Today is International Women’s Day. This year we not only celebrate women, we stand up for the liberation of women from sexual abuse and harassment. But is #MeToo acceptable for Christians?
In October 2017, when the furor over movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault and harassment of many women—including many famous actresses whose careers ended when they refused his advances—broke, it kickstarted a wave of sadness and anger among women worldwide with similar experiences.
#MeToo is a hashtag first coined by social activist Tarana Burke, to show women that they are not alone in being victims of sexual assault and harassment. When the Weinstein saga happened, actress Alyssa Milano encouraged women to use #MeToo in their Tweets to show just how far and wide sexual abuse went. To date, #MeToo has been Tweeted several million times by women all around the world, even by celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Even in Singapore, the #MeToo tag went viral, with many women sharing on social media their stories of being molested, fired because they wouldn’t sleep with the boss and in some truly tragic cases, being raped. (I won’t go into a current case of accusation against a young local actor, but there are definitely some #MeToo lessons there to be learned.)
I shared my own #MeToo story on social media, as some of you reading might have done. I was molested by a stranger one night when I went to buy groceries. I will never know what possessed me to confront him and demand to see his identity card, but I’m glad I did. I memorized his name and address, scolded him into running away, and then went straight to the police post and made a report. He was arrested at 3am the next morning. I made the decision to press charges and the case went all the way to court, where he had to apologize publicly to me and pay a $1,000 donation to a special school. Because he was mentally vulnerable and on medication, he was not jailed.
It felt cathartic to tell my side of the story, knowing that there were women out there who understood the kind of fear I experienced. I also shared my #MeToo story in the hope that young women reading might get some ideas what to do when they experience similar situations (be fierce! Get his IC!). I say “when” and not “if” because nearly every woman I know has experienced some form of sexual harassment or abuse, including my teenaged daughter who was propositioned by a man five times her age at an MRT station.
But as with any movement, #MeToo also has its downside. Hollywood actor Aziz Ansari found himself tagged a sex fiend when he went on a date with a fan and misread her body language, not realizing she didn’t want to have sex. The girl “Grace” then went to the media and told her #MeToo story, which now has exploded into a discussion about what #MeToo really is and if the actor really committed sexual assault or was just a clueless date because he could not read her body language.
#MeToo seems, in some ways, at odds with the Christian faith. It’s only natural that Christians struggle with the concept of publicly exposing someone—after all, Christianity is built upon, among other things, forgiveness. Indeed, Christian women who have come out to share their stories in the #MeToo maelstrom have been on the receiving end of angry responses from other Christians (some of them women) who shame them for not obeying the Word that says “love covers a multitude of sins”.
This divisive topic set me thinking about sexual mores in our time. As a Christian, a wife and mother of three, I have tried my best to teach my children that their bodies are the temple of God and not to be “used”. But what can I tell them when some person—a boss, a friend, a stranger—uses their body against their will or says something to them to cause them sexual shame?
It also boils down to how the world sees women. Times have not changed that much since Jesus’ day, let’s be honest. A woman who has been raped faces a similar shame today as what Dinah experienced when Shechem kidnapped her and had sex with her (Genesis 34).
(On a separate note, a woman who sleeps with another woman’s husband is subject to “slut-shaming” today as much as the adulterous woman was in the day of Jesus, as the story in John 8 goes. Little was said of the adulterous man in that story—even today, one is more likely to hear about the “bad woman” than the one she was bad with.)
Could it be that despite the advancement of women through the millennia, there are (setting aside the normalisation of pre-marital sex in First World cultures today) some beliefs and prejudices about this helper God gave Adam that cannot be overcome? Will women continue to be abused, from generation to generation?
This question led me to go back to the Gospels and study how Jesus treated women. He never sexually harassed a woman, that’s for sure. When His disciples disparaged the woman with the alabaster flask, He praised her actions. When He spoke to the woman at the well, He never put her down even though He knew the kind of woman she was. He respected these women as individuals—he stood up for them in front of other men. So, it became amply clear to me that when it comes to the way men should treat women, one should ask the familiar question: “What would Jesus do?”
