How the Evangelical Culture of Forgiveness Hurts Victims of Sexual Abuse
When megachurch pastor Andy Savage sat on a stool in front of his congregation on Sunday and confessed to a regretful sexual incident from his past, he ended his statement with an apology and a request for forgiveness. “I love you all very much,” he said, at which point the congregation rose to applaud. In context, Savage’s congregants were returning an expression of love, not grotesquely cheering for an assault. Nevertheless, the optics were painful—and so are their implications: The flock’s insta-forgiveness of its pastor illuminates the way evangelical culture, long known for its harsh judgment, is now just as likely to err in favor of what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”
The incident in question happened in 1998, when Savage was a 22-year-old youth minister at a Baptist church in suburban Houston. Jules Woodson was a 17-year-old high school senior who attended the church youth group. In Woodson’s account, Savage offered to drive her home from an event at the church, but instead he drove her down a dirt road, stopped the car, and pressured her to perform oral sex. When she told another pastor at the church what had happened, she says he suggested that she had “participated” in the incident, and Savage was allowed to resign with no public reckoning or police involvement. (The pastor who she turned to has been placed on leave by his current church over the allegations.)
Savage eventually moved to Memphis, Tennessee and co-founded the nondenominational Highpoint Church, which attracts more than 2,000 worshippers on a typical Sunday. He is not nationally famous, but he’s working on it. He hosts a weekly podcast about marriage and parenting and wrote a book about “Biblical manhood,” a phrase that signifies a “complementarian”—as opposed to egalitarian—approach to marriage. His next book was to be titled The Ridiculously Good Marriage: Five Essentials to Start Right and Stay Strong, but the publisher canceled the book this week.
Woodson tells the New York Times that she decided to speak up after all these years when she read a front-page article in USA Today about Matt Lauer’s dismissal from NBC in December. She says she emailed Savage that day, asking, “Do you remember that night that you were supposed to drive me home from church and instead drove me to a deserted back road and sexually assaulted me?” A month passed with no response, which is when she decided to go public, approaching several bloggers known for writing about sexual abuse within conservative Christian communities.
The story quickly gained steam online, and Savage addressed it on Sunday morning in front of his congregation in Memphis. The church’s head pastor, Chris Conlee, warmly introduced Savage, who sat on a stool onstage to share his account of what happened:
As a college student on staff at a church in Texas more than 20 years ago, I regretfully had a sexual incident with a female high school senior in the church. I apologized and sought forgiveness from her, her parents, her discipleship group, the church staff, and the church leadership, who informed the congregation. … I never sought to cover this up.
Savage said he never did anything remotely similar again and that he informed his future wife, his co-pastor, and other church leaders about the incident as he advanced within the church. “Until now, I did not know there was unfinished business with Jules,” he told the congregation. “Jules, I am deeply sorry for my actions 20 years ago. I remain committed to cooperate with you toward forgiveness and healing.” Woodson disputes Savage’s claim that he apologized to her back in 1998.
Savage did not try to excuse what he did. But he also didn’t really describe it. An audience member hearing about a “sexual incident” would have no sense of the raw details of Woodson’s accusation: that Savage drove her to a secluded area at night, that he took his penis out of his jeans with no warning and asked her to suck it, that he asked her to open her shirt and fondled her breasts, and that he abruptly stopped and begged her not to tell anyone. (“You have to take this to the grave with you,” she alleges he said.) A listener on Sunday could just have easily imagined the “incident” was a kiss or a lingering hug—inappropriate between a youth pastor and his charge but more easily brushed off. Savage also repeatedly emphasized how long ago all of this happened. Between them, Savage and Conlee used the phrase 20 years ago or more than 20 years ago eight times during the service. (Actually, it has been a little less than 20 years.)
Even if Savage had divulged all the details, though, an apology would likely have made them moot. The pastor was not applauded for his transgression but for his perceived realness, repentance, and regret.
Some corners of Christianity have always been quick to forgive: Recall the performative tears of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. But evangelicals have long been defined by the hard line they draw on “sexual morality”—from not letting Bill Clinton off the hook to not accepting the LGBTQ community. A decade ago, young Americans identified evangelicals’ top three traits as “anti-homosexual,” “judgmental,” and “hypocritical.”
That was then. Today, brokenness—evangelical jargon for a kind of raw humility—has become the buzzword. Authenticity about one’s flaws, rather than a blameless moral record, is the mark of a true believer. Highpoint bills itself on its home page as “a perfect place for imperfect people.” “This church exists for the sole purpose of healing brokenness in every person’s life,” Conlee said from the pulpit on Sunday.
It’s hard to complain about a shift in emphasis from punishment to grace—both concepts are baked into the Gospel message—but it can produce disturbing side effects. In Savage’s case, there’s the implication that repenting means he should suffer no further consequences for his actions. (Even if Savage pursues forgiveness from his victim, his family, and his community, that does not mean he is fit for public ministry.) And there are implications for victims too. As blogger Libby Anne summed it up in a recent post about how “forgiveness” can fail rape victims, “Once God has forgiven someone for a sin, it’s over, and it would be wrong for another Christian to continue making an issue of it.”
