A young woman shares with me that she had recently been in an “uncomfortable incident.” She and her “boyfriend” were active at a Christian college and had dated a few weeks. He was well respected, a leader among the students, and had the “best prayers” according to faculty and students. He was charming, attractive, and charismatic. She felt lucky to be with him.
A few weeks previously they were in his car on a date. They had parked in a secluded area (she had never been), it was dark, and they were, as she described it, “making out.” At one point her back was against the passenger side door and he was over her, on top of her, and putting his hands between her legs. They had agreed not to “go all the way,” and she had reminded him two other times. However, it had come to a point where she, in her words, “gave in.” She stopped talking and stared at her plate. That was as far as she wanted to share “the incident” with me.
The waitress brought out our orders and we started eating and talking with the group. Then she mentioned that the next week “her boyfriend” had shared publicly that he needed forgiveness and found support from the many students, especially the guys. There was a lot of sympathy extended toward this young man, and people reminded him that we all make mistakes, he was OK, and that he was a good Christian example for coming forward. She kept the matter to herself. She felt ashamed and uncomfortable. Even more, he stopped contacting her and would avoid talking to her at school. She assumed that he must have decided to become more spiritual.
“Am I one of those girls?” she asked me. “What do you mean?” I said. “She means are we sluts?” one of her friends blurted out. Then they laughed—the uncomfortable type of laughter.
The question many might ask in this situation is more pointed.
Did she make a choice to “cross a line” with this guy?
It is a question people ask, victims/survivors wrestle with, and accusers often say to those they violate. In reality that is not the question. The question should be:
What choices did she have available to her?
Confession At A Restaurant
This discussion happened because I was asked to speak at a college. After my evening session, concerning the Hebrew prophets, abuses of power, and IPV (Intimate Partner Violence), a group of females asked if we could all go out to talk. I asked the Dean if this was OK (not because I didn’t trust them but because I didn’t know the college’s policy on them going with me, in my car, at such a late evening) to which he replied that I needed to talk to them. At dinner they all shared similar stories and asked the same questions. They felt guilty because “they made the choice…” or so they believed. Dare I write that maybe they had been told that as well?
I find that this is common when working with survivors, victims, vulnerable others, and those experiencing oppression. Ultimately most of us (I write us because we have all been guilty) have blamed victims because we claim that they must had made some choice in the matter.
We blame women because “they chose to allow the other to get too close...” or “they wear clothes that are too revealing…” or “they could have said ‘no’ at any time.”
We blame the spouse who is being abused because “they chose to stay…” or “went back to the abuser…”
We blame the parent who “chose to bring their children back into an abusive family…” or “married a person suspecting they might abuse their children…”
We blame the homeless person because they must have “chosen to live on the streets…”
No one asks, “What were their options?”
A young female is in a car, in the middle of nowhere, at night with a man much larger than she, with her shirt removed and back pressed against the door, with him on top of her. What options does she have to say no?
Is it safe to say no?
If she kicks him in the balls will he let her go?
If she gets out of the car—will she get her shirt back? Will he drive away? Will she find her way home?
Is it possible that she simply just tries to survive?
What options did the wife have when trying to leave her abuser?
What options does the parent of children, bonded to the abusive father, have?
What options does the person on the street have?
Maybe we are asking the wrong question. Is it about choices or options?
Harvey Weinstein has made the headlines not only as a powerful man, but a man who has used his power to hurt others. His victims didn’t do what they had to do for a job, they were people with few options.
- He had power.
- He had prestige.
- He had money.
- He had charisma.
While the male college student wasn’t a Weinstein he had similar qualities. The stories are all too common. They have happened with celebrities, charismatic males, and the nice kid in our congregations, neighborhoods, and schools. They also seek support, repentance, and forgiveness. They publicly claim that they have a problem, need help, or have an addiction. Yet, they fail to make amends to those who they leave with shame, guilt, fear, anger, and questions. “She means are we sluts?” is all to often the question of those who have been victimized.
Yet in both stories the victims had few options.
Did they make choices or try to survive with limited options?
We Need to Offer Safe Options
My conversation continued with the ladies after they shared their stories. I tried communicating that they didn’t choose this, they had limited options. As we discussed their options and the potential danger that they faced (they were also beginning to share their fears during the “incidents”) it became clearer (I believe) to them that they felt unsafe, afraid, coerced, pressured, and alone. Even after the events and the public confessions they felt even more alone. They had worried about expulsion from school (in some Christian colleges if a female is pregnant she is sent home, but the male somehow continues at school). As we talked they seemed to realize that they did not choose the outcome, they tried to survive. This was why they felt helpless, ashamed, and vulnerable.
Not only should we help survivors or victims understand “options,” we must teach the Harvey Weinsteins among us their responsibility to offer safe options to others. All people must view relationships as places of safety, security, trust, and peace. Males especially must understand that they have the expectation to create these safe spaces for females so that they feel respected. We do this through healthy boundaries, respect, honor, and listening to their voices, desires, and concerns. “No” not only means “No,” it means, “I need space to think how I feel.” The multiple victims of Weinstein, Cosby, Duggar, and many others suggests that they did not feel safe around these men. We must teach our boys and men to offer safety and security to others in relationship.
We Need to Offer Vocabulary
I also shared with the women that “we would define this as sexual assault.” They were surprised and mentioned that it couldn’t be rape because there was no violence, abuse, bruises, and that “he was apologetic afterward.” I found this an opportunity to help expand their definitions of sexual assault. I shared that sexual assault is any violation of a person’s personal, safe, or sexual space. I shared that it can be done through coercion, force, manipulation, or exploitation as well as any attempt to “get sex” rather than “share intimacy.” They understood and began to share how this played out in the “incidents” as well as “other incidents in the past." They now had a more developed vocabulary concerning all the “incidents” which were now defined as “sexual assault” or “coercion.”
Trauma survivors typically struggle to understand what happens to them. When the offender blames them, neglects them, or gathers support by admitting “some level of shame” they are further traumatized. They do not have the words or vocabulary to process what happened. However, when we offer them a definition, they have a sense of power.
This is why it is important to “call Harvey Weinstein out” for Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment rather than Sexual Addiction. The Addict mostly harms themselves. Assault and Harassment mostly harms the victim. Sexual Addiction is not a crime but Assault, Harassment, and Rape are. Our young men also need to understand that coercion, manipulation, force, or abuse of power are wrong. They make others feel unsafe and therefore are unacceptable behaviors in our community.
We Need to Offer Support and Community
My biggest concern is that the young women probably never received the support on campus that they needed. Follow up did not work and I am certain they must have dropped the matter. I don’t blame them—they had limited options. While I hope that our conversation offered them support I realize that victims need supportive communities. In my previous posts I indicated that congregations should be communities of support for all victims. While we must hold offenders accountable we often let them simply say, “I’m sorry, I have a problem, I am going off somewhere to get help.” While we can be that place to teach others how to offer Options, Vocabulary, and Safe Spaces—our most neglected areas are offering these to victims. Communities that model security, a vocabulary to name injustice, and support can go a long way in helping victims deal with their shame, guilt, and feelings that “She means we are sluts?”
The Harvey Weinsteins among us will have no power if we offer Safe Options, Vocabulary, and Community. Even more they may become healthier people and in turn offer that to others as well as themselves.
IPV I: Do Women Need to Get aHead?
IPV II: Does God Hate Me?
IPV III: After #MeToo