A New Study on Sexual Violence & Chanel Miller

(This post contains research and discussion centered on nonconsensual sex. Please read with caution and care for yourself.)

Today new research studying the impacts of forced sexual initiation was published. Read it for yourself, or at least the summary, here. Here are a few key points that stuck out to me.

  • “6.5% of respondents reported experiencing forced sexual initiation, equivalent to 3,351,733 women in this age group nationwide…” “Initiation” means a sexual debut or the first time someone has had sex. This study was focused on female survivors between 18 and 44 years old, even still it is important to remember data surrounding sexual violence may not be accurate. Experts estimate 3 out of 4 victims do not report.
  • “Age at forced sexual initiation averaged 15.6 years…The mean age of the partner/assailant at first sexual encounter was 6 years older for women with forced vs voluntary sexual initiation.” Please note the age difference between the rape victim and the assailant. It is alarming. This suggests a significant power dynamic, in social and legal status and perhaps also size and strength. RAINN reports that most perpetrators of sexual violence walk free.
  • When compared to those with voluntary sexual initiation, survivors of rape experience long term health consequences at a higher rate, such as unwanted first pregnancies, abortions, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, and challenges with ovulation or menstruation.
  • In a brief conclusion the authors write, “These findings highlight the possible need for public health measures and sociocultural changes to prevent sexual violence, particularly forced sexual initiation.

I find this information both upsetting and deeply saddening. The data centers on only first-time sexual encounters that were forced — sexual debuts initiated by rape. Allow that to sink in. This study was completed just before the #MeToo movement was given a broader attention in October of 2017. This means the public conversation defining consent and sexual abuse had not quite picked up momentum and many victims had not reported or perhaps understood their experiences as rape. There are most likely many, many more victims than the 3.4 million already estimate in this study.

Image result for chanel miller
photo: ny times

Also just before the most recent #MeToo movement, “Emily Doe,” or Chanel Miller, was fighting for recognition and justice after being assaulted and raped by Brock Turner. While in court, Turner received sympathy and a lenient sentence while Miller was left the damaging, long-term consequences of Turner’s violent actions against her.

Her story is important because it puts a name to the numbers and changed California’s law regarding minimum sentencing for sexual assault.

It also highlights the societal assumptions about sexual violence and perpetrators. Do we even recognize rape (or nonconsensual sex) when we see it? If they don’t remember the assault, is it still punishable? Do the consequences or impacts of jail time outweigh the impacts of rape? What if the perpetrator is a really great swimmer? How would the sentence differ if the perpetrator were not white? Who gets to define consent?

“Someday, you can pay me back for my ambulance ride and therapy. But you cannot give me back my sleepless nights. The way I have broken down sobbing uncontrollably if I’m watching a movie and a woman is harmed, to say it lightly, this experience has expanded my empathy for other victims. I have lost weight from stress, when people would comment I told them I’ve been running a lot lately. There are times I did not want to be touched. I have to relearn that I am not fragile, I am capable, I am wholesome, not just livid and weak.”

“You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”

“And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining. Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you.”

Chanel Miller, Victim Witness Statement

Read her full victim witness statement here. It is moving, informative, and very well written. Miller details what she remembers as well as the medical and legal process that followed. It is well worth your time. Her book comes out later this month.

So how do we address the proposed “public health measures” and “sociocultural changes”?

These are only a few broad strokes. The solution to this requires multicultural, interfaith and bi-partisan collaboration and community engagement. There are no easy answers or formulas but there is hope. I would love to hear your thoughts on how we can make our homes, churches, and communities safe from violence.

Read more:

Impure: Taking the Next Step

In this series we’ve covered many topics but you may be left wondering what you can do — right now, this week, in your lifetime — to prevent abuse and respond to sexual violence appropriately.

At the bottom of this post you will find a myriad of helpful resources including books, podcasts, blogs, even instagram accounts to check out and consider for your next step.

Advocacy

Pastoral Advocacy

Members of the clergy have a significant role in the life of the survivor. They can be a trusted (or highly mistrusted) figure. This role has too frequently been mishandled and research finds survivors are not likely to share their experiences with them. Because not all clergy are trained and ordained consistently, not all pastors are professionally equipped to counsel those impacted by violence and trauma and this can potentially re-traumatize those seeking help.

