Feminists can be Christians, too

Lot's Wife - medieval stained glass detail, Ca...

Image of Lot's Wife by chrisjohnbeckett via Flickr

I am a Christian. I believe that following Jesus is about kindness, compassion, for meeting people where they are, for practicing empathy. I think the Bible contains metaphorical truth, historical truth, and that it’s a record of human struggle with faith and the human story of encounters with the divine.

As a feminist, I am afraid to admit that I am a Christian, because I’m afraid you won’t take me seriously anymore. That you’ll think that I live my life and govern my relationships with legalism (i.e., using the Bible to make “rules”). Sometimes, those who are also struggling to follow Jesus as a path to following God act in ways that are intolerant, uncompassionate, and inhospitable. These fellow believers make people uncomfortable, claiming to speak for God, claiming to know when another person is sinning, claiming the Bible as incontrovertible truth with a capital T. They use this belief to say that love between two people of the same sex is a sin, to reduce women to objects and servants, and to consume the Earth’s resources.

These people, my brothers and sisters in Christ, are using God’s name in vain. They are speaking for Him without the humility to admit that they may be wrong. I have recently been made aware that silence on the issue of faith and belief may also be using God’s name in vain, because I am part of God’s voice in this world. Silence implies shame.

Here’s what I want to make the liberal, feminist blogosphere aware of — the Bible is open to interpretation, and when it is being used as a tool of bigotry, literacy is the only way to educate those whose minds are open, those who are not using God’s name in vain.

Sodom and Gomorrah

Genesis chapter 19, verses 1 through 19, narrates the story of Lot inviting two strangers, angels, into his home in the city of Sodom. The bigoted citizens of the city, who already do not like Lot, because he is also a foreigner, demand him to hand over his guests. Most translations I’ve read demand that the guests be turned over to the mob so that they can “have sex” with them. Lot pleads with them not to do this wicked thing, and offers his virgin daughters to the mob instead. Before this can happen, the angels strike the mob blind, and ultimately, as a result, the city of Sodom is destroyed.

This passage is the source of the word sodomy, which is less judgementally known as anal sex. Those who believe that homosexuality is a sin cite this passage as a proof that God hates sodomites – i.e. those who have anal sex, i.e. gay men.

But, feminist readers, does this not also sound like attempted gang rape?  Complete with rape apologist language of “have sex”? Could this passage be a story about how rape is not to be tolerated? Instead of teaching how a certain kind of sex is wicked, could the passage be teaching that a lack of consent, that force in a sex act is wicked?

As feminists, it is easy to get up in arms and distracted with the way that Lot offered his daughters to be raped to protect his guests. It is not nice to think about, but in the historical context, women were objects — and we must acknowledge this. To apply our current values on historical circumstance is futile — we will always be disappointed. The knowledge that women’s value used to be different can be a source of strength, too. How far women have come, and yet how far we have to go. Just as life is now, the Bible is a mixed bag. There are both wins and losses, victories and defeats.

What I take heart in is that God did not allow Lot’s daughters to be raped either (at this juncture of the story, at least. The ultimate fate of Lot’s daughters is a different story). God through his angels intervened, and did not allow anyone to be raped that day; the city was destroyed for that attempted act of violence.

At least, that’s how I read the passage as a feminist.

The Church is still a human institution, I get it.  Sometimes the acts of Christians are incredibly hard to defend. The Bible is a human work. Not all passages are easy to explain in a way that makes us feel good.  Sometimes humans use God’s name to legitimize their bigotry and privilege. Sometimes people who believe in justice, in tearing down privilege, and are Christians forget to invoke God. Both are wrong.

My mission here is to record my activism. Sometimes that activism occurs in the context of Church. I shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it.

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Quick Hit: Macho Culture

I didn’t get the post written today that I wanted to get written, but I figured I’d share an article I found really interesting: College Men need to recognize Macho Culture for what it really is: insecurity.

Sometimes, I write creative non-fiction. Would that be of interest to my readers? Stories about my life less from a blogging perspective, more from a… trying to make words lovely and describe the indescribably perspective?

On the other hand…

Bonus post today, because I was thinking about what I had written and felt I hadn’t been entirely truthful.

I was really proud of the presentation that I had made, and I was really proud of the way that the majority of my audience was curious and willing to learn. But to write about my presentation as entirely positive would be less than honest.

There was one participant who asked, “What about Teases?”

I went into the presentation preparing to meet the pledges where they were, and listen to their points of view. I knew that I had to be sensitive in order to prevent people from being defensive. So, what did I say? I asked, “What do you mean?”

“What about girls who dress like they’re saying yes, but all they’re saying is no?”

I knew that my knee jerk reaction was to tell this guy that he was a problem.  But I wanted to put forth a teachable moment. “Everyone has a right to dress as they please without anyone infering any intention or motivation about their mode of dress,” I said.

Christina, my good friend, jumped in and said, “Listen do what they’re saying,” she said. “If she says no, she means no, no matter what she’s wearing!”

“She’s right,” I confirmed. “That’s the easy way to say it. ”

The good news is that the young man with this question was not a pledge, and neither was he a member — he was someone who desperately wanted to be a member of the fraternity but had so far been denied. From the point of view of someone who hopes that future generations of the fraternity learn to respect women again, I hope he’s never initiated.

I spoke recently with the President and Security Officer privately, telling them this entire tale.  They were by turns offended, and wished I had told them sooner — they wanted to yell and scream. I told them that yelling and screaming wasn’t going to change a thing.

I told them that I was willing to keep doing a presentation on Sexual Etiquette for as long as the members of the fraternity knew who I was. But in making that promise I want to continue to improve. I want to be able to answer questions about false accusation of rape. I want to be able to paint a picture about how members may aid and abeit rape, even if they’re never rapists themselves. (Truly horrifying story from Howard University in DC about men who helped another man rape, and the police who denied that it was a crime.) I want to continue improving, continue to learn facts and figures and statistics and to be able to answer real, challenging questions.

So, this story isn’t done. But it’s pausing here.

(Readers, have you ever faced harassment? How did you handle it? If you were going to put together an anti-sexual assault training, what would you include?)

This post is fifth in a series.

Combating Sexual Harassment in a Fraternity (as a female non-member):

In Which I Encounter the Rape Culture (Not for the First Time)
Failures of Formal Activism
Informal Activism and Friendships
Sexual Etiquette: A Lesson
On the Other Hand…

Sexual Etiquette: A Lesson

In February, I gave a talk at the Pledge Class of the Fraternity. I called it “Sex in Good Taste.” My presentation was supplanting a lecture on manners and etiquette, and so I tried to frame my anti-rape talk in a similar vein. I wanted to keep the presentation conversational, while at the same time giving people practical advice on how to approach sex as true gentlemen.

I was nervous about placing myself as an authority. After all, I was potentially the only woman in a room full of men — and there wouldn’t be another woman to validate what I was saying. Luckily there were a couple of Fraternity Girlfriends who were willing to stick around.

I broke the ice by telling everyone that I wanted to talk about having good sex. “I want everyone to have good sex. I want you to have good sex with yourself. I want you to have good sex with a partner. With multiple partners. With multiple partners at the same time. I want you to have good sex with one-night stands, I want you to have good sex with long-term partners. I want you to have good sex.” Everyone laughed when I said that I wanted them to have good sex with themselves.

The outline of the presentation looked like this:

  1. Seek out enthusiastic affirmative consent.
    • It’s sexy to state your desires.
    • You want your partner to scream “Yes! Yes! YES!”
    • If your partner is no longer having fun, you have to stop.
    • Barriers to consent include: the expectation of sex (just because you’ve had sex with her before, or you bought her dinner, doesn’t mean you’re entitled to sex), alcohol and other chemicals (Everyone retains their rational decision-making skills), lack of communication (ask directly for your desires), and lack of respect of boundaries (learning to read body language and listen to verbal communication).
  2. Sexual assault and rape are not sex in good taste.
  3. How to have sexual relationships in good taste in a rape culture world
    • Preventing Sexual Assault and/or murder is part of a woman’s daily routine.
    • Schroedinger’s Rapist
    • The imagined right to intrude
    • How to be a good guy:
      1. Learn to understand and respect a woman’s communications to you.
      2. If you fail to respect the communication a woman is making (body language, verbal, etc) then you label yourself a problem. You will have to convince them that you are not a rapist, after you exhibited a behavior that rapists have.
      3. Don’t rape. Don’t have sexual contact with anyone who does not enthusiastically consent to that contact.
      4. Don’t let others rape.

I started out by talking about the most basic of sexual etiquette and rape prevention phrases: that “no means no.” As I was explaining that women do not often feel empowered to give a strong “no,” but sometimes instead give weaker response (like “I guess,” or “I don’t know…”) a spontaneous role play broke out.

