I’m a Jesuit. How should I respond to toxic masculinity and #MeToo?
As a white, prep school educated man, I typically live without the need to question the ways I relate to women, sexual assault and gender violence. Recently however, the #MeToo social-media campaign, which encourages women to share their stories of sexual abuse and harassment, has made it impossible for me to not stop and examine my life, my behaviors and attitudes, and the way the world simultaneously forms me and I it.
I learned toxic masculinity and dominance while attending a Catholic, Jesuit, all-male high school. I absorbed from my peers and my school environment a sense of entitlement and self-made prestige, a sense that others would and should absolutely desire me. I thrived on male-centric views: I was taught a constant need to compete, to conquer and demonstrate how I am elite. Whiteness, class advantages and male privilege intertwined to teach me that I am special and stand above others.
I learned toxic masculinity and dominance in a Catholic, Jesuit, all-male high school.
I learned toxic masculinity from a broader culture that taught me to pressure, to coerce and to expect. I learned that I am owed. I think back, painfully acknowledging that I expected women would want to date me, would want to be physically intimate with me. It wasn’t until college that some of my female friends began challenging these subtle but dangerous attitudes. These same attitudes, however, still haunt me. I have since apologized to all of my former partners for being pushy, self-centered or controlling. These apologies are by no means complete, but simply a starting place for reconciliation.
Yet I have, even as a Jesuit, continued to fail. Despite my vow of celibacy, I often catch myself analyzing how a woman is attractive rather than appreciating her for her full humanity. I say nothing when fellow Jesuits and clergy deride feminism. I stand by and watch as men continue to exclude marginalized voices from their discussions, especially those of women of color and transgender persons.
Toxic masculinity (not-so) subtly influences all aspects of how I understand the world. Take a recent example: a few weeks ago, a Jesuit Post reader politely commented on my piece about guilt, asking why I failed to include women in the article. She further asked if I included women in my classes at Marquette High School. While I wanted to assure her that I am excellent about respecting and including women, I must truthfully say that I fail at this. We cover sexism in my junior-year class, especially the language that my all-male classes use to discuss sexuality. But rarely am I forced to stop and self-assess.
I stand by and watch as men continue to exclude marginalized voices from their discussions.
The incredible number of women sharing their stories in the #MeToo campaign has left me saddened and shaken. Statistics on sexual violence and harassment have also allowed me to observe from a distance. I have pain, but having never been the victim of sexual harassment, I cannot know the pain, frustration, hurt and myriad of emotions that accompany these acts of violence.
My sorrow, rather, is in knowing that I have caused and perpetuated that hurt. Mine is a sorrow of guilt. Mine is knowing that it should not have taken these stories, some from loved ones, for me to care and feel more fully. Mine is wondering if my vocation in an all-male religious community perpetuates that which I want to tear down. My sorrow is my conscience on its knees begging me to delve into my hardened heart, to open it to God and neighbor.
I would love to apologize and go back to comfortably occupying my male-dominated spaces. I would love to tweet some catchy statements and feel better about myself. But #MeToo is forcing me to sit, to stay and to pray. It is forcing me to listen, to accompany and to examine my history and my heart.
This prayer must lead to action. In honesty, I am not totally sure what exactly that action should look like. I would like those actions to be a matter of listening to victims. I want to give up the space and voice I typically occupy and move aside for those who I often ignore or forget. I would like to hear from women and other victims of harassment how to best change our culture and correct injustices. This is not to place the burden on them or assume that victims owe us their stories and solutions; rather, I recognize whatever I do will be incomplete without their input and leadership.
I would like to thank the women who have shared their stories, offered vital criticism and demanded justice. I would like to thank and recognize women of color and transgender persons, whose stories are often the most ignored and forgotten. I pray that we as men (yes, all men) can make space to listen, to sit with those stories and situations that make us uncomfortable, to examine our lives, and grow into action.
A version of this article was originally published in The Jesuit Post.
A strong essay but I wish that Br. Homan had discussed how he plans to get Marquette University HS to address hegemonic masculinity.
