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Feminism

I was arrested for protesting Kavanaugh’s nomination. Here’s why.

The image at the top of the post shows me being arrested at the #cancelKavanaugh direction action organized by the Women’s March and the Center for Popular Democracy Action. You can see my head just beyond the woman in orange.

There’s still a lot to process from yesterday, but I wrote down what motivated me to be willing to do that for Sojourners, in “A Christianity that Makes Room for Rage.”

The rage I began expressing scared many of the people who knew me, who cared about me. They came from the same faith tradition I’d been brought up in, a tradition that teaches that “negative” emotions like rage, despair, sadness, anger, and bitterness have no place in a Christian’s life. My rage deeply concerned them, and I began receiving a consistent stream of worried messages, texts, emails and phone calls. They all tried to persuade me that I could only be healed if I let go of my rage, but I knew deep in my bones they were wrong. Rage was the only sensible path forward, the only roadmap I had to recovery.

I slowly came to understand that if I was going to remain a Christian, I needed to find a path that had room for the rage and grief I carried with me as a rape survivor. Rage is the only human and rational reaction to the trauma I’d experienced, and I could not smother my humanity in order to remain a Christian.

Read the rest of it here.

Photography by PBS.

Feminism

being cannon fodder in the war on women

I turned 31 the day I found out about the first allegation against Brett Kavanaugh. Two days later, I read Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s story for the first time, although she was still reluctant to be identified.

It has been fourteen days of hell.

The second I picked up my phone and saw the headline from the New York Times in my notifications, I felt myself instantly brace. My stomach became a bottomless, yawning pit and every muscle in my body tensed. I closed my eyes and felt my soul begin to prepare for the coming barrage. Emotionally, the closest image I’ve been able to conjure that captures what it’s like is “Bastogne” from Band of Brothers. The words from that headline screamed into my heart like the piercing whistle of an incoming shell. Old battlescars, like the one his watch made when it dug into my knee as he blooded me for the first time, begin to ache.

I wasn’t ready for this. I’m never ready for this. Every time, I believe I’ve gotten a little bit better at handling all of it, that I’m a little more battle-hardened. For about a week I even fooled myself into thinking that I was managing. Looking back at the last two weeks, though, I have not been even anywhere close to calm. The evening of the 17th was the first sign of the damage I was taking, the first time I was forced to acknowledge the shrapnel ripping through my body. I got a migraine, so I implemented my first line of defense, a stronger version of naproxen or ibuprofen. By the next morning, those defenses had crumbled so I buffered them with a dose of frovatriptan, a medication that costs $547. Two hours later, I needed another.

It didn’t work, and by that night I was clutching my head, digging my fingers into my scalp, and all I could do was lie in bed, rocking myself back and forth, and moan through the endless, agonizing hours of the night. The groans I couldn’t keep inside belonged in a frontline medical ward, not in my comfortable suburban home. The next day, I tried another two doses of frovatriptan … but nothing helped. Finally I was able to drag myself into the hospital, where a nurse stabbed me in the leg and injected a massive dose of toradol straight into my bloodstream. I limped back to my car, and barely managed to drive home. The bruise I have, days later, is a dark mottled eggplant two inches across.

I haven’t been able to sleep. Each day for the last two weeks I’ll lay in bed until exhaustion eventually drags me back into my nightmares just as the sun rises. Every hour I desperately try to dig my foxhole just a little bit deeper, give myself just a little more cover. But nothing can block out the constant whine of bombs, the sharp punch of gunfire. Innocent until proven guilty drops down and sends a scattering of dirt and rock into my face. This is obviously a political hack job goes off like a grenade and I can practically hear my sisters, my comrades-in-arms, screaming in anguish. She’s lying, and I flinch as that one lands just outside my meager shelter and I don’t even really feel the pain until I feel the blood trickling over my skin.

But then my world is rocked and I can’t tell down from up as an crushing shockwave blasts through me. What boy hasn’t done this in high school? and I know I’m screaming, I know it because I can taste the blood in the air and I can feel my throat ripping itself apart, but I can’t even hear it.

Valiantly, at first, I load my weapon and charge into the fray. Innocent until proven guilty doesn’t apply; we’re not demanding that he be stripped of all his rights and sent to prison, just that he not be rewarded with one of the highest offices in the land– we are allowed to use all of the evidence available to us to practice sound judgment and discernment in selecting a Justice nominee. I’m horrified as I watch this volley practically bounce off the enemy combatent’s armor. But I know my duty, so I keep going, keep trying. Here’s a study about false accusations and the kinds of person who make them, Dr. Ford doesn’t fit that pattern, she’s a credible eyewitness. Still, I’m pressed on all sides. Isn’t it important for our elected representatives to consider a serious allegation like this, no matter where it comes from? And it’s like my well-honed arguments turn to dust in my hands. None of it matters. Nothing makes a difference.

So I retreat, and hunker down, and hope to wait out the storm of bullets and fire raining down from the sky. But I can’t, not when What boy hasn’t done this shatters me. It breaks me, and now all I can do is try to drag my wounded body away from the front lines, crying out for help, begging someone, anyone, to get me to safety.

My partner comes home and I’ve managed to prepare a meal for the first time in over a week and I try to eat the roasted chicken and vegetables I usually love but everything tastes like sawdust and churns in my gut so I leave half of it uneaten. I am tired. Weary. Struggling. Again, there’s a pop from a distant rifle and my phone screen is like the light from a muzzle flash. Senate Democrats Investigate a New Allegation of Misconduct and I look up to see Deborah Ramirez climb down beside me and for the first time I feel a glimmer of hope.

It’s just a glimmer, though, and the night is dark, and long, and terrible. For the first time since the battle began again I scream aloud, and rage, and beg my partner for an explanation– any explanation that could comfort me in a world where people hear Christine’s story and aren’t drawn to their knees in compassionate surrender, but level the field with a warhead like what boy hasn’t done this. I see it puff up into a mushroom cloud as my local representatives join the chain reactionif what Brett Kavanaugh did was that bad, I wouldn’t even qualify for office! Vote to confirm him!

My partner holds me as I shake, and sob, and he shores up the only desperate defense I have left: what the fuck?! How the fuck is this possible?! How can they do this?

HOW THE FUCK CAN THEY DO THIS?!

How do you hear about a young woman, a little girl, being dragged into a room and forced into a bed, then mounted by a man several years older than you and you’re screaming, begging, for him to stop, for someone to help you, and he silences your cries, silences his conscience, and begins to tear the clothes off your body?

My screams turn into whimpers, and the sobs quiet into tears that pour down my cheeks without wracking my body to get out.

