I knew it was coming. There was little doubt that the topic of sexual assault would come up, given the recent allegations against Donald Trump, and Bill Clinton’s own history. I had prepared myself — braced myself — but when the moderator brought it up, I still felt a shiver run through me. I couldn’t help it. I never can.
“I think they want either fame, or her campaign did it.”
This was Trump’s explanation for why nine women, whom he claims to have never met, would accuse him of sexual assault when he was asked about it in last night’s final presidential debate.
On a Friday evening two weeks ago, as the media exploded in the aftermath of Trump’s leaked locker room recording, author Kelly Oxford posted a tweet asking women to share their first experiences of assault and then shared her own. By the time I saw it shortly after, there were already a dozen or so responses — relaying stories of everything from inappropriate staring to rape — in 140 characters or less. Impulsively, I typed out the tweet-version of my own experience. And then stared at it for several long minutes, before hitting delete.
In the end, I replied with a single number: The age I was when my sexual abuse occurred.
Four years ago, when I finally confronted the truth that I was a survivor of sexual violence, it felt like a weapon — like a bomb I was being forced to carry. I feared that if I told anyone about it, it would detonate and take my whole world with it. For months — years — I held it tenderly, constantly feeling its weight drawing me apart from everyone else. All around me, the world went on, like it didn’t know the trauma people like me experienced behind closed doors.
These days, that world is a minefield — the bombs are everywhere. Within 24 hours of Kelly Oxford’s request for assault stories, she said she received more than 8 million responses. When I saw that number, I wondered how many more were like me — unable to convey their horrific experiences in a tweet for the whole world to see. The sheer volume of stories collected is shocking, but not as much as it might have been a few years ago.
This is the year of Brock Turner, of Baylor University, of Nate Parker. This is the year that one of our presidential candidates — having been recorded making visceral, bragging reference to sexual assault — brushes it off as “locker room talk” during a nationally televised presidential debate. This is the year that everyone is realizing what women like me have known for a long time: Sexual violence isn’t an aberration — it’s the culture we live in. It’s the air we breathe.
It is hard to be a survivor in this age of undisguised rape culture. Every day, it seems, there are new stories of violence and assault and the subsequent denials, dismissals, and rationalizations. Each one triggers old memories in my mind and my body. As much as I have processed and dealt with my own experience, being constantly forced to revisit my trauma is exhausting — life-taking. It’s not just me. Our public discourse has become so steeped in rape talk that last week TeenVogue — TeenVogue — released an article with self-care tips for sexual assault survivors to get through this election season.
The conventional wisdom of survivor self-care says to step back and not saturate yourself with stories of sexual violence. And that is good, necessary advice. But this election season, I find that I can’t turn away. My roles as a Christian leader and a writer on faith and justice compel me to make sure that we keep paying attention. This is not the world that we were made for. This is not the creation that God called good.
And as a survivor, I find that I don’t want to pull away. I don’t want to go back to the world where I silently carry around an explosive secret and nobody ever talks about it.
This is our moment. Ready or not. We have been steeped in rape culture — facing an epidemic of misogynistic violence — for a long, long time. The time has come for our society to reckon with it. And I don’t want us to look away. I don’t want us to be complacent for one second more.
On Oct. 19, the same day as the debate, the Public Religion Research Institute released a survey revealing that 72 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe that a politician’s immoral behavior does not impact their ability to fulfill their public role — a dramatic increase from 2011. It is hard not to see this poll in light of the current campaign season and feel heavy with despair.
In a world in which we are confronted daily with the realities of rape and assault with no easy solution in sight, the temptation is to adjust and adapt. But we cannot accept the horrific “normal” of rape culture. Jesus does not accept it. Jesus is weeping. And we should be weeping too.
I think about how many women responded to Kelly Oxford’s tweet. I think about the 1-in-6 women who experience rape in their lifetime. I wonder about the churches that deny women equal voice and power — and how they might be transformed if they were led by women who have been shaped by their own experiences of sexual trauma. How might the power of such women’s testimony remind the church of who we are called to be?
Last Sunday at Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago, head pastor Shannon Kershner preached a sermon about the persistent widow and the reality of rape culture in our world today. Turning the traditional interpretation of the story on its head, she suggested that perhaps we are the judge and God is the widow who will not stop until we recognize what is wrong and enact justice:
“As a person who, no matter what the world tries to tell me, is created in God’s image just as much as any man, as a mother of a daughter who, no matter what the world tries to tell her, is created in God’s image just as much as any boy, and after this past week in our world that we have all collectively endured, I can no longer stay silent.
I cannot go along to get along or let my fear of upsetting some of you keep me from testifying — testifying against the daily dismissals and denials of the myriad of ways in which women and those who identify as female regularly encounter aggression against our bodies and against our souls… Too much is at stake for me to remain silent, for the church to remain silent.”
In response to these words, the hundreds of people listening broke out in applause — a radical act within the traditionally staid Presbyterian church. I applaud her too — for speaking up and for calling on all people of faith to do the same.
We have an opportunity in the midst of this all of this devastating news and hard conversation, and we have a responsibility to change.
I have spent years learning how to be a survivor and what I have learned is this: either we all survive together, or none of us do. I want us to face this moment — confront it, wrestle with it, grow from it. I want us to survive. All of us.