As we begin to hear more accounts like the events between Grace and Aziz Ansari and numerous women and Bill Hybels, how do we engage these experiences in light of the greater conversation surrounding gender-based violence and sexual assault? In the midst of the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements, how do we honor the stories of those whose experience resides in the gray?
Forty-four percent of women have experienced a form of sexual violence other than rape or attempted rape (of which 1 in 5 women is a victim). This includes sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, and non-contact unwanted sexual experiences. But then you have the disturbingly common stories of young women and femmes that carry experiences that have no clear categorization but that undeniably affected them – negatively impacting their emotional, psychological, and spiritual health. The experiences that, while perhaps consensual, reinforced toxic ideas about sexuality and self-worth.
At 18-years-old I fell head over heels for Michael (name changed). He was about four years older than me and a leader in our conservative college ministry. Michael was handsome, tall and respected among our friends. I was young and very new to my faith.
When I became a Christian, Michael was the guy that took me out for a meal to celebrate. Having his undivided attention and him telling me how proud he was of my commitment to God made me feel incredibly special – here was this attractive man that had the faith I was working to build and he was choosing time with me.
After that afternoon, I spent months enamored with him and when he finally showed me romantic attention for the first time it felt like a dream. I didn’t care that, in the weeks that followed, Michael never took me out on a single date or that I was supposed to keep “us” a secret. I didn’t question the fact that he only sought me out late at night and only for hurried make-out sessions devoid of conversation. All that registered was the amazing feeling of an older, Godly man being interested in me. And as our relationship grew increasingly physical, I began to think it was more than it really was.
One could imagine my heartbreak when he told me he never wanted to date me. That I wasn’t the “kind of person” he could ever have anything with other than something physical. I didn’t ask him what that meant. Perhaps I was afraid of the answer. I know what I heard when he said “kind of person”. I was a fat brown-skinned girl from a broken family. I was the outlier in a ministry full of young beautiful white girls that had a lifetime of practice being Godly women. I was the kind of girl from whom you took something. Not the kind with whom you built something. Intentional or not, this is what his words confirmed for me. I was an object – an experiment in desire. When our conversation ended, all the things he tried so hard not to say about why he couldn’t be with me made me feel dirty and used.
To my horror, I wasn’t the only one. During a ladies night, I listened to another young woman tell us about a guy in our ministry that had been sexually pursuing her – how she had learned he was doing the same with a friend of hers. It was Michael.
I confided in a close friend, one of the male leaders in our ministry, about what occurred between Michael and myself. Truthfully, he was better able to express anger at Michael’s actions than I was myself. He referred to Michael as a predator. Despite how things had ended, I still had strong feelings for Michael and thought that maybe predator was an exaggeration. The word evoked imagery of someone dangerous and violent. If anything, it was more likely my fault, something about me or about the kind of person I was that told Michael his behavior was okay. Maybe I should’ve just said no the first time he kissed me. Or the second. After all, Michael was a good guy.
A good guy can’t be a predator, right?
While popular within our campus ministry and faithfully serving, Michael was still fully capable of the havoc he wreaked on not only me but other young women in our community. Despite my consenting to our “relationship”, there was an invisible power he held over me that did not create an adequate, level playing field. My background, our age difference, level of experience and social positioning within our ministry made me exceptionally susceptible to his inappropriate advances. There’s a reason I was one of the girls that Michael chose to pursue in this way. He knew my backstory. I not only carried the insecurities of a new Christian and a young woman on her own for the first time- I had the baggage of years in group homes, rejection from parents and no support system to speak of. He knew how vulnerable I was.
There’s also a reason why Michael never suffered any consequences for his behavior, even though another leader named his transgressions outright – going so far as to call him a predator. Private solidarity with me did not translate to a public addressing of wrongdoing. A dismissal of the power differential between people allows this sort of behavior to be chalked up as little more than an unfortunate mistake between a man and a woman. Just one of those uncomfortable events people want to rush to forget. A few months after it all occurred, Michael married his ex-girlfriend and life moved on. No apology, no reckoning, no repentance.
The details and severity of accounts like mine change from story to story, but there remains a consistent message: In each new revelation about misconduct by male church leaders, women are disposable. Whether the alleged perpetrator is a megachurch leader or a virtually unknown college ministry leader, there is something broken in the way the church responds to the outcry of women who have been hurt by the very leaders they trust. Deeper still, there is something dangerous about the way we have taught Christian men to engage women altogether.
On a broader scale, the reality of violence and rape cannot be completely detached from the reality of things such as purity culture, harassment and sexual indiscretions that include a power imbalance. While we may argue and oftentimes agree that these things differ in degree of criminality and immorality, they are nevertheless connected.
What occurred between Michael and myself, and how it was handled, is symptomatic of a host of systemic problems within Christian church culture. We must start looking at the link between these “small infractions” and begin unpacking how they condition the church to respond to more severe crimes against women and femmes or we will continue to inflict damage. When male church leaders can name their sins before the church and have it met with supportive applause, we are telling something to every person waiting to share a story.