Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Marti Kheel: A Remembrance, Looking Forward

On April 1, 2012, Lori Gruen and I participated in a Memorial Service that celebrated the life of Marti Kheel, who died on November 19, 2011. This November 9-10, Wesleyan University is hosting a conference “Finding a Niche for All Animals: A Conference Honoring the Ecofeminist Work of Marti Kheel.” 

As we look forward to the gathering of many wonderful panelists addressing a variety of ecofeminist theoretical and activist issues, we also look back, remembering the gift of Marti’s life.

Here are the words we spoke on April 1:

Carol: Marti was someone who loved to be in dialogue, to discuss, to argue, to work out ideas, to learn what others had to say, so we decided we would present some of what we learned from Marti in a dialogical form. We know that we aren’t the only ones here, who learned in this way from Marti, and we know that we are a part of a larger community, with many of her activist and scholarly friends here today. We are grateful to be here honoring Marti’s ideas. I am Carol Adams and I knew Marti since 1989.

Lori: I’m Lori Gruen, I first met Marti in the mid-1980s and her ideas have deeply informed my philosophical thinking about women, animals and nature ever since.  Marti wrote: “A holist ecofeminist philosophy … is a ‘way of life,’ or a mode of consciousness that invites us to be ‘responsible,’… in the literal sense of developing the ability to respond.”

C: Marti said, “Ecofeminist philosophy never transcends or denies our capacity for sympathy and care, our most important human connection with the natural world.”

L: With her writings, since the 1980s, Marti made an important intervention into philosophy. She wrote to communicate and to try change the world; her words were gifts she left to us as she knew she wouldn’t be around forever.

C: She was meticulous with her writings, bringing a care to her each and every word. She believed words matter.  And with them, she created challenging and inspiring ideas.

L: One of the most important ideas Marti gave us is how to recognize and reconstitute truncated narratives.  In some ways I think she wouldn’t like this dialogue, as it is necessarily a truncated narrative (and also because Marti liked to argue and often she disagreed with us, but always to push us to better places).

C: And in some ways, Marti might have laughed with us as she watches us follow her example and work so hard to say so little. Lori—truncated narratives. That’s a very complicated idea.

L: Marti thought that many questions about what we owe to others aren’t properly framed. We tend to look forward in a somewhat linear direction and we often don’t look backward or sideways or way up ahead.  In her words “Wrenching an ethical problem out of its embedded context severs the problem from its roots.”  Marti was interested in getting to the roots of problems.

Say you see a homeless woman and her dog on the street and you wonder what you should do, you may ask yourself, “what do I owe her, how do I respond or what is my responsibility here?”  Maybe you decide to put $10 in her basket and carry on.

What Marti would have us do is first to ask, is there a homeless shelter for her and her friend, but also ask the larger, broader questions.

Why is this woman and her canine companion homeless and on the street? Is she here because the woman’s shelter doesn’t accept dogs and she can’t just leave her companion behind? What are the social and cultural forces that created this situation and can my $10 really do any good or does it just make me feel like I’m doing something heroic?

The truncated narrative also sets it up so that you don’t see that the person who comes to the rescue might also have been part of the cause of the problem.

C: Marti believed there was a way to discovering how these problems emerge, and if we can discover that, can’t we prevent these problems from emerging in the first place?

Marti’s insight was that we need to look at ethical problems from a variety of perspectives and in context and not frame them in a limited way that keeps them private and individualized which is part of a masculine conception of agency and responsibility.  As she said “The patriarchal mind has managed to look, but not see, act but not feel, think but not know. “

L: Constructing bigger stories and avoiding truncated narratives involves listening to voices that have been silenced and imagining the voices of the voiceless, Marti believed we could hear nature. She wrote, “Nature is telling us in myriad ways that we cannot continue to poison her rivers, forests, and streams, that she is not invulnerable, and that the violence and abuse must be stopped. Nature is speaking to us. The question is whether we are willing or able to hear.” She thought only when we begin to hear and see more clearly can we begin to adequately respond.

C: We both know we’re being theoretical here, but these are important insights and one of Marti’s gifts to the world was the willingness to think so carefully and thoroughly in order to engage in a kind of preventative intervention. Marti wrote, “If ecofeminists are sincere in their desire to live in a world of peace and nonviolence for all living beings, we must help each other through the painstaking process of piecing together the fragmented world view that we have inherited. But the pieces cannot simply be patched together. What is needed is a reweaving of all the old stories and narratives into a multifaceted tapestry.”

Once you step away from a truncated narrative and see it in its full context, then you see how everything is woven together and it becomes not just understandable but inevitable that she would helped to form feminists for animal rights. Anyone who worked with her in feminists for animals rights was touched by her.

Many of us were lucky to become good friends.

We probably don’t even know all the people who Marti be-friended around the world.

Lori: Marti enabled friendships. She brought people together

She also opened the possibility of understanding our relationships with other animals as friendships, animals are also family – she framed these as loving relationships, not relationships of use.

In an important correlative way, Marti said that when we destroy other animals and parts of nature, we are destroying parts of ourselves and that’s why prevention is so important. She thought we shouldn’t just fix what’s been damaged, or restrain the impulses to destroy the natural world and the more than human beings that live in it, but we must also work to try to prevent the impulses.

C: You try to prevent it, and Marti made several concrete suggestions for what this involved, to begin with, veganism. Veganism is an important way of befriending animals, but Marti’s understanding of veganism goes beyond that to think not just of the animals who are used to become food, but all of the animals that are effected in food production.

L: Humans and other animals live together in nature, but nature isn’t something that is just out there. It is something that individuals live in, but it also lives in us.

C: Marti wrote: “A holist ecofeminist philosophy … is a ‘way of life,’ or a mode of consciousness that invites us to be ‘responsible,’… in the literal sense of developing the ability to respond.”

L: This way of life is what Marti worked at living and expressed not just in her writing but in her friendships, because to Marti you couldn’t break apart how you lived, who you loved and cared about, and what you felt and believed. These were always integrated for her.

C: As we live in this world after,

L: but with Marti, let us try to act

C: and feel, think

L: and know. And Marti invites us to care.

