One is a Tragedy, Thousands are a Statistic: The Invisible Face of Sexual Assault

She is 30 and doesn’t jog alone anymore.  She is a non-verbal 84 year old nursing home resident who screams when “the” aide enters her room. She is 12 and doesn’t want to visit her uncle anymore. She is 32 and doesn’t park in a parking garage. She is 41 and doesn’t take the stairs anymore. He is 17 and terrified of going into the locker room. She is 20 and was drugged at a fraternity party. She is 57 and accepted help from a man when her car broke down.

Sexual assault is no respecter of age, physical appearance, social stature, educational achievement or physical ability.  We may think it will never happen to us, but this is a defense against the epidemic of sexual assault in our society. We may be quick to blame the victim. This too is a defense by which we assure ourselves that it will never happen to us because we don’t engage in risky behavior. This allows us the luxury of not being outraged.  When someone we love is sexually assaulted, we no longer have the option of not being outraged.

Every 98 seconds in the United States someone, usually a man, makes the decision to violate the very essence of another human being in an act of sexual violence.  It is time to start talking about how many men assault instead of how many women are assaulted.  The public narrative about sexual assault needs to change from an emphasis on women who are violated to the men who violate them.

There is a need for ongoing conversation about how sexual violence diminishes both women and men.  Women who are sexually violated are changed forever. They often hide in silence and shame because society blames victims.  Men who are sexually violent are diminished in their masculinity because they confuse power and brutality with strength.   It is time to shift the blame from women to where blame belongs–with men who commit sexual assault.

The way male children are raised needs to change.  From an early age boys need to be taught about consent, respect and shared power. Instead of teaching women to avoid being assaulted, men need to be taught from a young age not to assault women. The structure that has encouraged and protected men who engage in sexual violence needs to be dismantled.  It takes mature men to reach inside to the essence of their humanity and meet women as equals, and to respect their essential humanity.  

There is a need for honest open conversation about rape culture and the ways in which it influences women and men with skewed cultural messages of masculinity and femininity.  Misogynistic language, the use of sexual violence as entertainment and the objectification of women’s bodies create an environment where women’s rights and safety are disregarded. 

New definitions of masculinity and femininity that are not based in stereotypical gender roles of power and submissiveness are needed.  We are all influenced by rape culture whether we realize it or not, whether we are men or women, regardless of age, social stature, educational level or physical appearance.  To be raised in this time and place means being steeped in invisible norms which are the essence of rape culture.

Our assumptions about the women who are assaulted and the men who assault need to be questioned. We can raise our awareness of how we use language to speak of offenders and victims.

Although faith traditions have done much to inflict damage on survivors of abuse, there are ways faith can encourage healing. Those of us who identify with the Christian faith hold a theology of incarnation.  We believe God is not only among us but also within us.  This means that there is something holy within us all, even those who commit sexual assault.  There is a deep need for healing the image of the divine in both those who are wounded and those who do the wounding.  I’m not suggesting a free pass for offenders; there are plenty of judges who are doing just this.    

The place that is shattered by sexual assault is the place where the divine and the human come together. People of faith can be powerful healing allies when we take the time to learn what we need to learn. We have to show ourselves worthy to receive survivors’ truths.

We all know someone who has been sexually assaulted, whether we are aware of it or not.  If we are not aware, it is only because survivors don’t feel safe enough to tell us.  They fear we will look at them differently. They fear we will judge them and blame them.  They fear we will ask questions they are not ready to answer.  There are many things we say, some without our realizing, that indicate whether or not we are safe persons to receive a disclosure.  Learn what these things are.  Don’t ask the women you love if they have been assaulted.  They will tell you if and when they are ready, and if and when they feel you are a safe person to tell.

Young women and men are listening carefully to what we say about sexual assault, rape and the current conversation.  We are educating our sons and daughters, our children and grandchildren, and our nieces and nephews.  What are we teaching them?

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