Saturday, 20 April 2013

Auntie Seraphic & Sexually Harassed at Church

In recent weeks I have received, not one, but two letters from young women upset by the bad behaviour of men at church groups. I'm not going to reprint the letters or my responses because they are very detailed and the men might be identified by other readers, and I don't want to add to any drama.

When it comes to sexual harassment, what is needed is neither drama nor a whispering campaign, but quick, decisive action by those in authority. 

The first situation involves a woman in her early twenties and an older guy with ongoing mental health issues. The latter was brought along to the the church group by a friend with do-gooder tendencies. The older guy makes my reader and other young women in the church group uncomfortable by talking about how he wants a wife, by leering at them and by getting in their faces when they don't respond to his social networking plays for their attention.

The second situation involves a teenage girl and a younger teenage boy who says things at church group that creep her out and who also made available through social networking his sexual fantasies about her. 

Neither reader wants to leave her parish or her group, but both girls hate feeling like sexual targets and wish the man or the boy would just go away. 

However--and this is one thing that makes being a Christian so difficult--there is a strong disinclination in our religion towards kicking the old, the young, the weak, the stupid, the rejected, the difficult, and the frankly quite annoying out of our parish groups. If we were 6th century Vikings, we could just get our dads and brothers to kill the old ones and beat up the young ones, and Bob's your uncle. But we're not. We follow Christ, and Christ told us to love our enemies and also to invite the halt, the lame and all kinds of disadvantaged people to our parties.  

This, however, is not an excuse to allow men, even very young, very confused or mentally ill men, to make women feel uncomfortable and unprotected in our own parish churches. And, fortunately,  parish churches have a chain of command. The buck stops with the pastor, and if the pastor just leaves it on his desk and doesn't deal with it, eventually the buck can be brought to the bishop.  Hopefully, though, things don't go that far because people are constantly pestering bishops, e.g. every Monday morning regarding Father's dumb homily and the nun who did that thing.  

However, very often it is not a priest immediately in charge of a parish youth group or other parish group. Quite often there is a "lay adult facilitator."  In such cases, the person to talk to about your feelings of discomfort and having been targeted for sexual harassment is this adult. And if for any reason you don't feel comfortable talking to this adult (for teenagers often hate consulting adults; I certainly did), then I suggest you get your mother, father or favourite aunt to do it. 

Do not attempt vigilante justice, either by thinking up some extravagant punishment for the malefactor or by getting an older boy involved. Bullying back is not the Christian way. You must go to the appropriate authority, and this is going to be either the adult lay leader or the priest-in-charge.

Second, you must write down exactly what it is that the boy or man said or did that made you uncomfortable. You must write down specific incidents in a journal with the dates. That way, when you have your meeting (or your mother/father/favourite aunt has his/her meeting) with the leader or priest, there are real, tangible incidents for the leader/priest to come to grips with. Write exactly what happened, without any exaggerations or softenings, and make sure that these are things that happened to you. You can briefly mention that other girls have complaints, but stick to your own grievances. Encourage other girls affected to write down their own, and remember that the action will be more effective if everyone is allowed to tell her own story. The last thing you want is for the leader/priest to dismiss your concerns as a drama you're secretly enjoying.

Third, having stood up for yourself by telling the story to the correct authority, try to exercise some charity. A man with mental health issues who is too unpleasant to attract women is a figure of pity. So is the teenage boy who cannot deal with his own sexuality, or that of anyone else. It is natural to be afraid of such men and boys, but it is not constructive. Mere gossiping about him is also not constructive. What will be constructive will be the leader or priest--someone trained, hopefully--to sit down with this guy as if he were a human being loved by God (which is who he is) and ask him what is going on with him. The crazy guy may confess his terrible loneliness. The teenage boy may mutely telegraph his sexual distress. And all this will be between the guy and the priest or lay leader: your part is done. By blowing the whistle on him to a kindly, Christian authority, you have actually helped him. Don't resent the authority's loving care for him. Just report any further harassment, as it and if it occurs. 

And this brings me to my fourth point. Some men and boys are so clueless that they have no idea that what they say and do is offensive to women. This may be in part because instead of telling them, women smile meekly and run away and the men never hear what the women say afterwards. 

