Guest post: Safe spaces

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.

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Reaction to Brent Detwiler’s documents – highlights

After skimming through Brent Detwiler’s, ahem, copious comments on his numerous issues with C.J. Mahaney, my overall impression is that they corroborate pretty much all of the issues that various blogs and individuals have raised about SGM, and shed new light on how those issues manifested in the inner circles of SGM leadership. It’s not a pretty picture. No one comes out looking very good, not even Brent himself.

Much of my reaction to the documents echoes what people have already commented on at length on the SGM Survivors and Refuge blogs. For those who don’t read there or don’t want to wade through the comments, the highlights are below. I’ll post some of my thoughts that haven’t been discussed as much on the other blogs in another post.

The main issues, in summary [Trigger warning: sexual assault]:

– A long-standing pattern of narcissistic and egotistical behavior on C.J.’s part: passive aggressive or outright aggressive responses to the slightest criticism or questioning, expectations of special treatment, unilateral decision making, intense scrutiny and interrogation of the lives and work of his fellow pastors, all the while routinely being dishonest or secretive about his work and home life.

– This was coupled with extreme enabling behavior on the part of basically everyone around C.J. Despite their numerous statements effectively damning C.J. as a poor leader (see the above), they were continually praising him for being an amazing and wonderful a leader: “CJ is an exceptional leader and this summary does not provide the opportunity to celebrate all of the ways in which he excels.” They  consistently stated that the thought of him stepping down never crossed their minds: “There is no one we would rather have leading the apostolic team than CJ”. Despite over 10 YEARS of attempting to persuade C.J. to be less difficult, despite the fact that even the most basic of tasks (e.g., keeping track of his vacation time) were made inordinately difficult by his insistence on being treated as perfect and special. The cognitive dissonance is kind of mindblowing.

– The fact that 6 men – at the very least – weren’t able over 10 years to keep C.J. from running amok makes the CLC pastors and apostolic team look very, very weak and cowardly.

– The interactions between the men leading CLC and SGM are stilted and highly scripted – and incredibly uncomfortable to read. There’s page after page of interrogation of the tiniest details of each others’ words, and motives behinds words, and motives behind questioning words or motives… Constant “loving challenges” to each other over “sin” and confession of “sin” that really amounted to unrelenting examination and policing of each others emotional, spiritual, and personal lives. I can’t imagine how exhausting it must have been to live like this every day, having people constantly in one’s business and constantly being in other people’s business, all while claiming to be the closest of friends…

This. is. not. friendship. It’s not. I feel sad for these men who clearly have no concept of how joyful and affirming real friendship can be.

– Worse, the correspondence reveals the leadership teams to be a big nasty circle of bickering, backbiting, backstabbing, and thinly veiled jostling for power and approval. Meanwhile, the whole time these men are presenting themselves as a totally united front and CJ as the most humble and wonderful leader ever. The man literally WROTE A BOOK on humility – and they knew the whole time that they were lying through their teeth to CLC and all of SGM.

C.J. wasn’t humble. The men who worked most closely with him unanimously observed this. They routinely presented unilateral decisions on C.J.’s part – about handing the leadership of CLC over to Joshua Harris, e.g., or changing CLC’s doctrinal stance on baptism and communion – as unified decisions the pastoral team arrived at after lots of prayer and discussion together. Bottom line, they were lying to everyone for YEARS. Years.

– Oh yea, and there’s the whole part about C.J. trying to blackmail Larry Tomczak, co-founder of what eventually became SGM, into not leaving the group. This is the most serious allegation, with potential legal ramifications for C.J. and SGM. The story is that C.J. threatened to reveal information about his teenage son’s “youthful sin” (as Larry Tomczak puts it) to the church. It seems pretty clear that this was some sort of sexual “sin.” What’s less clear is whether this was participation in a consensual act, or, as has been alleged on the Survivors blog, a case of Tomczak’s son sexually assaulting a teenage girl in the church. If the latter, then not only is C.J. guilty of blackmail, he and everyone who knew about this incident are guilty of keeping a sexual crime from the authorities.

