We Must Keep Talking About Sexual Assault

Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock Images by By Diego Cervo

The startling truth about the 97% and the silence of Christianity

Almost every woman I know has a story. Whether it was being uncomfortable on an Uber ride home or having her innocence taken away, most women don’t have to imagine what it’s like to be uncomfortable around a man.

Every story matters.
Every story is valid.

And the truth is, survivors of SA (or sexual assault) are all around us, whether we realize it or not. I am one of them, which is something that I don’t share with most people. Months like April, when we talk about SA more than usual, can be difficult for women who share these experiences. Apart from the trauma women relive every time the topic resurfaces, responses from some men, some Christians, and even some women are triggering and incredibly discouraging. 

The 97 Percent

Survivors of SA come from many different walks of life. The ugly truth is, you can dress modestly or show what your mama gave you. You can even do everything “right” and still end up in an unfortunate situation. This is why it is never the survivor’s fault. Sexual assault is not dependent on your sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, or even your gender. Yes, men can be survivors too. 

However, I want to talk about a recent survey published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for UN Women on women in the UK and their experiences with sexual assault. The study was alarming and controversial. Done on approximately 1,000 girls between the ages of 18 and 24 who lived in the UK in 2021, the study concluded that 97 percent of these women had experienced some type of sexual harassment from men in public spaces. This included catcalling or anything that made a woman uncomfortable and unsure of her safety.

An article in The Guardian records commentary from Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, on the subject. Bates has found that even when women report these instances to the public authorities or at their place of work nothing is done. “At the root of all this is the normalisation of the idea that a woman’s body in a public place is simply public property and young women just have to put up with it. We have to shatter that normalisation through policy and in the press if we want to change the picture,” she said. 

Women Speaking on the Unspoken

This survey is sparking several conversations. Of course there are men who feel it was more important to argue over the accuracy of the percentage of women who have been harassed, or whether or not catcalling is a form of harassment. But the most important conversation coming out of this study is the conversation that women are having with one another about their experiences.

Wrestling with how many women have experienced similar harassment and/or assault, a lot of women are feeling more comfortable with sharing their story, including myself. There is, of course, a spectrum of SA. Sexual assault and rape are not synonymous. And the stories women have that are not quite that extreme have a place in this conversation as well. The argument should not be whether it’s truly 97 percent of women who experienced harassment or not. It should be 0 percent. I should not feel uncomfortable going into corner stores alone or pumping my gas at night. We should not have to travel in groups to the bathroom, or come up with secret codes for when we need to escape an uncomfortable situation.

I speak from experience when I say, to feel out of control and powerless is one of the most defeating feelings there is. And the fact that so many of the brave, strong women that surround and support me know what that feels like, horrifies me. I had to do very little explaining to the women in my life about how I felt because at one point or another they had felt it too.

My story is a lot less extreme than others, and I thank God it stopped when it did. But truthfully, this experience affected me for a very long time. It altered the way I related to men, how I carried myself, and even what I thought about myself. For a long time, I didn’t even think my story mattered in the grand scheme of things. I told myself that other people have it worse and those are the stories that should be highlighted. Such thinking is the furthest from the truth. Every story matters. Every story is valid. It is time for women to begin speaking up on the things we’ve been told to keep unspoken.

The Church’s Silence and Misguided Action

Too often women are questioned before they are believed. People want to know why they didn’t speak up earlier or why they didn’t do more to stop their abuser. With questions like this, where do women go when they are recovering from such trauma? Certainly the church should be a safe place. Unfortunately, a lot of times, the church is where women were harassed, abused, raped, and silenced to begin with. And even if the woman is believed, if the predator is even removed from the church, they simply relocate and try again at another church. Because predators know better than anybody that Christians will scream and shout about every other sin, and suddenly fall quiet when a woman talks about her sexual abuse.

When women begin talking about the horrific realities of sexual assault we are often preached to. We are told what to do in order to lower our chances of being abused. Church leaders call meetings to tell us to carry a small weapon like pepper spray or a pocket knife, make sure we don’t walk alone at night, try to dress appropriately so we’re not attracting any unwanted attention. And while women are given more and more restrictions, the men who have caused their discomfort and trauma are ignored.

When I was being harassed in high school the boy was let off with a suspension. My only other option was to take matters into my own hands if I wanted more disciplinary action taken. At the time, I wasn’t at a place in my life where I was willing to do that. Currently in college, I’ve witnessed time and time again when statements are put out about women’s inappropriate encounters with men and these men are still allowed to lead out in various spiritual programming on the campus. There is no real accountability, whether there is proof or not. And more often than not, these men are let off the hook, welcomed back into their previous positions of power, and in time continue to abuse that power. 

What Men Should Be Talking About

In order for there to be any change in how our churches, schools, and institutions address sexual assault, men have to talk about such violence differently. The discussions I hear men having with boys about SA are not about making sure they are creating a safe space for the woman in their lives or calling out their friends for inappropriate behavior. And sometimes, even when they do address SA head on it is a very surface level conversation. There needs to be a more consistent dialogue that tackles more than rape. Young men need to be taught that no means no, and so does any hesitation. They need to be taught that a woman can change her mind about what she’s willing to do. They need to be taught that you can assault someone even if you’re in a relationship with them. They need to be taught that coercion is still assault, and no does not mean convince a woman otherwise. 

Historically, talking to men about their participation in SA culture has been very reactive. After something awful happens there are small talks about what not to do, but these conversations are not happening on a regular basis. There needs to be a proactive approach. Parents need to teach their children, boys and girls, about consent at a young age. It is not a difficult concept to grasp if we normalize asking people what is okay and stopping when they give us even the slightest hint that they would like us to.

Talking Stops Trauma

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but April is not the only month when this conversation is necessary. The problem is not going to go away, or even get better, if we don’t continue having these conversations. Specifically, this is not a conversation that the church can afford to keep conveniently “forgetting” to have. Young women are going into church to worship Jesus, and coming out with years of trauma and abuse. The church’s silence is deafening. This is not an issue that we can let fall between the cracks anymore. It has been almost 5 years since my story took place, and although I have done a lot of healing, every now and then, proof of my trauma will still show up. It is not enough to say that you haven’t assaulted anyone, and call yourself an ally. Listen to survivors, believe survivors, respect survivors, and maybe then, we can start to make some real change. 

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