#MeToo Confronts the Patriarchy - by Marie Fortune ‘76 M.Div.
In 1976, YDS faculty member William Muehl wrote an article in this magazine titled “Rape Is a Sexual Act.” He and I had had an ongoing disagreement about this assertion, largely because of my political position at the time that “rape is violence, not extreme sex.”
Here is what Muehl said: “Lately I have begun to wonder about this perfervid insistence that the act [of rape] is not sexual in nature, when every counsel of common sense suggests that it is, at least in part. … [One] reason for our reluctance to acknowledge the true character of rape [is] the fact that the atrocity says something disturbing about the very nature of sexuality.”1
Ironically, I now agree with Muehl, but only to acknowledge that he is (unwittingly) describing the nature of sexuality in a patriarchal society. Sexual violence does say something disturbing about sexuality precisely because of the way sexuality is socially constructed within the dominant society. In our patriarchal culture, sex becomes violent and violence becomes sexy, or as legal activist Catherine McKinnon says, “The line between violence and sex is indistinct.”2 Muehl was arguing on behalf of the dominant culture that this is an ontological fact, which suggests we cannot change it.
A New Ethical Space
At that time, as a recent YDS graduate beginning my ministry in addressing sexual violence, I supported the argument that “rape is violence, not sex” (Susan Brownmiller’s formulation) in an effort to establish an ethical distinction. We were trying to create space for a new argument, the assertion that sex should be devoid of coercion, exploitation, abuse, and violence. So ingrained was the patriarchy that there was no real ethical argument against sexual violence. So we endeavored to argue that it was the violent nature of rape that determined the wrong of rape based on an assumption that violence is ethically abhorrent.
40 Years Later
So here we are 40 years later, still engaged in the same struggle to address rape and sexual violence, still trying to persuade people that this is morally repugnant and illegal. Yes, we have made progress since the early days of the anti-rape movement in the 1970s. Laws have been revised. Some social attitudes have advanced. Some institutional practices have been transformed. Yet the explosive arrival of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements reveals to us that not enough has changed in these last four decades. We are still living with a version of male sexuality that assumes entitlement to sexual access to vulnerable women, men, children, and youth, with the expectation that such acts of sexual abuse and exploitation by powerful people will be ignored and covered up by other powerful people. We are still living with the knee-jerk responses of disbelief, silencing, shunning, and punishment of victims and survivors who disclose their abuse.
By now I thought we would have achieved a certain consensus that rape is wrong, that sexually abusing children is wrong, that sexual harassment is wrong. But the fact that powerful men continue to misbehave and publicly brag about it with impunity suggests we are not there yet. We are still living with a boys-will-be-boys tolerance of bad behavior that should be an insult to all men. Evidently it is not.3
Nevertheless, because of the efforts of thousands of women and men in recent years, #MeToo and the related Time’s Up movement appear to be bringing us to a pivotal moment, which, if sustained, will mark real progress. Standing against the modern history of patriarchy, #MeToo shows staying power for four reasons:
First, it signals that we have reached a critical mass of survivors coming forward and sharing their experiences of abuse publicly for the first time. We are hearing from women and men from virtually every institution in our society, from Hollywood to the church to the military to the corporation to the government.
Second, we are hearing from a number of women who have by now gained a measure of professional power which has freed them to speak up and speak out without necessarily jeopardizing their futures. Particularly in Hollywood, there are now some women who have sufficient status and prestige to be somewhat insulated from the punishment that powerful men have skillfully used in years past to silence and control them. These women are organizing a multiracial response pushing for institutional change in hiring, contracts, etc., and they now have a platform to be heard and taken seriously.
Third, #MeToo has uncovered not only the multitudes of powerful men who have preyed on women and men for years but more importantly it has exposed the networks of protection carried out by complicit bystanders who have helped hide the abusive conduct. This has led to some degree of soul-searching on the part of enablers.
Finally, serious consequences have been leveled against abusers who have harmed those vulnerable to them. People are losing jobs, careers. Some are facing prison for criminal conduct, no longer a slap on the hand with a wink and a nod. The impact of these responses of accountability cannot be overstated. For so many years, women and men disclosed the abuse and exploitation done to them, only to find that they alone bore the consequences,never those who caused the harm. #MeToo is finally making it possible for people to hear and believe survivors and stop blaming them.4
The movement reminds us of something else as well: Sexual violence is gendered. Although sexual violence can be committed by men or women against men or women, women are its most likely victims. This fact is only exacerbated by racism and transphobia.
So we can regard #MeToo as a strong if belated reaction to the gendered violence embedded in patriarchy. My definition of patriarchy is this: It’s the way the world is organized around gender, the way resources are distributed around gender – to the benefit of men. In short, it’s the way things are. Profoundly rooted in societal norms and institutional practices, it is the air we breathe. And it is toxic for us all.
