What I Learned from Listening to Sexual Assault Survivors

As a higher education professional, I am inescapably faced with the reality of sexual assault in our world, particularly on college campuses. Nationally, this reality has made its way to the forefront of news coverage with Title IX lawsuits and the celebrity-backed It’s On US campaign. Arguably, this has lead to conversations about the culture surrounding sexual assault like never before. 

And yet it’s messy.

Messy for everyone, but faith-based institutions struggle exponentially as these conversations lead to places trenched in taboo.  We often don’t even have the language to begin to have helpful conversations. Worse still is the church’s history and habit of abuse “in house.” Be it a college or church setting, oh how quick we are to batten down the hatches, to defend our reputations first and foremost. We lose sight of our moral obligations and destroy our Christian witness.

This is the broad backdrop for the experience I had this semester. As tensions on my campus mounted, two things became clear: 1) No one knows how to do this well, and 2) Someone should try anyway.

So we did. A group of women with theological training got together and wrote and implemented 4 services for survivors of sexual assault and other abuses, their loved ones and advocates. The services focused on elements we identified as part of the journey, and thus we focused on lament, silence, anger, and hope. (For more details, visit StrongWomenWrite.org.)

As we wrote litanies, crafted the liturgy and put all the logistics together, week by week the stories of survivors continued to surface. It was a troubling and humbling experience. I’d like to share a few lessons I learned along the way.


There Are Survivors (and Perpetrators) Among You

Even as the statistics become more familiar — anywhere from every 1 in 6 to 1 in 3 women (over 17 million Americans), and approximately 1 in 33 or 2+ million American men — we just don’t think much about it. I can assure you of this: survivors of sexual assault are young and old, male and female, of all sexual orientations, races, religious affiliations, and social strata. When we combine these statistics with those regarding other forms of child abuse and domestic abuse, the numbers are mind-numbing.

We know these facts intellectually, but we often fail to face the reality that those numbers are our neighbors — our family, friends, colleagues, and fellow church members. It is crucial to realize people you know have survived sexual trauma. Accepting this reality informs our actions and tempers our speech. 


Teal ribbons tied for survivors of sexual assault, purple ribbons tied for survivors of domestic violence and other abuses. Prayer activity from “Prayers for Survivors: A Space for Silence.”

Language Matters

Personally, this has been the most challenging lesson for me. Challenging because I’ve been guilty of contributing to the noise, and challenging because language comes from deep-seated beliefs not easy to undo. When we victim blame an assault case that feels far removed… She shouldn’t have worn that. What did she expect going to that party? It’s probably being blown out of proportion… we discourage the silent survivors around us from reporting.

Why would they? Society tells them, we tell them, that somehow they could have, and should have, prevented the rape perpetrated against them. We tell them they are responsible for someone else’s violence against them. Every off-handed remark, every should-have, every minimization further silences the ones who most need your ear, not your mouth. It’s often the person you least expect in the room, but statistically they’re in the room, a survivor or loved one of a survivor, and they hear you. Rape culture is real and it is so, so far from the Kingdom of God. 


Click image to enlarge. 

Healing Isn’t Linear

Another seemingly obvious statement that is harder to accept in practice. I get it. I want you to feel better because I care about you, and because I feel better when you feel better. I don’t want to think about this reality of our world any longer than I have to. I want… 

In working through our four themes — lament, silence, anger, and hope — it became clear that one might be sad and then angry, fearful and then hopeful, back to angry, or angry and hopeful, etc. etc., all at the same time. There was no clear path. The best thing we could do was say, We believe you. You are not alone. As many times as needed, for as long as needed. When someone has experienced such a violation of their personhood, we cannot expect a simple path to healing. We can, however, continue to speak truth: You are loved. You are made in God’s image.


The Church, on the Whole, has Been Negligently Silent

Over and over again we heard, “My church has never talked about this,” and “Why don’t we talk about this?” As much as I’d like to think interest in our services were generated by good work, so often it seemed people were coming, even from the most unlikely places, simply because they had nowhere else to go. One woman asked, “Where was the church 60 years ago when my sister was raped?” 60. Years. Ago. I wish I could say her story represented a culture that once was. Instead, she sat surrounded by 18-22 year old students asking the same question, “Where is the church?” We can do better.

The church has been a place of condemnation for so many survivors. May we repent of our corporate complicity. For the abusive marriages we encouraged to “give it another shot” or the assault survivors who were asked by their pastors if “they were asking for it.” For the hush-hush handling of abuse in house so that no one’s reputation is tarnished, may we repent.


There Is Power in a Listening Community

Some days were so overwhelming. The amount of evil in the world felt unshakable. I was weary as advocate; yet I had the ability to take off my hat while survivors did not. How could we possibly make a dent? Over and over again I found strength in the courage of survivors to speak, to write, to wake up in the morning and choose to engage in the world another day.

My friends and I couldn’t undo anyone’s trauma, but we found creating a space for community to form, for people to listen, affirm and learn from each other mattered. That’s it. We didn’t change policies or regulate laws, though I hope someone does; instead, we chose to sit in an uncomfortable space and wait for the Spirit to move. With open hearts and open minds we listened, and we were forever changed.


*April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. More information can be found here.