Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
If it wasn’t such a serious a matter, I would laugh every time another breathless reporter reveals the fall of another so-called “icon” of Congress, or the press, or Hollywood, after he was accused of sexual harassment. How could the media – or anyone for that matter – be so surprised by a phenomenon that women have been experiencing for centuries? Has it taken this long for them to realize that the sexual harassment of women is a systemic problem throughout the world?
I recently attended a Women of Grace function and, like any all-women gathering of late, the subject of the latest perpetrator came up. After a lot of eye-rolling and disgusted comments, it became apparent that every one involved in the conversation had themselves been a victim of sexual harassment.
I was no exception. Years ago, I was promoted to a position where I worked for a man who just couldn’t recognize me for anything other than my looks. No matter how great a job I did, it always came back to my body. “You know, you’re not just pretty, you’re smart too!” he would say. “You got one heck of a brain in that pretty blonde head of yours!”
It was so tiring. So juvenile.
Sometimes he would come up behind me while I was sitting at my desk and lean a little too close or give my shoulders a massage. He gave me the creeps, but what could I do? I needed the job.
At the time, I was a feminist who considered herself to be sexually liberated and in control of her body. Of course I was on the pill. We all were. God forbid we should let a man keep us “barefoot and pregnant.” It was all supposed to be so empowering, even though it left most of us feeling almost as bad about ourselves as we did about the men who were only too happy to use us.
And then one day, while I was still light years away from my faith, I read the encyclical Humanae Vitae – On the Regulation of Birth. It was supposed to make me laugh, or at least scoff a little. It didn’t. It actually made a lot of sense to me and certainly appealed to that place deep inside every woman’s heart where she longs to be loved for who she is, rather than how she looks without her clothes.
But something else that Pope Paul VI said in Humanae Vitae also stuck with me. He warned that if we separate sex from reproduction, which is what we do when we use artificial contraception, our weak human natures find it difficult to resist the idea of sexual pleasure without “consequences” of pregnancy.
Who can argue with that? If science came up with a pill that would enable you to eat all the sweets and junk food you want without gaining an ounce, how quickly would you swap your organic granola for a large serving of French fries?
Even though women have been treated poorly since time immemorial, I believe the separation of sex from reproduction is a major driver behind the epidemic of sexual harassment we are experiencing today in a country where women were supposedly liberated 40 years ago. What do we expect in a culture that sets us up to be treated more like irresistible eye-candy than human beings? No wonder women haven’t gotten very far in their quest for equality! Women are now in the highest levels of government and corporate America, working in medicine and law and education, and we’re still being harassed just like we were 100 years ago. Who calls that progress? The only thing we’ve gained is a sometimes high paying job on top of everything else we have to do.
And when you look at the stats, it just gets worse. According to the highly credentialed Dr. Mary Anne Layden, Director of Education for the Center for Cognitive Therapy in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, the level of sexual violence in our society is at epidemic proportions.
“We are experiencing a sexual holocaust,” she writes. “One in eight women are raped, 50 percent of females will be sexually harassed on their jobs. By the time a female in this country is 18 years old, 38 percent have been sexually molested. We are the most sexually violent nation on earth.”
This is not just a failure; it’s a catastrophe for women. And it ought to be a wake-up call to all those leaders of the women’s movement to stop defining this battle in the terms of “reproductive rights.” This strategy has been a disaster for women. Let’s face it. The cause of the universal problem of sexual harassment of women isn’t due to the lack of birth control pills or abortion services. It’s due to a fundamental disrespect for the inherent dignity of women. And the reason for that is because no one knows what it is – including the leaders who made so much noise in their pretty pink hats last winter.
Both men and women need to be better educated on the genius that women lend to this hurting world and realize that women’s rights are not just glorified “womb rights.” We’re people who are endowed with specific qualities that were designed to be used for the benefit of the world.
For example, we have a natural sensitivity that gives us the unique ability to understand the hearts of others. We know how to listen, to understand, to reason. And because we are so in tuned and responsive to the needs of others, we know how to put ourselves aside to embrace an altruistic mission.
Our receptivity makes us open to receiving not only the gift of life, but to all of those life-giving missions needed in this world today that bring food and water and medicine to the needy.
And our natural generosity gives us the ability to go to heroic lengths for these causes and the people we love.
Our maternity – which gives us a maternal orientation – helps us to build strong families which in turn strengthens communities, nations, and the world. Wherever we go, we care, we reach out, we unite, we nurture, and we do so naturally, almost effortlessly.
Is there any place on earth, including Harvey Weinstein’s office, that does not need people with these capabilities? Has anyone stopped to think that maybe the world is in the rotten shape it is today because it’s robbing itself of the genius of too many women who are being sidelined as sex objects rather than treated as the vital contributors to society that they really are?
The next time I hear a sexual harasser like Al Franken or John Conyer claim he’s a champion of women just because he votes for greater access to birth control and abortion, first I’m going to pray for him, and then I’m going to send him this blog along with a little note:
“Dear sir, if you want to be a real champion for women, don’t champion the policies that keep me playing the role of a sex object. Champion me for who I really am, a human being designed to share a complementary role with you in the making of a better world.
“Now move over and let me take my place beside you – but keep your hands to yourself.”
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