C: And she invites us to care.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Fraternity Culture, Misogyny, and Pig Roast = Sexual Politics of Meat

Here's one of the more recent examples of the sexual politics of meat.

This was produced for an Amherst College fraternity last spring. For the story from an Amherst feminist perspective see here: http://acvoice.com/2012/10/08/amherst-college-roasting-fat-ones-since-1847/

Fraternities gravitate to pig roasts as they inscribe masculinity through the consumption of a dead animal.  As feminist bloggers note this t-shirt is misogynist, celebrating violence against women.

But it is not only that. That this t-shirt exists in 2012 and that its roots in the sexual politics of meat go unremarked reveals how truly nested in our culture is the connection between masculinity, male bonding, and meat eating.

So here's Sexual Politics of Meat 101

1) Meat is a vehicle for women's disempowerment.  The presence of meat symbolizes the empowerment of men and the disempowerment of women. Dead animals are one of the primary means for male bonding, especially in American culture.

2) The interchangeability of dead bodies/live bodies/objectified bodes/consumable bodies shows the presence of the structure of the absent referent. The absent referent is that which disappears as having meaning to him or herself and becomes representative or metaphor for something else. The dead pig being roasted is clearly the referent, the treatment of a woman is layered over the knowledge of what actually happens to dead pigs. The woman is substituted for the dead pig, and with that, another aspect of the sexual politics of meat is inscribed.

3) The interesting aspect of this t-shirt is showing the male pig as participant in the roasting of a woman; this too is functioning of the absent referent; he has become the representation of the power of the visual, the look that the t-shirt is inscribing, the look of the fraternity members, who themselves know they are insulated from actually ever being roasted because they are human. So, in reversals that reveal: the white pig stands for the human, and the white woman stands for the consumable animal. The t-shirt proclaims human superiority as male-identified and the consumable non-human animal as woman-identified.

In the transformation of the explicit woman-hating of this t-shirt we find this, an adult bacon costume, as it is labelled. Having women celebrate this consumability becomes popular culture's way of hiding the misogyny within sexuality and fun. Lady Gaga didn't start this trend, but certainly lifted it to a new height. Now Halloween prepararations deliver it back to us.

Here is a recent example from Germany:

Popular culture keeps the sexual politics of meat in representation alive because the sexual politics of meat in practice still flourishes. The roll-back in terms of women's rights, the fact that women's issues weren't raised at all during the first Presidential debate--these exist in and are nurtured by a culture of the sexual politics of meat, in which men represent human, and women, well, we aren't there yet, because animals are feminized and women are animalized. That's the sexual politics of meat.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Dairy is a Feminist Issue

Kudos to pattrice jones for single-handedly getting the concept that dairy is a feminist issue into the pages of the New York Times Book Review.

She wrote:

"Andrew Delbanco classifies as 'cant' the statement that 'dairy is a feminist issue. Milk comes from a grieving mother.' I wonder which of these facts about dairy production he disputes: (1) mammals produce milk only after giving birth; (2) female cows produce milk only if they have recently calved; (3) people cannot take the milk if the calf drinks it; (4) dairy farmers therefore remove calves from their mothers within days of birth; (5) both mother and child resist and protest this separation; (6) mothers often bellow and moan for days thereafter; (7) mothers sometimes go to extreme lengths to locate and re-unite with their calves; (8) dairy farmers utilize restraints to prevent them from doing so.

"Dairy is the product of the exploitation for profit of the reproductive capacities of female bodies. To consider this a feminist issue is a defensible political position. Cows share with us the basic brain architecture responsible for emotion. The idea that mother cows do not grieve when their children are removed from them, and are not grieving still as machines suck the milk from their bodies--that is cant."

When I read the review, I noticed that the words labelled "cant" are directly from the Sexual Politics of Meat Slide Show. I show this powerful image from Peaceful Prairie.

Recently, a young woman came up to me after I showed The Sexual Politics of Meat Slide Show.  She told me that her baby had died at birth and how awful it felt to have full breasts and milk for her baby, but not a baby to feed. When people want to know why she is vegan, she feels it is such a personal decision, informed by tragedy, it is hard to speak of it. But she knows herself how milk comes from a grieving mother.

Sometimes, in the midst of a busy day, when we are already involved in acts of justice and compassion, adding to the list of tasks the writing of a letter may seem expendable task. pattrice told me that one day she was eating a tomato salad and reading the Book Review when she came upon the disparaging sentence. And she knew she had to write a letter to the editor in response.
Letters to the editors are one way to get our minority opinion before a large readership.

Her letter was published on September 16, 2012 with another great letter responding to "'The Victims' Revolution.'"  Link to it and help keep its ideas before people!

So again, kudos, pattrice!

pattrice blogs at http://blog.bravebirds.org

They are on facebook too: http://www.facebook.com/VINEsanctuary

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

50 Shades of the Absent Referent

It is said that anything successful eventually has its own parody.

Parodies often point us toward truths while making fun of something; in finding a "hook" to something in popular culture, it may also open up a way of seeing through what has made it popular.

How else to explain the awful parody, "50 Shades of Chicken"? Filled with double-entendres that reference bondage, it boomerangs off of the "50 Shades of Grey" bestseller while exposing a fascinating truth.

First, the language of the parody:" If Fifty Shades of Grey left you hungry and lusting for more (more, more!), then sink your teeth into this naughty tale of a young, free-range, and very fresh chicken who, like Anastasia Steele, finds herself at the mercy of a dominating man; in this case, a kinky and very ravenous chef."

Dead chicken = Anastasia Steele

Chef who binds and trusses and cooks dead chicken = Anastasia Steele's lover.

And voila, we have yet another sizzling example of the Sexual Politics of Meat.

The cook is not just a man but a human, the consumed is not just described as female, but is an animal. Thus the parody reminds us of how the man-woman dualism intersects with the human-animal dualism and a dominant-subordinate dualism. 

And Huffington Post finds this "hilarious"?

I have not, nor do I want to, read "Fifty Shades of Grey." It has been suggested that the book shows what women really want, which is to be dominated.

