3 Lies About Sexual Assault the Church Must Stop Perpetuating
Why the idea of "Imago Dei" matters
Editor’s note: The story first ran last October.
The past few weeks, we’ve seen real bravery. Women in the Church have been speaking out against sexual abuse by speaking up. These women have been brave enough to share their own experiences in light of a presidential election that is bringing the issue of sexual assault to the forefront of cultural conversation.
By God’s grace, my story is not one of rape or violent assault. Still, the stories I do have aren’t uncommon to other women. Stories of that anonymous man on the street who asked me to smile then cursed me under his breath when I didn’t. Stories of my hands shaking while holding the gas pump as I tried to avoid the leering stare of the man next to me. Stories about trying to protect friends from sexually charged taunts and text messages from their boyfriends and co-workers. Stories about long nights of “weeping with those who weep”—with those whose lives have been forever changed by another. And a story about a time I went dancing.
I used to swing dance a lot in high school. It was a way to have fun with my friends without having to deal with drunken strangers or listen to dubstep. One night, when I was 18, we dressed up and headed out. We danced poorly and laughed loudly. A few hours in, one of my friends offered to show me how to dance to the blues.
He was a wonderful dancer, so I said yes. He pulled me into a smaller room where people were moving to sultry music in low light. He showed me a few moves, but I spent most of the time stepping on his feet. We laughed. We danced close. I trusted his company and his intentions.
After the song was over, before I had a chance to take a breath, another man in the room grabbed my hands and pulled me to his chest. His arms were like iron and I felt trapped against his body. I tried to push myself back to a comfortable distance but couldn’t. So I spoke up: “That’s too close.” Instead of easing up, he laughed at me and replied, tauntingly: “I saw you dance like this with him.”
Shame flooded me. He was right. I had danced close—probably too close—with my friend. I had set the standard. I was getting what I deserved. So I endured an entire song, pushed up against a stranger who seemed thoroughly amused by my inability to break free. When the song ended, he released me and I bolted out of the room.
My story is mild in comparison to what many women experience. But that doesn’t mean what happened was OK. I remember going to sleep that night convinced that I had done something terribly wrong. Somehow, I had invited that man’s actions into my life.
The crazy thing is, as I type this, I am still wrestling to think differently about that night.
This internal conflict not only speaks to the way abuse and sexual harassment are regularly excused and mocked today. It also reveals an issue with our functional theology: If we truly believe in the Imago Dei—that all people are created in the image of God—then we must recognize that what some brush off as “locker room talk” or “boys being boys” is actually a perpetuation of abuse which insults the image of God.
In particular, there are (at least) three lies often found with the Church that perpetuate this culture.
Lie 1: “It takes two.”
Growing up, when I got into a fight I was often rebuked with: “It takes two to argue.” And it’s true. Rarely is a problem between two people the result of just one person’s sin. But when we apply this thinking to situations of abuse it can create murky waters wherein the abuser swims away undetected and the abused in left sitting in the muck, confused.
In cases of sexual assault, this mindset is dangerous because it connects two truths that must remain separate.
The first truth is that both the abused and the abuser are sinners. We have all “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). But this truth does not invite an abuser to justify their abuse. Neither should the doctrine of natural depravity be used by the church to excuse abuse. Love “hopes all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7) but must also “do justice and righteousness” (Jeremiah 22:3). God’s love does not keep Him from executing “justice for the oppressed” (Psalms 146:7). Our love shouldn’t either.
Lie 2: “Boys will be boys.”
At Christian youth camps and during school chapels, I heard the same message over and over again: Men can’t help their lust but women can. Jonathan Trotter confirmed the proliferation of this wrong thinking in the church when he admitted: “I grew up learning of the guy’s responsibility to not look, and that’s great, but what I really heard a lot about was the girl’s responsibility to not be looked at.”
When we teach men that they can’t control themselves, we demean their dignity as image-bearers and give them a pre-emptive excuse to abuse others. When we teach women that men can’t control themselves, we communicate that abuse is not only inevitable but acceptable. We tell them that sexual assault is their responsibility to prevent. What this communicates is that, if it happens, he was “being a guy” and she “should have known better.”
Lie 3: “Always be polite.”
This is the one I struggle with the most. Sometimes my desire to believe the best about people keeps me from listening to the siren going off in my head, telling me to leave, run or speak up. Sometimes my desire to seem kind puts me in a position ripe to be taken advantage of. It’s hard to spot harassment when we are taught to deny its existence until it’s too late; when we are told to wait for a punch to be thrown before calling it abuse.
But it is not failing to let your neighbor to wait for the next elevator. It is not unkind to put out your hand when someone goes in for a hug. You are not failing to be a witness at work when you report your co-worker for sexual harassment. You are showing respect for the Imago Dei in everyone. If we believe it right to defend the dignity of those created by God, we need to be consistent and protect our own dignity as image-bearers. This might mean allowing your status as a servant of Christ to trump your desire to please man (Galatians 1:10).
We are not items; we’re image-bearers.
When I search my heart, I find fault with my actions that night. Wisdom probably told me that dancing that close with a friend I found attractive was not the best way to ensure purity before God. But it would also be a fault to look at my foolishness to excuse the actions of a man who treated me like an item instead of an image-bearer.
After sharing about her own sexual assault, Joy Beth Smith writes: “The message in some churches may be wrong, but the message of Christianity is right: My faith insists that my body is flesh and blood, animated with the breath of life, and instilled in that moment with an imprint of God.”
Our first response should be to listen to the voices of the abused, out of compassion and for understanding. Before responding to the abused, we must be quiet. Before responding to that thread on Facebook, we should pray. We must also remember that, when someone confides in us about their abuse, a desire to be “slow to speak” does not negate our responsibility to act immediately on behalf of the vulnerable.
My first response to those pointing out flaws in the Church is often defensiveness instead of humble consideration. We are a Body made up of sinners saved by grace. We will mess up. We will get it wrong. But we should consider it a joy, not a burden, to do the work of learning new ways to more clearly represent Christ and His Word to a watching world.