In this series of posts I’m talking about various thought patterns concerning sex abuse allegations in the Church. The previous post talked about what I consider an undue focus on the rights of the accused. This time we will address a more sinister take.
“This is just misunderstood paternalistic affection” a.k.a. “You’re taking something innocent and blowing it out of proportion”
I have three questions for anyone who says this. I want you to answer these questions to yourself, not to anyone around you. Give yourself honest answers. Don’t try to lie to yourself.¹
Does he do these things to boys and men?
Do you want to know if a heterosexual man’s actions are motivated by loving affection or by sexual desire? The best indication I can come up with is whether he acts that way toward people of his own gender. Putting aside the accusations of outright rape for a second, let’s examine some of the other behaviors. Would this man play footsie with a young man he was mentoring? Would his hugs be as lengthy, as close and tight? Would he be as willing to discuss clothing, underwear choices and hygiene? Would he kiss a young man on the cheek and ask for a kiss in return?
If he would, then by all means feel free to make the claim that he’s just being loving. Forgive me for still being skeptical, though.
What if he did that to your wife?
Read through the things you are excusing as “just affection”. How would you feel about an older man acting like this toward your wife? Can you honestly say your jealousy wouldn’t be kindled? Are these actions that would be appropriate between two married people who are not married to each other?
Would you do that to your daughter?
Before you excuse a man’s actions as paternalistic, ask yourself whether you as a father would act in the same way toward your daughter. It’s understandable that a father and daughter would share more affection for each other than some outside that relationship, but really… would you do these things with your daughter? Ask your daughter how she would react if you did. List out the things this man is accused of doing. Be honest with yourself.
And then, of course, think about the fact that THIS MAN IS NOT HER FATHER. Whether you would feel comfortable playing footsie with your daughter, you have to admit to yourself that a paternalistic relationship between this Christian leader and a young woman is manufactured.
There are some additional problems with this attitude
- In this post, Ashley Easter talks about the culture and stigma that forces people to accept non-consensual “affection” from older people.
- This excellent article discusses the messages that these women heard about the kind of touches they received from these men.
Whether these men meant this touching as simple affection or not, these women had been conditioned by their childhood environments to be subject to unwanted touch. There was nothing in their upbringing to enable them to consent to or refuse affection. This, in effect, completely cancelled out the agency within them that would have differentiated between affection and sexual overture. This handicap virtually assured that even if a girl or woman was uncomfortable with touch she would not have the confidence that she would be heard or believed.
Furthermore, the common teaching in these environments (sometimes by the men themselves) was that any touch from a man was suspect. There’s no question in most of these situations; if these women had been touched in these ways by a peer-aged man their conditioning would have driven them to interpret it as a sexual advance. Imagine the confusion and disconnect when experiencing this treatment from a respected mentor!
This swirling mess of conflicting thoughts would be a bit much for an adult to process; what of a child, then? In the cases of these victims the abuse happened while they were young. Whether they were actual children at the time or shrouded in perpetual adolescence by purity culture, these women were definitely not equipped to process what they were experiencing. This is not a situation in which any truly affectionate adult male would push boundaries with physical touch. To do so would display at the very least an immense lack of self-awareness and good judgement. I am more inclined to interpret it as calculated grooming.
Stay tuned as my next installment in this series addresses the most harmful lapse of judgement shown in these situations. (Feel free to guess if you want!)
¹ These questions are addressed to men, as I consider my primary audience to be fathers; however they could be modified for others. It’s not my intention to exclude women in this article. On the contrary, I imagine that most women understand this already.