This is a conversation with someone who has experienced sexual assault. It’s a longer version of a dialogue I included in a post about sexual abuse on the Jesus Creed blog. My post there talks about how church leaders can help abuse victims by the way they talk about sex.

Image by Chris Costes — Creative Commons

She sits, unmoving, legs crossed at the knees, arms tucked under and around her breasts. I slide the box of tissues closer to her as the tears hover at her jawline.

I say, “Thank you for trusting me with your story. I can tell you’ve done a lot of hard work on recovery already.”

She tightens her lips.

I ask, “What still feels painful when you think about the abuse?”

She untucks a hand and touches her forehead. She whispers, “I’m so ashamed.”

“Where does that shame come from?”

“I did these sexual things with him…”

I try to sense how much I should ask on this. “Why does that make you feel ashamed?”

Her eyebrows pull together, and she tilts her head. “I’m a Christian. I shouldn’t have been sexually involved. I…I didn’t want to, but…I did it.”

“Are you saying you feel responsible for those sexual interactions?”

She nods. “Yeah. I mean, I let him do it.”

I ask, “What would he have done if you had said no?”

She meets my line of sight, her eyes big and suddenly dry. “What do you mean?”

“What would he have done if you had said no to sex?”

Her answer is immediate, knowing his hypothetical response without having to think about it. “He would have started a fight. I couldn’t take any more violence.”

I pour her a glass of water from the pitcher. “You said you didn’t want to do those things. And you were afraid of what he would do if you said no. Why do you think it was your fault?”

She hesitates. Her tears start again. “I don’t know…I didn’t stop him.”

I get out another box of tissues. “Sexual assault is when we have a sexual encounter that we don’t want or didn’t ask for. We can be sexually coerced — pressured to be physically involved — especially when the person we are with has a lot more sexual experience or is much older or is in a position of power over us. Does any of that sound like what you experienced?”

“Yes! I didn’t want it, but I didn’t know how to stop it without him getting angry. I just kind of froze up.”

“That was his sin, not yours. The shame is his, not yours. Does that help you, to take the guilt and responsibility off of yourself and put it on him, where it belongs?”

She nods. “Yeah, actually. I never thought of it like that before.” She sits up straighter and raises her shoulders.

I clear my throat, because talking about this is always awkward for me. “When I was abused by a babysitter when I was about 8, I never told anyone what happened, because I felt responsible, and I felt ashamed. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I understood it was abuse, and it wasn’t my fault. I went to a sexual integrity workshop, and we were looking back at our sexual histories. We learned about perpetrators, that they select their targets. They’re very deliberate. They have a plan, and they work it. They usually have multiple victims.”

She nods again. “I know at least three other girls he did the same thing to.”

“Does that help you see the pattern?”

“It does. What you said about the plan — that makes sense. I can see looking back how he was in control the whole time. I always thought it was a decision he made in the moment, what he did, but I think he set me up for it.”

“Grooming a victim, testing them to see if they are susceptible to abuse, is often part of a perpetrator’s process. I can see how it happened to me too. I had a hard time accepting that I was targeted and victimized. In some ways, it was easier to think the abuse was my fault, because if I had caused it, I could maybe keep it from happening again.”

Her eyebrows go up. “That’s kind of scary and kind of a relief at the same time.”

“It is. Calling ourselves ‘victims’ can make us feel like we were helpless, like we couldn’t protect ourselves. But accepting that someone hurt us on purpose, and we didn’t cause it, and we couldn’t stop it or prevent it, that can be an important part of healing. How do you feel about the idea of calling yourself a victim?”

She shifts in her chair and considers it. “I feel…angry. I feel…stronger. It does help take the shame away. I never told anyone because I thought they would blame me. You really think it wasn’t my fault?”

“Yes. I believe you. I don’t blame you. I blame the person who abused you. And I think you’re more than a victim now. I think you’re a survivor.”

She blows her nose and looks me directly in the eyes. “I like ‘survivor.’”