Rape Culture Thrives in our Churches

On September 23, Dionne Smith and her teenage daughter were brutally murdered in their home by Fabian Lyewsang, Smith’s common-law husband. It was a vicious act, carried out by a man against the women he should have been protecting.

This is the kind of gender based violence that Jamaicans encounter every single day, but we simply pretend it is something less sinister, less insidious. We pretend, as two prominent pastors have argued, that this act of violence and others like it are the result of women. Women choosing the wrong partners, women choosing to stay instead of leave (never mind that they have nowhere to run), women choosing men who murder them in their beds and then drive off a bridge into the Rio Cobre.

In the words of a Parkland shooting survivor, I call BS.

This is victim blaming.

This is the patriarchy.

This is misogyny.

This is rape culture.

This is the church leading the flock astray. Where I would have expected Pastor Glen Samuels (president of the West Jamaica Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (WJC)) and Pastor Joel Haye to lead the charge in holding men accountable for their actions, they have failed us all miserably. And they have failed the women in their congregations worst of all.

When two clergymen can feel comfortable getting behind the pulpit to chastise women for the “bad decisions” that put them in the path of dangerous men we have a problem. When the congregation listens and agrees, when a major news outlet (yes, the Jamaica Gleaner) blasts the story on the front page with the headline “Pastors urge women to choose partners carefully” we have a problem.

And the problem is the systemic, pervasive and frankly disgusting idea that if women would dress right, speak right, act right, choose right then men would not be able to hurt them. The problem is holding women accountable for the behaviour of women AND men, and holding men accountable for nothing. And it has to stop.

Fabian Lyewsang was responsible for his actions, not Dionne Smith. If it had not been Dionne it would have been some other woman. This fact is indisputable. Men alone – not women, not circumstance, not peer pressure, MEN – are responsible for their own behaviour.

When we fail to hold men accountable we fail to notice that 1) our women are in dire need of protection and 2) that our men are suffering from deep emotional and psychological scars. Until we can address these two issues – protect the women while healing the men – our society will stay stuck in this desperate pit of rampant murder/suicides.

When you realize you’re in a hole, the first step is to stop digging. Pastor Samuels and Pastor Haye need to stop digging and work with our elected leaders to find a way out that doesn’t involve climbing on the bodies of murdered women.

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a word on checkpoints and the assailing of women’s bodies

The State of Emergency is now in its tenth month. Violent crime levels appear unabated. Every issue of the Western Mirror carries a front page headline on some gruesome murder or gunfight.

Twice daily checkpoints are my new normal, since I live and work in two separate parishes. I drive through, waving to the unlucky soldiers assigned to stand in the middle of the road in the grueling summer heat, and smile.

At first I would approach each checkpoint with a sense of trepidation. Would they stop me to search my car? And then annoyance. Would they stop me to try and get my number? My experience was getting harassed by soldiers and police officers alike who appeared to have no other reason to stop me than to chat me up like a man in a bar. It was unprofessional and frustrating.

I used to slow and stop so that the officer or soldier could peer into the car, but these days I slow down just enough to give a brisk wave unless I’m told otherwise. This is just another way one learns to navigate social conventions as a person of the feminine gender.

After a while, when my frustration had faded to good-natured acceptance, I started to notice female soldiers now deployed to man the line. One day while cruising through at my snail pace, I overheard a bus driver call out a raunchy greeting to the lady soldier standing in the road. I cringed, and questioned.

Beyond the sexism that exists among one’s professional colleagues, a sexism that can potentially be challenged and eroded by professional success, is there a deeper and more pervasive sexism in society at large that undermines the execution of professional ‘gender roles’?

Is there a certain level of respect accorded to soldiers and police officers? Do we accord that same respect when the soldier or police officer is a woman? And does the change in tone when addressing a female member of the armed forces imply a lack of respect, or is it simply a neutral cultural phenomenon?

I’m pretty sure that woman was used to getting catcalls in her line of duty, and many women are. Some find it annoying, some find it flattering, and for some it’s just a part of life, neither good nor bad. In my culture there are many things that my liberal ideology struggles to accept, and this is one of them.

Is it inappropriate and unacceptable for a man to calls out ‘Psst, babes‘ when a woman walks by? Is it only inappropriate when he does it to certain Women, or in certain Spaces? Does the acceptability depend on the man’s intention: to objectify and assault, or to compliment and affirm? If the action is allowed, is there an expected response? Is it rude to ignore them? It certainly seems that way.

And is it really such a big deal?

In some spaces it can be. As a general rule I ignore the leaking air and the catcalls, but on certain streets I make damn sure to respond with a polite greeting. At issue here is the concept of danger. On main roads I feel safe enough to ignore the calls; on side streets I am too aware of my vulnerability to invite an uncertain threat. I fear, so I conform. But does this make me complicit in a social norm I desperately wish would change?

I don’t have the answers, but I think it’s important that we start talking somewhere. A catcall on a lonely avenue isn’t the same as being sexually assaulted, but the threads of gender-based violence run deep. Until we can pick up the ends, wherever they are scattered, we will never begin to untangle that knot.

The Only Culprits – in response to Glenn Tucker

Today the Jamaica Gleaner published a commentary piece from Glenn Tucker (educator and sociologist) about the “real culprits” behind child sex abuse. In the article, Mr. Tucker displays the same line of reasoning that allows rape culture to be so prevalent in our society – that of blaming anyone other than the perpetrator of the crime.

Mr. Tucker takes the point of view that our alternative Caribbean family structures are the main reason child sex abuse is taking place. He blames single mothers, absentee fathers, the revolving door of stepfathers – everyone except the actual person who should be blamed: the perpetrator.

I can’t argue that the way people raise their children leaves much to be desired. But as much grouse as I have with most parents in this country, there is no way I can condone blaming mothers and step-fathers for the actions of grown-ass men and women who prey on minors. Parents can do more to protect their children, certainly. But the argument that the blame lies entirely with the victim/victim’s parents is wholly reductive.

The entire tone of the piece is condescending and self-righteous, with Mr. Tucker seemingly placing himself above the “dalliances” of the hoi polloi – even so far as extricating himself from the responsibility of reporting suspected cases of abuse.

I know a mother who dolls up her daughter in nice short, sexy little dresses twice each week and sends her off to pastor for ‘driving lessons’. Four years later, when she became my friend at age 16 (do the math), she still did not know the difference between the stick and the ignition. This one is not likely to reach the courts, however, because she tells me gleefully that Pastor is “really, really good”.

Every citizen has a moral and ethical (and in some cases legal) responsibility to report cases like these, regardless of the child’s current age or the attitude of her parent. Failure to report abuse or suspected abuse is equally as heinous as committing the crime yourself.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing
-Edmund Burke

Then Mr. Tucker attacks the hard-working investigators of these alleged cases; an attack, which as a primary care physician, I take very personally. No agency or institution is completely infallible, but we have to believe that the overall thrust of organisations like CISOCA and the CDA is in a positive direction.

His sentiments completely devalue the efforts of governmental and non-governmental agencies alike. And he fails to consider the roadblocks of financial and human resource limitations, the constraints of our justice system and the inherent rape culture/informer fi dead culture. He, the indifferent observer, is content to blame the people actively trying to deliver justice instead of the people who are perpetrating the crimes.

But it’s the final paragraph that sends chills down my spine, when Mr. Tucker includes himself in the group of “dirty old men”, referencing I presume the population of mature men of power eliciting sexual favours from minors in return for financial assistance.

Because of the extent of family disorganisation in this country, it is us dirty old men who are keeping the bodies and souls of these ‘victims’ together, making them graduate from school. And university, in some cases.
Jamaica Gleaner February 6, 2017 (emphasis mine)

The meaning is ambiguous but the paragraph lends itself to a much more sinister interpretation. And I don’t think Mr. Tucker is the only university graduate who feels this way. If these are the opinions of the people teaching our children and leading our communities, it’s going to be a lot harder to fix our culture than I thought.