Trigger warning: child sexual abuse, rape culture.
Over at Tumblr, Toranse raised some important questions about whether child rape and sexual abuse have been adequately addressed in feminist discussions of rape culture. As she points out, much of feminist discussion of rape centers issues of consent that don’t apply to children. Similarly, feminist critique of the relationship between patriarchy and rape culture doesn’t often look at the role of patriarchy in abusive family or domestic contexts when children are the victims (as opposed to spouses or intimate partners).
I think Toranse is absolutely right that there’s a real need for feminist analysis of child rape and sexual abuse as product of patriarchy and rape culture distinct from rape and sexual assault of adults. I know of only one book, Christianity and Incest by Annie Imbens and Ineke Jonker, that talks about the relationship between patriarchy (and Christian patriarchy specifically) and child sexual abuse. I’m sure there are other books and articles on the topic, but my impression is that there aren’t many. It’s certainly not a topic I’ve seen specifically addressed much on many mainstream feminist blogs.
Toranse has given me permission to share her thoughts here. Please read and share them.
In all of the feminist discussions surrounding rape and rape culture when is there an examination of child sexual abuse?
Heck, in feminist discussions, when is there an examination of child abuse in general?
I feel like this is still a subject that not even social justice circles pay attention to at the same critical level as other topics. And I can’t help but wonder why that is.
Think about it: in discussions of rape culture, feminism tries to center the discussion on the rapist and on society at large.
But in discussions of child abuse, there is still far too much emphasis on training children on how to avoid those situations. Hell, not even that – most of the literature I’ve seen aimed at children is about how to deal with it as and/or after it has happened.
How messed up is that? Children – with the least amount of power – somehow have to figure out how to handle child abuse all on their own.
And I wonder how much ageism – that dreaded -ism that is so well-mocked when it comes to children – is at play here. Because talking about the things that cause child abuse and the ways to prevent it – that don’t involve blaming the child – mean that we have to talk possibly about ourselves. How we contribute to it. We’re the adults, right? We’re the ones in power over children.
This will sound mean, but I’m including myself to – I wonder how much is is that children are not us. Discussions of rape and rape culture; these are things, that as a group of older teenagers/adults…we go through. These are personal and close to us. But some seven year old abused kid is probably not going to come on to an online forum or any place for discussion and talk about the abuse they’re going through.
I’ve seen discussions on child abuse as it relates to class. I’ve seen arguments on child abuse that are classiest while saying they’re not, because they argue that bringing up child abuse is inherently classiest; as though we can’t talk about child abuse for free of offending the poor people who obviously abuse their children.
I’ve seen discussions on child abuse as it relates to unemployment. Cold, clinical ones, as though it’s just something that “happens.” “Oh hey, lose your job, smack your kid, whatever.”
I’ve seen discussion on child abuse centered on how the child can prevent it. The only thing good in discussions like those is the possibility of equipping children with vocabulary to describe their experiences. But rarely is there anything out there of any worth. Most of the books I’ve seen (of course, this is only based on what I’ve shelved in the library) are walking a line between “how to tell children while still keeping them innocent” and failing miserably at telling anything of any worth.
I’ve seen discussions on adults complicit in child abuse – family members, teachers, etc. But where is the discussions on the abusers themselves? On how we structure our families, on the way that the patriarchy and ageism affect this? Where is the serious look at child abuse and the ways to combat it?
Do we not have the answers to these questions? Because I feel as though everything is structured for discussions on the aftermath of child physical and sexual abuse. Like everything out there is only places to help you patch up the wounds while we don’t even think about even just considering how we might discuss the causes and ways society needs to change to at least lessen abuse. Is all there is just fixing it up and turning a blind eye when it happens?
Are there no answers or have we just never started looking for them?
Because those are discussions I’d like there to be more of. The abuse of children – all of it, physical, mental, emotional, sexual, all of it – that’s something I think the feminist and social justice circles should focus a lot of attention on. Far, far more than there currently is.
Toranse follows up on these thoughts here:
I don’t fault feminism for focusing on rape. I just want my experiences to be included in these discussions as well.
Hell, there’s still way to much of lumping all childhood sexual abuse as “molestation.” Have you seen that? Cause I’ve seen that far too much and I think it’s an attempt to sanitize it. I wasn’t just ‘molested’ I was raped. And being raped was part of the whole experience of sexual abuse.
I feel like what’s expected of me is to just fit myself into current discussions of rape and rape culture. But sexual abuse is different, it doesn’t function in the same way and I feel like those things need to be addressed.
For instance: grooming. There is no way there is any room to discuss grooming in current feminist contexts. At all. And hell, I needed the “coercion is not consent” conversation LONG before we ever had it because seriously, “yes means yes and no means no” things just DON’T mean ANYTHING when you were a toddler when it started.
Trigger warning: child sexual abuse, doctrine of divine sovereignty as it applies to child sexual abuse.
I got a comment on my post about Penn State that I’ve left in moderation for several days now, and that I think I will ultimately delete. I haven’t quite been able to get myself to click the button yet.
Let me explain. When I started this blog, one of the goals I had in mind was to foster a conversation that would be a fairly open and free exchange of ideas and experiences. My thinking at the time was that a mostly hands-off approach to comment moderation was an important part of achieving that goal, specifically only deleting comments that were outright hostile, personal attacks, or trolling. I wanted people to feel free to say what they believed as long as they were respectful of other people’s beliefs.
The comment sitting in moderation doesn’t fall under any of my original criteria for deletion. But I’m realizing that my original criteria were pretty crappy.
One big reason for this: the idea that “open and free exchange” of ideas exists doesn’t really reflect reality, any more than the notion of the “free hand of the market” leading us towards an progressively more meritocratic society reflects reality.
I mean, one of the big reasons why this blog and others like it exist is that certain perspectives are hugely privileged while others are completely erased and silenced – in the church and in society in general. It’s not as though the internet is an exception. Look at which voices online are most represented, have the most chance of being amplified and supported, have the most influence…they’re the same voices that are most represented in the offline world (and usually despite being a numerical minority – hello, white straight cis males).
Leaving a comments section largely unmoderated would really be allowing the status quo to prevail – allowing privileged voices to be dominant and underrepresented voices to continue to be drowned out. What’s actually called for is a moderation philosophy that counterbalances these tendencies and creates a space where people who are ordinarily not heard can speak as freely and safely as possible – a space where marginalized voices are not only represented, but actively supported, centered, and amplified.
The comment in question expresses a hope that the boys abused by Jerry Sandusky will come to understand that God is in control and knows our pain. I’m sure the person who left this comment (presumably a Christian) believes very sincerely in divine sovereignty and honestly thinks that such a belief would be a comfort or help to abuse survivors. Probably that belief has been something of a comfort to this person. And perhaps for some survivors it can be, too.
But for a lot of survivors, especially those coming out of environments where the doctrine of divine sovereignty was used a tool to manipulate people into not speaking out about mistreatment or abuse, “God is in control” is the opposite of comforting. It’s frightening enough to contemplate the idea of an all knowing God, who knows children are being raped and either can’t or won’t do anything to stop it. But the idea of a God who is in control even when children are being raped, who can somehow make child rape part of “his” larger plan? Is absolutely monstrous.
As somatic strength has written about related beliefs that God can reveal to Christians things that have happened in secret, these doctrines can do a lot of harm to survivors of abuse in Christian contexts – by giving false hope that their abuse will somehow magically be brought to light, that a rescue or a way out will suddenly present itself:
When I was sixteen, I begged God to tell someone at our church what I was going through. They didn’t have to specifically know about the abuse – I’m confused about what I wanted about that now. I think I wanted them to know, but not know, because I had determined to take it to the grave. In my head, talking about it was my death, talking about it ensured that something absolutely and horrifically terrible would happen, though I didn’t know what. I just knew that it would. There was no way I could tell, so I wanted someone else to know the effects of what I was going through.
I never missed a Sunday at church. I waited for the person who would come up to me and tell me, “God put you on my heart and I just wanted you to know that He says it’ll be okay. You’ll get through this.” Something like that. Something that would let me know that God was thinking about me, that he hadn’t abandoned me through all this. I wasn’t sleeping anymore. I couldn’t talk anymore. I was consumed by the most horrible feeling of dread that there was no future for me, that the only way out was to die….
In a church that contained a number of people who believed they had a “discerning power” and a girl who couldn’t talk for a few months begging God to let others know and give her hope, he did Absolutely Nothing. And to believe that he is capable of doing that, to believe that he does that for some and not for others is to say that while he is willing to help others, he looked down at me and, probably in his sweetest, most emotionally manipulative, passive aggressive way, told me the equivalent of “you’re not worth it.” (somatic strength: No one saw anything)
So this idea that God has a handle on everything that happens, no matter how horrible, can be incredibly triggering for some survivors. It’s certainly not reliable as a comfort – again, not to say that there are no survivors who find this idea comforting, because some certainly do. I can say for myself as a survivor of emotional abuse that continues to affect my life on a literally daily basis, the idea that God is in control of my being chronically depressed, living with extreme anxiety, and struggling to cope with basic responsibilities is the opposite of reassuring.
