Forgiving myself after being sexually abused

Dear Alice,

I am now 20 years old. When this situation took place, I was 16 or 17. I was living with this family that went to my church, and the lady's husband kept coming on to me. At this time, my parents were divorcing and I was depressed. I was so scared of this man because he was a giant compared to me. He kept asking me if he could touch my thighs. I kept telling him no because it was wrong, but I didn't tell anyone. I wouldn't even eat at night because I was afraid he would try to rape me.

So one day I came home from church a little earlier than the others did. He came in and waited until I got out of the bathroom. He sat me down on a chair and he kept touching me. I was so in shock that I couldn't move. That day he entered me and I didn't push him away, but I was crying and felt sick. Later on that week, he came into the basement where I stayed, and he performed oral sex on me. I felt really bad, but then again I did enjoy it. I felt so confused and cheap because after he was done he left $100.00 on my table. I felt like a slut. Then after a few weeks of him not even looking at me, I decided to talk to him and tell him that I was sorry and that we couldn't do it anymore and that we had to ask God for forgiveness.

My question is was it my fault for being in this situation or is he at fault for taking advantage of me? I have forgiven him, but I still have to work on forgiving myself. To me that is a very hard task because he is one of the elders in the church. What should I do?

Dear Reader, 

You’ve taken a big step forward by reaching out for help with this difficult issue. People in situations such as yours often fault themselves for something that was done to them or have mixed feelings about their body’s physical responses. Depending on what state you were in and your age at the time, it’s possible you were legally unable to consent. Also, your age at the time and the state where it happened, would determine whether or not he committed statutory rape. Regardless of the details of age and state, what you experienced was non-consensual and what happened to you wasn't—in any way—your fault. How you proceed can depend on what outcomes you’d like to see, so you have a range of options in front of you. Regardless of what you decide, there are resources that are available to support you through every step of the process. 

While it may be tough, it can’t be said enough that this was not your fault. There was an unequal balance of power between you both as you were a teenager, and he was an adult who was physically much larger. You were also a guest in his home, and he held a position of authority within your church. Actions such as this are often used to maintain power and control. He used these differences in power to escalate tactics to invade your space, take advantage of the situation, and ignore the boundaries you set. Considering your age and this significant power imbalance, you were incredibly brave to ask him multiple times not to touch you. He bears the sole responsibility for his actions, and this type of unwanted behavior is always inexcusable regardless of your behavior or circumstances. 

It’s also not your fault for feeling aroused during these encounters. This arousal response can be the result of certain body parts being stimulated, regardless of the emotions that are being felt at the time—this is often referred to as arousal non-concordance. This doesn’t mean that a person enjoyed it, wanted it to happen, or consented to the behavior. An orgasm or sexual arousal doesn’t equal consent, since arousal can be a purely physical response that can happen whether a person wants to have sex or not. 

As to what you do next, it’s up to you. If you’re looking for support to cope with this experience, you may find that reaching out to a mental health professional or a survivor advocate may help you better process what happened and work towards forgiving yourself. If you're not sure where to start looking, Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline, which can be reached at 800-656-4673 or online. They also have a number of resources that provide information and steps that you can take to heal after these types of encounters. There are also resources focused on specific demographics or survivor experiences. For example, the organization 1in6 has a number of resources for men that have been sexually abused or assaulted and are looking for support. If you’re looking for a mental health professional, FindTreatment.gov has a database that can provide the names of professionals in your area. 

Depending on your current relationship with your faith, you may find comfort in reaching out to other faith-based leaders to process this experience. If you still live in this community, and this man is still an elder in your church, are there other leaders in your church community with whom you’d feel comfortable talking about this with? Are there other faith-based organizations in your area that may be able to provide support? Unfortunately, many people have had similar experiences with leaders from their church, but many faith communities are working to help their communities heal. 

In addition to processing your experiences emotionally, you may also consider pressing charges. . If you do, you may find it helpful to speak with an advocate or a sexual assault service provider who may be able to provide you more information about the process. They can provide more information about reporting this to law enforcement, what you may encounter if you decide you'd like to press charges, and other considerations for moving forward with a legal course of action. Additionally, speaking with an attorney who specializes in these types of situations can also help you understand more about the specifics of your own case and what the process would be like for you, especially knowing that this incident happened a number of years ago when you were a minor. The laws vary by state and by charge, so each person’s experience could be different. 

Healing isn’t a linear process. By asking this question, you demonstrate that you’ve already taken steps towards that healing. You state that you’ve forgiven him, which isn’t required, but you may find that it helps you in your own efforts to forgive yourself. As you continue to make decisions about what to do next, you may find that engaging in practices that allow you to reclaim your experiences, regaining a sense of ownership over your body, and engaging with communities and hobbies you’re interested in may be helpful to you. 

It isn’t always easy reaching out for help, and you are courageous in doing so. Again, this isn’t your fault and the work toward self-forgiveness and healing has ups and downs. Reaching out to trusted friends and using different resources can help support you on this journey. All of the best as you choose the path forward that feels right to you and supports your well-being. 

Last updated Apr 14, 2023
Originally published Mar 02, 2007