Tag Archives: Sexual violence

Areas of Grey: Sex, Desire, Abuse and Christianity (Part II)

This post originally appeared on the Our Stories Untold Blog and is shared here with permission.

Note from the editor: The author is remaining anonymous because, as the author stated to me: “I work with kids. I Google my employers, and I’m sure they Google me. I don’t want to invite the possibility of ever not getting a job, or losing one, because I talked about sex on the Internet once.” Unfortunately this is sadly true in today’s society, which is why I’ve allowed the author to remain anonymous.

This is the second post for Areas of Grey: Sex, Desire, Abuse, and Christianity. If you haven’t read the first post, I recommend doing so before continuing to part II.

Note from the author: This post is a little bit about Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight. Both have been abysmally reviewed and voraciously enjoyed…more about that via your favorite friend, Google. If you haven’t read either book, I think you’ll still digest this. post just fine.

This post is a continuation from yesterday’s posed question:

Many of the women I know—many of them Christians, some of them Mennonites—have read Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight. Each of these women is intelligent, well-read, successful, and strong-willed. They are made of sturdier stuff than the women they devour in fiction.

But our best friends and mothers are STILL reading these books. Why?

3. We’re still reading these books because…: We are as unsure of ourselves as Ana, Bella, or another character:

Ana had barely met Mr. Grey before saying:

“We need to see women appreciated from the pulpit, honored for service, and stepping into roles where previously, there have been only men.”

“Romantically, though, I’ve never put myself out there, ever. A lifetime of insecurity—I’m too pale, too skinny, too scruffy, uncoordinated, my long list of faults goes on.”

Gloss over the particulars, if you will. What’s significant is the general self-loathing which many women, real and imagined, pour down upon themselves. Women need other women, in real life, in fiction, and in the media, who model self-love for their own bodies  and confidence in their own intellect and abilities. We need to be shown other women who, if they are sexy, are not sexual objects. We need to see women appreciated from the pulpit, honored for service, and stepping into roles where previously, there have been only men. (We’re doing a little better here, church.)

Or we will continue to identify strongly with weak female characters who we feel we know personally.

4. We’re still reading these books because…: It helps us empathize. A woman close to me read Fifty Shades of Grey as an insightful exploration of the continued struggle for intimacy that victims of abuse may live with.

I’m not an expert on the validity of that reading, but I do find it a powerful thought.

Abuse may end, but it doesn’t go away. That’s why we’re here. To tell our stories.

5. We’re still reading these books because…: Women experience firsthand the ways in which our broader culture insists that women be given permission—by a man—to explore their sexuality.

Permission is a big thing in Fifty Shades of Grey. As their relationship progresses, and despite the fact that she endures situations in which she is put in physical harm, Ana is told when, how, and how not to enjoy herself sexually. Literally, she’s playing the rules of the BDSM game—rules which are designed to keep the players safe. Again consider the possibility that you have church members for whom “kink” is more than a curiosity—it is meaningful way of engaging sexually with the gendered powers we daily confront.

BDSM Company on Taiwan Pride 2005

But even figuratively, it makes an appalling amount of sense. We hear stories of thongs for little girls, the male gaze in popular culture and advertisements, and women returning to their abusers again and again. Even if we don’t dwell on it, women are aware of their placement as objects of male sexual desire—it’s fed to us from the age at which we begin to watch television.

As we provide our youth with role models, guidelines, prayer, mentorship (I’m assuming that you’re doing this—if you’re not, time to start)—at the center of the conversation must be this message: Your sexuality is a gift given to you—not to someone else. Because of the shared nature of most sexual experiences, I know this message may be seen as problematic. Or, perhaps you think it’s obvious.

In conversations with dozens of twenty-something female friends, they have admitted to me that they felt disavowed of their own bodies, unable to even imagine the possibilities their intimate relationships held for them, because as women raised in the church, they didn’t feel allowed.

