As I was walking upstairs on the first day of my J-term class at an ELCA seminary, I smiled at a friend on his way down, joking and laughing with him for a moment as we passed. When I reached the top of the staircase, a pastor with whom I am casually acquainted was waiting to greet me. He noticed I had been smiling, happy to see my friend. As soon as he was alone with me, he confessed, “I thought that big smile was for me.” I shrugged and laughed it off, uncomfortable, searching for an escape route and a way to minimize our encounter. All at once, the pastor hugged me from the side and kissed me on the head. “We should talk soon!” He smiled as he walked away.
Time for class.
From the outside, this encounter may appear completely benign: two friends meeting up, sharing an embrace and a tender moment before parting ways. It may also appear harmless because it is such a common sight: an older man kissing a younger woman on the head.
The truth is, what happened in that staircase was an act of violence towards me. It was a hostile encounter because I experienced it as such, and my experience matters. As I walked into class, my own sexism bubbled within me, tempting me to brush away the encounter, daring me to make excuses for this man, to give him the benefit of the doubt: “I’m sure he just wants to get to know me better. He likes me. He wants to be my friend…” The more I honored these thoughts, the more they fell apart. I panicked, knowing I had been violated but also knowing that I needed to shut up about it. Patriarchy tells me to stay silent because it was probably my fault, not his. Patriarchy feeds on this silence; it depend on it. It rests on the fact that I will feel too uncomfortable to say anything, that I will doubt my own complicity a little too much, that I will fear the power of this man and his position as a pastor, that I will fear for my own career.
The patriarchy is fragile as fuck, and it’s time the Church stops desperately trying to bolster it. It doesn’t matter what I was wearing or what my hair or makeup looked like that day. It doesn’t matter if I was smiling or not. It doesn’t matter if I looked happy to see him. There is nothing I did to encourage or invite the sexual predation of this man, and to suggest so is to invalidate my powers of consent in favor of granting this man that to which he feels so entitled: access to my body. It doesn’t matter what this man’s intentions were: my body has been preyed upon.
Of course, there is nothing exceptional about this circumstance; the most horrifying aspect is how completely ordinary this action was. I experience unsolicited, non-consensual touching and verbal sexualization multiple times each and every week. I know I am not alone in this. For me, it is hard to cause a stir each time this happens because it would mean that I would have to write pieces like this throughout the week, every week. I just don’t have the time or the energy for that. I shouldn’t have to do that work.
And I know the solution is not to give that work to men. I have noticed a tendency for cis-hetero-men to want to act on my behalf: to offer to speak with the perpetrator or even to inflict violence on him. This is counter-productive. To be sure, righteous anger is good and appropriate, but violence cannot cure violence. Furthermore, in this particular case, male accomplices must follow my lead, as a woman. To rush to a male-male encounter is a sure way to maintain patriarchal control. My voice as a woman ought to be honored and listened to for its own sake.
I want to lead in a Church that doesn’t shrug at this bullshit. I want a Church that isn’t afraid to name its complicity in sexism and to repent of it. I want a church that takes women’s voices seriously and centers them in cases of sexist oppression and violence. My Holy Temple is good and sexual, but its interactions hinge on MY permission and consent. No one else gets to decide if and when and how I should sexualize my body. I decide when it gets touched. When it gets kissed. When it gets talked about. Only me.
All others must listen. They must ask.
They must, because we cannot achieve the beloved community until every Holy Temple is safe.