I work with the youth group at my church. With a rowdy group of kids from ten to eighteen, you get a lot of different personalities and habits. I love my students, and their individuality makes me love them even more. But recently I’ve noticed a trend within the culture of not just this youth group, but the church itself. And it has me worried.
One of the high school boys I work with likes to hug people. That’s not really the big problem though. The problem is he especially likes to hug and touch girls who tell him to stop. I am one of those girls. Almost all of my interactions with Mr. Hug involve him intentionally trying to touch me when I tell him not to do so. His understanding of consent is skewed at best. So I’m doing what I can to get him to understand that there isn’t a single situation in which touching someone when they say no is okay. Because I’m afraid that if I can’t impart this lesson in him soon, he’s going to rape someone and think nothing of it.
The problem isn’t just with one kid in youth group, though. The problem is that one of my fellow leaders does the same thing. He intentionally ignores and goes against the wishes of his friends, especially of the female persuasion, to enter into their personal space and touch them. While I know my fellow leader much better, and I am mostly confident that he would never rape someone, he’s not setting the right example for the students he claims to be leading.
And there are never any consequences for either of these people in my life. When I lecture the high school student, he laughs me off as oversensitive. My leader friend merely chuckles and tries harder to invade personal space. None of my fellow leaders or church authorities ever say anything to these people. Without consequences, my church is sending the message that these behaviors aren’t just normal, they are expected.
When Church culture says that it’s okay for guys to ignore the rules of consent in interaction, the Church is saying it doesn’t care what women have to say about their own boundaries and bodies. And when leaders model behaviors that enable young men to ignore consent, they teach (even sometimes unconsciously) that a woman’s wishes are secondary, especially at church. This sort of teaching is dangerous. It excuses inappropriate behavior in male students, and if left unchecked, could mean the difference between a “good Christian boy” respecting a girl’s desire to not have sex and rape. Until consent becomes an important lesson for both genders in all Christian communities, the Church is enabling potential abuse.