You Want me to do WHAT??

How the Doctrine of Forgiveness Can Both Help and Harm Sexual Assault Survivors

By Weston Calbreath

In my time as a counselor of young people, I’ve had the unfortunate experience of accumulating a great deal of knowledge in helping students recover from acts of sexual violence. According the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 1 in 7 young women and 1 in 25 young men will be victims of sexual violence before graduating from high school. Sexual violence covers a range of non-consensual acts, including forced kissing, inappropriate touching, molestation, and sex acts such oral sex anal/vaginal penetration, and rape. Survivors face a barrage of intense scrutiny from family, law enforcement, and society at large that can make the survivor’s healing trajectory worse rather than better. Shame, guilt, feeling a loss of control, self-hatred, fear, nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, self-blame, and aftershocks of these feelings (self-harm, eating disorders, drug abuse, etc) can be big obstacles to overcome for the sexual assault survivor.

Sexual violence victims who are Christians have heard of the doctrine of forgiveness. It’s not just a doctrine; it’s an expectation. We as Christians strive to live our lives by Christ’s example, and forgiveness is an inherent part. So, on top of the “secular” mental health issues, a Christian victim, when encouraged to forgive the person who harmed them in one of the most horrifying ways possible, can sink further into self-blame. They find additional fault with themselves because they are so hurt that forgiveness can’t be found.

A counselor who encourages forgiveness as the first reaction fails the victim due to misconceptions about what forgiveness “must” be. Forgiveness is often internalized as a binary, polarized act. You either do it all the way or you haven’t done it. The mantra “forgive and forget” is etched in our brains. To a victim, forgiveness could mean that they are saying they are okay and that what happened wasn’t a big deal and doesn’t bother them any more when the truth is anything but that. A victim of sexual assault has experienced a severe loss of control, and that very is definitely a big deal. Survivors of sexual violence have documented difficulties in a variety of domains. A problem with the “forget” concept is that forgetting is neither probable nor advisable. Victims of sexual trauma can experience involuntary flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks; their body and brain remembers what happened despite the victim’s best efforts to forget. From a therapeutic standpoint, trying to forget can lead to dissociative tendencies that disrupt some major life functions. Forgetting can also cause victims to miss grooming signs and then be re-traumatized by someone who grooms them for victimization.

A second reason that emphasizing forgiveness too early can do more harm than good is because the effects of sexual violence can linger for a lifetime; and it’s hard to forgive a perpetrator who stole so much joy from your life. Pushing forgiveness of the perpetrator exacerbates self-blame and self-hatred in victims with Christian up-bringing. When the survivor is unable to forgive, their inner monologue whispers in their ear, “you’re a bad Christian”; the victim is already so traumatized and fearful that forgiveness is a speck on a distant horizon. This additional negative thought reinforces the current negative self-talk already present in the mind of a sexual assault victim. It becomes an evil twin with phrases like “it’s your fault” or “why didn’t you stop it” constantly rolling through the mind of a survivor. And when society piles on with victim-blaming, it compounds these feelings.

Another reason forgiveness presents a challenge is that “earthly” consequences play a role in making it difficult. Survivors of sexual assault often see their abusers go unpunished. The behavior gets rationalized, covered up, ignored, or denied. In cases without physical evidence, prosecutors and judges hesitate to prosecute or bring the full weight of the law down upon the abuser. As a counselor, I saw a young lady who was the victim of her mom’s boyfriend. When she was in middle school he coerced/forced her to perform oral sex on him over and over. He did get convicted of sexual exploitation of a minor; but she was not the only victim. The perpetrator had a pending charge for the same offense with another victim. He was convicted of both offenses and served a TOTAL of 90 days in jail for BOTH offenses, served concurrently. So, as the young lady progressed through high school she wrestled with a lot of sadness. Why did she (the victim) let it happen? Was she complicit? Where was God when this was happening? Why did her mother choose this animal over her own daughter? This man walked around free while she still suffered the pain and grief from the lost innocence of her childhood. How can she be expected to fulfill her Christian mandate to forgive when he suffered no ill effects of what he did to her? And what kind of religion would ask her to do such a thing? These are the real inner monologues of real victims and a glimpse into why espousing unconditional and all-encompassing forgiveness can drive victims away from the church

Zone of Proximal Development

Sociocultural theorist, Ziv Vygotsky proposed a continuum along which a person’s capabilities to perform tasks can lie, especially for children. Basically, Vygotsky teaches that tasks fall into three categories: tasks which a person can complete independently, tasks which require some assistance, and tasks which are out of reach at that particular point in time. The hope in this system is that, with support, a person can learn to perform tasks which are out of reach, and tasks which require support can begin to be performed independently.

This continuum can also be applied to the concept of forgiveness in the case of sexual trauma survivors. To expect a victim to immediately and completely forgive the offending person is likely an unreasonable expectation. Think about how people learn to swim. Some parents throw their child in the deep end first thing and the kid figures it out. It’s likely though that the child already had the tools they needed to swim independently on some level. For other children, this strategy could be wildly unsuccessful because the task cannot be handled with 100% independence. They require some level of support or scaffolding in order to reach independence. The wounds of a trauma victim may be so raw that they are not in a place to even consider how this concept could be beneficial. So, inserting this construct prematurely could cause them to drown in an emotional sense.

How the concept of forgiveness can be beneficial

The inner monologue of a sexual abuse survivor can contain self-blame as a running theme:

“Why didn’t I stop it?? How could I have been so stupid? What did I do to deserve this?” “If I had been a better daughter/son/partner it wouldn’t have come to this.”

“I gave in because (s)he said (s)he’d _____ if I didn’t sleep with him/her.”

“Why didn’t I say something?”

“I should have just done what (s)he said and it wouldn’t have turned out this way.”

“I disobeyed my parents by drinking at a party and passed out; God is punishing my disobedience.”

These are all statements I’ve heard uttered by rape victims. They are hard to write as there is a face in my memory that goes with each of these. Each child not only was dealing with the physical and emotional trauma from losing control over their own body, but that trauma was compounded by the self-assigned blame for the trauma.

Once a survivor identifies a feeling of self-blame, there is an opening for talk of forgiveness…not forgiveness of the perpetrator, but forgiveness of self. The 18-year-old student reflecting on her abuse at the hands of mom’s boyfriend was ready to hear about self-forgiveness. She needed to hear that the 11-year-old version of herself wasn’t equipped to know what to do when a trusted adult authority demanded she perform sex acts. The 15-year-old girl on a date faced with the prospect of being blackmailed into sex has limited capacity to choose a course that will safely extract her from the situation. She needs to absolve herself from the guilt of not handling it the way her older self would have.

From a therapeutic standpoint we want to move the survivor from a point of self-blame to a more balanced perspective on what their responsibilities are and are not. Two events that happen sequentially do not create a causal relationship between the two; correlation doesn’t equal causation. The abuser is in control of his or her own actions and they made a choice to force a sex act onto a person who didn’t want it. The survivor may have passed out from alcohol comsumption, but that did not cause the rape…rape was the choice of the rapist. So, the beginning of the path to healing often starts with self-forgiveness in the form of breaking the cycle of self-blame. It’s important to note that self-forgiveness in these situations isn’t about the misconception that the survivor caused their own harm; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s about forgiveness for blaming oneself for something that isn’t the survivor’s fault; it’s about breaking the cycle of self-abuse, both mental and physical for which the survivor is not responsible.

There are other areas where concepts of forgiveness can be beneficial in the healing process. When a child is sexually abused, it can wreck a family in a variety of ways. In more than 90% of cases, an abuser is known to the family. And predators use purposeful tactics on those in the circle of the victim that cast doubt on any report of sexual assault. An abuser in the family challenges the bonds of the family members. Parents of victims can feel immense guilt due to exposing their child to an abuser. Their response can be an impediment to healing. Relationships between a parent and an abused child can be heavily strained. Sometimes it erupts into a spiral of hostility with the sexual assault incident at the head of the spiral. Here are a few scenarios where this plays out:

— A teen is sexually assaulted by a relative so a parent begins to worry and hover afterwards out of concern and/or feelings of guilt. They become more intrusive, and set tighter boundaries. The child, out of hurt from the past can be resentful. “Why weren’t you this attentive and protective when I needed it?”

— A parent is so wracked with guilt that they can’t communicate about the assault. They refuse to talk about it. They may not have the skills to construct a recuperative environment for the child. To the child it looks like the parent doesn’t care or doesn’t believe them and so there is reciprocal, spiraling conflict.

— A survivor’s response to “normal” parenting feedback and limits is heightened because there is perceived judgment about the abuse event attached to the current feedback. The heightened response escalates the parent’s response and the conflict escalates.

— The parent asks ”What can I do so you’ll forgive me?” and the survivor can’t name anything. What the survivor really wants is to go back in time and have a different outcome. But that’s not possible. So they remain resentful. The parent wants the same thing; to go back in time. But neither party connects the fact that they both want the same thing, and they both give up on each other.

So, where can we use the concept of forgiveness productively within this dynamic? One of the ways to implement forgiveness is by acknowledging the ways in which each family member is continuing to punish each other and forgiving that. Forgive the parent for not connecting what’s happening in that moment with the past. Forgive the child for connecting the past event to the present. Forgive the parent for not knowing how to respond in a way that makes things better. Help the child forgive themself for all the self-imposed guilt they carry and absolve them of that.

Is this the “right” way to exercise true Christian forgiveness? I don’t know…I think I’ve said that many times when a victim asked me why this is happening to them through their tears. What I know is that there are responses that can worsen the healing trajectory of sexual assault victims. There are things we ask of them that they can’t do at that moment in time. We need to meet them where they are and respond with love and support throughout our involvement with them.

— Wes Calbreath holds an M.Ed. in Counseling and has worked in public schools for 22 years. He currently assists school counselors from his base at Appalachian State University. He is an active member of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C., and a member of the Sexual Violence Prevention Task Force of OASIS, Inc.


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