What I’m Learning: Sexual Abuse in My Mennonite Heritage

(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

Return to first post in Sexual Abuse Series

First Post in Spiritual Abuse Series

A Crippling Fear

Tim and I walked, hand-in-hand, laughing. I chattered happily. Just being me. Snuggling closely to his arm, flirting a little with the man who won my heart several years earlier.

It had been a great date night. A luxury not often afforded us, with our two beautiful babies demanding our time and our energy. Alicia was not quite two and a half, and Nicole was only sixteen months behind.  They kept life full and busy.

In spite of the busyness, on special occasions we managed, one way or another, to celebrate. Tim’s job didn’t pay well, at that time, and when we purchased our house on two incomes, we had not expected I would be able to conceive so quickly, given my history and the doctor’s warning. (Read story here.)

To go from paying for a house on two incomes, to raising two little girls and paying for a house on one low income, was challenging, so our dates and celebrations were not extravagant. But they were time together. Alone. And that was what we needed. To sit across the table from each other, in the candle-light and simply be in love.

As every parent understands, we sat there, talking about our babies, not truly able to ‘leave’ them. We talked about life, how things changed so quickly. About how blessed we were. I’m sure I chattered about how crazy in love I still was with him. I could never say that enough… Still can’t.

We could have stayed longer, in the restaurant, drinking coffee and holding hands across the table, me playing with his fingers. (It’s another habit I have.) But truth is, we didn’t want to be away from our girls too long, especially me. I struggled with leaving them. So many silent, unspoken fears lurked in my mind. ‘What if…’ Always, ‘What if…’ My childhood was never too far away.

That night was no different. When dinner was over, and it was over more quickly than we had anticipated, we decided to go back, pick up our girls and head home. We were tired. Home was inviting.

We arrived early to pick up the girls at the babysitters, out in the country. The night was dark. The house had only a few rooms lit. At the front door I froze, my heart stopped in crippling fear.

The kitchen light was off but I could see into the family room, across the house. There a teenage male had our oldest daughter in a position that shot terror through my heart. The squeaking of the door, as I opened it, caused a scuffle, as he released her and sat up, startled. Our little girl ran to us, giving us hugs and kisses. Happy as a lark.

Relief washed over me, at seeing her so happy, so free. Still, the image played in my mind. I could only pray that nothing had happened.

Tim picked up his little girl, who chattered excitedly about her evening. Tension hung in the air. The teen couldn’t look us in the eye, shifty. But what were we to do? Confront it? I didn’t even know if Tim had seen it. I felt nauseated

I checked on our other daughter, in another room with another teenager, a girl, while Tim changed Alicia’s diaper, not far from me. We chatted with the young girl for a minute before we headed home.

In the car Tim played Alicia’s favourite children’s CD. We turned the volume off at the front, so we could talk, and the music would drown out our voices, so Alicia would not hear us. Before I could ask Tim, he started the conversation, his voice tense with uncharacteristic anxiety.

“I think it’s time you have a talk with Alicia,” he said. “When I changed her diaper, she said something about not touching her ‘there.’ I think we need to find out if anything happened tonight and make sure she knows that no one is allowed to touch her.”

I told Tim what I saw, when we got to the door and how uncomfortable I was, how concerned over what I had seen and sensed. We discussed how we would handle it, without planting ideas. The last thing we wanted was to give our innocent daughter false memories, and cause unnecessary destruction. We noted her innocent joy and carefree welcome when we returned, and hoped it was evidence that nothing traumatic had happened.

We felt quite confident that God had brought us back early, specifically to protect our children. But we would not rest without a discussion, so we agreed that I would have a chat with Alicia at home.

It was just after nine when we arrived home. Tim set about making hot chocolate, while I assisted Alicia with pj’s and tucked Nicole in her crib. As I helped her change, I talked to her about her body. I had told her before, but told her again, that God had made her body beautiful and special, and that she had the right to protect it. I told her no one is allowed to ‘feel, touch or see’ her body between ‘here’–pointing to the top of her torso–and ‘here’–pointing to just above her knees.

At the time we were still in the Mennonite church and wore skirts and dresses, so I told her that no one should ever lift up her skirt. That it’s her ‘private’ body and people need to respect it. She cheerfully told me that the teen girl had touched her that night, but when I asked more questions, the closest I could figure out was that she had needed a diaper change.

“But people can touch mine arms, right?’ she asked.

“Yes,”

“And mine hands?”

“Yes.”

“But not mine body, right?”

“That’s right.”

“Ok.”

With that it was done. We headed downstairs for hot chocolate, where Tim asked, “What were you and Mommy doing?”

“Oh… Mommy and I just had a little chatter,” she answered cheerfully, then proceeded to give Tim an overview of what she had learned, including the word ‘respect’.

Alicia displayed no evidence of victimization, so we did not pursue it further. We did learn that there was victimization in that home, and could only thank God for protecting our daughter.

From that day forward I taught my children to kick, scream, bite, punch, run, if threatened in any way. I instructed them to always tell an adult if someone touched them or made them uncomfortable with how they handled their body, and to tell Mommy and Daddy when they get home, if we’re not there at the time.

And that is what I tell them still. “Be as aggressive and as violent as you need to be to protect yourself.”

