When I was seven, a friend showed me her dad’s magazines. Those pages ripped the veil of innocence from my eyes and broke my heart. In them were foul images of women being treated very, very badly.
In later years I experienced what I think many women experience: crude behaviour from boys, men who were too handsy, and guys who took more from me than I wanted to give. All of that has left me bruised and, sadly, less than trusting. I continue to pray for healing and freedom. It’s proving to be a long and winding journey.
The world is not a bad place. Not all men are evil or dangerous; in fact I would say the number who are is very small. Original sin and the resulting fallen nature of mankind opens the door to mistreatment of the weaker and the stranger among us, and, sadly, our history is replete with examples of such treatment. Disordered priorities (ie. the exclusion of God) and an unformed conscience allows for diminished morals. This has been true through the ages, and our enlightened, sensitivity-trained generation is not impervious.
When girls are kidnapped in Africa, aborted in China, hanged for self defense in Iran, and assaulted by minor celebrities in Canada, we’re reminded of the vulnerability of women.
We’re appalled when we hear about the poor treatment of women elsewhere in the world, yet we almost expect it. Women are oppressed and repressed in those countries, so while it’s a terrible thing, we accept that their women suffer. We like to think that things are different in the advanced, civilized West, but, sadly, we are not immune, as statistics and recent news reports remind us.
Without going into gruesome detail, in the current case that has brought this issue to public attention, a popular radio host has been accused of assaulting women (and, apparently, men as well). He tried to pre-empt the story by saying it was always consensual (which isn’t as straightforward as it seems: legally one cannot consent to violence against oneself). Leaving aside the fact that rough trade in sexual relationships is harmful regardless of consent, in my opinion, the presence of abuse is an indicator that there are probably psychological issues that need dealing with – before and after the act in both the perpetrator and the victim.
A recently popular trilogy of novels and the soon to be released movie might lead us to suppose that such behaviour is more common than we think it is, and should therefore be accepted into the mainstream as ‘normal’. I sincerely hope that never happens, because regardless of which partner wields the power in those encounters, human beings are reduced to objects and the act of sex (the euphemism of ‘intimacy’ no longer works) is emptied of all affection and grace, becoming simply a demonstration of that power, a commodity.
While this story is helping to bring national attention to the need to better support and assist victims of sexual harassment (and the underlying problem of how some men – still – perceive women), sadly it isn’t the story of one man of minor celebrity with an ego trip enabled by old-boys club corporate culture. It’s a broader story of how what was made to be good by God’s design has, through sin, been twisted and broken.
It is right that men should find us attractive; it is good that men are stronger than, and want to capture, us. Sometimes it is our very vulnerability that draws them. It should inspire them to acts of chivalry, a desire to provide and protect. When those instincts go wrong, the protector turns into a predator with the woman becoming a creature to play with, to be used in ways to show off how strong he is. That kind of behaviour can be placed on a spectrum from cat-calls on street corners to outright rape.
Abuse – violence – whether emotional, verbal, or physical is not love. It can never be love, because love is true and good; it is beautiful; it is Godly. In fact, love is the presence of God. Love may be found in a reprimand, or in correction, but it is never found in a fist. It isn’t present when one person dominates or belittles another, or takes advantage of fear or weakness.
Until the coming of our Lord and the perfection of all things, I don’t think we will ever completely eradicate the tendency of some to prey on the weak, or to marginalize the vulnerable. Doing so would require the conversion of hearts, a re-awakening of chivalric impulses, of a new culture of charity.
So, what can we do? One very important thing is to pray. It is our vocation to intercede for the poor, the weak, the humble. Let us also be good sisters to our friends and colleagues – look out for each other, have each other’s back.
We must raise our boys to be honourable men who treat women right. We can show men by example how we deserve to be treated by virtue of our innate dignity. We can hold men to a higher standard of behaviour.
We can teach little girls their worth, and encourage women to hold abusers accountable for their actions.
Lord, have mercy on us. Forgive us for the ways we take advantage of the weak among us. Grant us the grace to share Your love in the world, and so bring about conversion of hearts. Please protect the vulnerable. May we see them as Christ present among us. Amen