When men offend you, do not smile and laugh nervously. I know it's difficult not to, because when men behave badly, our instinct is to placate them and make them feel at ease so that they won't hurt us. But some men are not that smart and can't tell the difference between fright and enjoyment. Instead, frown. Give him a stern look, as if to a toddler who is destroying a book. Say at once, "That's really offensive to me."  And then, if he doesn't apologize at once, but merely mimics you or huffs and puffs, turn your back and walk away. 

Yes, he may escalate the situation. Inform the appropriate authority at once. Or go home and tell your mother/father/favourite aunt first and then inform the appropriate authority.

I hope this is helpful. None of us should put up with being sexually harassed at church. I realize it is embarrassing to talk about, and it seems absolutely insane that it could happen, but it does.  And if it does, the adults in charge should know about it so they can put a stop to it. So please tell them.

Update: I forgot to address online harassment. There are people whose job it is to make sure no-one is harmed by online antics. If someone posts something inappropriate about you online, contact the administrator of the website.

Update 2: I am absolutely amazed at what Catholics think they can say to each other regarding sexual matters. Really, I am amazed. Is it from years of listening to sexual jokes on television, or what? I just don't get it, especially when such immodesty is coming from a guy giving a lecture on modesty. I mean, hello?


Margaret Mary said...

Excellent advice, Seraphic!

Urszula said...

Excellent advice, and very timely. While I don't have the specific problem you mentioned, the young adult (diocesan) group I frequent has a few decidedly-not-young (50+!) men who come to these events, leer at young women, and talk constantly about their triathlon exploits. I've considered speaking to the YA leader to ask her if there is a polite way she can disinvite some of these men (I mean, they are most welcome in the Church at large - but they are definitely with the YA group only for the purpose of finding a godly wife) but I don't quite know how to phrase my objection.

Jam said...

I third the "excellent advice". It drove me nuts in college, as president of an undergrad society, when some conflict would spill out into public view, and it turned out that Injured Party had been injured for months, talking it over with her closest friends and nursing grudges against everyone who did not "take her side" in her invisible problem.

I think the really difficult thing for Christians trying to address such conflicts is that the solution does not always involve a public punishment and/or apology. "I complained to Sister and she didn't do *anything*! Oh sure, he doesn't make that joke anymore, but he still comes to the meetings and just yesterday he said hi to me! I saw Beth talking to him afterwards, I'll have to warn her to keep away. And can you believe Jeff is still pals with him even though he *knows* how I feel! Everyone here is such a hypocrite!" Sometimes those kind of measures are appropriate, but, y'know, charity and repentance and all that. It's difficult, though.

american (not) in deutschland said...

Urszula, I experience the same awkwardness that comes of a "Young Adult Group" basically being conflated with a "Singles Group" because there is no "Singles Group." And maybe a group for singles wouldn't fit the right purposes, either -- too many dating-pool connotations, or only serving to isolate single people from the couples and families of the parish -- but it is just awkward to have young adult groups made up of a handful of 20-somethings, a few 30-somethings, and then men in their 40s and 50s (seems to be usually men). I honestly don't want to make those guys feel unwelcome, especially when they sometimes have social awkwardness to begin with. But you'd think they'd want to socialize with their peers, not people just out of college.

Irenaeus G. Saintonge said...

Seraphic, if you might tolerate a brief male interjection (and if not, of course I understand), what advice would you offer for young men who want to ensure that young women feel safe in their group settings? Both in a preventative sense, and in the case in which some troubled man has begun making the young women uncomfortable.

Seraphic said...

Urszula, here are the steps I think you should take:

1. Examine your conscience and make sure that your principal objection to the men is that they are not old and ugly. Would you still be bothered if they behaved in exactly the same way but were 25 and handsome?

2. Write down the specific things the men have said or done to make you uncomfortable.

3. Discuss them with no-one but the group leader.

One of the principle social differences between the English-speaking parts of North America and western Europe is that people in their 20s and 50s can hang out in Europe, acting as though they were all the same age, and it's not a big deal.

I was really amazed by this as a 35 year old in Germany; I was amazed, touched and even overwhelmed that undergrads wanted to hang out with me. I wish age was less of a big deal in North America, too.

But that said, if the guys are leering and making you girls uncomfortable, then no matter how old or young they are, the leader should be told of the situation.

Seraphic said...

Irenaeus, thank you for your question. It's very nice of you to ask because men influence other men.

