By day I enjoy all things marketing, but I spend many nights and weekends as a Rape Response Advocate and advocating for sexual assault survivors. Every story is heartbreaking, but the thing that has been the hardest on my heart is that it appears that the church is doing more to contribute to a survivor’s shame than to their healing. Over and over again I hear people tell stories of being afraid to file a police report or even afraid to tell anyone at all because they think what happened to them is their fault.
This is a common occurrence among survivors. Shame is no stranger to those affected by this crime. What should not be common among survivors is that those ideas of shame are derived from things that their church has said and taught. We are talking about sons and daughter of the Most High King who died for them and whose heart is broken over their hurt and yet, the church seems to be doing more to make it worse than they are doing to make it better. Hey church…shame has no place here. Not for these survivors.
So, where are we going wrong?
Eight years; that’s how long it was before I finally told people what had happened to me. My reason for keeping the assault secret are not uncommon, and, in fact, are what I most commonly hear from other survivors who are bearing the weight of a shame that isn’t theirs to bear. The questions we have to ask ourselves are: “Where are we going wrong,” and “What can we do differently?”
Stop Making Girls Feel Ashamed About Their Bodies
First, let me say that sexual assault affects both men and women, and the church should be actively supporting all survivors. However, it seems that it’s the girls who often feel like the assault was their fault because of their body or what they were wearing though I’m sure this can be applied to everyone. For so long, the focus on pounding modesty into the hearts and minds of girls in the Christian church has been so strong that the negative impacts of it on their identity have been overlooked. When we constantly tell girls that it’s their responsibility to dress or act a certain way so as not to “tempt” or “cause a boy to stumble,” then it should be no surprise that if they are sexually assaulted they immediately jump to self-blame and thinking they must have worn something or behaved in a way that caused the assault to happen. Instead of teaching girls that their value is based on their body as an object, we need to start teaching them their value and worth and identity as a daughter of Christ. Churches need to implement youth education that involves teaching our young people what consent is and what constitutes sexual assault so that they are not ashamed to report something and to work towards prevention through consent education.
Cut Out the Victim Blaming
If anyone should be leading the charge to end victim blaming in our culture, it should be the church. Whether a person was out late at night, their profession, whether or not they were drinking, what they were wearing, their past sexual history, etc.; none of it puts any blame on the survivor and we should make that clear. We make sure that male survivors don’t feel like what happened to them makes them “less of a man” and let them know that we support them as a victim of a horrendous crime and that there is zero judgment. We start by having open and honest conversations. We make sure that our people know that they get to make the decisions about their body and no one else.
If you look at the statistics on sexual assault, you’ll quickly realize that it’s almost a guarantee that someone in your church has been affected. Some things that churches can do to support survivors include offering up support groups (consider offering anonymous support groups as well), have a mentor program for survivors to have someone in the church that they can reach out to when they are struggling, seek out training and education for your staff, and don’t shy away from talking about the subject. Having an open dialogue can reduce the feelings of shame in coming forward.
Get Involved in Your Community
Find local organizations that are serving sexual assault survivors in your community and find out what you can do to help. If you open support groups to the community, make sure that those organizations are aware of that so that they can let survivors know that the support group is available. Also, put together a list of resources for sexual assault survivors in your community and have that available for survivors who come to you. Get your church involved in serving through these organizations by volunteering or holding drives for items that they need. Not only does this show your church that you are active and involved in supporting sexual assault survivors, but the community will see it as well. If it helps just one survivor come forward and get the help they need, it’s worth it.
If you have some other ways that you think churches should be doing to support survivors, we’d love to hear about it in the comments.