With apologies to Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for predatory men to triumph is that good men and women say nothing.”
Last October, the long, uncomfortable silence was broken on sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. After The New York Times detailed three decades of sexual harassment allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, the floodgates opened and other women began to come forward with their own personal stories about Weinstein and others in Hollywood.
As more victims spoke out, it became clear that this wasn’t just a Hollywood problem. Allegations against big name journalists and politicians, as well as those in the worlds of business and sports, became almost a daily occurrence.
Then women outside power circles began to speak up against sexual harassment and abuse. The #MeToo movement exploded as women everywhere chimed in to say that they too had been sexually harassed or assaulted at the hands of an employer, family member, or love interest.
Time magazine honored victims by naming “The Silence Breakers” as its “Person of the Year” for 2017. New allegations continue to appear regularly, and the media features these accusations more prominently than ever before.
It feels like something has shifted in our culture. Sexual harassment and assault, of course, have been an unfortunate part of human history. But the dynamics of culture and workplace power structures kept much of it hidden. That’s the way with sexual sin—or any sin, for that matter. Sin’s power thrives in silence, in darkness.
As Ephesians 5:11-14a tells us, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light.
Why has the problem gone unaddressed for so long, hidden in darkness? There are a number of reasons.
1. Many people over the years have excused sexual harassment in the workplace by rationalizing that “boys will be boys.” Some expect that males will act crudely because “that’s their nature.” In some cases, men who refuse to participate in the boorish behavior—or attempt to expose it—are ridiculed, dismissed, or become the target of retribution.
2. Offenders often do anything they can to cover up their sin. They will lie, they will manipulate friends and colleagues, and they will threaten or coerce victims to remain silent. Many women are threatened by their abusers—if they speak out, they’ll lose a job, a relationship, or their reputation. They’ve already been victimized once, and they’re afraid that bringing up the matter in public would open the wound afresh.
3. Institutions have covered up harassment and abuse claims. Sometimes they simply don’t believe the accusations. Or they’ll try to handle the situation on their own rather than reporting it to authorities. Sometimes they’ll silence victims to “protect the integrity” of the business, or school, or even church.
4. Many who have been sexually mistreated are fearful of speaking out. They think that they won’t be believed, or that they’ll be blamed for somehow bringing on the assault. Some put the blame on themselves, thinking they might have done something to bring about the situation that led to the abuse or harassment.
5. In some cases, women don’t speak out because they fear what might happen to the offender. In many cases of sexual misconduct, the offender has some type of relationship with the victim—a boss, a coworker, a family member, a significant other, a spouse. That’s one reason why many women remain inside abusive relationships. Fear of what will happen to others is also a huge factor when sexual impropriety occurs within a church or ministry. Speaking out would ruin a person in full-time Christian service and would put the church at the center of scandal.
All these factors worked to keep sinful behavior in the darkness, and it takes courage to expose that sin, to speak out in spite of how awkward and scary it must feel. This kind of behavior needs to be called out, and appropriate actions need to be taken against the offenders—not only for justice, but also as an example to others who might be inclined to use their power to take advantage of others sexually.
Men are often guilty of abusing their positions of authority or fame, or taking advantage of their greater physical strength, to act out sexually against women. That’s wrong on two levels. First, men should treat women with respect, not putting them in difficult, awkward, or compromising situations. Women shouldn’t be forced to choose between a promotion or personal integrity. And second, those in a position of power have a higher standard of responsibility and decorum. They should care for those under their charge and be examples to those who look up to them as role models.
Fruits of the sexual revolution?
Another issue to consider is the “sexual revolution” that began in the 1960s—the unmooring of sexuality and morality from its traditional, biblical foundations. Sex outside of marriage is so common in our culture that those who seek to remain pure until marriage are often considered oddballs.
“We know that God has designed sex as a respectful, intimate, physical, emotional, and spiritual bond between a husband and wife; it is for mutual pleasure and procreation inside the bonds of marriage,” says Bob Lepine, co-host of FamilyLife’s radio program, FamilyLife Today®. But as behavior changed and sexual images became so pervasive over the last few decades, “our culture today is so far away from God’s design for sexuality that we have come to think that the biblical standard is quaint or unrealistic anymore,” Lepine says.
What does this have to do with sexual harassment? Or sexual assault? You can build a strong argument that a culture permeated with sex will produce more people who abuse it. “Arguably, this culture has permitted men to behave even more shabbily toward women than the old mores did,” wrote Mona Charen in the National Review. “This may sound odd, but I think it’s true—even the sexual harassment has become grosser than it was a few decades ago.”
Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “Once you separate sex from its seriousness, once you separate it from its life-changing, life-giving potential, men will come to see it as just another want, a desire like any other. Once they think that, then they’ll see sexual violations as less serious, less charged, less full of water. They’ll be more able to rationalize.”
In this sex-saturated age, many young women feel they need to emulate the images and behavior of airbrushed models and celebrities to attract the attention of a man. Whatever admirable qualities she possesses, she is regarded more as a sexual object. Hollywood pushes this narrative in its films and television series, perhaps none so much as in the Fifty Shades franchise.
We live in a culture that desires sexual freedom, but this latest movement is demonstrating that too much freedom leads to unintended consequences.
It is ironic that the cultural discussion about sexual harassment and assault is occurring just as the final film in the Fifty Shades trilogy is about to hit the screens. Look for this discussion in the next article in this series. After that, we will talk about how followers of Christ can begin to make an impact on this issue.