We are in a significant moment in our society because of the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements. People are coming forward about suffering abuse at the hands of others. What has been a private, quiet, and likely agonizing reality for thousands of men and women dealing with the trauma associated with sexual assault for many years is coming to light. What we know now cannot be ignored. How should you and I process this moment as laypeople? What should we say and do when a friend shares she* has been sexually assaulted? I am not a psychologist, but I am a survivor, and I offer six ways we as ordinary laypeople can think through and take action in the #MeToo era.
1. Reduce Shame and Blame
One of the hardest things a survivor of sexual assault ever does is say these words out loud: I have been a victim of sexual assault. People do not share they are victims of sexual abuse or assault because shame and unwarranted guilt that often plagues them. So when someone tells you this deeply personal part of their story, you must be ready to listen and care without any hint of accusations.
Women in particular are blamed for their assaults. I’ve heard women share with me some of the terribly hurtful and preposterous words said to them, such as: “You were too friendly.” “You shouldn’t have been wearing that.” “You shouldn’t have been in the room with him in the first place.” Accusations such as these aren’t only inappropriate; they are soul crushing and damaging. You cannot eliminate shame but you can reduce it by being conscientious of how you react and respond. Tell her it’s not her fault. She did not make him assault, harass, or abuse her. He is responsible for his actions.
2. Resist Shock
Although studies show that nearly 1 in 4 women have been sexually assaulted, few speak openly about the experience. Survivors may feel isolated and alienated because of the lack of openness of survivors around them. I don’t say this to put blame on those who remain quiet. It took me many years to speak openly about my experience, and to this day I know many women who have never, and will likely never, share their experience.
It’s incredibly hard to say out loud. When a woman comes forward to share, reduce her fear by limiting your shock. It’s fine to feel sorrow and righteous anger, but when we are shocked we tend to respond with: “What?!” “Why haven’t you said anything?” “How could this happen?” Or we might be completely and uncomfortably silent. Perhaps the best thing to say at that moment is, “I’m so sorry this happened to you.” The first moment someone shares with you is not the time to ask questions, such as,“Why didn’t you tell anyone?” Be there for her. Comfort her. Listen.
3. Be Prepared to Report
You may be in a situation where the person has already reported the incident to the proper authorities. It is obviously not necessary to report in that case. You may also be in a situation where the person is relaying something that happened to them as a child or many years prior. Pray for discernment regarding when and how to report an incident. When a child is involved or a person shares a recent abuse, you must be ready and willing to report it to the authorities immediately. If someone confides in you they have been sexually assaulted, it needs to be reported and made known to your friend that you have to report it. We want to be the friend that says, “You can tell me anything.” We also want to be the friend who will fight to help protect that person by all means, including the justice system.
4. Remind Them of Jesus
When a friend shares the deep wound of abuse, she will need to hear that she is clean and covered because of the blood of Jesus (Hebrews 10:22). She will need to hear that Jesus was a man of sorrows and is acquainted with the deepest grief (Isaiah 53:3). She will need to hear that she can draw near to the throne of grace and receive mercy and help in her time of need (Hebrews 4:16). She’ll need to be reminded that Jesus and God, the Father, loves her.
As this Proverb reminds us: “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda” (Proverbs 25:20). Wrap them in this garment of truth and grace. They will need a song that sings of Good News to their weary souls.
5. Become an Advocate
When we think of advocacy we might immediately turn our minds to public work, such as being a mouthpiece for sexual assault in the public square. That may very well be where the Lord leads you. We need Christian advocates willing to speak up about abuse. Part of loving our neighbor involves advocating for our neighbor. When one person mourns we all mourn and when one person weeps we all weep (Romans. 12:15, 1 Corinthians 12:26). But you can also be an advocate for her and others within your sphere of influence or in your local church. She will likely need someone willing to speak up on her behalf. She will need a champion, a person who might have to sacrifice her comfort and perhaps even her reputation to advocate for the abused. It might cost you something to stand up for what is right. At the end of your days, it will be worth it to have kept your integrity.
We don’t often think of prayer as an action but prayer is an action. If we have access to a holy God, the Father and Creator of the universe we should never minimize prayer. Prayer is quite possibly the greatest action. So in all our supporting and advocating, we want to make sure that we are also praying. God is the only One equipped to handle and fully care for our burdens and those of our friends. Let’s take those cares to the throne of grace. God is ready and willing to help us.
*For the purpose of this article and to keep it clear and succinct, I am using the pronoun she. I am aware that many men are abused yearly and that this is not a problem isolated to women.