THE CRIPPLING POWER OF SHAME
I spoke to the pastor and head of City Harvest Church’s Liberty Ministry, Audrey Ng, about this topic. Liberty Ministry is the church’s inner healing ministry, providing counselling and deliverance to members of the church who may need physical, emotional or spiritual healing.
Ng shares that in the one year that Liberty Ministry has been operating, she has only come across one such case: a teenage girl who had been abused by her uncle but did not tell anyone.
“When she came to us, she came for other problems. But as we ministered to her, we realised that all her issues were linked to a root cause, and it took us some time to unearth that it was this abuse that started it all,” described the pastor. “It took a long time, but through inner healing, she began to remember all that happened to her. Victims must come to terms with the fact that they were abused.”
The biggest issue that arose from the sessions was shame. “She experienced such deep shame, she could not even talk about it initially. Then after the shame came hatred—hatred for the uncle and hatred towards herself,” said Ng.
Eventually, through many sessions and the power of God, the girl gained strength to face the truth. The Liberty Ministry team offered her two alternatives: she could tell her father about the abuse, or they could accompany her to do so. In all cases of underage sexual abuse, says Ng, parents of the victim have to be informed.
“There was definitely fear,” recalled the pastor. “She didn’t know how her father was going to react. But she managed to muster enough courage to tell her father, and he believed her and he made a police report. The police then investigated the uncle.”
While the abuse brought this girl shame and self-blame, the fact that her father stood up for her was central to her healing. Today, although she still has many issues to work through, the girl has been set free from the debilitating shame brought on by abuse.
Ng agrees that the #MeToo movement is important, in the secular world and in the Christian world. “Whether Christian or not, women who have been sexually assaulted experience the same thoughts and fears, fears that they would be marked if they speak out against the crime. For Christians, there is the fear that they are no longer pure, and they won’t be able to have a spouse. But they must know that it’s not their fault.”
What stops Christian women—or any woman, for that matter—from reporting their assault to the police? Ng notes that there is a clear barrier when it comes to making that report. “They are quite willing to talk to a counsellor, but not go to the police. The thinking is that ‘the damage is already done, so what’s the point?’
What if the abuser is someone in the church? Or even, like in many of the #ChurchToo tweets, pastors? “We must speak the truth,” says Ng. “Make the police report and state the facts.” Not reporting sexual assault enables the abuser to repeat his crime against other women and girls. But of course, it is never easy—not in Biblical times, not now.
#METOO: A LIBERATING MOVEMENT
With every major shift in cultural and social mores, there are bound to be proponents and opponents. Despite cases like Aziz Ansari’s and skewed “women are better than men” sentiments that may emerge, as well as criticism that the whole movement is much ado about nothing, #MeToo remains a powerful, organic tool that enables women from any race, religion, social status or location to deal with the pain they have been carrying around that’s caused by abuse, and to, hopefully, prevent future abuse as much as possible.
It has given voice to Muslim women who have now come out to expose the sexual harassment and abuse they have experienced during the Hajj and in religious places like mosques, in a spinoff movement called #MosqueMeToo.
Buddhism practitioners have also seen #MeToo stories come out of their religious ranks, with Shambhala International, a Western Buddhist organization making a public statement that it will deal with the sexual abuse by Buddhist teachers of women and children that have gone unchecked.
Similarly, #ChurchToo has become a movement that has given voice to young women who have been abused in churches. A group of Evangelical women in the US have also joined the #MeToo movement and are urging other women to share their stories with the hashtag #SilenceIsNotSpiritual so that sexual abuse in churches can be brought into the light and dealt with.
Women who have joined the movement have been persecuted for standing up. Muslim women who have spoken up have received threats and criticism from men and women like, calling them “immoral” among other things. In Japan, where sexual harassment and abuse has apparently been the unreported norm, #MeToo is causing a big disturbance that has seen the few outspoken women threatened or ostracized for speaking up.