But the parody suggests a more profound truth: what is happening when the language of bondage is leveraged and applied to dead animals? In meat eating, the animal who is consumed becomes an absent referent, whose will, life, and body disappear through the process of consumption. There is no actual chicken desiring to be dominated, bound, trussed, man-handled. It is all part of a fantasy --the idea that chickens's lives are fulfilled through consumption.

50 Shades of Chicken is like Sesame Street's Chicken song.

Here, the absent referent is given a voice to celebrate her consumption.

And maybe that is what the parody reveals about 50 Shades of Grey: In a culture waging a war on women, with policies and politics that are trying to turn back the rights of women to make decisions about our own bodies, what better way to reinforce regressive politics than through sexual fantasies in which the absent referent of "woman" is given a voice to celebrate her consumption, er.  domination?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Life After the Sexual Politics of Meat 1

I have been hearing from many people recently about their experience reading The Sexual Politics of Meat and other books of mine.

From Texas, a young woman wrote: "I'm re-reading The Sexual Politics of Meat for a class and every time I read it I am reminded of how inspiring you are and how important my choices are. You are the reason I have been able to stay strong and be vegetarian for over a year. Thank You!!

Via email, I learned about "Prey and Predator Day": "Thought you might find this interesting, if you haven't see it already. I just got finished reading your book."

The link was to information about a high school that was going to have "Prey and Predator Day" for homecoming. As we learn here,
"The news release stated that the event will have 'guys dress in their camouflage and other hunting apparel while girls will show off their animal print.'" On Friday, after some protests, the day was changed simply to "Camo Day."

While Jezebel rightly criticized it, they failed to point out how this reifies The Sexual Politics of Meat. Not just that the high school young men are the hunters and the high school young women are the hunted; but that the men therefore represent both the hunters and humankind, and the young women, the other animals.

This reminds me of my argument in Neither Man nor Beast that gender is imposed on species and species distinctions are imposed on gender. So, for instance, rodeos that feature a competition that involves putting lace underpants on a calf, and a high school that features girls dressing up as hunted animals.

Tomorrow, the National Museum of Women in the Arts opens the traveling exhibit of "Women Who Rock" which will include Lady Gaga's "Meat Dress" (aka dead animal flesh dress). This is just one in a long tradition of women wearing dead flesh. At least one reader of The Sexual Politics of Meat was rightly concerned, and points out: "Nothing is a better example of why we live in a world of oppression, violence and unfairness that this 'dress.' Far from taking a stand against these things, Lady Gaga is further cementing in our collective consciousness that the end justifies the means, violence is o.k."

Also in my inbox was a beautiful letter from a young academic who was reading both The Inner Art of Vegetarnianism  and Living Among Meat Eaters. She wrote, "I am so grateful for the compassion I am learning from you and putting into practice because of your beautiful and tangible example. As you mention in your book, Living Among Meat Eaters, it took you many years to become the person who could write that book - I similarly feel that you have helped me embark on a journey of new understanding and embodiment of feminism that is helping me become the feminist person I claim and hope to be. I am learning to create the space within myself that is opens me to be reborn anew and allows me to extend that life to the world. And yes, I am in the process of living into the fullness of vegetarianism and you are my inspiration. Thank you."

Monday, September 10, 2012


I have been the target of a misinformation campaign.  Since around 2009, whenever it is announced that I am invited to speak somewhere, a few people will write to the organizers to say that I should be disinvited because I am accused of being transphobic.

Though nothing substantive or new has been generated that presents transphobic views on my part, blogs and posts have proliferated that insist this is so. Like a fun house mirror, each claim mirrors in a distorted way something that has preceded it.

Over twelve years ago, in 2000, I spoke at the World Vegetarian Congress in Toronto. While showing The Sexual Politics of Meat Slide Show I was challenged to be more sex-positive and accused of misunderstanding the condition of prostitutes.

Afterward, I met my challenger, Mirha-Soleil Ross, a well-known local trans activist and performance artist, and we discussed our differences. Two years later, in an interview, Mirha-Soleil Ross called me transphobic.  She did not supply any evidence to sustain that charge. Her interviewer did not challenge her or even ask her to explain. Mirha-Soleil Ross’s main concern was that feminists like me were comparing women who earned their living as prostitutes with animals.

We did not make the comparison; patriarchal culture did. Feminists like me wanted to explore, theoretically, why such comparisons exist, because we had been involved, on an activist level, with trying to end violence that we saw as arising from destructive attitudes that objectified and fragmented beings. The question I pursue is: Why do meat producers and advertisers gravitate to metaphors of prostitution and draw on pornographic images to promote dead animals’ bodies? Why are images of consumption conflated, associating dead animals and sexualized women? In analyzing this phenomenon, feminists like myself are not the ones who associated these two things; we are the ones who have been trying to expose and discuss and challenge this association. We had been working with children who were sexually abused, “groomed” for prostitution, who had been sexually trafficked, with battered women, and rape victims (men and women). I saw the consumption model as very dangerous to the lives of a multitude of beings.

Later, in 2005, Mirha-Soleil Ross accused me of outing her at the Toronto conference five years earlier. Among the things she complained about was that I only signed a birthday card to her with my name.   Her talk concentrated on why she disagreed with me about my analysis of sexual politics. She provides a very specific analysis of the Sexual Politics of Meat Slide Show that I believe involves some misreading of the slide show and of myself. In 2011, I responded and indicated that I remember the conversations we had differently

Later still, based on Mirha-Soleil Ross’s 2005 summary of the 2000 interaction between us, another trans activist decided that I was one of the best examples of vegan-feminist transphobia and needed to be called out on it. There is nothing in my writings to support this claim because the claim is false. The only “evidence” is the report from Mirha-Soleil Ross.

There are some very complicated issues being pushed into one. There is my perspective on sex work and prostitution, and the way animals who are eaten are depicted in sexualized ways, and the way women who are seen as consumable in a patriarchal culture are “animalized.” At least one trans activist and sex worker disagrees with this position. But that does not make me transphobic.

Sadly, in 2007, Mark Karbusicky, Ross’s long-time partner, to whom she refers in her 2005 talk, committed suicide.  Since that time, from what I understand, she has been devoted to grief work and support. The proliferation of interest in this 2000 interaction and the 2005 report has all occurred subsequent to this change in Ross’s situation. I am very sorry for her loss and fully sympathize with her retreat from the conversation.

