“Rape is the forcible violation of the sexual intimacy of another person. It does injury to justice and charity. Rape deeply wounds the respect, freedom, and physical and moral integrity to which every person has a right. It causes grave damage that can mark the victim for life. It is always an intrinsically evil act. Graver still is the rape of children committed by parents (incest) or those responsible for the education of the children entrusted to them.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2356).
On October 16th Alyssa Milano (Charmed, Who’s the Boss?) tweeted the following:
Nearly 44,000 people responded to Milano’s tweet, causing “#metoo” to trend on Twitter. She got the idea from a Facebook campaign where thousands of women wrote “Me Too” as their status to show how common sexual assault and harassment are in the lives of women. The campaigns inspired many men to speak up about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment as well. It even inspired men to create their own trending hashtag enumerating the ways that they wished to do a better job of being allies for women against sexual assault and harassment. Some on social media pointed out that the thousands of people sharing their stories were just the tip of the iceberg - there were thousands more who could not or would choose not to share their stories.
It was a combination of inspiring and horrifying to watch all of this play out. It was inspiring in the sense that an entire community of victims and survivors raised their voices, made themselves heard, and now thousands of people knew and understood the massive scale of this problem. Those who may have been enduring their trauma in silence or isolation now knew they weren’t alone, and they could rely upon the strength and bravery of others if they needed it.
It was horrifying, however, because what this all translated to was the fact that behavior that the Catechism condemns as an intrinsic evil is behavior that is familiar and regular for thousands upon thousands of people, all across the globe. The grave and damaging violations of sexual assault and sexual harassment are part of people’s normal life experiences, and particularly traumatic events are haunting people on a day to day basis. It has become normal for people to have to learn how to cope with and endure a kind of trauma that is so harmful that the wounds it leaves are lifelong, and often they experience this trauma more than once.
If what I’ve said doesn’t communicate the gravity of this, let me make a comparison. Murder is also considered to be an intrinsic evil in the Catholic faith. So imagine for a moment that a normal part of your day was walking outside and having the people around you try to kill you. You make your way down the sidewalk and someone pulls a knife on you, or a gun. And it happens so much that you get used to dodging blades and bullets, you get used to stitching up your wounds yourself, you don’t even think anything of it anymore. The stark difference between murder and sexual assault, of course, is that murder can only happen once - sexual assault can happen far more than once. But if the story I’ve told about murder strikes you as terrible and insane, then that is my point - the regularity and acceptance of sexual assault and harassment is just as terrible and insane.
These experiences are not marginal, they don’t happen “on occasion”; they are not isolated incidents of evil, they are systemic, pervasive, and commonplace. Those who commit them are protected or excused, they are surrounded by people who often act as their apologists, and rarely do they ever face a punishment that fits with what they’ve done. If you don’t believe me, then I’m happy to tell you my story.
I was 5 years old the first time I was sexually abused. My parents both worked and so my sister and I went to a babysitter’s house before and after school. This babysitter and her husband presented themselves as devout Catholics - the husband must have forgotten to mention he was also a pedophile. For 5 years I endure this abuse until my sister said something to my mom, who in turn confronted me. For those of you wondering why I didn’t say anything, I’d ask you to consider why you expect a child to know how to speak up against an evil this grave.
After 5 years of abusing me, this pedophile only served 2 years in jail; he was released early/on probation for “good behavior”. Meanwhile my middle school/high school self was left to clean up the mess he had made of my mind, body, and soul. Years of depression, body dysmorphia, eating disorders, dissociative identity disorder, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts followed. I would cherish small moments were I would feel like a real person again, but then the trauma would all come back and I would be lost in anger and woundedness once more. To put it simply and bluntly, I went through hell, and if it hadn’t been for my conversion to Catholicism, I don’t know if I would have ever been able to dig my way out of that hell to find healing.
I could keep going into questions about our culture, its treatment of sexuality, its treatment of victims, etc. but there are 3 main points I want to say most, so I’ll stick to those.
1. In my experience, Catholics give an appropriately substantial, outraged response to intrinsic evils like abortion, but they do not give the appropriately substantial, outraged response to the intrinsic evil of sexual assault, abuse, harassment, etc. I think this is a problem.
2. Our culture sexualizes almost everything. Many people on the secular front are beginning to recognize this and are pushing back against it by emphasizing consent and age of consent, placing blame where it belongs (i.e. not on victims), and pushing for predators to be held accountable. I think these are sources of common ground where Catholics can jump in and “join the fight” if you will.
3. Our Catholic faith holds us accountable and answerable to judgment if we fail to protect those who are oppressed, violated, vulnerable, or marginalized. We are lesser Catholics if we do not get involved in issues of sexual assault and harassment. We venerate saints like Philomena or Maria Goretti who stood against sexual violence - we should stand against it as they did. And to anyone reading this who has suffered and endured sexual trauma: you are worthy, you are loved, I believe you, and me too.