Catholic girls often feel uncomfortable when men stare at them and make crude or personal remarks, even if that remark is, "I'm here cause I'm looking to get hitched!" If you were to speak up and say, "Hey, I don't don't want to hear this stuff," the girls would be grateful to you.

Later, in a situation where a bunch of the groups guys were hanging out, if the subject of girls came up, you could say something like, "We'd probably get along better with the girls if we watched what we said."

Of course, I'm not 100% sure what men say to men when y'all are alone, so you might know a more diplomatic way of talking to other men. At any rate, a man who is popular with girls (e.g. engaged) telling men to mind their manners around girls might be really helpful to the cause.

Seraphic said...

Urszula, sorry. That should be "is NOT that they are old and ugly."

Miss Doyle said...

In my mind, the quickest way to deal with this is to threaten and then follow through (if necessary) to go straight to police.
If you want to be taken seriously, don't think that going to the priest is going to solve it.
In one way it's unfair to ask those without responsibility to take it on. Things can get swept under the carpet too easily.
Let's face it, if this happened anywhere else, you would be going straight to the police. Don't let it be different just because it's a church environment.

Jam said...

Let's face it, if this happened anywhere else, you would be going straight to the police.

What? No. If a coworker is staring at your chest, you complain to Human Resources (actually, you go first to the boss and tell them if they don't sort it out you'll go to HR). If the barista at the coffee shop pleads with you to add him on Facebook and bitterly complains about how you're too stuck up to go out with him, you complain to his manager (and then to the corporate office). If a man on the train makes gross "mm, mm" noises at you, you get off on the next stop and complain to the transit authority employee on the platform. And if the transit authority employee -- HR -- coffee company -- doesn't respond in a satisfactory manner, then you might go to the civil authority. But in the first instance, sexual harassment gets dealt with "internally".

Sexual assault on the other hand... if someone grabs you, exposes himself to you, etc, you are always justified in taking that to the civil authority in the first instance.

That's my understanding anyway.

Seraphic said...

There is certainly a difference between sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Mentally ill guy staring at girls and talking loudly about wanting to find a wife is behaving in an inappropriate and unpleasant fashion but he has not committed sexual assault.

Teenage boy making ill-judged comments and writing out his fantasies about girls he knows is also inappropriate and unpleasant behaviour in an inappropriate fashion but he has not committed sexual assault.

Old and ugly guys joining the parish youth or singles group may not be attractive and their stories may be boring and their hopes that 20-somethings will consider marrying them may be funny, but they have not committed sexual assault.

There's not much you can do about men driving by shouting personal comments. But in a social setting, especially one under the aegis of the Church, you can and should prevent or stop sexual harrassment, and it is best to do this by going to the appropriate authority.

Sexual assault, however, is a criminal matter and best dealt with by the police.

Miss Doyle said...

I should have clarified, I was speaking about assault - actual or threatened, not comments that make you feel uncomfortable, although there is a fine line.
I often feel it's a shame we can longer give a man a nice quick slap across the face when he says something inappropriate and offensive.

Bernadette said...

I've been the titular head of our local Catholic young adult group for some years now, and in that time I've had to deal with this on several occasions. Twice I've had to tell people that they are no longer welcome at group events, and once I had to sit down with a particular young man and tell him that, if he wished to continue to be part of the group, he could no longer speak to particular young women. (If the same situation came up now, I'd probably tell him he was no longer welcome in our group, but it was when I was younger and more gentle - also, he complied, and has worked hard to become less dysfunctional in the years since, so I think it was an ok choice.) I'm a single woman, so if the guys in question feel the need to talk about what's going on, I send them to our spiritual director (my parish priest). The one time the offender was a woman I did my best to work with her myself.

As time has gone on, I've gotten more ruthless about this stuff. But the truth is, when people feel uncomfortable and threatened in a particular social group, then the group will die. We are called to minister to the broken, but not to the point of letting their dysfunction destroy us. So I have less patience with people who attempt to hijack our group to solely serve their own needs.

There's one guy in our group who falls into the Much Too Old And Awkward category. For a while now I've been wanting to pointedly invite him to find another group of friends closer to his own age. But he's just borderline enough, and I'm aware enough of my lack of patience, that I haven't done it. I've talked about the issue with others on the leadership team, and so far they've encouraged me to hold off, no matter how much this particular guy aggravates me. So I'm being guided by them.