Meanwhile, white evangelicals are now eager to forgive on an even larger stage. In 2011, less than a third of them said a person who commits an “immoral” act would be qualified for public office. By late 2016, for some reason, 72 percent of them were suddenly willing to overlook such indiscretions, according to a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute. “I think that's inappropriate on all levels and it's inexcusable,” a young evangelical told NPR after the release of the Access Hollywood tape in 2016, in which then-candidate Trump bragged about grabbing women’s genitals. “But I do know this—that we all sin … I’ll offer him the same grace God gave him to forgive him for that."
As for Woodson, she’s not as eager to move on as Savage is. “It’s disgusting,” she told the New York Times of her former pastor’s apology, which streamed online and was posted to the church’s YouTube page. “It doesn’t matter if I was his only victim. What matters is that this was a big problem and continues to go on.”
The 2018 Golden Globes Was Almost Revolutionary. Too Bad the Main Protest Was a Bust.
There was no way this year’s Golden Globes could have gone off as usual. With the entertainment industry belching up sex criminals nearly every day for the past three months, there was enormous pressure on the women of Hollywood to inject meaning and purpose into the awards-season kickoff. For one night, with everyone watching, they hoped to make the gendered subtext of Hollywood—beautiful young women, monied old men, sexual coercion, casting couches, pay gaps, a white man behind every script and camera—boldfaced text.
To some extent, they succeeded. From host Seth Meyers’ opening line (“Good evening, ladies and remaining gentlemen”) to a rousing late-night speech from Oprah that nodded to blue-collar survivors of sexual abuse, the evening was threaded through with the theme of gender equity. Almost every woman who won an award found a way to connect her project with the current movement against sexual harassment—an easy task, considering that most of the big winners (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies, Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) tackled gender politics head-on. Some of the attempts at topicality felt forced—see: Salma Hayek trying to get the audience to yell “Time’s Up” in unison and presenter Geena Davis joking that all the Best Actor in a Motion Picture nominees should give half their salaries to the women in their films—but it was satisfying to imagine the men in the audience feeling uncomfortable for a night. Even with a male host, for the first time, it felt like women were controlling the somewhat muddled narrative.
The big protest action of the evening, however, was a total bust. Time’s Up, the recently convened coalition of women in the industry committed to fighting sexual harassment, had asked all women to wear black to the event. With the notable exception of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association president and a couple scattered no-namers, they all did. And so what? The action might have had some real impact if it actually affected the audience’s viewing experience or asked some small sacrifice of the participants. Imagine if the men had to wear green to show solidarity, instead of just swapping out their white shirts for black, or worn bags over their heads for the entire night. Or what if the women had worn matching T-shirts instead of gorgeous gowns? What if every woman brought another woman, instead of a man, as her plus-one? What if the women refused to get onstage, or ceded their speeches to lesser-known survivors of abuse, or didn’t show up at all? Industry leaders and viewers would have been forced to take notice and reckon with the power of hundreds of organized women. Instead, the show proceeded smoothly, with the unremarkable omission of most of the color spectrum.
The blackout looked particularly silly on the red carpet, which is only capable of supporting an entire subindustry of fashion designers and critics, not the seedlings of social movements. The typical chatter of the E! red-carpet correspondents usually sounds benign, if inane; on Sunday, with #MeToo looming over every interaction, it seemed unconscionably brain-dead. Wearing black “is a big statement, but a positive one, don’t you think?” one host asked her counterpart, without specifying what the “statement” might be. (Sexual assault is bad?) Later, they asked viewers to tweet the hashtags #ratherspank or #rathermakeout to indicate whether they’d rather be Jennifer Aniston spanking Kate Hudson or Amy Poehler making out with Bono—a rather strange choice of game considering the major topic of the day. To kill time, the network did a whole series of flashbacks about celebrities who’d previously showed up in black dresses—“Nicole Kidman has worn black at least twice!”—effectively divorcing the meager attempt at protest from its purpose. One deeply weird segment had each host pick a random dress they’d like to see a celebrity wear, then change the color of the dress to black and photoshop it onto the actress’s body. Another bit showed how to make black dresses “stand out” by choosing the right accessories. To E!, the protest was nothing more than a gimmick, a fun demonstration of how limitations can breed creativity. Despite Eva Longoria’s insistence that “This is a moment of solidarity, not a fashion moment … this time the industry can’t expect us to go up and twirl around,” celebrity media focused on the clothes and barely uttered a peep about Hollywood’s culture of sexual exploitation. What else did Time’s Up expect when it centered its protest on the clothes women wear?
A few A-listers did make admirable efforts to cede some of the spotlight to activists with deeper ties to movements for workplace and gender equity. Meryl Streep brought Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance as her date, Poehler brought Saru Jayaraman of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, and Michelle Williams brought Tarana Burke, who started the #MeToo movement a decade ago. These activists didn’t get the platform of the awards show itself, but they were able to say a few words to some red-carpet reporters. Other actresses used their red-carpet interviews to remind viewers of creative contributions lost to sexual abuse and the people who covered it up: Eva Longoria called out Asia Argento, and Natalie Portman mentioned Mira Sorvino, Annabella Sciorra, and Ashley Judd, all women who’ve said their careers suffered or stopped short after Harvey Weinstein harassed or assaulted them.
