“This is the church! Abuse doesn’t happen here!”
Clergy and faith leaders everywhere, and often members too, prefer to believe that faith communities are immune to domestic violence, sexual addiction, and abuse.
I know it’s not true…
Because every day I hear the stories.
The stories of what happens in faith communities.
The stories from:
- the Sisterhood of victims who are in crisis.
- the Sisterhood of survivors who are building lives from the rubble.
- the Sisterhood of warriors who are raising their voices to bring an end to the misrepresentation of God’s character in God’s name within the faith community.
And one of the ways we change culture? By telling these stories.
Welcome to a new series: The Sisterhood Stories.
Friday nights were a really weird time in our house.
They were sacred hours, and observed as holy from the moment the sun went down until our child was tucked in to bed. That was when the late-night sex-themed shows began to play.
Sometimes it was darkly thrilling to sit on the couch beside my then-husband of four years, and learn about things the rest of the world did with their bodies. Mostly, it was a predictable routine: I stayed upstairs and read or played computer games while he watched sex.
On our first anniversary, as we drove to a pastor friend’s house to escape the summer youth program of book selling students we were leading, he told me for the first time that he wanted a threesome, and how he wished I wasn’t “so frigid.”
Over the next four years, until I left, I sought desperately to become something, anything more appealing than “frigid.”
I signed up for online hook-up sites, and exchanged messages with others, so I could show them to him. I participated in sexual activity while he watched soft-core porn on those late-late Friday night shows into the wee hours of Saturday mornings.
By a few months before our fifth anniversary, I had begun to realize that the frustration, anger and sadness that were eating me alive weren’t likely to go away — not if my marriage continued like this. My body was manifesting these emotions with symptoms of depression and nearly-uncontrollable histamine reactions in my skin that made my face unrecognizable.
I began searching through religious writings on the White Estate database for hours on end, looking for a solid justification for leaving — or staying, if that was God’s requirement. I pored over letter after letter, where I saw advice recommending one thing to one person, the opposite to another. None had enough detail attached for me to know how or if the advice applied to me.
This particular Friday night, I’d spent hours online searching for counsel, when I headed downstairs for a quick drink of water before turning in for the night. As usual, my husband was watching his Friday night shows.
As I walked past, he stopped me and asked me to watch. A blonde woman was having sex on the screen, and he was aroused by the sight of her.
He wouldn’t let me walk away.
My memory of how we ended up on the living room floor is vague. I know I recalled a Bible verse that admonishes spouses not to deny one another, and I made the decision not to deny him. (I had actually never denied him, and felt it was part of my marriage vow.)
A few minutes into intercourse, I starkly remember asking him to look at me instead of focusing his attention on the blonde woman on the screen.
He ignored me.
I began to cry quietly, not sobbing, but a sniffle alerted him and when he saw my tears, he grabbed a hand towel that was nearby and threw it over my face, so he could finish without my emotions distracting him.
When he was done, he stood up and walked into the kitchen. I lay on the floor, feeling nothing. He came back, and told me to get up and come to bed.
The next morning, we went to church as usual.
It was a long time before I could call this rape.
I never reported it to the police, never wrote about it in the many affidavits I had to submit in court in the years of agonizing custody battle. Lawyers advised that some of my far less horrifying stories would prejudice the judge against me, rather than helping my case, so I never even told my lawyers.
Thirteen years later, with years of therapy under my belt and a new, independent life, I still don’t like to think of myself as a survivor, much less a victim, of sexual assault.
It cuts too deep, feels too final.
I don’t bother with questioning whether I could have done anything differently. I know, as I knew then, that the Bible verse was my way of staying sane in a situation over which I had no control. Of course, he was the one who’d told me about that verse to begin with.
I knew instinctively that if I resisted, an altercation might turn loud and wake my daughter in the middle of the night. That would end up being more traumatic than a towel over my face. So I made decisions that needed to be made.
I don’t know if my story will help anyone.
I hope, if you publish it, that it will, because…
No one should have to make those decisions.
No one should feel numb from having her identity and her pain covered by a hand towel.
No one should ever have to wake up and just go to church the next morning.
This is a real story. This Sisterhood survivor has chosen to remain anonymous for the sake of her children and her family. Years later, a Domestic Violence advocate explained why situations like this meant that her life was in great danger.
If you are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.
For anonymous, confidential help 24/7, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).
Want survivor resources to read? I’ve gathered my favorite books on abuse recovery, healing, and relationships into a handy list here.