Narcissism. Enabling. Lying in order to maintain their influence over the congregation. Power grabbing. Blackmail. Coverups. Wonderful pastors for you. Again, that’s what Jesus was all about, right? Self-aggrandizement and dirty politics for personal gain? Yep.


Brandon Davies and BYU’s strange definition of “honor”

LDS (Mormon) owned Brigham Young University just dismissed Brandon Davies, a key player on their #3 ranked men’s basketball team, for violating the school’s honor code. Davies was apparently dismissed because he and his girlfriend had premarital sex. Amazingly, a number of otherwise liberal bloggers and mainstream media figures who are applauding BYU for “sticking to their principles” in this case (including Jon Stewart, for heaven’s sake). Many are also castigating Davies for breaking a “contract” and “letting his teammates down.” Um, no. Fail.

BYU’s right to define its own rules doesn’t make those rules or how they’re applied inherently right, or exempt them from criticism and scrutiny. There are undoubtedly quite a lot of sexually active, unmarried students at BYU. The honor code holds up standards the school must know a large proportion of the student body won’t be able to meet, and the vast majority of people will get away with breaking. According to one BYU alum, the rules are unevenly applied; Davies may be subject to a double standard because he’s part of a nationally prominent team.

As for claims that BYU showed “integrity” and “courage” by giving up potential wins for its principles – I’m sorry, but that’s utter bullshit. It doesn’t take “courage” to turn a 19 year old into a national spectacle. It would take more courage for such a conservative institution to acknowledge that not everything is black and white, and to take a nuanced, non-judgmental approach to the situation. Or to acknowledge that maybe there’s more than one way to deal with offenses, and the harshest way is often more self-righteousness and legalism than it is thoughtful adherence to “principles.”

In order to maintain their “integrity” as a religious institution, BYU showed appalling disregard for the welfare of two young people and their families. But even if Davies were a grown man, “rules is rules” would be a shitty excuse for throwing context, nuance, or basic human decency and compassion out the window.  Is the purpose of a religious code of conduct to weed out anyone who doesn’t behave perfectly? An excuse to expose anyone who makes a mistake to national scrutiny and humiliation? Or to help people make better choices and live well? Insisting on rules for their own sake lacks compassion – it makes being human itself into a sin and a failing. Is this what passes for pastoral care at BYU?

Davies now feels he owes his teammates an apology for having consensual sex, which is just sad and awful. Funny how some churches claim to believe sexuality is an incredibly private thing but still put it on such public display. Apparently that’s only bad if someone chooses to express themselves sexually in a not entirely private context; exposing someone’s body or sex life to public scrutiny without their consent is just fine. One wonders if the famous BYU alums who are defending the school would be willing to have their sexual histories laid out for public consumption and examined to see if they held up the honor code as students. Somehow I think not.

The bottom line is what Brandon Davies and his girlfriend have or haven’t done sexually, assuming consent, is NO ONE’S BUSINESS BUT THEIR OWN. It’s no business of the coach, the team, or the university. It’s damn sure not the country’s business. This is an inexcusable violation of the privacy and dignity of Davies, his girlfriend, and their families. They are owed an apology. Davies didn’t let his teammates, his fans, BYU, or anyone else down. The adults and the institution who are supposed to be looking out for him let him down. The awful irony is that Davies is implicitly praised for apologizing for consensual sex in the same culture where Ben Roethlisberger and myriad other athletes with a history of rape or sexual assault are under little or no pressure to apologize for their behavior (thanks to @FearlessFemme for pointing this out).

