Hook-ups, football players and the question of morality

tcf-stadiumI got 13 pages into the University of Minnesota’s report on football players’ sexual assault of a young woman last September before I had to stop for a time. Reading the account of football players piling onto a young woman in a teammate’s bedroom was like witnessing a deer brought down by one wolf and other pack members rushing in to tear off a piece of flesh. The young men jostled for position, asserted rights to “my turn” and assaulted her two or three at a time while she clutched a blanket to cover her naked body. Even wolves wouldn’t Instant message videos inviting others to the scene.

The events of September 2 encompass enough themes to supply a TV series material for a full season. The young woman downed 4-5 shots of 100 proof vodka before going out with girlfriends at 12:30 a.m. looking for parties. The young men, a high school recruit and several first-year members of the Gophers, exchanged Instant messages bragging about hoes and bitches. They were so bonded that one player expressed more regret about trashing a teammate’s room than about the young woman they’d assaulted there.

Binge drinking, the demigod status of young athletes, the objectification and insecurity of young women – it’s all there.

Let’s be clear: The events of that night had nothing to do with consent, something to do with hook-up culture and a lot to do with a society that has so degraded sexual intercourse that a man who brags about grabbing women’s genitals is elected President.

To quote Michelle Obama, “This has shaken me to my core.”

Because the players were black and the young woman presumably white, some may want to view this episode through the ugly, old, racist lens that casts black men as sexual predators. Others will blame the sexual revolution that decoupled sex from marriage and the power of young women to control their fertility with contraceptives and abortion. I disagree.

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, when the sexual lives of women were bracketed by the Pill and Roe v. Wade. Getting pregnant in high school could still get you expelled, but there were no more shotgun weddings or forced adoptions. We were too young and lusty to be persuaded by the lines from 1 Corinthians: “The body is not for sexual immorality…Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.” But the question of morality was still part of how we decided whether to have sex.
“Is your relationship moral or immoral?” my mother challenged when I came back from one date with my blouse buttoned wrong.

“It depends how you define immorality,” I challenged back.

My norms were these: Good girls had sex, but we  didn’t go all the way outside a committed relationship.

What’s normative today is drastically different. A 2013 survey of research studies on hook-ups estimates that between 60 and 80 percent of U.S. college students have had some sort of brief, uncommitted sexual experience. Researchers cite two main reasons. First, the widening period between the onset of puberty and the time one settles down to create a family. Second, pervasive media messages that uncommitted sexual relationships are prevalent and a turn-on physically and emotionally.

The reality is more complex. Asked how they felt the morning after a hook-up, most of the young people surveyed were positive, although men far more than women: 82 percent to 57 percent in one study. But long-term reactions are more complex. In a Web-based survey of nearly 1,500 undergraduates, 27 percent reporting feeling embarrassed, 24.7 percent reported emotional difficulties, 20.8 percent experienced loss of respect, and 10 percent reported difficulties with a steady partner.

One-night stands are a particular source of regret. One researcher found that men had stronger feelings of being “sorry because they felt they used another person,” whereas women had stronger feelings of “regret because they felt used.” And women were more likely to hope that a one-night stand would be a prelude to a deeper relationship.

I was at that football game last September, when the Gophers won the first game of the season against Oregon State. Classes had begun a few days earlier, and the stadium held the bright promise of a new semester and a new season.

Long after my husband and I were home and fast asleep, that young woman and those young men were downing shots and heading in the warm fall night, looking for parties, people, pleasure. Their actions that night will cost them dearly. But they acted within a context that is equally disturbing and also to blame.

Show up, ask questions, listen

I joined a protest march on Saturday for the first time in more than a decade. It wasn’t particularly satisfying. My feet froze, and the potluck of battered signs (anti-war, pro-Gaza, Black Lives Matter) made our purpose unclear even to me. When I gently chided a younger protestor for spray-painting FDT (f… Donald Trump) on lamp posts in an already battered neighborhood, he turned on his heels, surely dismissing me as a fussy old white lady who cares more about property than shaking a fist at the system.

