Monsters Among Us: Can the Men Who’ve Sexually Harassed and Assaulted Reform?

 

wolf paw with bloody claws (decorative)
Image obtained through Creative Commons

Author’s note: I originally wrote this post months ago, just as the #MeToo compaign was getting started, long before the #MormonMeToo movement had gained momentum. Several times now, I’ve gone through this post and updated references that were outdated, but each time I’ve stopped short of posting. This post shares some stories from my extended family, and even after years of sharing these experiences, it’s still difficult to make myself vulnerable in that way. But I’ve also hesitated because this topic is important and complicated and sensitive, so I wanted to get everything right.

However, following the Mormon Wiki Leaks report about Joseph L Bishop, a former MTC Mission President (and author sometimes quoted in Ensign articles) who admitted to sexually abusing women over whom he had authority, I’ve decided to post today, without once again delaying in order to fine-tune my wording. This post is relevant because I’ve heard many stories  where sexual abuse went unpunished in the church because the leaders who decided whether to pursue a disciplinary council thought they could best help the perpetrator repent by going easy on them. Joseph Bishop’s interview is harrowing, and it illustrates exactly why sexual abuse should not and cannot be tolerated in the Church – we cannot keep the people who commit this sort of abuse in a situation where their power and reputation allow them to harm even more victims. And when we sweep these actions under the rug, it’s like tying a millstone around the victim’s neck. Few are able to trust future Church leaders after going through that kind of betrayal.

The post below expresses more questions than it answers, but we Mormons absolutely must grapple with these questions if we’re going to find better solutions. Men like Joseph L Bishop are the exception, but far too often the Church’s institutional policies shield men like him.  I don’t think that’s the intention behind the Church policies in question, but sometimes policies have unforeseen consequences.

Here’s the post:

As I recently told a friend, the when the #MeToo campaign started, it didn’t make me angry or sad; it just left me tired. Because I have been inhaling these stories for my entire life.

Stories of abuse were as much a part of my childhood as fairy tales. The time my grandfather locked my grandmother out of her own home because he didn’t like that she’d gone to  movie with a friend without getting his permission. The baby another grandmother lost when her second husband punched her in the stomach. The severe mistreatment that same husband put all of her children through.

Those stories persisted into my own lifetime. When I was growing up, one of my father’s sisters was married to a man who routinely injured her. One time, she called my father in a panic, afraid for her life. He and his brother headed over with baseball bats, ready to rescue her.

But here’s something else you learn you when you grow up in an extended family with a long history of abuse: the very person who abuses you can be genuinely horrified by another abuser.

Compared to his brother-in-law or his mother’s ex-husband, my father saw himself as a good man. He rarely left bruises on his kids or his wife, and when he did, he felt justified. Someone threw a pillow at him? Well, hitting them as hard as he could in retaliation was something to brag about later. When I was ten years old I “sassed” him, as he later put it, so he turned in his seat and punched me in the leg. Then he went and regaled some of his siblings by telling them, “And then I punched her as hard as I could! I threw all my weight into it.” In his mind, it was funny and something to take pride in. According to him, they took his side on that one, and I’ve never have the heart to ask his siblings if that’s really how they responded.

And when it comes to sexual harassment, he was just as blind to his own behavior. When I was sexually harassed by a fellow high school student (whom I referred to as NG in a previous post), my father was furious on my behalf. So I named something my father had done but said, “If NG did ____, would that be wrong?” He agreed, until I pointed out that he had done the same thing and asked why he thought it was okay when he did it. The question clearly baffled him, but he just shrugged it off and said, “Well, I guess that’s different. That wouldn’t be sexual harassment.” Frankly, what NG was doing had nothing on my own father’s harassment. But in his eyes, NG was guilty, and he was innocent.

Now, my father is not and never has been a feminist. But in those instances he had something in common with the Louis CK’s and Al Franken’s of the world. He could see abuse and harassment when it came from other men, especially if it came from men who weren’t blood relatives (that is,  who weren’t part of his inner circle). But in himself or other men he cared about, he always found a way to excuse and justify the behavior.

So no, it hasn’t shocked me to learn that celebrities who are vocally opposed to sexual assault often turn out to be perpetrators of it. Reports of Johnny Depp’s domestic abuse had already pushed me past a certain breaking point that made it difficult to be shocked when a public figure I admire turns out to be horrible behind closed doors. By now, I just have my fingers crossed that Tom Hanks, at least, is as anti-sexual-harassment as he claims. Alternatively, if there are any Tom Hanks victims out there, I hope they come forward soon so that we can just rip off that band aid as a nation.

While the volume of allegations doesn’t exactly shock me, I still find myself wondering just how prevalent this kind of behavior is. Given how prevalent it’s come to seem, I also wonder what the next step is. For instance, if it turns out that even one-tenth of the men currently in congress are guilty, what do we do next?

And from conversations with friends, I know I’m not alone in those worries. Or with worries about how to support victims without throwing out reasonable expectations of evidence. On the one hand, I want these allegations to continue coming to light, and I want victims to be listened to and taken seriously, without being put through character attacks or given heavier burdens of proof than victims of other crimes.

On the other hand, I don’t think we should assume an accusation is true simply because one person said it happened (and thank goodness The Washington Post agrees and caught a sting when an organization sent a woman with a fake allegation). So when it comes to a public figure, what criteria do we use to determine whether to believe the accuser? Is proof that they’ve at least interacted in person enough, or do we look for more? And I’m not talking about proof in a legal sense – outside a courtroom, we can require a different burden of proof since, you know, we’re not incarcerating anyone.

And here’s a trickier question, one that I’m not even sure how to address: do we give any of these men second chances? Do we allow any of them to ever again wield the kind of power that allowed them to abuse in the first place?

When I initially wrote this post back in November, Slate had just called for Al Franken to resign. Only one allegation had come out at the time, and I’ll admit that I was torn in his case. To be clear, I still don’t think he was touching the victim in that photo, and if I’d thought he was making actual contact, I would have wanted him to immediately resign. Groping is not the same thing as creating the illusion of groping, though both are a serious violation of the victim. No sexual harassment or sexual abuse is okay, but there is certainly a spectrum of horribleness. While many of Matt Damon’s subsequent comments were misguided, he’s right on that point.

So how, in our national dialogue, do we recognize how much worse the allegations against men like Roy Moore are, without sending the message that what men like Franken have done is okay? I firmly believe we need to do both of those things, but too often comparing a man like Moore and a man like Franken warps their crimes in one of two polarized directions: on one end of the spectrum it becomes a false equivalency used to dismiss the worse crime. On the other end of the spectrum, the comparison downplays violations by pretending that only the worse crime matters.

And, here’s the big question I had to ask myself when the allegations about Franken first came out, and which I’m still asking myself long after his resignation: when it comes to allegations of sexual misconduct against politicians, how do voters make sure their own political beliefs don’t cloud their judgment?

For me, hearing additional credible allegations against Franken changed everything. An incident that could potentially have been explained as a miscommunication and a boundary violation lost all benefit of the doubt, when evidence mounted to suggest Franken has made a habit of predatory sexual behavior. Franken’s resignation was a relief to me.

But this debate isn’t going to end any time soon, as subsequent stories about figures like Aziz Ansari have made clear. Additional men (and women, sure, but mostly men) will be accused, and if prominent journalists continue to do proper fact-checking, the accusations will be credible. (After the poor way Babe handled the Aziz Ansari story, I’m certainly hoping prominent publications won’t follow their example). In many of the stories that continue to break, the evidence won’t be enough to convict someone in a court of law, but it will undoubtedly convict many in the court of public opinion.

So, as the numbers pile up, what do we do with these men? Outside of a courtroom, how do we hold them accountable, and how does that accountability vary, depending on the degree of the offense?

And as a woman who is both a feminist and a Christian, I have to wonder: if a man has used his position of power to sexually harass or even sexually assault someone, is he even capable of repenting without first surrendering that position and that power? Should he be able to regain the trust of fans and constituents? And if he can, what should that process look like?

We often talk about sexual harassment and abuse as if they’re acts committed only by monsters, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that there are either far more monsters among us than anyone realized, or the same people who are capable of love and generosity are also capable of monstrosity.

 

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