Davies is a young black man at a predominantly white institution; he belongs to a predominantly white religion (in the U.S.) with a long, documented history of institutionalized racism and white privilege. The holding up of a young black Mormon as a national example of sexual transgression has to be understood in that context, and in the broader hypersexualization of black men and other men of color in U.S. culture. Rumors that Davies’ girlfriend is white have also fueled comments, which one doesn’t have to look hard to find, speculating about her judgment, self-esteem, and even body image and weight because of her decision to date and have sex with a black man. Such comments indicate the persistence of old, ugly attitudes about racial “miscegenation” in the U.S.. It’s worth noting here that the 100+ years ban on black men in the Mormon priesthood, lifted only in 1978, is thought to have been a response to an interracial marriage between a white woman and the son of a black elder in the early years of the LDS church.

There’s also a concerning pattern here of male athletes of color coming under university scrutiny over the honor code – now at least three in the past year. Harvey Unga, a Tongan football player, and Keilani Moeaki, a women’s basketball player, voluntarily withdrew from BYU in 2010 for honor code violations presumably sexual in nature, as Moeaki gave birth to their son three months later. Michael Loyd, another black basketball player, left BYU for reasons reported by the school and its supporters to be related to discipline problems and possible honor code violations. It’s unclear at this point whether Davies will remain at BYU – whether he will be expelled, as is reported to be a possible penalty for an honor code violation of this “seriousness,” or transfer elsewhere. If he is expelled, it will raise further questions about the disposability of young black men in higher education and athletics.

I find it telling that very little concern has been expressed for Davies’ girlfriend. She’s entirely out of the picture as a stock figure and sexual objected implicitly blamed for luring Davies into making a “mistake.” We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this young woman has had her sex life turned into fodder for national debate overnight. If, like Davies, she’s also a member of the LDS church, the scrutiny may be even more damaging; in cultures like conservative Mormonism, a man might be forgiven the “indiscretion” of premarital sex or even an affair because that’s just “how men are.” Women in such cultures, by contrast, are simultaneously constructed as asexual and as natural objects of male desire, especially if they are white (women of color are often depicted as naturally hypersexual and inclined to promiscuity).

In addition to being extremely misogynist and racist, this view of gender and sexuality is also extremely heteronormative. It’s as obvious that even a “good” young man would want to have sex with a young woman as it is that any “good” young woman wouldn’t want to have sex unless she were deceived or susceptible in some way. If she wanted to have sex, she must have been bad in some way. Obviously these ideas aren’t limited to religion, and they’re some of the ideas that constitute and perpetuate rape culture. Still, they’re more explicit in patriarchal religions like Mormonism, and even codified into official teaching.

There are rumors that Davies was found out because his girlfriend is pregnant; who knows if that’s true. This certainly seems to have been a factor in Unga and Moeaki’s departures from BYU, however, and it points to incredible hypocrisy on the part of a supposedly pro-life institution. Given the school’s past behavior, unmarried student athletes who find themselves pregnant must face external pressure to terminate in order to avoid losing their scholarships. If abortion is really and truly murder – the LAST thing a pro-life religious institution should do is punish someone for getting pregnant and and not terminating. People who make the tough decision to continue an unplanned pregnancy in a context where they will be vilified and potentially lose their reputations and jobs for being sexually active should be applauded by pro-life institutions as courageous and honorable by their own internal standards, not punished and shunned.

Davies and his girlfriend shouldn’t be ashamed of having consensual premarital sex. But BYU should be ashamed of violating their privacy, making their sex lives into a spectacle, and failing to show compassion. And BYU’s defenders need to learn that “rules is rules” isn’t actually a “principled” stance at all.


Losing your virginity is like drinking spit, apparently

Trigger warning: rape/sexual assault.

You know, sometimes I feel like I’m exaggerating the awfulness of what I was taught about sex, like it couldn’t possibly be as bad as I feel it was.   After all, in addition to all the warnings about premarital sex, I did also hear a lot about how sex is a beautiful gift from God to married couples, and how married people have the best sex (in retrospect, this is kind of a weird thing for married adults to be discussing with teenagers y/y?).