It’s comforting; to think that these things will be brought to the light. To think that something like this could never be gotten away with, because even if they commit the perfect crime, God will tell someone. (somatic strength)
Like somatic, I think when these beliefs are expressed about God’s ability to control or magically reveal abuse, it’s often more about what’s comforting for someone to cling to in the face of a horrifying crime, than what’s of actual help to abuse survivors. And while I understand that the person who left this comment probably had nothing but good intentions in mind, the intent behind a statement doesn’t determine what it’s actual effects are. For me, the comment felt like a downplaying of abuse – like it would somehow be ok because God is in control. And I suspect many of the readers here who are also survivors of various forms of abuse might feel similarly.
And really, that’s who this blog is for. People who believe God is in control in every situation have plenty of spaces where they can freely express that belief and find loads of people who will agree with them. People who are potentially triggered by that idea don’t have the luxury of many spaces where their feelings and experiences will be validated. There isn’t a proliferation of spaces where you can speak out about abuse and be believed and supported.
So in rethinking my original policy on comments, I’m realizing that I need to approach moderating with an eye to maintain a space for free expression by people who are ordinarily silenced, dismissed, and pushed out of conversation in various ways – including by comment spaces where triggering statements are allowed to stand unchallenged. That means limiting to some degree the expression of ideas and perspectives that haven’t been marginalized in the same way.
All that said, I’m not completely decided on how to deal with this comment. I could of course just delete it, and probably will. It seems particularly ill-conceived as a response to a post about how racism and classism make children of color even more vulnerable than children in general to rape. Or I could publish it, and respond to it (or just link to this post I suppose). I’d welcome thoughts on how to manage it.
Today’s guest post is by Dianna Anderson, a writer and blogger. She wrote an awesome open letter to Mark Driscoll a few months back, and runs the blog Be The Change. ETA: And I have a guest post up today at Dianna’s blog on how the constructs of virginity and “sexual purity” completely erase queer, trans/gender nonconforming, and intersex people.
Trigger warning: sexual abuse and violence.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite places to go was underneath our back deck. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house with a pool in the backyard; it was above ground, and had a deck surrounding it. Off to one side, there were steps that led down into the un-mowed backyard, where there was a huge maple tree growing between the privacy fence around the pool and the fence bordering our property.
This little space of yard was one of my favorite places to play. In the fall, the maple leaves would gather and pile up, and I could climb up the fence and hop down into a soft pile of leaves over and over. I could play back there out of sight of both neighbors and parents (something important when you’re enacting secret missions and pretending to be a spy). It also served as headquarters for my Calvin and Hobbesinspired club – “GROSBoyS” – which didn’t work out so well because my best friend was a neighborhood boy.
Every child needs a safe space – a space where they can feel free to be whoever, do whatever, and feel safe and protected and free. These spaces hold our deep secrets – confessions of “crushes” and talking about fears and how much you actually do like school – told in confidence to friends away from the prying eyes of parents and adults. My space was a place to explore, to develop, to become more myself. I never felt more at home than I did standing, daredevil fashion, on the top rung of our rickety back fence, preparing myself to leap into the pile of leaves or snow or pillows (depending on the season).
But safe spaces aren’t just for kids. Everyone either has, or feels the lack of having, a safe space to call their own. As we grow, these spaces become communities where we can share things without judgment, where we can trust others, and where we can learn about ourselves and others with a safety net. We can take leaps into the unknown in these safe spaces, knowing that there will be a landing.
When we reach adulthood, we develop new safe spaces – they could be virtual, as my blog and Grace’s blog here demonstrate. But very often, they are still heavily rooted in the physical. For me, when I turned 18 and moved off to college, my college was that safe space, as it becomes for many other students. The college campus becomes home base – it’s supposed to be a place where students can come back at the end of the day and feel protected; one develops friendships, does a lot of work to figuring out who s/he is, and learns a lot about himself or herself and others.* The safe space of college mirrors the safe spaces of childhood.
And this is a large part of why abuse – especially abuse involving an uneven power structure, say, that of an adult to a child – is so insidiously awful. It is physically and emotionally and psychologically damaging precisely because it destroys any sense of safe space the abused person may have had. The ultimate “safe space” is one’s own bodily autonomy, and when that is violated, it becomes harder and harder to develop new safe spaces.
