#MeToo and the continuum of harm
Sexual assault and sexual harassment are symptoms of a larger disease, a cancer that treats women and girls as though they are not made in God’s image.
There are many ways we communicate that women and girls are second-class humans. We do it when we tell a boy that he throws “like a girl,” and when we read children’s books that feature only boys or animals as leaders.
We do it when a man takes credit for a woman’s idea in a meeting, and we do it when we pay women less than men for the same work.
We do it when we focus mostly on the men in scripture, and we do it when we assign men to the finance committee and women to the children’s education committee.
Sexual harassment must be understood as an exploitation of a power relationship rather than as an exclusively sexual issue.Social Principles, ¶161.J
There are lots of “little” things we do that undermine our faith’s teaching that men and women are equal in the sight of God.
There are also “big” things.
Tarana Burke created the phrase, “me too,” to help survivors of sexual assault and harassment know they are not alone. It became a viral social media movement last year as celebrities shared their stories of sexual assault and harassment.
Women in other industries joined in and shared their stories. Some of these stories have made headlines, and the perpetrator has been held accountable; most have not.
Men Can Stop Rape is an organization seeking “to mobilize men to use their strength for creating cultures free from violence, especially men’s violence against women.” One of the exercises they do in their training is called, “The Continuum of Harm to Women.” They make a statement and ask the participants to place it on a line between “least harmful” and “most harmful.”
These statements could include:
- Honking or whistling at a girl/woman.
- “Loosening a girl up” with alcohol
- Shackling a woman who is incarcerated to her bed while she is in labor.
- Stranger rape and acquaintance rape.
Depending on the lived experiences and community norms, participants place the cards in different places. Always, however, stranger rape and acquaintance rape are placed together at “most harmful.”
The goal of the exercise is to encourage critical thinking, hear diverse perspectives within groups, and begin identifying everyday behaviors and attitudes that create and perpetuate rape culture – those behaviors that normalize or trivialize sexual assault and abuse.
Changing the conversation
Several years ago, Men Can Stop Rape led the continuum of harm exercise with a youth group participating in a United Methodist Seminar here at Church and Society. Many of the young people thought “honking or whistling at a girl” belonged in the least harmful category. A young woman in the group shared that she had stopped running alone in their community because of the fear she has that the people honking will stop and hurt her.
The act of storytelling is persuasive. By raising her voice and sharing her story, she got the group to reconsider, and they categorized the act as most harmful.
Everyone isn’t in a space to share their stories. Sometimes sharing isn’t safe. But, the #MeToo movement is creating spaces for some voices to be heard. And it’s absolutely making a difference.
The church responds
Scripture tells us that we are equal in the eyes of our creator. Despite this, many behaviors and attitudes arise because we don’t live that out. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we must do the hard work to rid ourselves of the sinful beliefs that dishonor women and girls.
Here are three things you can do right now:
Survey the places where children play to see if the books and images teach girls and boys that every child is valuable and talented. Check out our Sacred Worth Books for some suggestions.
Open space for women
Create space for and encourage lay and clergywomen to lead in your church and annual conference. Focus on the women in scripture, many of whom are unnamed. Give them names to make them visible and to honor their contributions to our sacred teachings.
This video, along with a discussion guide and church assessment, was created by the North Alabama Conference Commission on the Status and Role of Women to help congregations have a conversation about sexual harassment and assault in the church. Invite people together to listen and explore ways to create an equitable community.