October 1, 2016

Unlocking the silence

Woman alone
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I have kept my secret for almost 20 years. I was 15 and liked the idea of attention from boys. When an older guy started paying attention to me, I was excited and flattered. I was struck by how much he seemed to care, listening while I talked, telling me how beautiful I was. I trusted him; I believed he cared as much about me as I cared for him. But that trust was misplaced.

He had been hinting about sex for a week or so. Although I wasn't a virgin, I wasn't ready to have sex with him. That night, he didn't hint and he didn't ask; he did what he wanted despite my objections.

I felt I had brought it on myself, that I deserved what I got because my dad had forbidden me to date him. I didn't report what happened to me. I didn't even tell my family or friends. Talking about it was scarier than keeping it a secret.

I love the Church of the Brethren. It has been my spiritual home since I was a child. I attend the same congregation in rural northwest Ohio now that I did when I was little. The core beliefs of our denomination—peace and reconciliation, simple living, integrity of speech, family values, and service to neighbors near and far—are important tenets of my faith. At the same time, I find myself disappointed by how little our church has to say about sexual violence.

The news is flooded with incidents of rape and other sexual violence, yet when I search the database of statements from the Church of the Brethren, I find nothing. Our denomination has made statements about the naturalness of sexuality and God's intention for humans to experience love and companionship, about the growing problem of gun violence, and about the problem of domestic abuse. Never, however, has the denomination made a statement about rape culture. We need to, both to recognize those of us who are survivors, and to speak out against future assaults.

The issue is not minor. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in 5 women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives, and one in 4 girls and one in 6 boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18. In 80 percent of rape cases, the victim knows the person who sexually assaulted him or her. However, rape is the most under-reported crime with 68 percent of rapes never reported to the police.

The church needs to speak clearly because our culture gives both children and adults mixed messages about sex and sexuality. Whether we like it or not, casual sexual encounters and sexual promiscuity are the norm in American culture. Television shows aimed at teenagers often portray sex and pregnancy as a normal part of teen life. Pictures of girls in provocative poses dominate advertising. This culture encourages us to consume sex at every turn.

Yet we also see increasing public outcry against “rape culture.” Rape culture, according to one definition, is how “society blame[s] victims of sexual assault and normalize[s] male sexual violence.” Part of rape culture is silence about the common, everyday nature of sexual assault.

Our church's silence reflects discomfort with this discussion. Traditionally, the church's stance on sex has been abstinence outside of marriage, yet even if we hold to this ideal we cannot ignore the reality of the world we live in, and that I grew up in. According to a survey conducted by the US National Library of Medicine, 75 percent of American people have had premarital sex by age 20. Most young people are more influenced by cultural norms than by the church's teaching.

We must find a new way to address sexual violence. We must teach young people respect for their own bodies as well as respect for others—even while encouraging abstinence. We must provide a stronger voice emphasizing the values of our tradition, not for the sake of tradition but for the health and wellbeing of the people.

The Church of the Brethren has a long history of being counter-cultural, from wearing simple clothes to being conscientious objectors. Our children also need to learn how to resist popular culture's messages about sex and sexuality. It is uncomfortable to talk about sex, but doing so should be part of our peace witness. As Quaker writer Kody Hersh puts it, “If we can’t talk about sex, we leave ourselves at the mercy of the uninterrupted discourse of rape culture, because we have offered no challenge and no alternatives.” Instead, Hersh argues, “We must preach a sexuality of nonviolence, in which every human is allowed to choose freely how, when, and whether to use their body for pleasure and connection.”

The thing I appreciate most about Brethren is that we take the example and teachings of Jesus as the model for our lives. Jesus did not shy away from the difficult issues of his day. He didn't just maintain the status quo, because dealing with problems was uncomfortable. Jesus made waves. He pushed people out of their comfort zones, and made them realize the world needed to be changed for God's will to prevail. The example Jesus set in the first century still holds for us today.

The Church of the Brethren can no longer remain silent, while messages that distort the beauty of our bodies and God's intentions for sex bombard us. Brethren cannot continue to ignore the thousands of women, men, and children devastated by sexual abuse and rape. The problem will not disappear if we do not acknowledge it. The church must provide guidance in navigating the world of sex and sexuality.

That might have made a difference for me 20 years ago; it would make a difference for all of us now.

Staci Williams is a member of Poplar Ridge Church of the Brethren, Defiance, Ohio, and a student at Bethany Theological Seminary.