#Me Too and my Mormon experience

This past week we’ve been inundated with the disturbing news regarding Harvey Weinstein and his sexually aggressive, harassing and abusive treatment of women. This spanned a lot of years and a lot of women. We’ve come to learn that there were many people around him that had an inkling that something wasn’t right. He had a reputation, and yet many looked the other way and didn’t really want to understand just how deep of a problem it was. Some may have viewed it as just “oh boys will be boys”. Others helped and provided the means/opportunity for him to have these encounters. He was surrounded by people that covered for him, protected him and handled the women that could potentially expose his behavior. There were financial settlements to keep things from damaging Harvey and the industry. After all he was Harvey! Well known, influential, important in the industry, wealthy and threw great parties. He could make or break a Hollywood career. Let’s face it…. his position, power, wealth and connections protected him for far too long.

Out of this latest story we are learning, once again, the reality that sexual harassment, abuse and/or assault has been experienced by many. It’s not just the rich and famous. It’s not just in Hollywood. It’s not just the beautiful, powerful and glamorous. It happens all over the world. It crosses all sorts of boundaries including religion, community and economic background. It’s been happening for a very long time and unfortunately some of the behaviors associated with sexually aggressive behavior are learned, modeled, passed on and viewed as acceptable. Some are even encouraged. Some are excused, downplayed and not taken seriously. And when they do cross the line some are hidden and protected from the consequences.

This story has of course brought back a lot of memories for me. It’s also resulted in a lot of reflection about the things that may have impacted some of my experiences.

I grew up Mormon and so my early Me Too experiences are intertwined with this religious background and that perspective. My church lessons/activities, as a girl, included topics like modesty, virtue, chastity and rules regarding dating and physical activity. The church taught you shouldn’t go on solo dates until you were age 16. There was a lot of focus on how I, as a girl, would affect boys and their ability to restrain themselves and resist temptation. I was taught that how I dressed was very important and modesty was something that wove itself throughout all sorts of things whether it was Sunday dress, mid-week all girl activities and certainly combined events with the boys. We were taught what was appropriate and not when it came to how we dressed. It was not uncommon for someone to be asked to change or not admitted to an activity if they came wearing something deemed inappropriate. These rules carried over even into girls camp where we were not allowed to wear shorts despite the reality that we were all girls attending and camping together in the middle of hot summers. Later as an adult in the role of camp director I was told the reason for this was that there were still going to be priesthood holders there as chaperones and the girls needed to remain modest for them. Bare knees and thighs were deemed too much skin, and potentially risky, for those dad’s, YM leaders and Bishopric members.

I was certainly given the impression that I (as a girl) would have more control, when it came to physical “stuff”, rather than boys/men. I learned that my body carried the power to cause them to do things they shouldn’t and that it was my responsibility to protect them and help them remain worthy priesthood holders. There was little discussion about my own sexuality and the emotions, feelings, desires that I might feel and how to navigate those. Modesty, to remain virtuous, was always taught/framed with the focus on girls/women. If modesty was discussed with regards to men it described things like being clean, neat, clean shaven and well kept up. Growing up, there was never any discussion, I was involved in, that focused on how boys clothing choices might impact/affect sexual desires in girls. The focus was on men’s sexuality and always framed from that perspective. We were also taught that if you allowed yourself to “go too far” you would be damaged/broken/impure. Words like guilt, shame, sin, temptation, evil, Satan and repentance were mixed in with stories/metaphors of licked cupcakes, chewed gum and brownies filled with hidden yucky ingredients. We had one on one meetings, typically annually, with adult men where we were asked about our worthiness and very personal things like masturbation and our sexual thoughts/activities from age 12 on. Men were the ones that made decisions regarding whether we were worthy to participate in activities like going to the temple and youth conference. I never once had a young women leader openly discuss anything personal regarding their sexuality and their experiences navigating that. I had the impression that girls just weren’t really sexual until you got married and then it would be wonderful and you would want to be….. although I wasn’t quite sure what that meant or how that would happen. I just knew that my fullest potential was to become a wife and mother someday (which of course would include sexual activity), but the discussions about how I was to make that healthy transition, once married, never happened.

I don’t ever remember “consent”, being discussed in detail as a teenager. I understood that if you didn’t want to do something you could say no and tell someone to stop, but that was the extent of my understanding. I would say that due to the focus on modesty and girl’s responsibilities (when it came to boys and sex) my impression was my consent was what I wore. Or if I took a drink of alcohol. Or when I stayed out too late or starting kissing. In other words, I believed that by doing those things I had already inherently given consent to whatever would follow. That if something happened, that I didn’t want to have happen, it was due to my having made those first decisions/choices. That those earlier decisions set in motion what then followed. Boys/Men were just reacting to my earlier decisions and choices and I was responsible. I didn’t understand that I was allowed to stop things at any point. That I could change my mind and decide I didn’t want to do something at any point. That all along I was allowed to say I’m not comfortable with this. I don’t want to do this. You are making me uncomfortable or pressuring me. You aren’t listening to me. No. Stop. I did not understand or believe that it was OK to say things like at any point. That I was entitled and allowed to do this. At any point. I’m not sure if all of the men/boys I interacted with understood this either. I wonder whether some of them had the same impression I did. That somehow my consent had already been given earlier and now they had a green light. I believe some of them felt that if I changed my mind, or expressed hesitancy later on, it was mean and too late.

My first Me Too experience was at my first Youth Conference. I grew up in Germany, with my dad in civil service, so the Mormon youth traveled from all over to gather together at a Hotel. We stayed there for several days and had all sorts of daily activities. It also catered to the military and so there were soldiers there staying in parts of the hotel as well. One of those young army soldiers noticed me and began flirting. He was wearing a uniform, good looking and made me feel special. I was flustered by his attention and liked it. He invited me to meet him behind one of the buildings, when I had a break, and I was both excited and nervous. After I arrived, we talked a few minutes and then he abruptly pushed me up against the building and kissed me. I mean really kissed me. It was the first time I had ever been French kissed and I was surprised, excited, nervous and terrified. He continued to kiss me and it grew in intensity. I began to get uncomfortable and said I needed to get back to my room. I tried to pull away. He didn’t want me to leave and locked his arms around me against the building as he continued to kiss me. His hands began touching me in places I had never been touched before and although I continued to try and pull myself away, and tell him I needed and wanted to go, he held on and continued. My mind began racing about how to get myself out of there, as my fear increased, and I immediately thought it was my fault because I had come out to meet him. If I had only done what I was supposed to I wouldn’t be in this situation. I had given him the wrong impression and now he was just doing what men/boys do. I was truly scared and yet I also distinctly remember feeling I had caused this and was ashamed. I managed to convince him that my roommates/leaders would be looking for me if I didn’t get back soon. I promised him that I would check in with them and then sneak back out to meet him again and this way nobody would be looking for me. This took quite a bit of convincing on my part since he initially didn’t believe me. I remember feeling guilty that I was lying to him about returning since I knew all I wanted to do was escape. As I made my way back to my hotel room I began to sob. So many confusing emotions and thoughts ran through my head: I was terrified at what might have happened, I had led him on by flirting back, I had made the decision to come meet him, I had let him kiss/touch me and I had lied to him to get away. Instead of feeling safe to go to my leaders and let them know what had just happened I didn’t tell anyone because I felt so embarrassed and responsible. I was 14 and he was an adult. His name was Jesse and every time I hear Rick Springfield’s song Jessie’s Girl I remember this experience.

This initial experience was followed by several others over the next few years. A married church leader who counseled me and began to express that the spirit was telling him we had a special connection and significant relationship. I had the impression he wanted something sexual from me although I couldn’t quite explain or define why I felt this way. He just made me very uncomfortable and I knew something wasn’t right. A party where I was given some lemonade and woke up wearing clothing that wasn’t mine and walked home. I never found out what happened that night. The married father of a fellow HS classmate that offered to take me on a weekend trip and said he’d spoil me and buy me nice things. A landlord that wanted me to trade sex for a discount on my rent and told me he could teach me how real men treated women. Then there was the boss, at the clothing store I worked at, that approached me about a threesome with her and her boyfriend. When I said no thanks I lost that job. There were others which I’m still not able to share.

Then followed a church disciplinary process, with one on one meetings with my adult male Bishop, which included detailed questions about my personal sexual life and some of these Me Too events I’ve described. All of the focus was on me and he never asked or discussed their behavior toward me. At all. He never expressed outrage, sadness, surprise or frankly anything about the other people involved in any of my experiences. It was all about me and my choices and behavior. A decision was made to dis-fellowship me which meant I was not allowed to pray, hold a calling, attend the temple or speak in church during my freshman year at college. I was a silent participant in the LDS Institute program where I attended my ward and took classes and each week, for six months, I had a weekly call with my home-ward Bishop to discuss my personal ongoing behavior and worthiness. After six months he reinstated my full membership.

All of this occurred before I got married at age 19 in the temple.

On our 25th wedding anniversary getaway I finally confided some of these Me Too experiences to my husband. I felt safe enough to open up and talk about them. It took 25 years and I still had to fight the shame, guilt, responsibility I felt for some of those experiences. I was finally able to forgive myself for the decisions I had made that may have contributed to being in situations where others took advantage of me. I was finally able to understand and separate my decisions from their behavior and what they had done. I was finally able to realize and understand consent and that there is a lot more involved in true consent. I was finally able to understand these experiences involved people that had crossed the line into the inappropriate/harassment/abuse. I was finally able to see that what they did was not normal or OK and that I didn’t have to accept responsibility/blame for their actions.

Why have so many experienced their own Me Too or know someone who has?

It seems to me that one part of the problem is the challenge of defining the line between what’s acceptable and not. At what point does something cross over into sexual harassment? When does it become abuse? What type of behavior crosses over into the problematic realm? What do these specifically look and sound like (from both the person doing the behavior and the person receiving/experiencing it)? Would we, and do we, recognize these boundaries/definitions/behaviors in ourselves and others? When does humor, flirtation, assertive/confident behavior and interest in someone cross the line into harassment/abuse/predatory behavior? When does pressure/persuasion cross the line? Have we thought through these questions for ourselves? Have we discussed them with the people we care about? Have we ever talked about them with a partner/date/someone we are romantically interested in? How much effort has your workspace put into this with regards to educating employees and articulating policies? Are we teaching boys/girls/men/women how to recognize and define their boundaries? Are we teaching them how to articulate those in healthy ways?

How much have you thought about, learned and discussed consent and what it really means and looks like? Have you been involved in discussions/lessons/activities as a youth (or youth leader), parent, friend, co-worker or partner where you talked about specific potential situations and examples to better understand consent/harassment/abuse? How about how to articulate consent, ask for it and give it?

Getting back to Harvey – I believe he knew what he was doing and he knew it crossed the line. Repeatedly. That is why he hid it, paid settlements and decided to cover these experiences up. I believe the pattern of his behavior clearly shows this and I believe there were people around him that knew this and looked away. We’ve got to understand that typically someone like Harvey doesn’t get away with this sort of thing, for this long, all by themselves. We’ve got to hold each other accountable more when we know someone like Harvey. We’ve got to be willing to do our part to protect other people and to stop the pattern. We’ve got to stop blaming the victims for their decisions that put them in a situation where Harvey took advantage of them (what they wore, drank, where they went) and instead focus on his behavior and consent. Yes, we can teach and learn how to be safe and try to avoid people like Harvey, but sadly that’s not always going to work. There are Harvey’s out there and we’ve got to understand the warning signs and recognize when they are crossing those boundaries. Did the women Harvey engaged with understand and recognize what was happening? Did they view it as just inappropriate/Harvey being Harvey? Did they feel that this was just something they had to put up with in order to be successful in their career? Did they feel guilt, shame, embarrassment and somehow responsible when he crossed those boundaries and behaved the way he did? Did they feel like they could say no? Did they feel that others would support them in saying no? Did they feel safe sharing what had happened with others who cared about them? Did they hide what had happened? If so, why and what can we do to help others not feel they have to do that? How can we help people who experience these sorts of things realize it’s OK to share them and that they don’t have to hide them? Have we developed safe, supportive and healthy ways for people to report/discuss/seek help if they’ve experienced a Me Too moment?

I believe we need to be willing to look at our life, our church, our community, our family, our relationships and the people we care about most and expand our conversations and teaching moments regarding all of this. We need to be willing to make any necessary changes in order to stack the odds of being more successful at preventing, understanding and navigating these situations. We need to be more open, transparent, vulnerable with those we care about regarding our own personal experiences and what we’ve learned from them. We need to not be afraid to discuss things that involve sex and sexuality with people we feel safe with and trust. We need to teach boundaries. We need to support boundaries. With regards to Mormonism, we need to update policies and procedures that may put youth at risk. We need to stop having church members (and certainly not youth) counseled, with regards to their sexuality, by someone not professionally trained. Especially with regards to Me Too experiences. Too much is at stake. There is too much risk for potential long lasting emotional damage. We need to allow members to say: I’m not comfortable discussing that, I don’t want to answer that and I don’t want to meet one on one with you. We need to remove the stigma that they are less faithful if they do this. We need to train church leaders in how to recognize and respect these boundaries and when they should encourage members to seek professional help. We need to train them to understand their own limitations as volunteer church leaders. We need to stop perpetuating, and teaching, the idea that if God calls someone to leadership it means they are going to be equipped to be emotional, sexual, relationship and Me Too counselors. We need to get rid of the belief that somehow the spirit is going to make up for the lack of professional training/education/credentials. We need to admit it’s just too risky. We need to move past the idea that sexual topics and instruction on things like boundaries/consent/communication are just too private, personal and sensitive and best left to learn and understand at home. We need to teach more than just the rules and generic vague terms like necking/petting….. thinking this is enough to educate and protect our youth. We need to teach that virtue is more than just virginity. We need to completely do away with anything that uses licked cupcakes/chewed gum, or anything like this, in lessons. We need to teach all members what consent is and why it’s important and vital for healthy relationships. We need to do whatever it takes in order to help protect the ones we care about and love.

My hope is we can take our Me Too moments and move forward to learn, grow and heal ourselves and others.

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