As I’ve been thinking over writing this, and trying to keep my emotions calm enough for the words to get written, I’ve noticed that I continue to address these words to the church that I grew up in. The church I attended from the time I was three until I was eighteen. So I’m directing this at them, and at conservative Christianity in general.
And I’m putting this out there right now that this is a very emotionally charged issue for me, and I am not apologizing one bit for making anyone angry or uncomfortable by it.
For themselves, as adults, topics such as sexuality are still largely taboo. I can recall a few sermons on it as a child; these usually stick out to me mostly because they were usually within the context of submission sermons and even as a super young child I was thinking, “no way am I submitting to anyone just because I’m married to them.”
But topics on sexuality for children is even far more taboo, it’s considered almost sinful. Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness, which, as I’ve said before, was practical scripture at my church, had that in there – the utter depravity and evil of the school in the story was that it had curriculum about sexuality for fourth graders.
This silence of course, does nothing for those being sexually abused. When my mother was telling me I had to forgive my brother, one of the things she said was, “If it was something criminal, that should have been brought up then.”
But the thing is, is that it was impossible for me. The first time I heard the word “vagina” I was in the seventh grade. The only reason I knew anything about my period was because, in a bitter twist, I complained of stomachaches all the while I was nine and ten because of being raped by my brother. Those stomachaches led my mother to believe that maybe I was experiencing cramps, and she explained it to me. Otherwise, at 11, when I first got my period, I probably would have been in the dark about what all this blood was.
Being in the dark didn’t stop me from knowing of course. I’ve already written plenty about the things I was imagining and the things I knew. But there was no vocabulary for those things. I just realized this past week that my early childhood games – involving tugging on the skin between my thumb and forefinger to depict my perception of my anatomy – had me constantly trying to find ways to imagine and rub with my finger an invisible clit – a concept I didn’t know about until a college health class, and I feel fairly confident in saying a majority of my former church wouldn’t know of its existence. But as a child, I both did, and didn’t know; locked inside a silence, unable to articulate what was happening, my emotions, or how to deal with any of it.
If sexual abuse is about power, then my former church and conservative Christianity in general feed that power. They feed into the silence surrounding it, they disempower children and empower abusers. I remember once being in the parking lot of the church after our churches summer camp, lugging along my bag and the youth pastor at the time (who eventually became the senior pastor) looked over and told my brother, “Carry her bag.” And I said, “Oh, no, I’ve got this.” So intent to carry my own things that I actually spoke – rare for me. And he demanded that my brother take my bags. Note to my church: “Chivalry” may be “carrying a girl’s bags whether she wants it or not” but it is certainly not nor has it ever been respectful, good, or kind.
And so, church, and conservative Christianity, when you look at childhood sexual abuse, and wonder how it can happen at the hands of Christians, and wonder what has happened to the state of this world, I would say: you did. At your hands, you have taught that children are on the bottom rug, mere possessions of their parents. If wives are required to submit to their husbands, their lives, their body, their everything – how much more do you think is taken from children? “I am your FATHER,” my father used to say. “I can do what I want.”
And maybe you didn’t teach him those exact things, but you reinforced it. You believed he could do what he wanted, you gave him no message to say otherwise. You gave no message to my brother – in fact, you gave the messages to both them and to me, that it was good and right to override my wants and desires. That I was a both a child and a girl, and therefore had no say over my body. Sexual abuse is about power, and you know how to stroke the ego of those in power.
I’ve seen Christians try to argue that it is somehow so utterly psychologically devastating for a child to know about sexuality from a young age. Let me tell you what’s devastating – what’s devastating is being terrified everyday of your life. What’s devastating curling up on the floor sobbing because your mother is about to leave you with your brothers and you can’t tell her why you’re so afraid. What’s devastating is listening day in and day out to your sermons on purity, to the way you decide that thinking on only good and happy thoughts is the measure of a quality Christian.
What’s far more devastating than any child who is aware of their own body and aware of what bodies can do is being unaware and at the hands of those who know how to take advantage of that. And I put this on the shoulders of my father, my brother, but also my mother, and also my church, and also all of conservative Christianity. All of you have contributed to this.
All the current models for helping children be aware and stay safe are meaningless to those already being hurt. Talking about “bad touch” means absolutely nothing when all touch makes you uncomfortable; saying “private parts” means nothing when nothing has ever been private.
Give your children words, about themselves, and their body. Naming is powerful. Teach them that they have a right to their body, that no one, not even you, own them, or have rights to their body. That they always and forever belong to themselves, always. Teach them what bodies do. Yes, even at a young age. I promise you, keeping kids in the dark will not stop sexual exploration. It will not magically make them innocent. It will just make them alone in the dark.
And if you tell me that innocence means more. That you would rather your child know absolutely nothing because that is more “pure” or whatever scriptural, spiritual justification you might give. Then I want you to look at your child or think about your potential child and then I want you to metaphorically look me in the eye and tell me that you think the risk of your child being sexually abused is worth it. You think that it is better that you are creating an environment where your child could live day in and day out with unimaginable pain, and that is perfectly fine with you because at least they won’t have “dirty” thoughts.
