Last Thursday, Michelle Obama delivered a stirring speech on sexual assault and harassment before her standard stump speech for Hillary Clinton. Her words were of the kind that should not have to be said; nevertheless, Obama gave the sermon many of us needed to hear in the midst of allegations of sexual assault leveled at Donald Trump (after a recording surfaced the week before of him bragging with explicit language about said behavior).
In the wake of these revelations, scores of Republican leaders (especially women) rescinded their endorsement or publically shamed their nominee. A hashtag that emerged in the past as a way of minimizing women’s experiences re-entered the fray to assert that #notallmen are like Trump. Unfortunately, not everyone (especially men) seems to grasp that nevertheless #yesallwomen experience some degree of the sexual harassment, assault or other misconduct that seem to characterize Trump.
In a 2015 article for the Huffington Post, columnist Gretchen Kelly pointed out that all women experience things daily that men largely know nothing about. “We have all learned, either by instinct or trial and error, how to minimize a situation that makes us uncomfortable,” Kelly wrote. “How to avoid angering a man or endangering ourselves. We have all, on many occasions, ignored an offensive comment. We’ve all laughed off an inappropriate come-on. We’ve all swallowed our anger when being belittled or condescended to.”
Obama struck a similar note on Thursday discussing Trump and sexual violence. “It is cruel. It’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts. It’s like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares a little too long, and makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.”
She continued, “It’s that fear of terror and violation that too many women have felt when someone has grabbed them, or forced himself on them and they’ve said no but he didn’t listen — something that we know happens on college campuses and countless other places every single day. It reminds us of stories we heard from our mothers and grandmothers about how, back in their day, the boss could say and do whatever he pleased to women in the office, and even though they worked so hard, jumped over every hurdle to prove themselves, it was never enough. We thought all of that was ancient history, didn’t we?”
We all know that it’s not ancient history. These accounts have consistently been true for years but have with equal consistency been ignored by many men, especially those in positions of power and responsibility. So entrenched have these women’s experiences become, so fixed have these un-repudiated behaviors and speech of men become, that all of it is normal. Clare Malone, senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight, spent the week talking with Republican women who made this reality abundantly clear. “Social media posts and conversations I’ve had on the trail indicate that any number of women are unfazed by Trump’s talk,” Malone said. “Maybe they already hold men in low esteem when it comes to this sort of thing. If that’s the case, Trump is, if nothing else, simply living up to women’s dismally low expectations.” One voter explicitly told her that “I do believe that most men will talk about women in ways that they would never talk about publically.”
Men, not just women, need to dedicate their time and resources to combating a toxic culture that sees this kind of behavior and speech not just as permissible but normal. Stories like this one that ran in the Washington Post this week about how churches have aided and abetted this kind of assault and speech should chill ministers and other church leaders to their bones. You only need to recall the conspiracy of child molestation in the Roman Catholic Church (and elsewhere) to know that churches do not have a sterling reputation when it comes to sexual ethics. We need to be sure that our congregations are not spaces where sexual assault and sexual harassment can go unchallenged, unexposed and unknown.
We cannot assume that our communities are communities of virtue without these problems that clearly plague the wider American society. We need to acknowledge the parts that we have played in propping up men who behave and talk this way. We need to recognize how we have fostered environments where assault and harassment are possible. We need to see how supporting a particular candidate, letting a particular joke slide or turning a blind eye to uncomfortable behavior creates a world where women are regularly oppressed, violated and assaulted. Only after that honest evaluation and repentance is transformation possible.
After that, we need to take responsibility in our own circles to combat and confront the normalized abhorrent treatment of women. We need to educate our children from an early age in Bible study and roundtable discussion. We need to continue to educate our adults in sermons, Sunday school and Wednesday night studies. As church communities, we need to be able to talk about things like consent, misogynistic language, inappropriate touching and unwanted advances. And we need to acknowledge that our own Scriptures do not have a spotless reputation on this subject. For example, we can’t let people find the stories of King David’s sexual assaults and other detestable behavior and assume it’s somehow OK because it’s in the Bible (yes, that has happened). We have a responsibility to actively ensure that sexual assault and harassment are not normalized in our churches or our wider communities.
While it is more comfortable not to talk about these issues, especially in church, that’s not an option.