Words Matter: How Do We Label Survivors of Sexual Abuse?

By Katherine Burkey Wiens, MEd, LPC and Speaker's Bureau member

Words matter. They have immense power to either encourage or discourage. Words also form images in our minds. When words are used to describe a person or group of people, those words often create specific pictures that influence how others see them. The source of the words also matters. The more influential and important that person is, the more impact his or her words have.

Thankfully, many churches are writing policies on child protection. This is important and sacred work. These policies serve to keep children safe. Some policies discuss how the congregation will work with perpetrators of abuse, as well as survivors. When policies talk about and define survivors and perpetrators, these descriptions provide a better understanding about these individuals.

There are many reasons to try to understand survivors. According to Boz Tchividjian, founder of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), one important reason is survivors of childhood sexual abuse make up approximately 20 percent of our congregations. This figure doesn’t even account for the adult victims of sexual violence. When we talk about survivors, we are talking about one fifth of the people in our congregations.

When church committees create policies that describe victims or offenders, this influences how victims and offenders are viewed by the rest of the faith community. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I was concerned when I saw a document that used a laundry list of mental health disorders to define survivors. I was apprehensive about how this would label survivors to a congregation using a policy with this wording.

Here is what Dove’s Nest’s 2016 Protection and Inclusion document stated about survivors: Most people who have experienced sexual abuse have serious, long-term consequences, including overwhelming feelings of fear, guilt, and anger. Many survivors also experience depression, anxiety, and physical difficulties such as sleeplessness, eating disorders, and fatigue. Some experience post-traumatic stress disorder or recurring memories, such as flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts. Many have difficulty developing positive relationships with others, such as friends, spouses, and family members. Some turn to drugs or alcohol to lessen the pain or may show suicidal or self-destructive tendencies.

This document was describing “most people who have experienced sexual abuse.” But it was focusing on the negative, unhealthy, and broken outcomes a person may have. As a survivor, is this how I define myself? Of course not. Do I, at times, experience some of these outcomes? Yes, I do. But I’m saddened to think this is how a church would choose to characterize me. Using these words only increases my feelings of shame and isolation as a survivor.

How sexual abuse is dealt with in the church may also be affected when survivors are primary viewed with these negative images. Insights from those who have experienced abuse may be dismissed because of these adverse labels. If church leadership does not take into account the wisdom of those who have experienced abuse, then they are missing an important piece of the puzzle. The reality is that survivors of sexual abuse are the very people whom churches need to listen to. Because of their firsthand experience, they can offer expertise on how a congregation should move forward in caring for other survivors and helping them find hope and healing.

This is often not an easy road. Sexual abuse is a dark and difficult topic. The burden of truth telling is hard. Rather than digging into the mess that is created when a person experiences sexual violence, it’s easier to look the other way. And when we label survivors with a laundry list of mental health issues, it’s easier to focus on what is wrong with them rather than what happened to them. This is especially true when church leaders, who often set congregational norms, do not have a good understanding of sexual violence and its effects. And if the perpetrator of the sexual violence has standing and authority in the church, it is even more difficult to view survivors as people who should be honored and listened to.

So how can survivors of sexual violence be described in a way that honors them and helps others in the church see them in a positive way, while at the same time acknowledging the psychological consequences of abuse? Here is one way the previous description could be changed:

Survivors of sexual abuse have experienced horrific events that have long lasting and complicated consequences. Nevertheless, survivors are strong, courageous individuals and most go on to live good and productive lives, despite the crimes committed against them. However, the long-term consequences and impact of sexual abuse may include feelings of fear, guilt and anger. Depression and anxiety are also common for survivors of abuse. Post-traumatic stress disorder, difficulty in relationships and self-destructive tendencies can sometimes be results of sexual and other forms of abuse.

Sexual violence is one of the most underreported crimes. Only 1 to 10 percent of these crimes are ever reported. This means many, many survivors suffer in silence—some all their lives. One reason for this is the way faith communities view survivors. When they are viewed as broken and flawed people, they may never come forward. But if they are honored and valued as strong individuals and are cared for and supported by faith communities, then more survivors may speak out. And when those who have experienced the horrors of sexual violence feel safe enough to speak about their abuse, it will make our churches safer places for everyone, especially children.

Dove’s Nest board and staff are grateful for this input from Katherine Burkey Wiens. We have incorporated her feedback, along with other updates, in the 2018 version of our Protection and Inclusion document.