Safe spaces are vital for recovery: because abuse causes all sense of safety to come crashing down, developing a new place to feel safe where one can readjust and rage and cry and discuss all the effects of abuse is vitally important. This is why therapy exists. Safe spaces are also massively important to seeking justice – the abused must be made to feel safe and not re-victimized in the act of coming forward.
It is precisely for this reason that the riots at Penn State over the firing of Coach Paterno are so disheartening. Arguably, the firing itself is problematic as he is only the most visible part of the controversy surrounding the child sexual abuse, and his firing seems to speak more of a PR move than actually seeking justice (this is not to say he should not have been fired – I frankly don’t think firing is enough, considering he violated Pennsylvania’s mandatory reporting laws).
However, the reaction to the firing is disgusting. There is not a big enough “shame on you” for every single one of those students who “defended” Paterno by overturning news trucks and rioting in the street.
This riot is not an isolated problem. It is not just Penn State’s problem. It is not just Coach Paterno’s problem. It is not just the problem of Pennsylvania, or one isolated incident in the world of college sports.
Many statistics and studies confirm that college-age women are the highest risk group when it comes to sexual assault and rape. As many as 1 in 4 are victims of an attempted or completed rape. Frequently, the rapist is someone they know, someone they have to sit next to in class and see around campus. It can be very hard to regain the safe space that a college campus is supposed to be for this 1 in 4.
And the Penn State rioters just made it even harder. Not only is this a massive display of rape apologism – that a man should not be punished for failing to report and excusing a child rapist – but it makes it harder for “not perfect” victims to seek justice. The college girl who passed out drunk at a party and woke up to being raped? She just got the message that her campus is not a safe space to even try and come forward. The young co-ed who developed an inappropriate relationship with a professor, who then took advantage of her? She just got the message that, not only will the administration likely not support her, but neither will the student body. The sophomore attacked by the star of the athletic team while out for Halloween? She was just told not to come forward because her whole campus might turn against her.
By rioting, the Penn State students have participated in the abuse. They have removed the safe space not only for the children who were Sandusky’s victims, but they have damaged the safe space for sexual assault victims in their university and at campuses across the nation. Paterno was fired for being complicit in covering up child rape – a generally agreed upon “most despicable of crimes” – and students rioted. How much worse would this be if Paterno had covered up the rape of a section of the cheerleading squad and got fired? How much worse if the victim was not an “innocent child” but a “slut who was asking for it”?
The thought terrifies me. Every day, when we participate willingly in a culture that is ambivalent about charges of rape, that will rush to the defense of powerful men instead of the victim (ahem: Herman Cain? Kobe Bryant? R. Kelly? DSK? Julian Assange?). When we riot over the dismissal of a coach who helped cover up the rape of a child, we destroy the safe space that victims need. We take away the thing they most need, and we deny them justice.
And then we wonder why women don’t come forward.
*Linguistic reinforcement of the gender binary is recognized by the author. Apologies.
Extreme trigger warning for details of child sexual and physical abuse and cover ups; racism. Please consider carefully before reading this post.
I hadn’t been following the Penn State child abuse cover up case closely until tonight, when the university announced that the long-time coach of the football team, Joe Paterno, and the president of the university, Graham Spanier, had been fired over the case. Paterno, Spanier, and others failed to report to to any law enforcement officials that a team assistant witnessed Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coach who had free access to Penn State facilities, raping a 10 year old boy in the locker rooms.
Paterno and university officials above him claim to have only been informed that Sandusky had been engaging in vaguely “inappropriate contact” with a minor. But they knew or suspected enough about his behavior to decide that he should be told he could no longer bring children with him on campus. [Grand jury report – goes into specific detail about assaults and grooming of victims. Extreme trigger warning.]
Tonight hundreds of Penn State students have swarmed the campus to protest Paterno’s firing. Overturned a media truck. Chanted for “Joe Pa” to have one more game, one more year. Screamed that he “deserves to be treated better than this,” and that he’s “done so much for the university.” They’ve demanded that he remain coach for life. They’re shouting school cheers and “We are Penn State.” They’ve had to be disbanded by tear gas and riot police.
Meanwhile a brave but tiny group of 50-75 Penn State students have gathered in a vigil in support of the victims.
Think of how the victims feel tonight, how they’ll feel tomorrow, watching a crowd riot in defense of a man who did nothing to inform police that his colleague was a child rapist. Think how the victims’ families feel. Think how many other people who survived abuse were triggered last night watching this display of rape apologism.
