Rape trauma and the evangelicals who still don’t get it

lady-gaga-oscars-2016You might find this surprising, but I sometimes read Focus on the Family’s entertainment blog. I started reading it years ago when I had more in common with their target audience, and I actually find it somewhat addicting. But, the movie reviews can be unexpectedly snarky, and I’m very much in agreement with the writers that sexuality is exploited by Hollywood far too often.

I realize I’m more left of center than the target audience now, but I’m responding to this blog post by Juli Slattery, founder of the women’s ministry “Authentic Intimacy,” because it represents an attitude seen far too often in Christian circles regarding the healing process of sexual abuse survivors.

The aforementioned post is a response to Lady Gaga’s gut-wrenching Oscar performance of “Till it Happens to You,” a song that rightly calls out those who judge and victim-blame by saying “You don’t know how it feels.” Before I heard that song, I wouldn’t have called myself a Gaga fan. For the most part, I still don’t. Her songs are a bit too dance-poppy for me, but if she produced more ballads like this, I’d definitely jump on her bandwagon.

As a survivor herself, Gaga performed this song with such moving intensity and emotion, making it difficult to criticize, but still Slattery did. The reason? It was too depressing. It lacked hope. More to the point, it didn’t mention Jesus as the ultimate healer at the end. But before she mentions that, she says this at the beginning, which comes across to me as a bit victim-blamey – quite unbecoming for someone in the counseling profession:

The tidal wave of sexual exploitation in our world will not subside until we recognize sexuality as a great spiritual battlefield. It is sadly ironic that the same people decrying sexual abuse create countless films that objectify women and present sexual pleasure as a commodity traded as freely as baseball cards. This cavalier and humanistic attitude toward sexuality, pornography, and the “hook up” culture are clearly propagating the tragedy highlighted in last night’s Oscars.

I’m shocked that the irony of this sailed right past Slattery. I’m not a fan of the “hook up culture” either, but what separates casual sex from rape should be rather obvious: consent. There is a world of difference between songs that celebrate sex between (let’s assume) consenting strangers and songs that encourage or make light of rape (I’m looking at you, Robin Thicke). A person who willingly has sex with one stranger is always within her right to refuse sex with another. Why is that so difficult to understand?

Now, back to the passage about Gaga’s song lacking hope:
While Lady Gaga’s song was bold and purposeful, it offered no hope. In fact, the message was that victims of sexual abuse suffer alone because no one can quite reach into their despair and brokenness.

Yes, that’s quite true. Again, to quote Gaga, “Till it happens to you, you don’t know how it feels.” That’s relevant to any tragedy. It’s not right, it’s not wrong; it’s just the way it is.

You know, I don’t need every song, book, or blog post about trauma to encourage me. I know where to look when I need that. Sometimes it’s nice to listen to someone who’s been where you are; who knows the pain you’re experiencing, and despite it all, ended up pretty damn successful.

We want to tell you clearly; you are not alone. Jesus is the God, who sees your pain, who hears your cries in the night, the God of all comfort, and the One who can bind up your broken heart. He can release you from the prison of your sin and the darkness of your shame.

Okay, back up. Really Slattery, you could have stopped after “bind up your broken heart.” As a Christian myself, I have no issue with this (I still believe that Jesus + therapy + anti-depressants is the best medicine, though). But what was the point of mentioning “prison of your sin”? Don’t you mean “the rapist’s sin”?

This is why, though I’ve had two great Christian counselors in the past, I am generally skeptical of “Christian counseling” as its own separate field. I’ve heard too many stories of Christian “counselors” who don’t seem willing to do the hard work of letting a client really feel and parse through their anger, because forgiveness is treated like a magic antidote that makes the pain disappear. And those who struggle with forgiveness, or perhaps aren’t ready to make that step, are accused of being “bitter,” a sin that’s just as bad as the rape itself.

