In 1991 Anita Hill, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, came forward with accusations that Clarence Thomas, who had been nominated to the Supreme Court, had sexually harassed her. Hill had worked for Thomas years earlier when he was head of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. Hill charged that Thomas harassed her with inappropriate discussion of sexual acts and pornographic films after she rebuffed his invitations to date him. A media frenzy quickly arose around Hill’s allegations and Thomas’s denials. In a riveting televised testimony, Ms Hill faced incredible hostility by the all-white male Senate Judiciary Committee, despite the fact that she had a detailed knowledge of the dates and the circumstances of when Thomas harassed her. One Senator dismissed her by saying “she is a little bit nutty, and a little bit slutty” implying the same tired trope that men so often use to blame the woman who they abuse. The incident became one person’s word against another’s. In the end, the Senate voted 52-48 to confirm Clarence Thomas as associate justice of the Supreme Court. To the many people who believed Anita Hill’s claims or opposed the Thomas nomination on other grounds, Thomas’s appointment was a defeat. Yet, the controversy had other long-term consequences beyond Justice Thomas’s life-term on the Supreme Court. Foremost, national awareness about sexual harassment in the workplace heightened considerably. According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filings, sexual harassment cases have more than doubled, from 6,127 in 1991 to 15,342 in 1996. Over the same period, awards to victims under federal laws nearly quadrupled, from $7.7 million to $27.8 million. The media heralded the 1992 election year as the “Year of the Woman” when a record number of women ran for public office and won. In the U.S. Senate, eleven women ran and five won seats–including one incumbent candidate. In the House of Representatives, twenty-four women won new seats. It was thought at the time that this was a sea change in American Culture; women would be taken seriously even if not seriously enough. 25 years later we are not very much better off than we were then. While there are more elected women leaders, the Presidency remains a male club and only 8% of the Fortune 500 corporations are headed by women. (Source: Roy Rosanzwieg “A Outline of the Hill-Thomas Controversy” George Mason University, gmu.edu)
And so now we are amidst a tsunami of women coming forward and telling their stories about being sexually abused and harassed by powerful men. The “MeToo” movement, as Debra Haffner preached recently, was created in the 2007 by Tarana Burke, an anti-sexual violence advocate, and which exploded after Harvey Weinstein, the powerful movie producer, was confronted by the women he has abused for decades, many now well known actresses. (Rev. Dr. Debra Haffner, “#MeToo” preached UU Church of Reston, VA October 29. 2017) Women who had been abused encouraged other women to declare their allegiance and post #MeToo on Twitter and Facebook. Millions of women have done so. I do believe that this is happening both because it is so painfully overdue and that it wouldn’t be happening without Donald Trump being President. His own admittance of sexually abusing women did not dissuade a nation to elect him. That outrage, which we saw in the Women’s March after his inauguration, and carried on in one moral injury after another, has finally reached a tipping point and women, who have always been harassed and abused by men, are finding the strength to come forward and name names. Let me be clear: I believe this is a moral issue as important as racism, immigration and gun violence. I believe that men, good men, need to hear this outrage and, rather than defend themselves, to understand that this is a response to the system of patriarchy we all live in. Patriarchy is in how we raise our children, our laws, our literature and our religion. Next Sunday we will celebrate Christmas. Why is it we start with a story of virgin impregnated or raped by god who must be under the protection of a man, unwed and poor who miraculously gives birth to the prince of peace? Think about it So, men, it’s not just you, it’s the system you are a part of, and the power we enjoy has resulted in this new wave of outrage. Just as we live in and benefit from a system of white supremacy and racism, so too do men, like myself, live in and benefit from patriarchy. And we need to dismantle the system.
