not in Primary anymore

the making of a feminist

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By Rebecca Coleman

Feminists are angry. Feminists hate men. Feminists are ugly. Sound familiar? Of course it does. Here’s the thing: I’m not ugly, and I don’t hate men. I respect myself—a distinction lost on many of feminism’s critics. Am I angry? Perhaps. I’ll tell you why. As far back as I can remember men have been putting their hands on me. When I was in first grade, I was nearly kidnapped by a man in a green truck. That run for my life is still among my most vivid childhood memories. Less sinister, but still serious, are the countless times I’ve felt uncomfortable with the way men in my life have touched me. Teachers, neighbors, older brother’s friends, friend’s older brothers, peers at school, men at church, men at work, and even male relatives. I’ve been groped and grabbed in public, followed, harassed, or intimidated too many times to count. Let me give you a few examples. In ninth grade one of my teachers took me out into the hallway. We were alone. He put his arm around me and started rubbing my shoulders and back. He told me I was pretty. He told me I was smart. I wriggled away—and never told my parents, or any other adult. By that time, I had been conditioned to expect this out of life. I’d been “tickled” and “teased” by so many men that I actually believed this was normal—but I never liked it. This might sound like I’m complaining about being attractive. Let me tell you another story. A few years ago, I spent an afternoon with a girlfriend in New York. We went to a trendy restaurant with a notoriously long wait. I looked great. I was wearing a skirt that was very flattering—not immodest—but very flattering. The current wait was an hour and a half. The host motioned for us to be discreet and seated us right away. It felt great. Within twenty minutes of leaving the restaurant, while walking in a crowd, I felt a large hand slide around the front of my hip and between my legs. That did not feel great. It felt gross. If I could choose the trade-off, I would gladly still be standing in line with other tourists to get a table, rather than being assaulted on the street. Not even close. New York—what a city. A man followed me one night on the subway all the way out to Queens. He kept insisting he was going to “help” me. I told him I didn’t need his help. He stood over me anyway with angry, rape-y eyes, as if I were his property. So I called my male cousin. I told him a man was following me and asked him to meet me at the station. The man got off at the next stop. I took a train another night from Baltimore to DC. Noticing I was alone—I’d already told him I wasn’t interested—a man took every train and metro I did until I reached my neighborhood in Pentagon City, then followed me off the train—the same angry, rape-y eyes. I ran up the escalator and jumped in a taxi. My house was a five-minute walk. Those were just strangers. A guy I’d been hanging out with picked me up from my apartment one night. His friend and my friend were there too. When we got to his house, they started making out. He wanted to hook up too, but I wasn’t interested. After trying to manhandle me a few times, he threatened me. If I didn’t hook up with him, I would have to walk home. It was after midnight, the middle of winter, I didn’t even have a coat—and he wasn’t kidding. I walked home that night. Another date groped me over and over while I resisted, explicitly described a pornographic scene he’d seen in a movie once as an explanation of who I “reminded” him of, and pounced on me after pulling up to my house. I pushed him off, jumped out of the car, and hurried to the door. He chased me to the door, grabbed me again, and tried to force his way in—and actually called me the next day. Honestly, I consider myself lucky. I’ve never been raped. I’ve had many friends who haven’t been so lucky. You’ve heard the statistic that only one in four rapes are reported. Through the years, friends—women I’ve grown close with—have confided in me about being raped, more than four, more than eight. Not one of those stories ended in a police report. This small sample of personal stories can’t even compare to some of the things women I know have endured. I used to work as a massage therapist. Men would pick up on me every day. One told me his wife was out of town that weekend, he told me he was rich, he invited me over. Another grabbed me and kissed my neck on his way out. Others tried to touch me during the massage. Their temple garments were on the bench near by. One evening a man came in—my last appointment of the night—and begged me to let him remove his drape. I told him he was welcome to go to another therapist. He told me he would only come to me. His last words, “I’ll get you,” rang in my head for weeks. I never found what he meant because I quit the next day. When I told my (former) employer everything that had happened—why I was quitting, his parting words were, “Don’t judge us.” No apology, no concern. Here’s the point. Fresh out of Young Women’s, I was told by a bishop to be more soft-spoken. He said it was what the Lord wanted. I believed him. This is not an isolated teaching.

“Women of God can never be like women of the world. The world has enough women who are tough; we need women who are tender. There are enough women who are coarse; we need women who are kind. There are enough women who are rude; we need women who are refined. We have enough women of fame and fortune; we need more women of faith. We have enough greed; we need more goodness. We have enough vanity; we need more virtue. We have enough popularity; we need more purity.” ~ Margaret D. Naudald

I hate this quote, particularly the first half. I understand her intention is good, I really do. But I also honestly believe that absorbing the Mormon emphasis on women being submissive and soft-spoken escalated some of these events further than necessary. I tried to be nice. I giggled when I should have screamed. But at some point, I learned to be tough, not tender. And not surprisingly, I’ve been harassed with far less frequency. Mormon women live in the world—the real world. They’re not safe, even from Mormon men. They need to be taught to speak up, speak out, and be as tough as a situation requires. I enjoy being nice. I enjoy being pretty. I understand that men want sex. I want sex. Everyone wants sex. There is nothing wrong with that. But it is wrong not to teach our daughter’s the importance of consent—for any type of touch. It’s wrong to teach them to trust their male leaders implicitly. They will not always help us. Sometimes they will hurt us. Being nice is never more important than being safe.

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12 Responses to “the making of a feminist”

  1. curtispenfold

    The things that happened to you sound terrible. I’m sorry you had to go through that.

