Sisters Speak: Teaching Members about Sexual Abuse

by Caroline

A long running feature of the Exponent II publication has been the column ‘Sisters Speak.’ This column features a question on a certain topic and answers from various readers. As the Exponent II editorial staff works to put together a new issue of Exponent II, we have decided to revive this feature, and I thought we might get it started by putting our question out on the blog.*

Our first question comes from Emily. She writes, “For the past couple years, I’ve been wondering how the Church could teach/protect its members from sexual abuse. I’m dying to do a lesson in Primary or Relief Society on the topic, but I’m no professional and feel ill equipped to deal open a can of worms without knowing what to do. It kills me because statistically-speaking, I’m sure there are people under my charge who are dealing with sexual abuse in some way. I’m wondering how other wards deal with this.”

-If you were given the chance to do a lesson on sexual abuse, what points would you especially want to make?

-What issues surrounding this topic should people be sensitive towards?

-Have you had any experience with wards approaching this issue? What are the potential pitfalls of doing so?

*some comments will be selected to appear in the publication. We will email you for permission if yours is selected.


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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18 Responses

  1. Janna says:

    Perhaps bring in a professional?

  2. suzann werner says:

    In my way distant past, I did some public speaking on sexual abuse related mostly to children. I was trained to go into public schools to talk to children on how to protect themselves from inappropriate touching, how to firmly say no (we practiced) , then to run and tell a trusted adult, and to keep telling until someone listened, understood and helped.

    After almost every class we taught, at least one child would come forth to tell.

    I taught a Relief Society lesson on Sexual assault, and da dah ….. DRUM ROLL, my Bishop asked me to teach the same lesson to a combined HP and Elders priesthood meeting.

    I moved and threw away all my notes, and books, but sexual abuse information is available.


  3. Keri Brooks says:

    I’m not a professional, but that’s never stopped me from having an opinion before. 🙂

    I think it’s important to ensure that everyone understands that the victim isn’t guilty of breaking the law of chastity. Also, that you always have the right to say no, even if you’ve had consensual sex with the person before.

    I don’t know if you want to open the can of worms about emergency contraception, but if you do, information about where to get it and how it works might be useful, too.

  4. EmilyCC says:

    I wish I had some advice on this and can’t wait to read the responses!

    Caroline, I’ve always loved the Sister Speak section of the paper. What’s the format for submitting questions?

  5. D'Arcy says:

    I wonder about this. I think when you bring in all the heavy drama surrounding the law of chastity, then you just have a hit and miss chance with many young people depending on their state of mind at the time. It would be helpful to bring in someone very confident, open, loving, and caring who isn’t afraid to say the words that need to be said. However, what those are depends so much the group.

    This is a tough one. For me, the most sensitive topic was always the pressure to forgive the abuser. I just wasn’t emotionally mature enough to do that until I was much, much, much older (i.e. recently) and I think pressuring young people into that mind set of “forgive and be like Jesus” is really really awful. Sorry, that’s my honest opinion! Some kids just can’t grasp that at a fragile state in life and it only serves to make the guilt harder to bare.

  6. TopHat says:

    D’Arcy’s comment made me think of the book, “Toxic Parents” which talks about dealing with issues you grew up with that include alcoholism, physical and sexual abuse, emotional manipulation, etc. At the end it addresses the issue of forgiving. The author suggests that the “forgive and be like Jesus” mindset often result in bottling feelings that will probably surface later- and then you feel guilty for not truly forgiving. One of her suggestions is to let yourself go through those feelings of anger and upset before going to the step of forgiving and that doing that will make it easier to forgive.

    It’s been a little while since I’ve read that book, so I might be putting my own thoughts in there, but for me, it’s been really healing to let myself have emotions instead of feeling bad for being angry/sad/etc.

  7. Melinda says:

    One issue that people should be sensitive towards is the disconnect between what the abuse victim feels, and how people think she should feel. Abuse victims feel guilty and dirty and like the attack was their fault. People who have never been abused tend to dismiss those feelings by pointing out that the victim is innocent and as virtuous as if she had never been attacked. Well, their observation is true, but it doesn’t change the victim’s feelings. In fact, telling a victim that she is wrong to feel the way she does will shut her down. She has to process those feelings of guilt just like she has to process all the other feelings. You can’t argue someone into feeling virtuous and pure.

