Talking about “Real” Sexual Violence

This is part three in our series on sexual abuse. Click these links for parts one and two.

As we have written our first two posts this week, we have received a number of ideas and requests for topics to include in this series. A few readers have requested that we write about signs of sexual abuse, especially those that Christian parents may fail to notice. One reader asked specifically for more information about what to do if a person who claims to be abused fears perceived sexual advances from other people who are not abusers. Several people who have interacted with us online the past couple of days have used language such as “serious sexual violence,” “legitimate sexual violence,” and “real sexual violence” to differentiate what they see as levels of seriousness when it comes to unwelcome sexual advances made on another person. This is the topic we have chosen for today, and we think it relates well to the suggestion that we write about signs of sexual abuse. (If you have any suggestions for items to include in a future post on that topic, please let us know.)

Why is it that when we discuss sexual violence there is always a tendency to use a tier system for ranking the actions? Touching a young girl’s breasts becomes a not-so-serious tier 1 offense, whereas raping that same young girl is a tier 5 offense. Part of it may be that the legal system responds differently to different specific acts of sexual violence, so we feel justified in thinking of some as “not so bad” and others as “real sexual violence.” In reality, trauma of any kind impacts different people in different ways. We as a society think it’s normal for a veteran to develop PTSD, but tell people who have experienced sexual violence that they should just get over it because it wasn’t that big a deal…except in “some cases of violent rape.” This attitude keeps people from getting help when they have experienced sexual violence, and when we carry it into the church it prevents victims from finding safety in what should be the safest place on earth.

If you are not a survivor of sexual violence, you may have some misconceptions about how victims feel, what kinds of sexual violence can have lasting impacts, and what it means when a person tells you about an experience of sexual violence. The two of us had a long conversation last night about what Lindsey, who is not a survivor, mistakenly believed before meeting Sarah, who is. We’ve listed them below with some additional explanation.

“A person will always begin talking about sexual abuse by saying, ‘I was raped.'” If a person is confiding in you about a story of sexual violence, it is possible that “I was raped” will be the first item shared by the victim. But this is usually not the case. It’s very common for a victim to begin by sharing other details in order to test the listener and determine if that person is safe for further sharing. Victims have had their senses of trust and security violated. It can extremely difficult to share about an experience of sexual violence. One should never assume that the victim has already shared everything that happened, or that if the victim decides to tell more later the additions to the story are exaggerations for attention-seeking purposes. It took Sarah more than two years to share every detail of Sarah’s abuse with Lindsey.

“It’s only real sexual violence if the person was forcibly penetrated.” Sexual violence occurs when one person behaves sexually toward another person in a way that was not wanted or welcomed. It can involve touching and fondling as well as penetration and other actions. Often, an abuser who begins with unwanted sexual touching will eventually proceed to engaging in other sexual behaviors toward the victim. In this case, telling a victim the abuse isn’t real unless it’s penetration is like telling a person with symptoms of ebola, “It’s not real until you’re bleeding internally.” Even if the abuse doesn’t progress from fondling to rape, unwelcome sexual touching can be just as traumatic especially if the victim is met with disbelief instead of support.

“If it really happened, there will be an overwhelming amount of evidence to corroborate the victim’s story.” We’ve known many Christians who have stated confidently that their churches have the perfect policy for dealing with allegations of sexual violence: the story is investigated (whether by church elders alone or involving police too) and if there is sufficient evidence, action is taken. If there is not sufficient evidence, the incident is let go and treated as though it never arose in the first place. Such policies originate in the erroneous belief that there is always evidence if the victim is indeed telling the truth. In reality, it is almost impossible to prove that sexual violence occurred in most cases. If there are no witnesses and the perpetrator does not confess, the situation often becomes the word of the victim against the word of the perpetrator. But lack of evidence does not mean that the incident of sexual violence never occurred.

“Fear experienced by abuse victims is limited to the context of the abuse itself.” When victims lose their sense of security and trust, the world can become a frightening place. Other people who remind the victim of the perpetrator in any way may be perceived by the victim as a threat. Victims may fear touch from others or sights, sounds, smells, and other environmental factors that trigger memories of the abuse and the events surrounding it. It is common for people who experience sexual abuse to be hypervigilant. Victims may perceive innocent behaviors of others as threatening. This does not mean that the victim has fabricated the abuse story and is experiencing sexually deviant delusions; instead, it is a sign that the victim has indeed been abused. Do not accuse the victim of lying if this happens. Instead, assist the person in finding help from a trained professional.

