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Why is Sharing about Sexual Abuse So Hard?

This series about power started with a team of people from Safe Church Ministry and the Office of Social Justice. We met together to discuss and plan for this series. We talked about different themes and people we knew who had insights about power from their own unique perspectives.

The plan was to end the series with a personal story from someone who had suffered deeply from misuse of power, someone who had experienced sexual abuse. And we thought we had someone who was willing to write his own story. But in the end, he was unable to do so. It ended up being too hard, too painful, too retraumatizing.

A woman on our team said that she had a story to tell too.

A woman on our team said that she had a story to tell too. However, part of her story included an institution that had worked to cover it up. She was afraid that there may be legal implications involved in telling her story and decided not to risk it.

Another member of our little four-person team extended compassion, acknowledging that she too had experienced sexual assault. And here I am with my own story as well. So many stories, and yet we are all quiet. Even though we work together, we didn’t know about each other’s stories of sexual abuse – it’s not easy to talk about it.

We didn’t know about each other’s stories of sexual abuse.

I wasn’t planning to write a blog for this series about power, but here I am wondering why it is so hard to share a story when that story involves sexual abuse. Perhaps the intense powerlessness of the experience makes it too traumatic and difficult to talk about.

You may not even remember it. Sexual abuse survivors often have fractured memories, the body’s way of protecting itself from the intensity of the full experience. Imagine the horror of finding yourself in the midst of a hurricane, a flood, or an earthquake – you are trapped, you cannot escape the devastation you know is coming, it’s terrifying! Sexual abuse can be a little bit like that.

Adding to the experience is our Christian culture, which so values sexual purity and can’t bear the shame and stigma associated with sexual abuse. Imagine the most humiliating moment in your life and then multiply that feeling a hundred times.

Imagine the horror of finding yourself in the midst of a hurricane.

What if the sexual abuse happened when you were very young and you’re only now beginning to understand and interpret what really happened to you? What if the abuse involves someone you know and love – and you would never want to hurt that person. What if there are legal barriers? Fears of losing a job? There so many reasons – it’s not easy to talk about this.

Instead of sharing my story with you,  I will share my experience of sharing it, for the first time, in a very public venue. It was a “Take Back the Night” rally at Michigan State University.

What if the abuse involves someone you know and love?

I was on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and had invited some students to attend the rally with me to take a stand against sexual violence. I brought along a poem I had written, a piece of my story. I hadn’t decided whether I was going to read it or not. What if I couldn’t read it without completely breaking down? What about the students that were with me – the poem wasn’t too graphic, but was it still an inappropriate amount of personal disclosure? Would they ever see me the same way again, after I shared about this experience?

And was it fair to share this part of myself in this public setting, with people I didn’t know, when I had never shared this part of me with people that I did know? My parents had passed, they never knew it. My own children didn’t know it – although I’m sure they suffered some indirect consequences as I pursued my own healing journey. Who would I have been without this experience in my life? Would I have been a better mother? A better wife? A better person? Would I ever have found my way to Jesus? So many questions, no answers.

Would they ever see me the same way again, after I shared about this experience?

I looked at the crowd that had gathered. Mostly women, a few men. Black clothes, piercings, and tattoos seemed quite popular. There were shaved heads and people with blue hair. And some of these women were big, even a little scary.

I could sense the anger in the crowd as we chanted and held signs. We wanted to take back the night that had been robbed from us by sexual violence. Why couldn’t we, as women, walk safely at night? Why did we, as women, have to live in fear?

There was a line at the open mic. I got in line, steeling myself for my moment in the spotlight. The woman in front of me had also written a poem. It was about how she was raised on Barbie dolls and how damaging it was for her to grow up with the false narratives about being a perfect little girl. There was a repeated refrain in her poem, kind of a chorus, which included expletives and the name Barbie. The crowd became engaged with her poem, loudly shouting the expletive-filled refrain over and again. I found myself joining in – wanting to add “Amen!” to the chant. Her words rang true; they resonated with my experience, even though they were words that I would never use myself. I tend to be rather soft-spoken.

There was a repeated refrain in her poem, kind of a chorus.

Now it was my turn at the mic and the rowdy crowd was energized by the woman who preceded me. My poem included these words, “Light finds a way through, guided by all-knowing love…”

And I wanted to tell this crowd that it was Jesus, he was the light that found a way through my darkness. I read my poem, and I said something about Jesus.

And the angry crowd, the same people who minutes ago were shouting expletives about Barbie…they clapped and cheered, for me. Many gave me hugs. They said it was beautiful. They thanked me for sharing. There was a comradery, a connection, an acceptance that felt amazing. My soul, deep inside, was embraced. It was so freeing!

And I wanted to tell this crowd that it was Jesus.

I’ve thought often about that evening since then. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if church was that place where hurting souls are embraced? What if church was the place where people who have experienced sexual abuse found understanding, acceptance and connection?

As director of Safe Church Ministry, I hear a lot of stories. Some haunt me. One that comes to mind is from a woman who had been raped, prosecuted her case in court, and won. (Note: That is very rare! Most rape cases never make it to court, and of those that do, only a small percentage result in a conviction.)

“They make me feel like I’m damaged goods.”

She described to me how supportive people at work were, giving her paid time off, even helping with household responsibilities during her difficult time. She said it was completely the opposite at church. People treated her differently, they stopped talking with her. She ended up leaving her church because she no longer felt comfortable there. She said, “They make me feel like I’m damaged goods.” My heart sank when I heard it.

All of us within our church communities have been given various gifts of power. It can come from our position, our education, our ability, our culture. We need to pay attention to how we use that power. Have we ever used our power to silence someone? (“Get over it…” “Forgive and forget...”) Have we ever joined our power with those already in power, valuing the reputation of the institution more than the one who has been harmed? (“Don’t rock the boat…”).

Have we ever used our power to silence someone?

Safe Church has begun to gather stories, because we believe that they are valuable. We learn as we listen, really listen, to better understand and support those who have experienced sexual abuse. We’ve called the series on The Network SOS: Sharing Our Stories.

We are posting these stories anonymously to try to take down some of the barriers to sharing. Perhaps you have a story to share. Feel free to contact Safe Church for more information.

This is my prayer: Lord, teach us to use the various kinds of power that you’ve given us to create safe spaces where stories can be told and where hurting souls can be embraced. Teach us to listen, to love, and to begin to understand. Grant us courage to not turn away, but to embrace anger, shame, confusion, destructive coping behaviors and all that accompanies the experience of sexual abuse. We thank you Lord that you are present with us, even in our own extreme powerlessness.

Find the other posts in the Power Over/Power With series here


[Photo by Benjamin Lambert on Unsplash]


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