I’ve become increasingly stirred to write this over the past week, while my desire to contribute to the political conversation is admittedly low, my desire to advocate for truth has continued to increase. What Donald Trump described on the Access Hollywood bus is nothing less than sexual abuse. This is not a Republican vs. Democrat conversation, as we could just as easily reference the sexual abuse perpetrated by our former President, Bill Clinton. This is not a bewilderment at how evangelicals could possibly support Trump, nor is it necessarily a conversation on gender. That is not the point here. What is at issue is the way this most recent news cycle is ravaging the multitude of victims of sexual abuse all around us. At issue is the way we are recklessly handling sexual abuse as a society and the damage our handling of it causes. This is about the abuse of power; this is a story of how perpetrators groom victims; this is a story of sexual abuse.
Based on reported cases, one in four girls and one in six boys has experienced sexual abuse before the age of eighteen. I am part of the one in six. The sexual abuse I endured beginning at age 4 has affected every part of my being, and I have spent the better part of the last 20 years naming it, telling the stories in safe places, and by God’s grace, attempting to recover and heal from the deep impact of trauma on my life.
Dan Allender says, ”In spite of the growing body of research that underscores how one abusive moment can shadow a human life for decades, date rape, sexting, pornography, unwanted sexual advances, sex when intoxicated or stoned, groping, and other behavior that is sexually suggestive, demeaning, or harassing have become so common that in many people’s minds they hardly warrant being called sexual abuse.”
What I have come to discover is that I am far from alone in this experience. In fact, the strong response that we are experiencing as a culture while hearing Trump’s own admission of using his power to blatantly sexually assault women (as well as the now 10 victims who have come forward with reports of alleged incidents) is stirring up within many of us our own experiences as victims of abuse—men and women alike.
This past Sunday, as I sat in church during the prayer time, I almost stood up to address this matter in prayer. I realized my desire to say something was rooted in a deeper longing for leadership across our churches to address this matter in meaningful ways. The more I reflected on this, I realized, I myself have something I need to say.
I have given counsel and pastoral care to victims of sexual abuse, both male and female, and heard stories of both horrific and blatant abuse, as well as stories of very painful experiences where victims found themselves very unexpectedly taken advantage of by someone with cunning skill.
It is often when we experience abuse from those with a cunning tactfulness that we find it most difficult to name. They are those who were kind—those we trusted. Those we respected because of position, or age, or authority. They are sometimes people we look up to and admire. In short, they are often people from whom we desired care and even love who can wound us the most when these lines are crossed. It’s an uncle, a sibling, a grandmother, a neighbor, a Sunday School teacher, a peer, a boyfriend, clergy, or a boss.
It often starts with someone paying special particular attention to us. What often catches victims so off guard is that the person offered us something of value—kindness, a listening ear, a trusted hug, friendship, or like Summer Zervos (from season 5 of The Apprentice)—a job. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the trusted person crosses a line. When the line is crossed we begin to second guess and blame ourselves. Did I say the wrong thing? Did I send some sort of mixed signal? Being that we are sexual beings, and God created us to respond to touch or even verbal affirmation with pleasure or arousal— we often blame ourselves. The abused person begins to feel deep shame. It is often at this very moment that the victim feels powerless to resist and gives in either out of fear, out of believing it was their fault, or because they have now been unwillingly aroused.
This, I believe, is the moment where evil finds its grip—in the commingling of desire and shame. We wanted friendship, to be liked, to have someone see us. What we got was something altogether different. We feel deep shame. We then question ourselves, we blame ourselves, we push the feelings deep down and rationalize that it was nothing or the abuser didn’t mean it.
Then, the saddest part of it all comes. We desired something good and we experienced something bad. Therefore we conclude that desire might not be safe, people might not be safe, bosses might not be safe, family might not be safe. So, we toughen up and tell ourselves it will never happen again. We will never let someone get that close. In short, we stuff hope in a deep closet of our hearts and try to keep it subdued.
Do you want to know the most grievous part of this whole media exchange between Donald Trump and the victims who have come forward? For me, it is not the brave few who allegedly fought off his advances and have now bravely stepped forward to courageously tell their stories—for them, I am proud! It is not Donald Trump himself, because in many ways he is a dime-a-dozen. He is a narcissistic sex-addict who has used his power and money to take advantage of people whenever he pleases, in whatever ways he feels he can get away with. Then when they speak out, he tries to silence them through bullying.
For me, I am most grieved by the likely hundreds of other women who took the bait; who allowed a person like Trump to have his way. I’m grieved for young and innocent girls and boys who have no language to describe the trauma they have experienced. I’m grieved for the adolescents who have been deeply wounded, who have had their curiosity confused, their desire fractured, and their hope crushed through being used for the sexual gratification of another. I am grieved for the millions who have a story they believe they can never tell!
As a pastor, I want to leave you with a few words of encouragement. If these media stories have stirred up painful experiences in your own life, find someone you can trust and share your story. Secondly, to my fellow clergy, we must become unafraid to address these issues in our churches.
This is not a political issue. This has nothing to do with the debate over sexuality. This evil called sexual abuse and harm has been experienced by 25% or more of your congregants. When a bully like Donald Trump says the things he says, and victims of abuse are telling their stories all over news media, please know this is a matter that is impacting your entire community in deep places. Pray for it, name it, encourage safe places to talk about it. Your silence on this issue may have many questioning if you even care about this matter.