    I agree with the other commenters who said that forgiveness should not be rushed into prematurely.

    I would sum it all up by explaining to people that an abuse victim’s feelings are not going to be logical from the point of view of someone who has never been abused.

    I was in one ward that tried to address this issue. They made the mistake of taking every comment that was volunteered. The specialist got about five minutes to speak before the discussion quickly became a worthless collection of horror stories that didn’t have much to do with the topic at all. I wouldn’t try the discussion format with this topic.

  8. Caroline says:

    Janna, I think bringing in a pro is a good idea. Our R.S. brought in a woman who worked for LDS family services when we had a lesson on porn. I don’t see why we couldn’t do the same thing for sexual abuse.

    suzanne, how awesome that your bishop wanted you to do that lesson for the women and the men!

    Keri, I hadn’t thought of that point about always having the right to say no, even if there’s been past consensual sex. Good point. I can see some Mormon girls just going along with things even if they don’t really want to, if they’ve already crossed the line voluntarily.

    D’arcy, amen to bringing in someone open, loving, and caring. And as for the forgiveness issue, that is tricky. I absolutely agree that that should not be rushed into, as Top Hat and Melinda noted.

    Top Hat, thanks for the book suggestion! And for the advice about allowing people to go through those negative emotions without guilt… that sounds like great advice.

    Melinda, thanks for sharing your insights on this. Great advice about being careful to allow plenty of time for the specialist to talk.

    Emily, oops, I should have put that info about how to submit questions for Sisters Speak in the original post. People can email me at carolinekline at aol dot com. with Sisters Speak questions. I believe I will soon have an address, so I’ll let people know when that is up and running.

  9. aerin says:

    I think an important point to make would be to disavow “The Miracle of Forgiveness”. Many members already disagree with parts of this book and do not feel it was inspired by Heavenly Father – instead was simply Spencer W. Kimball’s opinion.

    The idea that someone would be better off dead than surviving ab_use must be very difficult for all survivors. I think that (in particular) needs to be denounced and clarified.

    The victim should not be blamed for what happens – nor should they be punished or victimized for their reaction.

    Again, many members already agree with this, and I’m not sure “The Miracle of Forgiveness” is still actively used or taught. But I believe this should be clarified – to help victims from getting in a cycle of low self-esteem and continued regret.

  10. cornnut32 says:

    I think an important thing to talk about, especially to adults, are the signs that sexual abuse has occurred to a child. There are many warning signs, and many children are afraid to go to an adult, even if they have been told to and taught how. Many times the abuse is coming from a “trusted” adult. The child may not understand what is going on, just that the adult is telling them to do something, playing a game, etc., and they are supposed to consent. Quite often if abuse is going to be made known it will be because a perceptive adult notices a change in a child and lovingly talks to the child–without pushing, which can cause even more damage.

    I would also discuss ways to support loved ones that have been abused. I know that there are many resources out there discussing this. I believe LDS social services has a link on their website, as well. Talk about how to listen, what to say, what NOT to say, and how to encourage a victim to get help.

    I agree with the commenter who advised avoiding a discussion format. Often times comments can be made, even if on topic, that can be extremely hurtful to an abuse survivor, no matter the intent. I also agree that in your approach to “forgiveness” it is important to stress that forgiveness is a process that can take many, many years, and is different for each person. Forgiveness may even be something, while worked on during this life, may not be completed until the next (in my opinion).

    I have never given a lesson on sexual abuse in front of a ward, but as a student at BYU I did in front of one of my classes. These are the topics I touched on, because as a survivor of CSA myself, these are important to me. It took eight years before the knowledge of my abuse at the hands of an uncle came out. I wish that my parents had known more about the warning signs I was exhibiting at the time. I am, however, grateful for the way they handled the news, and the way they supported me–much because of the research they did about the best way to help was, and with help from my therapist.

    It is also important to remember that inappropriate comments from trusted adults can be considered sexual abuse. I would touch on ways to handle that as well as inappropriate touching.

    Good luck with this lesson. It is a very important thing that needs to be discussed, no matter how difficult it is. My mindset has been that even if it helps just one person, it is worth the stress and discomfort it may cause.

