With tears streaming down my face I hugged my pastor, giving him the biggest hug I'd ever given him after his Sunday morning sermon.
“Thank you for having the courage to stand up there and say it. Thank you for being a voice of truth today.” I could barely eek out the words, but my grateful heart fueled my meager words.
“You could have preached this message,” he said warmly.
“No,” I asserted, “it needed to come from you. You had to be the one to address this, not me.”
Pastor Randy told our congregation that day that he was going to be preaching on a subject that hadn't been the focus of an entire sermon in our church’s 50-plus-year history: sexual abuse and sexual assault.
He didn’t downplay the severity of impact of sexual violation.
He didn’t blame the victims of sexual crimes.
He didn’t give pat answers to the hard questions that are woven through this intense issue.
Sitting in the pew I had known what was coming because he had informed me a few days earlier. He knew I had a vested interest due to my counseling experience. But truth be told, the significance of this issue isn’t just because I’m a mental health specialist; this is much more personal.
Most often in my Dad-Daughter Friday blogs I seek to bring practical ideas to you as dads that I trust will enhance your relationship with your daughters. Yet today I’m going to be moving in a slightly different direction. I want to share some of my story with you.
There’s no easy way to say it, so I’ll just say it: I am a survivor of sexual abuse.
First, I want you to notice that I used the word ‘survivor’ rather than ‘victim.’ Actually, a more accurate way to say it is that I am a ‘thriver’ of sexual abuse. It’s important to me that you know I’ve not just survived sexual trauma, but I have been able to thrive because of it. Yes, you heard me right. I am who I am, where I am, and doing what I’m doing because of what I’ve been through, not in spite of it. I have much more empathy for others because now my deep trench of woundedness that used to dictate the way I live no longer exists, and for me it's been healing to accept truth that roots in my relationship with God.
Now you have a bit of the backstory to provide a context for why it meant so much to have my pastor stand in the pulpit and lend his voice of support, not only to me, but to a large portion of our congregation who shares a similar history. As I’ve perused the literature to find current statistics from national agencies on this topic, I’ve read that on average there are 288,820 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States, which translates to 20 million women, or 18% of our population (not including guys who are also victimized). This means that at least 20 million fathers have daughters who have been molested.
I’ve also read that one out of every four girls and one out of every six boys is sexually abused before the age of 18. Sadly, many of my colleagues and I have found in clinical practice that these numbers appear to be low, especially when we factor in data from the U.S. Department of Justice which states that only 30% of sexual abuse victims report these crimes. Yet regardless of the exact numbers, I can say from personal experience that it’s heartbreaking to live with intense internal distress due to what someone else has done to cause harm and not have those atrocities addressed in church.
Whether or not you’re one who likes church, believes in God or a Higher Power, or reads the Bible, I hope you can appreciate what I’m saying about the powerful impact this had on me when my pastor choose to boldly say from the pulpit,
“When I look in 2 Samuel 13 at the rape by Amnon to his half-sister Tamar, one of the hardest parts of this story is the silencing of the victim.” (I agree).
“Not only that, but if the church is silent on this issue then people will believe that God is silent.” (I agree).
“And this morning we're not going to silence Tamar!”
He went on to say that to stop sexual abuse, we must:
1. Hear the stories of victims in order to GIVE THEM THEIR VOICE BACK.
2. Believe their stories.
3. Look at the power structures that exist.
4. Resist passivity (he spoke primarily to dads here).
5. Protect passionately (again, he was speaking directly to fathers).
Did you notice that these last two items were addressed specifically to dads? Resist passivity and protect passionately. What do these directives mean exactly? Let me share my thoughts.
I’ll begin with a story told by my friend Kendra, one that she has given me permission to share. When she was four or five years old, her dad walked in and found an older boy sexually abusing her. He got angry and they never talked about it again. That left her confused about what his anger meant. Was he angry with her? Was this her fault? Despite her questions and confusion, what she knows now is that this early childhood experience shaped her future relationships with guys and led to confused sexual boundaries, not to say anything about what it did to her relationship with her dad.
Please hear me when I say that when a father chooses to never talk about a sexual violation that his daughter has experienced, it messes her up inside. Big time. I guarantee that she will believe that she did something to cause it and that it’s her fault. And she will not only know that what happened to her was bad; even worse, she’ll believe that she is bad.
Dad, resist taking a passive stance and choose to walk into this conversation, uncomfortable as it may be for you.
You want to ensure that your daughter doesn’t internalize the implied or directly stated destructive messages from the abuse or her abuser. If you never tell her the truth from your vantage point, she will be left to navigate this on her own, which rarely leads to a positive conclusion. Her faulty beliefs based in lies will negatively shape her self-esteem, self-confidence, and her identity for years to come.
Secondly, Dad, protect her passionately. This means taking the time to do whatever it takes to find out what’s really going on inside your daughter in this area of sex and sexuality:
- Look into her eyes and read what they are saying. You will see whether she is hurting or thriving by simply getting close enough to look at her.
- If she is a minor, don’t be afraid to check her phone. Even if she throws a fit, make sure to keep tabs on what is being said and what pictures are being exchanged.
- Don’t stop there. Check her computer from time to time. Look at her history to see what she’s watching and what she’s drawn to on the internet. Talk with her afterwards. Teach her how to think, not just what to think, as your input shapes her choices.
- Meet the guy she is spending time with or dating. Look into his eyes; they’ll tell you a lot about his motives and character. You want him to fear that if he violates your daughter, he’ll be held accountable by you. That’s why you want to meet him early in their friendship/relationship. Don’t believe her when she tells you that there’s nothing going on between them because usually there is if he’s hanging around a lot. Let him know that your daughter is your treasure and you expect him to treat her with honor.
- Spend time regularly talking with her about the little, seemingly unimportant things to set a foundation for when “the biggees” need to be addressed (dating, curfews, friends, boys, spending limits, car usage, house rules, scholastic objectives, future plans, life goals, spirituality, God, convictions, etc.).
- Find out what your daughter loves and create ways to connect with her by doing those things. One dad recently told me that his high school daughter loves coffee. He “speaks her language” by treating her to coffee, which provides a space for spontaneous conversation while they’re both sipping a cup of java.
Remember that “the best defense is a good offense.” Spend time pursuing your daughter’s heart by listening, looking in her eyes, and loving her in tangible ways (which most often involves money, whether it’s taking her out for coffee or a meal, to a movie or the mall).
One more thing: I can assure you that as a woman with a sexual abuse history, it was very hard for me to share my story with my dad. And he really struggled to hear it because he had to face the fact that he wasn’t able to protect me or stop it. I’m telling you this part of my story because it’s important for you to know. I’m guessing you’ll probably feel the same way should you hear something similar from your daughter.
I encourage you to find a time to navigate this topic with your girl and initiate the conversation where you ask if anything has ever happened to her in the area of being sexually violated. Let her know that if she ever has something to tell you in this arena, you are there for her, you won’t get angry with her (that’s key), you will believe her, and that you will support her through the healing process. Telling the story is the first step to healing.
And rest assured that if your daughter cries when opening up this subject, it reveals that she is connecting to her deepest, truest self while feeling real emotion. And by giving her your listening ear, wrapped in compassion, you are making a forever deposit into her heart space.
Remember…tears are good. And because they have salt in them, they really do enhance the healing process.