As girls, we women mostly learned that we had no right to set boundaries on our physical, sexual, and emotional spaces. Boys learned that they were entitled to ignore our boundaries and ignore our lack of consent to interact with them. Some boys, depending on race, class, and sexual orientation, grew up to be men with power in institutions. A significant number of these men have chosen to use their considerable power to abuse and exploit those women and men who are vulnerable to them. In patriarchy, being female is considered deficient and defective, which is why infanticide of girl babies continues as a practice in the 21st century. Lurking inside the patriarchal framework, misogyny goes even further. It is the conviction that women are to be hated, silenced, and punished. Thus do violent acts against women and girls as well as trans women become hate crimes, whether in the home, the workplace, or in public.
Men, Where Are You?
Men’s voices in this historic moment have been, I notice, few and far between. We have heard mostly from men who are survivors themselves, but not others. So I have pondered: Where are you? Are you talking to each other? Surely there are many questions to weigh. Are you reflecting on your own ministry and work settings, remembering what you’ve observed or what you participated in? For those of you who have retired, are you waiting anxiously for someone from your past ministry to come forward and complain about your pastoral behavior? Are you feeling unjustly called out for simply being a straight, white male? Are you engaging with the women in your lives to listen to our stories of violence aboutwhich you might be totally unaware? Are you considering what you can do now to stand with survivors of sexual abuse? Are you interrupting acts of harassment, bullying, or assault that you see or become aware of? Are you calling your brothers to account?
How, meanwhile, is the church responding? We have seen several Protestant national leaders respond with strong statements of support for #MeToo. Progressive churches respond on an ad hoc basis to the immediate symptoms of patriarchy and misogyny but rarely as a fundamental contradiction of the human condition. The #ChurchToo movement has provided an outlet for evangelical Christian survivors to come forward, name names, and demand institutional accountability.
A Church Reckoning
Long before #MeToo, the credibility of our churches was shaken to the core – priests sent to prison, bishops covering up or exposed as abusers themselves, other high-profile pastors and teachers credibly accused of sexual misconduct yet rarely held accountable. #MeToo simply intensifies the moral accounting: Every denomination now faces its own reckoning. Survivors are silent no more.
As people of faith we are called to a public witness, but we must do so from a place of confession and repentance as institutions that have repeatedly failed our people. Where is the sustained commitment in our religious institutions? Where are the voices of faith leaders in the public forum? For a number of years, feminist and womanist theologians, biblical scholars and ethicists have challenged and deconstructed the patriarchal pillarsof our faith traditions. Yet these efforts are still regarded by many as tangential to the ministry of the church. At stake here is a paradigm shift within and outside the church. It requires the dismantling of patriarchal values and practices that have long distorted the sexual and relational lives of women and men of faith. God did not create women and men as victims and victimizers; God created women and men in God’s own image.
How can we, the church, more attentively hear and believe victims? How can we better prepare our pastors and chaplains to be ready to hear and believe? How can we be safe places for children, youth,and adults? How can we strengthen our policies on misconduct and improve our education on healthy boundaries? Despite all the rationalizations, there has never been nor will there ever be an excuse for taking advantage of those who are vulnerable to us. It remains our task to respond to misconduct, to hold perpetrators accountable, to seek justice for survivors, and heal the brokenness in our churches.
The church should be the first place that anyone who has been abused would come for help. Instead it is too often the last place, or even the source of the abuse itself. A woman or man should be able to seek support from their church knowing they will find a just judge, an advocate, a compassionate community there. Because she or he will find a sweet cool drink of justice there. Let us strive to be that place.
Marie Fortune ’76 M.Div., an ethicist, theologian, and United Church of Christ minister, is founder and senior analyst at FaithTrust Institute, which since 1977 provides multifaith and religion-specific training and consulting with the aim to end sexual and domestic violence. Her books include Love Does No Harm: Sexual Ethics for the Rest of Us (Continuum, 1995) and Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited (Pilgrim, 2005).
1 Marie Fortune, Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited (Pilgrim Press, 2005), p.15.
2 Fortune, p. 51.
3 The latest overt symptom of the state of patriarchy is the online subculture InCel, i.e. Involuntary Celibates. This appears to be a group of heterosexual males who feel entitled to have sex with women but who have experienced rejection by women and thus feel oppressed and need to turn their feelings into a social movement. Unfortunately social media now gives a platform to this misogynist ideology, which is associated with recent acts of mass violence. See Natalie Gil, “What is an ‘Incel’ Group & Why Do They Hate Women?” refinery29.com, April 26, 2018.
4 The “Me Too” movement was actually begun in 2006 by an African-American advocate, Tarana Burke, who was trying to connect with other women of color who were survivors of sexual assault. It was picked up last year with a hashtag by a number of actresses who came forward to accuse Harvey Weinstein of harassment, abuse, and rape.