If I wasn’t a pacifist, I’d flog anyone telling girls it’s not okay to fantasize. Ditto to discouraging masturbation. Encourage your daughters to develop healthy, life-giving thoughts about sex within their private worlds.

6. We’re still reading these books because…: We need sex-positivity that goes beyond a rote declaration that we will not tolerate sexual abuse. Please understand me: I think that declaration is absolutely essential.

Ruth Marston reminded us that sex should be “union, joy, and trust.” I love that!

I am not arguing for promiscuity, however you define it. I am arguing that sex-positivity is about more than saying “sex is good.” It’s also about allowing for exploration of a multitude of sexual “unions, joys, and trusts” if your congregation is going to experience good sex.

Some of our stories untold have involved church members feeling unworthy of good sex.  Where do we go from here?

The first step is examining the connection between our silence on the most mundane parts of sexuality to our own propensities for victim-blaming, sexual shame, and delayed healing.

The second step, I think, involves creating room within our new guidelines for healthy sexuality for each woman or man’s sexuality—and reading habits—to be as unique as they are.

And the third? Keep talking. If not from the pulpit, talk to your friends. Talk to your parents. Talk to your sisters. Whoever told you that you weren’t allowed was misinformed.

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Areas of Grey: Sex, Desire, Abuse, and Christianity

This post originally appeared on Our Stories Untold and is re-printed here with permission. Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow.

Our Stories UntoldNote from the editor: The author is remaining anonymous because, as the author stated to me: “I work with kids. I Google my employers, and I’m sure they Google me. I don’t want to invite the possibility of ever not getting a job, or losing one, because I talked about sex on the Internet once.” Unfortunately this is sadly true in today’s society, which is why I’ve allowed the author to remain anonymous.

Note from the author: This post is a little bit about a previous post on The Femonite and Our Stories Untold about Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight. Both have been abysmally reviewed and voraciously enjoyed…more about that via your favorite friend, Google. If you haven’t read either book, I think you’ll still digest this post just fine.

When I was growing up, I wasn’t talked to about sex. As a corollary; I was not talked to about sexual abuse, and it was years before I realized that I was abused by a childhood “friend.” It was longer still before I realized that abuse was ruining my relationships and self-esteem, and longer still before I realized that to get rid of recurring, unwanted touch in my life, I had to be able to articulate what felt comfortable, what crossed my personal boundaries, and what (gasp!) to ask from my partner.

I’m passionate about how we interpret what we read–including the personal stories here–because I carried my story inside for years, and for a variety of reasons. I’m a strong advocate for Reader Response criticism, for allowing readers to let the personal seep into their interpretations of what they read. Stories tempt us to be didactic–to use them to prove our own points, or to manipulate them into making sense with our worldview. Fun!

But when we approach real, personal stories of abuse and sexuality (which Fifty Shades of Grey, titillating though it may be, is not), I believe very strongly in giving the storyteller the final word. If we want for girls to be brave enough to break the silence, we need to lift them up as the ultimate authorities on their own bodies, their own narratives, and their own desires. Sure, sometimes what we need is an expert, or someone who’s been there. And sometimes, especially after years of being quiet, we need the world to stop asking how past abuse could have been prevented, stop telling us to ditch the loser, stop telling us what our stories mean, or how we can embrace healing. Trust me, victims of abuse consider these possibilities.

We need the world to listen.

Like Katie, I want a happy ending to stories about abuse. Well, actually, we want to stop abuse.Many of the women I know—many of them Christians, some of them Mennonites—have read Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight. Each of these women is intelligent, well-read, successful, and strong-willed. They are made of sturdier stuff than the women they devour in fiction.

But our best friends and mothers are STILL reading these books. Why?