The night’s theme also emboldened celebrities to confront their interlocutors with some extra cheek. Debra Messing, bless her, told E! reporter Giuliana Rancic that she was “so shocked to hear that E! doesn’t believe in paying their female co-hosts the same as their male co-hosts,” invoking Catt Sadler, who recently quit the network after 12 years when she learned that her male co-host was making double her salary. Natalie Portman implicated her own peers when she inserted the term “all-male” in her introduction of the Best Director nominees. When Al Roker called Mariah Carey “young lady” and asked her if she ever got tired of winning awards, she noted with an accusatory lilt that she had never before been nominated for a songwriting Golden Globe. “Many times men forget that women also write songs, so tonight we’re here in celebration of that as well,” she said.
These were the few charged moments at an event historically run on decorum, consistency, and platitudes, in an industry ill-equipped to be the leader of any even negligibly controversial movement. By those standards, Time’s Up exceeded most reasonable expectations. If all Time’s Up does is raise a few dozen millions for legal defense funds and encourage famous women to sass red-carpet reporters about sexism, it will have done good. But any lasting change will require the participation of men—who, as my colleague Willa Paskin noted, barely addressed #MeToo at all on Sunday—and the capacity to sustain their momentum after the black dresses go back in the closet and the memory of Weinstein, God willing, fades. A movement that kicks off with wardrobe coordination risks mutating into a meaningless trend. Word has it designer Prabal Gurung already plans to put “Time’s Up” on his $195 T-shirts.
For God’s Sake, New York Times, #MeToo Is Not Going to End Flirting And Fun Sex
Today’s hottest #MeToo take comes from the New York Times opinion page, where Daphne Merkin argues that the movement to expose a widespread culture of sexual harassment and abuse has gotten out of hand. Merkin draws liberally from a genre of #MeToo criticism advanced by the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, in addition to plenty of conservative columnists, in recent months. The school of thought holds that, in our eagerness to bring the worst of the wrongdoers to long-overdue justice, women are ruining the lives of innocent men, punishing good people for being bad flirts, and threatening to make consensual sex a rare, robotic experience.
Merkin’s op-ed takes nearly every objectionable pillar of this increasingly tired argument and makes its fallacies even plainer. In that sense, it’s a useful document for those of us who’ve been covering this cultural moment and its various strains of backlash. Merkin seems to want to delegitimize efforts to establish standards of sexual consent and hold accountable those who violate them. Instead, she illuminates a growing gap between women whose experiences and identities allow them to shrug off sexual harassment and women whose livelihoods are threatened by it. Merkin seems to think the former have little to learn from the latter.
The first red flag in this piece is her repeated identification of anonymous assenting sources as “feminist.” In this context, the word is employed as a shield to deflect any future critics (hello!) from arguing that these “feminists” have it all wrong when it comes to consent. But the word feminist means nothing when it’s paired with a position that diminishes the rights and safety of women: Think of self-identified feminist Ivanka Trump, or the pro-lifers who argue that “protecting” women from abortion is a feminist act. When I’ve discussed the #MeToo movement with skeptical men, about half the time, they’ve invoked unnamed female friends who supposedly agree that too many innocent men are being mowed down by an overzealous mob. These friends serve the same purpose as Merkin’s “feminists”—to give unearned credence to a dubious claim about what exactly women deserve, and to make one person’s opinion sound like the consensus of a formidable multitude.
And Merkin’s friends sure sound committed to some pretty clearly anti-feminist beliefs. “Grow up, this is real life,” one “feminist” friend purportedly said of the still-growing wave of sexual harassment accusations. Another wondered, “Whatever happened to flirting?” By answering today’s messy, imperfect, entirely vital response to one of the most damaging symptoms of gender inequality with an entreaty for women to “grow up,” these voices undermine the very foundation of feminism and, indeed, any social movement: the belief in, and desire to fight for, a better future. Feminism means taking steps toward a world where “real life” doesn’t mean smiling and swallowing a lump in your throat when a senator grabs your ass during a photo-op, and where “flirting” doesn’t mean an older, married colleague kissing you on the mouth at what you were led to believe was a business meeting.
Merkin’s genre of #MeToo suspicion is deeply concerned with the need for specificity, with taking each separate allegation against each accused perpetrator and evaluating it on its particular merits. Yet few of the essays written in this vein offer many, if any, specific examples of good-natured flirting that has been met with undue punishment or innocent men who’ve been tarnished by false proclamations. Merkin mentions Garrison Keillor, Jonathan Schwartz, and Ryan Lizza—but in all three of these cases, accusers have declined to share their accounts of what happened. The exact circumstances of these allegations may still be mysterious to the public, but it's misleading to frame these as straightforward instances of men being unduly censured. And in all these cases, investigators privy to the accusers’ accounts have determined that the men’s actions were severe enough to warrant dismissal from their workplaces. How can Merkin enact “due process,” as she requests of the rest of us, when she’s only heard one side of the story? She calls accusations of harassment and abuse “life-destroying denunciations,” a patent falsehood. A famous millionaire who loses a job has hardly had his life destroyed.
The Gessen and Merkin school of thought also lacks any meaningful blueprint for how institutions might stop a Matt Lauer or a Harvey Weinstein while allowing other forms of sometimes-consensual, sometimes-nonconsensual sexual advances to continue. Of course there’s a distinction between rape and groping, and between groping and a lewd remark. But in the context of workplace harassment, when administrators tolerate low-level offenses, people are sometimes empowered to push the boundaries even further, priming witnesses to ignore high-level stuff when it happens. People worrying that #MeToo is a “sex panic” believe the problem lies in a few bad actors and their stomach-churning offenses. If the magnitude of the movement has demonstrated anything, it’s that there’s an entire spectrum of sex-based abuse of power that lets those bad actors flourish. It’s not ancillary to the problem. It’s the root of it.
Central to this misconception are two straw men, whom you’ll find in Merkin’s piece and almost every other piece of writing that preaches the dangers of #MeToo. The first holds that routine sexual advances demand a certain suspension of consent. This argument refuses to consider that there are feasible ways, both verbal and non, for a man to find out if a woman wants him to kiss her before he does it and sees if she tells him to stop. As most women who’ve fielded unwanted advances will tell you, a physical lunge need not be the first step in determining whether or not a prospective partner is interested. Asking men to get over their insecurities and wait for a clearer sign—or just ask!—is not tantamount to ending flirtation, unless flirtation is limited to an unexpected lashing-out of limbs and mouths, in which case I’ve been doing it wrong for 20 years, God help me.
The other straw man has to do with affirmative consent, to which Merkin refers as “stripping sex of eros.” The problem is that what Merkin and her feminist friends think of as “eros”—presumably, the kind of sex where nobody talks about what they want and just sort of fumbles around based on guesswork, hoping it’s all consensual—isn’t working for a lot of people. Many of us would rather our sex be 100 percent consensual, even if it means having to say, “I really want to kiss you,” or ask, “How do you want me to touch you?” There is, in fact, a sexy way to do this. And even if there weren’t, the tradeoff should be a no-brainer. Is a little bit more chatter that makes some people feel awkward not worth the effort as a culture, if it prevents some instances of coercion, rape, and assault? As my own anonymous (and, incidentally, feminist) friend said today of the benefits of communication in the bedroom, “The ‘sex panic’ crowd is so obviously just bad at sex. It bums me out.”
In one of her recent pieces on the #MeToo moment, Gessen argued that the rash of punishments for accused harassers suffers from “misplaced scale,” by which comparatively minor sexual offenses are deemed uniquely vile. There is a problem of misplaced scale here, I’d agree, but I see it elsewhere. For what little progress #MeToo has made, especially for working-class women, on a problem whose extraordinary dimensions we have yet to grasp, there seems to be an incredible volume of work arguing that it’s gone too far.
Hollywood’s Official Response to #MeToo Is Off to a Rocky Start
The new year started on Monday with a major announcement from several Hollywood A-listers. Full-page ads in the New York Times and the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión heralded the creation of Time’s Up, the entertainment industry’s women-led response to the wave of sexual misconduct accusations that dominated the news in the last months of 2017.
Some of the big names attached to the initiative, including Ashley Judd, Reese Witherspoon, and America Ferrera, are actresses who’ve recently recounted their own experiences with sexual harassment and assault. Some, such as Shonda Rhimes, Eva Longoria, and Rashida Jones, have long been vocal advocates for gender and racial equity in Hollywood. Time’s Up is the first attempt in the industry to channel the know-how, connections, and social capital of all these women—300 female producers, directors, actresses, agents, writers, lawyers, and executives—into a focused effort for substantive change.
In that sense, the initiative’s birth is a remarkable feat in and of itself. Getting 300 people on board with a public statement and agenda would be a heavy lift for any nascent organization, let alone one populated by people with their own respective assistants, publicists, managers, and packed travel schedules. The fact that these women have been organizing at weekly meetings and all-day workshops since October, and appear to be gaining momentum toward some of their objectives, is a promising sign for the group’s capacity to turn hopeful words into action. The industry has never before seen a structure of such breadth and scale for the explicit purpose of gender-based power-building. There’s no telling what the members may be capable of once they pool their resources and influence together, the way men in the industry already do through the “old boys’ club” model.
The main pillars of Time’s Up’s agenda are designed to attack the longstanding epidemic of sexual harassment from several sides. There’s a legal defense fund that currently sits at $13 million, earmarked to support women in blue-collar jobs who want to report instances of sexual misconduct. The group intends to lobby for legislation that would crack down on companies that enable serial harassers and use nondisclosure agreements to prevent victims from telling others about their abuse. One of Time’s Up many working groups is an initiative called 50/50by2020, which is pushing entertainment companies to pledge to make their leadership teams half women in the next two years. The vision advanced by these goals is one of bold institutional reform: a multi-industry shift toward women in decision-making positions, legal accountability for wrongdoers, and fewer ways for business leaders to shirk the mandate to maintain a safe workplace.
But there is good reason to doubt that Time’s Up will meet its ambitious targets. One of the group’s first coordinated acts was to encourage women to wear all black on the red carpet at the Golden Globes on Sunday, ostensibly to raise awareness about sexual harassment. If this is what Time’s Up counts as activism, the initiative is doomed. The gender politics of the statement are askew: Since almost all men already wear black tuxes to the event, Time’s Up is asking action only of women. And if any women don’t get the memo or decide that their dress color is a counterproductive means of protest, those women will almost certainly focus of the next day's media coverage, instead of the men who have made Hollywood a living hell.
The women who do wear black will earn applause for doing literally nothing to combat sexual harassment and abuse. “This is a moment of solidarity, not a fashion moment,” Eva Longoria told the New York Times of the black-out. “For years, we’ve sold these awards shows as women, with our gowns and colors and our beautiful faces and our glamour. This time the industry can’t expect us to go up and twirl around.” If the moment is not about fashion and twirling in pretty dresses, why did Time’s Up confine its first public protest to the color of the gowns on women’s bodies?
Sexual harassment in Hollywood is no long a problem of awareness. Dogged reporters and cultural critics have raised more awareness about the topic in recent months than a carpet full of black dresses could ever manage to do. Now that everyone is aware of the problem, it will take money and expertise to solve it. The celebrities who’ve signed their names to the cause have the former, and there are dozens of established gender-justice organizations that have the latter. Time’s Up knows this: Its multimillion-dollar legal defense fund will be managed by the Legal Network for Gender Equity, a nationwide network of lawyers organized by the National Women’s Law Center to help match victims of sex discrimination with attorneys who can take their cases.
To live up to its mission, Time’s Up will have to prove that it is somehow uniquely able to fight sex discrimination and abuse, that it has something to add to the generations of expertise amassed by the nonfamous activists and unglamorous organizations who have committed themselves to this work. It makes sense to enlist boldfaced names to fight harassment in the industry that employs them, but there’s nothing to suggest that the group will succeed where others have failed at, say, legislative reform. Movements for gender equity need many things; “money” is probably at the top of that list, with “more working groups” near the bottom. So far, the biggest impact Time’s Up has made is undoubtedly its $13 million contribution to the legal defense fund, raised in part through donations from Rhimes, Witherspoon, Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, and Kate Capshaw. When one organization’s smartest move is giving another group its money, it might be better off as a fundraising apparatus.
That $13 million also includes gifts from ICM Partners, the Creative Artists Agency, William Morris Endeavor, and United Talent Agency—for-profit companies that are capitalizing on this moment to earn goodwill in the industry. Some are in desperate need of such a reputation cleanse. Several allegations that have surfaced against Weinstein and other Hollywood power players have implicated agencies that set up meetings between unsuspecting young actresses and known abusers. Judd told her agent at William Morris about Weinstein’s harassment in the ‘90s. Witherspoon said that after she was assaulted by a director at the age of 16, “agents…made me feel that silence was a condition of my employment.” At Creative Artists Agency, the Times reported last month, at least eight agents knew about Weinstein, mostly because actresses they represented endured his abuse. The agency allegedly took no action to protect their clients and continued sending women his way, with no warning, for private encounters. (CAA issued a statement after the report that said, in part, "we apologize to any person the agency let down.") These agencies were integral to Weinstein’s ecosystem of victimization, because he knew they’d prioritize money over the safety of the young women on their rosters. They deserve accountability. Instead, thanks to Time’s Up, they get to be allies.
A Close Look at the Many Times We’ve Anointed “The Year of the Woman” Before
When Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith replaces disgraced Sen. Al Franken, she will become the record-setting 22nd woman in the Senate, and as a wave of sexual misconduct allegations remove powerful political figures (save the president) from office, a number of commentators have called this “The Year of the Woman.”
That term was popularized in the press in 1992, when a surge of women—frustrated by Anita Hill’s treatment by the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee as she testified that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her—ran for office and won. And it’s easy to see why the title is tempting to redeploy now. While Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat left the glass ceiling of the presidency fully intact, the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University had recorded 383 registered female candidates planning to run for a seat in the House as of December 18, almost 200 more than there were at the same point in 2016, and twice as many women are potential gubernatorial candidates as in 2014. The Democratic, pro-choice PAC Emily’s List told Vox they’d heard from 20,000 prospective female candidates this year (as compared to 900 in 2015-16).
But that proclamation rings of déjà vu; we’ve been here, trumpeting the Year of the Woman, many times before in the (only) 97 years since the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. So Slate investigated some of the previous periods anointed the “Year of the Woman” and looked at data from the Center from American Women and Politics, the Pew Research Center, the Congressional Research Service, and the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress to see how well those hopeful headlines withstood the test of time.
Evangelical Women, Long Acculturated to Shun “Negative” Topics, Are Speaking Out About #MeToo
The current crusade against sexual violence started in Hollywood. Now, a group of women hopes to bring this conversation to a setting supposedly far from Babylon: the evangelical church. This week, more than 140 prominent evangelical women released a statement that calls on churches and their leaders to resist violence against women, and support women in telling their stories. “Women of all faiths, races, cultures and backgrounds are bravely breaking their silence,” the statement asserts, “yet many in communities of faith do not match their bravery with action.” Using the hashtag #SilenceIsNotSpiritual, the group calls on church leaders to stand in solidarity with women who have experienced violence, and to “fight both systemic and individual injustices in our midst.”
USA Gymnastics Paid McKayla Maroney $1.25 Million to Stay Silent About Her Alleged Sexual Abuse
Retired gymnast McKayla Maroney filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking damages for the sexual abuse she says she suffered for years at the hands of Larry Nassar, a doctor who recently pled guilty to assaulting several young gymnasts under his care. According to the suit, the Wall Street Journal reports, USA Gymnastics paid Maroney $1.25 million in a confidential settlement last fall in exchange for her silence.
