by the Revd Charlotte Bannister-Parker, University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford
This week the world has seen a dramatic fall from grace for one of the movie industry’s highest-profile producers. We all know the story by now: the one where the movie mogul is said to have used his power and might to sexually abuse young vulnerable women.
As the story flashed across news headlines and TV networks, the true horror of it began to sink in. The alleged abuse of power was for years an “open secret” which caused so many women physical and psychological trauma, and the whole matter was treated as taboo – perpetuating through silence and denial. Many women felt shameful and worthless, fearing that they might meet with retaliation if they spoke out. They feared being called a troublemaker, or that they might jeopardise their jobs – their careers and livelihoods. This is why they kept silent: they did not feel safe to admit their experiences, to themselves or to others. As one actress said, that was due “partly because of the feeling of shame but partly because you do not want to be defined by it. The thought of going to the police felt intolerable. What would I say? Should I have screamed louder? Fought him off harder? Had I been complicit in some way? All these questions raged in my mind. I wept”. And we all know that silence is the residue of fear. Many found it too difficult to admit to having been raped or sexually violated, believing that there was no protection against the violator.
It would seem also that such perpetrator of sexual harassment have no empathy, no awareness, and no remorse. Their alleged action are totally unacceptable: exploitative, cruel, and humiliating.
What happens in Hollywood was not an incident isolated to one man, one industry, one country. We should not be surprised at the reality of sexual harassment and rape is an issue that affects all ages, all genders, all backgrounds, all races, all ethnicities, all places of work, and many homes all over the world. A headline from today’s Guardian – “Gymnast alleges years of sexual abuse by team doctor from the age of 13”. And in the Times: “Police worker ‘raped female crime victim’”.
My first real expose to the issues was when I worked in South Africa – once referred to as the “rape capital of the world” – in a safe-house for women fleeing from domestic violence and rape. The testimonies I heard from the women sheltering in the home were some of the most frightening and horrific one could ever imagine. At one point, during a counselling session, I had to leave the room to vomit as I had such a violent physical reaction to the stories I heard. Kelvin King, reporting for News 24, said that South Africa is known for having one of the highest cases of “infant rape” in the world. It is understood that this atrocious scourge is driven by the “Virgin Cure” myth – the belief that sex with a virgin girl cures HIV/AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases. South Africa having the highest HIV/AIDS population in the world, and with a poor level of education, it’s understandable how this myth can be so widely accepted. The country notoriously coined the term “Corrective Rape” in 2000. This rape of lesbians, in an attempt to “cure” their sexuality, is happening still. But there is always hope, and this can be a turning point. No one – male, female, young, old, gay, straight, from any racial background or religion – can continue to walk blind on this issue. This is now in the hands of all of us to change.
We can help by telling our stories to each other, so victims do not feel quite so alone, and make others understand the breadth and depth of the problem. I was shocked this week that every woman I have spoken to has experienced verbal or physical sexual harassment and abuse. How many might have been able, sadly, to use the hashtag #metoo?
But also this week, I was extremely moved by the change in awareness expressed by a young man in his email sent to a friend of mine. He said “men clearly need to acknowledge this is their problem. It seems I/we’ve been too passive in tackling this, not only on a personal basis, but we need to be part of the change in the wider world. #HowIWillChange? I’ll change by better calling out disgusting behaviour and not letting this misogyny creep into my own behaviour anymore, and being an open ear to anyone wanting to talk about how they’ve suffered”.
We can increase our support of charities and NGOs that seek to find all a safe space to talk – like RAINN, Americas’ largest anti-sexual violence organisation, which is trying to create a higher profile and greater impact. RAINN fosters learning in a safe and encouraging environment, and produces statistics and facts around this sensitive issue. For instance, a recent statistic: “Among undergraduate students, 23.1% of females and 5.4% of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation.”
Finally, none of us must remain silent. The challenge is now to make sure that walls of separation between public persona and private action come down. We are all called to task to make sure that what Jesus calls our outer world is a reflection of our inner one. As he said to the outwardly observant but inwardly uncompassionate Pharisees: “You are like whitewashed tombs that look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of dead people’s bones and every kind of impurity”. (Matthew 23 27-28). In the church we have a responsibility to expose, to bring into the light, abusive, inappropriate behaviour. The Archbishop of Canterbury is leading the way on this; only this week he has personally apologised to a survivor of sexual abuse for his office’s failure to respond to 17 letters seeking help and redress. Justin Welby has recognised that the Church of England has the responsibility, but also the “gift” to provide “ongoing pastoral care to victims and survivors of clergy abuse if it so wishes.”
We should look now to the future. As horrible as this situation is, I think society has never been as collectively conscious and opposed to these issues as we are now. That is in itself something to give us hope. What concerns God is the direction we are going in, and how brave we can be to break the silence.