***

I am still suffering. I still have not been able to sleep. The migraine is mostly gone, but it hovers, waiting to strike at the first sign of weakness. But tonight I rallied– I joined a conference call to plan a direct action at the Capitol on Thursday, and polished my battle armor once more. It lays on my dining room table now, two pieces of posterboard that still smell faintly of ink. Dr. Ford is an American Patriot and Christine is my Hero will be both my battle cry and a missile to cast into the halls of Congress when I join my band of sisters in those whited sepulchres. On Thursday, I’ll be joining Christine in No Man’s Land while she takes all the fire.

I hope, I pray, that we will emerge victorious.

Feminism

redemption for rapists: a how-to guide for predators, abusers, and churches

[content note: discussions of sexual violence]

When I first started writing this blog at Defeating the Dragons, I initially intended to never talk about the fact that half a dozen men had sexually assaulted me. I didn’t want to reveal that I had been raped and sexually abused. I didn’t want to talk about it at all … but I quickly realized that deconstructing my faith experience meant I was going to have to be honest about what these men had done to me. For me, there was no way forward in my Christian path without coming to terms with rape and its presence in my life. I was abused by Christians, and Christians used our religion to cover it up and silence me through intimidation and shame.

For the past five years I have wrestled with my spirit, with God, and with Scripture. There have been sleepless nights when putting my faith back together felt like repairing a shattered mirror, when trying to collect the broken pieces meant feeling the knife-sharp bite of jagged glass.

Remaining a Christian, for me, has been a deliberate choice to make room for repentance, forgiveness, and redemption. I am drawn to Jesus and Christianity because of God’s love for the marginalized, for what I believe is an intrinsic call for liberation and justice. I stay because of the Incarnation, because I believe in resurrection.

I am challenged by the expansiveness, the sheer breadth, of God’s mercy.

I don’t want there to be a way back for abusers. I want the men who violated me, who exploited their position and the institutional cover most churches provide, to be forever cast out and forsaken. I want them to suffer– to be like Esau, to “find no place of repentance, though they seek it carefully with tears.”

As I’ve healed, though, I have become open to the idea of redemption for abusers. I’ve inched closer to forgiving the men who harmed me. However, as I’ve begun understanding those concepts in the context of my Christianity, I am growing ever more furious with anyone who abuses the God-given grace of redemption as just another tool to protect abusive men.

So if redemption doesn’t look like a pastor who raped a teenage girl, begged her to cover it up for him, and then getting a standing ovation from his church for admitting he’s predator while his victim tries to bring some measure of justice … or a comedian sneaking back onto stage less than a year after admitting that he harassed multiple women and damaged their careers … what does it look like?

Here’s my answer, nine years after being ordered to repent for causing a man to rape me, eight years after telling the first person who compassionately listened, seven years after a three-day bender I went on to avoid facing the depth of my hurt, six years after a counselor informed me that being a victim means I’m a “poisoned well” and shouldn’t date anyone, and five years after receiving the first of many death threats for talking about it in public. It’s an answer that has come slowly and at times painfully, but has been shaped by almost a decade of learning to forgive.

***

Step 1: Repentance

I have a lifetime of experience in many different types of Christian communities: from fundamentalist to evangelical, Reformed to Arminian, conservative to progressive. Unfortunately, I’ve found the same thread woven through every single one of them, and it is the belief that repentance is limited to acknowledgement and forgiveness means absolution. In order for a person to repent in these circles, the offender should grant the public a mea culpa along with some version of the phrase “please forgive me” or “I’m truly sorry.” Depending on the community, this acknowledgement has no need to be specific, and can often incorporate a measure of blame and fault on the person they’re ostensibly apologizing to.

This is not repentance. This is Apology Theater. It’s public relations. It’s image management.

When a Christian uses this form of repentance, it’s to change the narrative. When someone accuses Savage/Hybels/Gothard/Driscoll/Mahaney/Tchividjian/et al of abuse, all these men have to do is shallowly acknowledge the accusation, perform a few palliative acts of contrition, say the words “forgive me,” and then six months later slip the mantle of power back onto their shoulders. Any further criticism can be dismissed by the community because of the repentance narrative: stop criticizing them, they served their time, they repented, exile shouldn’t be forever, God forgave them why can’t you, etc. Tullian Tchividjian’s recent “Grace for the Disgraced” post is an excellent– and disturbing– example of how this works.

This isn’t, in my opinion, biblical repentance. I’ve written a few posts about repentance before (one on communal repentance, another on transformation), but I’d like to focus on what repentance should look like in the context of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. My thinking on this subject has been informed somewhat by the Jewish articulation of teshuvah, and I believe repentance has several parts:

  • confess all of what you did in a holistic, encompassing way
  • understand not just why you harmed someone but how you were able to do so
  • take the necessary precautions to ensure that you do not ever harm someone that way again

Confession is not just a bare-bones acknowledgement of sin. If a rapist wants to seek redemption, their journey should start with the complete picture, a soulful and spirit-filled understanding of the harm they caused. When John* forced his penis inside me, the harm wasn’t limited to that specific action, that single event. The harm was the sexual violation and it was ruining my ability to trust romantic partners, the damage to my faith, the nightmares, the shame, the fact that I will probably flinch any time I see someone who looks even vaguely like him, the fact that I can’t take a shower in an unfamiliar place, that I have fibromyalgia likely as a result of trauma. The confession can’t be a mere “I’m sorry I hurt you,” it has to come with the realization that you are responsible for all of the destruction your actions led to– emotional, psychological, financial, spiritual, physical.

Second, abusers need to spend a lot of time digging through all the elements that permitted them to sin in this way. What ideas do you have about women, about gender roles, about sexuality, that numbed your conscience to sexual harassment or assault? What beliefs allowed you to see your victim as nothing more than an object that you could control? What systems, institutions, structures, gave you the ability to harm them? How did you get the power to drive a teenage girl down a dark road, tell her it’s for a “surprise,” and then shove your dick in her mouth? Who gave that power to you, and why did you want it?

Finally, and this is absolutely essential: an abuser must never allow themselves to enter any of those structures again. A teenage girl trusted you because you were her spiritual guide, her youth pastor? You must never serve in that role, ever again. You harassed a woman you hired, who worked for you for years, who trusted and respected you because you were widely esteemed and celebrated? You must never allow yourself to be put on that pedestal, ever again. You manipulated parents to let their pretty, blonde daughters come work for your ministry and then install them in your office for “counseling” so you can be alone with them and put your hand up their skirt? You must never lead a ministry or think you are capable of “counseling” anyone, ever again.

Step 2: Restitution

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay back four times the amount.”

And Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” ~ Luke 19:8, Zacchaeus the Tax Collector

I can’t make pronouncements about what restitution will look like, since I believe every case would be different.