Vince, thanks for your comment. I'm not totally sure how I'll continue addressing it. I'll continue discussing it in my Catholic Social Teaching class, where we largely address how we talk about sex and sexuality. But as a whole, I also don't want to take on a hero-complex and march around school saying how everything has to change. I'm still very much learning and don't want to present myself as an expert, but rather as someone to listen. I think that is a very important way our Jesuit, all-male schools need to change: creating more spaces for women to speak their piece, and for the men in the schools to truly and attentively listen. How exactly that happens, I'm not sure. I'm certainly open to suggestions!
It's quite a challenge, especially in h.s. (I teach a college-level course on masculinity). C.J. Pascoe has written a useful study on h.s. masculinity. I do agree that the worst thing to do--beside doing nothing--is to approach the issue in a ham handed way.
I wonder what good a public confession such as this accomplishes even though it highlights major problems that we have in society. I hope that Ken takes more positive steps towards humbling himself before his creator and switches off whatever it is that conflicts with his vow of celibacy.
My entire education was in Catholic boarding schools, an experience quite different from this author. I can only recollect that I had a great deal of respect for the opposite sex. Like any young man of the time I looked to my peers for guidance, which was fairly conservative considering that the pill was now entering the market and risqué movies were only shown in "special" houses. "Shame" was a word that still had meaning.
Something happened between Pat Boone and the Rolling Stones that stripped the respect that men are supposed to have towards women. I believe that Hollywood who has never stopped pushing the envelope and the party drugs that became so commonplace should take most of the blame. What we have now is worse than those biblical cities that used to act as a sort of envelope edge that nobody could could cross. We pipe in pornography at an increasing rate and allow our children to eat the crumbs.
The society of "self" has surpassed anything in the animal kingdom. There is no more respect and nobody even understands the true meaning of Love. I do not think that listening to lurid stories is going to help at this stage, far less to put us on a course to salvation.
I am completely unsurprised by the MeToo phenomenon. In my experience, some sexual harassment is part of every woman's life. A woman is successful at getting through life if she avoids being raped. I just wish we were better at teaching young women how to avoid the most obvious of the problems. And yet, the vast majority of men are entirely decent people and the world would be a dull place without them. Men being sexist jerks might annoy me, but they have collectively caused me far fewer problems than women being bitchy. I will worry about toxic masculinity when we can also talk about toxic femininity.
Thank your for sharing your thoughts on this topic, Fr. Ken. I had a similar experience in the 50's at my Benedictine led high school. I follow America, The Jesuit Review, as a "destroyed by the Abuse COVERUP Catholic. Although COVERUP is not mentioned in the article, your heartfelt honesty on other matters gives me hope there are some clergy, like you, willing to speak honestly about matters of importance to me personally, and the multitudes who have left the pews. Again, thanks for your thoughts. Some disapprove of your words. I found them most meaningful.
Thank you for your interesting personal reflections in this article.
I truly appreciate your sentiments and sharing vulnerability. As you grapple with these issues, I see a limitation in our language. Why do you say 'thanks' to those sharing experiences of trauma/abuse/harassment? it's about experiences we wish we'd never endured so please do not thank us for sharing.
Your intentions seem genuine, but please do not thank me. Instead, I ask that you hold the pain and hurt and shame and isolation and say nothing. Then take the anger, guilt, frustration that rises and channel into productive action on behalf of women. Teach your students to recognize girls and women as equals, not objects. Use language that is inclusive. be an ally, and through your actions I'll know that you have heard.
Jill, I appreciate your powerful and important words. Part of the reason I said thanks is I wanted to appreciate the women who helped my write this piece, who I turned to for advice and input. I didn't, however, want to name them outright and share their stories without their permission. I do feel very limited in my expression/language here, as thanking someone for their trauma is strange and quite possibly hurtful/insulting (from my end, I do not want to put words into your mouth).
You're correct, though, in saying I need to hold that pain, hurt, shame, and isolation; I need to understand it more fully. I wanted to write this article as a way of asking other men to do likewise. I do hope to do what you ask - to channel those prayers into decisive action and teaching. I'm still very much learning how to do so, especially in a way that continues to listen and to be an ally. If you have suggestions how to do that well, I'm certainly happy to listen!
Dominic Deus here.
Fr. Ken, drop the guilt. It's damaging, counter-productive and very, very, old school Catholic.
We all need to accept responsibility for our actions, past and present, towards women and that certainly includes paying attention to the postings in #Me Too. Me too, of course.
