As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
In the recent high-profile cases of film studio executive Harvey Weinstein and other men in high-profile positions, incidents of sexual abuse that spanned decades have been exposed. As a response, survivors have shown solidarity in the #MeToo movement by sharing personal stories of sexual harassment and abuse on social media.
Sexual abuse is not exclusive to Hollywood, the sports world, the political arena, or other secular institutions. Whenever an imbalance of power exists due to gender, social group, or position of authority, there is potential for abuse. I imagine that, although most people are shocked when details of abuse are revealed, most women are not surprised. The #MeToo movement seeks to expose the widespread nature of sexual abuse and to destigmatize speaking out, but when abuse happens close to home, victims may not feel empowered to share their experiences because they stand so much to lose.
It happened to me too.
The first time I was sexually assaulted as a young girl, I had no frame of reference. I knew it was wrong, but I had no words for it. I believed the perpetrator’s threats, so I kept silent. I prayed it would go away.
Unwanted sexual attention continued, and I was not alone. Those of us who were violated felt it was a reflection on us, and our self-worth began to erode. We pretended that jeers, leers, and gropes were not happening because that was the only way we could get by. We made clumsy attempts to escape and found temporary relief by self-medicating. Some of us tried to make ourselves invisible; others acted out and were assigned derogatory labels. Some thought that gaining weight would offer protection, others deprived themselves of food or hurt themselves.
We learned to be careful around male relatives and developed an irrational distrust of men. At the Christian high school I attended, teachers who groomed us with special attention said we should be flattered; when others crossed the line we joked about creepy behavior but shared few specifics—and when we did, we could not offer solutions. In our church there were rumors of people in leadership who had abused children. The things we heard were too horrible to comprehend, and we had no place to go with questions.
These experiences were confusing. Home, church, and school were supposed to be loving places, so why did we feel the most unsafe in these communities? Ministers said our bodies were God’s temples, so how could God allow people to desecrate them? We were taught to respect authority, but what if leaders turned a blind eye or were guilty themselves?
We envied peers who seemed to be unaffected by unwanted attention. We kept silent because we worried that people would not believe us; they might think we were looking for attention or had “asked for it.” Our bodies held a strange power, but we were ashamed of them because they were the reason for the problem. Sometimes we avoided socializing because it was too hard to put up a front. Sometimes we were guilty of the bystander effect, putting our heads in the sand when we witnessed suspect behavior. We experienced survivor’s guilt when someone else was abused to a greater degree; we were relieved that it was not happening to us.
We told ourselves lies in order to get by: if it wasn’t intercourse, it wasn’t sexual abuse; boys are curious, this is just the norm; men are visual, so it’s our responsibility to “dress down” so as not to tempt them. We thought we could put it all behind us by removing ourselves from the circumstances. But it never really left, it just calcified.
The fallout continued when we became adults. Despite our experiences, some of us went into professions in which we felt we could make a difference, but others took jobs that might help them forget. Assertiveness was difficult because we felt unworthy. Intimacy with our partners was complicated because of unhealthy associations. When we became mothers, we were unprepared for how our past experiences would continue to haunt us. We were anxious because we feared for our children. We were angry that we’d never called out our abusers and that nobody had protected us. Lack of intervention felt like a lack of love. Sometimes institutions had protected perpetrators at our expense, and we vowed to shield our own children against such pain and betrayal.
We pursued ways to validate ourselves but never felt good enough. Our lives felt like houses of cards, but when they collapsed with the weight of shame, some victims took their own lives. What we read about PTSD made sense, and we were grateful for antidepressants. Because we wanted to reconcile past events with our faith, we saw Christian counselors. We were told that true healing could only come through forgiveness, which put the burden on us; God chose to allow us to suffer so we could be refined; God must have had a reason for planning our lives in this way. Some Scripture that was quoted still makes us cringe.
Our relationships with the church and Christian communities are still complicated. Some of us pour ourselves into the institutions where the abuse took place, others look for replacements. We try to blend in, but sometimes we wonder if our emotional scars are visible. We wear masks and feel like frauds because we can’t reveal something that has defined us for so long.
Women who tell their stories are brave, but those who do not share their experiences should not be perceived as cowardly. Many of us, for our entire lives, have considered the cost of disorder. Exposing our secrets would have far-reaching consequences. We might jeopardize relationships, communities, or careers. Dispensing our privacy might cause our families to see us through an unflattering lens. We know from experience that when we share information with loved ones they react uncomfortably, as if the knowledge is too heavy.
Over the years, some women have shared with me their own examples of abuse. For one, a coworker exposed himself, and when she reported it to her boss, the man was fired. Another was groped by the father of children she babysat, and when she threatened to tell, he left her alone. One friend installed locks on her bedroom door so her brother could no longer molest her. These stories have something in common: the women either shut down the behavior themselves or were defended by an authority figure. But it is difficult to admit abuse when we feel we allowed it to happen.
I don’t believe that sexual abuse happens for a reason or that God would plan for any child to suffer in this way. Perhaps these beliefs have kept me from being angry with God. Although perspective and time have allowed me to process past events, I know that closure is nonexistent.
The recent public reckoning of sexual abuse is long overdue, and I believe it constitutes a societal sea change. While many victims may not be personally vindicated, we can be hopeful for women and men of future generations.
We are in a unique position to equip and educate young people to counter abuse. It is my hope that faith-based institutions will respond with due seriousness. If one person can be saved from the dehumanizing effects of sexual abuse, it will be worth the effort. The gravity of responsibility rests on us all.