In my own story, restitution would look like paying for the hotel rooms that have pictures of updated, spotlessly immaculate bathrooms (and that are usually $70 more per night). He’d pay for five years of therapy. He’d quit his job as a pastor and find a career path that makes sure he’ll never have power over women or girls. He’d go back to PCC and tell everyone in the administration that he’s a rapist, I tried to tell them so, they should have listened to me, and that he will not stop fighting for them to change every single one of their policies that continue to retraumatize victims. He would go back to every single one of our college friends and tell them he was the monster and how he tricked them into making my life a living hell because he wanted revenge for not taking him back.

Whatever it is, restitution is when an abuser shoulders the responsibility for what they did. It means taking over the work of living with their sin, instead of leaving their victims to deal with years–decades– of emotional, spiritual, and physical labor on their own.

Step 3: Redemption

Churches, abusers: you cannot grant this. It cannot be taken by a repentant sinner, it cannot be given by a magnanimous community. It cannot be claimed when atonement seems odious and interminable, or when a church has forgotten the enormity of the offense.

I am not necessarily arguing that every predator or abuser should be shunned by every church until their victim is ready to welcome them back. That may never happen, and should never be forced to happen. However, I think it’s critical that we as Christians understand that redemption and restoration are not the same thing.

Bill Hybels will not be redeemed when he inevitably falls back into his position as an evangelical figurehead somewhere else in American Christendom. Driscoll was not redeemed when he moved to Arizona and started another church. Tchividjian is not redeemed now that he’s back to writing for The Gospel Coalition and has another book coming out.

I believe that for these sorts of men, redemption could come when they are held accountable for their sin, when they assume responsibility for what they did, and then use that to do transformative work in themselves and in their church communities. Redemption would come when these men refuse to let the church be a haven for other abusers like them. Redemption would come when they let their own souls, and the souls of their churches, be cleansed.

Redemption for all these men could come if, by their repentance and restitution, no one else is hurt.

Feminism

Christians and the whisper network

My parents began attending a new church before I graduated from college, and I only had about eight months at home before I was off to attend graduate school so the new congregation never really felt like a home to me. I made a few friendly connections, though, went out to concerts and the movies with the over-20 women’s group, and generally participated in the church’s traditions.

One of the friendly connections I made was with a man around my parent’s age who had also attended Pensacola Christian and was mildly critical of it– mostly because of the way the college had treated some of his college buddies who had become instructors. Besides that, we also shared a few common interests, like an obsession with nerd culture. So when, over my holiday break, he and his wife threw a 2011 New Year’s Eve party for the young adult group from church, I was excited about attending.

That night, over cups of root beer and non-alcoholic wassail, a few of the women took a moment to pass along a warning. They noted that I was friendly with our host and then remarked that “he could be … a little too friendly, sometimes.” The look that followed conveyed what their words couldn’t: danger, danger Will Robinson.

Just a few hours later, I experienced a little bit of that too-friendliness when he came and found me alone outside by the fire pit and started a conversation that felt over-familiar and inappropriately intimate. I quickly found a way to escape back inside and then spent the next several years walking a mental tightrope: sure he’s a little creepy, but he’s just socially awkward. He doesn’t mean anything by it, right?

Fast forward to Christmas 2013: I’m married and visiting my parents, and I’m excited about attending the annual “Cookies and Carols” event the church throws every year. By the time I make my way to my family’s table after saying my hellos to everyone, Mr. Too-Friendly is already seated there. He gets up to great me and gestures for a hug, which I accept– I don’t mind hugs, and I don’t want to navigate the why-wouldn’t-you-hug-me-I’m-so-confused-and-hurt cultural shoals, so I hug him.

Except it’s not a hug. He kisses me, full on the mouth.

It is big and wet and sloppy and I feel like I’m being strangled by him and my own nausea. I’m shocked, and furious, and hurt, and the night was already going badly (dying my hair bright purple and wearing a fingertip-length skirt with tights and slouchy boots had been a bridge too far, apparently, for the women in my over-20 group) and I just wanted to get home without making a scene. I sat at that table, seething and violated, and left the event as soon as I possibly could.

As I sat out in the dark, unheated van, I thought back to the carefully-worded warning I was given. I realized I hadn’t seen any of their faces in a while, and I connected the dots. The women who had been bold enough to warn me had also been bold enough to dye their hair, wear short(er) skirts, date non-Christians, embrace sarcasm and ribaldry … to be their own person. It struck me that they’d probably been ousted like I had that night, otherized and shunned for defying fundiegelical conventions. He’d also probably assaulted them the way he’d assaulted me, knowing that we were vulnerable in that church community. We were the “wild” women, the ones with the too-loud laughter and the too-bright hair. They’d done their best to protect me, and even after they were proven right the very same evening, I still wanted to dismiss them. Yeah he was too friendly, but ultimately harmless, really.

After all. I’d been told all my life that gossip is a sin, and that listening to it– let alone acting on it– was just as sinful. It was my job, as a good Christian, to give him the benefit of the doubt.

***

I could fill a book with all the examples I have of Christian pastors spending an inordinate amount of time focusing on feminine-coded “sins” like vanity or gluttony, and the focus on the particularly womanly sin of talking to other women about stuff that matters, i.e. “gossip,” would probably take up half its pages.

Today, looking at a practically endless wave of #metoo and #churchtoo stories coming out of Christianity– from the Pennsylvania Catholics to Willow Creek–I no longer think the focus on “gossip” is merely a natural consequence of sexism in Christian culture (although that’s clearly part of it). I’m convinced that when pastors go out of their way to vociferously condemn “gossip” or “the rumor mill,” they’re doing their dead-level best to dismantle the whisper network. They want to render one of the few tools women have to protect themselves from their violence ineffective.

Over the last several months, especially, as a cleansing light has finally begun to pierce the morally bankrupt, cowardly cloak many Christian communities have wrapped themselves up in, I’ve seen the following question at least once on every post: how could this have gone on for so long? How could it be so systemic? My answer is usually a remixed version of this response:

Abuse, even sexual abuse, is not hermenuetically or doctrinally aberrant in conservative Christianity. Abuse is woven into the fabric of Christianity, and has been true since the first millennia, since misogynistic men ripped The Way out of women’s homes and made Christianity a tool of the Empire. It’s not that churches want to cover up their crimes, it’s that churches seek out the qualities abusers have and award them with leadership. This is why criticizing church leadership is often painted as criticism of the Church: if abusers lose their authority, so does the religion they preach.

Many of the men who are drawn to ministerial work take it up precisely because Christianity gives them the license to abuse and call it mercy.

Think about that the next time you find a sermon or podcast or blog post about how women bloggers are destroying the church with our bitterness and rumor-mongering or how we shouldn’t listen to gossip.

It’s not “godly teaching.” It’s not “biblical.”

It’s self-preservation.

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Photography by Oliver Dodd

 

Feminism

Men Prefer Uneducated, Naïve Objects They Can Easily Control

So yesterday, a blog post at The Transformed Wife started floating through my feed– the author, Lori Alexander, titled it “Men Prefer Debt-Free Virgins without Tattoos.” Multiple people tagged me in the comments, asking if I would write a response and honestly I wasn’t sure I would. When Lori gave it that title, she did it deliberately to provoke a reaction (which she may now regret, she’s deleting hundreds of comments and wrote a post complaining that she’s being “slandered“), and I didn’t want her goad to be successful.

