I'm still thinking about touch and hugs, and though this will be my fourth post this week on the subject, I just can't seem to stop. This will be the last one. I think.
There is no question that statistically, men are far more likely to sexually abuse children and teens than women are. (I have no idea what percentage of sex offenders are women, but I imagine it is a relatively small figure). There is also no question that in our culture, the primary care-givers for children and teens are women. Our elementary school teachers are overwhelmingly female; increasingly, our high school teachers are as well. And though there are plenty of men in youth ministry, it does seem to me (anecdotally, again) that far more women than men are interested in working with teens, especially long-term. (Lots of young men start out in the church working with teens, but their real goal is usually a pastorate).
We know how desperately our boys and young men need strong male role models. But even as churches and other institutions looks to increase the number of men (especially in their 20s and 30s) in children's and youth ministry we create a climate of suspicion that looks upon every male youth worker as a potential predator. That's strong language, of course. But I cannot tell you how often I've been asked what my "real agenda" is for teaching women's studies and working with teenagers!
Surely, we are a culture that is profoundly frightened by what we believe are certain truths about male sexuality. Our films, our talks shows, our "real-life courtroom dramas" (Kobe Bryant), the Clinton-Lewinsky fiasco all reinforce the notion that, as so many of my teens of both sexes put it: "all men are dogs". The assumption that most men are, at some level, fundamentally predatory is increasingly widespread. In the absence of strong men of character to serve as role models, our young people have no option but to believe that, as another of my students put it: "all men are weak; women are the ones who hold the world together." Of course, it is personal experience as well as the media that reinforces this notion. When I ask my youngsters in youth group to share stories of betrayal at the hands of adults (a topic we approach with great care), the largest number of stories revolve around male weakness -- alcoholism, infidelity, addiction, molestation. Men, it seems, are guilty until proven innocent.
I have hit the point in my life and in my volunteer ministry where I am willing to prove myself innocent. I can rail against the "unfairness" of judging me by the poor behavior of other men, but in this culture, that's fruitless. As men, we do have to accept the fact that collectively, we have given good reason why it is that we ought not to be trusted -- above all in the sexual realm. We can bemoan the injustice of paying for the sins of others, or we can shoulder the burden that our brothers have created for us (and that perhaps, in our own lives, we have helped to create). What that means practically is that I am committed to meeting suspicion with patience, openness, and accountability. I'm no longer hurt when folks don't trust me just because I'm a man -- I accept now that they have every reason not to.
I want a world where women smile fearlessly at men on the street. Where my female students stroll alone into parking lots at night in confidence. Where I can relate on my blog that I hug and kiss my teenage charges without raising any anxiety in the minds of readers. But the reason we don't have that world is not because the world is unreasonable; it's because the world is very reasonably responding to the sad reality of bad male sexual behavior. I can sulk about it, but that won't help. What we men need to do is be willing to absorb scrutiny, answer questions, and hold ourselves and our brothers accountable. All the while, when it comes to relating to women and children, we have to balance good judgment with the Christian imperative to love boldly and recklessly. Despite the anxiety generated by the Kobes and the Clintons and the Catholic abuse scandal, we men have to be willing to with young people. Indeed, the Kobes and the Clintons make that work all the more imperative.
So, ask me your questions. Put me through your background checks. Confront me if I step across a line. You see, I'm going to hug, kiss, listen to, nourish, nurture, joke with, challenge, respect, and love on your kids with everything I've got. All things considered, you have the right to doubt why a grown man would want to do all that. But be open to the possibility that I -- and so many men like me -- are not what you fear we are. Be open to the very real possibility that on Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons and countless other times, we could be as Christ to your child. Hubris? Maybe. But with every fibre of my being, I believe that being Christ to kids is what youth ministry should always be about.
This disorganized rant is done. Want to read a splendid and well-organized piece? Check out Andi's long post on Buddhism and abortion. It's terrific.
Oh, and I'm considering leaving Pasadena Mennonite Church. More on the reasons why soon.