Despite the opposition #MeToo has faced, it looks like there’s no stopping the movement now. It is still early days—just five months—but #MeToo may just prove to be a blessing to women all over the world, a non-violent way to right a very serious wrong, to not just expose evil that has gone unpunished for too long, but to actually eradicate such evil.
Sounds idealistic but #MeToo may prove to bring about a clean slate for all these organizations and groups—religious or otherwise—to purify themselves and to teach future generations well.
As a mother to a young man, I also feel #MeToo is a valuable social lesson for our sons, a way to discern where “the line” is that they should not cross with someone who is not their wife. Hopefully, #MeToo opens up the conversation and keeps it going, about how men and women are meant to co-exist, the unique gifts each has and how they complement one another.
It may prove to bring about a society where men understand the true value of women, and women understand their own value. As Dr AR Bernard once wisely said, abuse—“ab-use”— happens when people don’t know the God-purposed use of something, when they fail to understand the true purpose of a thing, or a person. Understanding can bring healing; healing can bring transformation.
A world where #MeToo becomes no longer relevant, but is celebrated in history—like the Suffragette Movement is celebrated today—as a movement that freed women from abuse. That is my hope for my daughters, their daughters and the generations of daughters that may come after them.
How Liberty Ministry Can Help
If you have been sexually assaulted, or suspect you have, contact CHC’s Liberty Ministry for help and healing. Sexual assault can affect many aspects of a person’s spirituality and personality, which can later manifest in destructive behaviours or affect one’s marriage and intimacy with one’s spouse. In some cases, sexual abuse is a root cause of issues and difficulties that must be dealt with first before a person can deal with the follow-on problems and move on to a victorious life.
Liberty Ministry operates every Wednesday. Contact the ministry at email@example.com.
What Is Sexual Assault, According To The Law?
Sexual assault can include:
- Any penetration without consent (e.g. vaginal, oral or anal), using any part of the body (penis, fingers) or object.
- Any unwanted sexual touching, stroking, kissing, groping, etc.
- Unwanted sexual requests, messages or gestures, including electronically, in the workplace or elsewhere.
- Being made to view pornography against your will.
- Unwanted taking and/or sharing of nude or intimate photographs or videos, e.g. upskirting.
Victims of sexual assault may not always physically struggle due to shock, fear, or financial and/or emotional dependence on the attacker. Even if no extra force is used, or someone submits to an attack or a threat, there may not be consent. It is still sexual assault.
What Is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment involves threatening, abusive or insulting words, behaviours or communications of a sexual nature. Such behaviours may be actionable if a) it is meant to cause you harassment, alarm or distress or b) is likely to cause you these feelings and you heard or saw the offending behaviours or words.
In Singapore, the Sexual Harassment Protection Act is in place to help persons who have experienced or are experiencing sexual harassment.
What To Do Right After You Have Been Sexually Assaulted
- Contact someone close to you who can help you and tell them what happened to you. It could be your mother, your spouse, your sister, your cell group leader. This person could also be your secondary witness when you make a police report.
- If you wish to make a police report, get yourself or get someone to bring you. If you have been injured by your assailant, call 995 for an ambulance to bring you to hospital.
- If you are not sure yet if you want to make a report, you can collect some evidence of the assault on your own, which could help police in their investigations:
- Take a photo of any physical injury or of the crime scene including location name or address (ie hotel name or block number)
- Write down a detailed description of what happened, who, when and where and send an email to someone or to yourself. An email is useful because it contains the time and date close to when the assault happened.
- Place all clothing, sheets, or other objects relevant to the crime scene in a sealed plastic bag
- Remember that sexual assault is never the victim’s fault. No matter how you were dressed or what you were doing, sexual penetration or touching without consent is a crime.
There is no time limit to reporting sexual assault to the police, so don’t be afraid to do so even after a week or a month or a few months. You could save another woman or girl from sexual assault committed by the same person.
For more detailed information, please visit www.aware.org.sg