Sex is only mentioned in terms of sin.
The message received, especially by children, is that sex is dirty and yucky unless you are married and trying to make babies. Without clear teachings about healthy sexuality, children and youth often view their bodies as potentially dangerous sexual objects. So if they are touched in a sexual way, they can feel confused and deeply ashamed. The people they should be able to turn to in such a situation—their pastor, Sunday School teachers, parents—are likely the people who have taught them this shame.
In some cases, if a young person gets up the courage to report, an adult can help them through their confusion and shame. Too many churches refuse to do the hard work of exploring issues of consent and power, the work of understanding grooming and manipulation. They fall back on the simple rule: sex between people who are not married to each other is bad; therefore, anyone who engages in sex with someone to whom they are not married is bad—even if the sexual encounter is a result of grooming, coercion, or outright sexual assault. There are many problems with this simplistic rule for sex.
But in the context of sexual abuse, the primary problem is that the victim is considered just as sinful as the perpetrator. Several years ago, a student in my Feminist Theology class shared that her mom had stayed in an abusive relationship for years because their pastor told her she should.
How politeness conditioning can lead to confusion about sexual assaults
That such suffering made her holy. And the idea that we, at times, must make sacrifices is not a bad—or even an inherently Christian—teaching in its basic content. We sacrifice money for flood victims; time for the local little league team; canned peas for the local food pantry. Maybe we even sacrifice an advancement in our careers for the sake of our family, or the convenience of a car for the sake of the environment. Sacrifice for others can be a good and blessed thing. But this theological requirement of self-sacrifice is also dangerous, and sometimes lethal, for abuse victims.
Why try to understand?
The call to sacrifice paired with the story of the crucifixion can easily turn into a glorification of suffering. Victims are told that if they want to be Christlike they will submit to their abusers—or at least submit to the will of the church leadership by not reporting abuse to outsiders. You will become a stumbling block that prevents nonbelievers from finding salvation. People within the church—and particularly women within the church—are too often told that following in the footsteps of Jesus means letting people crucify them.
The church cannot prevent every instance of sexual abuse—within or outside of religious institutions.
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But it can do a better job of empowering victims and holding perpetrators accountable. The stories told in church matter. And the way they are told matters. It was like a third person in the bed with every partner. Finally, about eight years after it happened, I got sick of that. So has talking about it, to friends, partners, and a counselor. I had an experience just a few months ago that scared me, but for a different reason.
I make it my business to speak up when I hear that.
In a relationship, I have trouble giving up control. Sexually, I cannot let go enough to really enjoy myself, and I am therefore content to abstain from sex. I need to have my own money and I kept my own bank account even when I was married, which I am told is a smart thing to do, but I did it because I did not trust my spouse to pay the bills. I was afraid that I would end up getting evicted yet again. I also can get triggered rather easily. If a person I am with gets angry or has a behavior that seems aggressive, even if they are playing around, I get very nervous and can have panic attacks.
I consider myself to be a very strong person, and I am very vocal in my feminist beliefs and active in the community with anti-violence awareness campaigns, but when something triggers me I can feel so small and insecure again, regardless of how far I have come. Nidea : I got separated from my parents and I got lost. We always had a safe spot in case that happened, usually in front of the store. I sat there and waited for my parents, a bit frightened because this was the first time it had ever happened to me.
I was a little girl who knew no English in this huge store, but someone found me. A man, a bit older than my father, he knew Spanish and somewhat comforted me. As he spoke to me, he would touch me. Maybe that was the way in America. I was in a crowded department store.
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If it was bad someone would say something, right? My parents thanked him, and I got yelled at for getting lost. I got sneakers that day, Patrick Ewing sneakers. Those sneakers always carried those memories attached to them. Soon after, I met some of my distant cousins. They touched me every single time they visited.
In the beginning it was more like a brush against my breasts or my butt.
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Then they wanted to bathe together, told me it was normal. We were cousins and this was what cousins did in America. I wanted it to stop but they would just hurt me; they were older.
One day, my mother had a talk with me. A girl I used to go to school with got raped while waiting for the bus to go to school. My mother then had the sex conversation, what was rape and why it was wrong. The whole purity thing, staying a virgin until you marry, not letting anyone touch you. When you buy something from the store you want it new, right? Not used. I then realized how disgusting I was, how used and violated I had been. I would hurt myself; I even attempted suicide.