1. We’re still reading these books because…: We can write it off as voyeurism. Look no further than the church’s official stance, prayerful consideration, or sometime assault on the place of GLBTQ individuals in our congregations and public or their right to sexual expression. As a collective, we somehow believe that what happens between you and your most intimate partners is a matter of public interest. We need to hold you against our own sexual orientation or—as is the case in question—our sexual tastes. Ruth Marston reminds us in her recent post how this began:

“For a couple of millennia abstinence and celibacy were upheld as the ideal models for Christian sexual practice.  Marriage was offered for those who must be depraved enough to be sexually active.  Those relationships outside of marriage were labeled fornication or adultery. This model however fails to provide adequate protection against sexual violence.”

I’ve heard numerous sermons describing the church’s stance on issues of sex and relationships as a means of protecting the church body from heartbreak, from disease, from abuse—any number of very real, very sex-specific consequences. I believe that a new model by which we will protect our congregations from sexual violence also requires that we not perpetrate sexual violence by ostracizing people who quest to experience intimacy that is meaningful to them.I believe that the church can be a community where women and men are supported in a search for an intimacy that is not one-size-fits-all, but we’ll not get there by tip-toe.

2.We’re still reading these books because…: We can see through the character’s predicament into our own. Perhaps, unlike Ana in Fifty Shades of Grey, you are not in a relationship in which your partner experiences arousal from causing you pain. You likely still know the challenges and rewards of balancing your own desires with the desires of other people.Our own experiences may not be quite so dramatic as in BDSM romance novels—but sometimes, they really are.

A BDSM collar.

As women grow, as we enter and fall out of relationships, we need candid conversations about the unmatched importance of knowing your own sexual boundaries and desires if we are going to be able to act well as agents in our intimate relationships. What’s more, we need to be presented with a portrait of sexuality—healthy sexuality—that goes beyond what the stories we’ve been told. Three of the places we get information on sex—the church, media, and porn—each with their own nuanced spin describe sex as something as something it is, but isn’t. Attractive? Magical? Easy? If the church doesn’t weigh in, someone else will. And when the leading information source on sex is pornography, we’re bound to feel inadequate in our experiences.

No couple’s sexual experiences will be completely static or completely fluid, completely without disappointments or completely made up of them. As our church members grow up, they need to hear a candor from our elders that this is to be expected, even celebrated.

For some people, kinky stuff is a viable, enjoyable, communicative, consensual—even ideal way of relating sexually.  And for others, it’s totally gross and creepy. But inherently unbiblical? I think not.

These books, and books like them invite readers into a world where they meet characters who encounter, explore, and, ultimately, survive situations that might resonate with them. We read to live.

…Stay tuned tomorrow for points 3-6 addressing why our best friends and mothers are STILL reading these books.

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Seeking a Happy Ending in Young Adult Literature

Katie Kevorkian

Guest post from…Katie Kevorkian recently received a Master of Arts from Claremont School of Theology in Interreligious Education. She is the Director of Children’s and Youth Ministries at Northridge United Methodist Church in Northridge, California.

This post is the fourth in a series on sexual violence and the church.

I admit it – I’ve read 50 Shades of Grey. I’ve even read 50 Shades Darker and I’m halfway through 50 Shades Freed. It is difficult to pinpoint what it is about these books that makes me want to continue reading them; they are notorious for the poor writing, underdeveloped characters and weak plot. They do, however, feature a female protagonist who becomes deeply involved in a dangerous situation. And I want so badly for her to walk away from it. So much that I keep reading in hopes that she will.

The 50 Shades trilogy is the story of a naive young woman who is physically beaten, punished, and verbally abused by a controlling, emotionally disturbed boyfriend. And he loves her… and she loves him… so she should keep trying to make it work, right? She should keep on believing that he will change because he loves her, right?

Of course. Because true love conquers all.

When we talk about sexual violence, we often speak of isolated incidents: women who are attacked by strangers, date rape, etc. Often we talk about women and children who are assaulted against their will by people who are familiar and close to them, like relatives, teachers or clergy. These tragedies deserve our attention and the women (and men) who have survived attacks deserve the support of the community to find justice, safety and peace. We often forget, though, that much sexual violence happens in the privacy of one’s own home, behind closed doors, within a committed relationship.