In 2011, I reflected on this issue of transphobia and these accusations within the larger context of thinking about how anthropormorphism works.

Immediately, a new charge was added: That I had made a comment in 2003 that all transsexuals should not exist. Take a deep breath and think about this: if a report of an outrageous comment made in 2003 only surfaces in 2011, is this a trustworthy report? No. How could something this outrageous, supposedly announced in a public venue with many witnesses, not surface and be denounced at the time it ostensibly occurred? To me, this new charge was a sign of desperation that did not deserve a reply given my forty years of non-violent activism.

With so little in the written record to support this libel against me, the other step was to create guilt by association: I studied with Mary Daly in the 1970s so I must be transphobic. Yet, I criticize Mary Daly in The Sexual Politics of Meat and don’t agree with everything she believed.  Feminists can and do disagree without being disrespectful of each other. It is true that my critics and I disagree in our analysis of sexual inequality, sexual politics, and gender construction. This disagreement does not mean I am intolerant, unsupportive, or transphobic.

Transphobia is a violent, hateful horrible system; it often ends in the injury, imprisonment, and death of trans gendered people. I believe the accusations against me are not just wrong, but misguided; they prompt a misfocusing of energy and attention. Friends, there is a hateful world out there—campaigns against women’s basic rights (however one defines woman), anti-gay politics, ignorance of intersectionality that reinscribes intersectional oppressions. Just look at the Republican Presidential ticket: Paul Ryan is transphobic. His policies are indeed dangerous.

I sense that younger feminists have been encouraged toward a view that dismisses second wave feminism. This creates on the one hand an ahistorical understanding of feminism while also allowing a certain response. It seems as though what is being said is “that Carol Adams, second wave radical feminist with her ‘old’ ideas--we need to teach her a lesson.” Yet, second wave radical feminism is the source for intersectional analysis. It is important to understand why that is.

Instead, a campaign of intimidation, harassment, and libelous charges occurs. It seems the main purpose is to keep me from speaking on college campuses or get me disinvited if I am speaking. Their goal is to silence me.

Libel was always around, but it's become easier for false information to be spread through blogs and responses to blogs, such that it trickles down and then gets re-posted on other forums like Reddit and facebook, and eventually makes it to larger blogs and plays a role in decisions made on college campuses and beyond. In activism and in life, by having the courage to ask direct questions rather than relying on potentially false Internet claims, we're more likely to arrive at the truth of any matter. By wanting to keep me off campus, the possibility of opened space for multiple views and politics to be expressed is closed off. Yet, dialogue is so important. If one is a theorist and activist one is constantly in dialogue. Feminism is an evolving discourse, which allows a multiplicity of views to be captured under the rubric of a concept. We have to learn to discuss these issues with each other and disagree with each other in ways that are constructive. Intersectionality means that there are multiple participants in any discussion about oppression.

Who benefits from this attempt to silence me and to intimidate people who work with me? Why is there an incapacity to trust readers or listeners to evaluate what they read and hear? By silencing the discussions before they happen, everyone involved is done a disservice.

There is some phobia going on.  I see a fear of trusting individuals to make their own decisions. I see a fear of making the discussions about our theoretical differences regarding sexual inequality and interconnected oppressions.

Because The Sexual Politics of Meat made me famous (or infamous) and is experienced as transformative by many, I became iconic. Icons make good targets.

Veganism is about compassion. There is nothing compassionate in repeating innuendo and supposition and guilt by association. Let’s find a more constructive way to have this discussion. Let’s listen to each other. Let’s remember that we are all also in very different stages in our education; that is how consciousness-raising works. I envision a vegan practice that is patient with each other as we discuss difficult issues, that looks for common ground and understanding.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Plant Yourself Here: Vegan Road Trip 2

Recently, a car trip from Baltimore to Dallas included a detour down into North Carolina so that I could go to the year-old vegan restaurant, "Plant," in Asheville. I had looked at the menu and could hardly wait to try some of the wonderful meals.

One of the enormous rewards of being the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat is the opportunity I have had to meet people who have read my book. One of these people is Laura Wright, a vegan postcolonial ecofeminist working on a book project on popular cultural representations of veganism who blogs at http://veganbodyproject.blogspot.com/

We arranged to have dinner at Plant, and incredibly, Jason, the chef was able to join us, too. Like an author, a chef creates something new and sends it out into the world. Sometimes authors hear from their readers, but from what I could see at Plant, this chef is hearing from lots of people! They are responding to their meals at Plant by coming back for more.

While I had poured over the menu, when the moment of decision arrived, it was hard to choose. When in doubt, don't choose. Thus for appetizers we had

FLAME & HERB SEITAN SKEWERS with sour cream, fried banana & sea salt, and greens:

SMOKED HUMMUS with roasted garlic bulb, cucumber salad, pickled peppadew, and grilled house bread:

CHEESE PLATE--chef's age cut [made with cashews!], rosemary amber & fruit, mixed olives, black garlic oil & vinegar, house bread:

The RED CURRY TOFU (with jasmine rice & kaffir lime cakes, teriyaki broccoli & Thai basil, galangal-peanut curry, and argula). This curry could be enhaled it was so fragantly delicious:

PEPPERCORN CRUSTED SEITAN with truffled zucchini puree, grilled eggplant, tomato & wine sauce, shitake bacon:

WILD FOREST with lobster and morel mushrooms (which I believe were breaded and fried), smoked-jalapeno mashed Yukon potatoes, herbed baby vegetables, ciabatta, micros:

It was so hard to decide what desserts to get.
I had blackout pie with a cocoa cookie crust, dark chocolate-peanut butter mousse, banana-macadamia ice cream and berry agave:

My companion ordered three scoops of ice cream: mint chocolate, mocha, and, gosh I don't remember. They were all luscious:

The next day, leftovers made the sixteen hour trip (including stops for the two dogs who traveled with us) back to Dallas very bearable. I wish I could have taken some of the ice cream along!

