Every 17 minutes, a woman in Canada experiences sexual assault. Many times these women are assaulted by someone they know, sometimes even by someone they’re in a romantic relationship with.
The latter was true for Jessica (a pseudonym), who grew up attending a Mennonite Church Canada congregation and agreed to speak to Canadian Mennonite anonymously to protect her identity.
A few years ago, Jessica was in a long-term relationship with a man who also attended a Mennonite church. They were serious and even considered getting married. She was just about to start university when she says he began to get violent and emotionally manipulative.
She and her boyfriend were intimate, but Jessica says she sometimes wouldn’t feel like being sexual. When she didn’t want to, her boyfriend would sometimes physically coerce her by climbing on top of her and trying to engage in sexual acts with her.
“He was a strong person, and it was hard for me to push him off,” she recalls. “I would keep telling him to stop, that I didn’t want this and to get off of me. After a while he would, but then he would give me the cold shoulder and make me feel really bad.”
Jessica says she felt emotionally manipulated into complying with his sexual advances. When she begrudgingly did comply, she felt awful, even worthless.
“I thought, this is what’s expected of me by being in this relationship,” she says. “I had to make compromises.”
They eventually broke up, realizing their relationship was dysfunctional.
Jessica needed help from her faith community, but didn’t know how to ask, or even how to talk about what had happened to her.
Months later, Jessica was reading an article about sexual assault in relationships when she realized that was exactly what had happened to her. The writer’s accounts of her trauma gave Jessica the strength to be able to name the experiences as assault and sexual abuse.
Jessica isn’t alone. Many women are assaulted in relationships, and, like her, don’t speak out or file police reports for fear of being blamed, re-traumatized or experiencing backlash from their assailant.
The most recent high-profile case of this kind involves long-time CBC Q personality Jian Ghomeshi. Before the story broke nationally and internationally, he took to Facebook to explain his preference for consensual rough sex, and how the allegations against him were made by a “disgruntled ex-girlfriend.”
His long explanation triggered outrage across the country. Many people couldn’t believe a couple of women who hadn’t even filed police reports had gotten away with ousting one of Canada’s most beloved TV and radio personalities for an apparent lifestyle preference. To this day, a lot of blame is placed on the women who came forward to tell their stories.
Ghomeshi allegedly assaulted at least nine women and is currently facing four charges of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance (choking).
Many of the women who spoke out against Ghomeshi report some of the same feelings of confusion as Jessica: emotional manipulation and guilt.
A role for the church
Jessica says she doesn’t feel safe to reveal her identity in her current church context or through this article, but she hopes others who have been abused or assaulted will find strength through her story.
In situations like these, Jessica says the Mennonite church has an opportunity to provide non-judgmental spaces for survivors and families of survivors to speak out without fear of gossip or facing blame. At this point, though, she doesn’t feel the churches in her area are equipped for this.
“We don’t talk a lot about those things [sexual abuse],” Jessica says, “so when people experience them, they feel like an anomaly and that it’s their fault they got themselves into the situation. . . . They feel they need to take responsibility for their own feelings of harm.”
The church also has an obligation to teach. Jessica says part of the problem is that churches don’t talk enough about healthy sexuality, rape culture or what constitutes abuse.
“No means no, whether you’re in a relationship or not,” she says.
Jessica worries that women are sometimes encouraged by Mennonite churches to absorb trauma, rather than seek help. They face blame for experiencing abuse for the sake of outward appearances and maintaining family units or relationships.
She cautions that people need to be equipped to talk about boundaries in relationships without feeling pressured to go outside of them. Churches play a key role in teaching people about these things. When Mennonites aren’t given these tools, people are susceptible to serious harm.
And when there aren’t spaces to seek support, the harm persists, she says.