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Healing Wounds from Sexual Violence

There’s power in men and women working together

The White Ribbon Campaign (WRC) posters hanging all over Ryerson University's campus caught 17-year-old Miranda Hassell's eye. "Make up…or concealer for bruises?" read the text on one poster, images of a compact and a brush.

Started by men for men in the 1980s, WRC works to engage men in ending men's violence against women, while inspiring them to be the best versions of themselves. Today it runs workshops on gender and language in 60 countries. WRC offers specific resources geared to male mentors working with boys, and it works vigorously to highlight the need for male involvement in ending all violence against women through innovative campaigns like Walk a Mile in Her Shoes and What Makes a Man conferences.

The WRC posters lit a fire in Miranda. That first year at university, she went to every workshop WRC offered on campus, needing to learn all she could about violence against women and pulled in by the candor and conviction with which the men running the workshops talked about the issue. Before WRC, she'd never heard men acknowledge that men inflict the majority of violence against women. "And here [they] were talking about how they could do something to stop it," she recalls. That very year she volunteered to be co-chair of Ryerson University's WRC.

Five years earlier, a close family friend, Christian and near to Miranda's age, had sexually violated her. "I was scared. I couldn't breathe. I froze. I didn't know what was happening," Miranda remembers. No one had explained sexual touch or feeling to her. She had no idea what was appropriate or not. "I didn't say yes. But I didn't say no either." Time slowed down. "It could have been five or ten minutes later…or an hour. I don't know. I made up the excuse that I heard Mom calling my name. I just ran away."

The freezing that began that day deepened. Ultimate trust and mutual love didn't mean that the males closest to her couldn't also "do that." After all, a family friend she'd trusted had done it and so hugs from her father made her feel uncomfortable. The first person she told, her best friend, didn't believe her. Miranda didn't tell her parents for two years and only then because their ongoing compliments about the family friend and his achievements made her angry. She had to set the record straight.

Her distrust and discomfort didn't stop there. She distrusted the Christian leaders—camp counselors and youth group leaders—in her life who talked about sex. "Sure, I mostly believed what they had to say because of what was in the Bible, but I didn't think that any of them had experienced what I'd gone through."

On the physical front, holding hands shocked her. She had her first kiss "way later" than her high school girlfriends. Indeed, one of her best friends in high school was gay and yet she felt fearful around him. She flinched the first time her husband held her arm.

At 17, Miranda's life slowly changed. Relationships with straight males, Christians and non-Christians, who didn't "want anything," brought a degree of respect and equality that felt safe. She sought counseling and walked through a mediation process with her abuser and his family. "Jesus was with me and Jesus gave me the courage to do that," she admits. When she walked onto Ryerson's campus her first week at university and saw the WRC posters, she'd forgiven her abuser. Yet her anger remained, bottled up perhaps because she couldn't reach out to her female or male mentors at church: None of them were addressing sexuality. "No one in church talked about this issue, so I needed to find my support outside the church."

That was three years ago. Since then Miranda, a straight-A student, has been involved in three WRC walkathons, co-led two What Makes a Man conferences at Ryerson, led numerous workshops in the university's residences, recruited and trained volunteers, and canvassed on campus to engage people in what WRC does. Over the years, her leadership within Convention Baptist circles in Toronto and Ontario, Canada, has also grown: Sunday school teacher, camp leader, staff member at both Avalanche and Blizzard, the convention's weeklong winter retreats for middle- and high-schoolers, attended by hundreds of Convention Baptist young people and their peers.

Miranda holds up a mirror and asks leaders to speak the truth, without flinching, in love. "Youth leaders will talk about some tough things but not about sex, gender, language, and violence against women." So let's talk.

Don't Deny the Issue

Being a Christian or going to church regularly doesn't mean you or your children won't be victims or abusers. Male violence against women remains an issue, within and without the church. Parents, youth pastors, and leaders need to access a plethora of online resources, including WRC's, on this issue. Perhaps we need to own that, with this particular issue at least, "secular" experts continue to define its nuances and offer resources at a pace that far outstrips Christians. "Kids need to receive resources and have the conversations with their parents, Sunday school teachers, camp counselors, and youth leaders. And the conversations must be grounded in the facts," affirms Miranda.

"Youth grow really close at camps and even in youth groups," she continues. "Especially at camps, you're living in a bubble and we know that somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of abuse and violence happens from people you trust. And if there isn't education at churches about consent, then it will happen."

Resist Demonizing Men and Boys

It's easy to say that men and boys are the problem. Not so. God didn't create men to inevitably hit, assault, rape, or kill women. Men are not de facto, born-to-be rapists. And while many of us say no to violence against women, how many of us call out the men in our church groups who play Grand Theft Auto and talk about "doing" the prostitute out back (part of the game)? (If we can't speak the truth in love in our small groups, then where can we?) How many of us challenge our sons or nephews when we hear them talk about raping their last semester's exam? How many of us, in church, have excused the bad behavior of our boys, youth and men by saying, "Boys will be boys." Really? Let's never forget that we're all responsible for cultivating the standards by which we live. Let's also never forget that we are all broken. We are all are precious in God's eyes and we have all fallen short of his glory.

Remember That Jesus Was a Carpenter

Sunday school majors on our heroes: Moses, David, Samson, even Paul. These men fought with their hands, with swords, and with words. In the action-hero flurry of Sundays, have we forgotten that Jesus was a carpenter? That we're described as sheep being led by a shepherd? When did we stop teaching our boys and girls that men are called to be nurturing?

Start with Language

At some point Sunday school stories wane while video games and online communities beckon the majority of male tweens on the cusp of adulthood. Are youth group leaders prepared to unpack the language of those video games with them? Sexualized language is more often the norm than not in youth groups. According to Miranda, "Stop being a girl," or more vulgar gender-based accusations are the norm for youth group kids to say to each other. It doesn't stop there. "That's so gay," she's heard youth group leaders tell each other, in front of youth. Boys say this charged phrase to each other and levy it against the ones who've done something kind or nurturing for a girl. Imagine hearing your church youth leader casually throw out that phrase, not knowing that you struggle with your sexuality or that your parents are part of the LGBT community.

Affirm, Affirm, Affirm

Boys and male youth do need to hear that God loves them, that they are valuable. They need to hear from all of us, women leaders too, that they are everything they need to be. They don't need to posture or rack up notches on their belts. "I just want to hug their bravado away," Miranda quietly offers. She's silent for a moment. "I'd hug them and tell them, ‘God loves you.' They don't need to prove anything to their peers about how much they're worth."

Miranda remains convinced that if her abuser had had the benefit of just one WRC workshop, her encounter would not have happened. "It happened due to peer pressure," she reflects now. "Guys in his school would have contests to see who would slap the most girls' butts." WRC gives her hope for the future of boys because they'll have access to the education and knowledge WRC offers.

Her journey from survivor to healer reflects roots that grow deep in Jesus. "God and healing are so much bigger than the institution of church," she says. "So often when you're young, church is all you know…I couldn't lean on the church—the institution—so I had to lean on God, on Jesus." She has learned to believe, deeply, that God loves her; that she was and is valuable; that she was and is everything she needs to be. She enjoys her father's hugs now.

Renee is the communications director for Canadian Baptist Women of Ontario and Quebec and a regular contributor to Gifted for Leadership. She blogs on change, big and small, at ReneeJames.org.

November25, 2013 at 8:00 AM

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