What a vegan chef like Jason accomplishes is to provide us all with new experiences. I knew that vegan food would never get boring; but I never imagined vegan food was going to be as stupendous, inventive, creative, and delicious as what I ate at Plant, or last spring, at Vedge. Cutting-edge, vegan cuisine just around the corner, or well, sixteen hours away.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Policy That Insures Failure

Fifteen years ago, I was asked to be an expert witness on behalf of a plaintiff in a case involving child sexual abuse in a Jehovah's Witnesses church. I was asked to examine their policies and comment on whether they were appropriate in situations in which a child was being sexually abused. I concluded, "an abuser who knows that his history will not follow him, that church policies actually protect him, that a congregation that is male-dominated may feel less empathy for victims, and that the Jehovah’s Witnesses disaffection from state laws works in his favor, could not find a more promising environment in which to discover and groom victims than the Jehovah’s Witnesses." I argued that their's was a policy that insured failure. Recently, the largest award to a single individual in cases involving child sexual abuse was handed down against The Watchtower. I received an email from someone who had  been following that case. That person wrote, "Your (with respect) 'prophecy" is fulfilled."  Because it is difficult to get the article, I have received permission from the editor of the Journal of the Religion and Abuse  to reproduce the article here.

The Response of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to Child Sexual Abuse

Journal of Religion and Abuse, vol 7 (4) 2005: pp. 41-54.

Abstract: Based on my experience preparing to be an expert witness in a case involving child sexual abuse in a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation, I offer reflections on the problems inherent to policies that require witnesses to abuse, and draw upon material published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to indicate why such policies would be misguided.

          In 1998, I was asked to be an expert witness on behalf of a plaintiff in a case involving child sexual abuse in a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ congregation. She was suing them for their failure to stop the abusive behavior of the perpetrator. The case was settled out of court, but before that occurred, I researched the history and policies of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in preparation for testifying. My main concern was whether the policies and practice of the Jehovah’s Witnesses tacitly protected abusers.

         This concern arose from the centrality of one specific scriptural passage to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The passage was Matthew 18:15: “Moreover, if your brother commits a sin, go lay bare his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” Matthew 18:16 goes on to say “But if he does not listen, take along with you one or two more, in order that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every matter may be established.”[i]

A passage from Deuteronomy (19:15) was also important: “No single witness should rise up against a man respecting any error or any sin, in the case of any sin that he may commit. At the mouth of two witnesses or at the mouth of three witnesses the matter should stand good.”
         If the incidents of abuse within mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations revealed the institutional roadblocks to responding to abusers, the roadblocks to holding abusers accountable in a congregation that drew its guidance for behavior from these Biblical passages would be even greater. How would a child sexual abuse victim prevail if a congregation followed these Biblical passages and created policies that required as a first step a confrontation of the wrongdoer by the victim, and also required witnesses to the wrongdoing? In practice, would not this policy result in protecting the abuser in cases involving unwitnessed incidents?
Since that time, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been in the news regarding their child sexual abuse policies. In 2002, the New York Times published an article on child sexual abuse in Jehovah’s Witnesses, reporting that most of the victims are girls and young women. Incest is often the accusation.[ii] William Bowen, a Jehovah’s Witness who was disfellowshiped for his activism on behalf of child sexual abuse  victims, says that his support group “silent lambs” has “collected reports from more than 5,000 Witnesses contending that the church mishandled child sexual abuse.”[iii] Recently, the Michael Jackson trial brought the Jehovah’s  Witnesses back into the headlines, because of the question of whether Jackson remained a member in good standing. The question is raised because of their policy on disfellowshiping: if Jackson had been disfellowshiped (presumably for engaging in activities that the Jehovah’s Witnesses found objectionable) other Jehovah’s Witnesses, including members of his family, could not receive him. Since he was received both by members of his family and Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders, he was therefore not disfellowshiped, and the conclusion was that the leadership structure of Jehovah’s Witnesses had not found his actions objectionable. In 2005, a Massachusetts judge ruled that a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ church in Boston could be sued by a girl who reported being sexual abused by one of the church’s ministerial servants. Finally, a website has been created to provide support to victims of child sexual abuse in Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations (www.silentlambs.org).
         After a brief review of their history and procedures, I will offer a reflection on Jehovah’s Witness policy in the face of what we know about child sexual abuse victims, and their abusers. In critiquing their policies, it will draw in part, upon publications of the Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves. 


 Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, a Jehovah’s Witness from the age of 9 until the age of 21 provides a cogent description of this group:
Jehovah’s Witnesses are believers in a fundamentalist, apocalyptic, prophetic religion which has been proclaiming, since the 1930s, that “Millions Now Living Will Never Die.” The world will end, they say, with the destruction of the wicked at Armageddon, in our lifetime. Only the chosen will survive. They intensify their preaching efforts in order to increase the number of survivors…. The Witnesses are a widely varied group of individuals who subject themselves to total conformity in practice, outlook, and belief.[iv]
One could say that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were not so much  “founded,” rather they evolved as an institution, moving through three stages that laid the ground for their current practice and beliefs.
         The first stage began shortly after the Civil War, as a Bible fellowship under Charles Taze Russell who died in 1916. At first called, “Russellites,” they incorporated as “Zion’s Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society,” in the 1880s. When Russell died, a power struggle occurred. Joseph Franklin Rutherford prevailed. He introduced the name “Jehovah’s  Witnesses” in 1931.
         These first two stages were personality-driven, indebted to one dominant individual for its approach and direction. But upon the death of Rutherford, a Board, a directorate, took over, eliminating power struggles and the extreme cult of personality notable in the first two stages.
         Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the doctrine of the Trinity and do not view Jesus as equal to God, but instead “as an incarnation of the Archangel Michael, a created being.”[v]
         Jehovah’s Witnesses have a serious disregard for the structures of government. Its approach is one of suspicion of the world outside of its own members:
The message, elaborated successively by Pastor Russell, Judge Rutherford, and the directorate headed by Nathan Knorr, was calculated to appeal to the multiple resentments of those who are euphemistically described as the “culturally deprived.” The central contention was that Satan’s power is wielded through “the religious, commercial, and political combine” which is united in oppressing the righteous. These three elements in society are so intimately linked that each does the bidding of the others. All churches and religious organizations are “tools of Satan” and are utilized by the clergy as a means of securing cash income. The clergy both support and are supported by the proud and arrogant commercial class which dominates, subjugates, and exploits the poor. The wealthy in turn are protected by the governments of the world, all of which are equally wicked since they are ruled by Satan. The righteous, however, are not without hope, for the evils of the world are soon to be rectified at the battle of Armageddon when the forces of Jehovah’s led by Jesus will defeat the hosts of Satan; and Jesus, with the living Witnesses and the resurrected righteous among the dead, will reign for one thousand years.[vi]
The belief that Satan’s power was directing those in power led to many acts of refusal that gained the Jehovah’s  Witnesses notoriety: They refused to salute the flag and they refused to register for the draft. They oppose blood transfusions, organ transplants, and skin grafts. In a famous freedom of religion case decided in 1943, the Supreme Court upheld their refusal “to perform patriotic rites.”
         Compounding, therefore, the views deriving from Matthew 18:15 and Deuteronomy 19:15, this distrust of the state can mean that any cases of child sexual abuse that do surface, may be dealt with only through internal measures. Given their general distrust and disaffection from the state, how could they welcome adjudication of child sexual abuse cases from the state? Maintaining a policy that keeps such cases only an internal matter, would deprive victims of advocates and counselors trained in the issue, if those advocates and counselors were not Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves. It would also mean that abusers are not held legally accountable.
         Dr. Carl A. Raschke told the New York Times, “Groups that tend to be very tight-knit and in-grown historically have a higher incidence of sexual abuse and incest.” He continued, “That’s an ethnological fact. When a religion tries to be thoroughly holy or godly, it’s not going to acknowledge that people aren’t living up to the ideas of the faith.”