Seraphic said...

Bernadette, thanks for sharing that. You sound like a great young adult group leader! I hope most of them are like you.

Bernadette said...

Aw, thanks Seraphic. Lord knows I try. Ironically, I'm on the verge of retiring - I've gone too many years with my social group being also my field of ministry, and I'm getting burnt out. I'm afraid that my growing lack of patience is also partly due to that.

I think a lot of leaders, particularly if they're not in an official leadership position, get very caught up in trying to be loving, and feeling like it's their job to "fix" the person who's causing problems rather than kicking them out, which would be unpleasant and possibly not loving. It's easy to forget that Jesus kicking the money-lenders out of the temple was also a loving act.

I am very grateful that, when I was struggling with what to do the first time I encountered this, I was able to talk to one of our diocesan young adult staff about the situation. He told me that it was not love to let one or two dysfunctional people destroy a group, and that if the situation was not checked, it would. Usually I'm not a huge fan of my diocese's young adult ministry efforts, but in that circumstance, they were wonderful to have backing me up.

Jessica said...

Seraphic - I really liked your response to Miss Doyle (22 April 10:09), and I think it might be worth putting it in as an update to your post, in case some readers don't bother with the comments. I had the same question about what type/level of behavior should be addressed by the very practical and sound advice you were offering in the original post. I think it'd be helpful to reiterate the difference between sexual harassment and sexual assault, since some girls (especially those who have only experienced one or the other) might tend to conflate them.
Either way, the point stands that these are issues to be addressed by someone in authority, and not gossiped about or, ahem, "discussed" with girlfriends is not the best response.

american (not) in deutschland said...

But, as for all the girls who go straight to discussions with girlfriends, I think it's only just to point out that this phenomenon often starts as early as middle school, at which age many girls are only figuring out what is and isn't appropriate for people (boys and men) to say to them. Mutual discussion is a way for girls to figure out what exactly is happening, and to support one another.

This shouldn't be true for college age women or older, but it *still often is*, largely because society still gives very mixed messages about what women are expected to tolerate. And as mentioned this gets even more complicated in a church community.

The best case scenario is that girls or women have an older, safe & affirming woman to go to with their concern, which is what is great about being able to write to you, Auntie S (and I'll own to being the author of the first email mentioned) -- but this doesn't seem to be an option in many social circles. If I didn't read this blog, I don't know who I'd've gone to. I *probably* would've talked to another girl in or on the edge of this social circle to try and gauge whether my radar was so very off and whether my discomfort was worth bringing up to the priest. I would never have gone straight to the (male) authority figure in fear that I'd be seen as hypersensitive, out to get him, or otherwise addled (you know girls, so dramatic!).

In fact, I STILL haven't done that partly because I fear my very young priest might not get it, and partly because I don't know if I'm the only one who feels uncomfortable -- and part of the reason I don't know that is because I haven't talked to all the other girls about it -- and I don't want to be the lone person who can't handle this guy's awkwardness and rudeness -- see how this comes around again? :)

Seraphic said...

Don't get me wrong. I am all for women talking to other women to compare notes and get support. But it can't end there, and it shouldn't turn into "Sandra's mad because Maria spoke to Peter even though Cynthia told her what Peter said to Maria." That's all.

There's a golden mean for everything!

Seraphic said...

And I still think you should give your young priest a chance. It doesn't matter if you are the only woman who is uncomfortable. You're uncomfortable, and that's worth bringing to the priest. The priest has at very least has got the same ministry training I do (i.e. an M.Div.).

Urszula said...

Hi Seraphic,

Sorry for not responding right away - I don't often get a chance to read up on your blog during the week. I think the advice you gave was very sound. In this particular YA community (which is fairly extensive) there are a few examples of men who are 'old and ugly' but there is also one who is offensive (ie making suggestive jokes with double meaning as if he didn't know they had double meaning...) I've dropped out of those social circles for now so won't be taking any immediate action - but if the problem ever comes up again, I will definitely follow your suggestions.

I also very much admire those YA group leaders who have the courage (and patience!) to make sure the groups they run are welcoming places for the people the groups are aimed for.

Tess said...

Goodness, I wish I would've read this four years ago. I know many of the things you said now, but I certainly learned the hard way.