Stop saying, "That was just the culture back then."
Stop saying, "It was a different time.”
Stop saying these things to get a pass on the hard work of revising your own history, relearning, making meaningful amends on behalf of victims of sexual predators and institutionalized sexual abuse.
But who in their right mind would give these as excuses? Well, I'll tell you... friends of mine (see Example 1), the Vatican (see Example 2), and, yes, Pema Chödrön (see Example 3):
EXAMPLE 1: I was talking to a French friend of mine about how two of the most prominent founders of post-postmodernism were pro-pedophilia activists, actually signing a public petition in France to abolish—I repeat "ABOLISH," not "lower"—the age of consent for sex. I was noting how post-modernism attempts to frame childhood as a social construct, and how queer theory has been used historically to defend and actually advocate for child rape. My friend, a citizen of France, became very agitated. She cut me off: "It was the 1960's! Sartre signed that petition! All the major intellectuals of France signed that petition! (not true) "It was published in the major French newspapers!" (true) "One has to understand the strikes of 1968 and the spirit of rebellion at the time!"
But, no, actually, one does not. A two-year-old in 1968 is just like a two-year-old in 2019. Any idiot knows that.
“Among the freedoms that the Revolution of 1968 sought to fight for was this all-out sexual freedom, one which no longer conceded any norms.”
Benedict XVI goes on to talk about the need for school uniforms and a ban on “sex films” on passenger airlines, because of the tremendous risk that these might provoke aggression.
Well, here's one for you, Benedict... How about taking a bunch of idealistic young men who feel a religious calling, and forcing them to to tie their aspirations of ministry to a lifetime of mandatory celibacy? Benedict's final verdict: “Part of the physiognomy of the Revolution of ‘68 was that pedophilia was then also diagnosed as allowed and appropriate.” And, again, any adult with a shred of decency, memory of their own childhood, or responsible caregiving experience knows that's crap.
“Recently, someone outside our community asked me if I thought Shambhala had a loose sexual culture. It was such a non-aggressive and straightforward question that I answered without even thinking, ‘it sure does!’ Then reflecting on this later, I had to admit that I had always thought of it this way. I entered Vajradhatu (as we were then called) in the 1970s as a fairly new celibate nun who had been instructed by my teacher Chögyam Trungpa, to keep my vows impeccably but to not be too uptight. I think that it’s no exaggeration to say that at that time the community was famous for being wild … a group that was characterized by a lot of drinking and a lot of sex. I was not put off by this, and it did not seem to me to be a problem. It was the 70s and free love was practically a cultural norm.... Women would come to me or to Judith Simmer-Brown or Judy Lief or other sympathetic women, and we would try to help but found there was almost nothing we could do to address the behavior. There was not what you would call a cover-up but rather the whole situation where complaints were most often met in Shambhala with the attitude of ‘what’s the big deal?’ or ‘oh that’s just what he’s like.’ In other words, this sexual behavior was considered no problem. The culture of looseness was systemic.”
I was managing a student rooming house that Naropa rented for their students. I also did custodial work for another rooming house that they leased. It was a total boys' club. It was like Animal House with time-outs for meditation. The founder, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, was a notorious drunk and some members of the the faculty had criminal histories. It was a dangerous place for women, whose experiences were not the same as those of the male students. Yes, they were harassed. They were also raped. Sometimes these perpetrations had pretenses of spirituality about them, the perpetrators attempting to mask their agenda with talk of mystical unions and tantra. It was happening in my rooming house. None of the women were calling it a culture of looseness. None of the women were saying, “What’s the big deal?”
I don’t give my French friend a pass on her defense of Derrida and Foucault. I don’t give the Vatican a pass on blaming the 1960’s. And I don’t give Pema a pass on her euphemisms for rape culture.
But, you know what? I grew up.I remembered. I had to revise almost every single memory of my childhood, and with that revision, I had to change my relationships to my entire extended and immediate family, whose interests were heavily identified with those of the perpetrator. I had to reprogram myself, reinvent myself. It was hard work, it was spiritual work, it came at a tremendous price in every area, and, thank the goddess, there was and there still is a community who support my recovery. You will never hear me say of my experience that it was a "looseness of culture" or "the physiognomy of the 1960's" or "boys will be boys."
I have to work hard every day against the hard-wiring of my childhood. I have to tear up my decades of childhood investment in that rape culture. I have no tolerance for the passive witnesses and bystanders in situations of abuse who indulge themselves in the privilege of refusing to grow up.
Just listen to this moral idiocy:
Tricycle [magazine]: "You don’t think it would be helpful to name names, to publicize those instances where Buddhist teachers have been repeatedly taken to task by students?" [The interviewer is referring to charges against Shambhala founder Sakyong Mipham for alleged sexual assault, emotional, physical, financial abuse and binge drinking.]
Pema Chödrön: "That really does feel like McCarthyism to me. I wouldn’t want to see a list of the bad teachers and I wouldn’t want to see a list of the good ones—here are the saints and here are the sinners. For so many of us that’s our heritage, to make things one hundred percent right or one hundred percent wrong."
Seriously. No. Just no.
Here we see Pema's dissociation in action: She is clearly able to identify someone, Joe McCarthy, as a dangerous man whose example is to be avoided. McCarthy was a self-styled leader of a cult-like movement for moral purity and spiritual reformation. I don't see any hesitation on her part to reference him as a bad guy who betrayed his own mission. It's only when the perpetrators are members of her own community, when the perpetrators constitute her mentors and colleagues, that Pema remembers to adopt the officially sanctioned position of "zen" neutrality--which, any victim can tell you, is anything but neutral. And, which any victim can tell you, is usually far more incentivized than standing with the victim.
We learn something of Pema's prior playbook from a Buddhist community initiative to expose the Shambhala abuses. In August 2018, this group issued their "Phase 3 Report," which included details of a situation where a woman reported to Pema that she had been raped by a Shambhala Center director and subsequently miscarried. According to the Phase 3 Report, the woman said that Pema told her “I don’t believe you” and “If it’s true I suspect that you were into it.”
Pema, under pressure, later met with this woman and issued a public apology... of sorts: "I hope to be a better listener and not again say such insensitive and hurtful remarks to those who come to me for help.”
Again, no. That is what you might say if you were dismissive of a friend with a bad haircut. This woman was reporting a criminal assault and a traumatic miscarriage. The appropriate amends Pema should have made would include actions taken to better educate herself about rape in religious communities, counseling sessions to understand the nature of her complicity and uncover conditioning and motives of which she is apparently unaware, a public apology to all of the victims she gaslit over the years with similar dismissals before she was finally exposed, and a commitment to supporting future victims in reporting rape to appropriate civil authorities as well as to the leadership of Shambhala. But all she says is that she will listen better and try to be more sensitive. In other words, she will still enable and protect the perpetrators.
This is not some small pocket of myopia on the part of an otherwise enlightened spiritual leader. This is foundational lack of moral integrity, to say nothing of an abysmally compromised capacity for critical thinking. This inability to identify with victims of oppression is pretty much a deal-breaker for spiritual leadership. It may be an asset for rising in the ranks of a religious institution, but, seriously, those who cannot or will not revise their experiences of immersion in toxic rape cultures forfeit their moral authority. Oh, they definitely try to hang onto it for dear life, but it is forfeit, and the followers who give them a pass are likely to upload their guru's systems of denial along with whatever philosophy undergirds their enabling and their perpetrations.