Every day it happens to countless women. It’s been happening to me for 20 years.
The first time, I was a naïve 9-year-old girl. It was my first year riding the school bus and my first week in a new public school. With the residue of South Carolina summer still warming the air, I got off my bus and started walking the sticky, humid half-mile home.
With my house in sight, I heard a truck barreling up behind me. Then the yelling started. I was already just over 5 feet tall, and I looked to be at least 13 years old. For these men, that was old enough. Their first pass was a blur of crude shouts I could barely hear above the blood pulsing in my ears. I felt my face flame with shame.
I ducked my head and shuffled faster toward my front door, where I’d arrive more world-weary than when I’d left that morning. The truck turned around to head back in my direction. This time, the men were hungry, almost feral in their need to remind me, a prepubescent girl, that I was theirs to harass. The shouts increased in volume as my feet picked up speed. I slammed the door with their laughter still ringing in my ears.
That was the day I learned that I existed for the sport or pleasure of others, that my body was not my own.
In the years to follow, this message has been reinforced time and again — including by my church. Perhaps especially by the church. While the world taught me my body was not my own, it was the church that taught me my body was shameful, inherently inviting aggression, seduction and sin.
Poor theology preached from the pulpit reminded me men are ruled by “lust of the eyes.” They’re visual creatures, sexual deviants often unable to control themselves. Only in the holiest of men can I expect self-restraint. Therefore, I must do my part to keep these men from sinning by dressing modestly. Concealing my curves was the only defense — for me and for them — against attack. The weight of my own safety lay squarely on my shoulders.
So I wore clothes that were far too large. I skewed toward androgyny in an attempt to help my brothers in Christ, those poor souls who must struggle night and day to chain down their fleshly sinful natures.
Still my body provoked catcalls from strangers and resentful glares from men in the church. I’d asked for it, after all. I was born female.
Trump’s comments from this past week are nauseating, to be sure. But I’m more scarred by pastors who taught that my body was essentially evil. Take the respected pastor, writer and speaker John Piper. He wrote:
It is true that males are more visually spring-loaded to lust or to think unhelpful thoughts when they see a certain picture or person … My concern today is that it seems like a lot of Christian women are oblivious to the fact that they have some measure of responsibility here. I say it carefully though, because I know that some women would turn the issue back on men as if it is their own problem.
It is a man’s problem. But Piper’s is the narrative taught in church. I am a woman, so I am a temptress, a seductress. For men, the church hands out a catch-all excuse: It’s not you — it’s your brain. Temptation is not yours to manage but a woman’s responsibility to withhold.
Then, when the lust of the eyes inevitably takes over, we shrug our shoulders — boys will be boys, after all.
I weep for my 18-year-old self, cornered in a greasy kitchen as I counted my tips. I didn’t say “no” because the words stuck in my throat, in my heart. Hands roughly squeezed my breasts and ran down the front of my pants. I still replay the words my pastor told me the next day: “It was just a little touching on top of your clothes? I’m sure that’s upsetting, but you’ll be okay.”
We cannot allow this behavior to continue.
I will no longer let my clothing take responsibility for your actions. I will no longer give your “accidental” passing touches the benefit of the doubt. I will not pretend your unwanted sexual advances are funny. My body is not your punchline.
The message in some churches may be wrong, but the message of Christianity is right: My faith insists that my body is flesh and blood, animated with the breath of life, and instilled in that moment with an imprint of God. My body is made in the glorious image of God, and I am a deeply cherished member of God’s family. My body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, not a target for your lusts and fantasies.
When conservative religious leaders defend and rationalize the kind of boyhood — not manhood — on display in Trump, they are implying a handful of possible Supreme Court nominees are more important than the fight against sexual harassment and abuse.
Religious leaders often lament sexual sin in America, but their endorsement of Trump normalizes that same sin. Those who champion the sanctity of life should speak just as loudly when that sanctity is violated by rape culture. And yet I’ve watched this week as one after another doubled down on their endorsements of Trump.
Donald Trump has never assaulted me, but men with his sense of entitlement have. What’s even worse: The church that should have been my shelter instead armed these men with ready-made excuses for their behavior.
As Christians, it’s time we demand more of our leaders—spiritual and political ones.
We’re better than this. We have to be better than this.