Organization and Policies

The Jehovah’s Witnesses have approximately one million members in the United States and about 5.5 million throughout the world.[vii] They are organized into congregations, and it is usually the individual congregation itself that adjudicates matter that arise within it. Several policies that they follow insure failure to protect victims, each policy boomeranging into the next and allowing abusers to hide within individual congregation, and even if discovered, able to move and begin again without information about their abusive behavior following them.

Keep It Internal

         Jehovah’s Witnesses must obey the law except when the law runs contrary to God and is therefore evil. Their belief is that problems should be worked out within the context of the local congregation. For instance, with child sexual abuse, the law requires reporting, but the Bible appears to say, “work it out.” All things should be resolved within the community, in house, not by others. Members of the community owe fidelity to the church, not to the state.
The organization of each individual congregation is overseen by a group of “ruling elders” – all men. If one challenges the congregation, and takes issues that arise within the congregation outside of the congregation, one risks being “disfellowshiped” which results in total shunning by other congregants.
But, one need not be disfellowshiped for having sexually abused a child. The official website for the Jehovah’s Witnesses offers this explanation:
What if a baptized adult Christian sexually molests a child? Is the sinner so wicked that Jehovah will never forgive him? Not necessarily so. Jesus said that ‘blasphemy against the holy spirit’ was unforgivable. And Paul said that there is no sacrifice for sins left for one who practices sin willfully despite knowing the truth. (Luke 12:10; Hebrews 10:26, 27) But nowhere does the Bible say that an adult Christian who sexually abuses a child—whether incestuously or otherwise—cannot be forgiven. Indeed, his sins can be washed clean if he repents sincerely from the heart and turns his conduct around. However, he may still have to struggle with the wrong fleshly impulses he cultivated. (Ephesians 1:7) And there may be consequences that he cannot avoid.
Depending on the law of the land where he lives, the molester may well have to serve a prison term or face other sanctions from the State. The congregation will not protect him from this.[viii]

It is not the congregation as a whole that adjudicates problems of unethical behavior. Laypeople of the congregation become church elders, who oversee the running of the individual churches. As The New York Times describes it: “Members who suspect abuse are advised to go first to the elders, who are considered spiritual and moral leaders to whom the members are to turn with their personal problems.” The elders determine guilt. The victim may be examined by family members or friends. That this panel, who are all men, will then meet in secret to discuss the accusations in a case, and also adjudicate it in secret, is, as the Times explains, “a procedure which critics say prevents members from knowing there is an abuser in their midst.”
         One who refuses to “keep it internal” runs the risk of being disfellowshiped. 

Require a Witness

The Jehovah’s Witness religious organization established its own procedure for investigating allegations of wrongdoing. At the time I was asked to be an expert witness, the procedure regarding child sexual abuse was that unless the accused confesses or there are two eyewitnesses to the wrongdoing (the accuser does not count as one of these), abuse cannot be substantiated.

Confession and Forgiveness

         Elders may receive a confession from the abuser, offer forgiveness, and no one else is wiser – except that other members will learn that the individual in question has been disciplined, nothing more. The official website for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, explains their policy this way:

If a child molester sincerely repents, he will recognize the wisdom of applying Bible principles. If he truly learns to abhor what is wicked, he will despise what he did and struggle to avoid repeating his sin. (Proverbs 8:13; Romans 12:9) Further, he will surely thank Jehovah for the greatness of His love, as a result of which a repentant sinner, such as he is, can still worship our holy God and hope to be among “the upright” who will reside on earth forever.—Proverbs 2:21.[ix]

Of course, an abuser can learn to manipulate the system through the use of language about “repentance.”  Nowhere in this official statement is the recognition that repentance is not only confession and remorse, not only just saying “I’m sorry,” but is tied to restitution. Change of behavior is essential, but so too is acknowledgement of what the abuse meant to the victim and acts of restitution.

Transfering membership

Individual congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called “Kingdom Halls.” Twenty congregations are grouped together as “circuits.” Districts contain these circuits, and branches and zones contain the districts.
When an elder leaves one congregation and arrives at a new congregation, the new congregation requests a letter either recommending or not recommending the elder’s appointment at the new congregation. Such a recommendation can only contain information corroborated by the procedure described above – requiring witnesses and allowing for repentance.
         A person, for instance, might leave one congregation in which he has committed child sexual abuse and move to another without that information being shared. If the case had become known within the former congregation, yet was “successfully” adjudicated by the elders, in a way that they believe he has repented and been forgiven, that church would not be required to inform the church to which he is transferring membership of his abusive behavior. Thus, an abuser can move from church to church, knowing he is protected by Jehovah’s Witnesses policy, from being discovered, and if discovered, held accountable in any way that might prevent him access to future victims. If he is wealthy, too, he might through a variety of ways of using his money within the new congregation, inoculate himself from being held accountable if caught. In other words, sexual predators who have manipulated the local congregational leadership, could move from church to church without their histories following them, without red flags, or accountability. 