Maroney, a 22-year-old gold medalist from the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, broke that agreement when she wrote about her alleged abuse on Twitter in October. But Maroney and her lawyer, John Manly, say confidentiality agreements are illegal in California in cases of child sexual abuse. “We're basically saying [USA Gymnastics] and its lawyers violated the law by asking McKayla to agree to it and that she should be free to talk about her abuse to whomever she wants, whenever she wants,” Manly told ESPN.
Maroney’s lawyer at the time of the settlement was famed sexual-abuse and discrimination attorney Gloria Allred, who was recently criticized for making misleading statements about a yearbook note written by then-U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, leaving room for the right-wing press to cast doubt on her client’s entire story.
The settlement came at a time when USA Gymnastics, the governing body for the sport and the gateway to the Olympics for its most promising athletes, came under harsh scrutiny for its failure to act on sex-abuse claims made against more than 50 of its coaches. Four ended up incarcerated for their crimes, but not until they’d abused at least 14 gymnasts in the years after USA Gymnastics received complaints about their behavior. Nassar was a serial victimizer; he's been accused of sexual abuse by more than 140 women and girls in civil lawsuits. The revelation that a large national sports organization spent such a large sum to silence an alleged victim of a child abuser it enabled for decades—the first complaints to the organization came in 1997—will be particularly damaging as the association seeks to rebuild its reputation and regain the trust of the athletes and parents it serves.
Wednesday’s lawsuit names Nassar, the U.S. Olympic Committee, and USA Gymnastics as defendants, as well as Michigan State University, which employed Nassar and protected him for years after he was first investigated by law enforcement. In addition to damages, the suit seeks to nullify the nondisclosure and non-disparagement clauses in Maroney’s settlement, on the grounds that they are unlawful in cases of child sex abuse.
The suit includes disturbing details of the abuse Maroney says she endured for almost five years, from the time she was 13 to her retirement from the sport in 2013. Her account aligns with those of several other alleged Nassar victims: In hotel rooms and private spaces at the Karolyi Ranch, where former Olympic team coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi trained athletes, Nassar allegedly penetrated her with ungloved fingers and took nude photos of her, all under the guise of medical treatment. The lawsuit accuses Nassar of violating Maroney dozens of times, all over the world, when he would travel with the team for gymnastics competitions.
“Nassar, on at least one occasion, disrobed Plaintiff, mounted the Plaintiff while performing a medical treatment, placed his fingers into her anus and vagina, and had an erection,” the suit states. Maroney’s mother described the same incident, which occurred the before a world championship meet in Tokyo, in a victim-impact statement submitted to a federal judge presiding over Nassar’s sentencing on a child pornography conviction. “She was only 15 years old. She said to me, ‘Mom I thought I was going to die,’ ” Erin Maroney wrote. “This experience has shattered McKayla. She has transformed from a bubbly, positive, loving, world class athlete into a young adult who was deeply depressed, at times suicidal.”
According to the lawsuit, Nassar “would continuously, obsessively and compulsively photograph” Maroney in public, which, along with his guilty plea on child pornography charges, led the gymnast to believe he also took photos while abusing her. Maroney “continues to worry, distress, experience concern, anxiety, and depression over whether Nassar’s photographs of her are still circulating through the internet, and whether they are possessed by other pedophiles and sexual deviants, and whether she will ever know how widely these photographs have been shared or whether they will eventually surface later in her lifetime,” the suit states.
Several other gymnasts have come forward with public allegations against Nassar; the most famous are Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, two stars of the 2012 and 2016 Olympic teams. Nassar will be sentenced for seven counts of sexual assault in January. The judge has given his accusers four days during the sentencing to speak in court about their alleged abuse.
Democrats Should Follow the Doug Jones Playbook on Abortion Rights
As the Democratic Party looks back on this year and concocts its formula for 2018, party leaders may clash on what lessons to extract from the improbable victory of Doug Jones, Alabama’s first Democratic senator-elect in a quarter-century. It was about as far from a typical election as one could get: a special election in an off year that pitted an anti-establishment, openly racist alleged molester against a total newcomer to electoral politics. There can be few clear-cut takeaways from an experiment with so few controls.
But data from pre- and post-election polls support at least one rock-solid conclusion Democrats should heed in the build-up to next year’s midterms: Red-state abortion politics are not the intractable obstacle center-left partisans believe them to be. Democratic politicians in historically right-leaning states and districts need not hedge on reproductive rights to win elections. Nor must the party support the political aspirations of anti-choice candidates if it hopes to flip the balance of power in Congress.
Since Donald Trump’s election, leaders of the Democratic Party have cautiously expressed their intention to open the party up to more candidates who oppose abortion rights, ostensibly as a way to win back some of the white rural and suburban voters who supported Barack Obama in 2012 but voted Trump in 2016. This spring, DNC deputy chairman Keith Ellison and Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigned together in Omaha for a mayoral candidate with a record of sponsoring anti-abortion legislation.
Abortion seemed like it could be a flashpoint in the recent Senate race in Alabama, where Republican candidate Roy Moore strove to make it the No. 1 issue of the campaign. With an extra-high hurdle to clear after the candidate was hit with several credible allegations of sexual misconduct, Moore and his followers fell back on abortion, an issue they were sure they could win on against the generally pro-choice Jones. Moore spokeswoman Janet Porter, the activist behind the “heartbeat bills” that would ban abortions starting around six weeks’ gestation, congratulated a pregnant news anchor on her “unborn child” before claiming that Moore would “stand for the rights of babies like yours in the womb, where his opponent will support killing them until the moment of birth.” Kayla, Moore’s wife, told followers at a rally that Jones supports the imaginary procedure “full-term abortion,” in which doctors “suck a child’s brains out at the moment before birth.” In Trump’s Twitter endorsement of Moore, “pro-abortion” was first on the list of Jones’ disqualifying positions. Moore himself coined the hashtag #AbortionJones—a kickass name for a feminist superhero, if anyone’s looking for one—to smear his opponent.
