Dear Faith Community Leader,
Sexual violence is a spiritual issue. As the topic of sexual violence has slowly become less of a taboo subject, plenty of information has become available about how abuse and rape affect someone emotionally, physically, and even socially or financially. But it’s not as frequently acknowledged that sexual violence can affect folks spiritually.
Survivors of sexual violence may experience a crisis of faith, or they may simply wish to speak to someone about how their faith can play a role in their healing. A natural place for survivors to turn may be a faith leader, or others in their faith communities.
Faith communities are a place of sanctuary, hope, and safety for folks of all ages. As a leader of your faith community, you know better than anyone that there are people who look to you as a figure of both support and knowledge.
In turn, your role comes with a great deal of responsibility; responsibility that may feel intimidating given the sensitive nature of sexual violence. In order to learn more about how faith community leaders might embrace this responsibility with confidence, compassion, and grace, I spoke with members of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths about their experiences within their respective communities. I wanted to know- how do leaders in your faith community discuss sexual violence, if at all? What does your religion say about sexual violence? How can leaders in your community become more adept at responding to survivors who need support?
Throughout my conversations, some clear commonalities arose. I learned that while there are always exceptions, throughout various faith communities, issues of sexuality are rarely openly discussed in a religious context, let alone issues of sexual abuse and assault. While it is understandably difficult to be the one to broach these topics with members of your community, I wholeheartedly believe that children and adults alike need a safe space to discuss sexuality and sexual violence, with a religious lens, regardless of which faith community they belong to.
Shame also arose as a common theme. Many religious communities stress the importance of purity and rarely discuss sexuality in an open way, which can lead to internalized feelings of shame around the body, sexuality, and especially sexual violence. Silence, secrecy, and shame all compound someone’s trauma. While most people understandably want to believe that sexual violence doesn’t happen in their community, we know that it occurs within every kind of community, regardless of religion. When communities try to shroud or deny survivors’ pain, or fail to support people who are suffering, the suffering tends to get worse and the survivors become more and more isolated.
For example, if a teenage girl is experiencing sexual coercion within her relationship with her boyfriend, but the extent of her knowledge of sexuality within a religious framework is that of abstinence until marriage, she may be less likely to speak with someone in her faith community about her unhealthy relationship, for fear of being judged, shamed, or misunderstood.
In other words, successful support for sexual violence survivors within a faith community is a two-way street. First, the survivor must reach out to someone in their faith community, and then that person must respond appropriately, and support the survivor in accessing what they need to heal. However, it is unlikely that the survivor will reach out at all if sexuality is considered shameful within a religious context, or if the topic of sexual violence has never been addressed within their faith community.
Normalizing sexuality, and providing a safe space for members of your faith community to address sexuality, will aid in cutting down some of the shame-based barriers that survivors of sexual violence may have that stop them from reaching out to you or others in your community. This safe space could take the form of confidential discussion nights on different topics, including healthy relationships and sexuality, an anonymous forum in which members can ask questions, or even addressing sexual violence outwardly during services. Questions to spark discussion could include, “How is sexual violence a spiritual issue? What does our religious text say about sexual violence? Where can our community members go for support if they have concerns about sexual violence?”
These suggestions may seem extreme, or difficult, but I believe that addressing the issue is imperative. Failing to talk about sexual violence within your community won’t change the fact that it is affecting someone in your community right now. When members of your community suffer in this way, the entire faith community suffers. Pain that goes unacknowledged can fester and snuff out hope, compassion, and justice, the very things that faith communities strive to create and nurture.
Fortunately, you don’t have to make these changes alone. Folks like myself, who work at rape crisis centers, offer free and confidential support to survivors of sexual violence and their loved ones, and are eager to work with faith communities to address these intersections. For the spiritual wellbeing of your community, I urge you to think about ways you can create shame-free spaces for survivors of sexual violence to heal. Faith communities are some of the strongest, most compassionate groups in our world, and extending that compassion to survivors of sexual violence is a natural next step.
Your Local Rape Crisis Worker
This letter is part of a series by Kat Stuehrk, Northside Prevention Educator at Rape Victim Advocates, developed for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s 2017 Sexual Assault Awareness Month Theme, “Engaging New Voices”.