Questions I Often Hear about Sexual Abuse
See also author's home page: takecourage.org
I was making bedtime rounds on the children's unit of a small Oklahoma hospital where I worked as a psychiatric nurse. After giving me a warm, affectionate hug, seven-year-old Laura pulled the covers up to her chin and asked softly: "Dee, why would anybody want to se-su-ly 'buse a little girl like me?"
For several weeks Laura and I had become friends. I was her confidante. We had played together, and I had listened compassionately as she poured out the sordid story of her sexual abuse. She had been brought to the hospital after putting a knife to her own abdomen and telling her foster mother that she would kill herself. Her intelligence, honesty and courage to tell her story had won my heart.
”I'm afraid I don't know exactly, Laura," I answered. "But two things I know for certain--it wasn't fair and it wasn't your fault."
For the past five years I have had the privilege of working with all ages of victims of sexual abuse. Most were victimized as children, but some as adults. Continually I hear the same questions from them or their families. Clearing up the ignorance surrounding this threatening subject is one of my jobs. I also have a very personal perspective. I am also a survivor, and my perpetrator was a clergy co-worker. My own emotional trauma and recovery have given me the courage to speak out on behalf of the masses.
Most of us seem to be as puzzled as Laura: “Why would anyone do such a thing?” Behind this question I often find another: “Was there anything that justified the perpetrator’s actions?”
Answer: Regardless of the why, none of the reasons justify the criminal behavior. Perpetrators are not forced to act as they do. There is a conscious choice made. No excuse or rationalization is acceptable. No amount of denial will erase the crime. Softening and renaming sexual abuse is not merciful or helpful to either party. Long-term therapy, specific for sexual offenders, is necessary and available, whether or not prosecution takes place.
To the victim I often say: “The abuse was not due to some weakness or character fault on your part. Instead the perpetrator chose to take advantage of your vulnerability. He destroyed your safety zone to meet his own selfish needs. He created a lot of emotional garbage for you to sort through and throw out in order to be healthy and happy again. Even if he is dead, he can at time continue to invade your life and influence your relationships.”
Families are often unknowingly very cruel. Often, in my presence, I hear them ask victims one or more of the following questions: "Why do you have to keep bringing up something that happened so long ago? Why can't you just forgive and forget? Why do you want to destroy the family? What do you want me to do now?"
The hidden message seems to be: "Your reminders are hurting me personally. I don't want to fully face this horror. You seem to just be trying to get attention."
Victims often ask: "Why is it so hard for families to understand'?" What they often wonder is: "What have I done to keep them from seeing how really serious and long-lasting the abuse has been for me?" The fact is, the victim has not failed and is not doing so by expressing her (his) feelings. Friends and family members often unknowingly protect themselves at the expense of the victim.
The question I encourage victims to contemplate is: "What feelings will my family or friends have to deal with if they fully face the problem?" Among the possibilities are: 1) Guilt over their own knowledge or suspicion of the abuse or their failure to address it when they became aware. 2) Their own vulnerability. Blaming the victim often occurs when individuals do no want to believe that what happened to the victim could really happen to them. 3) Their own identification with the perpetrator and his/her family members. 4) Desire to protect the reputations of self, the abuser, the family or the institution. Attempts to quiet the victim often stem from these fears.
Victims often ask themselves and professionals: "Why can't I just forget the whole mess? When will I be able to put this all behind me and get on with my life?" The truth is, although the hurts from the betrayal of the perpetrator (and perhaps others in the aftermath) may crop up with less frequency as healing occurs, what has happened will never be "all behind" you. You had no control over what happened; but once you revealed the secret, you began separating your past from your present and future. Periodically, throughout your life you will have to deal with feelings that crop up as a result of your past suffering. Victims of childhood sexual abuse often find themselves returning to a therapeutic setting for brief periods during extremely stressful times in life. Healing is not an event, but a process. Nothing about abuse is good, but victims can team and grow as a result of successful healing.
Well-meaning people often shame victims when they hear such questions as: "Why did God allow this to happen? What good is God to me if God lets innocent people get hurt? What happened to the God I learned about in Sunday School who is supposed to protect us?" The truth is, we need to be very careful what we teach our children about God. Horrible things do happen to good people-not because of the fault of the victim, but because of the abundance of sin in this world. God gives us a free will. Perpetrators have chosen to take advantage of that gift.
Victims have a right to question God! God can handle it! In his darkest hour, even Jesus Christ wanted an explanation! (see Mark 15:34)
Finally, the question I hear most often from the general public: “Is sexual abuse more common now or are we just hearing more about it?” I personally believe both are truth, and I think the media has played a part in both the prevalence and the knowledge of this horrendous crime. Healthy human sexuality at its best is far more than a physical act. It is an on-going relationship, preceeded and continually abounding in love, lifelong commitment, trust, care and mutual respect. Healthy human sexuality builds people up. What we see portrayed in the media today is an inferior product because it is so often void of any of these qualities. I believe that this misconception coupled with the widespread availability of pornography has contributed greatly to sexual abuse.
In reality, sexual abuse is not sexuality at all! It is an inhumane act of violence. It uses the weak, intimidating them by reducing them to the level of objects. It betrays trust and inflicts emotional, spiritual and often physical injury. Sexual abuse is destructive to perpetrators, victims, homes, churches, organizations and anyone whose life it touches.
Many professionals agree that the breakdown of the home has contributed greatly to the increase in sexual violence. Children often face threats to their physical and emotional well being simply because there are no caring adults in their world to protect them. It is a challenge that our society must dare to face. Christians must be a part of that enormous challenge.
As a professional, I work with victims daily because I believe in the healing power of God working through the human spirit. Now, I have some questions for you. What are you going to do the next time you encounter the opportunity to minister to hurting victims and their families or to assist perpetrators to fully accept their responsibilities for change? Do you know where your community resources are when you need help? Will you challenge men and women alike to pray and work toward an abuse-free society?
This article, like all at www.takecourage.org
is copyrighted by the author. Other writers, by copyright law, may use up to
300 words in other published works without asking permission, provided the author
is given full credit. This also applies to the acronym "DIM Thinking,"
a term coined by Miller. You may download and/or distribute copies of any of
these articles, for educational purposes, PROVIDED the pages are distributed
without alteration, including this copyright statement. Credit should also be given to The Baptist Peacemaker for publishing the article. Dee Ann Miller is the
author of Enlarging Boston's Spotlight: A Call for Courage, Integrity, and Institutional Transformation (2017) How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct (1993)
The Truth about Malarkey (2000)