Campus Improvement Day (a.k.a. Free Labor Day) the spring of my freshman year in a boarding high school. I was assigned to a group repainting the front sign. The head of the music department was the assigned faculty. I did not want to do it, but was happy to have a day off of classes. Our assigned faculty turned out to be a lot of fun. He was actually a pretty fun and took well to being painted himself—and painted my face too!
After much smiles and laughter we were done and it was time to clean up. A different staff member who had not been on the project told me he had something that would help clean my face. A friend of mine and I both followed him. He produced a substance that helped. However, he did not want me to clean my own face. He insisted on doing it for me. It felt very weird to both my friend and me.
It was weird and uncomfortable.
Days or weeks later… One Sunday I was sitting in the lobby of the dorm in a pair of red shorts I had sewn. Looking back, the position I sat in caused the shorts to be revealing, but at the time I did not realize it—and that does not make it my fault! The same staff member that washed my face arrived unexpectedly in the lobby, and just stared at me. It was uncomfortable. At some point after that, a friend and I were the only ones on the first floor of the dorm. She was in the mailroom. I was standing alone in the hall were she could not see me. The same staff came in the front door and walked down the hall and pinched my behind! Not even slowing his pace he kept walking. I was stunned! I’m not sure I said anything.
Unwanted attention followed. He was on rec duty, which meant he was supposed to supervise recreation each evening at the gym. I was with some friends shooting hoops as I usually was. He was across the gym leering at me. It was uncomfortable. I left the fun and went upstairs to the balcony to get away. Minutes later he was upstairs again staring at me. All that week he was on duty and I could not get away. Finally, I quit going and stayed in the dorm.
Then my parents visited. I asked them if we could talk alone. It was a very difficult conversation! It took me a very long time of beating around the bush to tell them what was going on. And…. other than the pinch, it was really nothing. But it was something! Being 15, I didn’t understand. I did not like it! I was actually scared. Scared he would get me alone again!
I was not believed.
My parents were angry! Later that day they talked to the principal and another male staff. My mom really went to bat for me. Neither staff members believed me. They said I was making it up! Really? But, it stopped.
Nearly four years later, I was a freshman at Union College. It was fall that Sabbath. That evening my boyfriend and I were planning to go out for our 6 month anniversary. However, in the afternoon I was bored and decided to go for a walk. While walking, I ran into a guy I worked with on campus. We chatted about this and that. Toward the end of our walk he asked if I wanted come look at a photo album. I sincerely did. We proceeded up to his room in the “Culver Hall Apartments” which according to the campus rule book had different rules than the rest of campus.
I said, “No!”
While looking at his pictures, it became clear he had other plans for our time. I was surprised and unclear on what to do. I said, “no.” He stopped. I moved to another part of the room (it was not an apartment as I had pictured based on the rule book). Soon he was touching me again. I said, “no!” He said, “Shhh! Someone will hear you!”
“I’m not supposed to be here?!?” I thought, “Now what?” I did not want to get in trouble! No one would ever believe I had misunderstood. I was afraid to anger him because he was my only way out. I had to have his help. Therefore, I went back and forth between sitting on the bed, sitting on the chair, him pursuing me, me trying to deflect the attention and saying “no” over and over and over and frequently mentioning my boyfriend. Quietly.
At one point he pinned me to the bed with my hands on either side of my head, grinding against me with my clothes partially off telling/asking me how good it felt. At this point I was wondering if I would get pregnant if he kept going further? Would it hurt? Desperately, I again told him, “I have a boyfriend!” This time he looked at me strangely like hearing it for the first time. He suddenly stopped, told me to get myself together, and helped me out of the dorm.
My memory stops there. My boyfriend told me later when I returned, I was very distraught. He had been waiting for me a long while. He knew something bad had happened, but had no idea what and I would not tell him. It changed our relationship.
His story was different.
The next year circumstances led me to tell a faculty member. She believed me. She talked to him. A few days later, she said, “His story was different.” She did not believe me! Really? What did I misunderstand? It seemed pretty clear! (I know this would be handled differently now due to laws now in place.)
As a young mother and still finishing college, I watched Anita Hill testify. For the first time it gave me an understanding of the uncomfortable things which happened on a school bus when I was a child. The first person I told said, “That could not have happened!” The second person I told said, “That is not possible!”
My stories are not unique.
Unfortunately, my stories are not unique, nor are the number of experiences I’ve had. As more and more people are coming forward with these stories it has become apparent many women (and men) have not only experienced unwanted sexual attention, but many experience it regularly. A whistle on the street. A boy snapping a girl’s bra at school. A rape. No matter the degree, it is harmful.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010 Summary Report, almost 1 in 2 women and more than 1 in 5 men experience some kind of sexual assault in their lifetime. This can be anything from rape to unwanted sexual contact. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s report on “False Reporting” in 2012 (a project supported by the U.S. Department of Justice), an estimated 63% of assaults are never reported and 2.1% of reports are false (similar to false reports of all felonies). It is extremely rare for people to lie about sexual assault—or other felonies. With #metoo allegations and senate confirmation hearings in the news frequently, millions of women and men are watching—wondering if they dare tell their story. Will they be believed? Most of them have told at some point and were not believed. It is becoming easier to tell as more people are being believed. Therefore, we should expect more stories will be told.
God believes you.
If you have been sexually assaulted in some way, know there are people who will believe you even when some do not. Above all God believes you. He knows your pain intimately. He wants to comfort you, heal you, and set you free!
How do we respond to the hurting people within our circle? We have a responsibility to protect people who have experienced abuse in any form. We may not always understand, but we have a responsibility to listen, to learn, to figure it out. And to believe them!
If your friend Jonathan told you, “Someone stole $300 from my wallet.” Would you question him about if he was sure the money had ever existed? If he just remembered wrong? Would you ask him why he had the money in his wallet to begin with? Perhaps he just made it up the story for attention? Wanted retaliation? No, likely you would believe him.
Why is sexual assault different?
Why is sexual assault different? I believe it is because we do not want to believe anyone could do something so terrible. Yet when we do not believe their truth, we victimize them again. This is not the Christian way. Let us not automatically assume there are ulterior motives. Let us listen, pray, and comfort.
While I do not feel I can remain silent, I do not have all the answers. What I do know is the Christian way is to “let us reason together” (Is. 1:18). Let us gently and sincerely reason together. Let us not attack the person who has experienced victimization. Let us be like Jesus is with us—embracing, loving, understanding. Let us show God’s compassion.