Donald Trump, Rape Culture, and “What do I tell my daughter?”

Let’s just put it out there: a pretty despicable human being has been elected president of the United States. One of the many reactions to this has come from parents, especially mothers, who are asking “What do I tell my daughter?”

Before I share my answer to that question, I want to share with you a story only a few people in my life know but which is agonizingly common amongst women.

I was nine, one year older than my son is right now, when a friend’s older brother molested me. It takes a lot — a lot — of effort for me to let that sentence sit there. To not go back and delete it. To not edit it out of my story.

But it happened. More than once. And I didn’t tell anyone at first.

Probably the first couple times it happened, most people would have termed it “teasing,” especially back then. But anyone who has been intimidated or tricked into a position of helplessness while someone bigger and stronger has obvious control over whether you must stay or you get to leave will tell you that it’s not teasing. It’s at least bullying. Sometimes it’s assault, even if it is not much more than one person’s weight keeping you down on the floor until you promise him you will come back if he let’s you go.

Though I won’t go into details, the last time it happened, no one could deny that it was molestation. And not long after that traumatic incident, I stopped going over to my friend’s house. But I still didn’t tell anyone.

In sixth grade, I finally told someone. A teacher. I wrote out the story in a journal we kept in class. It didn’t have anything to do with the subject matter — science — it was just supposed to be us writing about anything we wanted and this teacher would be the only person who would read it. So I wrote what had happened to me. When I got my journal back the next week, my teacher had written at the top, “I hope you slapped him,” but he didn’t tell anyone. I guess mandatory reporting wasn’t a thing back then?

A couple years later, that teacher was arrested, tried, and convicted of molesting boys in his scout troop.

The one person I had reached out to was also a sex offender.

Though I doubt it was a conscious choice, the way I saw guys from that point on was fundamentally different. Boys became a force to be resisted, fought, proven wrong, and outdone. I would be better, stronger, smarter, more successful than they were. I would become someone to reckon with.

And I did. I beat nearly all of my male classmates in academics. I beat boys at arm wrestling. I bested them in Trivial Pursuit. I hit home runs. I was never afraid of the ball. I didn’t run like a girl, throw like a girl, or do shot put like a girl. I never backed down from an argument. I opened my own jars. I didn’t believe in the phrase “that’s a man’s job.” I wrote feminist poetry.  And of the girls in my graduating class, I was voted Most Likely to Be President.

I never felt that same level of competition with other girls. Only boys.

Being an outspoken young lady who carries herself with confidence can draw idiotic sexist comments from a lot of guys. Some of them might even call you a “nasty woman.” But according to more than one adult man in my life, the boys were just “intimidated” by me. When I heard that I would think to myself, “Good. They should be.” And I would go on being me.

Eventually, I told the story of my childhood molestation to my future husband (one boy who was not intimidated by me).

In college, I stopped worrying so much about beating the boys. I was comfortably engaged to my high school sweetheart, excelling in my classes, and relishing every moment spent discussing literature, history, and culture. Unlike this woman, my experience as the victim of unwanted advances or outright assault did not continue throughout my life. It may have something to do with the different circles we ran in or it may be that me “intimidating” guys had a nice scumbag repellent effect. For whatever reason, the worst thing that happened had happened a really long time ago. And when you hear what some women have gone through, my story is mild.

But that doesn’t mean that every time I walked home from a late shift at a diner on campus I wasn’t listening for footsteps behind me and constantly running through self-defense scenarios in my mind. Because I was. No matter how long ago, an experience like that never leaves you. This statement from a New York Times article regarding Donald Trump’s treatment of women rings achingly true: “They appeared to be fleeting, unimportant moments to him, but they left lasting impressions on the women who experienced them.”

It’s obvious to me in hindsight that my early experience as the victim of sexual abuse had a significant role in molding me into the person I am today. A person who, along with every other decent person out there, was disgusted by comments made (and then lamely defended) by the president elect. To some men it might be just “locker room talk” but to women, dismissing such comments is another dismissal of their own personal story of sexual harassment or abuse, another log to throw on the smoldering fire of what’s become known as rape culture, a culture in which men are rarely held accountable and women are blamed for their own life-altering assaults.

Now then, for the answer to the question, “What do I tell my daughter?”

