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Christians need to reform their ideas about sex and power

#metoo shows the church has the same problem as society

A return to traditional sexuality and gender norms will not solve the problems raised by the #metoo movement, because research shows that it makes no difference to the incidence of sexual harassment and abuse.

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What we need, if we are to find real, effective answers to this urgent issue, are power structures that are honest about the potential for abuse, a reshaping of sexuality as an intimate act of love rather than servicing a male need, and teaching our sons a masculinity that isn’t based on power and aggression.

When Christians argue that sexual liberation and feminism have caused the #metoo phenomenon – as in Jim Daly’s blog for Focus on the Family and on biblicalgenderroles.com – they betray a desire to return to a situation where women are made responsible for men’s sexual appetites. If women were more modest or chaste or separate from men, this wouldn’t be happening to such a degree, according to a Crossways editor and blogger Samuel James. The problem is, such arguments do not fit the evidence.

Sexual harassment and violence against girls and women take different faces in different societies.

If sexual liberation in the West had created a society that fostered sexual harassment and abuse, we would expect countries with stricter sexual mores to have a significantly lower incidence of these wrongs. Despite great pressure on women in such countries not to report sexual harassment and abuse, available figures show they are serious problems throughout the world.

Megan Powell du Toit

Megan Powell du Toit

A report by WHO in 2013 found sexual and intimate partner violence against women was a global problem, not confined to the West. It also did not find sexual mores a significant factor in reducing such violence. Rather, greater gender equity and more legal recourse were important.

Sexual harassment and violence against girls and women take different faces in different societies. Alongside the #metoo stories, we need to also list such practices as child marriage, rape within marriage and sex trafficking. Sexual abuse is manifestly a global epidemic. Sexual mores seem to make very little difference.

Similarly, suggesting men never meet one-on-one with a woman in a modern version of the Billy Graham rule suggests female participation in the workforce is part of the problem. The reality is that most women need to work. Choosing to stay at home has always been possible only for those who are privileged by wealth, ethnicity and education.

The problem is not that women work outside the home but that they do so on unequal terms, making them vulnerable to abuse.

The problem is not that women work outside the home but that they do so on unequal terms, making them vulnerable to abuse. I believe this abuse occurs because of two major problems. The first is the way we construct male sexuality as an uncontrollable need that has to be met, leading to a belief in male sexual entitlement, as highlighted in this report about sexual harassment and abuse around the world.

I’m surprised at how much Christians acquiesce to societal understandings of sexuality.

I’m surprised at how much Christians acquiesce to societal understandings of sexuality. We allow men to blame women’s clothing and behaviour, or suggest women should be continually sexually available for their husbands. In this, we minimise a person’s responsibility for their own desire that runs counter to our whole understanding of sin. For instance, Matthew 5:27-30 puts the responsibility on the one lusting to manage their own desire. We also reduce sexuality from an intimate act of love to servicing a need.

We also need to recognise that women are often vulnerable to the misuse of male power because men have greater physical power and a greater societal power. The biblical narrative continually reminds us of the tendency for power to corrupt. Just look at all the examples of the Kings of Israel and Judah. Yet, we often remain quite naïve about this, and find it hard to believe how widespread abuse of power is.

History and social science back up what our Scriptures tell us – that those in power lose empathy for those under them, start to use their power to obtain what they want, and sexually misuse their power.

[We] need a concept of masculinity that isn’t based on power and aggression.

As the mother of two sons, I’m convinced a long-term solution is to teach our children to treat all people as possessing equal dignity and value. We also need to teach our children how power and consent work. I believe there is a lot more to do on this in our “boys will be boys” culture. They need a concept of masculinity that isn’t based on power and aggression, and an understanding of femininity in which value isn’t found primarily in appearance and people-pleasing.

We also need to teach both children and adults that sexuality is a mutually pleasurable, consensual exchange. (Greater attention to Song of Songs would help here.) In this, we should retain our emphasis on sex within marriage, but ensure we also emphasise sex as a joyous gift between partners, not as a need men must have met.

We also need power structures that are honest about the potential for abuse. Those in power need an awareness of the causes and effects of sexual harassment and abuse. There also needs to be a willingness to listen to victims, and policies in place for due process.

Research suggests that having greater members of a group in power is protective for those in that group. Thus, by moving more women into positions of leadership and influence within the church, we provide an environment where women will both be safer and feel more able to tell their stories.

Please, let’s not be content with comforting answers that protect the status quo. Rather, let us model to the world how to find real, effective answers to this urgent issue.

The starting place surely is for the church to listen humbly to stories of sexual harassment and abuse, to take responsibility for what we have done that has contributed to the problem, and to examine our practices to see how they are contributing. Churches nationwide have been stepping up to tackle the domestic violence problem. We need to give the same urgent attention to #metoo.

Rev Megan Powell du Toit is an ordained Baptist Minister, Publishing Manager of the Australian College of Theology, Editor of the journal Colloquium and Chair of the Australian Baptist Working Group on Voice of the No Place for Violence Here campaign.

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