Aside

The Girl Who Cried Wolf, and Other Myths

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You can’t go online lately without hearing about hearing about Herman Cain and the allegations of sexual harassment haunting his campaign. Those posts inevitably make me wince—not the articles themselves, but the comments crowded beneath them like protestors punching hand-scrawled signs in the air, screaming at the “other side.” Now, before you get all riled up, this article is not about Herman Cain. It’s about those comments. Specifically, it’s about the Christian community’s response to women who accuse men of sexual impropriety.

You’d think that Christians would be very interested in standing up for a woman’s dignity. After all, don’t most Christian books about gender teach that it’s a man’s role to defend women? But all too often, the evangelical response to men’s shameful shenanigans, especially when nothing physical has taken place, has been a sort of snide, “boys will be boys” affirmation of male virility. High fives all around, while the woman, mortified, slinks back into the shadows. I mean, what did she expect, trading the safety of the kitchen for the wild and wooly “man’s world”?

I grew up surrounded by loving, protective men, so this attitude truly shocked me when I first encountered it. I felt downright betrayed in the mid-nineties, when Focus on the Family began circulating ridiculous stories about little boys being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment. This philosophical slight-of-hand effectively took the church’s eyes off the real problem—that girls and women were being shamefully mistreated at school and work—and cemented evangelicals’ jaundiced view of much-needed sexual harassment laws. I remember writing an impassioned letter to Dr. Dobson (who I had idolized up to that point), suggesting that he come take a walk down the hallways of my school, where girls wore running shorts under their skirts for fear of being “flipped,” where boys made up lewd songs about menstruation and masturbation to enjoy the sick power-trip of humiliating insecure teenage girls, and where stepping onto the school bus was like stepping into the crucible, an hour-long test of endurance that bore more resemblance to hyper-sexualized, post-apocalyptic anarchy than a peaceful ride home. I never sent the letter, but I did manage to convince my parents to start picking me up after school.

My experience was not the least bit unusual, nor was it extreme. (My friend Ryan cowering in the choir room because he had received death threats, or the sort of nonsense that went on at this school are better examples of how out of hand sexual harassment can get.) Sexual harassment is real, it can cause devastating emotional damage, and Christ’s followers should be speaking out against it, instead of suggesting people “suck it up” and accept the prevailing cultural iniquity. So why are some Christians acting like sexual harassment laws and the people who avail themselves of them are the scourge, instead of sexual harassment itself?

A comment on a recent Red Letter Christians article exemplified one of the prevailing attitudes about sexual harassment. “As for these allegations I will tell you firsthand that in an effort to protect women in these situations we have gone quite the other way. All a woman has to do is ‘cry wolf’ and ruin a man whether it’s true or not. It’s BS. The exact same punishment should be exacted to the complaintant that the defendant is facing should the charges not be proven… If you have proof then by all means bring it but if it’s a he-said/she-said then you should have to deal with it just like every other person who cries wolf without proof.”

Okay, look. I don’t doubt that some infinitesimal number of messed-up women do falsely accuse men of sexual harassment. But the sort of overblown antagonism this commenter (and countless others) expresses is, in and of itself, a form of intimidation that serves to keep women’s mouths shut. Since when does a woman need “proof” to complain about inappropriate behavior? (Remember—she’s reporting it to her school or workplace, not taking the guy to court—although she can sue the organization if it fails to take appropriate action.) Unless there are witnesses willing to back up her story, there is no way to “prove” that harassment has taken place. For that matter, there is no way to prove that a woman has been raped, unless she goes to the hospital and submits herself to rape treatment.  (Unfortunately, most prefer locking themselves in the bathroom and sobbing in the shower.) Does the fact that an allegation can’t be proven mean that a woman shouldn’t report it? How convenient.

And what are we supposed to make of the shudder-worthy suggestion that a woman be “punished” if her allegations can’t be proven? Happily for the “complaintant,” the worst punishment most harassers face is losing their job, a possibility many women in that situation are staring down anyway. Still, the truth of the matter is that most women don’t report sexual infractions for fear of reprisal. Oh, we don’t stone women for coming forward with allegations of sexual impropriety like they do in some other parts of the world; we just call them liars, sluts and hussies who were obviously asking for whatever they got. We imply that these troublemaking women are shameless seducers with wicked ulterior motives, carnal temptresses intent on bringing virtuous men down into the grave.

And all Eve’s daughters sigh.

I’m going to shift gears for a moment, because when it comes to unwanted sexual advances, harassment is just the tip of the huge, destructive and mostly hidden iceberg lurking under the surface of American society. We need to look at the culture these allegations are taking place in. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one out of every four girls has been sexually molested by the time she turns 14. (Stop for a moment and let that sink in. One in four of our precious little girls.) One in six women has been a victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, and approximately 7.8 million women have been raped by a boyfriend, husband, or significant other. According to estimates from the US Department of Justice, fewer than half of all rapes are reported to the police, and only one out of twenty rapists ever spends a day in jail for their crimes.

What this tells me is that the problem isn’t histrionic shepherdesses crying wolf. Most of them never even make a peep. The real problem is that the flocks are teeming with wolves, and women are afraid to speak up for fear of getting their throats torn out. Liar. Hussy. Shameful. Slut. Everyone will hate you if you tell.

Too often, we’re proving the wolves right.

Friends, sexual harassment is a serious issue. As Christians, we need to stop minimizing these evils and listen carefully to what the victims have to say. Even when it costs us something. Even when it makes us uncomfortable. And rest assured, it probably will.

I’ll leave you with some words of wisdom from Ephesians 5:3-13, because Paul says it better than I ever could: But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.

Brothers and sisters, let’s not squeeze our eyes shut and pretend that the darkness is just in our head. Instead, let’s expose the deeds of darkness, shining the bright light of Christ’s truth on the dark spots in our society, in our histories, and in our hearts, so God can illuminate them and make us a beacon of light to a dark, dark world.

22 Responses to The Girl Who Cried Wolf, and Other Myths

  1. Tim November 22, 2011 at 9:04 am #

    Wow. I can’t remember reading a better essay on the need to recognize evil and call it out for what it is.

    Thanks, JR. Good job.

    Tim

  2. Christian Piatt November 22, 2011 at 10:13 am #

    Nice work, and bravely stated. It can be discouraging to get the kind of blowback like that on RLC, but we still have to keep on naming the truth as we understand it.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 22, 2011 at 11:07 am #

      Thanks Christian. I very much appreciated your article, and found the comments ridiculous. If I thought the commenters truly wanted to dialogue, I would have jumped in, but they were clearly just blowing off steam. You can’t have a conversation with a tea kettle–you can only get burned.

      So this is my response instead. :-) Be encouraged, Christian, and thank you again for speaking up about ugly attitudes toward women!

  3. Stitching Seams November 22, 2011 at 2:06 pm #

    Thank you. Thank you so much for this. You’re right – the incredulity, name-calling, disbelief, and outright apathy is oftentimes enough to keep us quiet. Thank you for bringing light to this.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 22, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

      You are more than welcome! Be brave, sister–strong and courageous, not afraid or dismayed! We already have the victory through Christ. :-)

  4. Country Wife November 22, 2011 at 2:11 pm #

    Beautiful post…

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 22, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

      Thanks so much!

      • Marilyn Gebert November 22, 2011 at 8:46 pm #

        Jenny, thank you for a wonderful blog. You are so right about Christians being made uncomfortable when they hear about sexual harrassment. This happens even in the church. When I first started in the ministry, I was harrassed by another minister, who made a nasty comment about my husband and I and our sexual life. I was so embarrassed, I didn’t even know what to say or do. At least things are better, I think, than they were in the 70’s. Thank you again for your blog.

        • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 22, 2011 at 9:03 pm #

          Thanks so much, Marilyn! I do think things are better now than they were in the 80’s, right before the sexual harassment laws were passed, but then again I haven’t walked the halls of a middle school as a 12-year-old girl for a LONG time! I did notice a shift after the law was passed. I do think the Christian community will come around–it just takes us a LONG time!

  5. Sarah Moon November 22, 2011 at 2:12 pm #

    fantastic! thank you for addressing this

  6. Emily November 22, 2011 at 3:34 pm #

    Jenny,

    Thank you for addressing this topic! I was discussing the Cain allegations with a male friend yesterday, and had to ask that we switch subjects because of how uncomfortable I was with his train of thought. He wanted details published, court documents, and a conviction or complete exoneration of Cain. My friend is a good man, but his automatic defense of the accused unnerved me greatly because it revealed how our Christian culture treats these issues! He’s correct: we lack specifics and details in this case and many cases, but that shouldn’t undermine our desire to call abuse abuse and err on the side of protecting those who are brave enough to make the claim.

