10 Things You Should Never Say to a Sexual Abuse Survivor

We should step in to provide comfort, not challenges, to assault victims.

Ordinarily, when I tell people — especially Christians — that I’m a sexual trauma survivor, I’m rarely told something to the effect of: “I’m so sorry this has happened to you. You didn’t deserve it. It’s not your fault. You’re amazing for getting through what you have. I want to exact revenge on the person (or people) who did this to you. My respect and admiration for you go beyond what I can express. I want to help in any way that makes you know that I am with you and you are safe with me. Here are my ideas. Would that help you?”

Pain to Power-1It would be very comforting if I were told these things. But instead of comfort, I — along with countless others — are challenged to see the pain of the offender, to be grateful that it wasn’t worse, to forgive as I have been forgiven, and so on. Rather than feeling supported, we often are left with the message that we are insignificant and wrong for talking about it.

So you don’t make that mistake, here are 10 things (told to me and others I know) you should never say to a survivor of sexual violation:

1. “God can be glorified through this and He can use you to bring good to others, if you can choose to trust He has a plan.”

2. “God never gives us more than we can handle.”

3. “If this happened a long time ago, why are you bringing this up now?”

4. “I’m not going to choose sides, so it’s important that know that up front.”

5. “Did you do anything to stop the person from abusing you?”

6. “It could have been so much worse, so be thankful it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been.”

7. “Don’t be held back by anger. Just let this be used for good, as you see through God’s eyes the hurt the perpetrator is in. We don’t have a right to judge someone. We’re all sinners.”

8. “Why didn’t you ask for help when it was happening?”

9. “If this happened more than once to you, what have you been doing to engage this sort of behavior? Sounds like you’re half the problem if this happened at a party.”

10. (my all-time favorite) “Forgive and forget. You don’t want to be a hardened person do you?”

Provide comfort, not challenges

All too often, friends and family of a sexual assault victim either don’t accept that the perpetrator committed the crime, or they believe the person’s actions were misinterpreted, or they make excuses for the crimes committed.

In their view, the perpetrator should be forgiven and seen for his positive qualities (or seen as someone in need of rehabilitation). This is an open betrayal of the person who was violated.

Forgiveness is a topic that only the survivor should be able to mention. And it’s important to add that most Princess Warriors (my name for female survivors of sexual violation) are not struggling with forgiveness. Rather, they’re struggling with stigmatizing shame and being asked to keep secret someone else’s violation of their rights.

We most represent the ministry of the Trinity when we step in to provide comfort, not challenges — especially challenges that ultimately protect the violator and patronize the victim.

We must admit our limitations and accept that we are not able to supply answers to the problem of pain. It is uncomfortable not to know why something happened, but it is better to admit that we don’t know than to issue a trite phrase, which offers nothing to help a hurting Princess Warrior.

Jesus saw the world of sin and pain around him and instead of telling people that they “just need to forgive,” he touched their wounds, their blind eyes, and their paralysis. He responded in service to those in need. While doing so, he said, “All the brokenness in you is healed.” He never said, “If you forgive, I will heal you.”

Our only job as people who are supposed to represent the Triune God is to:

  • Show righteous anger on behalf of the loved one who was hurt.
  • Provide a motley of resonating, loving, seeking-to-learn conversation.
  • Give comforting and generous overtures of thoughtfulness.
  • Advise gently and humbly — and only when asked.

Be careful with scripture

Never doubt what a Princess Warrior says. Show initiative to be present with her. Never rationalize the perpetrator’s behavior with excuses and reasons. Never tell her how God can use her pain for his kingdom and glory. She’s already feeling used.

Be careful with scripture — especially Romans 8:28, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him.” Equally upsetting is 1 Peter 4:8, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” These verses imply that she’s in pain because she is not trusting God’s plan or loving others.

And by the way, it’s not scriptural to say, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” He does. Often. And how is that helpful to someone who’s hurting? When I hear that, I usually assume the person says it so they don’t have to feel terrified that there are things that happen to people with no explanation.

If our pain as sexual trauma survivors is not welcomed in the name of being “too messy,” we are likely to hide our wounds under old, dirty bandages. We’re too ashamed to see the wound, since no one else can handle it.  We can barely handle it!

If you can’t handle it when we’re the ones bleeding and terrified, how are we as survivors of such a personal violation supposed to feel? This is why Princess Warriors often struggle with addictions that provide counterfeit comfort — whether in food, drugs, alcohol, gambling, promiscuity, or legalism.

I strongly urge any of you who know that this has happened to a family member, friend, patient, congregant, etc. to address Princess Warriors in a way that communicates love and support.

If we intentionally change the way we respond to this worthy and large population of Princess Warriors, the world of belief would be turned on its head. And the conversion to hope in Jesus would happen like lightning.

Image courtesy of Nicole Mason.

Mary Ellen Mann
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