Prey Tell—well here is a hard-hitting word play for a hard-hitting book about the silencing of women. Tiffany Bluhm doesn’t use the whimsical approach to try and soften the male reader and help him better digest the hard truths she sets out to convey in this book. It even makes me a little uncomfortable at first—is she going to lose an audience that needs to read this? Not all men want to silence women. Not all men are abusive. I know a LOT of good men! Bluhm just skips the nonsense of this defensiveness to get to the real point: this is a systemic issue in both the secular world and the church and therefore we all have a responsibility in recognizing it and working for change. This is a popular-level book that is backed with research and written in Christian love. And so the book is divided into three sections: Why We Silence Women Who Tell the Truth, How We Silence Women, and How Everyone Can Speak Up.
One thing I really appreciate about this book is learning more about the additional challenges for non-white women and the necessity of hearing from them. One significant way this discrepancy is revealed is in the response to abuse. White women may not think about this, as we already see how awful the response is all around. We experience it. How we are not believed. How little justice there is. But we neglect to see that it is even worse for minorities, who are more likely to be sexually assaulted as well as dismissed or punished for speaking up.
But this book isn’t only about the worst cases of sexual assault. It begins with the silencing—the devaluing—of women. And sadly, it can be in the house of God where we learn this system at a young age. And then we use our own silence as currency for approval:
“I mastered silencing my own voice in order to be of value to the world around me, especially to the men who employed or pastored me.”
Sadly, we often try to bargain for some opportunities to contribute:
“More often than not, women tell themselves that they can let low-grade sexism slide if they are given a seat or place of power, dignity, and agency. The unspoken understanding is that women have a place in the world not because they deserve it but because a man allowed for them to have a place, and since he has given them opportunities, he holds power over their time, earning potential, and bodies.”
Power, dignity, agency: these are basic elements of being human. And yet our personhood is often circumscribed by men. Even in some ostentatiously benevolent environments, this painful truth becomes clearer when a woman uses her voice outside the often-unspoken boundaries.
Women don’t talk about this enough. Bluhm is very good at speaking to the basics and turning the reality of the responsibility of the agency of each one of us around, especially for the church:
“What if we could hold space for women who have been harmed, who have been humiliated, and who have been silenced? Lament alongside them? Ensure them that they are seen, that their stories matter, and that they will be treated with the utmost care? What if our churches, kitchen tables, and faith gatherings were the safest places for them to process those experiences?”
Bluhm doesn’t set out to write a book that condemns men. She sets out to identify the dynamics of the system that silences or manages the woman’s voice, to reveal how we all participate in it, and propose ways to balance this with true reciprocity. She covers a lot more than I can write about in a review, but I wanted to highlight one particular chapter on a topic that isn’t discussed a lot: Puppets of the Patriarchy. The reason why this is a system rather than a few bad apples is because the enablers are the ones really legitimizing it. We never like to think of ourselves as the ones being manipulated. And even if there are signs that we pick up, red flags that there may be some problems, we easily dismiss them because there is something that we gain for our silence and participation.
“Often enablers are more concerned with staying on the side of power rather than fixing the broken system that enables the powerful to prey on the powerless.”
Later in the chapter, Bluhm goes for the jugular—the women enabling the men. Whether it’s by turning on the women truth-tellers or helping abusers with their alternate narrative, Bluhm labels “the swift defense from other women to protect him and inadvertently belittle the victim’s testimony [as] patriarchy at its peak.” They are the perfect puppets to validate the false narrative and so-called good character of the abuser. I had to pause for a moment in this section. It really is a painful betrayal for the victims. I know this personally on multiple levels. And I need to think more about how I’ve been an enabler too.
Bluhm digs even deeper with this, revealing how white women have prioritized our own needs in the suffrage movement and beyond. Again, the intent isn’t to clobber us, but to invite us to follow our Savior in actively caring for the marginalized rather than being pawns in a system that enslaves everyone, even those who hold the so-called power.
Where do we even begin to do something about all this? Well, first we need to see it. Then we need to name it. And then we need to become allies in freeing one another to serve and to love. But this takes self-examination. Bluhm offers some self-reflective questions, the chief one being:
“How do I benefit from silence?”
Bystanders seem passive but they are validating abusive behavior because they have something to gain by their silence. Abusers abuse because they can. They are asking for your silence. And it “willfully withhold[s] compassion from those who need it and def[ies] the gospel call to care for the least among us.” Bluhm even gives some practical steps for bystander intervention, since the onus to act “includes everyone at the first sight of a physical or verbal power imbalance:” disrupt, confront the harasser, and check on her. She gives examples of helpful ways to do this, even when confronting. She shows how Jesus uses these vey principles when the woman caught in adultery is brought to him by the Pharisees who were trying to trap him. He distracts (writing in the sand), confronts (challenging the innocent to cast the first stone), and comforts (engaging her in conversation once she is safe). I talked to my son about these very steps. It’s not good enough to not be a jerk, to not be an offender. Don’t be a bystander. And Bluhm speaks of the necessity of active male advocacy—not the chivalry of benevolent sexism, but true kindness.
I’ll just end with an underlying factor in the silencing of women—suspicion of her voice. We need to recognize that “underneath the policy debates, anti-violence laws, and cultural progress, the foundational shift that needs to happen is simple but radical trust in women. That listening to women and bearing witness to their experiences—and having faith in their stories—could be the antidote to the American default of men’s word trumping all else” (Bluhm is quoting Jessica Valenti here from her book, Believe Me). She’s clear that she is not saying that women should be believed when the clear evidence proves otherwise. She is referring to the dignity that belongs to every human. Often, even when the evidence is there, sympathy is still given to the male offender and the possible loss of his power. There is suspicion that this is the motive of the female voice—not simply speaking truth, not calling out a greater virtue from us, but rather woman as usurper of male power. Prey tell.