  • Clergy should not counsel couples where abuse or violence is suspected or reported. The context in which counseling takes place requires an openness and vulnerability that may be used against the victim outside the office. (Remember, abuse is centered on power and control.) To maintain safety, victims should be counseled idividually if possible.
  • Clergy should communicate their professional boundaries clearly and not assume they are appropriately trained to handle survivors’ often complex needs. If you find yourself in this position do not be afraid to refer someone to a licensed counselor, therapist, or social worker.
photo: etienne boulanger

While church leaders can be seen as a spiritual or physical shelter from harm, it is healthy for a pastor to admit they do not have all the answers. Just as survivors should be able to ask for help, clergy should, too. Pamela Cooper-White offers encouragement for clergy saying,

By simply offering presence, belief, and an unshakable confidence that she [or he] deserves a life free of violence – especially when she herself [or he himself] does not share that confidence—we are giving a gift of healing and empowerment.

Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response

The Church as a Mediator of Healing

Community is powerful. It can be severely damaging but it can also provide healing. Just as members of a church can pass on legacies of shame and judgement towards recipients of sexual violence, they can also be the hands of hope and justice towards survivors.

  • Do not assume victims can heal on their own.
  • “God won’t give you more than you’re able to handle” (and similar sentiments) are a modified version of victim blaming.
  • Community members are liable for adjusting practices that perpetuate cycles of inappropriate use of power and control and continue to harm. Do not remain silent or passive to violence of any type. Speak up about the liturgy. About representation. About the church policies, if they exist.
  • Confess corporate sin and call for perpetrators to repent.
  • Invite survivors to participate in the sacraments and other volunteer opportunities. Jennifer Beste, professor of theology, suggests, “This simple act communicates to the survivor that he or she is capable and worthy of manifesting God’s presence and grace to the congregation.”

Forgiveness is a sensitive area. The word itself can spark intense emotions. In regards to the abusive actions of Larry Nassar, Rachael Denhollander (the first woman to accuse Nassar of sexual abuse) speaks on forgiveness in her victim impact statement.

“The Bible you speak of carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.”

Rachael Denhollander, read her full statement here.

Her full statement is moving. She continues to advocate for survivors.

More on forgiveness:

Accountability

A systemic problem requires a systemic solution. As the church, we are accountable for both personal (Matthew 23) and communal righteousness (Isaiah 58).

People need to be called out for their behavior, but beyond that their behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in the context of a society that creates space for that kind of behavior.”

Tarana Burke

Community Education & Training

  • Be informed on current local and national legislation that either protects (or exposes) survivors. The Violence Against Women Act, for example.
  • Conduct evidence-based, trauma-informed training for volunteers, staff, and others involved with professional or lay ministry. There are many national or local non-profit organizations that provide training.
  • Encourage participation in local efforts to protect vulnerable populations. Volunteer at domestic violence shelters or food pantries. Place cards with emergency help or hotline information in church bathrooms. Sexual violence intersects with many other social issues.
  • Establish a network of interfaith professionals who can assist survivors, domestic violence officers, therapists, social workers, etc.

Institutional Policies

  • Evaluate and adjust church policies to reflect a safe, scriptural, and ethical prevention of and response to sexual violence. Create policies if they don’t exist. Safety must be prioritized.
  • The hiring or screening process should be thorough for those serving the church, either staff or volunteer. There are ministries and consultants that can assist with the evaluation of institutional policies.
  • Hold leaders in all levels of political and religious offices (and everywhere else!) accountable for their actions. Period.
photo: nicole honeywell

Resources for the road.

Wherever your journey leads you I hope you’ve found this series helpful. Below is a starter-list of resources that may help you in your next steps, whether in your personal life or in your community. Some items are more progressive than others; each have valuable insights to offer.

Advocacy Organizations

Podcasts & Ted Talks

Books

Blogs

Instagram Accounts

  • @enagoski (Sexologist, sex educator, author)
  • @kristinbhodson (Sex therapist empowering families from LDS perspective)
  • @sexpositive_families (Discussion on raising healthy, informed kids)
  • @dr.thema (Minister, psychologist, researcher, author)
  • @sexedincolor (Podcast discussing sexuality)
  • @sixminutesexed (Podcast with short conversations on sex education)
  • @consentacademy (Teaching and discussion on consent)
  • @gottmaninstitute (Relationship experts!)

