(Warning: Disturbing content. This post is not intended for readers under 18, or victims who are easily traumatized. My target audience for this post is adults and leaders in the Mennonite culture. It will have a shock factor for some. That is not my intent or purpose in writing. It is to create awareness of the truth of sexual abuse and its impact on the culture.)
When I started to speak out about sexual abuse, through conferences and sharing my story in various venues, I had no idea the dam that would burst. In some ways I feel a bit like Abram, in Genesis 12, when God told him to leave what is familiar and go to a ‘land that I will show you’.
I embarked on this journey, with one passion. To bring freedom to people, particularly victims of sexual abuse. To be honest, my goal initially was not to do ministry predominantly in the Mennonite culture. In fact, when a friend asked me if I would go back there, I said no, not because I didn’t want to help, but because I feared I would not be heard. I said that, having left that culture, I would not be received.
I expected a few victims would come forward. I always believed I would impact a few of ‘my people’, but I never expected what is happening. But I thank God for what is happening.
In the past several years, and particularly the last six months, I have had the honour of interacting with many people, men and women alike, though predominantly women, from my cultural heritage. This is true of the ‘white bonnet’ Mennonite, as well as the Old Colony Mennonite heritage. Both need the light of Jesus, and hope of truth, to impact their cultures, especially in the area of sexuality and sexual abuse.
What I’m learning is both, at once, heart-breaking and encouraging. I am heart broken to have my fears confirmed that indeed sexual abuse is an epidemic in both cultures. It is prevalent in churches across our nation, as well as common in many places in USA. I cannot imagine it abruptly ends there. I fear it is an epidemic in the conservative churches everywhere. (What better place for the perpetrators to hide than in that silent, non-resistant culture, that does not go to the law, that does not speak or teach of sex?) That is the heart breaking part.
The encouraging part is that people are beginning to speak out. A few men, and many women, are tired of the guilt, the shame, the demonic oppression and mental instability that this type of secret brings to individuals, marriages and families. There are more and more people who are finding the courage to say, “Here’s my story.” And when they have told it, the unspoken question always lingers, “Will you still love me?”
One elderly individual recently thanked me for creating a safe place to ask anything, to tell anything. There were things they, as a couple, had struggled with their entire marriage. They had talked of going to leadership, but couldn’t bring themselves to do it because ‘no one talks about that stuff’, and because they feared judgement, condemnation and church discipline.
Others tell me how they went to leadership, some repeatedly, looking for help and were either told they don’t need help, or were abandoned. And then, when things went wrong, the church was quick to discipline harshly. This concerns me greatly.
It is especially disturbing to me that for many of the victims of abuse, the acts committed against them, or sexual favours requested of them, were so manipulative, and cleverly disguised, that they hardly know they were victims until we began to unravel their stories and identified ‘normal’ and healthy sexuality. They understood that things felt wrong, and they felt ashamed or guilty, but didn’t understand why. A prime and somewhat frequent example of this is when a teenager (often between the ages of 15 and 18) asks a child between the ages of 7 and 10, for oral or other sexual favours, by presenting it as a ‘game’ or within a ‘playing’ context. This leaves the child confused as to motive. (As a child I witnessed this being done by a group of teens, with a group of children and always believed it only happened to us. To hear it from other was at first shocking.)
I repeatedly encounter stories where this has sparked ‘same gender’ attraction that the victims carry with them for life, as the tapes play and replay. Especially if those ‘favours’ have been ‘returned’. It triggers sexual addictions and cravings that are obsessively unnatural. Some of these individuals, especially males, seem never to be sexually fulfilled. If their spouses do not give in to constant sex, or ‘sex-on-demand’, they turn to masturbation, and toys for release. I have only encountered one admission of turning to prostitution.
On the other end of the spectrum it has caused extreme frigidity in many a marriage, for both men and women, destroying what God intended to be a beautiful and natural relationship between husband and wife, because the partner is so wounded and repulsed by sexuality. It is also wrecking marriages where one partner knows the other instigated or engaged in this activity, and then went on to have same gender partners in their youth, within the culture. Suddenly, in marriage, that individual (whether male of female–and it does happen in both, in the church) is supposed to have the same attraction for the opposite gender. Most often they don’t. They have, sometimes for years, lived in same gender relationships, experiencing a very different kind of attraction. That does not ‘switch off’ over night.
