Tag Archives: Margaret Farley

Naming Sexual Violence

This week, on The Femonite blog, we are going to be focusing on themes of sexual violence. I hope you will join us for the ongoing conversation, and add your own questions, stories, and insights.

  • Every 2 minutes, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted
  • Throughout their lifetimes, 1 in 5 women will experience some form of sexual violence or assault
  • 44% of sexual violence victims are under the age of 18

These stats are horrific. I’m sure none of us read through these statistics and feel untouched or unaffected. In fact, what these statistics are saying is that 20% of all women are affected by sexual violence, which means that, even if you are like me and you are lucky enough to have not experienced this form of violence directly, you have friends, family members and acquaintances who have, whether you know it or not.

During my recent stint as a juror, I was interviewed for service on a case that dealt with four cases of sexual assault, rape and battery with a deadly weapon. The jury selection process took two full days, because the judge and lawyers were hoping to find “impartial jurors,” which they defined as people who had not been affected by sexual violence themselves, or close to anyone who had been. They interviewed 106 jurors before they were able to find 12 who met that criteria.

But perhaps the most startling statistics of all are not about the acts themselves, but the silence that shrouds and protects them.

  • 54% of all sexual assaults are not reported to the police
  • 97% of rapists are not sentenced to any jail time

And perhaps nowhere is this silence more deafening than within church walls. In the past year, my denomination, Mennonite Church USA, has been rocked by not one, but two allegations of sexual abuse at our secondary education institutions in Pennsylvania and  Oregon. Over the course of the past few years, there have been accounts of pastors perpetrating sexual abuse and members of MCUSA have bravely come forward to share their own stories and accounts of sexual violence. And in an ironic twist, one of the most iconic Mennonite writers and peace ethicists, John Howard Yoder, was embroiled in a scandal regarding sexual harassment of many women during his tenure at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, a legacy that sometimes gets swept under the rug, but can still leave some women, myself included, feeling squeamish about using his work.

And yet, Mennonite Church USA as a whole, along with many other Christian denominations, has not made many strong statements naming sexual violence as a reality within our congregations, and condemning it. The church does provide resources for helping a church to deal with sexual misconduct when it arises, but these documents are tucked away in the “polity” section of the MCUSA website.

As a historic peace church, MCUSA spends a lot of time talking about justice issues and condemning violence on many fronts: we’ve made statements about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we host large scale relief sales to support development work in countries that have been ravaged by war, we advocate against unjust immigration policies and condemn violence in many other forms. For this pacifist stance to maintain its integrity, it must advocate against injustice in all forms, including sexual violence.

And even if the church that you attend does not have a strict pacifist stance, I cannot think of a single Christian congregation that would not emphasize the importance of love. It is the key component in Jesus’ two largest commandments, after all. But as Margaret Farley notes, not all loves are “good.” In order for a love to be good, it must also be just. As Farley notes, if sexuality is to be “creative and not destructive,” we must always be asking whether our expressions of love are also just.

Too often, we may feel like we are protecting or even loving ourselves or others by remaining quiet. But silence can often be conflated with complicity. It is time to make space for victims of sexual violence to speak and to share their stories, if they wish, but also to begin having more public conversations about what it takes to create communities where women, children and all people can feel safe and secure.

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The Five-Year Engagement: Just Love and Compromise

Last weekend, I ventured out to see the newest in a series of Judd Apatow-inspired movies that were billed and marketed as more “woman-friendly.” For those of you who don’t know, Apatow has loomed large on the comedy scene ever since his cult hit TV show Freaks and Geeks won viewers’ hearts, followed by a succession of movies about a certain type of man-child.” I’m thinking of films like The 40-year-old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. These were movies about  a generally good-hearted, but often immature, “schlubby” and underachieving, man who we follow along a hilarious journey towards love and a certain new level of maturity (although the development can only go so far—often the women involved in the stories learn to cope with and/or love a certain level of awkwardness).

Last year, Apatow forayed into new ground, producing the wildly successful movie Bridesmaids, which followed Kirsten Wiig and a team of comediannes on a crazy journey to the altar (you can read more of my thoughts on female comedy here). The Five-Year Engagement draws on much of the same production team from Bridesmaids, and pairs Apatow-staple Jason Segal, as an up-and-coming chef, Tom, and Emily Blunt as Violet, a doctoral student in Psychology. The films begins with the pair’s engagement, and follows them over the course of the next 5 years. At the beginning of the film, Tom is experiencing great professional success, while Violet is waiting impatiently to hear from graduate programs about post-doctoral fellowship opportunities. To the pair’s dismay, Violet does not get accepted at Berkeley, their top choice in their hometown of San Francisco, but instead is offered a position at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Initially, Tom is glad to make the move with Violet, since it is temporary (two years) and will advance her career (this is a refreshing twist, since a majority of movies seem to focus on women following men and then “finding themselves” and/or struggling with their own identity). However, soon after they arrive in Ann Arbor, it becomes clear that while this is a place and a position where Violet will thrive, Tom is not at home. He has trouble finding work and eventually takes a job at a deli, friends are hard to come by, and he moves listlessly throughout day-to-day life. Violet, on the other hand, becomes something of a protégé at work, and is offered extensions and eventually a full-time position at the University. The movie follows the pair’s struggles to communicate about what they both need and want, and to decide whose happiness or career goals should be prioritized.

This movie has many funny moments. There’s a toddler with a crossbow, a gag involving Elmo and Cookie Monster of Sesame Street fame (my personal favorite moment), and a “traditional Michigan” dinner that utilizes every possible part of a deer possible. But for me, and for several of the other young, married female graduate students that I went to see this movie with, parts of this struggle almost hit too close to home to be funny. We are all “staring down the barrel” of possible eventual academic careers for ourselves, as well as for our significant others. When the time comes to make decisions about where to move, how do those decisions get made? Everything you learn while in grad school paints the picture that a future in full-time academic work is quite hard to attain, so if one partner does get offered a tenure-track-type opportunity, even if it is located far from family and in the middle of nowhere, is this an opportunity that you can say no to?

Unlike many movies, the Five-Year Engagement does not gloss over some of the inherent struggles with compromise that exist within relationships (although unfortunately it does seem to resolve these struggles all too neatly at the film’s end, but I guess that’s Hollywood for you). Real relationships are as much about a commitment to choosing to continue loving one another and working through things, even when things are difficult. They are not all about engagement and/or honeymoon bliss. And likely, even though a good relationship should prioritize the needs of both partners, there are times when decisions get made that involve a deeper loss for one partner than for another.

Margaret Farley

In her book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, Margaret Farley proposes that the realm of love and sex should be understood as an area open to ethical consideration. She suggests that not all love is inherently good, and for love to be ethical, it must also be just (you can read a great summary of her book by Caroline Kline at Feminism and Religion). She writes that “good love” or just love will be concerned with loving a person as a person, and not as a thing. This is love that “affirms the beloved in ways that do not miss the actualities and potentialities of the one who is loved.” She also notes that, while love begins as a reaction and response that is not always willful, it eventually must “offer itself to freedom.” This means that, as love develops, there is a choice inherent in continuing to love a person and to “identify our deepest selves” with them.

This all makes conversations about relationships more complicated, when we are bound to one another by love but also must continue to choose to make choices together that will help both partners to feel like their personhood and gifts are affirmed.

The Five-Year Engagement certainly doesn’t get it all right, but it does raise some interesting questions about what it looks like for two career-driven (or at least career-interested) people to navigate the terrains of success and partnership. If you are existing in a post-complementarian framework (I will reflect more on complementarity models tomorrow), and value equality, what does this mean for the ways that decisions get made?

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