Today, though, I spent a lot of time digging through the comments (a few of which have been a joy let me tell you. Maybe she is only deleting “hate-filled” comments from the side that disagrees with her, but she seems plenty comfortable leaving up the “hate-filled” comments that agree with her), and I realized that a lot of people are generally misunderstanding what makes this particular blog post so bad. A lot of the commenters have pointed out that they have tattoos and weren’t a virgin and their husbands seem to “prefer” them just fine, and that misses the point.

When Lori Alexander says “Debt-Free Virgins without Tattoos,” the post makes it clear that she’s pointing to those items as indicative of what she sees is a larger social problem: women who aren’t utterly dependent on their husbands.

My experience growing up in complementarianism, all my research over the last few years, all the review series I’ve done on books like Captivating, Real Marriage, and Fascinating Womanhood points to one thing: complementarianism is intended to render women helpless and strip them of their autonomy. The ultimate goal for people like Lori Alexander is that women should be universally and totally dependent on their male spouse for their safety, shelter, livelihood, and purpose. Walking down the aisle as tattoo-less virgins is just a bonus– the main focus of the post is that women should not be college educated because it makes it more difficult for their husbands to control them.

There are many more reasons why Christian young women should carefully consider whether or not they go to college, especially if they want to be wives and mothers someday. Secular universities teach against the God of the Bible and His ways. It’s far from what God calls women to be and do: it teaches them to be independent, loud, and immodest instead of having meek and quiet spirits.

“The husband will need to take years teaching his wife the correct way to act, think, and live since college taught them every possible way that is wrong.” Sadly, most young Christian women wouldn’t listen to their husbands since they’ve not been taught to live in submission to their husbands.

Young women learn nothing about biblical womanhood or what it takes to run a home when they go to college. They don’t learn to serve others either. They learn the ways of the world instead.

Most girls have not read the Bible with their father (Ephesians 6:4) or husband to explain it to them (1 Corinthians 14:35). That part is important. Instead of learning it from their parents, they seek out books or movies on how to interpret the Bible which leads them down the wrong path.

Lori is heavily quoting from a letter she received and agreeing with it, and both she and the letter-writer spend hardly any time talking about tattoos or sexual purity. In fact, “tattoo” is only mentioned in the title, the first line, and the last line. Everything else is a discussion of why women shouldn’t be college-educated, and these are the reasons Lori gives:

  • they will learn to be independent
  • they won’t “listen to their husbands” and submit
  • they won’t want to be their husband’s servant
  • they’ll learn the “ways of the world”
  • they could read books and interpret the Bible for themselves

Instead, Lori advocates that women should skip college, refuse a career, have as many “precious babies” as they can squeeze out– and remain as helpless and naïve as possible. That’s the image she’s trying to evoke by using “virgin without tattoos.” She wants women to be uncorrupted by the “ways of the world,” to be innocent; what she’s describing is the idea that a woman should reach marriage a blank slate for her husband to carve. They should have no ideas of their own, and no ability to cultivate ideas on their own. What they think about their life, the decisions that affect them, and their interpretation of the Bible should all come from their husband. This is the definition of “biblical submission” that Lori wants Christian women to adapt: Think what your husband tells you to think. Do what your husband tells you to do.

Lori is absolutely correct that a college education will interfere with this goal. When I decided to go to college against the express teaching of my church, nearly everyone I knew had a fit. The pastor preached messages about it, I got Sunday school lessons dedicated to it, my best friend gave me pamphlets for “college level homemaking courses.” They all told me exactly what Lori is telling her readers: if you go to college, you won’t be able to be a godly keeper at home.

Lori is right. My church was right.

Even though I went to a hard-right fundamentalist Christian college, I still encountered independent women who had careers. Many of my instructors were women– a few were even unmarried women who lived on their own! I met other women students who wanted a career and had no intention of ever having kids. I read books. I debated classmates. I learned to formulate my own opinions and argue for what I believed in (even if I would later abandon all those arguments). I went to PCC intending to get a music degree so I could teach from home and still be a godly wife. By the time I graduated I was going to graduate school so I could move to New York and become an editor for Tor Books with no spouse-type prospects in sight.

Now I’m getting a tattoo this Christmas, had sex with my partner before we got married, and best of all, I tell him what to think about the Bible thanks to the fancy seminary degree I’ll be getting this spring. I’m all of Lori’s worst fears made flesh: ex-fundamentalist, ex-Stay-at-Home-Daughter, ex-complementarian, ex-homeschool; now pro-choice, queer, and feminist.

And I’m going to spend the rest of my life fighting against every Lori Alexander I meet.

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Feminism

Redeeming Love: the abuser wins

Plot summary:

  • Angel is “born again.”
  • Opens the House of Magdelena, begins educating former prostitutes and teaching them job skills
  • After three years, Miriam convinces Paul to go look for Angel
  • He finds her, tells her he married Miriam and Michael is still waiting for her
  • She decides to abandon her non-profit and go back to farming with Michael
  • Reunites with Michael by walking to him while stripping naked to “humiliate” herself before him
  • Epilogue: they have four children, she goes back to the House for visits, they die happy

***

I started this review series of Redeeming Love two years ago, and now we’re finally at the end. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster, and I’m happy that I’ve made it all the way through this book and created a resource that exposes all the damage, harm, and abuse this book could perpetuate. Here at the end, Francine becomes about as subtle as a sledgehammer with her themes.

In the last few chapters, she foregrounds the contrast between Michael and Paul. They were set up as foils in the first half of the book, and Francine reminds us of their differences in the last pages. In a confrontation with Miriam, he shouts at her and says some spiteful, thoughtless things—and concludes their fight by “storming out” (425). We’re supposed to compare this sort of behavior with Michael, who is supposedly level-headed and reasonable as opposed to Paul, who shouts and gets mean when he’s upset.

This is troubling, because this perpetuates a belief about relationship dynamics that keeps victims locked in their abuser’s grasp: abusive behavior is always loud and obvious. It’s shouting matches and slammed doors. If a person is patient, calm, and reasonable even while he is kidnapping and sexually assaulting you, then how can it really be abuse? In reality, though, abusers are careful, measured, and thoughtful. Abuse is not an anger problem, it doesn’t happen when people like Paul get upset and fly off the handle. Abuse is about careful application, thoroughness, and patience. It usually looks like Michael’s calm, not Paul’s rage. Even if they are screaming and throwing things, it was carefully considered decision to do so.