1.   Does the procedure violate state law?

A procedure that adjudicates questions of abuse in-house, and requires witnesses to abuse appears to violate both child abuse reporting statutes and the reporting statutes applicable to sexual exploitation by mental health professionals, including clergy. It appears to violate the law in two related ways: by providing no provision for reporting to the legal authorities, and by failing to acknowledge that most state laws do not require confirmation in its reporting  requirements. For instance, many state laws require reporting suspicions  of child abuse or of sexual exploitation by mental health professionals, including clergy.  

2.    Does this procedure establish an investigative process that virtually insures that child sexual abuse or clergy sexual misconduct within the congregation goes undetected by that process?

Yes. Unfortunately, this procedure sets the congregation up to fail; indeed this procedure provides the vehicle for it to fail repeatedly. This procedure insures that the congregation cannot detect abuse within the framework that this procedure establishes, while also announcing to abusers that they are protected from legal authorities.
First, it says to abusers that as long as there are no witnesses within the congregation or the abuser does not confess, then the abuse will not be recognized as abuse.
Secondly, by failing to state explicitly that suspicions of child abuse or of sexual exploitation by mental health professionals, including clergy, will be reported to the legal authorities, it gives the abuser greater freedom to operate.
Finally, it puts the overwhelming burden upon the victim to identify to the congregation the fact that she or he is being or was abused.  The victim is then to expect that the community that has allowed the abuse to happen within its midst can be the sole arbiter and adjudicator of whether abuse has occurred. Victims are of necessity concerned about the consequences of confronting the abuser. Fear of retaliation is great. If the victim senses that the congregation will not protect the victim once the abuse is known, there is no incentive to make the abuse known, and every incentive not to because of the control the abuser has established over the victim’s life. Moreover, it is difficult for the victim to believe that he or she is safe enough within the community to be protected once the abuse is known, when she was not safe enough for the abuse to be prevented. This procedure offers no specific assurance to the victim that once the abuse is named to the community, that the congregation will take steps to protect the victim and prevent the abuser from access to the victim.
It is an onerous policy for a victim, as it offers no assurance that the abuse will stop even if she follows the procedure.
Even if this inadequate procedure worked to its fullest, it does not actually deter the abuser from future acts because, absent confirmation from witnesses or the abuser him or herself, the acts of abuse are not defined as abuse, and so the abuser experiences no accountability for his or her abusive behavior. In the absence of accountability, the abuser is given the message “You do not have to stop what you are doing.” Intermittent rewards are sufficient for an abuser to continue abusive behavior. This procedure does not remove the rewards of abuse from the abuser.
From their publications, especially the one that is distributed door-to-door – Awake! -- it appears that the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization is concerned about the abuse of children and the abuse of vulnerable adults. It is unfortunate, therefore, that their procedure regarding corroboration undermines their stated concerns. Because of what we know about abusers, this procedure is potentially always inadequate to deal with abusers.
A congregation betrays its more vulnerable members with a procedure like this. A congregational environment creates opportunities for abusers that many other institutions would never do because it allows access to the vulnerable in unsupervised ways. In addition, the underlying philosophy and language of a congregation instructs the vulnerable to respect and follow its leadership; it promotes trust as the basic attitude toward other members of the congregation and especially leaders. It is the responsibility of a religious community to recognize how it puts its vulnerable members at risk and to create procedures that protects them.
Other abuse victims watch the outcome to see if they themselves might hope for justice and protection. As the publications of the Jehovah’s Witnesses indicate, child sexual abusers exploit situations in which they can have unsupervised access to their potential victims. These publications make specific points about child sexual abuse that run counter to a policy requiring witnesses:
  • It happens in secret. (“Remember, though, that abusers work in secrecy, they take advantage of trust”[x].)
  • Abusers use opportunities to disarm the victim. (“The abuser is a person the child knows and trusts. Rather than using force, abusers often manipulate the child into sexual acts gradually, taking advantage of the child’s limited experience and reasoning ability.”[xi]) Common strategies that abusers use to cultivate relationships with children include:
    • Identifying children who are emotionally needy.
    •  Establishing relationships with a child’s family to gain trust.
    •  Getting children alone or isolated.
    • Initiating contact in situations where no other adult is present; setting up situations where no other adult is present.
    •  Setting a child apart from peers or siblings as “special”
    • Establishing a “peer” or “buddy” relationship with a child.
(An elder in a congregation would have all these means at his disposal for grooming a child.)
           Publications of the Jehovah’s Witnesses also point to problems with the reporting requirement that includes the expectation of confirmation from witnesses:
  •        It is difficult for a victim to report abuse. (“Children find it enormously difficult to report abuse. When they do lie about abuse, it is most often to deny that it happened even though it actually did.”[xii])
  •         Abusers threaten frightening consequences for disclosure. (“Abusers employ the most diabolic means of coercion: authority [‘I’m your father!’], threats [‘I’ll kill you if you tell!’], brute physical force and even guilt”[xiii]; “child molesters still want something else from their victims—SILENCE.”[xiv])
  •        Sexual abuse allegations are usually true. (“Even the most skeptical of researchers agree that most claims of abuse are valid….‘Genuine sex abuse of children is widespread and the vast majority of sex abuse allegations of children…are likely to be justified [perhaps 95% or more].’”[xv])
  •        Abusers are often accepted and liked within their community. (“Many are quite religious, respected, and well liked in the community. According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, ‘to assume that someone is not a pedophile simply because he is nice, goes to church, works hard, is kind to animals, and so on, is absurd.’”[xvi] “In British Columbia, Canada, a recent study examined the careers of 30 child molesters. The results were chilling. The 30 individuals had, between them, abused 2,099 children. Fully half of them held positions of trust—teachers, ministers, administrators, and child-case workers.’”[xvii])
  •         Reports of abuse are often met with minimization or denial. Such responses are dangerous. (“The Globe and Mail of Toronto notes: ‘In 80 per cent of cases, one or more sectors of the community [including friends or colleagues of the offender, families of victims, other children, some victims] denied or minimized the abuse.’ Not surprisingly, ‘the report suggests that denial and disbelief allow abuse to continue.”[xviii])
In addition, abusers rarely confess. They usually minimize, lie, and deny. Abusers also are often repeat offenders.
Because the Jehovah Witnesses view Catholics as they do the rest of the outside world, they have covered the cases of child sexual abuse in that denomination. Thus, they have recognized how the congregation abuses victims by failing to stop the abuse when reporting on a conference about survivors of child sexual abuse. Awake!  quotes the National Catholic Reporter and then explains when it is that a religious organization harms the victim: “‘The first abuse is sexual; the second and more painful is psychological.’ This second abuse occurs when the church refuses to listen to victims of abuse, fails to take their accusations seriously, and moves only to protect the offending priest.”[xix]
Any procedure that establishes that abuse will only be confirmed if there have been witnesses to the abuse runs counter to the needs of the victims. A congregation that really cares about these issues must recognize the problems with any procedure requiring witnesses, and establish an adequate and responsive one. An effective congregational procedure must have these components:
1.    It must be readily available and accessible. Procedures for making complaints should be posted in a prominent location in the congregation.
2.    It must be clear. Procedures should be described step by step, specifying who, what, when, where, how. They should be written in clear language, with any necessary technical terms defined. It must be specific in identifying the behaviors that are not acceptable in a leadership or ministerial role.
3.    There must be plans that will attempt to insure that abuse will not occur. This would include inquiring as to whether there were reports or accusations at a prior congregation against a candidate for leadership at a new congregation.
4.    Intervention: Plans that identify how to intervene if abuse is suspected. These plans must include:
·      Protection of the victim from further abuse
·      If the victim is a child or a counselee, reporting of the abuse to legal authorities.
·      Holding the abuser accountable through negative consequences. When congregation leaders violate their role, the institution should confront them officially and impose consequences. If the consequences are minimal, the behavior is likely to continue.
5.    Restitution: What is damaged or lost when sexual abuse occurs by religious organization leadership can never be fully restored. Nevertheless, some restitution can and must be made.
·      Saying to the victim, “we are sorry this has happened. We failed you.” In theological language, this is called repentance. But repentance is not solely apology, or acknowledgement of wrong doing. Repentance is a turning around, and it includes restitution. Restitution is a concrete means of acknowledging the harm done and helping to repair the damage. Besides its symbolic value, it is helpful in a material sense, since survivors often incur expenses such as therapy costs, doctor’s bills, time off from work, etc.
·      Even if the abuser never confesses and is never convicted, the congregation should still remove the abuser from opportunities of access to the vulnerable.  This is an essential thing that the congregation has control over: an abuser’s access to the vulnerable.
·      The congregation needs to assure the victim and the congregation that they will protect potential victims from this abuser.

