Well, I couldn't remember the first time I was groped. I remember lots of times I WAS groped, but not the specific first one. But what I remembered even more, and what was my particular trigger, was this business of kissing women right on the mouth.
"You know, I'm automatically attracted to -- I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything."
"Just kiss. They let you do it. Just kiss. They let you do it. You can do anything."
When a woman pondering ordination asked me what was the most challenging part of being a woman in ordained ministry, I blurted out without even thinking, "Unwanted physical touch." I had been touched a lot recently by men -- drunk parishioners, clergy colleagues, public officials. Those demanding hugs that go on too long, the fixation on my hair -- even playing with it -- but more than that, it was the kissing.
A male colleague of mine insisted on kissing me every time we met. At first I thought it was just an aberration. Then he started doing it at clergy gatherings, once at the reception after a diocesan confirmation service. It was a greeting ... if you can call getting a big smacker on the mouth a greeting. I interpreted it not as sexual, but as a power move, as a way of reminding me that women have no business in our business.
"Just kiss. They let you do it. You can do anything."
This man -- this priest of the church -- kissed me in public gatherings, and I never stopped him. I would duck away, turn my head, say "hahahaha," and glide away. But I never said, "Stop." I never said, "Knock it off." I never spilled my drink on him at that clergy conference, even as I knew he was coming in for the clinch, even as I told my female colleagues next to me, "He's going to try and kiss me, and I'm going to spill this drink all over him."
It wasn't a sexual assault. I didn't need to report him to the bishop. It was a power play, and I could not find my power. I borrowed male power for a while, using a gay male colleague for my wingman. When this guy would kiss me, my friend would say, "Don't I get a kiss too?" And that would dampen it down for a while.
And I would agonize over what I should do, what I should say, how I should react. And I could never figure out the right strategy. The one that would make it stop without my losing face, or looking like the complaining woman, or looking like the one making all the trouble. The one that would allow us to relate as colleagues, as equals, without this nonsense coming between us. But I did nothing.
Why didn't I do anything? Anyone who knows me would know that I am a strong, outspoken woman. You would think I wouldn't put up with this for one minute. And yet ... and yet ...
Here's what I feared would happen -- I would be the one called out. I would be told, "it was just a joke." I would be told, "I never meant it that way." I would be told, "Paul says, 'Greet one another with the kiss of peace.'" I would be seen as the one in the wrong. It was too borderline a situation, not outright groping, not outright assault. Right there on the edge. The edge that could make him look innocent and me look like trouble. And as a woman who has worked in newsrooms, in corporate head offices, in media companies, and in churches, I knew that women who make trouble get all the blame.
I have never resolved this question. I no longer serve in the same diocese as this man, so I no longer see him. And while I know objectively that this is not my fault, that he should NOT have been doing this, inside I blame myself -- I should have been bolder. I should have been stronger. I should have said "knock it off" and taken the consequences.
Inside, I blame myself. And how messed up is that?