50 Shades of Grey effectively turns sexual abuse into something to be desired. To the protagonist, Ana Steele, it is hot and sexy, something that turns her on and makes her want more. Christian Grey, her love interest, has a troubled past, which he has learned to deal with by adopting a BDSM lifestyle, and outfitting a torture chamber and sex lair in his home, referred to as the “playroom,” or the “red room of pain.” In addition to the alternative lifestyle choice, Christian is unpredictable and quick to anger. Ana admits that she is afraid of him – afraid of his mood swings, jealousy and anger, yet she perseveres, hoping he will change. She puts up with physical pain, even admitting fault when he injures her while he is physically punishing her: she did not use the “safe word” while being beaten, thus causing her own injury. She requests that he hit her in order to ease the tension after an argument and tells him often that believes that she deserves to be punished. She enjoys the punishment, and becomes what he wants her to be: a girlfriend and punching bag.

If this sounds a little bit familiar, it’s because you’ve heard the story before. The 50 Shades trilogy by E L James began life as Twilight fan fiction. The Twilight Saga introduced similar themes into teen literature, including the notion that sex was accompanied by pain, and that this pain intensifies the sexual experience in a positive way. The pain in these stories is always inflicted by the man at his discretion and experienced by the woman. It is not cooperative (which wouldn’t be any less scary), but involves a dominant and submissive partner, one who completely controls the other and the situation.

These messages are dangerous, especially because these books culminate in (spoiler alert!) marriage: a contract that binds the couple together, making it much more difficult for the abused partner to remove herself from the situation. The stories suggest that a young woman should stay with a person who hurts them, because it doesn’t get better than that. If true love is in the mix, then the abuse is a non-issue, or will solve itself.

No one should have to learn to deal with abuse or to put up with violence, including verbal abuse and controlling behavior, ever. Especially not in a quest to find true love! We assume that this message is accepted by our communities, our friends, relatives, siblings and daughters – it seems so logical. However, ideas to the contrary are propagated in our favorite literature. Twilight is absorbed at an alarming rate by teenage girls, and housewives and young adult women seem to be under the spell of 50 Shades. Women of all ages are receiving the message that these kind of relationships are not only excusable, but normal and desirable. 

We need to send a new message to women of all ages about love and violence: if your romantic relationship includes controlling or possessive behavior, extreme paranoia or physical or emotional abuse, then you can do better. There is no such thing as love so powerful that makes an abusive situation worth it. Not for the moment, and especially not for the rest of one’s life.

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What’s Modesty Got to Do With It?

Several weeks ago, I read an article about this outfit. In the article, a father was called to come to school to retrieve his “inappropriately attired” daughter, who was wearing this article of clothing. This young woman had been singled out by the principal at her school and pulled out of the cafeteria because her attire was so provocative. Confession: My pre-pregnancy wardrobe was full of outfits just like this one, down to the Tom’s canvas shoes on her feet.

Upon arriving at the school and surveying her daughter’s outfit, the father is confused and cannot see why this outfit might possibly be deemed inappropriate. He writes, “I began to think : ‘Luckily the school administration can look at her and see her as a provocative female,’ but then I thought… no… that is extremely creepy. I tried to think: ‘Luckily the school administration can look at her though the eyes of hormone-addled teenage boys to see her as provocative,’ but then I thought… no… that is weird-creepy.”

Reading this article brought back a flood of memories for me. Receiving comments about the length of my skirt (which was hidden behind a pulpit 95% of the time) after giving a sermon, which can lead a woman to wonder, “Why were you looking at my legs and not listening to my sermon?” Performing the “fingertip test” to be sure that my shorts were longer than the length of my extended arms in high school. Sitting through a teen youth rally where the speaker exhorted women not to dress in ways that would “provoke men.”

