I’ve been in and around the Christian church my entire life. You know how many times I’ve heard sexual assault addressed from the pulpit? ZERO. I’ve heard COUNTLESS messages centered in a girl’s purity, from both male ministers and female Sunday school teachers. Since I am a woman, and pre-teen classes were gendered, I am not sure how boy’s desires and urges were addressed in Bible class, but they were not addressed from the pulpit. And certainly nothing about bodily integrity was preached. In fact, women and girls are taught that their body is not their own, but that it belongs to God. It goes from belonging to God, to belonging to our mate, and never belonging to us.
In that vein, I think that we’ve failed to make it explicitly clear that our physical body IS our own. Scriptures intended to urge us to be of service to God and to people, have been manipulated and brought into hyperfocus to fit a cultural narrative that places the onus of purity on the women and girls, and doesn’t effectively teach girls or boys bodily integrity and respect.
The 2016 election season was full of revelations. I purposely waited to publish this piece after the results unfolded so that we could honestly talk about the impact of some of those revelations. While 2 million more (and counting) Americans voted for Hillary Clinton instead of Donald Trump, we now know that 80 percent of White evangelicals were a part of the coalition that voted for the President-elect. So what has to be true, is that the evangelical community not only turned a blind eye to what many Christians of color found abhorrent, but they also turned a blind eye to what they’ve traditionally heralded as family values.
Campaign rhetoric, justifications, and silence from evangelical leaders surrounding the Trump tapes are a microcosm of what we teach kids about sex and what we don’t teach about sexual assault. Grace is preached for boys and men, and women and girls are blamed for lack of modesty and then labeled as distractions. In Clinton’s case, she was effectively labeled an ‘enabler’ for not being able to maintain the sexual attention and fidelity of her husband, by a two time divorcee whose third and current wife was his mistress. The hypocrisy was as clear as day.
When off-air, hot-mic moments captured in 2005 by Access Hollywood were released, we all learned that Donald Trump bragged about his tendency to sexually assault women, particularly by “grabbing them by the pussy.” He bragged that his wealth and power automatically made women available to him. Women began to tell their personal stories about their encounters with the President-elect, encounters of unwanted advances, and other uncomfortable scenarios, some that matched his own description. The successful entrepreneur Barbara Corcoran even told her story about Trump’s fascination with her breast size during her pregnancy, a point he made during a business meeting. These revelations triggered people all over the country and many women (and some men) took to social media to describe their sexual assaults. The hashtag #notokay, #lockerroomtalk, and #askanywoman will bring up countless stories from survivors. The following tweets caused me to reach out to my own social media network.
Women: tweet me your first assaults. they aren't just stats. I'll go first:— kelly oxford (@kellyoxford) October 7, 2016
Old man on city bus grabs my "pussy" and smiles at me, I'm 12.
women have tweeted me sexual assault stories for 14 hours straight. Minimum 50 per minute. harrowing. do not ignore. #notokay— kelly oxford (@kellyoxford) October 8, 2016
The stories my network told me were indeed harrowing. Women (and a few men) were brave enough to privately and publicly share with me how people they knew and trusted violated them. The stories were absolutely heartbreaking. The accounts of date rape, child rape, uninvited fondling, shame, fear, and trauma made me feel broken and forced me to come to terms with my own experiences with sexual assault. I embraced the brokenness and realized that part of the lived experience of being female is surviving unwanted sexual advances and oftentimes assault. This should not be so, but it is, so we have to do something about it. I know that none of this is an instant fix, but it is important work. It’s God’s work. Here are ways the church can serve as a place of education, prevention and healing from sexual assault traumas:
Make Room For Women’s Voices: The main reason the discussion doesn’t happen is men are controlling the agendas and conversations of the church. Men are either unaffected by or are the perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment. There has to be a shift in our dialogue and that starts with intentionally making room for women and girl’s lived experiences and bearing witness to the truth.
Acknowledge that Rape Culture Exists: Rape culture involves a spectrum of psychological and physical violence. Whether it’s objectification of another person, physical assault, or forced penetration, the obsession with having power or control of another has to be faced, named, and taught against. Resist the urge to dismiss the fact that women are being sexually assaulted because the term “rape culture” is some liberal, PC ploy. Do not be dismissive of a moral crisis that impacts children of God.
Teach Youth Groups What Healthy Sexual Attraction Looks and Feels Like: We are naturally sexual beings. This has to be acknowledged as fact in any message of abstinence and purity. While acknowledging our nature, we must also reinforce that we are autonomous and have the right to bodily integrity. Rape is not about sexual attraction, but about power, and this distinction should be made clear. “Boys will be boys” is not an acceptable explanation for campus and date rape.
Provide Avenues for Professional Counseling: Church leadership should consider allocating funds to retain professional counselors to be on call for members who have suffered sexual assault. Having a budget for this issue and other mental health issues is a great way to send a signal to survivors that they are loved and valued as members of the body. Where funding is not possible, church leadership can at least do their best to remove the stigma of seeking clinical counseling and treatment outside of clergy. Leaders can send a clear message that there are resources outside of the church that are available and helpful in healing.
Reinforce Our Worth in Christ: The word that was in every story shared with me was SHAME. This burden is heavy, and it is not of Christ. Because purity has been inextricably linked to self worth and value in our teachings, the shame created is often because of what survivors think the Church will think of them if they told their truth. We have to create safe spaces for survivors to share their stories of grief, hurt, and triumph to help others. This is the purpose of the Body, and creating a safe, shame-free environment may not only minister, but it could even empower women to report the crimes committed against them.
The silence in our churches around sexual assault has to be broken, and if we actually listen to the people who are hurting, we will take a huge step towards breaking it. Once you open yourselves to bear the pain of another, it cannot be ignored in good conscience. Believers are yearning to engage in dialogue specifically about sexual assault and shame, and it is up to us to create action plans in our churches that will impact lives.
This article originally appeared on Medium.