Another significant theme comes straight from evangelical theology, and we see it most obviously in two places:

Oh, Lord, why was I so blind? Why couldn’t I hear? Why did it take so much pain for me to see that you have been there reaching out to me all along? (427)

Had his own faith and conviction been so weak she couldn’t see it? Had the cruelty she suffered and her own powerlessness against it taught her nothing? Did she still think she had control of her life? (433)

The theological principle here is that God will use any means necessary in order to draw his wayward children to him—both saved and unsaved. He is “relentless” in his pursuit of our souls. To put it bluntly: God will use pain and suffering, if necessary, to teach us that he in fact controls everything and that our only option is to turn to him for salvation.

This is what abusers teach their victims. They will use pain – beatings, verbal battering, rape—in order to demonstrate that they hold all the power, all the control. The victim does not get to make decisions about what they want to do – like own a small cabin and keep a garden, for example. Francine is blunt about it, too. During Angel’s conversion scene, we get this:

And do you signify your life to Jesus now before these witnesses? If so, would you signify by saying ‘I do’?”

Words meant for a wedding ceremony. A sad smile touched her lips. With Michael she had said “Why not” rather than “I do”; she had come to the end of her endurance and felt she had no choice. She felt that now. She had come to the end of her struggles, the end of her fight to survive on her own. She needed God. (428)

Holy shit.

Just a reminder: at the start of this whole mess, she decided to provoke the bouncer into beating her to death, is delirious when Michael shows up, and he kidnaps her. He takes her out to a remote area and every time she tries to leave he physically drags her back while she is kicking and screaming and throwing herself out of a moving wagon. And Francine draws a clear parallel to Michael kidnapping her and Angel’s conversion experience. Life was like Magowan’s beating, the tool God needed to make her vulnerable enough to kidnap into salvation.

Again … holy shit. Every once in a while, I think “maybe I’m being too cynical, maybe I should give Francine the benefit of the doubt here, maybe this is just a really uncharitable reading of the text” and then she goes and spouts nonsense like this.

The last theme that Francine wants to remind us all of before she ends the book is that Francine was culpable for her own exploitation and abuse, that she was partly responsible for a significant part of her suffering. On remaking herself, she chooses demure dresses in drab colors—a contrast to the “temptation” that satin gowns presented to her when she’d been kidnapped by Duke. During her conversation with Paul, they talk about the night Paul “assists” an escape attempt from Michael and he insisted she “pay” him:

“I could’ve said no.”

“Did you know that then?”

She didn’t speak for a moment. “Some part of me must have known. Maybe I just didn’t want to. Maybe it was my way to draw your blood. I don’t know anymore.” (449)

I’m flabbergasted. She had been kidnapped by a stranger, a man who won’t even use her name, who won’t let her leave, who actually wanted to murder her, and the only person who can get her out of there decides to demand she “pay” him in sex … and she “could’ve said no.” In the rest of her musings on this, Angel sees the “repercussions” from her “choice” as a “stone lying cold and hard in the silent pool” making the people around her broken, “desperate” and “ruptured.”

What’s particularly infuriating about this passage is that Francine knows that people like me exist. She knows that a woman like myself would read the section and argue that “saying no” was not a legitimate option. Francine wants to proof her book against this criticism, so she tells the reader that Angel is to blame for having sex with Paul, and to blame for all the “disruption” that “choice” caused between Paul and Michael.

This section damns Redeeming Love in a way few other passages do. Francine, as the author, is aware enough to hang a lantern on that night and what it means. She wants us to know that she considers abused, vulnerable, exploited woman to be just as guilty as the monsters who exploit them.

***

Redeeming Love is the story of an abuser who kidnaps an unconscious woman, barely restrains himself from murdering her, and gets what he wants in the end: a victim returning like a prodigal wife to kneel down, sobbing, at his feet begging forgiveness for wanting to be free of him.

According to Francine, writing this was a “form of worship” and everything in Redeeming Love was a “gift from the Lord” (467).

I hope her god never gives anyone another “gift” like this.

 

p.s. why did she have to go back to farming in the middle of nowhere, why couldn’t Michael have moved to San Francisco and helped her run her non-profit oh wait because women can’t be independent that’s from Satan

 

Feminism

Redeeming Love: moral relativity

Content note: child sexual assault, discussions of sexual violence

Plot summary:

  • Angel arrives in San Francisco, gets a job as a cook
  • The café burns down and Duke finds her
  • Duke threatens Angel’s employer to coerce her, imprisons her in his gambling hall
  • He wants her to be his madam but she’ll have to be raped for a week first
  • When he introduces her to his customers, they tell her to sing—she sings “Rock of Ages”
  • A rich, Christian banker wanders in and rescues her
  • She confronts Duke and gets the keys to the rooms of children he’s been raping
  • They leave with the child sexual assault victims, go to the banker’s house
  • Miriam and Paul get married, God talks to Michael some more

***

This section of the book made me so angry and frustrated that I cried. There’s been a lot about Redeeming Love that is absolutely rage-inducing—most notably that Michael is a textbook abuser who kidnaps a woman, assaults her, and threatens to murder her but he’s the “good guy”—but this section took the cake. We’re nearing the end with only one more section to go after this, and Francine’s narrative is starting to force the reader to some conclusions.

I’m angry because of the conclusions that these chapters draw about the nature of God.

I didn’t talk about this too much last week because I knew these chapters were coming, but a point that Francine made crystal clear to her audience is that this time Angel is running away because God wants her to. On every previous escape attempt, Angel leaving Michael was framed as her sinful longing for independence; this time God wants her to go and it’s Satan’s voice that tries to persuade her to stay. During a brief interlude with Michael while he’s furiously chopping wood, God tells him that Angel has made Michael her idol, and worships her abuser-kidnapper-husband instead of God so God had to send her away—to “teach her a lesson” is implied (383).

Angel arrives in San Francisco with no clue how she’s going to make a living and stumbles—on God’s verbal direction (377)—into a restaurant that is clearly struggling because the former cook … was not nice. She offers to cook for the owner, and Francine tells us that this is exactly where God wants her to be. Angel is doing exactly what God wants, and he provided her with this employment opportunity right when she was at her wit’s end and wondering how she was going to get any food that evening.

He didn’t give her this idea before this moment. Even when he tells her to go into the restaurant he doesn’t explain why, but she’s beyond exhausted and doesn’t question the prompting. God waited until Angel was quite literally wandering around the streets of San Francisco, exhausted and hungry, before he decided to intervene and help her.

This is a common torture method: deny your victim sleep or food and then prey on them when they’re at their most vulnerable. This is what God is doing to Angel. He’s torturing her into doing what he wants.

It also didn’t escape my notice that she got this job because of skills that Michael forcer her to have when he kidnapped her, and the Altmans helped develop. Angel would be an incredible saleswoman, for example—she’s written as being incredibly perceptive, finds people easy to read, and is naturally charming. We saw how good she was at this during a previous escape attempt, when she found a job at a mercantile. But oh, no—this time the job she gets is a job her abuser equipped her to have, and an explicitly domestic one at that.

