I’m not huge into politics because, honestly, the whole notion of debating is quite panic-inducing to me. So as my husband watched the debates this past fall (and I pretended not to pay attention), I couldn’t help but perk up with one of the topics: “Fitness to be President.” Naturally, my mind went to health, stamina, ability to carry out the physical demands necessary to serve as our next Commander in Chief. Right?
“Fitness to be President” led to the discussion of skeletons in the closets of both candidates, and dirty secrets being dragged into the light. No matter who you vote for today, this election (on both sides of the aisle) has made it abundantly clear that our country is in dire need of a new conversation and perspective on sexual assault and abuse.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, nearly 20% of women in America have been raped in their lifetime and the same number of high school students reported being physically or sexually abused by a dating partner. That’s 1 in 5. These statistics don’t even start to touch the 81% of students who report unwanted sexual advances like groping, pinching, sexual comments/name-calling, and texts containing sexual propositions (NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault).
It’s vital to remember that these statistics are no less prevalent in church communities. In her book Predators, Pedophiles, Rapists and other Sex Offenders, clinical psychologist Anna Salter interviewed multiple sexual offenders. One convicted child molester told Dr. Salter, “I considered church people easy to fool…they have a trust that comes from being Christians. They tend to be better folks all around and seem to want to believe the good that exists in people.”
Pit. In. Stomach.
As youth workers, counselors, and parents, we don’t have the luxury of turning off the lights on this chilling topic.
Sexual abuse is defined as any form of sexual contact that is non-consensual. With children or adolescents, most sexual abuse definitions also include language specifying that the abuse is performed by either an adult or an older child. My professional antennae need to clarify the term “older.” Perhaps older may mean developmentally or experientially, but that in no way should fool us into believing that a younger child could not be a perpetrator to an older child. Abuse has no criteria. Both its victims and the perpetrators may come from any age, any gender, any socio-economic status, with upstanding, morally sound and (yes) Christian parents.
The most offensive thing we can do for a child or adult who has been assaulted is to sweep under the rug the magnitude of pain that’s experienced. Never again will life be the same for that wounded soul. I don’t mean to imply that healing is impossible. After all, we worship a God who redeems even the most excruciating pain. But the nature of the wounds inflicted by sexual abuse means we need to raise better awareness in the church setting.
I recently had a college student in my counseling office. I’d seen her off and on during her high school years for various, minor concerns. Back then, she was actively involved in her high school youth group and had accolades both academically and socially. But as she returned to me that day as a collegiate, there was a hollow fear in her face that I’d never seen from her before.
She began recounting her freshman and sophomore years of college, which began innocently enough. Today she was spiraling – drinking to the point of passing out, sleeping with random men in nasty fraternity houses. As she recalled her timeline over the last two years, she was able to pinpoint the critical change. One night, instead of going to a Dave Matthews concert with her sorority sisters, she chose to hang out with her new boy interest. Making out progressed past her comfort level, and all the boundaries she’d set for herself. But when she begged her date to stop, he didn’t.
That night her virginity was stolen. She was raped. As a way to regain control over her life, she made the subconscious decision to not only “numb out” with alcohol, but also to give herself to as many men as she chose to give herself to. Never again would that control be taken away from her, but she craved pain satiation through promiscuity.
Along with this young woman’s common response of alcohol and sex, many who have been sexually assaulted frequently find coping skills through self-injury, compulsive eating or dieting, even suicide attempts. The fear and depression can lead to poor hygiene, like not showering or brushing teeth. Trauma victims almost always experience nightmares that can endure for months, leading them to act distracted or distant from friends and mentors.
Every morning as I drink my ritualistic coffee in my office, I pray the same prayer for myself and my clients: “Lord, help me to hear past the words being said, to understand the person and the pain that’s not being said.” Knowing these symptoms of sexual abuse helped me clue in to pointed, yet sensitive questions to ask that precious college student. I needed to first hear her story of what led her into my office on that particular day. Not a year ago when the abuse occurred, but on that day. She had to know that I wasn’t going to Bible beat her for drinking and sex. My sins are no prettier.
Once we established our level foundation, I could then probe more directly into the actual seed that manifested into her rebellious actions. I gently prefaced it with, “Can I ask you a tough question?” She nodded. “Has anyone hurt you? Because some of the things you’re telling me sound like that may have happened.”
Notice the intentionality in my word “hurt” – has anyone hurt you? I didn’t say abused, assaulted, or raped. Often times, victims haven’t realized that’s actually what happened, or they aren’t ready to attach to the gravity of what those words mean.
Once we’ve established that wrong has occurred, the process of healing can begin. After all, the Gospel is clear that what is kept in the dark, in secret, remains hidden and full of judgment. But what is brought to the light can receive the healing hope of our Savior.
When we have an invitation into someone’s story of sexual trauma, it is our responsibility to offer back the dignity that has been stricken from them. This means allowing them to steer the ship, to gain control of the healing process. We are simply the first-mate. It’s important to ask repeatedly if they’d like to talk about the trauma. Desensitization comes from telling their story again and again and again. Our job is to hear it fresh and new every time, to hear the pain behind the words.
The reverse is important, too. While we always want to be available to hear their story, we must also be sensitive to regular life struggles as well – grades, cheerleading, parents, college applications. Not every conversation needs to be heavy and serious.
Whether in the trenches or on the road, we must remind those who share their story of several truths. First, that professional help is available and most likely needed. It’s not uncommon for a youth director or friend to accompany a student to the first counseling appointment. Offer the truth that legal actions may need to be taken. As youth workers we are, by default, mandated court reporters for minors. Research what your state’s laws are in regards to reporting abuse. If you are not required to report the abuse, allow the victim to decide if he or she prefers to report it.
Finally, expect the abused to wrestle and question God’s goodness. For them, the body they once understood as “made in the image of Christ” now feels dirty and disgusting. And the God they once knew as loving, now feels cruel. Our God is big enough to absorb human wrath and He is patient enough to hear our doubts.
He understands, perhaps more than we give Him credit for. The book of John recounts the road to the cross. It is Christ who understands what it means to be stripped of clothing, naked, and humiliated. It is Christ who understands having a body abused and used for the selfish gain of others. It is Christ who understands complete and utter abandonment and betrayal by those who were thought to be trusted. It is Christ who wept and groaned. It is Christ who understands our deepest, darkest wounds. It is Christ.
And it is through the resurrection that Christ redeems broken bodies and broken hearts. It is Christ who is making all things new again. It is Christ who promises to be near and not forsake us.
If you are interested in learning more about abuse and healing, several good resources include Wounded Heart by Dr. Dan B. Allender, and On the Threshold of Hope by Dr. Diane Mandt Langberg.
To reach the National Child Sexual Abuse Helpline, call 1-866-FOR-LIGHT (866-367-5444) or to text a licensed counselor for crisis support. Text ‘LIGHT’ to 741741. Both calls and text are free of charge.