Ecclesiastes 3:8 says, “(There is) a time for love and a time for hate, a time for war and a time for peace”. When it comes to sexual abuse, I teach my children that it is a time for war, a time to fight, a time to protect yourself and use your voice. No one is required to allow victimization. It is no time for apathy, no time for non-resistance. Preach the Word if you must, but doing it kicking and screaming.

That day, seeing what I saw, and fearing the worst would have happened had we stayed a little longer at dinner, made me realize the importance of talking to our children at a young age. Sometimes they think I’m too protective. Maybe I am. I try not to be. But I cannot live with the thought of having left them vulnerable through silence. I have never held them back from sleepovers, parties and time with friends, because of fear. But without fail I have asked them, as they are about to leave, “What do you need to remember?”

“Respect,” is the sometimes exasperated answer.

“And what does that mean?”

“Don’t touch, and don’t look at other people’s bodies.”

“Now run along and have fun!”

The conversation may not go exactly like that, but something like it. I want our children to know they have the right to protect themselves. The early stages of teaching were easy, and they helped prepare us for the next level, the harder questions that followed.

© Trudy Metzger

Return to 1st post in Sexual Abuse Series

Sexual Abuse & Violence: Learning on the Farm… Basic Lessons on Sex

Having grown up on ‘Old MacDonald’s Farm’, with about two of every kind of animal, you would have thought we were building an ark. Add to that a random selection of old tractors, plows ‘and such’, as well as a machine shop with massive lathes, drills, presses and other machinery, and you have the ‘Harder Homestead’.

Photo Credits for all photos: http://www.freefoto.com

My guess is that you’re anticipating a ‘birds & bees’ type blog post, based on the natural behaviour of farm animals…. But, while there’s something to be said for that, I’m speaking about farm machinery and safety. The more farm kids are educated, the safer they are. And my parents were strict about farm safety.

Dad, especially, would ‘lay down the law’ and, with his temper, we knew he better not catch us slacking. I observed more than one fit of rage that resulted in someone receiving a thrashing. I narrowly escaped at least one such punishment.

We didn’t always honour those rules. When our parents were gone we took what we thought were calculated risks, though I realize in hindsight these could have cost someone a life.

A favourite was wrapping my hands around the ‘lift’ on the front of the tractor, interlocking my fingers firmly, and then Wil would slowly raise me into the air, crank the steering wheel as far in a given direction as possible, put the tractor in reverse, and give it as much gas as possible. The tractor would spin around in a circle, and the I would swing almost straight out, flying through the air. Who needs Canada’s Wonderland?

Photo Credits: http://www.freefoto.com

Mostly this risk-taking was instigated and executed by my brother Wil and me. It was all fun and games because no one lost a limb or a life. And, since we never got caught, the consequences never out-weighed the thrill. But I seldom hear of a farm accident now without thinking back to those days and knowing it could have been us. It’s a miracle all sixteen kids lived to experience adult life, and survive to this day, save one step-brother who died in infancy long before I was born.

My point? We risked lives, abusing machinery, and we did it for a temporary ‘feel good’. In our case we were taught safety and warned appropriately, and still chose to experiment, when parents were not around. We thought we were being responsible enough, and didn’t intentionally cause harm. But it would all have turned out differently if one of us had lost our grip, tipped a tractor or had another accident and broke a limb, or, worse, died.

Had we not known the dangers, with no training on how to use equipment, we would likely have been reckless to a greater extreme.  As it was, we were risk takers with standards and a conscience.

It’s easy to see this in the day to day life safety. It makes common sense. But in the areas of sexuality, where the consequences are potentially devastating, many have this notion that silence will produce the best result. Hoping, somehow, that by saying nothing, no perversion is planted or introduced.

While we are silent, the enemy is talking. At every turn he is lying to our children. Whether through sexual abuse, through over-focus on covering every bit of skin (thereby over-sexualizing and objectifying people), or by the pornographic material that is so easily accessible, not to mention plastered everywhere you go. The enemy is not silent. And children are not blind, or naïve. If the only teaching they get is what they see when they’re out and about, or what is done to them, then their sexual identity will be very warped.

Whether they are abused or not, and whether they choose to engage in inappropriate sexual activity or not, they will have an unhealthy sexual identity if we don’t teach truth.

If we spend the formative years of their life teaching them that sex is bad, secretive, or ‘dirty’, then that is what they will ultimately believe and live. If society teaches them that it is fun and appealing and exciting, within the context of sinful behaviour, and they choose to experiment, they will be confused. Because of guilt they will believe that it is ‘dirty’, just as they were taught by Christians, and it is also fun and exciting, just like society teaches. That is a problem. It gives the enemy the power.

It is our God-given privilege and duty to teach our children the truth about their sexuality, that sex is beautiful, God-ordained and designed for marriage between one man and one woman. Age appropriate, honest answers should be given when children ask questions. Body parts should be explained, using proper terminology. It teaches respect and dignity.

We owe our children the truth. They deserve to be equipped, and need to have a healthy awareness of their sexual identity, because it plays directly into their view of God, and their perception of how He sees them. When they are faced with situations, when no one is around to watch over them or tell them what to do, they will more likely to make wise choices if we have given them wise counsel.

In the upcoming posts I will speak more to this aspect of teaching our children well, using some of our experiences as family.

I welcome your thoughts, your questions and your input, either here, or via email. (info ‘at symbol’ faithgirlsunleashed ‘dot’ com)

© Trudy Metzger 2012

Return to 1st post in Sexual Abuse Series