What does Catholic social teaching tell us about sexual harassment?

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The cornerstone of Catholic social teaching is the defense of human dignity. Every person has innate and infinite dignity imparted by God. All actions in and by society may be judged as just or unjust, good or sinful, based on whether or not they uphold this fundamental dignity intrinsic to every human life. Here are three reasons why sexual harassment violates Catholic social teaching.

1. Sexual Harassment is a Violation of Human Dignity

Sexual harassment violates the dignity of the person being harassed. If you are a victim, it communicates that your value is not based on your dignity as a human person. Your value is based on the sexual role you play, without your consent, for the person harassing you. It is diminishing: It reduces you from a full person to an object for use by the harasser. Healthy sexuality does the opposite. A healthy sexual relationship affirms agency and dignity within the vulnerability of desire.

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There is a spectrum of inappropriate harassment. Al Franken’s grope and Matt Lauer’s locked door are different. But everything along the scale communicates the same message: I have the power to lock you down, the power to make you the object I want. It is terrifying and humiliating.

We live in a society that tells women and girls that the tug of dignity we feel pushing back against the narrative of our sexual objectification somehow makes us crazy or mean.

As a teen, I laughed when it happened to me, when I felt that terror and humiliation. I thought something was wrong with me for being uptight. We live in a society that tells women and girls that the tug of dignity we feel pushing back against the narrative of our sexual objectification somehow makes us crazy or mean. Our social norms for women uphold the violation of our human dignity. These norms instill in us the pernicious beliefthat we reach the fullness of our humanity when we are treated as sexual objects.

2. Sexual Harassment is a Violation of Participation

The complement to the principle of human dignity in Catholic social teaching is the notion of solidarity. The assurance of individual dignity rests on protections guaranteed by society. We often think about this in terms of the common good: the idea that every person has a right to receive from society those things that are necessary to maintain their dignity.Water, education and health care are all examples of things C.S.T. holds up as common goods.

But C.S.T. offers a less-talked-about and even more revolutionary component of solidarity than the common good: participation. Participation is the idea that every person has the right to contribute to society as an aspect of his or her dignity.In other words, not only does everyone have the right to get what they need (common good); in order to fulfill one’s dignity, everyone must be able to give as well. This is not to say that everyone needs to be a nurse or a social worker. It is simply to say that human dignity flourishes when one is able to participate in society, whether as a waiter or builder or banker.

Sexual harassment happens everywhere: walking down the street, at home and online. The place where our national “reckoning” is happening, however, is at work. A study by the online journal of Sociologists for Women and Society showed that 80 percent of the surveyed women who reported either unwanted touching or a combination of other forms of harassment also said they changed jobs less than two years after the harassment.

In the workplace, sexual harassment is not really about sex.

This provides us with an answer to the question of why sexual harassment happens. In the workplace, sexual harassment is not really about sex. The natural expression of male sexuality is not violent. The reason men express sexuality violently in the workplace is that women are a threat to male dominance. The goal is to intimidate women and remind them of where exactly they stand in the power structure. By taking away women’s humanity, men take back their workplace dominion.

3. Sexual Harassment is a Violation of the Dignity of Work

C.S.T. argues that work itself must be dignified. This does not mean you need to be doing something prestigious; quite the opposite. It means that whatever you are doing to participate—fixing cars or computers, teaching first graders or leading business meetings, cleaning an office or performing surgery—you should be able to do your work with dignity. An employer should guarantee reasonable hours, provide a safe work environment and pay a just living wage with which one can support a family. Dignified work enables a person to participate and flourish.

The headline stories in the news around sexual harassment have been about women who are, for the most part, white and who work in elite circles: prestigious newsrooms, movie production companies and political bodies. Many of these women were able to walk away from their jobs. While it is a violation of C.S.T. when women are harassed out of participation, it is still a privilege to be able to choose not to participate.

The maid at the hotel may not be coming for your job, but she still needs to be reminded grotesquely of her place.

For the poor, particularly those who work in the service industry, retail, restaurants or domestic work like cleaning and child care, there is no other option but to remain employed. This kind of work, often in intimate and less regulated settings, is plagued with sexual abuse. Such work is often done by women of color, women whose bodies have historically been treated as open sexual property—a profound and ongoing violation of human dignity. At the intersection of this historical and political reality, sexual abuse thrives today. The maid at the hotel may not be coming for your job, but she still needs to be reminded grotesquely of her place, while her harasser reminds himself that the power to take defines his humanity and place in the world.

