As a professor, I like to use Facebook as an extension of my classroom, a place where I can offer interesting articles and challenging discussions. Because the Facebook Live rape case and other events have put sexual assault and predatory behavior all over the news lately, I recently posted this question:
“What do you wish people knew/understood about experiencing sexual assault?”
Given the private nature of the question and the public nature of the medium, I anticipated only a handful of responses. I was astonished that dozens and dozens of people responded, whether directly on the thread or in private messages. (I should also note that I know most of the respondents in real life, including many who have been my students.) Their comments altogether filled up 60 pages.
I was surprised—and yet not surprised. A few years ago, I conducted a similar informal survey on Twitter by sharing the story of being stalked by my high school teacher and using the hashtag #howoldwereyou. It generated an equally tremendous response. In my research for a related essay, I learned the sobering statistics about childhood sexual abuse: 7 percent of girls in grades 5–8 and 12 percent of girls in grades 9–12 report having been sexually abused, along with 3 percent of boys grades 5–8 and 5 percent of boys in grades 9–12. The numbers for sexual assault are only worse for adults, and college students are particularly vulnerable. The University of Texas at Austin recently released a report indicating that 15 percent of its female undergraduate students have been raped.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a good time to honor the many brave souls who shared their experiences with me. These are brothers and sisters in Christ who have suffered. By attending to their stories, listening to them and believing them, we honor them. Here’s what they wanted us to know:
1. Sexual assault can happen within families.
- “Our little secret” began when I was eight and my dad started by touching. It escalated and lasted for four horrendous years. My mom was aware something was going on and asked me straight out when it first began. … I ended up telling her and she asked where and how, etc. I was relieved.… A few days later, it began again, and she never asked me anything.
- I was 12 when I became pregnant by my 20-year-old brother. The pregnancy, which ended in miscarriage at 14 weeks, was painful, hard on my twiggy body, and emotional beyond description.
- Growing up, sexual sin was all around me. I was experiencing physical and verbal abuse as well. So when a family member began inappropriately touching and acting out against me when I was five, I honestly didn’t know at the time that it was wrong. I knew that I didn’t like it, but I never thought to tell anyone.
- I was sexually assaulted by a relative when I was 13. ... I wish people understood the grooming process so that they would know how cut off the victim feels from any person who could help them; there is a fog that doesn't lift until some time after the relationship is escaped.
2. Sexual assault can happen to little children.
- I was molested at four years of age by a neighborhood “grandpa.” And then again as a young girl at a sleepover. The culprit was my friend’s stepfather. I never told anyone until became an adult.
- I was molested very young, four or five. And I never really saw it as such until I was 36 years old and under a ridiculous amount of stress. One day, it was like God opened my eyes and spoke to me and said, “Sweetie, that wasn’t a game; he wasn’t playing a game with you.” And I was angry with that man. But at the same time, I felt like God had protected me from that knowledge all my life until I was ready and could handle it.
- I was sexually abused from seven to nine years old. … What I want people to understand about sexual assault is the one thing I still find difficult to discuss. Sometimes, it felt good. By good, I mean I experienced a “positive” physiological and neurochemical response. ... Even knowing that, on an intellectual level, it’s hard to fight the shame and admit that. The guy who abused me used that fact to further manipulate me and keep me silent. I believed my physiological response meant I had somehow wanted what happened to me, but that is NOT TRUE.
3. Sexual assault can happen to adults.
- I was an honors student, two-sport college athlete. I was strong and smart. I had just come back from a two-month mission trip.
- I was 23 years old and out on my own for the first time and entered into my first real relationship… when he turned on me and assaulted me.
- There are more ways to use overwhelming force than sheer strength.
- It can and does happen within the context of marriage. It’s beyond time Christians recognize this.
4. Sexual abuse can happen to men.
- I experienced molestation when I was 12. It was an 18-year-old boy who would follow me home from school each day and ask to hang out. Because I was experiencing the latch-key kid lifestyle it was nice to have companionship and attention. After six weeks of him making suggestions regarding sexual exploits, I gave in and agreed. This continued for three months until he graduated and moved away. People thought he was a positive influence on me and it was nice of him to give up his time.
- I don’t talk about my experience much because men just don’t. But it happened when I was 17 (an older, larger, more muscular man assaulted me) and I didn’t even know it was a “thing.” My reaction was shame above all else, and secrecy second. I couldn’t tell anybody and had a hard time even admitting it to myself. I wrote about it in a novel, but until now I’ve never told anybody—at all—that it happened… 53 years ago. I am 70 years old now.
5. Women can be sexual abusers.
- I was sexually molested by my mother when I was just a child. I had no idea it was wrong until I was about 14 years old. I knew something wasn’t “right” but I didn’t think that this was something my mom would do to her own child. I only thought this was something men did... NOT MY MOM.
