If you haven’t seen the prologue to this piece, go here.
While the Church should be a safe and nurturing place for those who have been deeply hurt by acts of violence, more often than not, it is exactly the opposite. Victims experience shame and fear, but do not feel safe enough to come forward; in cases like this one below, victims are only made to feel more shame in the church. One key to creating a safe space is an openness and willingness to listen, which is why I would like you to read and consider one survivor’s story, instead of insisting that they should be ready to forgive and reconcile at all costs.
I remember the first time I felt shame. I was in middle school and my youth pastor was talking about sex (and sexual contact) before marriage. During his talk, he went on and on about how wrong it was, and how God blesses the marriage of those who wait, and how sex before marriage was not only a sin against God, but against your own body and that of your future spouse.
My heart was beating loudly and I was trying not to look at anyone as most of the kids around me began to sing the closing song of our youth service. I spent the rest of the day praying for God to forgive me. I was sure I was dirty. I was sure no one would ever love me. I was sure that I was beyond repair.
You see, since I was 8 years old my step brother had been sexually abusing me. The abuse lasted until I was 14, when he was caught with illegal drugs and with a weapon in school and sent away to juvenile detention. I have not seen him since (he moved several states away with his mother after getting out of detention).
But I still had my shame and I was determined no one was going to know about it. Don’t get me wrong, I had a mom who taught me sexual education and who told me many times that no one should touch me without my permission. I was not raised in a Quiverfull household. Our family was mostly Christian in name only–you know, the shine-yourself-up on Sunday and get drunk Monday night kind of thing.
But I had a church who heaped shame on sex before marriage. That same pastor, and others throughout my life preached several messages on how important it was to be a virgin on your wedding night and what an awesome gift that would be to give to your husband. A gift I could never give.
I also remember a vivid conversation with my Aunt, who was my favorite person in all the world. One summer when I was visiting and about 10, she forbade me to play with a little girl who lived next door with her grandparents. When I asked about it, she replied that this girl was sexually abused by her father. She wouldn’t let this little girl play with me because, she said, girls and boys who are abused usually abuse others, and she didn’t want me around her. I buried my abuse deeper at that point. I never wanted to be someone who my Aunt thought capable of abuse. I didn’t want to be sent away. I wanted to be a good girl and be blessed by God.
Now that I’m older I know words such as “modesty culture” and “body shaming” both things that my church participated in. I didn’t know those words then. I just knew I both hated and loved my body and the attention it afforded me. I know that I thought of my body as not my own. I thought it belonged to my future husband. I thought I didn’t have a right to say no because I was already tainted by my past. I thought I should like it when boys touched me, I should be honored that they even paid attention to me.
I brought my past into many dating relationships and it took getting married to finally stop and deal with everything that had happened.
I love going to church now. I attend a church that, while talking about God’s plan for marriage and for our bodies, does so in a way that does not shame. And while my church isn’t perfect, I feel welcomed and also completely comfortable with asking questions and exploring doctrine.
I’m not sure what the world needs. But I do think it needs less body shaming and less twisted scripture used as a control point.
And I do wish more people talked about the rights of victims.
I know now that God sees me as pure and holy before Him. And I know that when I did meet the man that I now call my husband—there was absolutely nothing lacking on our wedding night, except for perhaps more chocolate covered strawberries.
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