In the reasonable assumption that you did not perpetrate physical or emotional violence against women, you were about as much of a jerk as most of us including me. If women tolerated you at all, you must have had redeeming qualities and, in my view, their willingness to like or even love you is a testament to their kindness and forgiving nature. Also, it suggests that if they are willing to celebrate your best features, then you can drop the guilt thing and do the same.
Pay close attention to Lisa and Jill. In fact, I suggest you print off their letters and put them in with your Holy Cards. You do have Holy Cards, right?
Contrary to the Church's advice, I suggest you get more involved with women. As an ordained man, you have to find your way on that but I had in mind, meet with them in small groups, listen far more than you talk, and remember coffee is fine; drinks after dinner is/are not.
Read books and essays by women. They reveal whole new ways of analytical thinking and moral decision making.
Women are biologically amazing. You do know that we all begin life female right? then early in gestation, some of us get hormonally booted out of Eden and become male. Ironic, isn't it--how Genesis got that exactly backwards?
Pay attention to Lisa. Some women are bitchy. Avoid them.
Noticing women are beautiful shows you have a sense of the Divine. Noticing you find some of them attractive shows you are not dead.
I have lived a great deal of my life in male-exclusive or male dominant societies. It doesn't surprise me that the Jesuit brotherhood has jerks in it. Just make sure you are not one and--here is the hard part--don't buy their bullshit. You don't have to evangelize them but you can be known for giving witness to all the dimensions of women and celebrating it. Just like the women in your life apparently did for you.
In case you were wondering, I am indebted to my medical school women classmates who relentlessly but lovingly corrected me for seven years and made me less imperfect. Also my wife, JoAnn of Arc, whose life work is, apparently, husband improvement. I still screw up.
Thank you for another down-to-earth commentary. I so appreciate how you offer multiple ways to look at the issue.
Thanks, Lisa :-)
It begins way before high school. The assistant coach of a girl's hockey team massages the shoulders and calves of the players while they deconstruct the game in the locker room. The young girls who one would think would be the first to speak up, are silent. Afterwards they confront the daughter of the assistant coach who is on the team. They ask her to talk to her dad. She freezes. The trauma is registered in her bones. She develops anorexia. The dots are not connected. When the #me too campaign erupts she remembers, twenty years later. Who is she now? How has the trajectory of her life been altered? How is her health? What has shame and guilt done to her? Can she heal?
Where have you been ?
If it took you this long to realise that people in power often
abuse that power - what can I say.
The Modern Western notion that women can be alone with men and
that those men will not be tempted...
Well there are different levels of naiveness ...
Ken, this is a good essay on becoming awakened to the power inequity between men and women in life. I note, as a 74 year old Catholic woman who has struggled against the deliberate, chosen power of men over women in the our church, that you make no mention of your engagement in the moral enforcement of such in liturgical practice. As an ordained man, do you always (or ever) use inclusive language for the Divine? Do you make sure that God is recognized as feminine by pronoun or noun? Do you call the Divine She, Her? Do you emphasize the womb of God? Do you make sure that women have a prominent place at the altar, as lectors, as servers and homilists? Do you invite all present to say the words of institution along with you? Do you speak loudly and consistently for the ordination of women, for more women in positions of moral and ecclesiastical significance in our church? Do you read and teach the works of Rosemary Reuther, Joan Chittister, Miriam Therese Winter, Mary Hunt, Diann Neu and the many excellent women thealogians? Have you investigated the works of women writer-thealogians on discovery of the power of inclusion?
I deeply appreciate your voice, your "leaning in", your working from the place of birth, race, priviledge, and invite you to stretch a bit more. The Roman Catholic Church is bleeding women, who have taken their wisdom, their calls, their educations and fled a church that does not really seem to want good for all her children. Your essay gives me some small hope. I look forward to hearing your ideas.
Sheila Dierks, Boulder Colorado
This is sad to me because I don't believe boys learn this at school... I believe they learn it from seeing how their own father treats women, especially their mothers. "Toxic Masculinity" is just the trendy phrase of the day. I hope that men stay masculine and not listen to feminists who blame them for everything. Masculinity is a God-given gift. This whole gender confusion problem comes from the sexual revolution and its destruction of healthy Christian relationships. Whoever thinks that "equality" means that men should act like women and women should act like men is promoting psychological confusion and mental instability.