by Becky Posey Williams
In the beginning, God created all of us in the image of God. It’s such a simple statement, right?
Unfortunately, at some point, one decided to have dominion over another. It seems almost always the dominant person has more resources and, therefore, more power. The resources may include greater physical strength, more money, more land, more education, more prestige and higher positions within the workforce, etc. For some, the position of greater resources and dominance supports a belief that this is a free ticket to belittle, demean, and/or degrade a person with fewer resources.
Within The United Methodist Church, I see this happening in the name of sexual harassment. Though people of all genders are harassed, the majority of victims reaching out to The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women for answers and support are women. According to a report from Vanderbilt Law School, most victims are younger women, oftentimes in lower-level positions, and frequently supervised by the opposite sex. Within the Church, we know you do not have to be employed to be harassed. Laity are often the ones calling for help and/or filing formal complaints. Clergy also experience harassment by laity. The Vanderbilt report also notes harassment especially prevalent in organizations with male-dominated structures.
To prevent and respond well to this problem, it is important we understand the definition. According to U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that is in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. It also includes gender directed offensive comments. Paragraph 161 (I) in The United Methodist Church 2012 Book of Discipline, page 112, defines sexual harassment as “any unwanted sexual comment, advance, or demand, either verbal or physical, that is reasonably perceived by the recipient as demeaning, intimidating, or coercive. Sexual harassment must be understood as an exploitation of a power relationship rather than as an exclusively sexual issue. Sexual harassment includes, but is not limited to, the creation of a hostile working environment resulting from discrimination based on gender.”
The prevalence of this problem is rampant in our society. I open the Chicago-based newspaper, RedEye, and see this headline, “Taking a Stand: Women in improve comedy detail a culture of sexual harassment and silence”, January 29, 2016. I log on Facebook to catch up on old friends and read one’s latest post on Representative Jeremy Durham’s scandal of power and sexual harassment as reported by The Tennessean newspaper, February 16, 2016. I hurriedly open the New York Times on Sunday morning where I will vicariously travel to in the “Travel” section, but first stumble upon “Why Women Quit Science”, March 6, 2016. These stories share common themes of women being approached by men in positions of power over them and being sent unwanted email, texts, verbal messages recognizing her physical appearance and subsequent attraction to her. In some cases there were unwanted physical advances. Regardless of the behaviors, it seems all were left with feeling deeply uncomfortable and sexualized. As a result, fear and anxiety dictated how she would respond. In every case, each victim describes feeling shocked and confused and left wondering how she will face him at work tomorrow. What about her next assignment and what will the impact be if she reports? Will she be invited to doubt herself, even feel embarrassed for not being able to be a “tough woman” and take it? Will there be retaliation for the duration of her career?
Within the Church, I can add that for laity and clergy the questions are often around their relationship and presence within the congregation. How will I continue to worship in this congregation? Will people think I provoked this? If I report this will I be believed or will it be minimized to “he said, she heard” thinking? If she chooses to report immediately, often she may hear this is not enough to warrant a formal complaint and no accountability is provided. If she doesn’t report it immediately, the first question is often, “Why didn’t you say something when this happened?” And most disturbing to me, is the victim’s decision to often leave the church completely.
The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women is mandated to provide services aimed at eradicating the problem of sexual harassment in our church and society. Today, as we move toward General Conference, I am asking you to take an active stand. I am asking you to take the risk of being uncomfortable in speaking up to say this behavior is unacceptable and pledging to not be a silent bystander.
In your conversations with your annual conference’s or central conference’s 2016 General Conference delegates, please encourage them to readopt Resolution 2045. Our work has never been more important in the life of the church and world. The courage modeled by victims in reporting sexual harassment begs us to respond better. We must. It is the right thing to do for God’s world.
Sexual harassment is fueled by deeply rooted attitudes about power, authority, and gender. It will be prevented when these attitudes are challenged and overhauled!
Becky Posey Williams is the Senior Director of Sexual Ethics and Advocacy for GCSRW. She loves the outdoors and actively seeks opportunities to be in nature. Becky is a native Mississippian and proud mother of Rebecca.