What do I say to her as we leave an administration led by an honorable man who set up the Council on Women and Girls and eloquently explained the problems and solutions to rape culture, and enter the administration of this guy? (For the record, I don’t think he’s actually done what he says there, but parsing all of that out is a little beyond the scope of this essay.)

Well, you could tell her the truth.

Tell her that while the office of the presidency is to be respected, there have been a number of men who held that position who have been less than honorable in their conduct toward women.

Tell her that unfortunately we live in a world where she needs to be vigilant, on guard against people who might want to take advantage of her. That while sexual assault is never her fault, she can reduce her vulnerability by taking smart precautionary measures, like never walking alone at night, learning basic self defense, supporting her female friends, and remaining sober-minded and alert in potentially dangerous situations.

Tell her that women are not exempt from feeding into a culture that devalues and blames women. Sometimes, while they are trying to protect their own hearts, lives, careers, and families, they do and say things that harm other women. They excuse terrible behavior to protect a reputation that, let’s face it, is bordering on unredeemable. (I say bordering, because if the man actually humbled himself and repented, he absolutely could be redeemed. But at this point his “conversion” is obviously a false one because he doesn’t believe he needs forgiveness, doesn’t understand the meaning of the Eucharist, and tries to make up for the bad things he does with works rather than accepting God’s grace.) They may even perpetuate the view of women as sex objects and call it empowerment. They make bad choices, and may regret them later, but they feel like they have to double down to retain their integrity because there are so many ways to make missteps in our judge now, ask questions later culture.

Tell her that nothing, fundamentally, has changed. Before Trump we lived in a dangerous and fallen world. During Trump we live in a dangerous and fallen world. After Trump we will live in a dangerous and fallen world.

And you might even tell her that the kind of people who put sexual pressure on others or who desire to feel power over others, are often the past victims of sexual pressure, harassment, or assault.

Remember the story of the friend’s older brother who molested me? When I finally told my childhood best friend and my sister about it last year, both of them immediately said, “I wonder what happened to him.”

Those twin statements kind of hit me broadside. I had often wondered why he had done what he’d done, especially since he was only four or five years older than me, still a kid himself. But it had never occurred to me that he might be acting out a scenario that had happened to him in the past, only this time he could be the one who felt in control rather than the one who felt powerless. Leave it to my always compassionate best friend and my former Child Protective Services worker sister to immediately see him as more than a perpetrator, to see him as a unique individual who might have his own difficult past.

Remember that teacher who was sent to prison for molesting boys in his scout troop? The boys who had come forward with the allegations were the same age as the boy who molested me. And it’s possible that he was even in that troop. That he had either heard about this teacher’s abuse or that he was a victim himself. I don’t know. We’re not exactly in touch and I can’t ask his sister because sadly she died after an on again, off again struggle with substance abuse.

The last time I talked to him I was a freshman in high school. He had already graduated. I contacted him and asked him if he wanted to come back for the school’s talent show and do a duet with me. It was a carefully considered ploy on my part to get the chance to put the incident, which I had still not told anyone about, to rest. To get it out of my mind. Surprisingly, he agreed. I chose the song: “Always on My Mind.” I chose it because it would make a good duet. I didn’t think any deeper about the title or lyrics for many years.

We got together a few times to practice. We watched a movie. He taught me how to drive his car, a stick shift, even though I was underage and didn’t have a license. We drove out to the Saginaw Bay, to a remote little spot at the end of a very long pier. In telling my sister the story years later, this is where she interrupted and said, “Without even a cell phone?” I stopped to think about it and said, “Yeah, I guess that was really dumb.”

We stood and watched the sun sinking over the bay and I finally got up the nerve. I asked him if he remembered luring me into his bedroom, forcing me down, and laying on top of me. If he remembered cornering me in the tent they had up in their back yard or groping me in their van when we were all playing hide and seek. He did remember. I asked him why he did all of that. All he could say was, “I don’t know.”

And maybe he didn’t. Or maybe deep down he did, but unlike me he was not ready to talk about it, to admit that something may have happened to him.

Again, I don’t know that anything did. But it might have. Because eighth grade boys don’t normally grope fourth grade girls. And that big “maybe” has helped me move past what happened to me twenty-seven years ago. Were I given the opportunity, I’d love to talk to him again and tell him that I think I have finally completely forgiven him. In case you’re wondering, we never did perform that song at the talent show.

I’m not saying all of this to excuse anyone, least of all our president elect, from criminal behavior toward women, lewd comments, or even general skeeviness. Nothing makes me feel more capable of extreme physical violence than talk of sexual assault. If I had 20 minutes, a baseball bat, and the promise of no legal consequences, it would take every ounce of my willpower not to beat Brock Turner to a raw, bloody pulp, and ask for a few shots at that judge as well.

But Donald Trump being president (How? How? How did it come to this?) will not make humanity worse. Or better. Humanity has been broken and sinful since the Fall and anyone who can look at our world and still think that people are basically good is wishing for something that is demonstrably untrue.

We all wish other people were better people. But we only have control over the behavior of one person — ourselves.

So what do you tell your daughter?

Tell her to live in such a way that she intimidates the boys.

When you pair self-confidence with self-control and self-reliance, you get someone like her. And she is a fantastic role model.

Someday, if she can ever be prevailed upon to run, your daughter might even get a chance to vote for her for president. And that would be a very proud day indeed.

What Are “Acceptable” Sins for the Protagonists of Christian Novels?

During the past decade I have read hundreds of Christian novels. I wouldn’t generally seek Christian novels out above “secular” novels (I’m more of a classics girl myself), but I read far more of them than anything else in my life because it’s part of my job. Over the years, I’ve read some with really fantastic writing, some with really intriguing plots, some that got me a little choked up, some that made me laugh out loud. There’s a lot of great writing that comes out of Christian publishers. And on top of that, much of it is truly edifying–meaning you come away from the experience not just having been entertained but having been educated and encouraged.

Now, in order to write a good, believable, engaging story a writer needs to have characters with flaws, problems, issues, whatever you want to call them, that he or she struggles with and, as is generally the case in Christian fiction, overcomes. You have to have conflict, and Christian novels have plenty.

From what I can tell, of the three main conflicts (man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself), anymore you normally only run into man vs. man and man vs. himself, often in the same work. Most of the time, for whatever reason, the man vs. nature conflict is left by the wayside or plays a minor role.

For Christian fiction, man vs. man is pretty easy to formulate. Christians believe in good and evil and generally have a fairly black and white view of what is sinful and what is not (and before anyone accuses me of painting with too broad a brush, remember that I count myself among this group). More and more today we have Christian novels that are willing to touch on and examine those gray areas that are difficult to parse out, but when it comes to man vs. man, there is a bad guy who really is a bad guy far more often than a bad guy who is just a victim of his circumstances or misunderstood (the convenient way to reject traditional morality that so popular in storytelling today).

When it comes to man vs. himself (or woman vs. herself) things get trickier. I see a lot of man vs. his sinful past or man vs. his mistrust of women because he’s been burned before. I see a lot of woman vs. her fear of what society will think of her or woman vs. her fear of abandonment or woman vs. her fear of not living her dreams or woman vs. her fear of becoming a spinster. (Are you sensing a pattern here for female protagonists?) What I see less often is man vs. his sinful nature or woman vs. her sinful nature. It’s out there, and some of the bestselling Christian novelists are those who tackle those difficult subjects, but it’s not the norm.

I can’t help but think, though…isn’t that the main conflict of all of our lives? If we all struggle against our flesh, why don’t we see it more plainly and more often in Christian fiction? Why are certain sins so much easier to read about than the sins we are tempted to commit or have committed (or are currently committing)? Why is it so much more common in a Christian novel to read about serial killers and stalkers and grisly crime scenes (which, let’s face it, most of us don’t struggle with on a daily basis) than, say, adultery? Which sins are okay for a Christian author to explore and expose in his or her writing?

Now, I will say that many Christian novels explore sexual sin, but most that I have read (and I certainly haven’t read everything out there) do it from a distance. Either the protagonist struggles with lusting after someone they’re not married to (and so the solution is to get them together by the end of the book so they can explore their desires for one another within the bounds of Christian marriage) or the only sexual sins in the book are those that belong to the antagonist–a pushy suitor who receives his punishment by the last chapter or a rapist who is finally caught or killed. We sometimes read about protagonists who were sexually abused in the past and finally find peace for themselves and forgiveness for the ones who abused them. But that’s not their sin they are struggling with–just their misunderstandings and misinterpretations about their worth and their own culpability.

I’m not saying that these are not things worth exploring in Christian fiction. They are. What I am saying is that we should be willing to examine every kind of sin and show the way to redemption and wholeness. Being human and having hearts that are desperately wicked, we all need to come to terms with the fact that we are all capable of sexual sin, from the more obvious ones like adultery to the subtly sinister ones like emotional affairs or lusting after someone in your heart. Yes, some people will have been forced by circumstance into sinful behavior (like the victims of sex trafficking). But sometimes, people are faced with a choice–and they choose sin.

I have read a novel–a well-written and well-researched novel by an author I respect–where the principle character was the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well. (Unfamiliar with the story? Find it in John 4.) Now, the Bible tells us that this woman had five husbands and the man she was living with was not her husband. And in the fictionalized account I read, I was curious to see how the author would deal with this. I was amazed–flabbergasted, really–when I got to the end of the book and not one of those relationships was the result of the woman choosing to live in sin. She was only and entirely a victim of her circumstances.

Really? Why? Why couldn’t the author allow that woman to make some bad choices?

How many Christian novels have you read in which the protagonist is struggling with sexual sin in her own life? You might find a few that deal with men and pornography, but what about women? What about a female main character who is involved in an affair?

If statistics tell us that those who call themselves Christians live no differently from those who claim no religious affiliation (spend a day combing the Barna Group website if you don’t believe me), then can’t we assume that a majority of Christian marriages are touched by infidelity? (Some statistics show that as high as 60% of marriages will be affected by infidelity.) If we publish fiction that helps readers find release and forgiveness for the shame that comes with being a victim of sexual abuse (which, we can all agree, a victim should not be made to feel), can we not also publish fiction that exposes the slippery slope toward adultery and shows the way to forgiveness and restoration? If we never show that situation, do readers of Christian fiction get the subliminal message that if they mess up they shouldn’t talk about it? Shouldn’t seek forgiveness?

Recently I gave my friends on Facebook, many of whom are voracious readers of Christian fiction this challenge:

Okay, readers of Christian fiction: give me your best example of Christian novels in which the PROTAGONIST is currently struggling with sexual sin beyond temptation (i.e., he/she is having an affair, sex before marriage, etc.). The protagonist does not have to be a Christian, but the novel should be geared toward the Christian reader.

I did get back a good number of responses. Some we had to throw out because they were biblical fiction or retellings of biblical fiction (and thus the characters were so far away in time and space that we can’t as easily appropriate their struggles as our own–they are “other people”). Some we had to throw out because the protagonist was a prostitute (also “other people”). Some we had to throw out because it turns out the protagonist was the victim of rape or sexual abuse (see above for why this doesn’t count). Some we had to throw out because the protagonist was not currently struggling through the sin (it was the backstory rather than the action), though she may have been struggling with the consequences of that sin. Some I question because the protagonists are Amish (also sort of “other people”).

In the end, I’m not sure if I have specific titles to share because I haven’t read them and can’t say for certain if they truly fit the bill, but Francine Rivers was mentioned the most. And I do recall some YA fiction from Melody Carlson that fits. (I guess it’s okay to warn teen girls of the consequences of sexual sin, but we just assume most adults have got it all together?) Karen Kingsbury, Patti Hill, Lisa T. Bergren, and Susan May Warren made the list. It seems there might be some others out there.

But when you compare a handful of books from a handful of authors to the entire body of Christian fiction at large and you’re left with relatively little. And so I’m left with some questions.

Is there a market for Christian fiction that allows that even the “good guys” fall into sin and–and this is the most important piece of this–that there is still forgiveness for those people?

Is this an under-served market with room for growth?

Do we relegate all stories that deal frankly with this issue to the general market, which rarely points the way to true redemption and freedom in favor of a false promise of freedom (i.e., do whatever makes you happy and doesn’t hurt others)?

Or are people just not willing to sympathize with a protagonist who fails in this way? Can we not put ourselves in her shoes because we’re “above” that type of sin? (Actually, I think this gets really close to the issue.)

I’d love for others to weigh in on this. If you read Christian fiction, do you know of stories that fit the bill here? Would you be turned off by such a story? Why? If you write Christian fiction, what is your experience with exploring this subject in your writing? Is what I’m saying on target or have I missed the boat? If you work for a Christian publisher or are a buyer for a bookstore, what are your thoughts on this?

I’m not making a pronouncement here. I’m attempting to start a conversation…