victims (Genesis 19 and 39). Ministers need to help their congregations understand these, too, as part of a broader conversation about how sexual violence isn’t only a male-against-female crime.
3. Churches need to bring more women into upper levels of leadership and decision-making authority.
Some churches do have women in senior leadership roles, but in my observation, most evangelical and mainline churches lack gender balance among their pastoral, elder, and other governing bodies.
It is a critical step because churches that are led by mostly men will be less likely to prioritize sexual violence as a matter that they must actively engage. Male-dominant leadership of churches is probably, I’d surmise, one of the top reasons why Christians have long ignored this issue.
4. Church leaders must refuse to be party to conspiracies of silence.
I’ve heard many stories of churches that try to deal with the abuse of minors in their midst without properly notifying the authorities (like county-level Child Protective Services). For mandated reporters like pastors, this is not only irresponsible, but against the law. Suspected abuse of children must be reported.
I’ve also heard many stories of churches that try to keep things hush-hush when a male leader inflicts sexual violence against a female parishioner. The churches are usually able to persuade the violator to say he’s sorry, while simultaneously trying to get the victim and her family to reach some sort of reconciliation with him, citing Bible verses about the need to forgive. They also often appeal to the victim to keep quiet to protect the male leader’s name and marriage, as well as the church’s reputation.
In church settings, those who pressure victims to keep quiet, and who work to protect the image of the violator and the church, become part of a conspiracy of silence. They end up enabling further sexual violence. Churches must say no to conspiracies of silence.
Every woman and girl across the country deserves to live free from the fear of sexual violence, and if that’s to ever become a reality, churches must be a major part of the effort. They can begin by significantly changing their approach to sexual violence.
If you are a minister or other church leader, will you commit to pursuing these changes in your church? If you are not, will you commit to seeking an opportunity to discuss such changes with your church’s leadership?
If your church is actively engaged in education around sexual violence, we want to hear from you. Email our Women and Girls Campaign at firstname.lastname@example.org.