That isn’t the end of the torture Francine’s God-character employs. It gets worse.

After the fire, Duke—the man who raped her for her entire childhood—discovers her and coerces her into going with him by threatening her employer. Once they’re in Duke’s gambling hall, he imprisons her so Angel is essentially kidnapped again. Ironically, there’s actually no text-based evidence for why Duke’s assault and kidnapping are wrong but when Michael kidnaps and assaults her it’s fine and good and wonderful. The only difference?

God told Michael to kidnap her.

I guess I’m not surprised that this is the justification an evangelical Christian uses. That is how their ethical system works: sin is wrong because God said so and if God tells you to do something then it’s fine. The fact that Duke and Michael take the exact same actions doesn’t even merit a discussion. And evangelicals complain that “post-modernism” has allowed secular ethics to be “relative.” In Francine’s book, literally, it’s A-OK to kidnap someone as long as God told you to.

We’re getting to the climax of Francine’s character arc, if not the plot. She’s accepted the role Michael forced her into—she’s a good cook now, she finally adopts his name and goes by Mrs. Hosea—and now she has to face temptation in order to commit to God’s plan for her life.

This temptation comes from Duke. The man who abused and raped her, who murdered anyone who helped her. In Redeeming Love, Angel is in San Francisco because God told her to be there. She works at the café because God told her to. The café that is across the street from Duke’s gambling hall (388). No other café in San Francisco would do, it had to be the one that would guarantee that Duke would find her again. This is despicable. Monstrous. If I knew God had put me in a position where my abuser and rapist could find me and hurt me again? I’d figure out a way to get a god-killing bullet and then shoot him with it.

While Duke has her imprisoned, her gives her a warm bath and nice clothes and nice bedding and good food. She hasn’t eaten all day because of the fire, and Duke gives her steak and chocolate cake. When she eats it—because why wouldn’t she?—this is her reaction, which the text indicates is the “right” one:

I’m so weak! Look at me! Stuffing myself on Duke’s food. I’m selling my soul for a steak and a slice of chocolate cake when I swore I’d starve before I went back to my old ways. I don’t know how to be good! (394)

This is when I started crying.

Francine writes Angel as being tempted by Duke. The child rapist. She puts Angel back into a rapist’s clutches, and then sets up this situation as being tempting to Angel. I can’t even put into words how sickening this is. She gives food to her hungry, exhausted character and eating it is bad? What is she even trying to accomplish with this scene? I’m so angry and hurt and utterly mystified that this book is still a leading best-seller in Christian fiction.

Unfortunately, there’s more, and it gets ugly. Angel reveals everything that’s happened to her since she left New York—when she tells Duke about Michael, the narrative framing she uses is Michael’s, not hers. Every time she ran away from her kidnapper? That night when he threatened to murder her and physically dragged her kicking and screaming onto his wagon and back to the farm? This is how she recalls it:

He came and got me out. He fought our way out. And he took me home again. He forgave me. (396).

This is the abuser’s revisionist narrative. Michael’s gaslighting of Angel worked.

I didn’t know it was possible to be even more disappointed by Redeeming Love, but I am.

The climactic scene comes when Duke parades her in front of the crowd he’s going to have rape her. When Angel comes out on stage, though, she feels sorry for all these men and then remembers a hymn Michael taught her—“Rock of Ages.” She sings it, and in the most hackneyed, stereotypical, trope I’ve ever seen in Christian fiction she brings all the would-be rapists back to themselves with her purity, innocence, and righteousness. Her goodness makes them all feel sheepish and embarrassed, but it’s Duke’s reaction that is … it would be hilarious if I weren’t so angry with Francine. He’s afraid because Angel sang a hymn. She’s able to rip his shirt open and remove the keys from a chain around his neck because her hymn-singing righteousness has apparently made him as effective as a lamp.

The message Francine is driving home is how relentless, unfeeling, cruel, dictatorial, and unbelievably petty God is.

Francince’s God wants Angel to be happy, but only as long as she worships him and puts him first. In order to ensure that she does this, he’s going to make her feel like a worthless person who can’t make her husband happy by giving him lots of babies. Then he’s doing to almost let her starve before offering her help– but that help is going to put her right back into the clutches of the man who raped her over and over again. He’ll take her to the brink of being raped for an entire week straight so that she learns to pray and trust and believe in God. He’s going to drag her to a rock bottom of constant, unending rape and listening to children being raped so that she has no choice but to beg him to rescue her.

This is a goddamn protection racket. Believe in me, worship me, or I’ll force you out of your happy marriage and let you be raped? What the fuck is this?

 

Feminism

Redeeming Love: A Year in the Life

A little while ago my good friend and colleague Libby Anne linked to my Redeeming Love review series and that was just the kick in the pants I needed to get back on the Book Reviewing Horse so here we are.

Plot Summary:

  • Elizabeth Altman is pregnant
  • She asks Angel to help her deliver the baby
  • Angel decides Michael needs a wife that can have babies
  • She leaves for San Francisco, tells Miriam to make Michael happy

The chapters take place over the course of almost a year—this plotline starts in late spring with Angel deciding to leave by early in the next spring. I’m pretty sure that it takes place over this time period so that Francine can get hamfisted with the planting and harvest imagery, as well as with Nativity references for the events around Christmas. I don’t think anyone’s ever accused her of being a subtle writer.

***

At this point, we are starting to see some significant changes in Angel’s character. Since this is a character-driven book, I’d expect to see these types of things happening at the closing of the second act, which is about where we are. What’s frustrating to me is that the changes are completely uninteresting, and the reason why they’re uninteresting is that Francine is bound by evangelical theologies about morality and gender.

In the beginning, Angel is “bad” because she is bitter and independent, and these are the qualities that need to be changed to make her a “good” character. By chapter 25, Angel is losing her bitterness and independence, and becoming the “Silently Suffering Saint” archetype. I recognized it immediately in this line:

Angel refused to defend herself against Paul. What was the point? She was polite. She was silent. (335)

and this one:

If Paul called her a harlot to her face, she would take it and say nothing. (363)

because as a budding teenager writer I wrote this character over and over again. All my heroines were the Silently Suffering Saint, champions of Inner Resolve and knights of the Moral High Ground, where good women endure endless harms and abuses with Quiet Steadfastness. I was not that person—not even a little bit—but oh how I longed to be. The only time I’ve ever come the close into fitting this mold was in an abusive relationship. I was convinced my abuser was shaping me into the godly woman I could never attain on my own, a woman who takes the hits and “says nothing.”

Later, after I had finally escaped from that abuse, multiple people in my life told me that I would know I was “recovering” from the abuse when I stopped talking about it. This is the pattern we’re seeing in Angel’s character—her goodness is directly related to how much she can shut up and let a man get away with being vicious and cruel to her. We know this is the “right” track for Angel to follow, since we get “he would respect her silence” from Michael a few pages into the chapter (339).

