Church

It's Okay If Your Reaction to Sexual Assault Was Different Than St. Maria Goretti’s

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July 3, 2023

If you’re anything like me, you never expected anyone to cross a boundary in a way that allowed you to rightly accuse them of sexual assault. I knew the statistics as a teenager. I kept my keys in my fist like I was Wolverine. I wrote a whole speech for a class about the dangers to women that come from toxic masculinity. A family trip to New Orleans at age 15 gave me a souvenir of a catcall, and a school trip to Nashville one year later came with a memento of a stranger tapping me under my skirt. Afterwards, I wrote a school assignment about street harassment. I could recognize those experiences as assault – I knew those strange men were out of line. But when my first boyfriend was outraged on my behalf after I shared those experiences with him, I never expected him to cross that boundary, too.

Please read with discretion: This article mentions sexual assault, rape, and domestic abuse.

Talking About the Saints Who Survived Assault and Abuse

The experience of sexual assault drastically changed my relationship with God. The day that I realized it wasn’t my fault, my prayers shifted rapidly from blaming myself – asking God what I could have done to save the relationship – to vitriolic cries, asking God why He just let it happen. The most violating experience of my life happened in my childhood home while my parents were upstairs. My parents were at least ignorant at the time. God had no such excuse.

As I was spiritually thrashing in the pain of feeling forsaken, a particular saint started to get under my skin: Maria Goretti.

One of my earliest friends in college had chosen her as a Confirmation saint, and she told me that she really admired Maria Goretti’s purity. I remember being polite, but internally scoffing a bit. “What an odd thing to value,” I thought. I knew some young Catholics who didn’t want to kiss people or even talk to someone they liked if it gave them impure feelings or thoughts. If that’s what “purity” looked like – hard pass.

At that time, the worst for me was yet to come. Now, I wonder whether Maria Goretti made an appearance a few months prior as a sign that she was praying for me.

I had major complaints about how the Church holds up saints like Maria Goretti, Agnes, Rita of Cascia, Monica, and Dymphna as examples of virtue in cases of sexual assault, rape, and domestic abuse. Perseverance in an abusive marriage has been glorified as the better option to divorce. Does a woman’s life have less value than a sacrament? Three of the five women I mentioned are martyrs – it’s a reality that men who abuse women often take those women’s lives. Is dying at the hands of your abuser holiness? All I remember the Church teaching me on matters of abuse was that it was better to persevere for the sake of the relationship than to flee for the sake of yourself.

Maria Goretti’s and My Shared Experience

However bitter I was about purity being overrated, Maria Goretti was a lot like me.

Maria Goretti experienced her abuse before the age of 18. Currently in the United States, “[f]emales ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.”

She knew her attacker, and I knew mine. In fact, “victims know their attackers in 8 out of 10 cases.”

She was attacked at her home, as was I – and “55% [of assaults] occur at or near the victim’s home.”

And I could guess from the statistics that if you’re reading this, you might have a lot in common with Maria Goretti, too.

A recent tweet by Sheila Gregoire, Christian marriage blogger and author of She Deserves Better, caught my eye with something I needed to hear when my first boundary was pushed: “I wish male evangelical authors would stop talking about ‘pushing past a girl's boundaries’ when making out, like that's normal. Pushing past boundaries means pushing past her ‘no.’ That means you are committing sexual assault. Call it by its real name.”

It took 15 months and reading St. Thomas Aquinas for me to call it by its real name. Violence is not only physical force – Aquinas says that it “effects something against the will.” I processed this new definition and thought, “In what world is making out not even vaguely sexual? If an act falls under the definition of ‘sexual’ and is contrary to the will, it is therefore sexual violence.” Suddenly, I had the power to call my experience assault – and my suffering finally made sense.

An Involuntary Trauma Response Has Little to Do with Holiness

For the longest time, I blamed myself for freezing in that moment, for not crying out like Maria Goretti did – but responses to assault are unique to each experience.

Psychologists have discovered four main trauma responses. You've likely heard of fight and flight, but maybe freeze and fawn are new to you. “Freeze” is what happens when your body needs time to plan for action, but without this plan, you’re stuck in a state of inaction. “Fawning” is an attempt to pacify the threat to you so that you avoid harm. These responses usually kick in without a conscious thought process because threats rarely leave time for you to think.

Maria Goretti clearly had a fight response: She cried out, "No! It is a sin! God forbids it!" as her attacker, Alessandro Serenelli, made advances. That's incredible courage – and it's courage I don't have to be jealous of. I don’t have to feel like God loves me less because I froze in the moment of my assault. An involuntary trauma response has little to do with holiness. My body and my mind protected me the best way they knew how.

Looking for God In the Aftermath of Sexual Assault

I was afraid to ask God where He was when I was assaulted, but when I finally did, He answered me immediately with a single word: “Weeping.”

His brief response to my prayer was strikingly similar to the shortest verse in Scripture: “And Jesus wept.” In the Gospel, Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus, who had died. Jesus knew Lazarus was ill, but he waited to journey to his friend. In the meantime, Lazarus died. And when Jesus did arrive, he was met with the cries of, “Lord, if you had been here, [Lazarus] would not have died!”

I placed myself in Lazarus’ position, with abuse being its own illness and assault being a sort of death – one that warrants the tears of God to fall to the earth, on my behalf. For the death to my voice, Jesus wept. For the death to my body, Jesus wept. For the death to my free will, Jesus wept. And he weeps for you reading this, whether your experience of sexual violence was last night, last year, or last decade.

The fight in me came out after the assault. The courage it took to confront my abuser and say I had feelings in line with a survivor of sexual assault because of what he did – that was more than a instinctive fight response. It was courage, and it’s courage I share with Maria Goretti. I'm sure it's courage that she shares with you, too, no matter what your experience was like. Even if no one but God knows what happened to you, the choice to keep living each day is a courageous one.

Being in an abusive relationship had the worst impact on my mental health among all other experiences in my life. Before finding a therapist, there were days when I didn't want to live. My mental health deteriorated to the point that I almost walked into moving traffic. I had dreams that made me wake up convulsing – it was so unusual that I wondered whether it was demonic. Even almost a year after I was out of the relationship, with PTSD still haunting me, there were days when I asked God to take me in my sleep. Seeking support, going to therapy, and healing all take courage.

After Sexual Assault, Forgiveness Can Be Complicated

Forgiveness is something we might pressure ourselves into on account of our faith, and I want to encourage those reading: After someone else just violated your will, you do not need to force yourself to do anything. Forgiveness is good and freeing, but it’s hard, and you can take the time you need with it. You don’t have to repress your emotions in the name of forgiveness. You might need to forgive continuously for your whole life, and even then still never do it perfectly.

Honestly, forgiveness is harder for me now than it was initially because I’ve done a lot to alleviate the need to fawn and preserve the relationship I once had. The good news is that I can now offer real forgiveness that isn’t borne of an involuntary trauma response.

Forgiveness requires grace. It can even take a miracle. I think that Maria Goretti’s forgiveness was both courageous and miraculous. In the moment of the attack, she was afraid for her attacker’s soul, that he would go to Hell for what he did.

In time, I saw that Jesus also wept for the man who assaulted me. It grieves Jesus to see the hearts of men in such a state that they destroy the women around them with abuse. When I think of my own abuser, I find myself praying for him to have a conversion, at least to see his wrongdoing for what it is and to never harm someone that way again.

If you have experienced sexual assault and would like support, here are a couple of resources:

RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)

Dial 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

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