    I just want to point out one phrase in your blog post that bothers me:

    “Everyone wants sex.”

    Not everybody wants sex, and that’s O.K. Some people are asexual.

    Reply
  2. Kiales

    I LOVE this. By being essentially told that women are inherently submissive and that’s how we can best build the kingdom of God (in prettier, nicer words, but that’s the overall message)… we put women in awful situations.

    Reply
  3. Lani

    Thank you. I too have had enough of the constant ‘be nice…be gentle’ counsel for women in this church. I have three daughters and i never want them to sacrifice safety, self-respect and assertiveness – for sweet niceness.

    Reply
  4. Nemesis

    Holy crap, Rebecca. I’m so sorry. I remember when you left your massage therapy job (we were in the same singles ward at the time). This is so awful. And YES, we need to teach girls (and remind ourselves) that it’s more important to be safe than to be polite, which is the absolute opposite of the message we grow up internalizing.

    Reply
  5. Nemesis

    This makes me think of some other friends I know who’ve been victimized. Sadly, it seems that once they have been a victim, other predators can somehow pick them out of a crowd as a potential target. My friend was picked out of a work-related seminar led by an expert on bullying/abuse/trafficking. He didn’t know her, but apparently he could look at her and tell she’d been a victim. He asked to see her after class to tell her that people who are looking for targets will gravitate to her unless she can find a way to carry herself with more self-assurance. (He suggested self-defense classes as a start.) So the damage doesn’t even necessarily end the first time a woman or girl is treated like an object. We have plenty to be angry about.

    Reply
  6. Heidi

    I see where you are coming from, and have had many similar ideas to you. However, I think you are misinterpreting the leaders of the Church. You created a straw man argument saying the leaders tell us to be submissive and let people, particularly men, do whatever they want to us women. You’re right- that is total crud! However, I can guarantee you that is not what they teach. When I promise to follow priesthood leaders and other local leaders, including women, I only promise to follow them as they follow The Lord. Our leaders encourage women to discern right and wrong for themselves. What many men have done to you is absolutely wrong and you would be in the wrong to allow them to continue to treat you that way, as long as you do your best to resist them. The Savior was very submissive, but only in causes that were righteous. He used His agency to discern right and wrong. The worlds idea of submission is that you do whatever someone tells you to. When I submit, I am empowered. I have made a conscious effort (and probably prayed to know the truth) to decide for myself if something I’m presented with is right or wrong. If it’s right, it takes great strength on my part to lay aside what I want in favor of what The Lord has told me is right. This is what that quotation is talking about. That is submission in The Lord’s way.
    There are many men who have wronged me as well. I am under no obligation to follow any man or woman “to hell” so to speak. Allowing or feeling its a woman’s lot to allow a man to disrespect us is hardly “tender”, “kind”, “refined”, “faithful”, “good”, or “pure.” It would be weak, victimizing, objectifying, humiliating, and denigrating, which attributes I have never been taught by church leaders to cultivate.

    Reply
    • Katherine

      I think we have a fundamental disagrement over what “submissive” means. That is not at all a word I would use to describe Christ. Christ was assertive, a quiet leader, and a servant to the people but certainly not submissive. I’m really curious about what you mean when you say ” When I submit, I am empowered.” By definition, to submit means to “accept or yield to a superior force or to the authority or will of another person.” I cannot at all understand how submission, taking away your own authority to make decisions, could be empowering.

      Reply
      • Heidi

        I encourage you to study this great talk about submissiveness- how it was a significant attribute of the Savior’s and how when we submit to God’s will we are empowered: http://www.lds.org/general-conference/1985/04/willing-to-submit?lang=eng&query=Submissive
        Submissiveness is incredibly important for us to develop. As I study the atonement I learn more about how the savior submitted to the will of the Father- He even says He suffered the will of the Father.
        However, we really need to carefully study, because people can get confused, like this article shows, and like my own personal experience. When we have a relationship with God where we seek His counsel, we will be able to know for ourselves what things we should submit to. God will help us to be kind, meek, and submissive in situations that are good and righteous, never unrighteous and demeaning. Submission in God’s way is about putting aside the worldly pieces of yourself, even if it is difficult, so that your divinity can shine through.

  7. Ash

    I don’t believe the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (both male and female) would ever support not speaking out against any of those occurrences. I’m truly sorry for your crazy bad luck with random men, but I believe you are taking the Church’s teaching completely out of context. There is the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. As a woman in the church I do not believe I am taught or pushed to be submissive. There is a difference between being taken advantage of and being tender, kind, refined, faithful, good, virtuous, and pure. To me that list of attributes would tell me to speak up for myself, not to stay quiet.

    Do not blame the church for bad advice from a bishop (I’ve never heard that before) or the individual bad deeds of its members. I wish all Latter-Day Saints were perfect, but sadly they’re not…including the women.

    Reply
    • theafterwhys

      In her experience, in her life, and in the situation she was in, perhaps she did not take the Church’s teaching out of context. Perhaps that was what she was actually taught by her Church.

      For you to make a sweeping generalization about the Church you know, you completely minimize her experience at her Church and put the blame on her for perceiving what she was taught wrongly. All she is doing is expressing her experiences and what happened to her. You were not there, and to put the blame back on her and “her crazy bad luck with men” is an awful thing to say when there was clearly a trend throughout her life of abusive men. That is not “crazy bad luck”, that is a “crazy bad culture” wherever it may be.

      Perhaps the culture you are a part of did not act in this way, but hers clearly did, because she is telling you that it did and your disbeleif of her is a disservice to the both of you.

      Reply

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