These types of character arcs are just incredibly boring. An Angel that reforms while still retaining her wit, her fire, could be interesting—at the very least, entertaining. Instead, we get the same insipid Martyr character that high-handed morality plays have been trying to sell us on for centuries.

***

Angel also starts literally hearing the voice of God: a still, small, and yet audible voice that is being hopelessly cryptic. He says to “Come forth, beloved” and when Angel understandably goes “huh?” she gets nothing (336). At one point, a “sweet fragrance filled the darkened cabin” and a voice “fills the room” and says “I am.” She tries to talk back, but “no answer came. No voice filled the stillness” (345). When harvest comes and she’s shucking corn, God tells her “You have to die to be reborn.” Again, Angel’s response is “huh?” but receives nothing more from God (357-58).

We know from the times that Angel listens to Michael talk and read the Bible that all the religious lingo is utterly foreign to her and she can’t make heads or tails of it. She’s having the same reaction to the stuff God is literally saying to her, personally, as when Michael reads the Bible.

This framing of God is consistent with what I got in conservative Christian theology. I was taught that I needed to memorize as much Scripture as I possibly could, because we need to give the Holy Spirit the power to communicate with us, and that comes from having the Word of God “written on the table of our hearts.” If we have Scripture memorized, then anytime we think of a verse we’ve memorized, that’s the Holy Spirit trying to tell us something. Apparently, God is like Mrs. Who from A Wrinkle in Time except unlike her, he can only use biblical allusions instead of the universe’s entire library.

There’s also the concept that only born-again Christians are capable of understanding Scripture. I was taught that the Bible would appear “foolish” to all non-Christians who tried to read it, and that this was why non-believers think the Bible can be criticized and mocked. They don’t have the Holy Spirit guiding them to a true understanding of what the Bible says. Angel can’t understand God because she’s not “open” to receiving his words.

The end result of all this theology ending up in Redeeming Love is that God looks petty and ridiculous.

***

The primary conflict of this section is that Angel is barren while her neighbor is pregnant, and this is a constant reminder that she will never be able to “give” Michael children and a family of his own. At one point before the baby is born, Miriam tells Angel “[Childbirth] is a woman’s reason for being, isn’t it? Our divine privilege: to bring new life into the world and nurture it” (355).

This sort of statement popping up here makes me suspicious that Christians write an overwhelming amount of historical fiction so that they can get away with forcing their ideology into everything. A teenage girl saying something like in a contemporary setting would be ludicrous, or invoke the assumption that the character is probably cloyingly Old Fashioned. But in a book set during the California Gold Rush, this would be a perfectly ordinary thing to say! (supposedly.)

Point being: this is not just present in Redeeming Love for historical color—it’s there because this is something the author agrees with. Pregnancy and childbirth, according to Francine, is the single purpose God intends a woman to serve. Francine could have chosen a more compassionate path, one that could have brought a lot of comfort and possible healing to women who struggle with both infertility and the constant cultural demand that they incubate offspring or they’re useless. She could have left Angel childless and depicted a happy ending with Angel and Michael that showed that Christians can still be happy even if they aren’t living out the Nuclear Family ideal.

Instead, by the end, Angel is not actually barren. Or she was barren, but God miraculously cures her and she has babies with Michael. She’s given the “divine privilege” of childbirth—which, if this section is to be believed, can happen with a minimal amount of fuss. In fact, if you’re a Good Enough Christian, you can keep sitting in front of the fire, mending your husband’s shirts, until moments before the baby is born! In fact, contractions and labor can be experienced in total silence (there’s that Silent theme again, huh) so that your other kids don’t even know something might be going on with mom!

Everything about this section is eyeroll inducing.

Feminism

what white women can learn from Zeresh

I think I might have mentioned more than once that I enjoyed my “Interpretation as Resistance: Womanist, Feminist, and Queer Readings of the Bible” class last semester. One of the themes that really hit home for me about womanist interpretation is what it asks of me, as a white woman. I can’t use womanism as an interpretive lens, but I can look at a passage or story and ask myself what about the villain or oppressor (or oppressiveness) do I have in common, because of my whiteness?

The story we used in class was of Sarah and Hagar, and we read multiple interpretations–feminist, womanist, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim–about the time when Sarah goes to Abraham and has Hagar driven out. It was an amazing conversation, and I’ll never forget what one of my professors, Alika Galloway, highlighted: Sarah and Hagar could have bonded, could have been united, could have loved each other as sisters. They could have raised their sons together, and leaned on each other to survive. Instead, Sarah oppressed and exploited Hagar at every turn, and when Hagar threatened her power and authority in the camp, had her banished into the desert to die. White women, Alika said, are like Sarah in that passage.

Abraham had essentially sex trafficked Sarah to the Pharaoh of Egypt just a few chapters earlier. White women are oppressed by sexism and misogyny, and experience the same sort of violence from our partners that Abraham did to Sarah. But, instead of truly turning to other women who share those experiences, we often choose to survive this patriarchal system by exploiting white supremacy to grasp whatever power we can.

As we discussed this in class, the first character from the Bible that came to my mind was Zeresh. If you’ve never heard of her, don’t be embarrassed– basically no one I’ve talked to about her since then knows who she is. She’s Haman’s wife from Esther, and I know of her because of an animated Bible story I had as a child that featured her as a character. In that video she’s given more lines than she even has in the Tanakh, so I’ve known my whole life that Haman didn’t come up with the idea to execute Mordecai: his wife did.

Ever since last semester I’ve been thinking about what white women can learn from Zeresh, and I wrote an article about it for Sojourners. You can read it here, and I hope you do.

Feminism

the complicated misery of #metoo

I became aware of the #metoo movement on October 15 last year. The next day, I did something I had never done before: on facebook, to my friends, I named the men who had assaulted my body and were the reason why I could say “me, too”– I named the places where it happened, the churches where these men still serve. I pointed to the men who are responsible for the damage I have to live with, and to the power structures that still prop them up. In a way, it was liberating. I’ve carried their names inside of me for years, and every time I would describe the assaults, my soul raged at the idea that I was talking about what they had done to me while ceaselessly protecting them. It was an exhausting burden to carry, and it was a relief to finally watch it tumble away from me.

Not everything about the #metoo movement has been that liberating or relieving, however. While it was good to finally see some consequences for some people, as I watched basically every woman I’m connected to say “me, too” I braced myself for the inevitable retaliations. The response to Al Franken’s callous humiliation of a co-worker was unsurprising, but still infuriating. I could practically see the shoe dropping, though, when I read Grace’s story about her sickening evening with Aziz Ansari. I knew we were about to see a flood of articles titled “has #metoo gone too far?”

