IT HAPPENED TO ME: My First Experience with Sexual Harassment was in Church

The hard truth is that the threat of sexual harassment is everywhere.
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Publish date:
September 8, 2014
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religion, sexual harrassment, church

When I was a child, my mother was extremely overprotective. She often spoke to me about the types of dangers I might face one day; about sexual predators and strangers and the other things that lurk outside of my home and church community. But most of my childhood was spent inside a Southern Baptist sanctuary. If the doors were open, I was there. All of my early social interaction happened at that church.

My mom loved that I spent most of my time at church and I loved that she let me go by myself. Back in those days, there weren't many places she let me go alone. She was too worried about what might happen if she wasn't around. She wanted to protect me.

But on Wednesday nights, when the church van pulled into my driveway, I'd eagerly hop on with the other kids and wave goodbye to her. She'd smile and wave back, knowing that if there was any place in the world where her daughter was safe, it was at church.

Wednesday nights were amazing and so different from the monotonous hymns and constant prayers of Sunday morning. In this program, kids were split up by school grade. We were given vests and activity books full of bible passages to memorize. Every time we memorized one correctly, we were given patches or pins to decorate our vests. It was like the Boy Scouts for Baptists.

I was seven when I was first invited by a friend and after that, I never missed a Wednesday night. I would go from school to home to church. Most of my friends were church friends. I think my diligent church attendance kept me out of harm's way longer than most women and for that, I am grateful. On the flipside, it shielded me to the point of naivete.

Suddenly, around the age of 13, I lost interest in Wednesday nights. I still went but I wasn't as vigilant in my attendance. When I did go, I felt uncomfortable. I was relieved when I got too old for it and started going to youth group instead. For a long time, I would look back and wonder what changed and I chalked it up to my budding adolescence.

Years later, a couple of things happened that made me revisit that time in my life with a fresh perspective. First, I'm no longer a churchgoer. When I was, I wore blinders and had the ability to ignore the shortfalls of the church and its members. Second, the #YesAllWomen hashtag that ran on Twitter gave me a reason to think about sexual harassment. The idea behind #YesAllWomen was to draw attention to the everyday sexism women face and to illustrate that most women have a story about a time they felt sexually harassed. In thinking about and sharing my own experiences, I came to a harsh realization: My first experience with sexual harassment actually happened at church.

Let's call him Matt. I was 13. He was 15, almost too old for the Wednesday night program. He was a really nice guy, funny and smart with an easy smile. He sat next to me on the church van. We laughed a lot and sometimes he touched my shoulder or poked at me in a joking way, but we were church friends so I figured it was alright.

On this particular Wednesday night, we had game time outside. We were split up into two teams to play no-touch flag football. Originally, Matt was on my team but then he switched with another boy so he could play opposite of me. We exchanged playful "You're going down" banter with each other before the game started.

I'm terrible at sports. In fact, that night, I never once got the ball which is why it was weird when Matt tackled me. I hit the ground hard. He pinned me under his weight. Not wanting to be a bad sport, I tried to laugh it off and nudged at him to move. Then his hand slid up my bare leg, over my thigh, and under my jean shorts. I panicked. No one had ever touched me like that. I yelled, "Stop! Get off me" and flailed underneath him, trying to push him away. He laughed at me.

The volunteer game coach blew his whistle. Matt flashed me a little smirk and got up. I don't know if the coach saw Matt touch me or not. I know he heard me yell; everyone did. He obviously saw the tackle and that should have been enough to get Matt in trouble but it wasn't.

Matt continued to play as though nothing had happened while I stood on the sidelines. I didn't want to play anymore. I stood with my arms crossed across my chest, feeling violated, confused, and embarrassed. The coach's wife stood with me. She asked me if I was alright. I wanted to say no but I couldn't explain why I wasn't. So I said yes. She gave me an encouraging smile, put her arm around my shoulders and said, "Boys will be boys" and I nodded as if that made perfect sense.

Don't misunderstand me. This isn't an accusation aimed at religion or even at my church. I think that the situation could have been handled differently. I wish the volunteer coach hadn't dismissed it so quickly. He should have pulled Matt out of the game or at the very least taken him aside to tell him it wasn't alright. Even if he hadn't seen Matt touch me, tackling a young girl to the ground should have been enough for a reprimand.

I wish the coach's wife hadn't said, "Boys will be boys" because at 13, I took this as an acceptable reason for what happened to me. I carried the phrase with me for years to come. I can pinpoint times later in my life where I allowed uncomfortable things to happen simply because "boys will be boys." But these types of dismissals and rationalizations happen everywhere, every day, to women from all walks of life. It has nothing to do with setting, church or otherwise.

The true heart of this piece is a call to women. Be alert. There are places where it feels alright to relax. Church was that place for me. I felt protected. But the hard truth is that the threat of sexual harassment is everywhere.

It scares me that things like this can happen in places considered safe havens because these are places where women let their guards down. If something does happen, it often goes unnoticed. It feels like a violation, but the victim might second guess it either because she's afraid no one will believe her or because sexual harassment doesn't usually happen in these places. In my case, it was a long time before I realized what happened to me was indeed sexual harassment. I couldn't fathom that things like this happened in church, so I pushed it from my mind and pretended it never happened.

I now know why I abruptly stopped being overjoyed when the church van pulled up to my house. It makes sense that I starting feeling uncomfortable during the Wednesday night program. It's because that night when Matt touched me, I didn't feel like a kid anymore. I became aware of my body, who was looking at it, who wanted to touch it. It no longer felt right for me to be with the other children, running and playing like nothing could hurt me. I knew better.

I knew what men were capable of and I knew the fact that I was in church wouldn't stop them. I no longer felt safe in a place that should have been safe. I never did again.