This article contains content on sexual assault.
A sexual assault may happen in an instance, but it can leave an indelible mark on someone’s life. What can also add to the pain is the lack of understanding and support in the aftermath.
In the final episode of our new series, Unheard Narratives, survivors of sexual assault speak up about their trauma and how the Church can do better in dealing with issues of this nature.
You may want to watch the video first for the full stories.
Just note that these stories did not happen to this week’s cast (Angie, Ian, Shen Yi, Stacy and Trisha) — they’re just five Thir.st readers who joined us to read and respond to these stories we received.
HOW CAN WE SUPPORT THE HURTING?
The first story took place in a neighbourhood where the profile was jogging. A guy saw her from afar and attempted to chat her up.
When ignored, he tried to playfully grab her from the side, but she ran away.
This wasn’t the first time she was assaulted. However, when she recounted what she had been through with her church counsellor, her concerns were dismissed.
Since then, the profile decided not to open up about her experiences to church leaders.
The profile also mused how in church, people are ready to support brothers and sisters who are fighting against sins, but there’s a lack of support for brothers and sisters who have been hurt by the sins of others.
Stacy resonated with the profile’s reflection.
“I think that this person really hit the nail on the head,” she agreed.
“How can we support brothers and sisters who have been hurt by the sins of others?”
Answering her own question, she continued: “In this case, I think the response is just to listen, to allow space to process it, to ask the person how he or she is feeling, and how it has affected his or her day-to-day life.”
“If the community wasn’t there to support in the first place, then the trust of that community for support also has been broken.”
Pastor Ian also noted that while it is great that the church teaches about forgiveness, forgiveness is not just a mental decision.
He elaborated: “Forgiveness as a practice demands deep searching and conversing about the matter at hand.
“Because what are we forgiving the person about? So that demands us to go into the various tiers of hurt, pain and disappointment.”
He also highlighted that in this particular story, trust has also been broken – not just between the offender and the offended, but also between the offended and the community.
“If the community wasn’t there to support in the first place, then the trust of that community for support also has been broken,” explained Pastor Ian.
“So it is a whole journey of restoring that trust in that community and fellowship in the person’s life.”
WHAT ABOUT ACCOUNTABILITY?
The next story happened during worship in church. An old man offered to share a hymn book with the profile.
However, he pulled the profile closer by placing his hand below his waist area, around his buttocks. This made the profile extremely uncomfortable and angry.
The profile raised this incident to a pastor, but didn’t hear any further from the leadership.
He then reflected that perhaps the matter would be taken more seriously if he was a girl instead of a guy.
“Yikes, it’s (in) church,” Shen Yi winced. “Especially the last line when he talks about how he would have been taken more seriously if he was a girl instead of a guy.
“Sexual assault, in a sense, has no preferred sex. Everybody is equally vulnerable to it.”
In fact, Angie wondered if the experience was even worse for guys because they would not expect it to happen to them — in fact, some of the cast members were surprised to find out that the profile was a male.
“Society doesn’t even equip a guy for what happens when they are violated because it is never talked about,” she pointed out.
Angie also deliberated if the matter wasn’t taken seriously simply because the profile is a guy.
“Sometimes there’s toxic masculinity where people think that you should figure this out on your own. You should defend it yourself, you should man up. So I feel for him.”
She also highlighted that sometimes the Church can extend grace a little too far.
“If at a societal level, we report things to the police and the police would at least write the report, then my question is, was the report filed in the church?” questioned Angie.
Pastor Ian was upset that even though the matter surfaced, there was no meaningful follow-up from the church.
Offering a response, he said: “I don’t want to sound as if I am speaking for the pastor or the leadership.
“But sometimes maybe the lack of understanding about sexual assault within the church could cause leaders to not believe that it had happened.”
As a pastor herself, Trisha acknowledged the dilemma that leaders face.
On one hand, the Church is supposed to be an open space for anyone to come, especially those who need the Lord. At the same time, pastors need to be gatekeepers to look out for their sheep.
“But we must address the issue. We cannot allow such things to take place. If we do, it’s just like sweeping problems under the carpet,” she said.
Taking time to address the profile, Pastor Trisha added: “On behalf of the pastors, we didn’t do well. And I want to encourage you, if this is your letter, to bring it up again with your pastor.
“Because when you voice out, you could be really protecting somebody else.”
“… We must address the issue. We cannot allow such things to take place.”
Stacy also suggested having a pastoral follow-up with the offended.
“A lot of times when we talk about getting support from the church, it’s not necessarily to condemn or completely cancel the person who did wrong,” she explained.
