The Image I Reflect: Healing From Sexual Violence
The Image I Reflect: Healing From Sexual Violence
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Throughout the month, Cedarville University’s Title IX office would like to challenge the campus community to examine the ways in which we are sometimes less than loving as we focus on this theme:
“The Image I Reflect: Conversations About Respect, Consent, Power, and Healing”
This theme is meant to challenge us to look in the mirror and consider our beliefs and behaviors, to reflect on the ways that we are tempted to act toward another that could diminish their sexual dignity or objectify them.
Our focus this week is on healing.
Today’s post is written by Cedarville counselor and 2002 alumna Alison Allport, LPCC-S. Alison returned to Cedarville to join Counseling Services in 2022. While working previously in a local nonprofit with at-risk youth, God directed Alison’s heart toward counseling as a life calling. Since obtaining her counseling degree and license, her clinical work experience has included schools, foster care, churches, and Christian nonprofit and counseling organizations.
Therapists are often asked, “How long will it take to get over this?” This question is especially relevant in cases of sexual abuse or assault, as the violation of God-given dignity and value can cause serious injury to the soul. This unseen wound is often minimized to decrease the time, effort, and consequences. Unfortunately, being a believer or growing up in a Christian family does not guarantee protection from evil. In the Bible, God does not flinch from portraying humans as flawed or free from the devastating consequences of sexual assault. We cannot ignore the widespread effect of this sin on loved ones in our churches and families. Therefore, as believers called to love, we must equip ourselves to care well for those in our communities who are healing from sexual abuse or assault. The following steps are integral to becoming a person and Church that encourage the healing process.
1. Recognize the wide range of unique needs among sexual assault survivors.
Some individuals who experience assault or abuse do not suffer long-term effects from their experience. Others may have emotional, physical, spiritual, and relational symptoms for many years to come. A few factors that contribute to the length or depth of the healing process include age at time of event, the duration of relationship, extent of abuse/assault, power imbalance in relationship, family or community ties between abuser and victim, and survivor’s personality and support system. The most significant factor for a victim is often how a previously trusted person or group handled the initial disclosure. If minimization or denial occurred, the victim often feels retraumatized and discouraged from both further reporting and seeking help in the healing process.
2. Acknowledge healing does not occur in a linear line with clearly defined steps.
Just as forgiveness is both a choice and ongoing process, healing doesn’t follow a set timetable. Time alone does not guarantee healing. It is a product of emotional work that can ebb and flow. “Aren’t you over that yet?” is an unfortunate question that many survivors hear, perpetuating the idea that things will ‘get back to normal’ when the survivor is ‘finished.’ It’s important to see it as a process instead of a prescribed destination. For example, there are certain life milestones that can trigger an unexpected response, such as starting a new relationship or having a baby, revealing further emotional work in the healing process. This isn’t a step backward from healing; it is a new opportunity to apply known truth and skills in a fresh way.
3. Understand the content of healing to help prepare the hearts of victims and their supporters for the journey ahead.
Initial priorities are to establish physical safety and address unhealthy and sometimes dangerous coping patterns. Next, a survivor needs to feel emotionally safe to explore the circumstances of the abuse with a trusted counselor or mentor. At this point, Dr. Diane Langberg, Christian psychologist, asserts that healing “must involve a restoration of voice, safe connection, and rightful power.*” Voice is the ability of a person to be heard and respected for their opinions and wishes. In abusive situations, the concepts of no and yes are often twisted until the victim takes on responsibility for something they did not choose. Power refers to the ability to decide what is wanted and beneficial. It includes use of physical force or coercion into something that was not freely chosen. Obviously, any power imbalance automatically positions a victim at a disadvantage and complicates regaining trust in personal autonomy and choice.
4. Recognize that the assault not only damages the relationship, but also the ability to form and maintain healthy relationships.
Personal beliefs about self, others, and God are often skewed because of the deep emotional injury. Finally, we must acknowledge the role of a trustworthy, loving support team in the healing process. This does not mean everyone needs to know all the details and effects of what happened. Instead, it involves fostering a community that can love and support the victim in a holistic way. The process of seeking redemption and healing, of addressing the unseen wound, can lead to a break in current relationships, making a body of believers a source of comfort. This could include an experienced and licensed therapist to explain and guide the emotional journey, a physician who can address any physical needs or reactions from the stress or trauma, a pastor or spiritual mentor to address the weighty spiritual questions that accompany abuse, and friends and family to be present throughout with comfort and love. According to Langberg, authentic healing is "incarnational and redemptive" in "purpose and process," lived out by Christ-followers, in step with the Holy Spirit, giving hands, feet, and heart to the character of God.*
* Source: Langberg, D. (2003) Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse. Xulon Press.
Posted in Title IX