The Moore campaign made every effort to turn Alabama’s anti-abortion evangelicals and Catholics against Jones, so had Jones suffered a narrow defeat, left-leaning pundits and Democratic leaders might have spent the past week and beyond taking a critical look at their own party’s abortion politics. They would have been left wondering whether Jones could have eked out a victory by wavering on his support for women’s rights—or whether the party should have run a less pro-choice candidate instead.
But Jones stayed firm, and polling data indicates that his resolve paid off. A Clarity Campaign Labs poll conducted before the allegations against Moore came out split intended Moore voters into two groups: those who said they’d never vote for a Democrat, and those who said they’d considered Jones before landing on Moore. Among voters who considered Jones, just 8 percent—1 percent of the total Alabama electorate—said the candidates’ stances on abortion determined their final vote. More than four times as many people said their “general dislike” of Jones swung them toward Moore. Party and personality mattered far more to Moore voters than abortion politics did. And Alabama voters are far more split on the abortion issue itself than conventional wisdom about the Deep South would suggest. A pre-election Washington Post poll found that nearly equal proportions of likely voters chose Jones and Moore when asked which candidate they “could trust more to handle the issue of abortion,” despite the fact that a majority of Alabamians support restrictions on abortion rights.
“When you look at the public opinion data, there aren’t that many hardcores who believe abortion should never be legal,” Richard Fording, a University of Alabama political science professor, told AL.com before the election. “It’s trending in a more liberal direction, and it’s more about where you draw the line.” Plenty of Alabama voters aren’t the kind of all-or-nothing anti-choicers who will withhold their ballots from any candidate who isn’t literally endorsed by a vocal supporter of violence against abortion providers, as Moore was.
There’s also evidence that some Alabamians with extreme anti-abortion views weighed that part of their political identity against the other issues and chose Jones anyway. Exit polls found that 34 percent of voters who thought abortion “should be illegal in most cases” voted for Jones, as did 18 percent of those who thought abortion should be completely banned. Since party affiliation aligns closely with abortion views in the U.S., a Democrat could not expect to do much better than that among anti-choice voters, and Jones didn’t have to compromise his support for abortion rights to win them.
This isn’t to say that Moore’s vocal opposition to abortion rights didn’t help him at all. It very well might have motivated some people who are otherwise unenthused by politics—or who may have stayed home rather than vote for an alleged abuser of teenage girls—to get to the polls. But a large majority of Alabama Republicans (71 percent!) straight-up didn’t believe Moore’s accusers. And Jones’ refusal to play by the GOP’s rules and moderate his views on abortion made it possible for progressives to feel good about backing him with their money and volunteer hours. Black voters, who support abortion rights by wider margins than whites, played a major role in Jones’ victory by turning out at rates approaching 77 percent of last year’s presidential election. Ninety-six percent of them voted for Jones, in spite of pro-Moore ads that told them “a vote for Doug Jones is a vote for more black abortions.” Those ad producers probably didn’t know that a majority of black Protestants, who make up about 16 percent of the Alabama electorate, support abortion rights.
“The lesson that we should all take from Alabama is that … you can be an unapologetic champion for reproductive health and rights and win—even in deep red states like Alabama,” Erica Sackin, spokeswoman for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, told me in an email. “The majority of people in this country, 7 out of 10, support access to safe, legal abortion. That means more people in America support Roe v. Wade than support either the Democratic or Republican party.”
As a teachable moment, the case of Doug Jones offers a decent tutorial on winning a red-state election by running a genuinely progressive candidate that speaks to the base instead of creeping toward the center. In Alabama, black voters sealed a Democratic victory in the face of concerted voter suppression, in large part because of the work of black organizers and the party’s elevation of a good candidate with a history of prosecuting Klansmen. Because he didn’t have to rely on a handful of anti-choice independent voters or those fast-disappearing moderate Republicans, Jones could stand his ground on abortion rights, bolstering the faith of his supporters. This is a sound means of running a successful campaign, and it comes with a bonus: The Democratic Party doesn’t have to sell out women to win.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” Is Your Latest Problematic Fave
Every December for the past several years, seasonal culture critics have wondered what to make of Rudolph. The tale of the red-nosed reindeer—perhaps the longest-running and best-loved holiday character, aside from Santa himself—is, on its face, the heartwarming triumph of an underdog battling social and workplace discrimination wrought by a facial deformity. But the ultimate takeaway for kids is a little mushier. Do people with differences only deserve respect when those differences benefit their tormentors? And if Santa cares so much about condemning naughty behavior, shouldn’t he have stepped in to put the bullies in their place?