Maybe the fact that I had trouble with sex when I got married has more to do with personal and family hangups than it did with anything I learned at church.  Maybe I’m assigning blame unfairly.  Then again . . .

h/t Jesus Needs New PR (warning for some potentially fatphobic language).

Then I watch clips like this, and remember that this bullshit is EXACTLY what I was taught.  That I’d be dirty and used up and unwanted if I had sex.  I remember, and I start to think it’s a fucking miracle that I ever managed to have sex with my husband at all.

Small bloody wonder so many evangelical couples find the transition into marital sexuality awkward and even traumatic.  How are you supposed to literally change your perspective on sex overnight?  Sex one night before your wedding makes you like a germy piece of candy or a cup of spit, but one night after your wedding is a beautiful and glorious gift from God?  What about the couples who buy into Joshua Harris’s ridiculous standard of saving their first kiss for their wedding day (seriously!)?  How can a couple entering marriage with virtually no experience with being physically affectionate possibly be expected to navigate such a transition without major issues?

These kinds of teachings set couples up for lousy sex lives, which make for not so great marriages.  Cis women in particular bear the brunt of teachings that they are being used and besmirched if they have sex, and many can’t magically shut off the effects of years of indoctrination.  They aren’t going to feel any less used just because they’re married to the person they’re having sex with.  They aren’t suddenly going to feel like their sexual desire or their husband’s sexual desire is any more legitimate than it was before they got married.

Abstinence advocates will say that they aren’t talking about married sex, of course.  Just premarital sex  – oh, and all non-hetero sex, and masturbation, and any sex involving trans or genderqueer people.  Kids just need to remember that only hetero cis married sex is clean and safe, and everything else is dirty and perverted.  Well.  The problem there – apart from the big, hopefully obvious one of treating something almost all humans do as shameful and wrong in all of its forms but one – is that it’s very difficult to make such a statement not come across as a blanket condemnation of sexual activity (perhaps because, um, it basically is).  The message people hear is that any sexual contact or activity is polluting and degrading, and the intense emphasis on maintaining virginity reinforces this powerfully.  A few words here and there about how beautiful marital sex is doesn’t dilute the impact of that message.  If virginity is a state of purity and self-control, then sexual activity – whether in marriage or not – is implicitly coded as impure and indulgent.

And as many survivors have attested, these teachings are incredibly damaging to people who have been raped or sexually assaulted.  The abstinence movement’s concept of virginity is framed entirely around the notion of “purity” or “impurity” of the body and the mind.  A virgin body is one that is untouched and unsullied: an unwrapped piece of candy, a rose with all its petals.  A virgin mind is “innocent” – which often is a euphemism for “ignorant” – of sexuality.  Whether sexual contact or knowledge is freely chosen or imposed on someone is immaterial in such a framework.  Coerced sexual contact doesn’t make one any less of a chewed up piece of gum. Survivors of sexual abuse from evangelical or fundamentalist families often feel used, guilty, and worthless because they are no longer “virgins” or “pure” – and they are often treated that way by Christian loved ones and fellow church members.  For example:

I had a good friend in college who had to gather a lot of courage to tell her serious boyfriend that she was not a virgin because she had been raped as a teenager. Her boyfriend then went on a tirade about how he thought he was getting something new but it turns out she was “used merchandise” and thus she cheated him. She went on to marry this guy. I still hate him.

I hope it’s been clear that my point isn’t to belittle people who choose not to have sex before marriage.  That’s a legitimate choice to make.  The point is that the way the professional abstinence movement frames virginity, premarital sex, and sexuality in general is deceitful and dangerous.  It relies on shaming tactics and misinformation, and promotes an unhealthy, negative attitude about sexualities and bodies.  And it’s not just wrong in the abstract; it’s not just a movement with terrible ideas.  It has far-reaching, negative consequences for basically everyone who’s exposed to it unarmed with accurate information.