And here’s where the problem lies. It seems like everyone wants to get in on the action when it comes to giving women advice on how they should clothe themselves. Women’s bodies often get viewed as some sort of communal drawing board, open for commentary from every angle. This constant haggling and attention paid to appearance reinforces the fact that a woman is, above all, a sexual object who should be shrouded and/or displayed appropriately.

 And as I’ve thought about what I will say to my own daughter when she’s a growing adolescent girl heading off to school, I do hope that she will dress in a way that shows both confidence and respect for her own body, although I know it’s hard to quantify exactly how many or what types of clothes signify these things.

But I do know that no matter what my daughter wears, she is not responsible for the ways that other people treat her. And no outfit that she wears, no matter how some people might categorize it, should make sexual harassment, rape or assault “her fault.”

That sounds obvious, but all too often, especially in Christian circles, we can get pulled into a vicious cycle of suggesting that women are responsible for the ways that men think about them and treat them because of how they dress and simply by virtue of the fact that their bodies are womanly.

Not too long ago, the website Jezebel posted the results of a survey of that was designed by Christian girls, who surveyed 1,600 Christian men, wanting to know how men would define modesty, since 95% of these males had indicated that modesty was one of the top qualities they would look for in a wife. Most of these men suggested that immodest clothing consisted of outfits “designed specificially to arouse lust in me” or clothing “that draws attention a girl’s body.” Specific items of clothing that were identified as immodest  included halter tops and mini skirts, designs on the back pockets of jeans (44% of respondents thought these were immodest, 19% were unsure), purses worn across the body, and tights with designs.

In his book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, author Michael Kimmel discusses the ways that women’s bodies become a key locus of temptation and aggravation for men. Kimmel cites a a Men’s Health study that surveyed 444 men. Out of this pool, 49% of readers felt that their female co-workers dressed in “pointedly provocative” manners and should be written up for sexual harassment. Kimmel writes, Men describe themselves as being ‘blown away’ and ‘knocked out’ [by women’s appearance]. As suggested in metaphor, women’s beauty is perceived as violence to men: Men use violence to even the playing field, to restore equality.”

In another sermon (which you can listen to here), pastor C.J. Mahaney says, “Sometimes when I see a girl provocatively dressed, I’ll say to myself, she probably doesn’t even know that a 101 guys are going to devour her in their minds today….All I need to know is that the way she presents herself to the world is bait to my sinful mind.”

This line of thinking becomes incredibly dangerous. Too often, when we talk about victims of sexual assault and/or rape, people ask the question, “Well, what was she wearing?,” as if this has any bearing on the problematic actions that occurred. As Freda Adler writes, “Rape is the only crime in which the victim becomes the accused.”

And, frankly, if I were a man,  I’d be downright offended by this argument. It is insulting to men, too. It suggests that men are unable to control themselves, and that the very site of a woman’s flesh provokes them to act inappropriately. It suggests that at any given moment, the average heterosexual male is primed and ready for sex, no matter the context, relationship, etc. This line of reasoning doesn’t offer a very positive view of the masculine mind.

So, although I know that conversations about modesty, professionalism and dress are complicated, I think it’s time to reframe the conversation to make it clear, once and for all, that no form of dress, no matter how “pointedly provocative” it may be, justifies any kind of unwanted attention: verbal, physical or otherwise.

As the infamous Vagina Monologues sketch, “My Short Skirt” says:

My short skirt is not an invitation
a provocation
an indication
that I want it
or give it
or that I hook.

My short skirt
is not begging for it
it does not want you
to rip it off me
or pull it down.

My short skirt
is not a legal reason
for raping me
although it has been before
it will not hold up
in the new court.

My short skirt, believe it or not
has nothing to do with you.

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No Longer Politely Angry

Rachel Halder

Guest post from…Rachel Halder is uncovering stories of sexualized violence against women in the Mennonite Church through her blog, Our Stories Untold. She invites you to share stories of sexual assault, abuse, domestic violence, molestation, or even attempted harm to a woman’s body. She also calls upon any support or hope you have to offer, in form of blog posts, contacts, research, or encouraging notes. Currently she works as the social media intern and blogger for Women Under Siege, a Women’s Media Center project spearheaded by Gloria Steinem, that documents how rape and other forms of sexualized violence are used as tools in genocide and conflict throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

This post is a second in  this week’s series focusing on sexual violence and abuse.

Liberian social worker, women’s rights advocate, peace activist, and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee once said: “It’s time for women to stop being politely angry.”

I for one am absolutely fed up with being politely angry.That is why I have taken it

Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee

upon myself to record stories of sexualized violence within the Mennonite church.

There are recent stories that have surfaced, such as a mass rape scenario within a conservative Mennonite community in Bolivia, where between 100 and 300 women in the community were raped with the perpetrators repeatedly raping women for a 25 year period.

Pamela Dintaman recently posted an entry on The Femonite about her mother, who had been Amish as a child, unknown to Pamela. Her mother kept her history silent: history that included being raped as a child, being blamed at age 8, having her father in prison, and then paroled from a life sentence to come back into their home when she was a teenager.

Then there are the small stories of silence that most likely thousands of young girls and women carry. I myself recently acknowledged that I was molested as a child. Unknowingly I carried this story with me for 20 years–why was it never given the space to be told?

A simple Google search of “rape, church” amasses boundless articles on Catholic sex abuse cases, child molestation, and sexual violence within church contexts. One of the top hits was the recent story of the Burmese troops that gang raped a woman in a church.

But that’s the thing: it seems okay for Christian or religious organizations to report about Burmese troops who gang rape a woman, because that’s far away and removed from their own home congregations.

But what happens when it’s the news that their beloved elder raped another church member? Or when a woman asks for a divorce because her husband forces unwanted sexual interactions upon her? Or when it comes out that a Christian father is having illicit sexual relations with family members? Or when a Christian high school teacher rapes a student?

Where do these women’s stories go? How are these stories being reported? How does the church deal with the abuse? Where is the woman’s voice?

We can exoticize sexual violence, but we can’t deal with it when it touches us too closely.

As an abuse victim myself, and knowing a handful of peers who have been abuse victims, I know that this topic is relevant and applicable for today’s and yesterday’s women. This topic is not new. But talking about it is.

I grew up Mennonite and therefore am interested in Mennonite women’s stories. But as a spiritually inclined woman trying to find encounters with God beyond the typical church walls, I want to clarify that I welcome all women’s stories from all walks of life.

You may be asking: If you’re not even that entrenched in the church, then why do you think it’s important for the church to pay attention to this issue?

Well, I think it’s important because if the church chooses to preach what it does, that love is the ultimate truth, then it needs to back up those claims. bell hooks’ book “All About Love” addresses honesty as the only way to true love. She explains how the origins of the seixst stereotype that “women are inherently, by virtue of being female, less capable of truth-telling,” go back to the history of Adam and Eve, and the interpretation (male?) that Eve is willing to use deception to get what she wants.

Keeping secrets is about power. Why does the church want to hush up instances of violence against women? Because it renders the church “powerless.”

hooks later explains that “privacy strengthens all our bonds, secrecy weakens and damages connection.” Basically it boils down to

bell hooks

the fact that secrecy involves lying. “It is impossible to nurture one’s own or another’s spiritual growth when the core of one’s being and identity is shrouded in secrecy and lies.”

hooks simply states the point: to know love we have to tell the truth to ourselves and to others.

The Christian church is based upon the simple notion of love. The New Testament is full of verses of love. One of the first verses I was taught in Sunday School was 1 Corinthians 13:4–8: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

Love never fails.

If the Christian church, especially the Mennonite church, is based on the principle of love, then why is the Christian church so willing to lie about the fact that women are abused, constantly, repeatedly, both inside and outside of the institution?

