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2013-05-01 issue:

Our stories untold

Uncovering sexualized violence in the Mennonite church

by Rachel Halder

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Before I clicked the enter button of my public Facebook status, questions plagued my mind: Was I really ready to talk about sex in a public space? Was I prepared to delve into the dirty, murky waters of sexualized violence and abuse against women and men, claiming that these things actually exist in the Mennonite church? Could I handle potential negative vitriol? Did I really want my personal story to be so exposed?

Pressing enter on the status, my answer was yes. There was no going back.

On June 5, 2012, I launched Our Stories Untold, an online platform for provoking conversation and allowing women and men to tell their stories about sexualized violence within the Mennonite church.

Immediately my inbox was flooded with other Mennonite survivors' stories. Originally terrified of putting myself out in the open, I (a somewhat anonymous figure behind a computer screen) was honored to receive a plethora of supportive messages and stories of personal abuse.

"Back in the mid-1980s, when I was a student at [a Mennonite] college I was raped."

"I told my mother [of being attacked], and she asked one question and to the best of my knowledge did nothing else. Brushed it off."

"How could I have two very dear Mennonite friends who were abused as Mennonite children, two different Mennonite communities, two different decades, one by her Mennonite father, another by her Mennonite schoolteacher?"

Tears streamed down my cheeks as I opened messages containing stories with these lines and many others.

One woman wrote, "I am now beginning to truly understand the trauma and the effect it has had on my whole being. What a difference awareness and understanding can have on the recovery process! There is so much continual damage that can be done if such tragic secrets are kept or if help isn’t encouraged or sought because of shame about the issue."

Other women shared how Mennonite colleges and churches didn’t support them through their incidents of rape. Rather, they covered up the incidents, leaving most women with no option other than to transfer or leave their churches. Men also sent in stories of childhood molestation, allegedly stating that I was the first to hear their tales.

Sexualized violence affects everyone and is a widespread issue in the United States. According to a 2010 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States."

That includes 12 million women and men who are affected by abuse and more than 1 million women who are raped each year. To break it down further, one in four women and one in nine men will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetimes. And these statistics don’t include the 54 percent of rapes and sexual assaults that are not reported to the police, according to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

Yet, regardless of these statistics, the majority in the Mennonite church seems uninterested in discussing the topic. There are many reasons why: The idea of sexualized violence happening in our communities is threatening; it involves the "controversial" subject of sex; bringing up situations of assault can create conflict within our churches; those who experience sexualized violence also encounter severe stigma and shame, and many congregants are simply ignorant about the subject and lack the proper knowledge in how prevalent sexualized violence is.

The truth is that when 1 in 5 female high school students reports being physically and/or sexually abused by a dating partner, or when 15 out of 16 rapists never spend a day in jail, these statistics do not exclude the Mennonite community.

It happens in our churches, homes, schools and backyards. And sadly, ignoring the topic will not make it go away—instead, silence perpetuates the detrimental affects abuse has on victims who lack a place for their voices to be heard.

What can our Mennonite communities do about it? We can start by debunking rape myths apparent in our churches.

Rape culture is a sociological concept that explains the prevalent attitudes, norms, practices and tolerance toward rape and sexualized violence. In rape culture—a culture that exists within religion and Christianity—people are surrounded by language, laws, rules and images that perpetuate rape myths and make sexual coercion appear so normal that sexualized violence seems inevitable.

Behaviors associated with rape culture include victim-blaming, stigma, shame and the trivialization of rape, all prevalent forces in our churches. Rape has literally been engrained in our consciousness.

The following are rape myths especially prevalent in Christian circles:

Myth 1: Rape has to do with male “lust,” a biological need and impulse controlling male sexual urge.
Truth: The roots of rape go much deeper than sex. Instead, rape falls into the categories of violence, power, entitlement, domination and control. It’s an expression of masculinity and a fear of losing one’s strength and domination in the world. It’s often a view of sexual entitlement, where a man is under the impression that he is somehow owed a sexual exchange. According to Lindsey and Justin Holcomb, authors of Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault, "studies show that 50 percent of sexual assaults are premeditated and well-planned, not impulsive, spontaneous, uncontrollable sexual acts. This supports the view that sexual assault is learned behavior and does not arise from just biological need."

Myth 2: Rape is just a woman’s issue, or for those who have personal experience with it.
Truth: Rape happens most often to women, but men experience it, too. Yet it's important to keep in mind that most men aren't rapists, some women are rapists, and some people who aren't men or women or heterosexual still have experiences with the crime of rape and abuse. Turning on the news, you’ll be confronted with the harsh reality that rape happens all around us. Last December a California judge suggested that women are only truly victims of sexual assault if they put up a fight and had to struggle. What if next it's your daughter in a court with the judge who claims her rape wasn’t legitimate because she  didn’t put up a fight? And when, according to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, one in three women on the planet will be raped, beaten, sexually coerced, trafficked or otherwise abused in her lifetime, you most likely stare straight into the face of a survivor every day you interact with other people.

Myth 3: Sexual assault and rape only happen when physical force, violence and/or weapons are used.
Truth: Following up on the California judge's comments, sexual assault happens even when the victim doesn't "put up a struggle." Assault is any kind of unwanted act, usually sexual in nature whether verbally or physically, that is imposed on a person. When consent is not given yet sexual contact or behavior is made, this is grounds for assault. Sexual assault comes in a variety of ways, including verbal intimidation, coercion, manipulation, threats, deception, commands, abuse of authoritative position, or force and violence. Even when someone has agreed to sexual intimacy, they can still experience assault or rape. A person may feel OK with one type of sexual activity but not wish to pursue in another, and a person has the right not to go further if they don't wish to.

Myth 4: Rape and sexual assaults happen to women who dress immodestly, who have been drinking or who are somehow "asking for it" in another way.
Truth: No person asks to be assaulted regardless of what they wear, where they go or what activities they participate in. All races, genders and ages are raped. In September 2012, a 73-year-old woman was raped in New York's Central Park. Each year 15 percent of sexual assault victims are under age 12. Using the argument of modesty is a rape excuse, and blaming alcohol becomes a rape apology. We must eliminate these ideas from our consciousness in order to be a supportive church toward survivors.

Myth 5: The most common perpetrators of rape and abuse are strangers to the victim.
Truth: Unfortunately this is not the case. In fact, 80 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. This includes family members, dating partners, spouses, best friends, pastors, teachers, neighbors, doctors, therapists and others. To believe that "rape can't happen here" is only detrimental to those who experience it in your community.

As a peace church we stand in a significant position to take a stand against sexualized violence and abuse. It is our responsibility to care about this topic and address this epidemic rampant in our world.

Together, by understanding these myths and refusing to let them exist in our churches, we can knock down prejudices and negative stereotypes about sexual assault victims. We can share the psychological and emotional distress victims experience. We can create open, safe and supportive spaces for victims to come forward, and we can believe and validate women and men’s stories about abuse. We can prevent and eliminate feelings of guilt, shame and self-blame that victims tend to have.

Rather than having sexual assault victims present in our communities, we can have sexual assault survivors who know they are strong, empowered and—through the love we show them—can learn to love themselves regardless of the abuse they've experienced.

We must let survivors know that acknowledging and naming what happened to them is both an important step in the healing process and necessary for putting an end to stigmatizing sexual assault and abuse in our churches.

Let's send out the message of Our Stories Untold loud and clear: Survivors, we will be here for you when you are ready. Click here to read more about Our Stories Untold.

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