Content note: sexual abuse, spiritual abuse.
I was at a casual gathering recently and found myself sitting around a fire pit with a group of friendly acquaintances. The mood was light and open, the conversation witty and engaging, and the night very pleasant. At one point one of the other people there turned the conversation to church and started advocating that the rest of us visit his church. I kept my mouth shut, waiting for the conversation to move on. It didn't. He finally asked me directly if I would be interested in attending his church, and I commented in an offhand way that church isn't really my thing and then tried to change the subject. It didn't work. I kept politely trying to dodge, and he kept pursuing the subject. I should have gotten up and left, but I didn't. Instead it got to the point where he directly asked what it is I don't like about church. I responded that I find evangelical churches to be emotionally manipulative in general, that I feel that at this point in my life I have a strong sense of what I think and feel about God, and that church has not been a positive experience for me. He pushed on this last point. Why wasn't it positive? What went wrong? I said I don't respond well to situations in which I feel that I'm being judged on criteria and values that I don't espouse for myself, and that appeals to emotion and fear turn me off. I also noted that the "support" one gets from a church community seems rather conditional, and I feel more comfortable forging my own support networks. He kept pushing on this last point and asking for examples, Finally I responded with several examples of how the church of my childhood as well as his own church in the town where I live now had not been supportive of individuals who were dealing with personal struggles, but shaming and manipulative. He wasn't going to let it drop, so I finally said "and then there's the fact that my own grandfather and uncle molested me, and everyone was more concerned with protecting the reputation of the church than with my well-being. That doesn't seem loving or supportive." This brought the conversation to a full stop, and made several individuals in the situation visibly uncomfortable. I had obviously crossed a line by mentioning my sexual abuse. But why? Why is this topic off limits?
My mom has cited a concern for my embarrassment or shame when defending the way the adults in the family handled the situation when it all came out in the open. Their actions that looked like they were defending the perpetrators were really intended to protect the victims. But again, why? What do I have to be ashamed about? I did nothing that should invoke shame. In my mind, the shame lies entirely on the shoulders of my uncle and grandpa.* And yet there's this taboo surrounding any discussion of sexual abuse. One ought not to talk about it. Even though it informs so much about who we are, for better or for worse. It's a formative experience. And it seems to me that by having this taboo - by requiring survivors of sexual abuse to keep a lid on it - we impose a second burden. You have to figure out how to grow and mature through the damage that was done, to develop healthy coping skills and learn how to let yourself be vulnerable and take social risks in healthy ways. And you also have to carry the weight of this secret. You must protect the delicate sensibilities of others by never speaking of it except with your closest friends. This seems somewhat akin to a second victimization. I didn't ask for the abuse, and I also didn't ask for the weight of this secret. This secret that explains so much about me. And yet it's mine.
The phrase "gag order" has always seemed unnecessarily violent to me. It's kind of jarring. But now I see how appropriate the violence it evokes really is. He who controls the discourse wields the power, right?
I choose to speak about it when speaking seems appropriate. Try to stop me.
*Unless, of course you're of the opinion that a woman is damaged goods, and polluted in some sense, once she has been sexual in any way - even if she did not consent or was too young to even understand what was happening. Then, of course, she does have cause for shame. The source of her personal value has been compromised.