The Tragic Prevalence of Sexual Assault
Sexual asssault is all over the news today. Headlines in the United States tell of a long list of woman who have accused Bill Cosby of assault, and tell of college campuses where rape is shockingly common. Headlines in Canada tell of reporter Jiam Gomeshi and his ugly history of sexual violence. It is my sincere hope that these stories spark new and better discussions about the prevalence of sexual assault, how we can prevent it, and how we can respond to it.
Though the incidence of sexual assault is high, the rate of conviction is low. The majority of sexual assault goes unreported and the majority of those who commit sexual assault go unpunished. While the law needs to protect those who are unjustly accused, in cases of sexual assault it seems like the process of law can actually re-victimize the victims. And this helps explain why victims can be so hesitant to report the crime, and why accustations can take many years to come to light. The sin is awful and the aftermath can be excruciating.
Pastor Justin Holcomb has given a great deal of attention to this topic over the past few years, and I recently spoke to him about sexual assault in light of today’s headlines.
The law states that a person is considered innocent until he is proven guilty. Yet in many cases it is very difficult to prove sexual assault simply because it is one person’s word against another’s in a context in which there are no witnesses. Is there a solution to this, where we take seriously a person’s charge of sexual assault, yet while still requiring the burden of proof?
The burden of proof is to determine if a crime has been committed, but we do not need to same burden of proof to determine if we should serve and care for the person claiming that they have been sexually assault.
With regard to the reporting of sexual assault, there are two major issues to consider—false reporting and under reporting. While under reporting is a major concern, false reporting is not. Actually, false reports are quite rare. The figure often used by sexual violence experts for estimating falsified reports is 2 percent, which is a slightly lower rate than other crimes.
It is well established that many victims of sexual assault refuse to go to the police because they know that they will face a grueling and humiliating process of questioning to establish whether they truly were victimized. Is there a way we can take charges seriously, yet while protecting the dignity of those who may have been the victims of assault? Why do so many victims of sexual assault choose not to charge their attacker, or perhaps even to tell anyone else about their experience? Is there something we, as Christians and as churches can do to help people speak up?
According to the FBI, sexual assault is “one of the most under-reported crimes due primarily to fear and/or embarrassment on the part of the victim.”
Given the horrific nature of sexual assault and the shame it brings to victims, it is not shocking that it is one of the most underreported crimes. The fear of intrusive and revictimizing court procedures pre- vents many sexual assault survivors from reporting their assaults. Most sexual assault victims choose not to report their assaults. Factors that keep a victim from reporting the crime include shame and embarrassment, self-blame, fear of media exposure, fear of further injury or retaliation, fear of one’s own family and community response, and fear of a legal system that often puts the victim’s behavior and history on trial.
Research on attitudes toward sexual assault has demonstrated that individuals in our society hold many prejudices about and negative views of sexual assault victims. So, victims often suffer not only from the trauma of the assault itself but also from the effects of these negative stereotypes. The result is that victims feel socially derogated and blamed following their sexual assault, which can prolong, continue, and intensify the substantial psychological and emotional distress the victim experiences. It is clear that negative reactions from family, friends, loved ones, and society have a harmful effect on victims.
Because sexual assault is a form of victimization that is particularly stigmatized in American society, many victims suffer in silence, which only intensifies their distress and disgrace. There is a societal impulse to blame traumatized individuals for their suffering. Research findings suggest blaming victims for post-traumatic symptoms is not only wrong but also contributes to the vicious cycle of traumatization. Victims experiencing negative social reactions have poorer adjustment. Research has proven that the only social reactions related to better adjustment by victims are being believed and being listened to by others.
Christians can listen to them and tell them, “I believe you. I’m sorry that this sin and crime happened to you.” They can also offer to help: “If you want to report this, I’ll go with you so you are not alone.”
One of the tricky issues related to sexual assault is the issue of consent—consent to participate in sexual activity in general or specific sexual activities. Is consent given one time at the outset of sexual activity, or must consent be given on an ongoing basis? How should we think Christianly about consent?
A key concept in cases of sexual assault is that the victim did not consent to the sexual contact.
Consent is when an individual is freely able to make a choice based upon respect and equal power, and with the understanding that there is the freedom to change her or his mind at any time. To judge whether a sexual act is assault, we ask: (1) Are both people old enough to consent? (2) Do both people have the capacity to consent? (3) Did both agree to the sexual contact? If any of these are answered “no,” it is likely that sexual assault has occurred.
Consent requires communicating “yes” to engaging in a particular act. Consent is not given when one person says “no,” says nothing, is coerced, is physically forced, is mentally or physically helpless, is intoxicated, is under the influence of drugs, or is unconscious. Nor does it occur any time that consent is not explicitly given. Having given consent on a previous occasion does not mean that a person has consented for any future sexual encounter. The law generally assumes that a person does not consent to sexual conduct if he or she is forced, threatened, or is unconscious, drugged, a minor, developmentally disabled, chronically mentally ill, or believes they are undergoing a medical procedure.
What should Christians know about those who have experienced sexual assault?
While the prevalence of sexual assault is staggering, the only thing more staggering the acute damage done to the victims. As sobering as the statistics are, they don’t begin to speak to the darkness and grief experienced by victims. Sexual assault causes huge amounts of physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual pain.
Sexual assault causes harmful psychological effects that are more severe than effects of other crimes. During an assault, most victims feel terrified, fearful, helpless, humiliated, and confused. Afterward, any of these feelings can persist and intensify, especially terror and fear.
The most common psychological symptoms associated with sexual assault were anxiety and fear. Because sexual assault is always traumatizing, victims are three times more likely than non-victims to suffer from depression, six times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, thirteen times more likely to abuse alcohol, twenty-six times more likely to abuse drugs, and four times more likely to contemplate suicide.
Various factors are linked to traumatic distress or feelings of disgrace from sexual assault. These include denial, shame, guilt, anger, distorted self-image, and despair. Victims want and need a clear explanation of how the gospel applies to their experience of sexual assault and its effects in their lives. They need the kind of hope and healing that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can provide.
In our book, Rid of My Disgrace, Lindsey and I wrote exactly what we wanted survivors to hear in the opening paragraph: “What happened to you was not your fault. You are not to blame. You did not deserve it. You did not ask for this. You should not be silenced. You are not worthless. You do not have to pretend like nothing happened. Nobody had the right to violate you. You are not responsible for what happened to you. You are not damaged goods. You were supposed to be treated with dignity and respect. You were the victim of assault and it was wrong. You were sinned against. Despite all the pain, healing can happen and there is hope” (page 15).
While the majority of sexual assault happens outside the context of marriage, sexual assault can also happen within marriage. What constitutes sexual assault within marriage? How should women respond who have been assaulted by their husbands and how should the church help them?
Sexual assault can occur in marriage. As a matter of fact, researchers have estimated that sexual assault occurs in 10–14% of all marriages.
If a woman has been sexually assaulted by her husband, there is likely a pattern of more abuse and constitutes domestic abuse. Lindsey and I wrote, Is It My Fault? to serve women suffering domestic violence and the ministry leaders, families, and friends that serve them.
Sexual assault in marriage is a sin and a crime and, if the wife files a police report or wants church leaders to respond, the abuser must be confronted concerning his breaking of the marriage covenant.
If the church gets involved, this is not a case for couples counseling by the pastor. The wife will not be free to be honest since the abusive husband will threaten her with more violence not to tell the truth.
This type of abuse is a form of oppression that twists God’s good intention of marriage. One scholar puts it this way: “Spousal abuse not only violates an individual victim but also ravages the covenant of marriage itself, affecting families, society, and the community charged with sustaining promises of faithful love.”
Some abusive spouses may use Scripture against their victim by misusing verses such as 1 Corinthians 7:5: “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Some wrongly conclude that this verse connotes that the spouse owes her husband by giving her body to him whenever he pleases. But this reading misses that the marriage bed is about giving to one another willingly, rather than through coercion.
What are some specific ways we can minister to those who have suffered sexual assault? What are things to avoid?
Thankfully, this is a common question, so Lindsey and I made a list. If you are a loved one, friend, or pastor serving a victim of sexual assault, here are some suggestions on how to best care for that person.
- Don’t minimize or deny what happened to the victim.
- Listen. Don’t judge or blame the victim for the assault. Research has proven that victims tend to have an easier adjustment after abuse or an assault when they are believed and listened to by others.
- Do not to ask probing questions about the assault. Questions like this can cause revictimization. Follow the victim’s lead and listen.
- Let the victim know the assault(s) was not his or her fault.
- Reassure the victim that he or she is cared for and loved.
- Let the victim know that he or she does not have to manage this crisis alone.
- Be patient. Remember, it takes time to deal with the crime.
- Remember that each sexual assault victim has different needs. What may have been beneficial for one person might not work for another.
- Empower the victim. Refrain from telling him or her what should be done and from making decisions on the victim’s behalf. Present the victim with options and help him or her think through them.
- Encourage the sexual assault victim to seek medical attention.
- Encourage the victim to talk about the assault(s) with an advocate, pastor, mental health professional, law enforcement officer, another victim, or a trusted friend.
- Fight on behalf of the victim against the lies and challenge the myths and misconceptions about sexual assault.
- Take care of yourself. As a support person, you need to be healthy in your caregiving role.
- Learn what to say and what not to say.
- Avoid placating statements as an attempt to make the victim feel better.
- Take time to notice where the victim is in the healing process and do not rush him or her through it. Help the victim keep moving through it at a pace comfortable to him or her rather than trying to force progression to a different stage immediately.
If you are a husband or a wife who is supporting your spouse through the effects of sexual assault, here are two specific suggestions:
- Encourage him or her to tell a trusted friend or friends. It is a good idea for the victim to have a broad support base, as it can be exhausting if the supporting spouse is the only one involved. You won’t always be available to talk, and at times it can be easier for a victim to talk to someone of the same sex about certain dimensions of an assault.
- Don’t ever press or whine for sex or intimacy.
If you are a parent or guardian who is supporting a child through the effects of sexual assault, here are two specific suggestions:
- Advocate for your child. This means pursuing justice by calling the police and finding a good counselor who knows how to deal with the sexual abuse of children.
- If the assault occurred because of your negligence, apologize to your child and ask your child to forgive you.