The perpetrators are men, who “love” these women, who “care” for these women. Men, who have the majority of the power within the church and who control the church. Men, who do not want to give up that power and unfortunately do not understand that their unloving behavior is detrimental to spirituality as a whole. (I would like to clarify that abuse does happen to boys and men, too, and I’m equally open to having a space for these stories to be told, too.)

Maybe you can help me out on this question, because it’s been burning the tip of my tongue for far too long: How can keeping silence about this major issue really be loving at all?

As of today, June 5th, 2012, Our Stories Untold has been launched. These are just the beginning days of this project. I welcome you to go to my website, subscribe to the blog, and when and if you feel led, share your own stories of violence against women within the church.

Women have a right to be angry. This topic can no longer remain silent.

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Naming Sexual Violence

This week, on The Femonite blog, we are going to be focusing on themes of sexual violence. I hope you will join us for the ongoing conversation, and add your own questions, stories, and insights.

  • Every 2 minutes, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted
  • Throughout their lifetimes, 1 in 5 women will experience some form of sexual violence or assault
  • 44% of sexual violence victims are under the age of 18

These stats are horrific. I’m sure none of us read through these statistics and feel untouched or unaffected. In fact, what these statistics are saying is that 20% of all women are affected by sexual violence, which means that, even if you are like me and you are lucky enough to have not experienced this form of violence directly, you have friends, family members and acquaintances who have, whether you know it or not.

During my recent stint as a juror, I was interviewed for service on a case that dealt with four cases of sexual assault, rape and battery with a deadly weapon. The jury selection process took two full days, because the judge and lawyers were hoping to find “impartial jurors,” which they defined as people who had not been affected by sexual violence themselves, or close to anyone who had been. They interviewed 106 jurors before they were able to find 12 who met that criteria.

But perhaps the most startling statistics of all are not about the acts themselves, but the silence that shrouds and protects them.

  • 54% of all sexual assaults are not reported to the police
  • 97% of rapists are not sentenced to any jail time

And perhaps nowhere is this silence more deafening than within church walls. In the past year, my denomination, Mennonite Church USA, has been rocked by not one, but two allegations of sexual abuse at our secondary education institutions in Pennsylvania and  Oregon. Over the course of the past few years, there have been accounts of pastors perpetrating sexual abuse and members of MCUSA have bravely come forward to share their own stories and accounts of sexual violence. And in an ironic twist, one of the most iconic Mennonite writers and peace ethicists, John Howard Yoder, was embroiled in a scandal regarding sexual harassment of many women during his tenure at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, a legacy that sometimes gets swept under the rug, but can still leave some women, myself included, feeling squeamish about using his work.

And yet, Mennonite Church USA as a whole, along with many other Christian denominations, has not made many strong statements naming sexual violence as a reality within our congregations, and condemning it. The church does provide resources for helping a church to deal with sexual misconduct when it arises, but these documents are tucked away in the “polity” section of the MCUSA website.

As a historic peace church, MCUSA spends a lot of time talking about justice issues and condemning violence on many fronts: we’ve made statements about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we host large scale relief sales to support development work in countries that have been ravaged by war, we advocate against unjust immigration policies and condemn violence in many other forms. For this pacifist stance to maintain its integrity, it must advocate against injustice in all forms, including sexual violence.

And even if the church that you attend does not have a strict pacifist stance, I cannot think of a single Christian congregation that would not emphasize the importance of love. It is the key component in Jesus’ two largest commandments, after all. But as Margaret Farley notes, not all loves are “good.” In order for a love to be good, it must also be just. As Farley notes, if sexuality is to be “creative and not destructive,” we must always be asking whether our expressions of love are also just.

Too often, we may feel like we are protecting or even loving ourselves or others by remaining quiet. But silence can often be conflated with complicity. It is time to make space for victims of sexual violence to speak and to share their stories, if they wish, but also to begin having more public conversations about what it takes to create communities where women, children and all people can feel safe and secure.

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