We live at a time when sexual violence is commonplace and even sanctioned in subtle ways. The downfall of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly — followed immediately by his receiving a $25 million severance and new podcast — shows how slick and impenetrable a powerful man can be. Perhaps certain parts of a woman really are up for grabs in America. At the very least, her skin is much more vulnerable than the Teflon suit a high-profile abuser wears.
How does religion fit in? People of faith might hope that churches would respond to victims with compassion, but that is often not the case. Religious leaders tend to focus on the issue of purity — especially sexual purity. Their questions add pain to an already traumatized victim. What were you wearing? How much did you drink? Did you know him? Did you fight him? The underlying message is this: You were in some way culpable.
“People want you to have been raped perfectly.” That’s how Amy Schumer summed it up last summer while she was on book tour with her memoir, “The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.” She told Howard Stern: “I think it’s important to talk about because it’s made me feel less alone when other women have come forward about being sexually assaulted. And also because it’s not this perfect rape. People want you to be a perfect victim.”
I was grateful that a high-profile woman was speaking openly about sexual assault. Like Amy, I published a memoir about rape last summer, but here’s the difference between us (OK, beside the fact that she’s a best-selling comic speaking to sold-out audiences): I was raped perfectly. And it was still horrific.
The crime could have been ripped from urban folklore: I lived in a house with college roommates. Two strangers broke into our home in the dead of night. They wore ski masks and carried guns. They held us hostage, threatened our lives, robbed us, and raped us. The fact that we victims were white, and the rapists were African-American, simply pushed the story further into the land of cultural myth.
But while I was a perfectly innocent victim (wearing a flannel nightgown, asleep in my own bed on a Sunday night after attending church) the story is not a fable. And it turns out that being a “perfect victim” does not protect a person from shame, guilt, and recrimination. Not only was I consumed by shame, but I was also furious at God, who allowed this to happen. The church heaped on coals, assuring me that everything happened according to God’s will.
I was largely alone on the spiritual journey that followed. It was my faith in God, not my connection to a church, that helped me find my voice and discover my sense of agency. Eventually God was not only the place I lodged my fury, but also where I found my comfort. I came to realize that we are all more than what happens to us.
Sexual violence happens too often, and is too often treated with complacence. It is time for the church to change its response and to be of real help to victims.
I wrote this essay for “Voices of Faith” column in the Albany Times Union on May 19, 2017.