When I became a Christian at university, I was taught, to my absolute shock, that I was clean and loved, and all my shame had been taken away. However, when I hear sermons or read bits of books about sexuality and about the proper place for sex, an image of myself as somehow damaged feels far more real to me. I sit there wondering if the gospel was even really meant for me because I can never be the kind of pure that these speakers or writers want me to be. It’s in no way my intention to suggest that these preachers and writers are wrong to hold their carefully thought through, biblically-based beliefs, or that my feelings are as a result of malice on their part. Rather, I believe I’m left feeling like this because we, as a Church, simply aren’t aware of the effect of our language and attitudes on a person who has experienced sexual violence.
Sexual violence is widespread in UK society, with 31 per cent of young women aged 18-24 reporting having experienced sexual abuse in childhood (NSPCC, 2011) and one in five women aged 16 – 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. In the Church, we often fail to recognise the extent of this violence or consider that there are women in our congregations have been subjected to it.
Being subjected to sexual violence can make a person feeling dirty and ashamed and embarrassed, damaged and broken and completely unlovable. I believe the language we use to talk about sexuality in Church, or indeed our failure to talk about sexual violence at all, act to reinforce those feelings and that this is something that we need to address.
We live in a society where the perpetration of sexual violence is often misunderstood; one in which it’s not unheard of for a judge to ask a rape victim: “Why couldn’t you have just kept your legs together?”
Victims of sexual violence are often treated without kindness and compassion, asked intruding questions and judged according to what they were wearing, how drunk they were, and whether or not they’ve had sexual intercourse before. The Church should be countercultural in this area, and through that, be a witness for Jesus in the way we respond to sexual violence. I don’t have the words or the wisdom to deal with this area fully, but I’d like to suggest just a few things I think could help:
First, I think we need to include discussion of sexual violence, where appropriate, in our books and sermons about sexuality generally, and refrain from using language that excludes people who have experienced sexual violence. I’ve listened to quite a few sermons and read a few books on sexuality since becoming a Christian, and I’ve noticed that sometimes the existence of people who are sexually violent is not discussed or even acknowledged. In my mind this is concerning. If the Church is to present a view of purity that involves not having sex before marriage, I think it’s important that it acknowledges that for some people, this is not a choice. I also don’t think it should operate in a way that makes those people who have had consensual sex outside of marriage feel ashamed either, but that isn’t the topic of this blog.
To sit through a sermon that calls sex outside of its “rightful context” sinful or “perverse” without any mention of sexual violence – and how it is the responsibility of the perpetrator and absolutely not the fault of the person who was subjected to such violation – can lead to a victim of someone’s sexual violence feeling ashamed, sinful and perverse – feelings that will often already run very deep because of having been subjected to abuse. Failing to address sexual violence contributes to societal taboos around the issue, which in turn contributes to shame culture.
I would like to see, where appropriate, pastors and authors speaking lovingly and compassionately to those who have been subjected to sexual violence in their sermons and books, recognising their experiences and assuring them that they aren’t damaged or perverse and that they are as much included in both the gospel and the church community as anybody else.
I would also like pastors refraining from using the language of “saving oneself” for marriage, because I believe that the use of this terminology, and similar phrases to the same effect, can be really unhelpful. Even if a pastor has acknowledged the existence of sexual violence with compassion and sensitivity, to talk of saving oneself gives the impression that those subjected to sexual violence are damaged or not worth as much as those who have not had been violated by another person, once again reinforcing feelings of shame.
Finally, I think we as a Church need to stand up against the injustice of sexual violence, of the choice of some people to sexually hurt and damage others, and to show love, compassion and community to those who have been hurt. As encouraging as it would be to hear pastors speaking about sexual violence, our response must go much further than this.
Churches needs to recognise the prevalence of sexual violent people in society and ensure that in every staff team there are people who are trained and equipped to walk with those who have had been subjected to such horrific pain. It would be an incredible way to witness to Jesus if our churches were places where people did not have to fear judgment if they talked about their experiences. If we become more willing to talk about the injustice of sexually violent behaviour, and to ask God to give us His heart for this injustice, I think we will begin to really see it for what it is – a horrendous thing to be subjected to that is in no way the fault of the victim. Only then will we be able to treat those who have been subjected to it with the love and compassion of Jesus.
The piece has been written as part of a campaign called Unashamed. Unashamed is being run this week at universities across England and Scotland and is a collaboration between Just Love, a recently-founded charity that exists to inspire and release every Christian student to pursue the biblical call to social justice, and Restored, an international Christian alliance working to transform relationships and end violence against women. Like Unashamed on Facebook or follow us on Twitter for more info.
If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this blog post and would like to seek support or advice from someone specially trained to do so, we recommend the following organisations’ websites and helplines:
Survivors UK (helpline specifically for male survivors)
The Student Counselling Service at your University
If you are a church leader or would like more resources on how to support those who have been subjected to abuse within your church, please see Restored’s Churches Pack and other resources for more information.