As many people have said tonight, this is just one example of why so many survivors of abuse do not come forward with their stories. Because this is what happens. People rally in defense of those with the most power in the situation – institutional power, power to report abuse, power to stop abuse, power to prevent future abuses. And the people who have actually been abused, the ones who are the most vulnerable, are at best erased, and often attacked.
People are calling this a “sex scandal.” Talking about sad it is that such a sports legend and great man has been felled by a “sex scandal.” Because even when the people being raped are 10 year old kids, rape culture still doesn’t recognize that rape is not sex.
The athletic director and other officials who knew about the “inappropriate contact” felt it was serious enough to ban a man who ran a children’s charity from ever bringing kids on campus, but not serious enough to inform campus police, or any police at all. They only took steps needed to move the abuse off campus. That’s it. And they admit even that restriction was completely unenforceable.
It’s all so familiar. I can’t help but read that and think of SGM pastors declaring that “no abuse ever occurred on church property,” as though that’s a point in their favor. As though that’s a defense for harboring and covering up for abusers.
All they cared about was protecting their own and protecting the reputation and interests of the university.
Also familiar: the way adults who I want to feel should have known better repeatedly responded as though telling a child rapist to just stay away from children would be sufficient to address things. The police officer who HEARD Sandusky admit to showering naked with an 11 year old child and “maybe” groping him, later simply “advised Sandusky not to shower with any child again.” ADVISED him.
The Penn State officials who only told Sandusky not to bring kids on campus, as though that was the root of the problem.
The SGM pastors who tell known abusers not to be alone with kids at church events, and think that’s enough.
Who are far from the only pastors who think they can manage pedophiles by telling them to just say no to being around kids.
And then there are the racial and class aspects of this case.
Apparently most of the boys Sandusky is known to have abused are black. He found his victims through a charity he founded to serve “troubled” and “underprivileged” children, many of whom were foster kids and from single parent homes. Like most abusers he looked for opportunity and vulnerability. It’s not a coincidence that he targeted and groomed kids who were economically disadvantaged, were in rough and perhaps abusive family situations, or were being raised by single parents who probably had to work constantly and might have seen Sandusky’s organization as a safe space for their children when they couldn’t be there. He took them to NFL games. He gave them gifts. He gave them the attention and time that for various reasons they didn’t get at home, or their parents didn’t have to give.
eta (11/9): The race of Sandusky’s victims has not been confirmed. However, I’m leaving the rest of the post as written for the sake of transparency and because 1) Sandusky still targeted poor kids, kids with single parents, foster kids – demographics that are disproportionately black and brown – and “underprivileged” and “disadvantaged” youth, labels that are frequently applied as shorthand for being black or Latin@. There’s a strong likelihood that his victims were disproportionately children of color. 2) Relatedly, the point about institutional privilege and power being linked to whiteness and wealth still applies. It’s hard to imagine this going on for as long as it did if Sandusky had been a black university employee at a mostly white institution like Penn State (and a black university employee would be much less likely to have the high position and access that Sandusky did, or the capital to start a charity like The Second Mile). Original post resumes below.
eta (11/17): The New York Times reports that Sandusky “tended to choose white boys from homes where there was no father or some difficulty in the family.” As I said in my previous eta, even if Sandusky only targeted white boys (which isn’t clear from the NYT report), his own race privilege remains a factor here. It’s a factor in his being able to found a charity like The Second Mile, a factor in his being able to present himself as a mentor and role model to children of any race (men of color are not often held up as role models for white boys), and a factor in his status and position at Penn State. Again, the original post resumes below. (thanks to John for leaving a comment that brought this to my attention).
This is how privilege works. It’s how whiteness and wealth as privileged classes work. Sandusky was a wealthy white grown man who used his socioeconomic, racial, and age privilege to procure and groom black kids to rape.
Let’s be clear on this. We understand that adults who rape children are exploiting the privilege, power, and authority they have as adults over children in our society. We need to understand that whiteness and wealth are similarly constructs invested with privilege, power, and authority. Recognizing this is no more an indictment of all white people or all rich people than recognizing the reality of adult influence over children as a factor in child molestation is an indictment of all adults.
It’s not that it’s worse that Sandusky targeted black boys. It’s that it shows who the most vulnerable youth are in our society. It shows how lines of power fall in our society.
Sandusky is not the only white person who has exercised his privilege to abuse children of color. Recall the case of Frank Lombard, a white North Carolina man who adopted two black children, apparently for the purposes of raping them:
In the chat transcript, “F.L.” is asked how he got access to a child so young. “Adopted,” he replied, and said that the process was “not so hard … esp (sic) for a black boy.”