Frankly, if anyone deserves grace for being bitter, it’s rape victims. That doesn’t mean it’s healthy. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be dealt with. For all her training, it doesn’t sound like Slattery is all too familiar with the psychology of abuse and its lasting effect on survivors, or else she’d show more sympathy for the fact that healing from abuse takes WORK. Prayer, yes, but also a lot of work.

And even then, sometimes the best you can do is learn to manage the pain. Isn’t part of the Christian life about learning how to carry a cross? For some people, rape trauma and PTSD is that cross.

Lady Gaga, He has “been there.” Why did the God of the universe suffer abuse, ridicule and torture at the hands of human beings? So that He would be the “man of sorrows, acquainted with our grief,” identifying with us in our deepest pain.

This is like saying, “But not all Christians are like that!” when someone shares how Christians hurt them. The statement is technically true, but it’s condescending in its attempt to minimize the pain of the person speaking.

Let’s get one thing clear: Jesus suffered, yes, but he was never raped. That’s a whole different level of suffering.

Unfortunately, many Christians do not acknowledge God as the Healer of our sexual brokenness. The unspoken lie we believe is that sexuality is beyond God’s ability to heal, to redeem and to restore.

I think God sometimes doesn’t heal abuse survivors for the same reason he doesn’t heal some people of cancer. Well, actually, I don’t know the reason. But not all things can be healed, and we may never understand why until we meet God face to face. That’s not a “lie”; that’s reality. It’s flat out cruel to tell an abuse survivor that the validity of their faith depends on whether or not they make a full recovery from the trauma of rape. Would you dare say that to someone who survived a car accident? This is an act of violence that was forced on someone, and yet the burden of recovery falls on the victim? What the hell kind of psychology is that?

Good intentions aside, a “counselor” like Slattery has no business being in this field. Her “advice” is the very picture of spiritual abuse masked by a facade of holiness.

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About Beth Caplin

Just an author, blogger, and editor working hard so my cats can have a better life.
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15 Responses to Rape trauma and the evangelicals who still don’t get it

  1. Well said. And I really hate how in Christian culture, everything has to be spun so that there’s “hope” and “God redeems a bad situation”- how about we just recognize that sometimes bad things happen and IT JUST SUCKS. The only stories that are allowed to be told in church are “all these bad things happened, but I got so much closer to God through it all, so it was totally worth it!” whereas my story is like “bad things happened, God wasn’t there, so I’ve learned I can’t trust God.”

    And also that line about “hook up culture” was really trying to say “Lady Gaga sings about sexuality all the time, she’s clearly not following ‘the rules’ so she has no right to speak out about sexual assault”- yeah this is pretty victim-blamey.

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    • Beth Caplin says:

      Definitely hear you on the “IT JUST SUCKS” part. Sometimes empathy is all you need, especially when you survive a rape – just being believed is so powerful.

      I’ve never had trouble accepting that God lets bad things happen – it’s one of those “it is what it is” kind of things – but I still struggle with the WHY. I do know that if it never happened to me, I’d likely still be saying the ugly, untrue things about rape victims that Slattery says here. I’d still probably believe it’s something you can bring on yourself. Doesn’t make it justified, but I’d like to think that’s a picture of what redemption could look like. No, I’m not healed, and I don’t know if I will be, but my heart is broken now for the victims of this epidemic I didn’t know was so common, and it fires me up to do something about it.

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  2. Eleanor Skelton says:

    “Let’s get one thing clear: Jesus suffered, yes, but he was never raped. That’s a whole different level of suffering.”

