“I was bit by a big dog when I was a kid, and now I’m afraid of all big dogs.”
I wasn’t surprised to hear this from my friend. It’s a natural instinct for her to recoil from something that reminds her of a dangerous situation. In fact, it’s a God-given instinct for survival. I don’t fault my friend for the way she feels – it’s just the way she feels. And I’m not defensive that she doesn’t want to be around my black lab, no matter how friendly or lovable. Her experience has changed her perceptions and interactions.
Since the recent news about perpetrators of sexual abuse within Southern Baptist churches, I’ve had several conversations with men about the experience of a female abuse survivor. These men are asking me questions because they know my story. They know I can relate.
I am a survivor of sexual assault. I was seventeen, and I was forced into a sexual encounter by a peer. The pain of that moment still grieves me, but equal to that grief were the horrifying days and months following the abuse, in which well-meaning Christians affirmed the dreaded voice that was haunting my every thought: “It was your fault.”
The damage is great. Vast and far-reaching. Since that season of my life, I have read and studied and met individually and in groups with countless women like me. Our stories are all different, but all with common threads. We all felt overwhelming shame, betrayal and fear. And we all heard the dreaded voice. We couldn’t make it stop. It told us we were to blame.
We were trying to make sense of something senseless, so we believed we caused the trauma. That allowed us to feel a sense of control, to build a system in which we could prevent further trauma if only we could do everything perfectly next time. But let’s be honest – we didn’t know any of that. We were just drowned in shame and fear, and we fought our way to the surface the best way we knew how.
In building this system, the creation of categories became a survival tactic. The location of the abuse was now off-limits. The clothing I wore, the size and shape of my body, the way I interact with the opposite sex…on and on. My list became very long, and it grew each time I had a flashback to the abuse. But at the top of my list was one word. MEN.
In the same way my friend recoils from big dogs because of her interaction with one bad one, I became afraid of men. I began to assume that they all thought of me as a piece of meat, not even good enough to be swallowed but only to be chewed up and spit out. This was not a true statement, of course, but my brain had created a category to keep me safe. Until healing occurred, this category was the only way for me to function.
So what should you do if you’re a man who wants to care for a female sexual abuse survivor? How do you interact with her? What does she need?
Use your ears.
If you are someone she trusts enough to receive her story, that’s a gift. The moment you know what she faced, you have become someone unlike her abuser. You have been trusted with something very vulnerable and tender. So there’s no need to defend your gender. There’s no reason to try to educate her or admonish her. These are moments of ministry – the ministry of listening. Whatever she shares is precious. Take it to heart, and let her know that you are honored to receive her story.
Believe the best of her.
The voice in her head takes a long time to go away. For some, it never goes away. She expects others to perpetuate that voice and tell her she was to blame for the abuse. She’s wondering what you think the moment you hear her story. She doesn’t have a personal vendetta against you because you’re a man. She has very good reason to believe that a man will betray and belittle and dehumanize her, because she’s experienced it firsthand. While you’re not to blame for the abuse, someone in your gender was. That means you can help by being someone who looks her in the face, who smiles kindly, who affirms that what she experienced was a vile and abominable evil.
Push below the anger.
Many men I’ve encountered are able to express their anger and disgust that someone could perpetrate sexual abuse. But I have found few men who are willing to dig below the anger into how they feel. Anger is a secondary emotion – it stems from something else. What do you feel beneath the anger? Is anger a shield that allows you to stand in righteous indignation without actually experiencing empathy?
Empathy comes when you admit that you don’t understand and humbly ask for help. Some think they are empathizing, but they’re actually just sympathizing (i.e., “I understand because I experienced something similar”). You cannot understand what someone has faced, no matter how similar your experiences have been. Empathy means you ask for understanding, desiring to sit in the ashes with someone. It means you want to experience it yourself alongside them. This is so painful to do, and many men refuse.
If you’re interested in experiencing empathy regarding a woman’s experience with sexual abuse, start with this question: What if she were my wife? my daughter? my sister? my best friend? my mother? my girlfriend?
Let that question sink in. All the way down to the core. What if? How angry would you feel? How sad? How terrified? How hopeless?
Now look into that woman’s face. She IS your wife, your daughter, your sister, your best friend, your mother, your girlfriend. She is.
Link arms with her
She may have been walking on the road to healing for a long time, or she may have just begun. Ask her how you can serve her. You are most likely not the person she’ll continue to talk with about her abuse, but she needs someone (or several someones). Find resources in your church and community that specialize in caring for abuse survivors. Help her access those resources, and then commit to walk alongside her as she heals. She needs faithful men in her life, men who combat the lie that all males dehumanize females. And remember that she may share her story with you, but that doesn’t mean you’re automatically and completely safe. She needs other women, primarily, to be her support system. Operate as her advocate and resource-provider, and keep asking her how you can serve her.
I hope this post generates many other posts! Please send me your comments, stories, and questions.