I wish he’d stayed to talk. In what Toni Morrison aptly calls these “days of dread,” when our president-elect mocks information and opinions that challenge his own bristling complacency, I crave open, searching conversations with people who see the world differently than I do. Not the bloviators and demagogues, mind you, but the people who have more to fear from his victory than I do and those who propelled his win with their fears of a changing America and their pain at feeling socially and economically left behind. For if we’re ever to overcome the terrible divide that produced this strange and bitter election, we’ve got to talk.

My model is “Strangers in Their Own Land,” Arlie Russell Hochschild’s deeply insightful book about Tea Party members in the small towns and bayous of southern Louisiana. Propelled by a paradox – that the very people who could benefit from effective government programs fervently oppose them – the noted Berkeley sociologist spent five years talking to people in their homes, churches and political gatherings, probing their “deep story.”

There are many parts to that story. Anger that urban elites mock their intelligence, religious faith and allegiance to traditional gender roles. Resentment that they’ve waited for decades for real wages to rise but believe that women, minorities and immigrants have bumped in line in front of them, in part because of affirmative action and immigration policies. Grief, especially over severe environmental damage to their beloved bayous caused by petrochemical companies. Resignation because they’ve been trained to believe that environmental destruction is the cost of having high-paying jobs in the oil industry.

Lest we urban elites deny our own bigotry, I quote a column about Trump voters (the “Sheeple”) that appeared recently in my neighborhood newspaper: “Now they can sit back in their La-Z-Boys and go full-on Wall-E and watch the stupidfest.”

My inspiration these days are people who foster conversations across our great divides. A friend works for a trucking company whose owner distributed Truckers for Trump caps around his office. My friend stopped him in the hall and suggested that perhaps this wasn’t the best idea. Why? the owner asked. After all, Trump is likely to favor deregulation and lower taxes. Yes, my friend answered. But many of the firm’s drivers are Muslim, and the hats might make them believe the company shares Mr. Trump’s extremist views. It could make it harder to retain Muslim drivers or to attract more. To his credit, the owner acknowledged that perhaps he’d been thinking too narrowly about what was good for business.

Talking across divides is slow, uncertain work, requiring equal measures of persistence, courage and gentleness. Not everyone has the stomach for it these days. As an African American friend told me: “I’m not interested in learning about people who aren’t interested in learning about me.”

There’s another march on my schedule – the Women’s March Minnesota on Jan. 21 in St. Paul.  As I search for ways to stand up against hatred, work for the values I hold dear and build bridges across the lies, prejudices and fears that produced this awful election, I can do this: Show up, ask questions and listen.


What life expects of us: Finding hope in a time of Trump

In these weeks since the election, as President-elect Trump names plutocrats to high office and makes reckless, unsubstantiated claims about millions of illegal votes, I struggle with a mild sort of despair. Perhaps that’s one reason I spent yesterday in bed with a head cold, blowing my nose and reading people who can help confront this age of division and manipulation with a measure of courage and clarity.

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist who spent more than three years laboring in Nazi concentration camps, was there beside the Kleenex and throat-coat tea. So was Arlie Russell Hochschild, the Berkeley sociologist who spent five years talking with Tea Party members from rural Louisiana to probe the “deep story” of anger and mourning that informs their fervent anti-government views.

Hochschild explores the deep divisions that produced this election. Frankl describes the effort and courage required to carry on when the world around you seems hopeless. Their work highlights the hard, patient work needed to understand the experience and views so different from mine, and the faith and determination required to live and work daily for my values.

First to Hochschild. In Strangers In Their Own Land, Anger and Mourning on the American Right, she probes what she calls The Great Paradox: that people struggling with economic decline and environmental devastation caused by petrochemical companies are drawn to politicians who want to slash environmental protection and further increase the political and economic power of multinational corporations.

Over countless cups of coffee and visits to homes, churches and political meetings, she found among the older, white residents of Cajun bayous and small towns a tremendous pride in family, religious faith, hard work and community. She found also confusion and grief that many of the things they most value – secure jobs that will support a family, strong communities, marriages that endure, clean water and stately trees of their beloved bayous – have disappeared during their lifetimes.

They find consolation in the healing touch and heavenward focus of their churches. They do not blame state officials who cut public education and health funding in order to subsidize multinational corporations. Neither do they blame the state for failing to hold petrochemical companies accountable for their environmental destruction. They accept that giving corporations unfettered freedom is necessary to produce good jobs, even when automation and outsourcing means that few jobs materialize.

