A defining moment in my religious life occurred when I was 11-years-old and sitting in a typical Sacrament Meeting. A boy who had bullied me — at church, at school, in the neighborhood — for six years was sustained by the ward after getting the Aaronic Priesthood.
Sitting the the pew it hit me squarely that his behavior had little do to with his obtaining “eternal power and authority of God.” That being “worthy” meant mostly being male and 12 years old and that I would never be “worthy” to “act in His name for the salvation of His children” because I was a girl.
I had understood that the church has gender distinctions that were inexplicable to me since I was four. As I stood outside the font watching my dad baptizing my sister, I felt sorry for my mom. I leaned over and said, “When I get baptized, I want Dad to baptize me, but I want you to confirm me.” She briefly explained that wouldn’t be possible because girls don’t get the priesthood.
But hearing that “Bob” now had power I would never have left me feeling incredibly vulnerable.
Reading Rachel Whipple’s brave post brought back so many memories of college roommates, friends, and my own. Navigating adulthood and dating can be treacherous. Navigating it as a Mormon girl has it’s own added complexity. In her case (and, unfortunately, so many others) a returned missionary made sexually aggressive moves, she was confused and surprised, but didn’t fight back. Guilt. In fact, she felt aroused. More guilt.
Rachel’s comment #42 on her post stood out to me:
I didn’t blame the guy. I figured it was my fault for getting into a bad situation and for not being able to get myself out. I am really grateful he stopped, even though that line about the temple was seared into my head as the slimiest thing I’ve ever heard.
And the point of this post was not to point the finger of blame at him. It was to say why I understand that some women don’t fight off their attackers, how even a case without an explicit “no” can leave a woman feeling confused and hurt and violated. In the grand scheme of things, my experience wasn’t that bad, as traumatic as it felt to my guilt-prone self at the time. But it has given me insight and compassion that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and I am very thankful for that. Not everyone can be like Joseph who “got him out” away from Potiphar’s wife. Some of us will be like the woman taken in adultery on whom the Savior had compassion. And in that story, like mine, we don’t know what happened to the man. I cannot condemn him for one perceived offense. I hope the best for him and bear him no ill will.
To be fair, after reading her post I didn’t necessarily blame the guy, either. Of course his behavior was inappropriate and sinful from a church perspective. But from the view of a culture where, by and large, sexual activity outside of marriage is an accepted norm, I’m not positive he did anything unusual. He made his move and she didn’t object. What was he to think? Would I expect (or even want) men to have to ask for clear verbal permission ever step of the way?
As church members we are taught all our lives to respect and honor the priesthood. In a culture where “the priesthood” is often used to refer to members holding the priesthood (all active males over 12), how to distinguish between honoring the “eternal power and authority of God” and honoring the men who hold it is left to interpretation. And when the interpreter is a teenaged girl who is accustomed to deferring final decisions to men, the result can be problematic.
Add on the fact that young women — at least up through my generation — were routinely taught that a guy’s arousal (or lack thereof) was pretty much the responsibility of the girl. More problems.
I have heard far too many stories of young women who thought, “If returned missionary is doing it, it must not be that bad.”
In a patriarchal church, how do we teach women to forcefully and clearly say no to men? How do we teach them when and where it is appropriate? How do we teach men to truly honor the position of power the priesthood gives them?