How Being Raised Catholic is a Setup for Sexual Harassment and Sexual Abuse

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It started with stories in the New York Times and the New Yorker about Harvey Weinstein and women he'd sexually harassed and assaulted.

Those two stories triggered something we’ve never seen before. Almost every day there’s a new story in the media, and all over the world, women are coming forward and telling their stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Millions of women are saying to the world “It happened to me too.”

What is becoming publicly clear is something women have always known: for a portion of the male population, we are targets. Whether it’s leering sexual innuendo and unwanted sexual advances, or sexual humiliation about our bodies, or sexual assault and rape, we know it happened to all the women who are coming forward because it happens all the time, and it happens just because we are women. It happens to our friends and our community members, to our sisters and our mothers and our daughters, and it happens to us.

What does all this have to do with being a woman raised Catholic?

Speaking at the Obama Foundation Summit In Chicago on Nov 1, 2017, Michelle Obama said words that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. She said, “[I]f we don’t teach our young girls to speak at an early age, that doesn’t just happen… it takes practice to have a voice. You have to use it again and again and again before you can say no or stop or don’t touch me.”

It takes practice to have a voice.

What moved me so profoundly when I heard these words was remembering what I practiced as a young girl. I practiced what we all practiced, and that’s what we were taught: to be like Mary, the greatest of all women, the most exalted of all saints. And being like Mary meant being silent, and accepting that our role was to be receptive – to receive from a man his seed, and from that seed to make his children. Just like Mary. To make a family, and to take care of that family, and to submit to male authority, just like Mary.

In Bible stories, in the Catholic catechism, in church on Sunday, everywhere in our religious education and in our Catholic community, this is the model we were taught: God is male, authority is male, power is male. Submission and silence are female. Role models for boys were prophets and patriarchs and apostles and archangels, and yes, God. The role model for girls was Mary.

As adult women, when we find ourselves in situations with men whose unacceptable behavior runs the gamut from joking sexual innuendo to humiliating comments about our bodies to sexual assault to rape, what are we equipped to do? 

Ideally, we’d have strong spines and the bedrock belief that we deserve respect – and that disrespect is completely unacceptable to us. We’d be like Grace Jones – the actor who was invited to a producer’s house for his final approval on casting her for her first role. He greeted her at the door in his bathrobe, and led her down a hallway. She didn’t know where they were going until he led her into his bedroom and gave her a glass of champagne. What did she do? She took the champagne, threw it in his face, and left. Grace had a belief that she was powerful, and deserving of respect, and that disrespect was completely unacceptable. This wasn’t a reaction she had to figure out, questioning her beliefs about herself and what she deserved. This was something she knew in her bones.

That’s not what we know in our bones, where our old beliefs live, the beliefs that we were created by God to submit, to serve, to be silent and receptive. And while we've learned since our childhood that we are worthy of respect, that we are powerful, below these new beliefs lurk the older beliefs, silently waiting to confuse us and interfere with our ability to protect ourselves when we need to.

When it comes to our children we instinctively fight like tigers to defend them. And the same is true about the people we love. But when it comes to ourselves, especially when it comes to sexual harassment and sexual assault, we can falter, we can hesitate. Because before we react we have to deal with the confusion that results from our two conflicted belief systems: that we are empowered women, and also, that we are submissive. Rather than reacting, we have to figure out what our reaction should be.

And while we’re figuring out an appropriate reaction, we are being sucked further and further into the harassment or the assault. Maybe we do eventually defend ourselves, or maybe we remain paralyzed by indecision.

And then later, the Catholic system that taught us submission prompts us to think, Was it my fault? Did I tempt him? Lead him on? Give him the idea that it I was OK with it, maybe even that I wanted it? Was this my fault?

If we acted to defend ourselves, we can feel that we overreacted. We can doubt that things happened the way they did. We can even worry about what the man now thinks of us.

If a friend or family member were to tell us about an experience of sexual harassment or assault and their subsequent doubt about how real it was, or their suspicion that they’d somehow caused it, or their fear that they’d overreacted, we’d immediately assure them that they were wrong. It happened, it was not their fault, and no, they didn’t overreact.

But when it’s our experience and our reaction, we can’t see it.

Being women raised Catholic means we are less equipped to challenge sexual harassment and sexual assault. We are less equipped to be tigers in defense of ourselves, and so we are more vulnerable.

Our job is to remember that “it takes practice to have a voice, to say no or stop or don’t touch me.” It’s very difficult for us to react like Grace Jones did. And that’s what we have to work on.