“A support person always has a second chance to be a safe person.” If a victim confides in you, you may expect that person will give you multiple chances to respond well. There’s a perception that if a support person responds poorly during the victim’s first attempt at disclosure, the victim will understand, immediately forgive, and simply try the disclosure again. Most of the time, a support person only gets one chance to respond well. This is not to say that victims are never understanding when a support person feels clueless, but if your first response to disclosure of sexual violence is one of skepticism or outright disbelief, do not expect the victim to give you a second chance. This isn’t about vindictiveness or lack of forgiveness. It’s about the victim’s self-protection. Many victims of sexual violence come to see that very few people in their lives are safe people for discussing what happened to them. If you want to be a safe person in your friend or loved one’s healing process, you should never respond to the disclosure with the attitude that what occurred was not “real sexual violence.” Even if you have doubts or are unsure about the details, do not question the realness of the story. Seek help for yourself if needed.

Can you think of other misconceptions about “real sexual violence” and how it is disclosed? There are several beyond what we have listed here. Let’s discuss them together in the comments.

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10 thoughts on “Talking about “Real” Sexual Violence

  1. Thank for having the courage to share your aweful abuse and reactions to it.

    We had a case along the lines of this post in New Zealand where our Prime Minister repeatedly pulled a young female waitress’ ponytail over 6 months, despite being told to stop by the waitress, he manager, and the Prime Ministers own wife. Unfortunately many people did not see this as a serious case of abuse but as merely innocent “horsing around”. But it is eaxactly the kind of abuse of the weak and powerless by the powerful that seems to be the essence of sex abuse.

    God Bless

    • That’s a great example of what we are discussing here. What an awful story. Yes, it’s easy for the powerful to take advantage of others when people are willing to turn their heads and ignore.

  2. On the topic of additional misconceptions, I was surprised to not see anything about victim blaming/shaming on here. “Well, you should have [insert unhelpful thing here]!”

    Additional thought: elsewhere, Lindsey mentioned taking some intentional steps to be mentally prepared in the event that someone chose to disclose an abuse situation. I think we would all benefit from hearing what that preparation consists of, so that more of us can be similarly prepared!

    • Now that you mention it, I’m surprised I didn’t think to include that! Over the years I’ve been told many things that I “should have” done: run away, try to tell someone else besides my parents, made sure I was never alone, and so many more. All very unhelpful! I think “You should have just run away” is the one I’ve heard the most. I’ve met many people who think that older children and teens can simply say no to an abuser and leave the situation. Not true. About preparing for the possibility that someone might disclose an abuse situation…I’ll let Lindsey weigh in on that one before I do. Lindsey, your thoughts? -Sarah

  3. I got a second chance. I couldn’t believe. I was angry at even the thought. But I had a priest friend who was also a psychologist. At dinner one night as I was ranting, my friend interrupted politely with a question: “Have you considered it was possible that he could have done that?” At once I realized how blinded I was by a kind of hierarchy of loyalty. At that moment my relationships were reoriented (by grace, I am sure). I got my second chance, but only much later. Fortunately for me, the survivor did not hold my initial reaction against me. I realize now how difficult it must have been. That was many years ago. We are still close, thanks to her strength and God’s gift of friendships.

    • It’s great that you got a second chance. It’s very difficult for survivors to give them. It’s also great that you two are still close friends.

  4. Now I understand why you say you are a celibate lesbian. You are a lesbian because you would not be celibate if the abuse had not made you afraid of men. Would you not be better served by joining a monastery or working with your spiritual father toward having a heart open to a marriage in the Holy Orthodox Church?

    • Sarah has addressed this specific assertion before. For Sarah, sexual orientation and surviving sexual abuse are not connected. Additionally, Sarah has never had a fear of men. Lastly, Sarah has spent time discerning monastic life. There are ways of seeking Christ that are not limited to monasticism and marriage.

  5. In a church context, involving teens (ages 16 and 18), abuser adamantly denies accusation, staff believe girl, girl does not want authorities involved…what would you caution/recommend for church to do?

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