Continue reading

Informal Activism and Friendships

Hello, potential new readers, coming over from the 91st Carnival Against Sexual Violence! I’m writing this series of entries to help other people see a story of awareness raising against sexual violence, so that they may have something to emulate when they want to raise awareness too. I hope you stick around!

What happened in the stairwell at the Fraternity House was sexual harassment. What happened on Facebook was also sexual harassment. Using the formal structures of the fraternity yielded me no comment, no awareness, no justice. So I prepared to take matters into my own hands.

Over the previous three years of association with the Fraternity, I had built up a lot of social capital. I had learned names, I had spent weekends in the house, I learned board games and danced with brothers at semi-formals. I had gained a reputation for being a feminist, for not putting up with shit, for challenging people in their complacency. But I did not have a reputation for being an angry feminist, which I felt spoke to the respect that these young men (my peers, really) have for me.

So I decided to put that social capital to work. With Tim’s help and support I formulated a four point argument as to why what happened was sexual harassment, and why it was bad for the fraternity. I picked out three Fraternity Gentlemen who were particular friends/strong acquaintances of mine, and Tim picked out the ring-leader of the harassment, and we decided to attend the the LAN party.

The Argument:

1) Women are scared of rape. We carry our keys out when we walk to our cars at night, so they can be used as weapons, we don’t set our drinks down in any public event in case we are drugged. We may seem irrational in our fear, but society says that if we don’t follow every single rule and we are raped? It is our fault. Society says that men are not in control of their sexual desires, and that women must be in control of a man’s sexual desires… by never putting themselves in a vulnerable position. Which, by the way, is nearly impossible.

2) What happened in the stairwell was a giant farce which glorified rape. Not knowing her name is dubious. Tricking her or otherwise persuading her with substances or other methods to have sex is rape. Having multiple people have sex with her is rape. By the way, the young woman in question may never know what was said about her, and I would rather that be the case. (She was at the LAN and I believe she was safe, as the guest of Christina, a Fraternity girlfriend.) Any sort of sexual advance that is not reached affirmatively (a lack of no is not a yes, and you always want Yes to mean YES!) is rape.

3) All of the women associated with the fraternity are recruited by the same system that recruits members into the fraternity. The Fraternity Girlfriends and Wives like to say that we are “stuck at step four” of the recruitment process. We’ve been made a friend, we’ve been introduced to other friends, we’ve been introduced to the fraternity, but we will never, ever be given a bid. Girlfriends and Wives need to be recruited just as much as as members, because some of us are life partners to the fraternity members, even if we’re never invited into the ritual. And as such, the house, needs to be safe for women as well.

4) The fraternity needs leaders to fight against a hostile environment for women. Otherwise, the hostile environment will continue, and will be detrimental to the fraternity in the long-run. The young men I talked to were asked to speak up whenever they heard someone speaking about rape in a manner which was considered humorous. [Note: As a guard against the argument of “But it is just black humor!”, I explained that black humor only works because we agree that the morality of murder, cancer, and dead babies is reprehensible. We are not at that point in our society with rape: too many times we say that a woman was “asking for it” or that “a good cock will fix her” or other such ways of justifying rape.]

In Two Sentences: If women did not feel safe in the Fraternity House, the Fraternity would lose members. And in order to make the space safe for women, sexual harassment (especially talk of rape) could not be tolerated.

Did it work?

John, Greg, and Jeff all took my short talk really well. All three were pretty interested in what I had to say, and because I am friendly with these gentlemen, they were more willing to listen to me — more so than if I had started complaining to the executive board of the fraternity, the alumni board of trustees, or perhaps even worst of all: the international headquarters. But I felt good about what I had done, because even if I hadn’t actually changed their behaviors for the long-term (that sort of behavior change would be magic), maybe they would think more carefully about what they said, and to be critical of what other people said.

John had an interesting proposal though. He said that I should teach a pledge orientation class. I took him up on the suggestion, and I’ll be writing about that next week.

This post is third in a series.

Combating Sexual Harassment in a Fraternity (as a female non-member):

In Which I Encounter the Rape Culture (Not for the First Time)
Failures of Formal Activism
Informal Activism and Friendships
Sexual Etiquette: A Lesson
On the Other Hand…

Failures of Formal Activism

First, I want to be clear why I am writing this series. I have no intention of identifying the school, the fraternity, or the specific fraternity chapter on my blog. Those who I know in real life know more context than I am providing. My purpose in writing this out is to inspire others who are facing harassment in their normal lives, and give them tools to combat it, a way to think through fighting back. I want to cause problems for the culture that allows this kind of harassment to go on, not cause problems for the university students that I interact with socially.

