We were alone in a rickety elevator when it started.
“I couldn’t wait to get you alone and tell you this, but your abs are just incredible. I couldn’t stop staring,” he said. We had just come from the pool.
I muttered, “thank you” like it was nothing that a man with a fiancé “couldn’t wait” to comment on my abs. Weird, but maybe he’s just a complimentary guy, I thought and brushed it aside.
I had moved to China with a team of missionaries to share the good news of Jesus with people who don’t know him. I was a co-leader of a team of seven and really didn’t have the faintest notion of how to live in a foreign country, learn a new language and culture, and lead a team of people undergoing the same daily struggles I was.
I was prepared for the difficulties.
I’d been forewarned of the ladies who would elbow me in the stomach to get on the bus or the little roach I would find at the bottom of my bowl of rice; or even the time I sobbed outside a mall because all I wanted was a blanket, but every clerk kept offering me a cup (same word, different tone). But what I was very unprepared for was the difficulty I couldn’t name until it was too late: one of my teammates was going to assault me.
Against a backdrop of team prayer meetings, evangelical parties, and sharpening our ping-pong skills, John* continued to make off-handed comments when we were alone. He would brag about his sexual escapades in college before he ‘got saved;’ he would make jokes about his ‘big penis;’ he would share his struggles with pornography.
But after each of these comments, he would express remorse or talk about ‘how sinful’ he was and how God really redeemed him. He’d apologize for making me feel uncomfortable and launch into his usual spiel about the great God we worshipped who ‘made all things new.’ I didn’t tell anyone about his concerning behavior because I believed in the same God of redemption, so who was I to judge him?
John would come to me with sob stories — about how I was the only one he could talk to about his masturbation problem — so I would calmly listen (silently wondering if this was really my job as the team leader?) and encourage him with the usual, “ask for forgiveness and flee from sin.”
He continued to make sexual comments about me and my body, but the few times I told him to stop, he laughed and told me he wasn’t attracted to me and to ‘get over yourself — you’re obviously not my type.’ He defused every situation in which I felt concern or even danger looming, so I never said a word. To anyone.
I continued on our mission to spread the Good News. It was right around this time that I was called into the regional office to meet with one of the higher-up women in the organization. I felt assured she was going to praise me for my superb leadership and excellent language acquisition (I made huge strides since the cup incident), but on the contrary, she reprimanded me.
“Several married men approached me after our last retreat and said you caused them to stumble,” she said. I apologized for my “sin” and promised to wear looser fitting clothes, although where exactly could I buy bigger jeans in a country of 100 pounders? I digress.
I started to blame myself for the next sexual comments from John.
I felt dirty, like his words gripped onto the depravity of my person. I started eating everything I could put in my mouth, because a fat Ruthie might help me escape from the millstone that was hung around my neck. My beauty was going to make them cast me into the sea.
The first time John assaulted me, I wept in my dark room afterward. I wrote in my journal begging God for forgiveness.It’s really not that bad, I told myself. He didn’t take things very far. I vowed to avoid John and not tell a soul — and succeeded until the secret burrowed its way out of me onto the lap of a new friend.
We were at a smoke-filled tavern of sorts watching the results from the 2008 election, and she listened with an knowing look on her face. She was all too familiar with John, as he had assaulted her the year before. She felt shame and never told anyone.
Through a series of late-night talks trying to understand what was at stake, I summoned by deepest courage and told the leadership about John.
I felt sure they would thank me for coming forward, but on the contrary they asked questions. Too many questions. I now know they should have just said, “We believe you. You are safe.” But they blamed me for the assault because of my lack of appropriate boundaries. My team sided with John, and I still have not spoken to them since the day I collapsed on the floor begging them to believe me. Speaking the truth, and renouncing the lie that I caused John to stumble, cost me what felt like everything at the time.
I know now what I wish I knew then. Only after speaking up did I learn how common stories like mine are to women across the globe. I know the warning signs and have a clearer picture of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. I long for each of us to wrestle with the truth that we are never to blame — no matter how we dress, what we look like, or how much we’ve had to drink. We never, ever deserve to have our bodies treated as objects of shame.
This isn’t a fun story to share. But I share my story with you in hopes you will no longer be unacquainted with the truth that men like John are everywhere — and generally not in dark alleys like our mothers told us. I long to inspire courage within you that you may tell someone the truth no matter what it costs — your friendships, your job, even your reputation. I pray we all see keeping silent benefits no one.
For it is only by telling the truth that we — arm in arm with our sisters and brothers — can be set free.
Ruthie Dean is a book marketer at Harper Collins Christian and a passionate writer and speaker about relationships. She and her husband, Michael, chronicle their dating mistakes and offer a fresh approach to love, sex & relationships in the age of texting and Twitter in their new book, Real Men Don’t Text . She’s @Ruthie_Dean on Twitter.
Image: Close-up of intimidating man, JPagetRFPhotos / Shutterstock.com