The Staying Power of Emotional Abuse
“At least he didn’t take your virginity,” the leader of my Bible study group murmurs sympathetically, handing me a tissue to wipe away the tears brought on by my choked confession of a previous abusive relationship. I tense, mutter “that’s true,” and escape the conversation feeling just as broken and empty as before I worked up the courage to talk to her.
I have this conversation with three separate spiritual leaders at my Christian college, a roommate, and several close friends, and when they hear my ex-boyfriend never abused me sexually, their well-meaning first response always falls along similar lines: “It could have been worse—he could have raped you.” “At least he never laid a hand on you.”
I leave each conversation with none of the relief I expected, and each time, I spend a restless night staring at the walls of my dorm, wondering, Is my depression wrong because I was never sexually abused? and the more destructive, Maybe if he had taken my virginity, someone would listen to me.
Victims of sexual abuse are increasingly speaking out about the aching sense of shame and loss that accompanies such a violation and how it can become exacerbated by the church’s focus on feminine virginity. Yet, even these conversations and debates fall into the same trap: a narrow focus that seems to elevate sexuality to a position of sole importance.
When sexual abuse is decried as the most horrific act against a woman, the implication is that her worth is diminished because her sexuality was taken. If virginity doesn’t define us, why do we talk about it so much? Why does the focus on sexual abuse seem to come at the exclusion of psychological and emotional abuse?
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence defines emotional and psychological abuse as “the systematic perpetration of malicious and explicit nonphysical acts against an intimate partner, child, or dependent adult.” It causes significant mental and physical health problems for the victims, even if it never includes physical or sexual violence.
While these kinds of abuse can happen to anyone, research indicates that it’s become more and more common among a younger generation who have entered the dating scene in the digital age. Boyfriends and girlfriends communicating over text message and Facebook—where messages can’t be seen or heard by parents or friends—can open the door to 24/7 communication and relentless dating abuse.
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