Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives
I’ve stared at this blank blog post for a while.
My heart is heavy and more than a little frustrated. I do not want to jump into the fray regarding the latest high-profile abuse scandal to capture our attention. The coverage of such stories bothers me, the way we center the narrative on the perpetrator and fixate on how and why he did it, on whether his consequences were served in the right time and manner, and on whether the appropriate public response should be outrage or forgiveness. Although my heaviness and frustration have been triggered by this latest event, it is by no means limited to this incident, nor is it centered on the tradition or the adherents from which the abuse sprang. There are well-written pieces on that, and that is not my area. Moreover, I have found this happens across traditions.
To date, I have written about the intersections of gender, race, social class, and language. I have written comparatively little on the topic of or intersection with religion. It’s a difficult topic for me. I grew up in the Lutheran tradition, got my B.A. from a liberal Lutheran college, spent a lot of energy not fitting in to the Evangelical circle during college, and currently wrestle at a Brethren church. I know a lot of people who have been hurt in and by the church, regardless of tradition. I have been hurt by the church and by well-meaning church people.
It’s hard to write about something to which I am still so closely tied. But that’s why I attend a church that decides most things by consensus. Where the pastors defer to the congregation, rather than the other way around. Where the pastors are a husband-and-wife team with equally strong voices. It’s not perfect, but once when a pastor said something in a sermon that caused me to become visibly uncomfortable, I got a text message later (because I prefer texts) so we could hash out the intent, how I heard it, and why I was bothered.
It has become abundantly clear when there is an imbalance of power, there exists the potential for abuse. I learned this from the church. My graduate work has confirmed it. And the current media firestorm illustrates this even further.
Allow me to elaborate:
I am currently preparing a manuscript with two additional authors on the abuse of women and girls with disability. The paper covers twenty years of research studies into the topic, and finds that across all age bands and across all categories of abuse, women and girls with disability experience abuse at higher rates than women and girls without disabilities. The single most common theme that emerged? Victims were more vulnerable to abuse as a consequence of power being used inappropriately. We also wrote:
[The] difficulty in achieving justice in the court system for women with disabilities who have been sexually assaulted stems from the failure to recognize the abuses of trust, power, and authority in the relationships of these women.
Further factors that conveyed risk or protective factors were isolation vs. social inclusion; that source indicated the degree to which a woman was socially embedded mitigated the likelihood she would experience partner violence.
So how does this relate to the current news cycle? Everything.
The pieces I’ve read have fit into two categories: those that have used carefully selected language, and those that have called out the careful words for softening and whitewashing what was an act of sexual abuse and violence against the bodies of young girls. But both categories seem to be so caught up in the politicization of the scandal that they miss some really important information.
Sexual abuse is not about sex. Sexual assault is not about sex. Talk to victims, survivors, crisis center professionals, the people working in this field. Sexual assault is about power; it is about the abuse of power, trust, and authority. And the kind of social inclusion that could possibly mitigate this kind of damage didn’t, because the victims and the perpetrator were embedded into the same exclusive, tightly knit group.
And it is this part of the narrative that bothers me so much, that most conversations are missing: however it was (or wasn’t) handled, after whatever counseling did (or did not) occur, the person in question still went on to achieve positions of power and authority.
Most of the pieces I’ve read in the Forgiveness camp demonstrate some simplistic and/or disturbing misconceptions of what forgiveness means. I’ll get to that later this week. But the amount of power, authority, and leverage ascribed to his (former) position with the Family Research Council is troubling, snarky and/or frustrated comments about anti-LGBT campaigns aside (those are worth discussion, but not in this blog post).
The way we center our coverage on perpetrators is disturbing. Our concern for victims/survivors’ wellbeing rarely seems to match our morbid curiosity for the details of their violation. We need a new lens: power, and why give it back to the perpetrators.