I didn’t do anything about it for years. Years while I was suffering from traumatic memories. Years when I knew it was wrong. Years when I knew that my silence was allowing sin to thrive. I was miserable in each circumstance. Full of despair as a child, I first imagined ways to kill myself. Decades later, trapped again, I had a folder on my computer with suicide notes ready to go.
I experienced sexual abuse and assault as a child and as an adult. Spanning decades and leaving me confused and broken, my experiences of abuse have shaped my life. It is only through the hand of God and years of guidance from a gifted, educated, godly counselor that I can speak about this topic. I didn’t speak about it for years.
My situation may be unique, but it is not dissimilar from others. There are hundreds of thousands of individuals who have been hurt by the horrific sin of sexual perversion, abuse, and violence. Months ago, a few years after I had been able to escape my abusive situation, I finally reported my abuse to those in the positions of leadership who needed to know.
It seemed miraculous that after years of assuming no one would believe me, they immediately believed me. They immediately took complete, full, biblical action. They immediately cared for me. They protected me.
Questions and Confusion
I have repeatedly asked myself questions: Why didn’t I speak earlier? Why didn’t I tell the first time something happened? Why didn’t I go to someone in a position of authority over the various individuals who misused, abused, and assaulted me?
Or, an even a more basic question: When I was abused within earshot of other people, why didn’t I scream? That question still taunts me in the dark nights of my soul.
I’m not alone as a survivor in asking these questions. Similarly, those who haven’t experienced the confusing maze of abuse certainly must wonder these same things as they hear the stories that have come to light. Someone once told me, “The confusion is the abuse,” meaning that through cultivating confusion about what happened, abusers cultivate and perpetuate abuse.
The confusion doesn’t end with the victim; it extends even to those who learn of the abuse. They wonder how it could be possible. It is extraordinarily rare for an abuser to seem like an abuser in ordinary life. Countless people, including those closest to the individual, will recall so many moments when the accused abuser was compassionate, completely appropriate, and even sensitive to other abuse cases.
Questions multiply in everyone’s minds when abuse comes to light. How could this person have done what is being alleged? And, if so, how could the survivor have not spoken up more quickly?
I didn’t tell about my abuse for many years. But, now, I want to push back the confusion and unmask the author of lies. I want other survivors to be set free by the truth that also freed me.
As I’ve thought back over my own situation and talked with other survivors, here are some of the most common thoughts that someone who is being abused or assaulted has thought, not only hurting the survivor, but also prolonging silence about the abuse:
- They’ll think I wanted it to happen or No one will believe me. Abusers are manipulative. They cleverly identify the vulnerable, abuse them, and then redefine truth for them. Even when the survivor’s heart screams the truth, the abuser’s voice is loud in her ears. It convinces her that no one will ever believe she is anything other than an immoral, sinful, willing participant—if anyone even believes anything happened at all.
- It’s really my fault. Abusers often make themselves the victim in the aftermath of the abuse. They didn’t want to do it, but something in the survivor made them. They couldn’t help it. For the vulnerable—and particularly for those who have experienced any other form of abuse—this is particularly plausible. This is also extremely confusing when the survivor knows that he or she said “no,” or demonstrated some other unwillingness to participate, and yet becomes convinced that he or she actually caused it.
- But he’s not really that bad. Abusers are sometimes both villain and hero. It’s possible for someone who is sexually abusing someone else to demonstrate tremendous care for them in other facets of the relationship. This does not in any way discount or minimize the horror, sin, and legal issues associated with abuse and assault, but it does contribute to why a confused survivor may not report the abuse. The abuser’s mixed actions lead the survivor to question whether the situation really is as bad as it seems.
- I don’t want to hurt his family. Abusers aren’t generally living in isolation. They have a family. Often a spouse and children. Perhaps grandchildren. Since abuse most often occurs in the context of relationship, it’s not uncommon for the survivor to know—and even care about—the family of the abuser. And there is no possible way to report sexual abuse or assault without devastating the family of the abuser. This is what most strongly stopped me for so long and is also why this article is being written anonymously. I don’t want to bring any additional pain to those who were also victims in this situation—victims whose worlds have also been turned upside down. They deserve compassion, space, and grace.
Loving with Truth
Knowing this, how should Christian friends, family members, and leaders respond when a survivor reports abuse? The thing that has been most helpful for me is also very simple: “I’m sorry” and “I believe you.” Those sentences, said with conviction and care, corrected for me the strongest lies and set me on a path to the wholeness that Christ always intended.
If you have experienced abuse in the past, I encourage you to reach out to a counselor or trusted friend and share your experience. If you are currently experiencing abuse, I encourage you to not only share with a counselor or friend, but also to immediately go to the police.
If you are the friend of someone who has come forward as an abuse survivor, pray for them, let them know you are sorry and you believe them, then let them determine what they share and how they share it. And as you pray, pray also for the abuser and his or her family, that they too might experience the fullness of Christ in their circumstances. Sexual abuse is naturally destructive, but we serve a supernatural God who can redeem the bleakest of circumstances for all of those who have been harmed.