    Harassment is a real issue. Bullying is real. These evils rarely come neatly packaged with hard evidence. A huge part of their power lies in the shame, detachment, and desire to hide that the victim feels.

    We need to be willing to engage and protect regardless of who’s reputation is at stake. We need men, and the church as a whole, to change the tone on this issue.

    I’ll be passing this article on to my friend.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 22, 2011 at 4:44 pm #

      “These evils rarely come neatly packaged with hard evidence. A huge part of their power lies in the shame, detachment, and desire to hide that the victim feels.”

      SOOO true, Emily! And the perpetrators rely on that. Who wants to talk about the humiliating things someone did to or said about them, particularly when their self-esteem has been systematically beaten down, and they know people will be unwilling to listen to them?

      A WHOLE lot of evil could be avoided is society would change its tone about these issues. We act surprised by cover-ups like the one at Penn State–but frankly, it’s how we teach people to behave. Feel ashamed, don’t make a fuss, cover it up to keep everyone happy. Ugh.

  7. amywb November 22, 2011 at 8:04 pm #

    Awesome post, Jenny. A dear friend of mine just told me this weekend that she was going to have to fire someone this week because of sexual harrassment. Now I am extra proud of her – and the megachurch she works at – for taking two women’s claims seriously.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 22, 2011 at 8:47 pm #

      Wow, that’s hard stuff to deal with. Good for her, though! I think a lot of times in the Christian community we try to be “nice” by letting things slide. And while there’s definitely a need for grace and forgiveness, we forget that if we never confront people with their sin we’re doing them a HUGE spiritual disservice. (I’m not talking about nitpicking every little thing we think they should do better–I’m talking about not turning a blind eye to persistent, habitual, destructive problems, such as abusive behaviors.) They need to heal, too–but sometime they need to come face to face with the consequences of their actions to see that and get the help they need.

  8. DHannahTedndebhill November 22, 2011 at 8:14 pm #

    Thank you for this well stated truth! I was molested as a young girl, groped as a developing girl by an elderly neighbor, assaulted and raped as a teenager, and redeemed through Christ in a wonderful, caring, respectful marriage. I had VICTIM emblazoned throughout my entire being and every predator I came across picked me out of the crowd and re-victimized me until I was led to Healthy, Whole Christian men and women who walked, talked, prayed and loved grace and healing and wholeness into me. I have avoided Evangelical Christianity because all my self-preserving radar goes off and I have to run far and fast. It grieves me that after 2000 years, we, the Church, are better bullies than healers. I keep praying that the Voice of Truth and Justice will keep growing louder and bolder and stronger. They will rise and pull more and more into the Din until the lies are drowned out and silenced. Thank you for being part of the Din of Truth.
    P.S. I think you should send that letter to Focus on the Family.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 22, 2011 at 8:59 pm #

      DHanna, thank you so much for sharing your story, and for your honesty and bravery. Praise God for the healing that has taken place! I am so sorry that evangelicalism has been so threatening, but hey–the church got along without American evangelicalism for most of its existence, so I’m not too worried! ;-D

      I’m honored to raise a din with you!

  9. Amy November 22, 2011 at 11:18 pm #

    Thanks for speaking up, Jenny. You’re right on.

  10. Dan McDonald May 24, 2014 at 9:17 pm #

    Well done. I wonder how much commenters understand of our justice system when they imagine a victim a liar simply because someone cannot be proven guilty. Our system is designed to make it difficult to prove someone guilty. The difference between man’s law and God’s justice is that man is fallible and God infallible. That said, every woman or man or child should report matters of abuse. Often times perpetrators are not found guilty until there are enough reports to show a pattern. Then the system has someone beyond a reasonable doubt. The one who reports whose claim is not verified may later be recognized as the first of several voices to make their cry. I wish once was enough but often multiple victims are only heard once there is a pattern.

  11. Bev Murrill October 18, 2017 at 5:14 pm #

    Jenny Rae, I didn’t read this when you first wrote it, but how apt it is now. Thanks so much.

    and you know, I have been appalled at Dobson and Focus on the Family… it took me a while for the penny to drop, that though so many sound so wise and reasonable, there is a huge amount of covering for male bad behaviour, and even more victim blaming.

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