Recall the cases of Lydia Schatz and Hana Williams, two black African girls adopted by white American fundamentalist Christian families, only to be beaten and neglected to death.
And these are very specific cases of white individuals abusing black children, just one part of a much broader pattern of the systematic devaluing of black and brown children, evidenced by the shunting of black and Latin@ (Latino+Latina) children into the juvenile and adult detention systems, the way black children are funneled into and then become stuck in the foster care system, where again, there are racial imbalances in terms of who has the power, and where abuse is endemic, the underfunding and understaffing of majority black and Latin@ schools, the willingness of society at large to believe children of color are thugs, criminals, or deviants in waiting (and therefore not worthy of investing in or helping).
Yes, it matters that someone who has the capital to create a program for underprivileged kids is more likely to be white, and the kids in such a program are more likely to be children of color.
Yes, it matters that people who have the resources to adopt interracially or transnationally are more likely to be white people adopting children of color.
Not because all white adults will abuse children of color that they have access to or authority over.
Because institutional and cultural racism makes disproportionate access by white adults to children of color or non-Western children possible (the same goes for rich adults and access to children from poor backgrounds).
Because while all children are vulnerable to abuse, racism and classism make children of color even more vulnerable and defenseless.
We get that rape and other kinds of abuse are about power. We get that we have to talk about sexism and misogyny and gender inequity to talk about rape and gendered violence. We need to start getting that racism and classism are also about power and privilege and inequity and we can’t fully speak truth about violence against poor or brown people without addressing these forces.
But I have this sinking feeling that the fact that the victims were targeted because their race and class made them more vulnerable isn’t going to be part of the public conversation about this case.
Trigger warning – sexual abuse, spousal abuse.
Today is, more or less, my first blogoversary. I published my first real post on Are Women Human? one year ago today. That post was about John Piper’s advice on how women who are being abused by their husbands can still “submit” and affirm their husband’s leadership and should “endure” abuse “for a season.”
Comparing that post to my most recent post on child sexual abuse in Sovereign Grace Ministries, there’s an obvious common denominator of Christianized patriarchy. Piper’s response to abused wives and CLC and FCC’s responses to abused children and their families share in common an assumption that the world should be ordered around the belief that the authority of straight, gender conforming men over all other human beings should be universal and unquestioned.
Women should “endure being smacked around for a night” so as not to “disrespect” or be “unsubmissive” to to their husband – their leader. Children who have been abused should be sent away from home so that their molester fathers can “stay in the house as the head of the household.” Survivors and their families should shut up and tell no one about the abuse or the identity of the abusers so as to preserve the reputations of the men “leading” the church. Everything is set up so that men who abuse (not that only men abuse) are coddled, protected, enabled.
This is all about Christian patriarchy. It’s all about defending a worldview that God cares about straight cisgender (white) men more than anyone else, that they are worth more than everyone else no matter how disgusting or evil their behavior.
The devastating effects of these teachings on queer people, trans and gender variant people, women, gender people of color, and children are many. And As I’ve written over the past year, this kind of Christian patriarchy is incredibly toxic to men as well. It imposes a standard of perfect leadership and providing that no man can ever live up to. It teaches men that they aren’t “real” men if they don’t live up to this standard, if they are not able to dominate everyone around them (including other men) and thus turns everyone into challenges to be subdued. It primes men to lash out at any threat to their complete control over others with anger and abuse.
As I’ve blogged about these issues over the past year I’ve become even more convinced that they are entrenched, pressing issues that desperately need addressing. To a lot of people, the effects of Christian patriarchy might seem far removed from their lives. But the reality is that Christian patriarchy is just a more explicitly articulated, more extreme, spiritualized form of plain old patriarchy. Its response to rape is a theology that enshrines and sanctifies rape culture. Its response to female, queer, and trans sexuality and bodily autonomy is bigoted, paternalist, and based a belief in the supremacy of straight gender normative white men – just like our culture at large. The only difference is that in Christian patriarchy straight cis white men are held up as spokesmen and stand-ins for God, who is presented as the ultimate possessive, angry, abusive patriarch.
As I wrote in my introduction to the blog a year ago, many feminists and progressives who haven’t had much contact with evangelical communities don’t fully understand the context for evangelical teachings on gender on sexuality:
I decided to start this blog because I noticed that, while there are a number of blogs and books out there that bring attention to issues of gender and sexuality in traditionalist Christian communities, most are written either by people who are still in these communities or very similar ones, or by people who have never been part of these communities. Many of the blogs by evangelical Christians speaking out against patriarchy in the church still support homophobia, transphobia, and heteronormativity. Meanwhile, non-evangelical feminist and progressive critics of religious patriarchy are often puzzled by evangelical beliefs, or don’t take them seriously.