3.   In their procedure that requires the receipt of a letter from the congregation from which the elder is departing, do they adhere to the recommended procedures for prevention enumerated above and the legal standard for inquiring into the past conduct of the elder?

No. A letter from the congregation from which the elder is departing will not mention an accusation of abuse if there was only the accusation and no corroboration either through two eyewitnesses or the confession of the abuser. Since this standard for corroboration insures that abuse will go unconfirmed in almost every conceivable instance, abusers are freed to move from congregation to congregation, gaining access to new victims. Moreover, the procedure of corroboration may create within a congregation a desire to see an elder leave and go elsewhere. A congregation may be convinced that they have an abuser in their midst, but have no way within the congregational procedure to corroborate and then perhaps disfellowship the abuser. Such a congregation would be eager to see the abuser leave. The fact that they are bound not to label the behavior abusive because it was unconfirmed, frees them to send a letter that fails to warn the new congregation.
The Jehovah’s Witness standard for when information can be shared is too high. By requiring eyewitnesses or confession, they are insuring that in virtually every case that information will never be passed on.
Precisely because congregations expose vulnerable individuals to situations in which abusers may take advantage of that vulnerability, it is incumbent on congregations to inquire specifically into possible abusive behavior of elders who are joining their congregations. 


    It is the responsibility of a religious community to protect its vulnerable members from victimization by more powerful members, and to prevent the misuse of religious doctrine so that the abuser evades accountability.
That predators chose professions that give them access to vulnerable children is well-recognized. Whether they select denominations or churches based on this access may not yet be proven. Yet an abuser who knows his history will not follow him, that church policies actually protect him, that a congregation that is male-dominated may feel less empathy for victims, and that the Jehovah’s Witnesses disaffection from state laws works in his favor, could not find a more promising environment in which to discover and groom victims than the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

[i] The Biblical passages are taken from the official translation used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses: The “New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures”, Online Bible at www.watchtower.org.
[ii] Laurie Goldstein, “Ousted Members Contend Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Abuse Policy Hides Offensives.” The New York Times,  August 11, 2002.
[iii] Goldstein, August 11, 2002.
[iv] Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah’s Witnesses. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.), p. 13.
[v] Carl A. Raschke, “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Contempoary American Religion, ed. Wade Clark Roof (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2000), p. 341.
[vi] Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion in America (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965, 1973), pp. 349-350.
[vii] Raschke, p. 341.
[x] Awake!, October 8, 1993, p. 13.
[xi]Awake! , October 8, 1993, p. 6.
[xii] Awake! , October 8, 1993, p. 6.
[xiii] Awake!, October 8, 1991, p. 9
[xiv] Awake!,  October 8, 1993, p. 5.
[xv] Awake!, October 8, 1993, p. 6.
[xvi] Awake!, October 8, 1993, p. 6.
[xvii] Awake!,  October 8, 1993, p. 11.
[xviii] Awake!, October 8, 1993, p. 11
[xix] ­Awake!, April 8, 1993, p. 31.