Talking About Sexual Assault with Teenage Girls
One day as an undergraduate student, my phone rang and on the other end of the line was one of my dearest friends. She asked to stop by my dorm room. I agreed, and thought nothing more of it. When my friend arrived, she sank into the chair in front of me. Before I could offer any words of greeting, she looked me in the eyes and said, “I need to tell you something. But before I do, I need you to promise to not ask any questions. I’m not ready for questions, but I am ready to tell someone.”
“Of course,” I replied, and then listened as she uttered the words I never expected to hear:
“I was raped.”
I will never forget walking through that season with my friend as she sought counseling and began the long healing process. At 19 years-old, sexual assault was not something I had ever experienced. I did not know the depth of its wounds and I naïvely thought it was something few people faced. Little did I know this was only the beginning; this season alongside my friend would serve as a sanctifying time for me, as the Lord prepared my heart for a life of ministry to women.
I recently wrote this article on Rooted about the current cultural moment regarding sexual abuse and harassment, and how we can begin the conversation with our teenagers about this time of “reckoning.” My hope in that article was to offer the wide, gospel lens through which we could view this moment. Now, with that framework in place, I would like to zoom in, getting into the weeds of how to directly engage this topic with students.
Since this particular conversation lends a clear divide between male and female students – with unique implications – we thought it best to offer distinct perspectives for both sides. Today, I will begin with a focus on female students.
Female Students and the Reckoning:
Having worked in student ministry for many years now, I have sat across from far too many hurting, wounded young women as they recount their heart-breaking stories of sexual abuse. I have learned the unfortunate reality that these stories – like that of my friend – are not uncommon experiences among teenage girls. And this has only been affirmed in recent months amid the #metoo movement.
So how can we, as parents and leaders, enter into this suffering with our girls? How do we guide and instruct them during in this moment?
1. Equip Yourself
While the core of this conversation is not new, the width of it is. Never before has there been such an open dialogue to such a sensitive subject. As leaders, now more than ever, we need to prepare ourselves to care for students who step out to say, “me too.” We no longer have the privilege of hoping this conversation will never happen. Instead, the conversation is here. So how are we prepared?
First, as a youth ministry team, we should have a known course of action for when a student confesses sexual misconduct committed against them. Start by identifying the resources in our area, such as local women’s shelters and licensed, specialized counselors – becoming acquainted with these organizations and the services they offer. Turn to trusted professionals within our churches and ask for their wisdom on names of gospel-centered organizations and practitioners.
Equipping ourselves actually offers a beautiful invitation to humility. As ministers, we can listen to, pray for, lament with, and encourage our hurting students. Yet, we will never serve as their ultimate healer. Equipping ourselves with resources beyond our own ministry actually roots us in a right understanding of the sovereignty of God, by reminding us that we cannot be everything for our students, nor should we try.
2. Offer the Biblical Narrative
The recent cultural conversation over sexual harassment has mostly centered on the work place and Hollywood, spaces where justice can be served through the removal of the accused from positions of power. Yet, as I mentioned in my last article, studies have shown nearly half of all middle and high school students have already experienced some form of sexual misconduct, ranging from abuse at a party to derogatory words/actions in the hallway. And, unfortunately, the vast majority of these victims are female.
The probability that girls in our ministries are carrying their own #metoo stories is high, but for most of them, justice will never look like a national news report. However, this is not usually a victim’s aim. When a victim tells her or his story, more often than not, they are simply seeking hope. They want to know that they no longer have to live in fear or shame, but can have freedom.
We need to continually offer our girls a biblical narrative to their stories.
By giving a right theology of sin, understanding its curse and definitive end, we give a hope that no worldly justice can. When our girls have been hurt by brokenness in the world, we have an opportunity to proclaim this earth as not our ultimate home. Suffering can offer a chance to build in our students, and in us, a deeper desire for the hope that awaits – when every tear is wiped away and justice is complete!
3. Love the Bride
As we are in the throes of this national reckoning, the question I most often hear is: how do we keep our female students from reacting in fear? How do we continue to teach them to love the opposite sex well?” I believe this answer is simple: if we want our students love each other well, we must teach them to love the church well.
Recently, I had a student confess that she was sexually abused in her childhood. She kept it hidden for years out of the fear of people’s response. Remarkably, it was not this national reckoning that emboldened her to come forward; it was the church. God had recently confronted her with His Lordship, while also comforting her through His bride. This student said it was by seeing the church in action that she felt empowered to shine a light on her hidden suffering, allowing others to carry it with her.
While I could tell many similar stories of teenage girls sharing in similar suffering, I have to believe there are still more waiting, watching to see how the church will respond in this moment. If we want to show our students what it means to love one another in the midst of this reckoning, we must show them God’s love for His bride – for God IS love (1 John 4:8). As our young men are being bombarded with mixed messages from the culture about how to view women (more about this in the next article), God has made His message clear: “love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10), and “love one another just as I have loved you” (John 13:34).
The church’s love will look different than the world’s. My college friend did not want me to ask questions, not because she did not want my help, but because questions are not what she needed in that moment. All she needed was someone to listen and commune with her in her pain; to remind her of a perfect love and hope when she felt all else had failed her.
Praise God that His love is a perfect love that not only casts out fear (1 John 4:18), but leads to hope. My prayer for every girl – abuse victim or otherwise – is that she or he might intimately know a hope that is grounded in the undeserved love and forgiveness of our savior, and that we might find the strength to offer the same.
Visit Rooted tomorrow to hear Russell Boone’s wisdom for young men.