Christians, stop blaming sexual assault survivors

TW: this article contains graphic content including discussion of sexual assault, suicide and self-harm 

I remember hearing about sexual assault on big college campuses. Usually a girl who went to a party, got drunk, and was taken advantage of. Or someone being ambushed and assaulted while walking alone at night. Typically I thought to myself ‘it’s awful what happened. But why was she drinking? Walking alone? It’s common sense.’ I would carry on with my day at class or the Calvin loop, barely giving it another second. What I failed to recognize was the unintentional victim-blaming in my train of thought. 

Never in my life did I think sexual assault would be my reality, a scarlet letter I wear on my chest every day. But it’s there for me to see every morning when I wake up and look in the mirror. It’s on my mind every night as I go to bed, thoughts on replay forcing me to relive what happened last semester. It follows me wherever I go—in class, in church, anywhere and everywhere it pleases.

I want to shed light on a destructive part of sexual assault: the experience of victim-blaming, the loneliness and isolation that comes after being flooded with mixed messages, shallow support and twisted lies. I received these things from people in my community, most of whom are Christians. Within weeks of speaking out, here is some of what I heard:

“Baggage can burden people. You need healing before joining our ministry.”

“We’re disappointed in you. You knew better than to self-destruct.”

“He took advantage of you, but you also made a poor decision.”

“You went looking for fire and you got burned.”

“You only half-consented but still drove there and didn’t fight back”

Family and friends, pastors and police officers–some messages explicit, others in the form of subtle silence. Regardless–it all felt overwhelming and excruciatingly difficult. My dignity had already been taken and intentional or not, others took even more. Their words invaded me like a deep, prolonged assault that lasted months after what one man did in an hour. 

Most people said I made a bad choice and knew better. Some things I did know. I knew people would question my values and scrutinize me for my “unrighteous decisions.” Yes, mom, premarital sex is bad. No, dad, I shouldn’t talk to strangers. People told me “I knew better” like it was all simple. But it wasn’t; there was a lot I didn’t know.

I didn’t know I could change my mind.

I didn’t know silence wasn’t consent.

I didn’t know failing to say no but failing to say yes wasn’t consent.

I didn’t know he would take advantage of my vulnerability. 

I didn’t know when I spoke up five, six, seven times that he was supposed to stop and ask if I was okay.

I didn’t know he would text me afterwards to confuse and manipulate me.

I didn’t know I would be blamed for something I didn’t yet understand.

I was not prepared for how the rape would impact those around me. I lost valuable relationships. I experienced abandonment and betrayal. People either knew I was struggling and didn’t care enough or they didn’t know and were afraid to ask. But I wasn’t okay and didn’t handle it well.

How did I cope?

Skipping classes to write suicide notes and contemplate taking a bottle of pills. Taking a razor blade to my skin, trying to numb the pain. Weekends spent isolating myself, followed by nights sobbing in the fetal position. Breaking glasses and leaning over the toilet, finger down my throat, trying to erase the dirtiness I felt. Drinking until I couldn’t remember anymore and acting promiscuously to “prove” I’m not too broken.

My story doesn’t reflect every survivor, and a minority of friends have been my rock. To them and Safer Spaces, Campus Safety, the Center for Student Success, thank you. The unconditional care I’ve received has taught me so much about who Christ really is. For the first time since the rape, I can say confidently that one day I will go from victim to survivor.

To my fellow Knights, thank you for reading this. Do me a favor. Text your loved ones. Educate yourself. Reconsider your understanding of sexual violence. And when you hear the stories from the news or loved ones later, please don’t make my previous mistakes. Instead of blaming, act as Christ.

If you or a loved one have experienced sexual assault or harassment or are considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, Campus Safety at 616-526-3333 or contact Safer Spaces.