And former church, about those thoughts – as someone who cannot remember not imagining rape – I’m going to take my platonic soulmate’s argument right now and say that I am better than you. That right now I am thinking over every last one of you that I know, all of you “good” Christians, and you know what? I taught myself right from wrong. I may have spent my whole life picturing children being tortured, but I have never lifted a finger against one of them. That aside from my abusers, I have never physically lashed out at anyone. That I have so much anger and rage in me, so much blinding hatred and that I know what I’m capable of. That I live everyday afraid of that capability. And I have never acted on it. I think the worst thing I’ve ever done with it is tell my platonic soulmate that I needed to inform him that I felt like I wanted to say horrible things to him for the express purpose of hurting him. Because I was afraid and in pain, and wanted to lash out at him in a way I was never allowed to lash out at my abusers, so I was telling him that in the hopes that it would defuse that desires power. And it usually does. I fight battles you won’t even look at or help me or anyone with, for fear of getting your hands dirty. You may be “pure” but I am stronger than you, I am wiser than you, I am far more loving than you with your god will ever be.
This may be dismissed. The emotional pain of a hurting victim. But I want you to look at it, my entire blog, as an example of what sexual abuse does to a person. And I am telling you, that you are doing children no favors by keeping them “innocent”, no favors by leaving them powerless. In fact, I am telling you that abusers know. That your children, the ones so sweet, and innocent, and unknowing about their body and about what rights they have, are exactly the kind of children abusers want.
Just after my mother kicked my father out of the house, I was crying in the car. I remember telling my family it was because I missed my father. I also remember thinking about how I was lying. I was just afraid and in pain and couldn’t tell anyone and I knew I was supposed to care about him. I remember talking to friends who would exclaim over how much they loved their mother. I remember agreeing dispassionately, feeling blankness. My mother asked me why I used to be okay with my brother and now I’m not. I didn’t know how to tell her that I never learned the difference between love and fear.
I don’t love my family. The first time I ever said “I love you” and meant it was with my platonic soulmate. He was the first person I cared about, the first person to teach me what love is and how it’s really supposed to work – how you can love someone and you won’t be losing parts of yourself. How they care about you and yet aren’t demanding you offer yourself up to them. How they don’t strip you of your power, but empower you, build you up, give you a foundation and a safety net. Unlike you or your god, he taught me unconditional love. How his love for me will never run out. I told him once, “you can’t love me, I’m scared” and in response he sent me a page long email filled with “I love yous” and told me, “It takes no effort to love you. It just is. A natural, baseline setting. And it lasts and lasts and lasts.”
I finally learned I was capable of love and capable of being loved when I was in my 20s. That’s the risk you take. You keep your children in the dark, and you risk them feeling nothing but a cold blankness toward you, a knowledge that you thought that their worth was so tied up with some absurd concept of purity that you wouldn’t bother to be there to help them. You teach them that you value them for their lack of purity and then when they are abused they feel dirty, broken, and wrong. You reinforce the very things their abuser told them.
Because I promise you, your faith won’t save your children from this. Your purity message will not keep others hands off your children, so don’t believe that it will somehow never happen to them. And yes, I know it’s hard and scary; but to just decide that this preservation of innocence is so much more valuable to you to risk the messy process is selfish. You know what’s scarier? Having to endure it.
I’m going to quote Sherman Alexie, even though his topic was on young adult books, because I think conservative Christianity is often tied to the cultural conservatives who think these ideas will corrupt children:
In those days, the cultural conservatives thought that KISS and Black Sabbath were going to impede my moral development. They wanted to protect me from sex when I had already been raped. They wanted to protect me from evil though a future serial killer had already abused me. They wanted me to profess my love for God without considering that I was the child and grandchild of men and women who’d been sexually and physically abused by generations of clergy.
What was my immature, childish response to those would-be saviors?
“Wow, you are way, way too late.”
And now, as an adult looking back, I wonder why those saviors tried to warn me about the crimes that were already being committed against me.
When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.
No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.
And I would say conservative Christianity is trying to protect their idea of their children as being pure and innocent, wanting the delusion that this ensures their health and happiness far more than the power of knowledge.
You are saving no one, least of all the children you claim you are protecting.
And I was dead serious earlier. If, after all of this, you can tell me that innocence is more valuable, that somehow your child knowing anything about sex or their bodies is detrimental to them so you’d rather they know nothing, if you can tell me that it’s more godly that they are kept in the dark, then I want you to tell me, right now, that you are okay with the children who are sexually abused within this silence. That you are okay with the knowledge that your child might have already been sexually abused and unable to tell you, and you appreciate the silence far more than their protection. (As a sidenote: asking an “innocent” child whether they have been abused won’t tell you anything if you haven’t equipped them with the knowledge of what that could even mean and if they have no knowledge of whether what happened to them could be construed as wrong or not.) If you are fine with teaching children that they are yours and that you have ultimate power and authority over everything including the say over their bodies, then I want you to tell me you are absolutely fine with sexual abuse. Because no matter what kinds of logical leaps you can make to justify these beliefs, that is what you believe.
And church, I hold you, and your culture, and your disgusting, elitist, worthless praising of innocence responsible for these lives. And until you and conservative Christianity changes, I will never see you as anything more than an abusive culture, willing to sacrifice children in pain for your own selfish illusions that “innocence” is any kind of protection, and has anything to do with morality.