Second, before I move on with how I handled the sexual harassment that I experienced this past January, I need to go back to the end of the Fall Semester. During finals week, one of the Fraternity Girlfriends (also a student at the school) posted on her facebook wall. The following exchange is edited for the reasons listed in the first paragraph of this entry, and involve myself, my partner Tim, and a member named Jeremy who had a personal feud with Tim. Christina, the Fraternity Girlfriend, plays a role, and there is a cameo from another member of the fraternity.

Christina: Reading day isn’t for reading. It’s for computer games.
Jeremy: Some Fraternity Members take showers and do homework instead of playing shitty pc games.
Me: Jeremy. I am married to a Fraternity Member that showers, earns a wage, does house work and plays shitting (sic) pc games because they make him happy. Have your own opinion.
Jeremy: Hey Kate: You are married to quite possibly the worst Fraternity Member I have ever met. He makes me ashamed to wear the letters. And sounds like you obviously don’t please him if he has to play “shitting PC games” to make himself happy. And shut your bitchass mouth any way you annoying cunt.

I knew I was taking a risk when I directly addressed Jeremy. Jeremy had a reputation for being a hot headed guy — he had a baseless feud going with Tim, he had abused all of his brothers in an online forum when they were offering him love an respect. The long and the short of it was: Jeremy didn’t seem to like the fraternity, but he didn’t seem to want to leave it either.

When I saw how strongly Jeremy responded, I froze. And then I flushed hot. And then I started laughing. I had described my partner as someone who was happy with the way he was. I stated that I loved him for it — or at least I married him. Jeremy told me to shut my bitchass mouth (what’s a bitchass mouth?) because he couldn’t counter me rhetorically.

Because it was the internet, I had the luxury of leisure to reply. I called Tim as I left work that day, and I told him about it. “Jeremy said some shitty things about the fraternity on facebook,” I said. “So I called him out. And he called me a bitchass cunt.” I laughed. “Seriously, what’s that? It’s pretty weak.”

Tim didn’t see it that way. Being my heterosexual life partner, and thinking it his duty, he went to my defense. I was disappointed, because I was hoping to swing my own rhetorical sword in my own defense. (The role of allies will need to be discussed at a later time. Needless to say — I wanted to fight my own fight.)

To continue the facebook thread:

Tim: Jeremy, I’d appreciate it if you left my partner out of our dispute. I’ve tried to leave you be as much as possible since February, and would appreciate the same courtesy. Furthermore, I think that Kate deserves an apology for what you just said about her..
Jeremy: McDouchey: Go to hell. I won’t leave her out of it. She could’ve kept her mouth shut. And I didn’t say ANYTHING about you until it was used as a front against me. And no, no apology is deserved.
Robert: I like computer games.
Jeremy:^— another worthless Fraternity Member that does nothing. It’s too bad we keep rushing dipshits like you.

By the time I got home, and I had been emailed this entire conversation through facebook notifications, the thread had been deleted by Christina from her own wall. Christina called me and apologized, which was funny, because I had been more worried about her — it sucks to be a bystander. In fact, being a bystander to sexual harassment even has a negative effect on men.

The negative effect was shown in the context of multiple phone calls… all to Tim. Much like Tim thought that it was his responsibility to defend me, it seemed that the brothers all thought that they should apologize to Tim for the behavior of one of their own.

It took me two days of intense reverie to figure out why I was still bothered by the harassment — and why I was bothered that Tim wasn’t bothered after the apologies. I outline the reasons below. (Aside: who says that literary analysis doesn’t make for some kick-ass activism?)

  1. I deserved an apology from Jeremy because Jeremy reduced my worth to sexually pleasing my partner: “sounds like you obviously don’t please him if he has to play “shitting PC games” to make himself happy”.
  2. He told me that I had no right to express an opinion where I was offering a counter example to Jeremy’s public assertion against the chapter: “And shut your bitchass mouth any way” & “She could’ve kept her mouth shut”
  3. Further more, I was disrespected as a person when he identified me solely by my sexual organs: “you annoying cunt”.
  4. Allowing Jeremy to go unchecked implied complicit agreement as a chapter with his attitude towards women, as he publicly identified himself as a member of the chapter.

But worse, because no one had asked me how I felt about the situation (except for Christina, who was also not in the hierarchy of the fraternity), I was voiceless. I helped Tim draft an email to the President and the Members-at-Large (who speak for the members on the executive board), which outlined the points above.

And there was promptly no action. It was a failing of formal — i.e. within the confines of authority structures — activism.

This post is second in a series.

Combating Sexual Harassment in a Fraternity (as a female non-member):

In Which I Encounter the Rape Culture (Not for the First Time)
Failures of Formal Activism
Informal Activism and Friendships
Sexual Etiquette: A Lesson
On the Other Hand…

In which I encounter the rape culture (Not for the first time)

My partner, Tim, and I were friends in high school. High school Tim was a good friend, and respected women (as far as I was aware of what that respect entailed in high school). When we both went away to college, I was surprised to learn that he had joined a fraternity. It seemed so out of character for him. Could college Tim, the fraternity member, be okay with the culture of date rapes and stripper poles in dormers that I heard about from that same fraternity at my Big Ten University?

When Tim and I started dating in college, he invited me over to his dry fraternity house for a LAN party. I was skeptical, but I went. There was a culture of generosity and respect that did not preclude violence or sexism, but certainly kept them at bay. I thought — and felt — that I could be safe there, that I could be heard there. The members were, as they like to say, Fraternity Gentlemen, instead of Frat Boys.

However, fraternities change, over time. Members graduate, others leave, new members are initiated and become part of the social life of the fraternity. I became part of the social life of the fraternity — another fraternity girlfriend, a sub-community within the fraternity with its own camaraderie. Tim and I both graduated from our respective universities, and we got married, and we moved into an apartment together a mere 10 minutes and a few small towns away from the city with the fraternity house.

One Tuesday evening, this past January, Tim and I had driven to the city for slushies and we decided to stop by the fraternity house to see how everyone was settling in at the start of a new semester. We made the rounds of the house, and ended up talking to a group of guys in the stairway.

That is when things got hairy.

Scenario: Greg was describing a recent sexual encounter where he had been bitten repeatedly.
Problem: Brian said, “I would have just slapped her across the mouth so she’d stop.”
Reaction: Ever vigilant, I immediately pointed out that slapping her wasn’t an option. “That’s not cool, man,” I said. “Violence against women isn’t cool.”
Counter-Reaction: “What if she likes it? I mean, what if she wants it?” asked Brian, rolling his eyes and making it clear that he thought I was wrong.
Reaction: I responded that it didn’t sound like a BDSM situation, and that consent within BDSM was complicated, and even if it were a BDSM situation it didn’t seem very consensual.

The subject gets dropped with more eye rolling. However, the conversation continues.

Scenario: Greg mentions that a desirable sister-of-an-alumni (18+) would be at the first-weekend-of-the-semester LAN party. He says he would like to have sex with.
Problem: Greg describes this young woman without a name. He doesn’t care what her name is, because, “She’s hot!” Brian and several other boys (certainly not gentlemen) debate if Greg has the skills, and start talking about ways that Greg could trick this young woman into having sex with him.
Reaction: “Hey, you’re assuming she wants to have sex with you. That’s not cool,” I say.
Counter-Reaction: “I guess you’re right,” says Greg. However, the conversation is quickly back on track and the ball keeps rolling, soon describing how Greg, Brian, and every guy who is a member of their fraternity family tree should “have sex” (known as Rape in the legal reality of the world) with this young woman, who again, by the way, is, an alumni’s sister. Everyone is laughing, everyone is calling more people into the conversation, and someone who has mostly been listening in calls from the bottom of the stairwell: “That’s what I call keeping it in the family.”
Reaction: As soon as we leave the house, I cry all the way home. I sob for a full 20 minutes. I am terrified. Terrified that they could talk like that, terrified that I was not safe there — if 10 guys had wanted to rape me, Tim could not have stopped them — terrified that, perhaps, no one was safe there. I’m angry that the only thing Tim could think to do, after I was ignored, was to laugh along. I’m angry that they seem to think that rape is a joke, that multiple people forcibly having sex with one young woman is something merely light-hearted.

Delayed reaction: Though I am scared, and I am angry, I decide that I have to find a rational way to talk with these guys — some of whom I had respected, maybe even considered friends, before the incident. Make an argument to them that it was in their best interest to change the way they think, or at least challenge them to consider their assumptions…

More on that, next week.

This post is first in a series.

Combating Sexual Harassment in a Fraternity (as a female non-member):

In Which I Encounter the Rape Culture (Not for the First Time)
Failures of Formal Activism
Informal Activism and Friendships
Sexual Etiquette: A Lesson
On the Other Hand…