Sunday, December 3, 2017

2017.12.03 Advent of Sexual Harassment?—Always in Season

In the midst of this avalanche of allegations about sexual harassment, I asked my beloved priest spouse: Have you ever sexually harassed anyone?

Answer: Besides you?

What I keep on recalling, not as excuse but as cultural history, is that sexual harassment has been acceptable behavior for centuries. It was almost expected, and both men and women learned to live with it, their roles and rules clear: men pinch and comment; women demure, blush and dodge.  Feelings about it weren’t important.

So had I ever been sexually harassed in my work place, which was in the church? That includes volunteer work.

Once a priest commented on the movement of my body as I turned the drum of one of those old mimeograph machines. He liked to watch it, my butt not the machine. God forbid, I was flattered. I also felt uncomfortable. That was mostly because I worried that my behind was too fat or too flat, or whatever other idiotic body judgment I imposed on my body. Really? Yes.

What I experienced a lot was something I’d call attitudinal harassment. A bishop once towered over me and queried: “And WHO will take care of the children?” It wasn’t exactly harassment but it was shriveling and left little room for my perspective, let alone my answer. His assumption was that I couldn’t leave home. Mine was that my children would benefit from less not more parenting as they grew.  

My role in the church was limited to set up, clean up, ogle the altar, and in time, administer the chalice at the communion rail (a much trickier maneuver than passing out the bread/wafer), read from scripture on a Sunday, and serve on the vestry. I shoved my way along toward more and more leadership roles, ending up as Dean of our regional deanery, until finally the Church voted in 1976 that women could be ordained priests. Full acceptance of women in leadership is a work-in-progress.

Context is important—always. Some of this ongoing mess we’re in is a matter of interpretation, according to different times and different circumstances…and just plain evolution. My dad, for example, was a “mad man” in the 1950s. He had an affair with his secretary. Maybe more, though he was penitent and confessed his dalliance to my mother. What startled me most was that she told us daughters about it. Was that hostile? To whom?

In high school in a Connecticut shore town famous for gentlemen’s agreements (antisemitism in real estate, Christian/white elitism), I observed that lots of flirting went on amidst the cocktail party set. My mother wasn’t innocent. I learned from her that flirting was power—dangerous power. But my mother flirted with style. Is flirting sexual harassment of a sort?  What about flirting in the work place?

But these were the rules back then in the 1950s: men got handsy not just at parties but in work places. Women were supposed to overlook it or find clever ways to avoid office rape. It was a predator/prey culture, the assumption being that boys and men couldn’t help it—all that testosterone you know. Women had to work around it. These have been the rules over centuries, and they remained the rules.

Until 2017?  Well, we’ll see.

The point I want to make is that I still loved my dad and saw other good things in him. He never sexually harassed me with comments or looks. I felt proud when he retired early because advertising was becoming unethical, he thought ie. false advertising.

Plenty of great artists (Picasso for one, Woody Allen for another) have treated women in abusive exploitive ways. Does that discredit their art, their gifts?  How do we separate and sift all this while at the same time reshaping our collective mores/morality for the common good? Gawd, look at most all our presidents! Not to mention many saints and bishops!! Does their behavior toward women discredit their skills and accomplishment?

I’m a big-picture, person, for better or worse, so I see that it is increasingly incumbent on ALL of us to work together to end the abuses across the board born within a deeply entrenched, centuries-old patriarchal system of social organization. What was overlooked by everyone, men and women alike, really is now impossible to overlook. Or is it? American politics, religion, economics, morality across the boards, has been corrupted/contaminated by a silent consensus to ignore or deny unconscionable behaviors. Most painful to me is the fact that all this has as its underpinning the strong belief that women are not people, I mean not really people! 

To speak theologically, which I can’t resist: Sin is a condition that develops when anyone or ones become disconnected from the goodness in themselves, God, and their neighbors. And there you have it. Sin is always in our reach, which is why the system murdered Jesus for not recanting his politics and his image of God rich in compassion for the poor, the sick, the needful, the preyed upon, the underbelly of society—and women. Sin is endemic and inevitable, which is why all of us need to try to be Christ-like, to understand what that means, and to remember that every week in Eucharist we are re-Christified.

Will it be different now, or is it really going to be different now with all the latest revelations and fierce confessions?  I hope so. I pray so. You know my death throes of patriarchy theory. Godde knows!