Sunday, February 18, 2018

#MeToo---and you?

Rev. Kit Ketcham, PUUF, Feb. 18, 2018

This thing has gone too far. It has terrified people, driven them out of their workplaces and even professions, made them afraid to speak up and punished them for speaking. This thing, by which I mean misogyny and violence against women (and girls, and men, and boys, and even babies, but I’m going to skip the horrific baby story that was reported last week). The #MeToo upheaval is an attempt to address something old and deep and very destructive, and if you’ve forgotten how serious it is let’s take a visit to my favorite radical-feminist data center, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. There you can learn that there were an estimated 323,450 rapes or sexual assaults in 2016, as well as 1,109,610 reported incidents of domestic violence. Less than a quarter of those rapes are reported to police; slightly over half of the domestic violence incidents are.  Rebecca Solnit in the publication Literary Hub.

            When the explosion of #MeToo accusations against powerful men in entertainment, industry, and sports hit the news circuits last fall, I took a deep breath and considered my own history with sexual assault.
            I’ve done a lot of journaling about this topic over the years, trying to figure out how an early experience with an uncle I had trusted and loved had affected my development as a girl moving from childhood, through adolescence, into adulthood, and contemplating my relationships with men along the way.
            When I told my parents that my elderly uncle had fondled me on a recent visit to Elgin, where our aunt and uncle lived, they immediately took action.  But it was not to report the uncle to the authorities nor, as far as I know, to confront the uncle or to inform my dad’s sister, our aunt.
            Instead, we almost never saw that uncle again, unless they happened to drop by our home in Athena unexpectedly.  He mostly disappeared from our lives and died a few years later of age-related ailments.
            But the effect of that experience was burned into my memory and from that time on, I was wary of males.  Even a minor teasing by a male friend alarmed me; and I’d count the number of males in a room compared to the females and wonder if we girls were safe.
            And yet my little heart went pitty-pat over the cute athletes in our high school; I had my crushes and a few boys even liked me in return, but I rarely felt safe with them.  I was aware of their physical strength, their ability to affect how I felt, and my need to keep my distance---because it was up to me, of course, to keep them from hurting me.
            After high school and college, I left home for young adult type experiences: a summer in Wisconsin at a church center, a welfare worker job in Klickitat County, and then an opportunity to move to Denver and really be on my own for the first time in my life.
            I fell in love in Denver, had my first real sexual experience, and then felt the guilt and confusion because of his criticism of my body.  With my so-called “innocence” gone, I began to date another man who became my husband only a few months later.  It felt as if virginity was a burden to be relieved and then there was no reason to stop sexually.  But I was still scared.
            Marriage did not make things easier, and after 13 years of feeling used rather than cherished, I left the marriage and embarked on an effort to overcome the fear I’d had for so long.
            A few years of experimentation, which included an incident of date rape, ended abruptly with the advent of the fear of HIV/AIDS and I began to be more trusting of myself and my ability to choose wisely, to take care of myself, and a couple of truly caring relationships helped me find a comfort level with men that I had not had before.
            But that changed again, after the breakup of a relationship in which my partner was unfaithful, and I have been pretty much celibate since that time, over 20 years ago. 
There is a professional taboo in UU ministry against being romantically involved with a member of my congregation and that restriction became an oasis for me when I went into ministry.  My professional relationships with men had to be completely above-board; much harm has been done to congregations when the minister has let his or her sexual interest in a parishioner become active.  I was very happy with that restriction.  It was a relief.
But enough about me---what about you?  Several weeks ago, I announced that I would speak about the #MeToo tsunami of accusations and resignations, the groundswell of angry women and uncomfortable men.  I asked if any women and men who had been sexually assaulted or harassed would like to help me shape the service, and several contacted me.
Since that time, I have had conversations with a number of women and men and we women have shared our experiences and our feelings, examined the trajectory of our lives as they were affected by the experience, and where we are today with it.  I have come to believe that many, if not most, women have been affected by experiences from one end of the sexual harassment spectrum to the other, from unwanted flirtatiousness to rape, serious injury, and even death.
As several of the men who responded remarked, this is to some degree a socialization issue and has to do with the way gender roles have been assigned and interpreted as we grew up.  BUT it also has to do with misuse of power---physical power and the type of power that is inherent in an unequal relationship where one person has the ability to make or destroy another’s success and sense of wellbeing.
Most men would not even consider physically forcing another person to satisfy them sexually and yet the MeToo victims have spoken clearly about their sense that they had no choice---either to remove themselves from the situation or report the situation or to do anything but freeze and even dissociate from their bodies as it occurred.  They may not have been physically forced, but it was an emotional coercion that may have even been unconscious on the part of the dominant person, usually the man.
Where does this sense of emotional coercion come from?  A couple of my male friends, both from my generation, grew up in an environment in which most women were not peers but were mothers and housewives, not in the workforce except out of necessity and then often in menial jobs or typical “women’s work” careers like teaching or nursing. 
Many of these work situations required women to be subservient to men’s direction and their livelihood depended on their being able to satisfy a boss’s needs.  Sometimes these included sexual advances of some kind; a woman had few choices in such a situation and figuring out how to keep one’s job without succumbing to the pain of sexual harassment and assault has been one of women’s ongoing challenges as they climb the career ladder.
Women learned to laugh it off, to keep their male bosses happy while avoiding the unwanted hug or joke; women warned each other about grabby males in the workforce and in social situations. 
