This article has proven difficult not only to write, but even to decide whether to write and publish it. For one thing, I have a personal investment in the topic of sexual assault, as I shall relate briefly; and for another, I wish to express my support for women, but in a manner that they see as proper.
My experience of sexual aggression has ranged from the violence of getting beaten up when I was 19 and he was 20, to the shame of forcible intercourse with a woman over my strenuous objections (yes, it’s possible), to the nuisance of unwanted touching and physical advances that are more easily rebuffed.
The first two instances involved someone that I loved. This made the incidents at the time—and continues to make the memory of them even now—all the more painful a wound. As the decades pass, one doesn’t dwell consciously on these memories day and night; but neither does the wound entirely go away, and one never knows when and why the visuals will resurface in the mind’s eye, unbidden and without warning. You simply don’t “get over it,” no matter how much you might like to. It remains a “big deal” for the rest of your life, even if buried most of the time in your subconscious.
Here are two true stories of male vs. female sexual assault, the first related to me by the victim, whom I’ll call “Sandra,” and the second by the perpetrator, whom I’ll call “Paul.”
A few years ago Sandra and I reconnected on Facebook. We met in 1964, when we started 4th grade together, and last saw each other when we finished 12th grade in 1973. When we sat face to face for the first time in over 40 years, we both felt an immediate brother-sister bond that we never had as kids.
Over the course of many hours she opened up to me about sexual trauma from her childhood and adolescence, at home and in school, with which she struggles to cope to this day.
In junior high—somewhere between the age of 13 and 15—Sandra was sitting in class when the alpha-male boy in the desk behind her reached around and grabbed her breast. It could have lasted no more than a couple of seconds. The other boys who saw it snickered. Boys will be boys, you know.
What struck me about Sandra’s story was not that this particular boy did this. I remember too well his swaggering machismo even in his early teens. No, what struck me was the visible, palpable anguish of this woman in her late fifties. Her voice and her body shook in the retelling. Her face contorted in pain and shame. She cried. She didn’t know what to do with this now middle-aged man’s friend request on Facebook.
What also struck me was the at least partial healing that seemed to wash over her as I, a man, listened to her, heard her, believed her.
I didn’t ask her what the big deal was, or tell her to get over it already.
And Paul’s story:
In the first week or two of Paul’s relationship with his fiancee they began sleeping together, sometimes at his apartment, sometimes at hers. Several months into their relationship, around the time that they became formally engaged, he initiated sex with her. On this occasion she resisted, he persisted, she resisted more, he persisted more.
In his male imagination they were playing a game. He imagined her resistance—and her eventual acquiescence—as part of the game. This was how culture had taught him to understand “seduction.”
Except that, with intercourse accomplished, she began to cry, and kept crying.
Paul was horrified. He tried awkwardly to comfort her by holding her in his arms. She reacted to his embraces with understandable ambivalence.
About six months later they married and started a family. They never spoke of the “incident.” It became buried deep in his subconscious.
After a full ten years, something began to stir in Paul’s memory. Lying side by side in bed with his wife one night, he accused himself of rape and begged her forgiveness. She sobbed, “Finally, you understand,” and forgave him.
Yet not many weeks later she raped him for the first and only time and said, “There. Now we’re even.” She left him four years later.
Paul blames himself for this, not his ex-wife. His remorse for these things never leaves him.
Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee moved me deeply. It was so artless, so uncontrived, so unquestionably authentic. In her voice and in her eyes I heard and saw my friend Sandra’s voice and eyes, my friend Paul’s ex-wife’s voice and eyes, the voice and eyes of countless other women—both those who have found the courage to come forward and those who remain hidden in the shadows of fear and shame.
What relevance does all this have for Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s readers?
Too many men resort to a diabolical caricature of the Orthodox faith to justify their atrocious attitude toward women. We have the whole Russian Orthodox Church, standing behind the Kremlin’s decriminalization of domestic abuse. We have Herman Sterligov, who beats his wife when she “needs” it. We have Father Joseph Gleason, who teaches that under no circumstance may a wife refuse sex to her husband. Now we have Michael Sisco, new on the scene, trying to get an Orthodox YouTube channel off the ground with a video that begins with him gloating into the camera: “This past week, Christine Blasey Ford accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were in high school. You know what that means, right? He asked her to the prom and now she regrets it.”
I’m not even sure how to conclude this, except to declare: I stand with women.
See also Patricia Fann Bouteneff’s If Kavanaugh Were Orthodox.
Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto and founding editor of Orthodoxy in Dialogue. He has written on various aspects of sexuality and gender for Orthodoxy in Dialogue, Public Orthodoxy, and The Wheel. He holds a BA in Sexuality Studies from York University and an MA in Theology from Regis College/St. Michael’s College in Toronto. Earlier in life he completed the course requirements for the MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood NY, and was a priest from 1988 to 2002.