“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.
According to a study by the Urban Institute, a quarter of teens in dating relationships reported being harassed by text or online, and a vast majority of those also suffered psychological abuse, “which included limiting someone’s contacts with family or friends, damaging property, insisting on knowing where they are, and insulting them publicly.”
When teenagers’ first dating relationship—and sometimes in their eyes, first love—gets tainted with manipulation, control, and other forms of abuse, it goes on to affect their identity in the long-term and their future relationships, just as we see sexual abuse and physical abuse having lasting influence. A “sticks and stones” mentality to abuse doesn’t hold up: Words can hurt, especially because the damage isn’t visible.
My relationship with my boyfriend was one of those marked by emotional and psychological abuse. My ex kept me isolated from my friends and tracked everything I did. He made passive-aggressive comments about my plans to go away to college and also mocked my appearance, with the caveat “just joking.” I ignored it, partially because I didn’t recognize psychological red flags, but also because he still said he loved me. He never actually touched me, so he had to be sincere, right?
When he broke up with me, the abuse didn’t stop, and the insults continued. No one could see the effects of his abuse, so to everyone but me, it was like it wasn’t happening. I was devastated. I heard his voice in my head all the time, reminding me that I was worthless. Yes, I had my virginity, but I had lost my connection to my humanity. Thankfully, I managed to work up the courage earlier this year to seek out professional counseling. I broke down sobbing when the counselor validated the reality of my pain and started helping me heal.
Sexual abuse is horrific and needs to be taken seriously, but so do other forms of abuse. Both are dehumanizing. Both make you feel like an object. Any form of abuse, be it sexual, psychological, or physical, is abhorrent to us as people and as Christians because it is a crime against the dignity and worth of a human being. There is no scale to measure what kind of abuse is the worst. Our value comes from our creation in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), and as such, any crime against a human being should be met with sadness and a willingness to understand and help in the time of need.
Sabrina Hardy is an obsessive reader, writer, and literature student with an infatuation for science fiction and swing dancing. She lives in Lynchburg, Virginia, with her cat who thinks it's a dragon.