Women have also learned to manage their intimate relationships with men upon whom they felt dependent for reasons like children, financial support, or household needs.  As a stay at home mother and wife, a woman has had to keep her husband happy in order to take care of her children and have a roof over her head.
Little girls may see their mothers mollifying their fathers and subjugating their own needs and come to believe that this is the way men and women are supposed to relate, not as peers but as dominator and dependent, even when the relationship was basically loving and kind.  Mama did what Daddy said.
And adolescent girls may behave the same way when they are with a boyfriend or other male companion: “don’t hurt his feelings by saying no, don’t make a fuss, don’t ask for anything that will make him mad, because if you do, he can retaliate and make your life miserable by talking to the other boys about you.”
When I was a school counselor, I sometimes learned from girls that one of their friends was talking about committing suicide.   So I would bring that girl into my office to check on her wellbeing and I had a series of questions I’d ask as our conversation got underway.  
The girl was often unable to articulate her distress beyond the idea that she was worthless, that the world would be better off without her, that she was stupid and ugly and fat, so I’d gently ask her to tell me more about her life, and the one question that often broke the dam of her anguish was “have you ever been sexually molested or assaulted?”
            The answer was almost always YES, “yes, but I can’t talk about it because he said he would hurt me worse, nobody would believe me, he might hurt my family, he said that I was ugly and fat and dirty and that nobody else would ever want me.”
            This happens to boys too.  We are probably all well aware of the extent of the Catholic church’s history of priests using little and not so little boys---and girls, to be clear--- using them for sexual gratification, and the cover-up by church authorities over the years, even today.
            But it happens elsewhere as well, with older boys and men forcing younger boys to gratify them sexually.  These perpetrators are almost never gay men but rather straight men who are pedophiles, drawn to young boys (and girls) for their powerlessness and childlike bodies.  It can also happen in heterosexual hazing incidents where one boy or young man is initiated cruelly into a group.
            For this to happen to any person, male or female or non-binary  is a terrible blow to their self-image, a deep wound to their identity.  They can come to believe that they are worthless, that they are guilty somehow for not being able to avoid or to end the abuse, that others will be harmed if they tell, that they will not be believed.
          Let’s pause here for a moment and think about what has happened in our own lives.  There are a lot of stories in this room, some of them never told, some of them repeated only to therapists and partners, some that have been almost forgotten and some that will always be remembered.  It is not only women who suffer.  Men, transfolk, and nonbinary people are survivors too.
            We all know people---women, men, children, transwomen, transmen, gender-fluid folk---who have been touched by the pain of sexual assault and harassment.  Today we feel their pain and our own.  We wish healing for ourselves and for one another.  We wish for the three-fold purpose of #MeToo to be realized: 
            The first purpose of MeToo is to help women and those of all genders who have experienced sexual violation to not feel alone. The second is to show men the magnitude of the problem so that men cannot claim ignorance.  #Metoo asks men to step up and take responsibility for addressing sexual harassment.  The third is to change the culture so that every person can grow up trusting that their body will be respected.           
         I have here on this table a bowl of pebbles and a container into which we will drop our pebbles one person at a time, representing those who have been affected by the scourge of sexual violation, a condition which is perpetuated by misogyny, patriarchy, and the oppression of the weak by the powerful.
            So, if you are willing, if you are feeling pain from your own experiences, if you have a MeToo story and are angry or sad or frightened, if you want to come up here and stand with me in solidarity with all of us who have experienced this violation, please, come on up.  You don’t have to say anything, you don’t have to share your experience, you’ll just be together with us and not alone in your experience.  If you have loved ones who have been harmed by sexual violation, please come on up as well.
            As you come up to the platform, take a pebble or two from the bowl and drop them in the container, to represent the pain that you and others have felt.
If you come feeling nervous about sharing this moment with others, look around and see that you are not alone.
If you come feeling shame about this experience, look around and see that in our eyes you are holy and good.
If you come feeling relief, look around and feel the freedom of release.
If you come feeling anger, look around and see that others recognize and understand your rage.
If you come here grieving, look around and share your healing tears.
If you come feeling guilty, look around and let go of your heart’s sad burden.
If you come feeling fear, look around and see that you are held by the courageous love of this community.
If you come feeling compassion, look around and see that your listening ear is deeply needed.
And if you come here with a survivor’s heart that has persisted against all odds, look around and see that all of who you are is welcome here and know that you are a gift unto the world.
May the spirit of life and love bring us all greater understanding and the will to change what has been broken for so long.  May it be so.  May we be healed.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer as our sisters and brothers take their seats.
CLOSING HYMN #109:  “As We Come Marching Marching”
I recognize that not all of the MeToo issues have been addressed by my words.  Tod and I have talked about how we might schedule a discussion time later in the year, when we’ve had a chance to reflect, and my March sermon will be entitled “What do women want?”, that famous quote from Sigmund Freud, to carry this important theme a bit farther.
 EXTINGUISHING THE CHALICE.   And now as Veja extinguishes our chalice, let’s close with our benediction.
BENEDICTION:  Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, remembering the hurt and shame that we and our loved ones have experienced because of the plague of sexual violence that permeates our culture.  May we stand up to those who would deal pain with their power and may we do all we can to support each other and to eradicate this stain on our culture. 
Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

My UU Journey: a reflection

PUUF, Jan. 28, 2018

            As a preacher’s kid, growing up in a household that was quite God and Jesus oriented, I got to be an expert at winning those Sunday School contests where you tried to be the first to find some obscure verse in some obscure Old Testament prophet’s writings.
            And that’s where I think I first came across a Bible verse that has meant more to my UU Journey than just about any other scripture passage, even more than the one about loving our neighbor as ourselves.
            The reference is in the book of Micah, chapter 6, verse 8, and it starts out “What does God require of you …….”  Well, in my teenage years, confused by the norms of our small town (no movies, no dancing, no anything worldly for the preacher’s kids), the rules of Baptistness (very similar to the small town norms plus the overlay of Jesus and God language ), and then there was my good girl desire to do the right thing even though it wasn’t always popular, so it was kind of hard to sort out just what “God” did want me to do.
            It was a relief to read the rest of the verse:  “What does God require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”  A lot of leeway there for this teenager who was beginning to chafe at the restrictions of her Baptist surroundings.
            That’s why I’ve chosen a particular UU principle as one which has shaped my life.  Jimmy and Karen have spoken about their experiences with a couple of different principles and I’m glad to add my own reflection.
            We UUs, in our personal spiritual lives and in our congregational life, make a covenant to affirm and promote the principles of our faith.  We do not use them as a creed, but as guidelines for our behavior toward each other and the world.
            My favorite principle is this one:  we covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
            The Bible verse in Micah was the doorway for me out of the Baptist rules about the trinity, the restrictions about normal social activities like dancing and having a glass of wine, and the prohibitions that accompany religions that adhere spottily to the purity laws of ancient Judaism, the ones about same-sex relationships, what you should do to unruly children, and so on.
            Obviously “God” wanted me to act with justice, grant mercy to others, and to be humble about the gift of life that had been granted to me.  “God” didn’t need me to tell that cute guy that I didn’t believe in dancing.  He didn’t need me to be a prude or a teetotaler.  God needed me to be fair to people, to be kind to people, and not to be stuckup, in teenage language.
            This UU principle opened a new doorway for me, to leave behind the ancient legends around creation and virgin birth and resurrection and look for real information, not fake news, about creation and the marvelous way organisms have evolved over millennia into the limitless variety of living beings, from algae and amphibians and mammals and several stages of human-like beings, to where our natural world is today.
            Through my new understandings of how the universe works and has worked for as far back as we can discover, I found a new understanding of the idea we call God; I came to see it as a natural energy or force that infuses us all with life and plants in us the ability to love and to be in relationship. 
            My love of science and figuring things out led me down a pathway into real news and an appreciation of the process of scientific discovery, to a place where I could appreciate the creativity of the ancient stories but wanted to know more about what had really happened way back when, as human beings first walked on this earth.  For me, that was more exciting than any story, no matter how meaningful it might be to my family members. 
            So, a UU principle that has made my life particularly meaningful is our principle which states that we covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
            Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
HYMN # 324:  “Break Not the Circle of Love” (Sandy play through once for the tune.
BENEDICTION:  Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, thinking about how our Unitarian Universalist values have shaped our lives, how they meet deep needs in ourselves, and inspire us to reach out to others.  May we find ways to use them in our daily lives and may our lives be examples of ethical, compassionate commitment.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.