The other heart breaking truth that I’m finding is the number of Mennonite children who engage in sexual acts with each other, as young as age two, where they are performing oral re-enactment on each other. And sexual acts with animals is also surprisingly common, with cases I’ve heard being as young as age five, and sometimes continuing through the teen years. (This is usually after an older child or teenager has had them ‘play’ with them.)
I now meet with adults who have carried this disturbing secret, in silence, for many, many years. Some have not even shared it with a spouse, a pastor, a counsellor or a friend. They carry it alone.
I have heard numerous stories, either from parents who caught their children in with other children or animals, or men and women who were never caught but hold this darkness inside.
The guilt and the shame that consumes them, as they sit in their pews, neatly dressed, perfectly presenting the Mennonite culture, ought to stir compassion, not judgement. (And God forbid that some preacher should read this and become determined to do some ‘housecleaning’ and further destroy these hearts. Endless love and compassion, accompanied by teaching healthy sexuality is the answer.)
Many adults tell me that in the case of children, whether it is children under age four engaging in oral re-enactment, or other children under eight or ten, that it is ‘innocent child’s play’. And yet, almost every time I ask ‘So what did you do when you caught them?’, I get the same answer. They spanked. And when I ask how hard. It’s very hard.
If it is innocent child’s play, why spank? Why beat a child or whip a child for innocent play? I have contemplated this at length, and can only conclude that their own past, their own pain, and their own experiences haunt them. And in every case I have spoken with, the adult was exposed as a victim of that type of thing, or the instigator of such ‘play’ as a child.
My advice–and I seldom give advice but tend more to ask questions and help the individual come to the right conclusion–is that an adult should never spank a child for sexual exploring or sexualized behaviour. I hear stories of sexual confusion that the individual can pin-point to that moment. They did not understand what they were doing. They had not been taught about their sexuality. And they had, in most cases, been previously abused. Then, when caught with another child, they received a harsh whipping, spanking or even beating.
This is wrong. I remember well the screams of my siblings as they were beaten for, God only knows, what. Because of the sexual abuse and confusion in our home, there was definitely ‘child-to-child’ exploring and re-enactment at young ages, and various sexual behaviours, that at times resulted in vile beatings.
If a parent or other authority figure, gives that child a safe place to talk, the child will be able to speak to what has been or is being done to them, to spark this sexual behaviour. It gives the adult the opportunity to speak truth over that child’s identity and sexuality.
My understanding of life, truth and sexuality is faith-based, Bible-based and God-focused. I am made in His image. Made to reflect Him. Made to represent Him. The Highest Being in the universe acknowledges me as ‘good’, because He made me beautiful, inside and out. He spoke words of approval over me. And those words were spoken before sin touched me.
He has invited me, as He invites every individual on earth, to return to that original identity. To embrace the ‘wholeness’ of His plan and purpose for us. When I return to that, I immediately must reject the lies that life experience have spoken over me. Lies that I am worthless, that I am perverted, or ‘used goods’ or any other darkness. Truth is the only thing that has the power to overcome the lies.
I appeal to leaders, to parents, to friends, that the conservative churches change the way these things are dealt with. For so many generations there has been silence. And the only teaching I heard growing up was negative teaching. ‘Don’t do this. Don’t do that. If you engage in sexual activity you will go to hell.’
Sex was predominantly attributed to evil and Satan. But the real truth about sex was never taught. Sex is, and was, first and foremost, a gift from God. It is, and was, a reflection of Him, of His passionate love for us. He made it pleasurable because it is lovely. It is delightful. It is bonding. He didn’t add the ‘fun parts’ for nothing. He could have made us a thousand other ways, to take all pleasure out of it. But He didn’t. Sex is, and always has been, first and foremost, good. Very good.
That’s what we need to teach. It needs to be valued. Appreciated. Protected. Our children know that sex is good. That it is precious. And they know that if they engage in it, it will probably feel good physically. Yes, we’ve told them there are emotional consequences, but they know that sex is good and it is sacred, and worth waiting for.
If it is not good, there is no value. If there is no value, there’s nothing to protect.
And if our shame over the things we have done, or what was done against us, causes us to react, we only carry on the generational chains. It is time to break those chains with truth.
© Trudy Metzger
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