Read more in this series:

Impure: #ChurchToo & US Politics

(This post is not so much a political statement as it is a comparison of responses from evangelical leaders, both pastoral and political, in the U.S. towards sexual violence. Additionally, the term “evangelical” has become political in recent years. Evangelical Christianity is a broad category with many different perspectives and is not monolithic. Simply because someone self-identifies as an evangelical does not mean they necessarily hold to the basic definition of evangelicalism or agree with more popular voices.)

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photo: mother jones

#ChurchToo

Evangelical purity culture perpetuates rape culture — which is the foundation for #ChurchToo, a follow up to the #MeToo movement.

#ChurchToo reveals the ways in which the church has dehumanized survivors and objectified their bodies, blaming them for the violence perpetuated by pastors, seminary presidents, and prominent evangelical organizations that once sought to keep sex “pure.”

I will allow these examples to speak for themselves:

Sadly, there are even more examples to list. While a minority of cases involve positive steps to repair the damage, generally, the church has not appropriately handled the prevention or response to sexual violence. Instead, survivors have been ignored or silenced in order to protect those in power, namely influential male leaders.

Read the #SilenceIsNotSpiritual statement and consider adding your name.

American Evangelicals & Political Power

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photo: cnn.com

Politically, some American evangelicals are still inconsistent in what they teach and what they do. There is a vast difference between President Bill Clinton’s scandal and the way the church has recognized Roy Moore, Brett Kavanaugh, and of course, President Trump.

If we narrow our scope to the words of Dr. James Dobson, a voice for many evangelicals and large force behind purity culture, we’ll find he seems to have changed his mind about moral character or sexual immorality within the presidential office over the years. In his September 1998 newsletter, Dobson writes about the scandal between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. (The full letter is archived in this book beginning on page 303 but you may also be able to find it online.) Here are a few excerpts with emphasis added:

“How did our beloved nation find itself in this sorry mess? I believe it began not with the Lewinsky affair, but many years earlier. There was plenty of evidence during the first Presidential election that Bill Clinton had a moral problem. His affair with Gennifer Flowers, which he now admits to having lied about, was rationalized by the American people…”

“There were other indications that Bill Clinton was untruthful and immoral. Why, then, did the American people ignore so many red flags? Because, and I want to give the greatest emphasis to this point, the mainstream media became enamored with Bill Clinton in 1992 and sought to convince the American people that “character doesn’t matter…”

“Are moms and dads not embarrassed by what is occurring? At any given time, 40 percent of the nation’s children list the President of the United States as the person they most admire. What are they learning from Mr. Clinton? What have we taught our boys about respecting women? What have our little girls learned about men? How can we estimate the impact of this scandal on future generations? How in the world can 7 out of 10 Americans continue to say that nothing matters except a robust economy?

Dr. James Dobson, September 1998 newsletter

In this letter Dobson is adamant that character matters. Personal history matters. He questions the nation’s ability to discern the “red flags.”

As candidates appeared in the race for office in 2015-2016, researcher George Barna reportedEvangelicals are seeking something in a candidate that very few other voters are searching for: strong moral character.

Strong moral character quickly went up for debate. While Hilary Clinton’s campaign promoted questions of integrity, Donald Trump’s personal life and political campaign also caused significant controversy.

Within in this context, Dobson appeared to affirm Trump’s recent Christian faith (which he later denies) and joined the evangelical executive advisory board, which does not require members to endorse the President but is significant. This interview just prior to the election is also interesting.

Also on the advisory board, friend of Dobson’s via his late father, and president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr. stated in an interview with the Washington Post that there was nothing Trump could do to lose his support. Falwell believed Trump’s “personal behavior”, or sexual immorality, was irrelevant when compared to his business acumen.

Interesting.

Why this shift in support among Dr. Dobson and others? What part has fear or nationalism played in this?

How can many American evangelicals teach sexual “purity” or “pro-life” values and protect (and elect) perpetrators of sexual violence at the same time?

Food for thought:

Read more in this series: