The Mighty Logo

Beth Moore’s Tweet Highlights Why Christians Don’t Report Sexual Assault

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Juliette Virzi, The Mighty’s associate mental health editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Note: The Mighty was given permission to use the tweets from non-public figures in this piece.

On Friday, in response to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump tweeted that if it was “as bad” as Ford claimed, she would have reported it to her parents or the police when it happened.

His tweet angered sexual assault survivors, including evangelical Bible teacher Beth Moore, who founded Living Proof Ministries and has written multiple successful books and Bible studies for Christian women. Moore, along with other sexual assault survivors, began sharing their experiences on Twitter with the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport.

Moore, who previously disclosed that she was sexually abused as a child by someone close to her family, tweeted that she didn’t report because “he lived in [her] house.” Christians replied to her tweet thread, sharing why they didn’t report their own sexual assaults.

Although the #MeToo movement has elevated the voices of sexual abuse and harassment survivors, societal stigma around sexual assault still remains (exhibit A: President Trump’s tweet). For many Christians, this stigma can be compounded by beliefs and attitudes about sex in the Christian community. As a Christian myself, I am heartened by Moore’s brave decision to open up about her past abuse. Reporting sexual abuse is complicated, and it’s important we keep this conversation going. For that reason, I’ve listed some of the reasons why Christians may not report sexual assault at the time it happened. While this list is not exhaustive by any means, I hope it can shed some light on the unique difficulties Christian sexual assault survivors often face.

1. Fear of Breaking Up Your Family

It’s no secret that marriage and family are important to Christians, as they are for many religious traditions. Though we shouldn’t speculate about how Moore felt based on her tweet, people who experience sexual abuse as children in their own households may have felt pressure to “keep the family together” by not opening up about what happened to them.

In an interview with The Washington Post, an anonymous survivor shared that an official at Bob Jones University (the Christian Liberal Arts college he attended) shamed him for reporting years of sexual abuse from his grandfather. He said the official told him things like, “[you] tore your family apart, and that’s your fault,” and “you love yourself more than you love God.”

It is never a survivor’s responsibility to carry the weight of sexual abuse in silence in order to keep a family together. In fact, a huge part of Jesus’ ministry was shining a light on injustice in order for healing to happen. We cannot continue to perpetuate the lie that silence is the way to keep families together — it’s costing Christian survivors dearly.

2. Fear of Being Seen as “Impure”

Mighty contributor Autumn Aurelia wrote about the shame she felt when her Christian partner at the time judged her and said she was “tainted” after hearing she had been sexually abused as a child. In her piece, “To the Man Who Told Me I Was ‘Too Damaged’ to Be Loved,” she wrote,

I hadn’t ever spoken so deeply about my history before, so I never knew what reaction to expect, but it wasn’t that… I never asked for any of it, but you made me see myself as responsible, as someone who wanted terrible things to happen to her. You made me hate myself more than I already did. You made me believe I was unlovable… When I asked you to clarify what you meant, you told me that you, as a man of God, could not be with someone who had already been sexually active… Thirteen years later, those words still haunt me.

Christians who are virgins before being sexually assaulted frequently report high levels of shame. Purity culture often makes Christians feel “dirty” or “impure” if they have sexual relations outside of marriage, and this shame may be even more extreme for Christian sexual assault survivors who did not choose to engage sexually with their assailant.

It’s worth mentioning that even if you experienced arousal from unwanted sexual contact, it was still assault. Your body responding physically to stimulation does not mean you “wanted it.” It’s simply a biological response, not an indicator of “sexual sin.” If you are a Christian struggling with shame after a sexual assault, you are not “impure” or “dirty” or any of the other things you may feel. You are dearly loved and never alone.

3. Fear of Being Kicked Out of Your Christian College

Many Christians don’t come forward about cases of sexual assault because they fear being kicked out of their Christian colleges — particularly if they are at a “dry campus” and alcohol was present at the time of the assault. Some student survivors fear double punishment — punishment for the “sexual sin” of the assault and for consumption of alcohol.

