Preparing Our Girls To Be Abused: When Churches Unwittingly Groom
As we spoke I told her about my love of music and my plans to start a jazz band. She asked who would be in the band and I told her I knew some local high school-aged musicians who performed at my mom's coffeehouse; I'd be asking them to join. She asked if they were boys or girls. "Boys." I answered, "It's really hard to find female jazz musicians my age around here." She went on to express her concerns to me. The conversation left me feeling uneasy and it really stuck with me, to this day I remember everything she said to me.
She warned me against working with an all-male group. She told me it wasn't appropriate for me to be surrounded by boys and told me I should make a real effort to find female band members. I told her my parents knew the musicians and were comfortable with me starting the band. She responded that it was unwise all the same and that I should reconsider my plans.
She expressed concern over me leading a group of guys. Nancy said it wasn't appropriate for a woman to lead a group of men. She suggested that I could still identify as the lead singer of the band but pass off the title of 'band leader' to one of the boys in the group in order to avoid being in a non-Biblical role of authority.
She warned me against dressing in a way that would cause the boys to stumble. She told to me be careful that my clothing was not too tight or revealing, especially if there were boys in the band. "You're a pretty girl" she told me, and she said I needed to be careful of the way I might tempt the other band members to feel or think about me.
She warned me not to become arrogant or brash. She reminded me that women should be gentle and have kind, quiet spirits. Leading a jazz band might tempt me to behave like a diva and she warned me to be on guard against the temptation to be the center of attention.
To some folks this might seem like perfectly healthy advice for a pastor's wife to offer a young girl, but the advice was unsolicited and was offered to me even after I had explained that my parents were aware of and approved of all the decisions being made. Her advice sent a very clear message to me that I needed to remember my place as a female: I had a responsibility to defer to men, to limit my exposure to men, to be meek and gentle around men, while also bearing the responsibility for men's lustful thoughts about my body.
What I didn't realize is that I was being groomed for the shaming I would experience when I came out about my abuse almost 3 years later. I would be told that I was culpable in my own abuse and that I bore responsibility for the abuse because of my flirtatious, tempting behavior. The man who abused me would be relieved of a great portion of his own responsibility in light of my "parent's foolishness" and his own "immaturity."
Nancy fed me the same words every other young girl in misogynist religious communities hears. Advice like hers is the very thing that reinforces abuse victims feeling dirty, shameful, and responsible for their own suffering. The man who abused me certainly made me feel this way, but the sad truth is that the teachings from my church had been making me feel shameful for years before the abuse even began. I had been unwittingly prepared to accept my fate of sexual abuse and to subsequently accept the blame that would be placed on me after I spoke up.
I wish I was alone in this. I wish my story was an anomaly but you and I both know it is far from that. Our churches and communities need to take a step back, zoom out from specific cases of sexual abuse and talk about what leads to the abuse. Admittedly, there are many factors that open doors for abuse to take place, but the way we train our youth to view themselves and those around them is a hugely relevant factor.
Regardless of our religious views we must empower our girls to see themselves as so much more than secondary human beings and the future belongings of men. They must know that however gentle they are by nature they can expect and require respect from the men in their lives, and that when they are hurt by someone in a position of authority over them it is not their fault. Not in any way.
We must also empower our boys to take responsibility for their thoughts and actions rather than reassuring them through example that a woman will shoulder the blame for their failings. They must know that love is a sacrifice, a mutual understanding between two people and not something which is owed to them.
Nancy Wilson was simply repeating the things she had been taught and had come to believe. She saw an opportunity to reach out to me and was passing along the information she felt I needed to hear. I don't fault her, but I do disagree with her and I do feel that her advice and the advice so many other young girls in our churches and communities are given is deeply harmful and dangerous.
We cannot tell our daughters "you are valued and cherished" while also telling them "it's your fault you were raped."