#MeToo and Quaker Men

Department: 

A year ago, when the phrase #MeToo went viral, it created an opening for women to talk about negative patriarchal experiences that they have been forced to put up with for years, and it drew widespread attention to sexual assault and harassment of women in all walks of life. #MeToo actually began in 2006, when social activist and community organizer Tarana Burke created the phrase “Me Too” on the Myspace social network. Her goal was to promote “empowerment through empathy” among women of color who had experienced sexual abuse, particularly within underprivileged communities. Burke was inspired to use the phrase after finding herself unable to respond to a thirteen-year-old girl who had confided in her that she had been sexually assaulted. Burke later wished she had simply told the girl, “Me too.” On October 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano made a very public invitation to women everywhere to spread the #MeToo meme on Twitter. She later gave Burke credit for the meme.

The effect on men of the #MeToo movement has been dramatic as well. Dozens of high-profile men have been outed as predators, and TIME’s 2017 Person(s) of the Year were “The Silence Breakers.” This seismic shift in gender relations has created confusion among many men. Many feel disturbed by questions that previously seemed insignificant: What can I safely say to women? Is it OK to give someone a hug? When can I be alone with a woman in a room? Do I feel self-respect about my past behaviors with women? More recently, #UsToo has permitted men to talk about being sexually abused.

Research indicates that only 16% of men have even one male friend with whom they can discuss serious concerns. Because men are much less likely than women to confide in each other, they may have no place to go with their confusion over #MeToo and its implications for their lives and relationships. Making matters worse, these implications can extend into questions of legal wrongdoing and even criminality. As attorney and workplace trainer Jonathan Segal said when he was interviewed for the TIME Person-of-the-Year issue, “This uncertainty can be corrosive. While everyone wants to smoke out the serial predators and rapists, there is a risk that the net may be cast too far. What happens when someone who makes a sexist joke winds up lumped into the same bucket as a boss who gropes an employee? Neither should be encouraged . . . nor should they be equated.”

This abrupt change in male/female relations led us, two Quaker men, to create a workshop at Intermountain Yearly Meeting in June 2018. We both have professional backgrounds in teaching human sexuality and in working with survivors and perpetrators of sexual abuse. We wanted to begin exploring concerns raised by #MeToo with Quaker men on a personal level. Our hope was that, in helping men explore their sexual experiences and beliefs, they would feel freer to openly discuss their sexuality and lovingly support others in exploring theirs.

At the same time, we had misgivings. The topic was unconventional for a yearly meeting workshop. We were concerned that Quaker women would resent us men for appropriating yet another women’s issue. Also, on the one hand, we were afraid that no one would sign up or that participants would shut down. On the other hand, we were worried that the sharing might become so intense that the workshop would fly off the rails, that some horrible transgression might be revealed, or that some participant might “go crazy” in the middle of rural New Mexico. Despite these concerns, we decided to offer a two-day, experiential workshop with the intent of helping men explore, share, and better understand their own sexual experiences. Further, we wanted to explore ways that Quaker spirituality and values have shaped participants’ sexual roles and responses in a fast-changing social and sexual landscape. Finally, we wanted to help men find ways to actively support survivors of abuse and exploitation.

Six willing men attended. We began by negotiating a careful and clear agreement that would assure confidentiality and build trust. All the men agreed to attend both days, and we agreed that no one new would be admitted the second day. We would not disclose who participated in the group. Individuals could describe their personal experiences and what they learned from those experiences, but they would not identify the histories or contributions of other members. Guidelines for listening and speaking from personal experience – similar to those used in most worship-sharing groups – were agreed upon.

As workshop leaders, we provided some limited information about human sexuality, gender, sexual orientation, and the history of the #MeToo movement. While presenting this information, we also posed relevant questions and queries, such as, “In what ways do you feel personally closer to or more distant from someone as a result of the #MeToo movement?” We sometimes discussed these queries in pairs and sometimes as a whole group.

Based on past workshops we’d led, we predicted that participants would be reluctant to share their private experiences until the workshop’s second day. To our surprise, deep sharing began within the first two hours. Clearly, the men were eager to be heard and understood. Support and empathy were evident from the outset. As a result, there was a high level of self-examination and a distinct absence of other-blaming or misogyny. We believe that the men’s common spiritual foundation as Friends fostered trust from the outset, and their familiarity with sharing personal experiences from such group activities as worship-sharing enabled them to share deeply. As leaders, we borrowed several exercises from other Quaker programs, such as the “Red Light/Green Light” AVP exercise, in which each participant made a list of unacceptable behaviors and discussed those, then made a list of acceptable behaviors and discussed those. These exercises helped structure the workshop, but overall, the discussion was primarily directed by the participants’ personal experiences. At the end of the workshop, each participant made a commitment to provide some form of support to survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation.

While evaluating the workshop, all the men stated that it had been powerful and worthwhile. It brought them closer together as a group and enabled them to selectively share experiences and concerns; hence, it helped them feel less isolated with their sexual lives and histories. Based on our professional experience, we were concerned about possible emotional repercussions from the high level of disclosure, and we encouraged the men to keep talking with each other – and with us as leaders – after the workshop. A check-in with participants afterward revealed no significant negative effects. As for our worry that Quaker women would perceive our workshop as “another instance of male appropriation,” the opposite turned out to be the case. All the Quaker women we consulted were highly supportive, and several volunteered useful suggestions.

We believe that this exploration of Quaker male sexual experience in light of the #MeToo movement was valuable. It confirmed our hope that when, in a trusting setting, we men begin sharing our sexual beliefs, experiences, confusion, sorrows, regrets, fears, and joys, we are freed to more openly listen to – and support others – in theirs. It is our belief that this workshop is replicable in other settings. We are willing to share information on the workshop for the benefit of other Quaker men. We suggest, however, that any such workshop involve at least one leader who possesses some knowledge of men’s issues, human sexuality, and group dynamics.

To “listen” another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human ever performs for another… For in penetrating to what is involved in listening, do we not disclose the thinness of the filament that separates people listening openly to one another and that of God intently listening to each soul?  – Douglas Steere, Where Words Come From, 1968   ~~~

For more information about this workshop, contact:

Steve Finger is a retired psychologist. He worked in the areas of human sexuality, men’s issues, anger management, and abuse. He is married and has two adult children. Steve is a member and former clerk of Flagstaff Friends Meeting (IMYM). stevencfin-AT-gmail-DOT-com

Allen Winchester is a retired Clinical Social Worker, who counseled male sexual abusers and victims in SD. A convinced Quaker, he is clerk of Santa Fe Friends Meeting (IMYM). He and his wife, Mary, are raising their ten-year-old granddaughter. allen14w-AT-cybermesa-DOT-com