  11. css says:

    Due to my profession these issues are really important to me and I’ve often struggled with the ways that they’ve been handled in the church. While the church has gotten SO much better in the past 20 years about addressing abuse and sexual issues openly, there is still a long way to go. I have tried to offer a class in 3 different wards about this topic and have been denied by all of the RS presidents each time because it “wasn’t appropriate”. Finally, this year in my new ward I taught a class on how to empower your kids through sex education and it went fantastically. They now want me to teach a class to the EQ, the YW, etc.

    I think many of the church’s main concerns in regards to sex could be mediated by better and earlier sex education, including sexual abuse. Start young and make it clear to your 3-4 yr old that genitals are personal and should never be touched or looked at by someone else. While they are at this rigid black and white thinking you can even role play how to yell, “NO” and go tell your parent/s. As abuse is most likely from someone they know it is important that this rule applies to anyone- included trusted family or friends. Being prepared for such a situation empowers a child and opens the door for them to talk to you. As children grow keep the conversation going. It is interesting to me how many programs we have for teaching our kids how to avoid kidnapping and to “just say NO to drugs” and how few we have to educate and empower them about sex. Also, this is helpful for young kids to understand that pornography breaks this cardinal rule too– that their looking at someone else’s personal parts isn’t appropriate. If you wait to discuss all of this until they are at the “curious” stage 8-10, or the “developing” stage 11-13 they are more likely to seek out information on their own. However, if you start sex ed young and often you better empower them for all the stages of their lives.

  12. Debra says:

    As others have referred to, it is crucial to know your class in advance – to know the age, whether adult, teens, or children, because this will provide part of the framework and context for what you present and how.

    The church resource, A Parent’s Guide, has good information for discussing sexuality in age appropriate content and ways.

    The more matter of fact, comfortable and at ease the teacher is, the easier the class will be with the topic, and AMEN to a STRUCTURED format, so that the discussion does not digress to horror stories, resulting in the best of teachers quickly losing control of the classroom.

    I advise that before something is taught to children/youth, that the subject is first taught to the adults, to help support and prepare them for follow up discussions at home.

    Also, for children and youth, gender-exclusive classes are recommended. Even though the media and popular culture is saturated with sexual images, messages, and innuendo, it crosses a boundary to discuss this topic in mixed gender groups, and many children, teens and even adults are uncomfortable with that ,and for this topic in particular, COMFORT with the topic is a primary condition for a successful outcome.

    Be prepared as another writer mentioned, that someone in the group will have had personal experience with this topic, and may have a strong emotional reaction – be prepared to handle this.

    AMEN to the idea of eliminating the idea that victims of abuse are somehow at fault, and ‘better off dead”. I can’t believe that is still allowed to be in print, regardless of who the author is.

    Regarding forgivenss, I encourage my clients to pursue healing, hold the place for the possibility for forgiveness in their hearts, and trust that in due time for them, that forgiveness will come.

    Great question and comments.

  13. Caroline says:

    aerin, cornut, css, debra. You all make such excellent points. Thank you! I’ll probably be in touch with several of you to ask if I might use parts of your comment for the Sisters Speak column.

  14. Cora says:

    This kills me, KILLS ME!

    I have so many things to say about this topic. I think we’ve been taught to prevent sexual abuse in our children all wrong. I can say this because when my daughter was three I talked to her all about how no one touches your vagina or takes off your clothes and to come tell me if it happened. It was happening at the time and she didn’t tell me! Two different people did it to her in a matter of weeks, all while I was telling her about this and practicing saying no! I have a blog where I”ve written about my experience with being abused and hers.

    It is so frustrating to me because I feel like we’re perpetuating a false sense of safety. I’ve written a post about how we can REALLY help parents prevent sex abuse with their children.

  1. April 21, 2010

    […] each other for advice in this long-standing column.  See Sister Speak editor Caroline Kline’s question for the June issue and watch for Fall’s column or write to Caroline with a question of your own. c.  Awakenings: […]

  2. May 6, 2010

    […] each other for advice in this long-standing column.  See Sister Speak editor Caroline Kline’s question for the June issue and watch for Fall’s question on the blog next month or write to Caroline with a question of your […]

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