As I read more about Christian patriarchy, I was frustrated by the lack of resources that balanced a feminist and progressive perspective on Christian patriarchy with understanding and empathy for people who grew up in patriarchal communities. I wanted resources that situated Christian patriarchy in the broader context of gender and sexual discrimination, but also addressed why these beliefs can be appealing, and recognized that it’s a long and often arduous process to work to root out these beliefs from one’s life, and to learn to think about gender and sexuality in more humane and loving ways.
I hope and think what I’ve written over the past year has contributed in some small way to illuminating these issues from a feminist and theologically informed perspective, but I’m also very aware that there’s so much I haven’t touched on yet, much more to be said, much more work to be done. I’ve found writing here to be incredibly fulfilling work and am looking forward to another year of doing it.
Extreme trigger warning: child sexual abuse, details of child molestation, spiritual abuse, victim blaming, and enabling of abuse perpetrators.
I don’t really know where to start with this, so I’ll just cut to the chase. In the past week, two more accounts of sexual abuse of children at SGM churches – this time at Covenant Life Church (CLC) – have been made public. In both cases, CLC pastors were primarily concerned with the preserving the comfort and reputation of the perpetrators, as well as the reputation of their own church. In both cases the pastors put pressure on the victims’ families to handle the abuse “internally” – i.e., within the church and without the involvement of the police – and, when charges were pressed in both cases, to make statements in support of “leniency” for the perps. In both cases the pastors pressured the victims and their families to forgive and pursue “reconciliation” with the abusers.
Both accounts are at SGM Survivors. I’ve linked them below and have also posted, below the jump, excerpts that highlight the most egregious abuses of pastoral authority in these cases.
- ExCLCer’s account of her mother’s husband’s sexual abuse of his 11 year old daughter (and ExCLCer’s half-sister) in the late 1980s.
- SGMnot’s account of a teenage boy’s sexual abuse of her 3 year old daughter, 1993.
In one case, the perpetrator, a man who abused his preteen daughter and went to jail for it, is now out of jail and back in membership at CLC. He’s remarried in the church and has regular access to children and teenagers – his children with his current wife, and teenagers in a band that he manages. In the other case, the perpetrator was a teenage boy who is now an adult and, as of a few years ago, was still a member of CLC as an adult.
In other words, there are at least two child molesters who are/have recently been in membership at CLC without the informed consent of the congregation. One of them has regular access to teenagers who most likely have no knowledge of his history of abusing children.
Additionally, this whole time, SGM leaders have been “preaching into people’s lives” and “modeling godliness for them” – i.e., lecturing people about how they should live their lives, down to the last detail, and manipulating and terrorizing people with teachings that turn the most harmless preferences, emotions, and actions into horrible sins. This whole time they’ve been disciplining people and making people feel like crap for the smallest infractions, in the name of “pastoral care.”
And over the same time, they’ve been concealing knowledge of sexual abuse in their church. They’ve imposed gags and forced forgiveness on victims and their families. They’ve exposed their congregations to unbelievable risk by hiding the presence of rapists and predators in the church. They’ve decided that when it comes to sexual abuse, the reputation of the church and the perpetrators are what need protecting, not victims, not their families, not the congregation.
They’ve been keeping people under fear and control with their bullshit on living holy lives the whole time they were working hard to make rapists feel more comfortable in their churches.
These incidents took place around 20-25 years ago. Cue the defenses from SGM leaders that they happened “a long time ago” and were “mistakes,” but now they’ve changed. No. This is bullshit.
First off, 20 years is NOT that long ago. Secondly, time is not a defense for evil actions when the perpetrators have never willingly acknowledged their actions or that they were evil. Most importantly, these “long ago” incidents are part of an ongoing pattern of pastoral victim blaming and abuse enabling in SGM. The responses of the pastors at CLC are very similar to incidents as recent as 2007 of pastoral mismanagement of abuse cases at SGM’s Fairfax Covenant Church (FCC): Noel and Grizzly’s story, 1998 and Happymom and Wallace’s story, 1998 and 2007.
Once again, after years of pretending the ex-SGM blogs didn’t exist in public while smearing them as lies, gossip, and slander in private, SGM pastors have now been forced to admit that the blog’s accounts of sexual abuse at the Fairfax church are substantially true. Mark Mullery, the senior pastor at FCC, recently “confessed” to his congregation that the pastors did, in fact, isolate victims and their families and fail to provide them with support, treat them as being in a “conflict” with the perpetrators that needed to be “reconciled,” and pressure them into concealing the identity of perpetrators and even that someone perpetrated any abuse in the first place.