6. Children can abuse other children.
- In fourth grade, I had two separate incidents with different girls that were actually my age. And I didn’t realize it until a couple years ago that this wasn’t my fault, and I should have told an adult. I was scared of getting into trouble though.
- I didn’t even realize that I had been molested until I was in my 30s. I always saw it as a sexual phase that I went through, at the time. I was only 5 years old and the little girl down the street from me was maybe 13.
- I as a boy didn’t realize I was abused until much later in life when it occurred to me, “Hey, I shouldn’t have been used like that,” but it occurred often enough and profound enough that I see its effects in adult life.
7. Sexual abuse can happen in public places.
- At 17, I had a manager at the fast food place where I worked try to grab me and put me up against the wall—in the cooler.
- I was groped while greeting customers at the front of the store where I was working. It happened in a flash… and I was so startled I really didn’t do anything about it. Once I kinda “realized” what happened, I went to my manager, told him and asked to go into the back room. I was back there trying to gather myself, because honestly it was so different than [how] I had imagined sexual assault or harassment. ... Can your assault or abuse or fondling really only last as long as a high five?
- Assault in a public place can’t always be stopped by calling for help. Often, the assault can make you speechless with fear, especially when the person assaulting you is bigger and much stronger. You can be sexually assaulted on a bus and be too terrified to cry out. Telling people that they should have said something when it happened causes more pain and trauma for the sufferer and dismisses the very real fear they experienced.
8. The effects of abuse last a lifetime.
- I can’t handle being alone with a man I don’t know. This is not because I’m afraid of all men or suspect all strange men of wanting to rape me; it’s because my brain is still subconsciously coping with the trauma and trying to make sure it doesn't happen again.
- One of the many reasons that I don’t share my story is because I am still protecting the perpetrator. Another thing is that when you’ve kept a secret for so long, it’s difficult to figure out what or how much to share once you begin to tell parts of the story. … Sometimes the memories come completely out of nowhere.
- It is very difficult to feel safe in public or open spaces, especially when alone. I often feel anxious and tense. As a result, I have often skipped doing things I’ve really loved, particularly solo activities.
- I hate how these people still control my life. My marriage suffers from this. I feel like I let my husband down when I can’t be intimate with him, but whenever we do come together, I end up crying afterwards and feeling the same shame.I feel guilty for not reporting these people and often wonder who else they have done this to. I wonder if I am partially to blame for that.
9. Sexual abuse can happen within the church.
- I was 15. He was 25. His wife was my Sunday school teacher, and he was a faithful church attendee.
- I was dating a young man who was the drummer in the youth band and spoke of his call to ministry. He… had a pattern of seducing young women in the church. … Once he gained trust, he would create a story that would manipulate the women in his life to allow him into their apartments and homes. In my case, he showed up at my apartment … proceeded to rape me repeatedly throughout the night and held me in my own apartment against my will. The next morning, he told me that I could not tell anyone what had happened, and he threatened to destroy my life. In the next couple of weeks, he went to the youth pastor of the church and told him that we had sex and that he was terribly guilty over it and that he was seeking repentance. By the time I was included in the conversation, he already had people convinced it was consensual. I lost my job at the Christian school associated with the church, and yet it was later revealed that I was woman #4 that this had happened to.
10. The church’s response can both harm and help.
Perhaps most compelling were the comments I received regarding the role of believers in people’s abuse experiences. Some of the notes were critical: “As someone who came from abuse, and who came to faith later in life, I expect Christian men and the church to take these issues seriously, and when they don’t, it feels like a deep betrayal,” one victim told me. Another person reported that “perpetrators often tell their victims it’s their fault, so for the church (or anyone) to add to that is especially damaging.”
Others, however, told another story. “Seeing the church’s heart for the hurting has been healing,” one victim told me. Another revealed that “the church has helped redeem my understanding of what a man and a father looks like.”
As I read these and other responses, I found myself asking: What if the church were the first place an abuse victim knew to go to for help and healing? Local churches have an enormous opportunity and can address this grievous issue in a number of ways, by:
- providing qualified counseling services for victims
- offering Bible studies for those who have been abused (even years ago)
- respecting and affirming women and men in such a way that they know they will be believed if they choose to confide their experiences
- preaching and teaching on holistic and biblical ethics of sex and sexuality
Maybe the simplest and most profound act of Christian response is this: listening to those who have suffered. By listening to stories, we can learn. And by learning, perhaps we as local church communities can take proactive steps to prevent more abuse from happening and to help survivors find true healing in Christ. As one victim disclosed to me, “My church helped me to see how God sees me and who I am, instead of what I’m not.”
Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University, a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me andFierce Convictions—The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist.