Addressing Sexual Harassment at Meeting for Worship
Since 2017, the #MeToo Movement highlighted how sexual violence and harassment have impacted and continue to impact the lives of all people. Tarana Burke, the originator of #MeToo writes:
Ending sexual violence (and harassment) will require every voice from every corner of the world, and it will require those whose voices are most often heard to find ways to amplify those voices that often go unheard.
Ending sexual violence and harassment requires people in Quaker spaces to speak out.
Problem Male Behaviors
For centuries, Quakers have been dealing with problem behaviors in meetings. Because we have not centered women in our meetings, they have often been silenced and their concerns minimized, dismissed, or ignored by weighty Quakers and the people who enable them. Many of these women have faced a backlash for asserting their needs and confronting norms that support patriarchal behavior.
Although this article could cover many problem behaviors, it focuses on several observable forms of sexual harassment toward women, and explores possible solutions. Problems that need to be addressed among Quakers include racism, sexual assault, pay discrimination at Quaker organizations, mansplaining, and the dismissal of gender issues in Quaker organizations, but these are beyond the scope of this article. Building a culture where women are respected and supported will be challenging until we eliminate dominating behavior by males in Quaker spaces, which is present in vocal ministry, boundary violations, overbearing behavior on committees, and talking over women. In Quaker spaces, the backlash against women who report sexual assault/harassment or address these issues is rampant. Additionally, the underrepresentation of women at the highest levels of paid ministry (general secretaries and executive directors of Quaker religious organizations like Friends General Conference [FGC], Friends United Meeting [FUM], and yearly meetings) perpetuates gender inequality among North American Quakers.
The following stories of harassment are examples of lived experiences by several women from meetings in different states. It may not make sense to some people that simply staring at a woman during meeting for worship or standing too close to her during the coffee hour presents a threatening or profoundly uncomfortable social dilemma for her, but this dilemma disrupts the environment for spiritual growth. Young women often come to meeting for spiritual sustenance: to belong or to engage with others. Staring by older men is commonly experienced by young women in Quaker settings, and it evidences a man’s allowing sexual desire to take priority over concern for a young women’s sovereignty and spiritual formation.
For the purpose of this article, “staring” is defined as the sustained looking at someone for six to eight seconds or more. Staring is distinct from glancing at someone during the sacred practice of meeting for worship. One young adult Friend shared:
He would stare at me throughout meeting for worship. Every time I looked up from centering, his small, beady eyes were on me—almost never anywhere else. After the meeting, he would come up to me and say nothing—staring at my chest for five to eight seconds (a very long time) and then say, “You wear such interesting shirts or scarves.” We never talked about anything besides my shirt or scarf. We had this interaction virtually every Sunday from the time I was 16 until I was 27.
Community-wide awareness and education is needed to call out this behavior or have others intervene. It is within our power to create safe spaces for women; children; Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color; and LGBTQ2a+ people.
There is an unwillingness by meetings to acknowledge there is a problem with men staring at women. Another example of this staring behavior came from a woman who noticed an older man in her meeting who was kind but often stared at women and stood too close, especially with young female newcomers. Initially, she appreciated this because she remembered being welcomed as a newcomer when an elder Quaker woman asked her about her journey and interests. But this man’s interactions—especially with young women—were decidedly different: there was a pattern. The woman’s sense of well-being is compromised by being watched, leered at, and then approached by men who don’t seem to be aware of their creepy, objectifying behavior.
One woman shared her experience of this unwelcome behavior from men, saying she had to adjust where she sat so there was another person in between her and the man with the wandering eyes. Another woman mentioned that after the close of worship, she “would go quickly and intercept the man who often approached a young woman and shuttled [him] into the kitchen or to another room.”
Another woman observed this staring behavior and spoke up. She approached him alone and asked him if he was aware of his staring behavior during worship. He shared that he was not aware of this behavior. She described the behavior, said it made her very uncomfortable, and asked him to stop staring at her during worship. In response, he belligerently denied the behavior. He insisted that he had never done anything of the like and didn’t know what she was talking about. At least seven other women in the same meeting later voiced their experience of being stared at by the same man but never spoke up. The man was allowed to stay without being held accountable for several more years.
Photo by Kevin Turcios on Unsplash
Because we have not centered women in our meetings, they have often been silenced and their concerns minimized, dismissed, or ignored by weighty Quakers and the people who enable them. Many of these women have faced a backlash for asserting their needs and confronting norms that support patriarchal behavior.
Who is paying attention to these issues?
It is not easy to challenge male power in our meetings when the very fabric of our society is woven with the strands of their righteous privilege. For many young women, the decision has too often been: Do I stay in discomfort, or do I say something? Do I just endure this situation and figure a way to work around it? Do I warn friends or avoid conversations with this man, or do I try to find allies? Should I try to make sure I am not in their line of vision during worship, or do I just go ahead and confront the man?
Some women stayed in their communities and spoke up, but even then, the community did nothing to address the issue. One example of a senior woman who was raised Quaker found a way to live with it by joking amongst her sisters about “the old leches” in the meeting. Through these jokes, she and her sisters created a space of mutual support and caution. Sadly, many women say nothing and endure profound discomfort for years in Quaker spaces. Many others leave for other communities.
Denying problem behavior and that harassment even exists are two of the most challenging obstacles in addressing sexual harassment in Quaker spaces. So often, just getting people to believe the truth of what is real for women is almost impossible. This is especially true when the situation involves a familiar senior male in a position of authority, or his enablers: friends are less likely to believe what women say. Often older women are the first to protect and defend these men, which often leads to victim-shaming. For many years, women’s survival was predicated on their allegiance to men. Specifically, their survival depended on keeping the old order and not upsetting the traditions or practices that have kept the same folks in positions of authority in our meetings.
Will there be a #MeToo movement in Quaker spaces that addresses systemic sexual harassment? Will our national groups and yearly meetings publish the names of people who have been told they cannot attend gatherings because they have committed offenses against women or others? Are the people on those lists being held accountable? Will these lists be compared and shared so that other meetings are on notice and can take action in their meetings? These lists of names of people who engage in harassment and assault are real and exist at virtually all large Quaker organizations but are not shared. This silence and protection of the privacy of perpetrators poses a threat to Quaker women as these abusers go from one Quaker space to another endangering women and all Friends.
Meetings can amplify the voices of women and girls by preventing and confronting these behaviors, or they can deny that of God within women and girls by ignoring and minimizing sexual misconduct in Quaker settings. Although the #MeToo Movement hasn’t made it into our Quaker meetings yet, there is hope. We know making our communities congruent with how God is calling us to live is central to our practice.
Calling on All Men
Just like White privilege needs to be confronted and dismantled by White people, so too must misogyny be confronted and dismantled by men. There are good and honorable Quaker men in our meetings doing their work to monitor their behavior, educate themselves, support each other, and amplify the voices of women and the changes they are demanding. They support and call out each other, so the young women in their meetings don’t have to. They reflect on the feedback they receive and agree to change their behavior in the future. They take responsibility for the impact of their behavior.
One of these men was called on to open his eyes during worship and share what he noticed. He saw the same staring behavior and was mortified. From his perspective, this staring was not worshipful behavior. He believed that anything getting in the way of being in the Presence compromises the quality of the worship for everyone, and impacts the potential for spiritual formation for Friends in our community. This man stood alongside women in his meeting, regarding their request to have the harassing man change his behavior or leave the meeting.
Photo by Monkey Business
Loving community creates the context where we can be educated, where sexual harassment can be addressed, and where we can speak and hear truth. Wherever we support loving community in our meetings, we nurture our collective connection to the Divine.
What Men and People of All Genders Can Do
We need many Quaker men to step up to support women in our meetings. We need leadership from all genders who believe Quaker spaces should be safe for everyone’s spiritual formation.
- Educate your meeting; notice any patterns of behavior.
- Observe how men behave when a young woman comes to meeting.
- Believe women who are speaking up and report incidents of sexual harassment in writing.
- When there is a problem, intervene and confront.
- If a one-person intervention is ineffective, bring it to business meeting.
- Do not allow the behavior to continue, and inform your yearly meeting.
Support for a loving community is a critical part of addressing sexual harassment and assault, and creates an environment where Friends can be approached about any topic or behavior. A loving community creates a space where we can be educated, where sexual harassment can be addressed, and where we can speak and hear truth. Wherever we support loving community in our meetings, we nurture our collective connection to the Divine.
There is Hope
One woman shared that she got up and walked over to a man in the middle of meeting for worship in a small midwestern town they were visiting. She asked him to meet her in the kitchen. She shared with him that she noticed he was staring at her young daughter during worship and would he be mindful of stopping this behavior. He apologized immediately, said he didn’t realize he was doing this, and thanked her for letting him know. During the rest of worship, his eyes were closed, and worship was full of peace.
Can we truly attend to the safety of our women and children in our meetings when the concerns of women are so often denied, dismissed, or scapegoated? In true gospel order, it’s time to shine light on patriarchal male privilege. It is time to right the ship of injustices women have faced in our Quaker meetings for so many years. Like every faith community, these issues exist in every corner of our monthly meetings. With much hard work, education, courage, and with the guidance of our faith and practice, we will be able to discern our way forward.
The work of addressing sexual harassment in monthly meetings is to create a safe space for everyone. Too often, these conversations center around protecting, enabling, and covering for the men engaged in harassment.
Rather than pandering to men engaged in inappropriate behavior, we must value our meetings as spaces for spiritual formation for everyone. Prioritizing the comfort of men who harass over the safety and well-being of young women is a denial of one of the central tenets of our faith—honoring that of God in everyone. Today, this is the norm in the Religious Society of Friends in many, many Quaker spaces, but it doesn’t have to be.