“We know all of us fall short. But I think accountability and support in the most holistic sense, whether it’s mental, spiritual or even physical trauma in this case, is really important.”
HOW CAN WE FACILITATE HEALING?
The third story revolved around being molested on public transport.
The profile had witnessed the offender inappropriately touching a fellow commuter’s chest. When the commuter moved away, the offender came to sit next to her.
Frozen by his boldness, the profile could barely move when he intentionally angled his arm in a way that his elbow would brush against her chest when he was reaching into the front pocket of his pants for his phone.
He would then slide the phone back into his pocket and repeat the process.
She eventually got off the train and made a police report. The perpetrator was caught quickly, and her circle of girlfriends celebrated with her when the case finally came to a close.
“What stood out to me about her story was community. People that celebrated her steps,” noted Angie. “It sounds like just one sentence at the end, but I’m sure it was a process.”
Pastor Ian agreed.
Revealing that he had been sexually assaulted before, he pointed out that that the inability to tell somebody could make a person feel like they are suffocated in a gas chamber.
Sharing that he was molested at five years old, Pastor Ian said he didn’t know how to string the words together to speak to someone about it.
As such, he didn’t have anyone who could process these feelings with him to bring about healing and restoration.
However, all that changed when he became a pastor.
“The Holy Spirit put it in my heart that it is important for mentors, pastors and leaders to be able to share the stories of grace in our lives,” recounted Pastor Ian.
“If the church cannot be a safe place for pastors, then I think the church is really not a safe place for anyone.”
As such, he and his family has decided to be like an open book to the church community.
And while the church isn’t perfect, he is thankful to see more openness for different people to come home to the Father with their brokenness.
Pastor Trisha, too, shared that she was assaulted on the train when she was 13 years old. Subsequently, she refused to take the MRT for many years because of the trauma.
Even today, she still experiences a slight tinge of fear every time she boards public transport.
“Some people say forgive and forget. The thing is, we don’t really forget, but do we allow those things to hold us back? Do we allow those things to really fester in our hearts?”
WHERE CAN WE DO BETTER?
If you think the perpetrator in the previous story was bold, what happened in this final story was even more shocking.
While on the MRT, the profile noticed two strangers eyeing her. A few minutes later, one of the men touched her below her dress.
When she looked up, she saw the two men grinning. They didn’t converse and didn’t seem to know each other, but were somehow united at that inappropriate action.
She told her friend about it and they got off at the next stop.
However, the profile was disheartened when her friend’s initial reaction went along the lines of “why does this keep happening to you”.
One thing that stood out to Pastor Trisha was the friend’s response.
“I think we need to have a bit more empathy especially when something inappropriate has happened to your friend.”
She also pointed out that perhaps when things are seldom spoken about, people simply do not know how to react.
Stacy brought in another perspective: “I think women are often cast in two different roles, and they’re very extreme. They’re either the pure, virginal women or they are the harlot.”
As such, people tend to identify females in those extremes.
Angie believed that the friend didn’t mean to hurt the profile with her words. But this does beg the question, why does it always happen?
“Why do men feel so, like she said, empowered? Like it was some power play? Like they scored? Is it because as an advanced society, we haven’t been taught humanity?” questioned Angie.
She emphasised the importance of moral education even at a young age. “I wish that as kids, we were taught how to have compassion, what it means to honour someone else’s life, to honour someone else’s body.
“I mean, those are the hallmarks of civilisation right?”
For Shen Yi, he wondered what he would have done if he was there at the scene.
“You always read on Instagram and stuff that people are like, ‘Oh, this lady was walking, and I would act like she was my friend so I will save her from the person that was being a predator towards her.’
And while he would like to believe that he would rise to the occasion when it comes to it, he admitted that it’s not that easy.
Sharing his final words on the gravity of the matter at hand, Pastor Ian concluded: “My overall thought after reading all the stories is that there has been great abuse of trust and power.
“I felt the thing that God put in my heart was that gentleness and kindness can go to places where power cannot. (They) are the means that God uses to invoke healing in our lives, in those areas of disappointment, betrayal and hurt.”
He affirmed: “My prayer is that everyone would have that safe community for them to bare their hearts.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for the Church to rise up and be that place of comfort for people who are willing to be open about their struggles and sexual assault experiences.”
If you’d like to speak with someone outside your church community, you can also reach out to PAVE, which offers services to those who have been impacted by interpersonal violence. PAVE can be reached at (65) 6555-0390 or www.pave.org.sg.