Instead, fed by a steady diet of the alarmist spin of Fox News and talk radio, they blame the federal government, affirmative action, immigrants, Muslims and big-city liberals who dismiss them as ignorant rednecks.

The people in southern Louisiana feel grief, anger and confusion, as I do. The challenge is bridging our vast differences to find common cause. That’s the work of political parties. It’s also the work of individual writers, teachers, religious leaders, citizens to find the words, actions and means for fresh perspectives and common ground.

It seems grandiose to compare disappointment in an election to despair in a concentration camp. But there are lessons, especially the need to seize opportunities for “right action.”

Frankl says it best: “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

This means, in part, the acceptance of suffering and attentiveness to small actions we can take to sustain hope. For Frankl, it was a camp official who slipped him a crust of bread, the chance to bolster the hope of fellow prisoners, the power to imagine life after imprisonment

“The right example was more effective than words could ever be,” he writes.

Today along with thousands of others, I will mail a postcard to Mr. Trump, asking him to remove Steven Bannon from his future White House staff. The night before Thanksgiving, I helped gather pies so that Anglo and Latino members of my church could eat and talk and support one another after a bilingual Mass. In Boston, a friend hosts a fundraiser for the resource-strapped marching band at her local high school. In a thousand small ways, we attend to what life asks of us.

The morning after

I woke up today – like half of America – with a hangover from an election party I didn’t enjoy and a fear that the sick feeling could last a long time.

With a strong cup of coffee at my side, I read news reports and answered anguished Facebook posts, consoling especially my young friends of color. There were calls to action. One friend pledged to get off his complacent liberal duff. Another proposed a Million-Woman march on Washington.

Afterward I sent three messages:

  • To tell my brother, a Trump supporter, that I know he has a loving heart, not one filled with hate.
  • To assure a Latina friend who has lived and worked without papers in the U.S. for a dozen years that my heart is with her.
  • To remind 9th graders I mentor that high school isn’t just about algebra and biology. It’s also about learning how to be citizens and  doing our part to make this a fairer, more united country.

Then, I ordered a book by Arlie R. Hochschild, professor emerita of sociology at UC Berkeley. Hochschild has made a distinguished career of exploring with great care and compassion the people displaced and disoriented by our radically changing culture – workaholics, Filipina nannies, two-career families.

Hochschild’s latest book — Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right  — stems from five years she spent with Tea Party members in rural Louisiana. In the preface, she pays tribute to the Tea Party woman who first introduced her to the world of rural factories and profound mistrust of government. The woman’s trust and outreach that helped the Berkeley sociologist begin construction of what she calls an “empathy bridge”:

“We on both sides imagine that empathy with the other side brings an end to clearheaded analysis when in truth, it’s on the other side of that bridge that the most important analysis can begin.”

My Facebook feed is a symptom of what ails us: Among the dozens of posts I read this morning, there was no relief that the seething frustrations of white, blue-collar men have been heard at last, that for better or worse, the complacent, polarized paralysis of Washington has been upended. I move in a world of college grads, journalists, writers, not the world of less-educated whites, where life expectancies fell by four years between 1990 and 2008.

When I look at the sharp divisions in yesterday’s vote – by race, education, geography, gender, income –  I recognize how wide these gaps are and how difficult they will be to close. The divides also demonstrate how important it is to begin.


At the monastery there is always singing

Last week, I visited a friend – a Benedictine sister – at her monastery near St. Cloud. Some years ago, when we worked together on social justice issues, I savored her energy, lively sense of humor and commitment to hard, incremental work. I admired too her private critiques of priests who sought to rule their parishes and female colleagues with princely sovereignty.

Like me, she grew up Catholic during a tumultuous time, when many institutional doors were opened to change and subsequently closed halfway or slammed shut altogether. Unlike me, she committed her life to the service of that church.

My friend is in Rome this week, and I thought of her yesterday when I heard the disappointing, though expected, news: Pope Frances, richly compassionate and refreshingly open-minded on so many issues in society, told a Swedish reporter that the Catholic church will likely never ordain women as priests. His reason: 2,000 years ago in a traditional Jewish culture, Christ chose only men as apostles. Twenty years ago, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed that exclusion.

