Anita Hill, Sexual Harassment, and the 10 Virgins
Trigger warning: this piece contains discussion of sexual harassment and sexual violence.
The floodgates have opened on the reality of everyday experience for American women.
Sexual harassment is a daily occurrence, and the number of women who have not experienced sexual assault is vanishingly small.
In the circle of women who are most dear to me, several have been raped.
I myself had what I would describe as a semi-consensual sexual experience in college that had deep repercussions for me.
And with regard to sexual harassment, the reaction of most women I know to men who are asking, “Is it really this prevalent?” is, “You mean you didn’t know?”
There are few of us who do not have strong emotions about this cultural moment.
I have talked to straight male colleagues who are frightened.
They are examining years of their lives in retrospect, wondering if they ever crossed a line somewhere and will find out about it on the front page of the local paper.
I have talked to male colleagues who react with scoffing dismissal, insisting these accusations are a fad and a bandwagon for every opportunist holding a grudge.
Other male colleagues have reacted with sensitivity, solidarity, and commitment to being part of a solution.
The female colleagues I have talked to have had a range of reactions as well.
Some have had to shut down all news and social media in their lives because the constant barrage of sexual harassment allegations has triggered their own memories and swamped them with PTSD.
Some who have not dealt with outright abuse or assault have felt guilty or privileged compared with those who have.
Many are deeply cynical that any real change can occur in a nation that elected as president someone who freely admitted to sexual assault in what he called “locker room banter.”
And this doesn’t even begin to address the additional levels of harassment and assault experienced by those rendered even more vulnerable than those in my dominant milieu of middle class white women.
People of color and LGBTQ colleagues I’ve spoken to have shaken their heads as they’ve affirmed that my privilege has shielded me from additional layers of poisonous harm that bombard them from the outside world every day.
I think one of the questions everyone is asking is, “Why now?”
A man asked me recently in jaw-droppingly sincere naiveté, “If it really was this much of a problem, why didn’t anyone say anything?”
Women are saying, “We have dealt with this every day of our lives since we hit puberty, why has society all of a sudden decided to take it seriously?”
I, like most women, have a few moments in time that stand out in startlingly bright clarity throughout my life around this issue.
One is the first time I ever received unwanted sexual touch, when I was groped at a school dance at age 13.
I remember the feelings of fear, isolation, and shame that swamped me. My body actually felt cold and the room seemed darker for a moment, and it seemed so surreal to see my fellow junior-high students still dancing happily on the gym floor.
One is the encounter I mentioned from college, where I kept saying, “no,” and he kept not listening.
One is stepping onto an elevator at my church office building soon after I got ordained, not realizing the man inside it was masturbating, and being trapped in there with him as he ejaculated.
At that same job, there was a street preacher who called me “The Whore of Babylon” because I was an ordained woman every single day for six months when I walked past him on my way to Morning and Evening Prayer. It never occurred to me to ask him to stop, or ask for help in getting him to stop.
One memory is the death threat I received from a parishioner on Valentines’ Day, which was then dismissed by the majority of my parishioners because, “He didn’t really mean it,” and “Of course you would be frightened, you’re a young woman living alone.”
One vivid recollection is from when I worked for a summer in seminary helping reorganize and catalogue the archives of Yale Law School.
The portion of the archives I was working in had boxes of files and documents dedicated to every Yale Law graduate who was nominated to the United States Supreme Court.
One of those grads was Clarence Thomas, and one of the boxes I had to go through contained every piece of correspondence received by the law school from alumni regarding the Anita Hill sexual harassment hearings.
I sifted through page after page after page of letters abusing Anita Hill in the most vile racist terms, describing her as deserving of all sorts of graphic sexual violence, and demanding Yale Law come out in defense of Clarence Thomas, its embattled grad.
Anita Hill was also a Yale Law grad, but there were only five letters in support of her, in comparison to two full boxes in support of Clarence Thomas.
Most of them were on official law office stationery, and there they were, carefully archived by me in the basement of the bastion of establishment power contributing to a toxic system, from whom I gratefully received my student hourly wage.
What price integrity?
I decided to write about this now because of this sense of a cultural moment, a breakthrough of truth and transparency about women’s experience that has elicited reactions from skepticism to relief to anger to grief.
And it came to mind particularly because of this week’s gospel passage.
In our modern editions, we read the story of “The Wise and the Foolish Bridesmaids.”
But in the older translations, it was called the story of “The Wise and the Foolish Virgins.”
And that older title spoke to me of so many dynamics in today’s conversation.
Of course the story comes from a culture in which women were valued as property according to their perceived sexual purity.
What I don’t think we’re really prepared to admit is that we are not as distant from that mindset today as we’d like to pretend.
And I see some of the men and women in my life as the Wise and Foolish Virgins.
Virgins are the sexually uninitiated. They don’t know what lies ahead of them. They are innocent and “pure.”
They are seen as ignorant, and in this story, five of them are called foolish and unprepared.
I can’t help but see some men in my life and in our society as the Foolish Virgins.
They don’t get it, and they don’t know they don’t get it, and they don’t understand why the chickens are all coming home to roost so suddenly and, for perhaps the first time, with real material consequences.
Many men have been faithful partners of women in campaigning against sexual violence, in demanding of themselves and their peers a commitment to creating a safe and respectful environment for women at work and in the world.
But many more have assumed they’re not part of the problem.
They’ve never raped anyone, have they? They’ve never grabbed a woman’s ass, or at least not since they were idiots in high school/college/their first job. Everyone acted like that 20 or 30 years ago, they think, why should I have been any different? It didn’t mean anything. And that’s not sexual harassment, that’s just a joke. Why can’t my colleague take a joke?
Oh, Foolish Virgins, the bridegroom has arrived, and you may now be paying the price for your unpreparedness.
It’s not a price of vengeance or punishment. But it is a long-delayed accountability.
It’s simply the cold, sinking realization that maybe you don’t deserve to go to the party, and it looks like the Wise Virgins are not going to give you any credit for the work they have done.
I see many of the women in my life as the Wise Virgins.
Their virginal status is not sexual, because there is not a single one of us who hasn’t experienced sexual intimidation or violence.
Their virginal status here means they have preserved a secret and untouched place of holy light within them that no perpetrator can ever reach.
Their work of activism or awareness-building or even the simple courage to walk past a construction site in the city without crossing the street has been a boundary-keeping of sacred inner space.
And day after day, year after year, defending and living out their truth, they have accrued the precious lamp oil of resilience.
I don’t know that I have any ground-breaking theological point to come to here.
I simply find myself convicted by Jesus’ final words in our passage today: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
I hear that in three ways.
First, I hear a clarion call to be aware of the ways in which I perpetrate or collaborate with sexual harassment, racism, and behavior of any kind that diminishes another, and to, as John the Baptist says, bear fruit worthy of repentance.
And I hear Jesus’ words as a statement of hope that may even now be coming true.
“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour when the truth will ring out, when justice will break forth, and when confession, absolution and amendment of life will be the response to the systemic sins that beset us.”
And my prayer is that for my precious niece and nephews, one aged 5 and the others aged 2, “You know neither the day nor the hour,” may mean that they will never know a day or hour in which sexual harassment is a part of their everyday lives.
May it be so.
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