Though some research has suggested that the conservative values of many Christian universities may contribute to lower rates of campus sexual assault, they can also make reporting complicated for a survivor. In an interview with Christianity Today, one student said she was afraid to report her rape by her on-again, off-again boyfriend because she was afraid she would get in trouble.

“I tried multiple times to figure out how to tell my counselor, but she would never give me an assurance that I wouldn’t be turned in for a conduct violation,” she said.

This fear of shame and punishment for “acting immorally” may also keep Christian survivors from seeking appropriate medical attention, should they contract a sexually transmitted infection or become pregnant.

4. Fear of Being Told to “Forgive and Forget”

If non-Christian sexual assault survivors are told to forgive their abusers, can you imagine how frequently Christians — who believe forgiveness is foundational to their faith — are asked to forgive their sexual abusers?

Last May, Paige Patterson, the former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was forced to retire early after reports that he’d told a rape victim to forgive her abuser rather than call the police. While Patterson was held accountable for his actions, in many cases, Christian leaders are not and sexual assault survivors are forced to contend with trying to forgive their abuser before processing through the grief, trauma and injustice they experienced.

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with a survivor deciding to forgive his/her abuser, it has to be on their own time during their recovery. As Christians, we cannot continue to ask sexual assault survivors to skip past grief and healing to instant forgiveness. We must walk with them in the aftermath of the trauma, point them to truth and be patient as they come to terms with what happened.

5. Fear of Being “Unforgiving” If Your Abuser Has “Repented”

Many Christian sexual assault survivors may feel they cannot report if their abuser prayed for them or asked for forgiveness after. Survivors may feel they are being unfaithful to God if they are struggling with feelings of anger or grief when their assailant seems “sorry.”

A discussion surrounding this topic played out on Moore’s #WhyIDidntReport tweet thread. In response to the tweet, one Twitter user wrote she didn’t report, “because he led [her] in prayer after to beg for forgiveness.” Moore responded, validating the damaging influence of spiritual manipulation.

This is huge, Sister. Nothing works more effectively to silence the spiritual than spiritual manipulation. Set us up where we don’t report because we would be unfaithful to God.

6. Fear of Disobeying a Spiritual Authority Figure

One of the most harrowing aspects of the #MeToo movement was the way powerful men used their power to exploit women. But this power inequality doesn’t just play out in secular, male/female relations. It plays out in the Church, between spiritual leaders and congregants — between spiritual leaders and children.

When I think about why power dynamics of sexual abuse in the Church are so damaging, I always think of a quote from “Spotlight,” the 2015 movie based on the true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the Catholic Church’s cover-up of mass scale child molestation. In the film, Phil Saviano (played by Neal Huff) poignantly explains why sexual abuse by a spiritual leader is so damaging.

When you’re a poor kid from a poor family, religion counts for a lot. And when a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal. He asks you to collect the hymnals or take out the trash, you feel special. It’s like God asking for help. So maybe it’s a little weird when he tells you a dirty joke, but now you got a secret together, so you go along. Then he shows you a porno mag, and you go along. And you go along, and you go along, until one day he asks you to jerk him off or give him a blow job. And so you go along with that, too, because you feel trapped, because he has groomed you. How do you say no to God, right? See, it is important to understand that this is not just physical abuse, it’s spiritual abuse, too. And when a priest does this to you, he robs you of your faith. So you reach for the bottle or the needle. Or if those don’t work, you jump off a bridge. That’s why we call ourselves survivors.

If you are a Christian who has survived sexual abuse, assault or harassment, you’re not alone. If you’ve been invalidated, asked to instantly forgive your assailant or have been shamed into silence, I’m sorry. You deserve better. We must change the way we talk about sexual assault in the Church and support Christians who are walking through this pain alone. Let’s come alongside our Christian brothers and sisters who have lived through sexual assault, meeting them with love, not condemnation.

Header image via Living Proof Ministries with Beth Moore Facebook page

Originally published: September 25, 2018
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home