Aside from my general disappointment – haven’t the past 50 years demonstrated in field after field women’s capacity, gifts and calling to lead? – I feel a particular discontent on behalf of my friend and the other women who live as religious sisters in the U.S.

Over the past half-century, between 1965 and 2015, the number of American nuns fell from 180,000 to fewer than 49,000. The number of priests fell as well, but far less precipitously: from 59,000 to 38,000.

Religious sisters are a dying breed, without the new recruits essential for survival. According to researchers at Georgetown University, 91 percent of religious sisters in the U.S. in 2009 were 60 or older. Only one percent were younger than 40.

Much of this is due to vast number of opportunities that are open to women. Equally important: The daunting challenge in today’s ferociously secular world of vowing to live under the constraints of poverty, chastity and obedience.

But some of young women’s lack of interest in religious life is surely due to the stubborn constraints on how women are allowed to serve in the Catholic Church. Countless women, from Jesus’ mother Mary to Mother Teresa, are venerated by Catholics. But only men are allowed to administer sacraments as Christ’s representatives on earth.

For 12 years, through elementary school and high school, I was taught by nuns. Their exoticism fascinated me. I admired their intelligence, craved their approval, feared their ferocity.

The days of sisters providing cheap, abundant labor in Catholic schools and hospitals are long past. At convents and monasteries these days, nursing homes are growing. Leaders plan for the day the last sister turns off the lights for the last time.

Last week, as I joined my friend and a few dozen grey-haired sisters for noonday prayers and a simple meal, I recognized how much these women still have to teach me. How to live in hope in the face of aging and disappointment. How to live in community, with prayer, hospitality and work at the center. How to share old talents in new ways. How to listen for what else God has planned for us.  How to plan for our own extinction.

I was struck by the girlishness of the women’s voices as they sang, without the strain or cracks that often come with age. My friend had a simple explanation: The sisters gather for prayer four times a day. There is always singing.



Rankine and Robinson: A conversation on compassion and community

When they go low, we go high, Michelle Obama said at the Democratic National Convention. Wednesday night, as the presidential candidates reached new lows in their final debate, I went instead to hear two of the country’s most profoundly reflective writers — poet Claudia Rankine and novelist Marilynne Robinson — in quiet conversation before a packed house at the University of Minnesota.

Both are students of the intimate gesture that wounds or heals, divides or embraces, what Rankine calls “the small things we do to take care of strangers.” Yet at first glance, their work seems so dissimilar. Rankine, a black poet who won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2014 and MacArthur fellowship this year, limns the emotional toll that racial fears and isolation take on black Americans. Robinson, a white novelist, examines the fierce bonds, loving care and emotional distance within families and communities in white, small-town America.

Wednesday’s conversation – the University’s annual Esther Freier lecture  – allowed these two artists to explore how their work resonates. The theme that emerged was our shared longing for community and the possibility of creating a place where people care for each other regardless of differences.

Robinson challenged the notion that the darker forces of America’s history are inevitable. A student of history and religion, she recalled that Iowa had schools integrated by gender and race in the 1830s. “America has a history of being good to each other. Every good thing I know comes from watching other people.” These shining examples get lost in collective memory – and not by accident, she said, for there are always some who benefit from our divisions.

Rankine too spoke of possibility: “We all have the capacity to fail each other. We have to actively reroute the habits of our culture.”

There was none of the defensive, divisive language of so many conversations about race. Instead, we witnessed two writers working the way improvisational musicians might – listening closely and responding with sharp, refining intelligence.

So Rankine proposed: “If we could see people as human beings we could love them.”

And Robinson responded: “If we could love them societally, we don’t have to love them individually,” for it’s impossible to love every person we meet.

Asked questions about optimism and anger, they claimed neither, reaching for the subtler, more complex reactions that lie below the surface emotions. Rankine said: “I don’t think of myself as describing anger. I spend a lot of time being disappointed.”

Asked what they would tell black teenagers on the east side of St. Paul, Robinson offered not advice but sympathy and a challenge to the more privileged: “Start out with a strategy of general alleviation. Poverty means feeling insulted in the day-to-day condition of their lives. The one thing they have easy access to is awareness of more privileged lives. The exclusion must be terribly profound.”