Naming the Lie

All three of these violations of C.S.T. arise from the same lie, one even deeper and more fundamental than the lie to women that the fullness of their humanity is in their sexual value to men. The lie is that male libido is uncontrollable, that the desire to take is natural. Our social norms for men tell themthat they reach the fullness of their human dignity as insatiable takers. Kindness, accepting refusal, mistakes, failure, trying again, tenderness: These are not acceptable ways of being a man. They must take.

Our current president represents the apex of what it means to be a man in this mindset. This leads to violence by men all over our nation. Ironically, this imperative to take, to harass, to violently turn the world into their object, robs men of the experience of the fullness of their own human dignity.

C.S.T. helps us see and judge our social reality, a reality plagued today by sexual harassment. It can also help us discern the world God wants for us, one in which men conceive of their humanity as grounded in fostering rather than diminishing the dignity of others—and one in which women flourish as we participate in society on our terms, with dignified work.

Nora Bolcon
1 week 3 days ago

I am new to America Magazine's subscribers. What sticks in my craw about this article is how can America Magazine state these beliefs and refuse to understand that one could easily replace the words sexual harassment with sexism in religion or the discrimination used by the Catholic Church against women's equal ordination starting with priesthood in each paragraph and come up with the same horrid results. Sexual Discrimination against women being ordained priests and equally to men in our church causes genuine trauma to those women rejected. It objectifies all women and calls them less and especially less sacred than men and less Godly than men and no nifty, slippery words can change that obvious meaning to those it is directed at.

Our Church while it discriminates against women and continues to strip all women access to its sacrament of Holy Orders, and therefore any real voice or vote in our church, and any real sacred roles as leaders, continues to be a strong and direct cause of continued sexism in the world and the global workplace. Sexism especially in Religion has already been proven to directly cause poverty, war, subjugation of both women and children, slavery, torture, terrorism, and so many more horrid realities. This kind of sexism is more brutal than non-religious sexism as women are literally taught that they are made by their God as unworthy of equal sacraments, respect, trust, opportunities, vote and voice in their church. This lie causes deep rooted self-loathing which is often shown forth by many women in our church who attack other women who stand up for justice against this great sin. We have exiled from our faith many women whose only crime was admitting that God Almighty called them to ordained priesthood.

Eventually, America and other organizations in Catholicism are going to have to sit and really consider are they really doing enough to end the goals of sexism in our church. You are not alone, NCR and other supposedly more progressive Catholic Papers also need to reflect on this issue . . .

The Truth:

No organization represents or teaches this belief better than Catholicism : We live in a society that tells women and girls that the tug of dignity we feel pushing back against the narrative of our sexual objectification somehow makes us crazy or mean. Our social norms for women uphold the violation of our human dignity. These norms instill in us the pernicious belief that we reach the fullness of our humanity when we are treated as sexual objects.
The objectification sexually, for our church, is the constant teaching: "Women are designed to be mothers above all else and therefore we can't be seen as representing Jesus Christ in the bodies God gave to us as priests, no matter what God tells us otherwise. If this also ends up with us having no authoritative voice in our church that is just fine too."

Time to take the stand against the hate. Why are we waiting? What are we waiting for? more and more damage to happen to more and more women and children and in the end to men and our church and the cause of Christ itself. My biggest question to all of the slew of woman coming forward with new cases, what were you waiting for? How many more women were abused by the men you did not turn in decades earlier?

Tim O'Leary
1 week 3 days ago

Nora - sounds like you are less interested in sexual abuse of women than in changing infallible Church doctrine. The whole point about Catholic Social Teaching regarding the sexes is that 1) there is equal human dignity despite different god-given roles, and 2) one fails to understand women (and men) if one cannot see the complementarity of the sexes as taught by human nature and the Church, The Catholic Church has always resisted a feminism that equates dignity with sameness. It has always protected the rights of women and forcefully taught against sexual exploitation of women. A feminism that denies the unique attributes and talents of women is part of the problem, not the solution.

Nicholas Clifford
1 week 3 days ago

Two points. First: Has the Catholic Church really always protected the rights of women? Or has it rather protected what it likes to see as the rights of women, defined by the men who have led the Church? (I have in mind the nun, whose name I've unfortunately forgotten, who did great things in setting up hospitals during the US civil war, and when that conflict was over, returned to Notre Dame (I think) to discover that she was to be a priest's housekeeper, presumably not being fit for anything more serious. Second: sexual exploitation and sexual harassment are by no means restricted to men taking advantage of women. I hope our memories are not quite so short that we have forgotten the predation of so many priests on so many young people, most of who were boys rather than girls. And just as appalling in its stunning hypocrisy, were the efforts made by so many bishops and other leaders not only to ignore all this but to cover it up. The Church paid and continues to pay an enormous price for this, partly financial, but far more harmful is the moral price and the terrible exodus of so many Catholics from the church they once trusted. C.S.T. has many virtues, but one can hardly admire its effects in disciplining the Church's own ranks.

