The woman in the picture above is standing beside ex-US President, George Bush Senior. As the photograph is being taken President Bush is groping (squeezing) her buttocks. She is one of a number of women who have come forward in recent weeks to tell of similar episodes in photo shoots with the ex-President.

The last month has seen dozens of women accuse prominent men in the movie industry and in politics of sexual harassment and much worse. Men in power have demanded sexual favours in exchange for career opportunities. In cases where the favours were not given voluntarily, the women were raped and had remained silent for years. This “jobs for sexual favours” extortion has been present at all levels of work, not just the entertainment and television industry. Women and men have been subjected to it in offices, on farms, in factories and in the cleaning industry.

The background against which these abuses take place is the contradictory attitude towards sex in our society.

Clearly, our society has an insatiable appetite for stories, pictures, tweets, videos of sexual escapades, real or supposed, of celebrities and the stars of stage and screen. And every advertiser knows that sex grabs attention and can be used to sell. Men have always been drawn to porn in its various modes. However, sexual titillation is stock in trade for many women’s magazines and TV soaps.

In my early adult life, if sex outside of marriage came to light the usual response was one of shock and horror. Most often it was females who were found out. When this happened, frequently they had to leave town. I know several women so blighted by the revelation of a distant sexual encounter that they have lived out their lives in the shadows of this incident.

Through my work in churches large and small, and from the experience of my wife and two daughters I am well aware of the inappropriate behavior of some older men. Here I am talking about Sunday school teachers and club leaders. The victims were mostly young women but sometimes men. Often the abused never said anything until the perpetrator was dead and gone. It seems that the young people felt powerless against the personae and reputation of their molesters. “Who would have believed me?”

In particular, I remember two conspicuously righteous men. Both were leaders and lay-preachers in their church and one was a community leader. I knew them at different times and in different locations. Both of them spoke often of the need for holy living.

The death of his wife and his own weakness made Charlie, homebound. We mentioned him every week in our prayers in church and when he could occasionally make it to church, he was given a hero’s welcome. My daughter suggested to me that to ease his loneliness she could take him some sweet snack and spend an hour with him. She did this on a weekly basis until his death. Charlie was given a saint’s funeral. Of all his treasured possessions, he left his much-read Bible to our daughter.

Months after the funeral in a casual conversation my daughter said to me, “You know when I visited Charlie he used to fondle me all over”. I was completely taken back. “What would you like me to do about this?” I asked. “Nothing” was her reply. “I just wanted to tell you about it” As this was well before the arrival of trauma counseling, nothing was done. We never talked about it again. Subsequently, my daughter wrote two poems about him. The tone of the poems is loving and sympathetic.

The other man was a pillar of our town’s civic life. When his wife died and his own health declined, he lost his driving license and had to be driven to Church. I never realized there was a problem until I heard the women talking amongst themselves. When I asked them, what was the problem, they laughed it off. Then his regular driver said, “He has wandering hands. I thought his touching me was by accident, but it happened every week. I am now sure it is deliberate.”

His funeral was a community affair and accounts of his good works went on for ages. I wondered what the women who transported him each Sunday were thinking.

These are just my stories. I am sure that women working in the health services especially with aged care have many more.

Our societies attitude to ‘touching’ is changing. We have a heightened awareness of personal space, but it is also true that what would have been scandalous in previous years is now accepted. Recently in a crowded airport terminal, I saw young couples where the young man had his hand planted firmly on the female’s bottom. This was not just one occasional couple. It was most of them.

A young friend of mine went with his new wife to a mission field in PNG. His village had known revival and prayer and Bible study were daily events. He told me that on his way to morning prayers his Church leader would often ask him, “Did you have a nice time with your wife last night?” His Bible College training did not equip him to answer that question. He realized he was in a society where nudity was taken for granted and conversations about sex were commonplace. “I am not sure it is a bad thing”, he said to me.

Jesus spent a lot of time with sinners, and it is clear that for some of them these sins related to sexual misdemeanors. He called these people as his friends. Certainly, he advocated that marriage should be with one person and for a lifetime. However, his strong statements about sin were not directed towards sexual sins. John 8: 1-11 is a good example of his attitude in this respect.

I welcome the way women are speaking out about abuse and naming their abusers. I think it is a good thing that churches, schools and public buildings are now mostly open with glass everywhere. However, we are still left with the double standard. Our society is sexualized and our children bear the greatest weight of this situation. For many of them, what we called ‘innocence’ is something they will never know.

The insurers of the Presbyterian Church of NZ sent out a directive that for ‘health and safety reasons’ (they were afraid of members suing each other) there should be no hugging in church. Thank God, this edict never had any effect. I believe that warm and loving relationships in the context of a Christian family pose one way of coping with the contradictions of our time.

I have been wondering what I will be like should old age fogs my mind? Maybe I will be a “watch his hands!” problem? Right now, it seems unlikely but when reality fades and inhibitions crumble, who knows?

Stan Stewart

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SUNDAY SERVICE, 28th July 2019