I’m challenged to convey the salving tenor of that evening — how Rankine and Robinson listened intently, responded thoughtfully and paused at length to think and leave room for the other to speak first. Among writers these days, there is much talk about cultural appropriation — whether one has the right to write about identities and experiences that are not one’s own.  What Rankine and Robinson demonstrated Wednesday was the importance of working to understand another’s experience and to build community based on caring for one another. And so beautifully, the writer’s role in helping us accomplish that.





Hope in small doses

With the presidential campaign fallen to a form of mud wrestling, I’ve largely tuned it out. What a welcome surprise Tuesday night to hear some fresh perspective and a dose of hope from three young foreign journalists who spent the last nine weeks crisscrossing America talking to people in newsrooms, think tanks, political offices and on the street.

Yasmine Ryan from Tunisia, Aurelio Tomas from Argentia and Nino Bucci from Australia  have toured the U.S. thanks to the World Press Institute, a small St. Paul nonprofit that brings 10 foreign journalists each year to the United States to experience what it’s like to work as a reporter here. I was fortunate to moderate a discussion with them Tuesday night when the three spoke to the Committee on Foreign Relations Minnesota at the Minneapolis Women’s Club.

Fueled by caffeine, curiosity and adrenalin, WPI fellows Committee on Foreign Relations Minnesota studied for three weeks at the University of St. Thomas before taking off to visit nine cities across the country and two small towns – Tracy and Ely – in Minnesota. They dug deep into selected topics – presidential politics, police-community relations, nuclear security and the struggles of American journalism.

Their final U.S. trip was to St. Louis for last Sunday’s presidential food-fight. I expected them to describe is with head-shaking astonishment and despair.

But no. Tomas likened Trump’s appeal to the populism Juan Peron brought to common people in Argentina in the ’40s and ’50s who felt ignored and abused by a wealthy political elite.  Trump offers an answer that is bigoted and misplaced – attacking immigrants, Muslims and political insiders. Going forward, the answer is not to shame and demean Trump’s supporters, Tomas said, but to address their genuine problems — loss of jobs and status and a sense that they’ve been forgotten.

Yasmine Ryan talked with Bernie Sanders supporters and was struck by their commitment to work for change at the local level, where politics is less polarized and paralyzed than in Washington. Nino Bucci too sees the power of Americans can-do spirit, the way people recognize a problem and come together to find a solution.

They all remarked on the disproportionate role that money plays in American politics and culture. They turn on TV and are besieged by drug companies’ ads touting their wares. In St. Louis, the free buffets, beer and bags of swag for journalists, all underwritten by corporate sponsors, blew them away. Tomas was even more shocked to learn the price tag to attend Washington University for a year: $65,000 for tuition, fees, room and board. How can opportunity be equal when the cost of college is so high and the distribution of wealth so uneven?

In the appalling scrum of this election, it’s valuable to be reminded of our strengths and the ways money in politics, high college costs and income inequity have distorted our society. Thanks to Tomas, Bucci and Ryan for that, and safe journeys as they travel home.

Explaining horseradish to a 12-year-old

Certain plants have a way of getting away from the gardener who invited them. On Saturday, Christopher — the son of a friend — helped me do battle with woodruff, horseradish and snow on the mountain that have commandeered sections of our backyard garden, overwhelming less assertive plants aside with military determination.

As we tore off the yard-high leaves and hacked at the deep, hard roots of the horseradish plant, I tried to explain the plant to Christopher. It’s hot but not like chili peppers. The smell alone can make you cry. A pinch can flavor a whole bowl of  potatoes. Like wasabi? he asked. He’s not tasted wasabi but learned about it in a video game where the hero had to wear wasabi rather than eat it and found that it burned his skin. Christopher was both intrigued and repelled by the notion of a plant that causes pain.

Why do we grow the stuff? Every year, we grate a root or two and it sits in the refrigerator unused until spring. This year, I grated a root with vinegar and gave it to a friend who’s a great cook and brave enough to use it.  I learned that it’s been used in traditional medicine for colds, urinary infections and joint pain and might try a poultice or tea. And Thanksgiving’s mashed potatoes and gravy will have an extra kick this year.