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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