    YES. Although, I will add that people have speculated about how “we don’t know what those soldiers did to Jesus in that back room.” So, it’s possible. But we aren’t told that explicitly. And yes, I read that when I was 17 in Joni Eareckson Tada’s memoir. *wince*

    Otherwise, this post is spot on about evangelicals over simplifying suffering…

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  3. Haha, I actually still read “Plugged In,” too, although I’ve recently realized it just isn’t healthy, for me at least. Mostly because their requirements for “good” entertainment are: superficial Jesus Band-Aid, and…oh, that’s about it.
    And the agony of abuse or mental illness or any trauma is certainly too dark for Jesus Band-Aids. In fact, in their review of “Jessica Jones,” they ignore the fact that titular character’s crass behavior is a response to PTSD, and quite literally refer to the villain not as her rapist, but her former “beau.”

    Ugh, if I sound snarky, I guess it’s because I’m fed up with believing in a superficial Jesus who can’t allow us to experience pain. Whatever happened to “weep with those who weep?”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Kate says:

    I know that Slattery also writes about female sexuality. It seems the “experts” as Slattery seem to define what the female experience should be, instead of validating the individual’s experiences . And if your experience isn’t what Slattery(or other experts) say it should be then well you just have to pray more and try harder.
    I saw a comment on a Christian marriage sex/blog where one of the commenters wrote that if you were just “intentional” enough and prayed harder then you could break free of the damage.
    But what I really feel is that Christians who write such things want the rape victims to do is just to be silent and pretend that it doesn’t matter. Lady Gaga, in Slattery’s eyes, should deliver a message about rape, that is more pleasing to Slattery, not one that is authentic for Lady Gaga.
    I knew a man who was a POW in WW2. His generation was encouraged to hold everything inside, but the pain was always still there. I have never been the victim of sexual abuse but I have experience my own traumas. Just when I think they are secure in a box somewhere, sometimes the box opens up, triggered by something else.
    I see that Slattery has also written a book called “No More Headaches”. I haven’t read it, but the title tells me a lot.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. donnajm says:

    I think that being raped is probably one of the worst things that a woman could possibly go through. I have read that many victims are hesitant to speak up because they get raked over the coals again in court.

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  6. Jamie Carter says:

    It would really help if Christians didn’t act as if they were the moral guardians of sexuality by requiring women to be modest so that the men behave themselves. It’s objectifying women, ascribing to women bad motives for not being sufficiently modest, and really doesn’t fix the root of the problem – that guys have far too much control and not enough limits and don’t respect women enough to abide by the limits that women do set. By the way, I guess Slattery never heard of the blues? It wouldn’t be the blues they always ended up being happy, encouraging, and upbeat songs.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Beroli says:

    On the subject of why Slattery seems to lump “hook-up culture” and rape together, Libby Anne of Love Joy Feminism wrote an article three and a half years ago that (you may or may not have already seen but) I thought was interesting: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2012/08/a-tale-of-two-boxes-contrastin-sexual-ethics.html

    Liked by 1 person

    • Beroli says:

      (Can’t edit, unfortunately, or I’d add this to my last comment.)

      This one: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2012/08/rape-thats-a-kind-of-premarital-sex-right.html addresses it more explicitly, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Beth Caplin says:

        Also worth noting: I looked up Slattery’s post about the book she plugs in the original post, Surprised by the Healer. Her blog post has some contradictory things to say about “healing,” in my opinion:

        “God has not promised to heal our temporary brokenness, although he can and sometimes does. What he does promise is to completely redeem those things that are everlasting: our hearts, souls, and spirits.

        For this reason, Surprised by the Healer is not about temporary healing for our temporary bodies. It’s about eternal healing for our eternal souls.”

        Yet the post shared on FOTF specifically talks about people who don’t believe God can heal “temporary” brokenness! She criticizes those who don’t believe God can do it, but then goes on to say “Well, sometimes he doesn’t.” How is that supposed to be encouraging?

        I get the long-term picture of healing, but in the day-to-day life of a survivor, some earthly healing is needed to be able to go back to work, take care of family, etc.

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    • Beth Caplin says:

      Just read it. Come to think of it, in all my women’s groups in college ministry that talked about sex and relationships, I don’t recall hearing about consent either.

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