I don’t know why I was surprised when I saw a friend defend what he’d done, saying “don’t blame a lousy lover for trying his best” and arguing that Grace was at fault for going back to his apartment in the first place. This man was also a survivor of sexual assault. I’d trusted him, assumed he was safe. It was a bitter revelation to discover he wasn’t.

The miserable reality of #metoo is that when women talk about all the assaults and humiliations we endure, we’re not often talking about reportable, criminal offenses. One of the first men I met in the county where I live assaulted me—he grabbed my ass and tried to get his fingers up my shorts to touch my genitals. I fought him off me and yelled at him, only to be berated by his peers for being mean to him. Nothing he did that night was illegal in the state we were in.

When I say “me, too” I’m usually not thinking about the rapes I ultimately reported to the police. I said no, I fought back, and nothing I did mattered. Those experiences haunt me, but I’ve been able to process them, and heal from them.

What crushes me nearly every day is the countless Other Times he assaulted me. The Other Times that I can barely stand to think about. The Other Times that cause my traumatized brain to whisper horrible, frightening lies.

***

Handsome and I have been married for five years, together for six. Our love life just seems to keep getting better, too—although it does look significantly different from the beginning. It’s still thrilling and passionate, but it’s also … comfortable. There have been plenty of times when I’ve initiated sex—or he has—where neither of us are feeling totally ga-ga gangbusters awooooogah. Sometimes that still happens, but what’s more common is one of us gets horny and the other says “yeah, sure, I’m down for that” and gladly responds to encouragement, even if we didn’t start out “in the mood.” If we ever have children, that situation is likely to become even more our normal. I’m sure many people in long-term relationships are nodding their heads in understanding.

However, the trauma that’s left scars deep in my mind and my soul can be vicious. At the oddest times, it’s like I can hear an actual whisper: how is what you do with Handsome really any different from what you say were assaults? If you broke up with Handsome, would you accuse him of assaulting you, too?

I know those are lies. I know it. I know that the difference between what that abuser did to me and the sex I have with my partner are like the contrast between night and day, or black and white. Those experience cannot be compared. They have nothing in common.

When I hear a respected friend say something like “don’t blame a lousy lover for trying his best,” though, I want to curl up and die. Something at the bottom of my sternum shatters and then shrivels into dust because I suddenly know what he thinks of me. I know that if I were to put out a video recording of all those assaults, people like my friend would say I deserved it. I should have communicated better. I should have left. Those weren’t really assaults, he was just a lousy lover.

***

Most of the horror I endured in that abusive relationship were the Other Times, and they usually went something like this:

The abuser picks me up from the airport, or drives me to a friend’s house. I’m delighted to see him, because we live in different states and usually only see each other at college. On the drive, he’ll pull over somewhere and want to kiss me. At first, I’m thrilled. He’s not the best kisser in the world, but I’m just so happy that I love him and he loves me, and isn’t that what people who love each other do? So I kiss him. Maybe I play with his hair, or touch his shoulders.

He grabs my hand and puts it over his zipper. I pull my hand away from his, but he’ll get insistent. Over time, this is the moment when I learn to be afraid. I start the oh-so-careful dance of trying to stop this without getting hurt … but I am rarely, if ever, successful. He pushes my hand back to his zipper, and encourage me to undo it. I’ll resist, at first, and make mumbling negative noises, but he keeps my motionless hand trapped there while he thrusts into it. I’ll draw my body away from him, stop kissing him, and suggest we keep driving home, or to his friend’s house. He’ll ignore me.

He starts touching me above my clothes, then under them. I’ll shrink away, over and over, putting his hands back on top of my clothes or making distressed sounds. He’ll never stop. Eventually, his hands will be inside my underwear and he’ll be pawing at my genitals, kissing my lips, my neck, saying he just wants to make me feel good. I’ll try to dissuade him, to say that I know and I love him and I’ll lie and say he does make me feel good – I know what happens when I don’t try to soothe his ego when I refuse him, and it’s painful—but say we should keep driving, we’ll be late, his parents will notice we were gone too long. He doesn’t stop.

He shoves his fingers inside and it hurts so bad and sometimes I whimper, but it never matters. I learn that the fastest way to end all this is to fake an orgasm—if I don’t, he’ll just keep pumping until I’m raw and he’s yelling at me for being frigid. Sometimes at that point he’ll grab my head and force it into his lap and I’ll blow him because what is even the point of resisting, of saying no, when it never matters? The handful of times I’ve tried to be forceful … end badly. Eventually, I always quit fighting. I give up. I’ll just … lay there, or sit there. Grit my teeth and get through it. Sometimes, I’m even able to fake being engaged, sometimes I don’t even put up that little bit of resistance because everything else is just so much easier if I don’t try to fight him. It goes faster, it’s over faster; he’ll even be happy and content for a while and won’t call me a goddamn fucking bitch for making everything so difficult.

***

People are going to read me describing all that and agree with my friend. How dare I call this person an abuser, how dare I say these are assaults? If I didn’t want any of that to happen—especially repeatedly—I should’ve broken up with him. Instead of pulling away from him over and over, of repositioning his hands, instead of saying “maybe we should stop” or “your parents are going to notice we’re late” or “we should start driving” I should’ve screamed “NO!” and thrown myself out of the car. If he forced my head in his lap and his cock into my mouth, it was “confusing” and “mixed signals” for me to suck it. It’s my job to stop him.

It’s not his job to care. He’s just a lousy lover, after all.

***

I consider what Aziz Ansari and my abuser did assault. Perhaps not prosecutable, but assault. I consider it assault for the simple reason that if my abuser had ever given a shit about me, none of those Other Times could have happened. The Other Times are the result of an abuser who did not care about anyone besides himself. He did not care about making sure I was happy, that I was comfortable, that I was excited and wanted him to touch me. It never mattered to him that I was miserable, that I was obviously not interested. The only thing that mattered was keeping my resisting body in the car with him, and he did whatever was necessary to ensure that happened.

So did Aziz Ansari—he did whatever it took to keep Grace in his apartment, even though she moved away from him, even though she said “I don’t want to hate you” or “maybe on a second date.” It didn’t fucking matter that she was unhappy, and not having an enjoyable, pleasant encounter. As long as she didn’t leave—which she eventually did—he could do whatever he wanted. It was her job to stop it, and not his job to care.

That is the difference between my abuser and Handsome. That is what makes the difference between night and day. Handsome cares about me, about my happiness, about my engagement, about my pleasure. He doesn’t badger me until I give in, doesn’t use coercion to keep me in the same space as him. I matter to him. My happiness is fundamentally important to him.

This is what the #metoo movement needs to change: it’s not about what it should take for a woman to get a man to stop, or what an acceptable amount of resistance is before it crosses a line. It should be about men believing that being decent matters, and women matter, and caring about us matters.

Photo by Cia de Foto