As Rev. Haffner observed: “Women who had never spoken about being sexually assaulted or sexually harassed to anyone were now breaking the silence about the too little discussed misogyny and sexual violence of our culture. Sexual violence against women is endemic in the United States. One in four women is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Between 25% and 40% of women report that they are survivors of forced sexual activities. One in five women has been raped, and more than 100,000 women each year are treated in emergency rooms after being raped each year. 88% of rapes reported to the FBI happen to women under the age of 25. One in four women are victims of severe violence by an intimate partner – horrifyingly, three women in the United States are murdered every day by a current or ex romantic partner”. (Ibid, Haffner) The stories women are telling are painful and necessary. These stories speak for the pain and subjugation that every woman in this country has faced at some time in their lives. And we will need to do all we can as UUs to hear those stories, support those women, and dismantle the patriarchy that stands today. As one of my daughters put it, “this is so much more than just being aware of sexual harassment” it’s doing something about it”. Its walking up to the guy who is harassing the woman he is with in public and telling him that “when a woman says no, she means no”. Its providing a safe and brave space for women to hear from one another and for the men, even as allies, to hear and take seriously a woman’s experience and do all we can to change that experience. It’s to teach our daughters and our sons that sexual harassment, sexual objectification, even when humorous is not acceptable. It’s for the men in our lives to not be so concerned with their own fragility and more concerned with hearing from the women in their lives. It’s to recognize that sexual harassment and abuse is more about power than sex. More about how we can control and denigrate women, such as Anita Hill was 25 years ago. Anita Hill faced a double inequity as a woman and a African American, a sort of #MeToo squared. It’s the power imbalance between women and men which makes this harassment so dangerous. Because for every one of the women who are brave enough to come forward there are thousands more who don’t. They don’t for fear of being further harassed, not believed, and worse yet blamed for the harassment itself. Such phrases as “well what did you expect?” or “boys will be boys” or “what did you do to make him do that?” are all tools of oppression which serve to excuse the abuse and silence those who have been abused. As Jackson Katz who teaches about sexual violence said in a recent TED talk: “Harassment and violence against women are “intrinsically men’s issues.” We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls…we say that Mary is a battered woman, not that John hit Mary… We have to ask a different set of questions…” (Quoted in Haffner, Source: https://www.ted.com/talks/ ) Men can do better for we are the problem
Listen, I am no saint here. I have made plenty of bad jokes in my younger years. As the father of five daughters, I have come to learn what respect looks like and even then, I act patriarchally and I have still much to learn. Humility will go a long way here.
UUs are not exempt from this patriarchy. Even forty years after our resolution to do better. In my last congregation the minister emeritus who had been there for many years had created a culture of sexual harassment that included his many affairs with women in the congregation, a crime for which he was never removed from Fellowship by the UUA. On her dying bed, one elderly female parishioner said when I asked her what she was most proud off, “well I never slept with Al. I managed to resist his advances. I am pretty proud of that.”
As a man, I admit to not initially seeing the #MeToo movement as the moral outrage that it is. I admit to deflecting blame and pleading innocence. I admit to having to hear from the women of the congregation and my colleague Debra Haffner that this needed to be addressed. I am thankful to all these women, including my daughters and my wife for all they have helped me understand.
Yet, at the end of the day what will really matter isn’t that I preached a sermon on this issue. What will matter is that we as a people, as a community, as women and men, will hear these voices, acknowledge this pain, and do something about it as a congregation, as women healing women, and as men who are learning to be strong allies. And so, I, along with a task force of women, we will be addressing this issue in many ways in the months and years ahead. Starting today women are invited to come to the Meeting House at 12.30 to share their stories in a safe place with female chaplains standing by, in the months ahead we will hear from women about their stories, we will develop a curriculum that mirrors the very good work our sexuality curriculum does for our middle schoolers, and we will reach out to women in our wider community. We will do something because the #MeToo movement is going to change our culture. Yesterday I signed on to a #WeCommit, because We commit to a community free of sexualized violence, we commit to hearing the stories of women, we commit to maintaining our safe congregation team who can hear and respond to abuse, and as men, we commit to being the bystanders who step in when we see harassment happen or at the very least call out sexualize male behavior in locker rooms and poker games, to say “I don’t find that funny. Let’s change the subject”. If we can start to this with our men and our boys imagine how that will change the system.
Several years ago I heard Anita Hill at the launch of her latest book Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home published by our own Beacon Press; a book where she connects sexual harassment with racism and the desire for a safe home. During the question and answer period, someone asked what she has learned most since she spoke out and has now spent decades fighting for justice. She said (and I paraphrase) “I realize now that I was naïve to think that my speaking out would change the world. I realize now that being black and a woman made my words seem more threatening than I could imagine. I realize that people would blame the messenger for the message rather than consider the message itself. And I realize that there will come a time when the enormity of this abuse will no longer be contained and that the powerful men who hold that power will fall.” I would dare to dream that that time has come. Let the healing begin. Amen.