Mullery, of course, doesn’t quite state things in these terms. He doesn’t touch the allegations that the pastors pressured victims into avoiding legal recourse or being character witnesses for the perpetrators. He glosses over the real implications of the actions of the pastors. He puts on a performance about how sad and full of regret he is – and before anyone calls me judgmental or a cynic for saying his sadness is insincere, please keep in mind that FCC pastors and other SGM leaders have, for the past two years, been telling members who raised questions about these cases that the victims’ families were lying, and that the blogs were slander. Please keep in mind that Mullery is only “confessing” some of the truth at a time when SGM is in the middle of a scandal that has countless members angry, seriously questioning their leaders, and ready to leave their churches en mass. Please keep in mind that not only all of SGM, but much of the evangelical blogosphere is now aware of the ex-SGM blogs and reading accounts like SGMnot and exCLCer’s stories – and aware that these blogs have far more credibility than SGM leadership has claimed.
This is the context for this “apology.” SGM and FCC are being forced by internal pressure from members and negative external publicity to finally acknowledge these issues. Confessing “mistakes” when you no longer have a choice but to address them is not a sincere apology.
This is an apology and promise of change that is forced by negative pressure and attention. Two questions: How can anyone know the pastors actually believe they did anything wrong? How can anyone know the pastors actually understand why what they did was wrong?
The answer to both is that we can’t know. But I would bet money that they don’t believe they did anything terribly wrong, and they don’t have any clue why anyone would think otherwise. There’s nothing in Mullery’s statement that indicates anything beyond superficial understanding that they finally got caught, that people are angry and want to hear that they are sorry and will change.
This is not good enough. Not by a long shot.
Here’s the thing. Pastors have real power, influence, and authority over their congregations, and this is especially true in authoritarian and hierarchical organizations like Sovereign Grace. People look to their pastors for support and guidance in getting through difficult periods in their lives. People trust their pastors to tell them how to live in general, how to relate to others, how to raise their children and relate to their spouses and families, how to make huge life decisions. And they trust that their pastors aren’t just like any old friend they’d go to for advice, but people who have knowledge of higher spiritual truths, knowledge of God – and therefore to some extent speak FOR God.
This is a HUGE amount of power. It’s a virtually unparalleled level of trust.
So when pastors deal with victims of sexual abuse and their families, they’re coming into a situation where the things they say and do have incredible power and influence behind them, and have incredible potential to either support and help victims, or further traumatize them. By the same token, their actions can weigh powerfully in favor of bringing perpetrators to justice and whatever rehabilitation is possible, and keeping other members of the church safe from them, or in favor of protecting rapists and predators, enabling their abuse, and preserving their access to unwitting future victims.
Here is what pastors at FCC and CLC have used this power to tell victims and their families:
– Keep abuse secret and protect the identities of abusers.
– Naming your abuser is gossip and slander and unforgiveness.
– Don’t go to the police. Don’t pursue legal recourse.
– The legal and personal ramifications for the abuser are more important than the damage the abuser did to you.
– You are obligated to forgive abusers, and do so virtually instantly.
– You are sinning if you remain angry about their abuse for more than a matter of days.
– Sexual abuse doesn’t really cause long-term psychological trauma (and therefore you don’t really need care or help from us and you might even be sinning by still experiencing flashbacks, nightmares, and other effects).
Again, this is coming from people who victims and families have been taught to believe speak on behalf of God. That they are men of God. When pastors say all this, the implication is that God is saying this. Some families will believe this and accept it. But even for families who don’t accept that God, e.g., cares more about an abuser’s reputation than about their trauma, these messages add to their trauma them by forcing them to choose between their faith (as presented by people they have trusted to instruct them in the faith) and their healing and wellbeing.
This is spiritual abuse. It is a real form of abuse. I can’t state strongly enough that it is a real form of abuse to tell people who have invested unbelievable levels of trust in pastors as their spiritual leaders that their trauma doesn’t matter to God – not as much as the comfort of their abusers or their ability to “get over” the trauma, anyway. This is actual abuse and it causes further trauma to people who have experienced abuse.
And it’s rampant in Christian churches. It’s endemic in Sovereign Grace Ministries. It’s not an accident, and it’s not a mistake. This keeps happening because this is what the pastors really believe about abuse. This is the culture they have fostered – one where survivors of abuse are hounded out of the church, and abusers are perfectly happy staying.