Yesterday, I participated in the #MeToo campaign meant to shed light on how pervasive the problem of sexual harassment and assault is in our country and towards women in particular. I expected people to question me on my experiences (no one did), I expected solidarity (which I found in much higher percentages than I anticipated), I expected sympathy (which I received). What I was not expecting was pushback. Men are assaulted, too! Women assault men and others, too! These things are both true and I was actually very thankful that some of my male friends also participated, saying that they, too, had been harassed or assaulted. All victims deserve voices. But as one male friend astutely pointed out on Facebook, while men are frequently victims of harassment or assault, men, in general, do not live in the fear or numb reality that they will probably be harassed just walking down the street. Men don’t generally assume they’ll be catcalled while walking down the sidewalk nor afraid of being somewhere alone for fear that they might be overtaken or groped or any such thing. It happens, of course, but there’s not the general, population-wide fear of it like women experience. Ask just about any woman and she could tell you stories that range from catcalls to unwelcome advances to molestations to rapes. Any. Woman.
Now, not every woman wants to talk about it and we are not owed anyone’s stories. This was the other pushback I saw yesterday. Many woman did not want to share because it was still too painful for them, not every woman experiences freedom or healing by sharing, some women felt that their experiences were too trivial to share, some women felt that they still couldn’t share because an employer or abuser was still breathing down their neck. Some women haven’t experienced full healing from these wounds yet and some haven’t experienced healing at all. I pray for all of the women and men who didn’t share, I pray for all the women and men who did. I pray for all of the abusers who have repented, I pray for all those who haven’t and maybe never will. But the fact of the matter is that I, personally, cannot stay silent. Sin and evil dwell and grow in darkness, but light not only casts them out but utterly destroys them. This is my little sliver of light.
For 20 years of my life, I struggled with masturbation. Pediatricians told my mom it was normal and healthy, albeit very very taboo, and said I would outgrow it. When I didn’t, my mom looked for strategies (like star charts) to curb my appetite for it and hopefully instill a little self-control. It worked in a way, but what really happened was that, since I was always terrified of being caught, I became incredibly adept at hiding it. When I was in middle school, this “habit” (as it had been dubbed in our house) became an addiction. I couldn’t go to sleep without it, I couldn’t process any big emotions without it. I needed it. This is also the time in my life when I started becoming interested in boys– and I handled my big, new emotions towards them through masturbation. I had no other way of processing.
My junior year of high school, I was kind of dating this guy (we weren’t ever officially dating but had stated mutual interest in the other) and I remember a friend and I driving home after school talking about him and I. This friend had known the guy longer than I had and the question came up of “how far he had gone”. I remember asking her, “Do you think he’d expect me to do things with him?” The answer was “probably” because that’s what most teenage boys expect.
Do you think he expects me to do things with him?
Knowingly or not, this is a pervasive attitude in our society, especially of men towards women. Women are expected to do things with (or to or for) men. Sexual or not. That’s why catcalling and “locker room talk” are so prevalent, because it is expected that women like it or should like it. That moment I realized the boy I like probably expected me to do sexual things with him shook 16-year-old me. I was very committed to my Catholic faith and very committed to chastity (even though I was in the throes of a sexual addiction I didn’t recognize at the time). How could I ever be in a relationship with a guy if that’s what was expected of me? How could I be faithful to the Catholic faith while being in a relationship if that’s what being in one meant? How could I ever be in a relationship with a guy without feeling used? This, subconsciously, fueled my addiction further. Masturbation was not just a coping mechanism anymore but the only way to feel intimacy and a way to make me feel like the object I was perceived to be. Because if others saw me and used me like an object, I must be an object.
I’ve written before how that year I found out that masturbation is a mortal sin and quit cold turkey for Lent. That was a scary turning point for me because I still didn’t have much control over my desire to masturbate because I didn’t know I was addicted, there were no strategies given to deal with it, and also there was no talk of culpability, just, “If you do this, you’ll go to hell.” That’s why I quit cold turkey– because I was scared shitless of going to hell. That’s also why I fell right back into the addiction after those 40 days were over. I started confessing masturbation all the time to different priests and talking about it when I had opportunities. This wasn’t the most healthy thing to do because I wasn’t receiving any actual healing, but it was shining a light in that dark place, which ended up being a really good thing. I started hearing about how other girls struggled with this, too, and each of their stories had an element of “this is how I deal with emotional rejection and being objectified” to them. What I didn’t realize at the time is that we were all feeling the ramifications of being looked upon as objects and struggling to find true worth and intimacy.
The spring semester of my freshman year at Franciscan University of Steubenville, some friends and I attended a talk on sexual wounds. I think. I actually can’t remember the full content of the talk because the only thing I can remember is how the female speaker spoke so openly about the wounds masturbation caused in her life and causes in all our lives. There was a short intermission and I waited outside of the bathroom for my friend. When she came out, she found me staring blindly into space and asked me if I was alright. “I didn’t know it hurt so bad. I didn’t know I hurt so bad,” I kept repeating, getting louder each time until I finally burst into tears. A woman professor who helped put on the event (and who eventually became my spiritual director for five years) came over to help me while everyone else went back to the talk. We sat by the student mailboxes and she tried to decipher my words through my tears and comforted me in my pain. She never said, “Duh! Of course this hurts! It’s a mortal sin, dummy!” She never even said, “Well, time to stop doing that then!” She just reassured me that I was not outside of the grace and mercy of God and that she would help me find it again, if I wanted her to.
That was the first time I experienced the weight of the wound. At the time, I called it the weight of my sin, which it was, but it was more than just my sin. It was the weight of the wounds of being rejected and looked at as an object and of giving in to those lies and of doing damage to myself because I didn’t know what else to do. Two years later, I found freedom from the addiction to masturbation. I began to see myself as I truly am, not masturbator, not object, but Theresa, fearfully and wonderfully made in the Image and Likeness of God. I am a subject. And I started to see everyone around me that way, too. That freedom changed my life.
When the scales from our eyes fall away, we start to see everything and everyone more clearly. That’s when I really started noticing how men treated me. Since I was so mired in it before, I thought that men were supposed to catcall at women and if women didn’t like it, they were supposed to roll their eyes, ignore it, and go on their way. But that’s not how it should be. I also started waking up to the abuses taking place around me, under the guise of holiness. Like the “holy” guy who stuck his hands down my friend’s pants while she was sleeping after she had fallen asleep on her couch when he wouldn’t leave her house earlier like she had asked him. “Oh it was a mistake!” “But look at all the other good things he does!” “It takes two to tango.” Those were all responses I heard concerning my friend’s encounter. None of them expiate the abuse he did. And I know of two other women that same man has done the same thing to.
I remember when I was 19 and studying abroad in Austria, how a man propositioned me in bar, asking if I wanted to come back to his apartment to “get some dick in a foreign country”, even though I had already told him I did not want to do anything with anyone. And I remember the male that I was there with not doing anything, not stepping in, and saying to me afterwards that I handled myself just fine without him. I remember thinking, But you could have told him that what he was doing was wrong. You could’ve backed me up. I felt so helpless in that situation and I was lucky that I was able to get out without incident. Many don’t.
There was this other time when I was home visiting and a long-time friend asked me to go to lunch with him. He had been kind of interested in me in the past but I was very clear that we were friends getting lunch and nothing more. After lunch, in the parking lot, he hugged me goodbye. But then he wouldn’t let go and as I did try to get away, he tried to kiss me. I was able to successfully push him away and he didn’t try anything further. When I asked him why he did that when I had made my intentions clear, he said, “I thought I’d give it a try anyway.” I didn’t talk to him for many years after that.
Those are the two most major incidents sexual harassment that I’ve experienced in my own life, but I’ve experienced countless lewd comments and gestures, catcalls, and things of that nature. For so long, I’d just roll my eyes or dish it right back. There was this cycle that was taking place– while I was still addicted and afterwards when I still struggled with masturbation– you objectify me, so I’ll objectify you, and because I feel like an object, I’ll give in to an action that makes me an object, repeat. When I could see the individual pieces in this cycle is when I was able to put a stop to it. Just because someone sees me as an object or uses me as an object, doesn’t make me an object. Just because I believe myself to be an object doesn’t mean I am one. This experience also made me look hard at how I was treating others and identify ways that I perpetuated the cycle and put a stop to those behaviors in my own life. I can’t control how others see me, but I can control how I see me and how I see others.
This was the verse that finally made me see my true worth and identity and accept God’s love, mercy, and glory: “You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the LORD, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. No more shall you be called ‘Forsaken,’ nor your land called ‘Desolate,’ But you shall be called ‘My Delight is in her,’ and your land ‘Espoused.’ For the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be espoused” (Isaiah 62: 3-4). I was made for glory. I was made for freedom. I was made for Love.
The only way to stop inflicting wounds on each other is to break the cycle, to stop looking at each other as objects and playthings expected to do things to others. We’re people, subjects, and it’s high time we started treating each other with that dignity. I can’t control how people react to me, but I don’t have to listen to the harassment. I know now that those things are lies about my personhood and dignity and no longer take them to heart. I don’t have to turn to masturbation anymore because I don’t need to fill myself as though I was an object, because I’m not. And no one around me is an object. I was made in infinite love and for infinite Love, and so is everyone else.
I don’t know if the man who hurt my friend, and other women, has repented and changed his ways. I hope he has. I want him to be a good, holy man like the facade he used to put on. I pray for him. I don’t know if the man who propositioned me in a bar has seen the error of his ways. I hope he has. I pray for him. The friend who tried to kiss me against my will has seen the error of his ways and we are friends again. I still pray for him. I’m still healing from some of these wounds and I know so many who are still healing from theirs. Wounds that we did not ask for or incite or want or beg to be given to us. I pray for us, too.
I hope that my little sliver of light, the light that has freed me, can help bring more light and freedom to others.
“Know this, my dear brothers: everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath….Be doers of the word and not hearers only” (James 1: 19, 22).