Tim O'Leary
1 week 2 days ago

How strange that an article on coerced sexual abuse of women gets twisted into an anti-Catholic tirade. Like Nora, Nicholas shows no real interest in the sexual harassment of women. In fact, I don't think there is any real concern for women's rights, as real women. This is just a desire that all humans, no matter what their sex, be as men, or pretend to be men. It is driven by a fundamental inferiority complex, a pure sexism that sees male roles as superior, as powerful. I wonder what the greatest woman of all time, tainted nature's solitary boast, the Queen of heaven, would think that she was lacking that these feminists promise to deliver. What rot!

Gino Dalpiaz
1 week 3 days ago

WHAT COUNTS IN THE CHURCH IS NOT PRIESTS AND BISHOPS, BUT HOLINESS

In her book, "The Eternal Feminine: Mystical Women" (2004), the French theologian, Janine Hourcade, aptly writes: “Woman has no need to be a priest or have hierarchical power to carry out an important role in the Church and in the world.”

When asked about women priests, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, France, said the same thing: “The only thing that counts in the Church is not priests and bishops, but holiness. This is the real hierarchy” (Zenit March, 5, 2004).

The feminine “primacy of love” is far superior to the masculine “primacy of jurisdiction.”

Joseph Clavijo
1 week 3 days ago

Nora Bolcon... I love your response! "The objectification sexually, for our church, is the constant teaching: "Women are designed to be mothers above all else and therefore we can't be seen as representing Jesus Christ in the bodies God gave to us as priests, no matter what God tells us otherwise. If this also ends up with us having no authoritative voice in our church that is just fine too."
I am a member of the Episcopal Church, which ordains women Priests and Bishops. I once had a hard time addressing women clergy as "Mother" having lived most of my life Catholic. On day, I confessed that to one of my teachers, who replied...."Joey - that's all I know how to be is Mother"
That spoke volumes! That taught me God has created a place for women to be Priests "and" Mothers.
Blessings to you Nora Bolcon

Tim O'Leary
1 week 3 days ago

Joseph - I do not love your response. Why is it that Christ's decision to reserve the Marian ministry to women and the priestly ministry to men is so objected to by those who feel the libido of men and women is uncontrollable. As Pope Francis says, the grasping for a priestly role is the very essence of clericalism.

jeffrey von arx
1 week 3 days ago

Dear Brianne:

Would it not also be the case that sexual harassment, to say nothing of sexual abuse, is a violation of the obligation to chastity to which all of us, men and women, are called?

Jeannette Mulherin
1 week 2 days ago

Religion, particularly those that preach "complementarianism" provides the justification for harassment, particularly in the workplace. It's open season on women who dare to challenge male dominance, as is amply clear in the clerics' treatment of Catholic women called to ordination.

Tim O'Leary
1 week 1 day ago

Jeannette - It is "complementarianism" that supports selective consideration/time off for women for pregnancy, places for breast feeding, flexibility for work/child care, etc. It is "complementarianism" that has separate restrooms for women. It is "complementarianism" that tempers speech and increases civility in mixed company. On the other hand, a type of feminism that believes in sameness or interchangeability, and ignores the biological and psychological differences of men and women, and that promotes sexual libertinism, is an enabler of harassment. It is a type of feminism that is directly responsible for the "women need to toughen up" idea on dating and relationships, etc. It is the same type of feminism that clamors for abortion, no fault divorce and many other anti-women things. I would say feminism directly enables sexual harassment. One only has to listen to Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi (defending Conyers as an icon - an icon of corruption alright). But, the recent revelations on the roast of Matt Lauer shows that even his female colleagues knew and were somewhat complicit. No wonder sexual harassment has mushroomed since the sexual liberation of the 1960s.

Johnny Nasheo
1 week 2 days ago

I'm disappointed this article left off Male on Male sexual harassment and the sins of the Catholic Church. How is the world to respect Catholic Social teachings when the teachers won't respect them? Time for the church to come clean and set a far better example. "Do as I say, not as I do." never works.

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