The #MeToo and #TimesUp campaign have a religious cousin known as #ChurchToo—women speaking out about a whole range of unwanted physical behavior from people (mostly men) in their churches. Quite a few women have left church completely as a result of the abuse.
The stories we hear from women about groping, unwanted kissing, sexually suggestive remarks and gestures are stories of male power over women. It’s less about sex than about power (though the two are interrelated). The times I have experienced men behaving badly at church, it has been men wanting to show me they “have something over me” (a body part; a privilege in society; expertise).
It’s not primarily about sexual desire, longing or anything erotic.
It is about a lack of awareness. Without a doubt, behaviors such as unwanted sexual advances, forcing sexual acts and creating a hostile environment for women are wrong and need to be punished accordingly. But, I’m going to address a few behaviors that fall into gray areas and are difficult for church people to own up to.
Warning: Some of you may think these suggestions take the sexual abuse issue too far, but, trust me, women who are part of the #ChurchToo movement are weighing in on this and are hoping church communities will take it seriously.
Commenting on women’s appearance
Some men make remarks about how a woman looks—remarks they believe are flattering. A few women may enjoy this attention, but many don’t want to feel the burden of the “fashion police” at church. As a general rule, unless you are in an intimate, mutual and consensual relationship with a women, making a comment about our appearance can be embarrassing for us. This would not be misconduct, just awkwardness!
Lay off the hugging
Excessive hugging in faith communities during times like “passing of the peace” (an unbearably awkward time for introverts and many newcomers) or greeting the pastor at the door can be a problem for many people. This is not just about men, either. I think every church has an older woman who demands we give her a hug every Sunday. And usually she won’t accept a handshake as a gesture! Church leadership teams need to educate the congregation about the adverse effects of too much touch at church. It’s probably not considered molestation, but unwanted touch can be harassment.
Just say No to the “holy kiss”
In some churches, people even kiss one another! Lots of us do not want to be touched by strangers, much less kissed by anyone in church, regardless of motive. And people who have been sexually abused (especially as children) can be triggered in the worst way by being in an atmosphere where such touching is routine or expected. Some would rather not go to church than to have to put up with that.I know you want to be warm and inviting—and many people in faith communities genuinely love and have affection for one another. But think of the situation you create for others when you make a show of public affection. The “holy kiss” can be construed as harassment.
No need to go overboard. Just keep your hands to yourself.
No one is asking men to use this occasion of enlightenment around sexual harassment as an excuse to avoid women or situations where they might be alone with women. Women need the company of men in order to advance in all areas of life, including church business. I’m particularly bothered by some conservative Christian teachings that try to keep men and women apart. Women have to be able to travel with male colleagues on business, for example. All we ask is that men understand the problems inherent in making any kind of suggestive remarks or actions.
If it’s guidelines churches are looking for, here are a few:
- No sexually suggestive remarks or overtures. Do not comment on a person’s body shape (including “have you lost weight?”) Keep your dirty jokes to yourself.
- No intimate touch. Handshakes and gentle touches on the forearm are just fine and not as problematic as hugs, pats on the back or arms around the waist.
- No initiation of sexual conversation. This doesn’t mean the church can’t address sexuality in its programming, It absolutely should! But, talk about sex in casual conversation can be deemed harassment. For example, it’s best to refrain from asking curious questions about a person’s relationship status.
- No wielding of your power over another person. No undue influence or coercion. Respect one another.
None of what is described here is difficult. It’s simply awkward for church people to talk about. The culture in many churches has, for years, included the kind of chumminess that some personality types adore but others find off-putting.
Please listen to the #ChurchToo movement. Too many women have been abused at the hands of powerful church men. It’s time we changed the culture to make women, children and other sensitive souls more at ease in God’s house.
 To learn more about the #ChurchToo movement, click on the links in this post or read this Time online article about it. http://time.com/5034546/me-too-church-too-sexual-abuse/
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