A few popular memes have captured the dubious moral of Rudolph’s story. One has Santa beseeching Rudolph to guide his sleigh through the fog, only to get mercilessly shut down: “I’m sorry Santa, but I feel uncomfortable giving you help after the verbal abuse and discrimination I suffered during my formative years,” the reindeer says. “It has taken me a long time to realize that my self-worth does not stem from my usefulness to you. I do not owe you anything.” Another image pairs a still from the 1964 Rankin/Bass stop-motion TV special—the most famous depiction of Rudolph’s plight—with a concise distillation of North Pole capitalist philosophy: “Deviation from the norm will be punished unless it is exploitable.”
For generations, ever since the story was written as a poem in 1939 and popularized as a song a decade later, Rudolph’s lesson was interpreted more simply: Don’t make fun of people who are different, because everyone has something to offer. But around the time that the internet became the place for people to revisit problematic themes of old artworks, and for parents to fret about how they were raising their kids, Santa and his crew came in for a long-overdue reckoning. Rudolph “doesn't want to teach you kindness or charity, or any of that crap; it only wants to teach you spite and how to commit hate crimes,” claimed a blogger in 2010. Parenting groups on Facebook have hosted debates about whether it’s better to watch the TV special with kids and discuss what’s messed up about it, or keep it away from them altogether. In 2013, Michael Schaffer argued in the New Republic that the story “presents a fairly grim, Hobbesian vision of society: If you want to be accepted, you have to prove your economic utility—which, in the case of magical flying reindeer, appears to only involve the annual sleigh-pull.”
Fox News had a bit of a different take. On a 2011 episode of The Five, host Greg Gutfield mocked a professor of special education who said “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” promoted bullying. “Like most profs, he pursues his opinion while ignoring facts,” Gutfield said. “We know what smacks you around makes you stronger. … I mean, how has the liberal-loving media helped President Obama? Not well. He has made more missteps than a tap dancer during an earthquake. But his fanbase media shielded him, which is why he got creamed in 2010.” In other words, Rudolph needed to be shamed for his appearance in order to reach his potential—an even worse moral of the story, most parents would agree. Later in the same segment, Andrea Tantaros, who would go on to sue Roger Ailes and other Fox News colleagues for sexual harassment, praised Rudolph for dealing with his hostile work environment “the right way” by declining to sue Santa.
This year’s critiques of the beloved tale have situated themselves in ongoing public conversations about politics, race, and gender. One writer in Alabama, where an accused molester who spoke lovingly of the days of slavery narrowly lost a race for the U.S. Senate, wrote that “the PC world where everyone is offended by everything,” including Rudolph, “gives us something to be depressed about other than the current soul-sucking state of Alabama politics.” Twitter users have pointed out that male reindeer lose their antlers just before winter, while females keep theirs until spring. Since Rudolph and his contemporaries are almost always illustrated with antlers, they may be women whose labor is erased by the 1964 film, which has all the lady reindeer watching in awe as their men pull Santa’s sleigh. (Others have suggested that Rudolph still identifies as male and is transgender. In real life, castrated male reindeer that do have antlers in winter are usually used to pull sleds.) Food blogger Angela Davis recently likened Rudolph to black women voters who reliably turn out Democratic victories across the country, even as prominent liberals and party bigwigs push a swing away from “identity politics” and toward a renewed focus on the “white working class.” That is, the analogy suggests, Santa and the black-nosed reindeer are content to belittle Rudolph’s protests for fair treatment until they need him to save their end-of-year project.
Rudolph = bw voters and Santa = the DNC. https://t.co/bU3X9reZmL— Angela Davis (@TheKitchenista) December 13, 2017
When I re-watched the Rankin/Bass production this year, I was alarmed by the cold-heartedness of one of Rudolph’s persecutors in particular: Santa, who I’d always remembered as a sort of silent, complicit bystander to Rudolph’s abuse, not the ringleader he’s made out to be in the TV special. Santa visits Rudolph’s family cave soon after his birth; his main reaction to the newborn son of Donner, one of his most trusted reindeer, is “I hope that [red nose] goes away.” After an older Rudolph’s nose cover-up falls off in public, revealing its red glow, Santa tells Donner he “should be ashamed” of himself for raising such a son. (This interaction is one of the clearest bits of evidence that the whole tale is an allegory for being gay in a homophobic society.) Santa also repeatedly insults his elves when they write a cute little song for him, slouching and rolling his eyes like a peevish child during their performance. This depiction of Santa, who is typically portrayed as a generous, avuncular fellow, may be especially confusing for children taught to please the Christmas gatekeeper with “nice” behavior. Santa as unfeeling, punishing patriarch is not much of a role model.
Then again, seeing a magical icon as a fallible human whose cruelty is enabled by an unequal power structure could be a formative, radicalizing experience for a kid. In real life, there are no Santas with unimpeachable moral compasses. Good people can still end up with coal in their stockings, and sometimes, the people who shame others the loudest are doing the exact things they condemn. It’s never too early to disabuse a child of her respect for authority.
How Should We Process Sexual Harassment Allegations When No Specific Allegations Have Been Made Public?
On Monday, the New Yorker announced that it had cut ties with its Washington correspondent, Ryan Lizza, for engaging in “improper sexual conduct.” In a brief statement, a spokeswoman for the magazine said that it had “reviewed the matter” and “due to a request for privacy, we are not commenting further.”
These days, as soon as another man’s name is announced in the public square, it has come to feel like there’s a set formula for our cultural response. The tweets roll in, hitting several standard themes. There are the disdainful farewellls: