by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb
Since writing Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault, we have had the privilege of answering lots of questions from victims, those who support them, and even some perpetrators.
A frequent topic that has come up is confronting one’s abuser and those complicit in covering it up. While confrontation with an abuser may seem like the right thing to do, it is different for each person. For some it might be a great thing to do. They may confront their abuser, receive an apology, and feel a sense of freedom or closure. However, for others, confrontation may only worsen the effects of the assault.
There are five common questions regarding confronting a perpetrator. Before we answer those specific questions, we will summarize a few facts about sexual assault.
Sexual Assault Information
Sexual assault is an epidemic, and victims need the kind of hope and help that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can provide. The number of occurrences of sexual assaults is staggering, and it is much more common than most people know. At least one in four women and one in six men are or will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime. And these statistics are probably underestimates.
Approximately 80%of victims are assaulted by someone they know (a relative, spouse, dating partner, friend, pastor, teacher, boss, coach, therapist, doctor, etc.).This means that it is likely that many victims will see or interact with the perpetrator again after the assault.
Predominately, perpetrators responsible for sexual assaults are male and are usually someone the victim knows. Although strangers are stereotyped as perpetrators of sexual assault, a high percentage of offenders are acquaintances of the victim. Most sexual assault perpetrators are white, educated, middle-class men.
If individuals who commit sexual assault offenses are not apprehended and prosecuted, they will likely continue to commit sexual offenses. One widely recognized study found that 126 admitted perpetrators had committed 907 sexual assaults involving 882 different victims. The more sex offenders that are apprehended and prosecuted, the fewer victims of sexual assault there will be.1
1 Gene Abel et al., “Self-Reported Sex Crimes of Nonincarcerated Paraphiliacs,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 2, no. 1 (1987): 3–25.
Five Common Questions Regarding Confronting a Perpetrator
Question 1: “What are key indicators that a victim is ready to confront the abuser?”
The first key indicator is that the victim has acknowledged what has happened to them and is not denying or minimizing the pain that occurred and remains. Initially, denial can slow the process down to create a buffer or safety zone so survivors can begin to cope with difficult emotions. However, instead of lessening suffering, too much denial and minimization may increase the pain. Denial does not allow the victims to deal with the severe mental and emotional tolls, the psychological destruction, and the traumatic effects of the assault.
Naming and describing the evil done does not ensure automatic personal healing. However, it does provide clarity regarding sexual assault, and it allows for acknowledgment. If sexual assault is not defined, named, or described, then it remains hidden. Telling the truth about sexual assault by acknowledging the traumatic experience is one important aspect of healing. The only way to move from denial, isolation, and self-protection is to look honestly at the assault that has been committed. Healing begins when the secret is disclosed and the shackles of silence are broken.
A second indicator is that a victim wants to confront their abuser. This is very important. Sometimes victims consider confronting their abuser at the urging of others. It is important that victims are not pressured, coerced, manipulated, or forced into confronting their victim by any one for any reason. Their will was violated once, and it should not be threatened again by those who are to support them. Many victims will never want to confront their abuser, and that is completely understandable and should be supported. Victims need to be empowered, not told what they should do or have decisions made on their behalf. So we would want to know if the victim desires to confront or if they are doing it for someone else. Desire to confront is a key indicator.
A third indicator is that the primary goal of the confrontation is truth and justice, not vengeance. This one can be tricky because anger, which is a valid and appropriate response to being assaulted, can feel similar to vengeance—but they are very different. Sexual assault creates anger at what has been done. While anger can be a natural and healthy response to the unquestionable evil of sexual assault, most victims express it poorly or feel they have to suppress it. Most victims have probably been discouraged from expressing anger, and suppressed anger holds them hostage and leaves them feeling vindictive, addicted, embittered, immoral, and unbelieving.
God is angrier over the sexual assault committed than anyone else. He is angry because what happened was evil and destructive. Godly anger is participating in God’s anger against injustice and sin, crying out to Him to do what He promised: destroy evil and demolish everything that harms others and defames God’s name.
Anger expressed to God is the cry of the weak one who trusts the strong One, the hurting person who trusts the One who will make it all better. Because vengeance is God’s, victims can be free from the exhaustive cycle of vindictive anger.
Not seeking vengeance does not mean we are not angry, or that we avoid the truth, or that we do not seek justice. Many Christians mistakenly assume that not seeking vengeance means never feeling pain, anger, or a desire for revenge. It does not mean that painful memories of the past are wiped away, nor does it mean that a desire for justice is ignored. It is possible to relentlessly pursue justice without falling into the temptation to pervert it into injustice.
Not seeking vengeance is not sanctioning the violence they did to you. It does not mean victims do not participate in activities that impose consequences on evil behavior, such as calling the police, filing reports, church discipline, and criminal proceedings.
Question 2: “What are common unmet expectations from confronting an abuser?”
One expectation that is commonly unmet is that the perpetrator will apologize, repent, and ask for forgiveness. While that may occur, confrontations are frequently met with lies, denial, accusations, and a defensive tone.
Another commonly unmet expectation is that the abuser will gently listen and express some sense of remorse. Instead, those who commit sexual assault often engage in a distorted power dynamic because they have very poor self-image and desire to maintain power over another individual. It is possible that your abuser will not react well to being confronted and out of their realm of control. This is why it is always a good idea to not confront your abuser alone.
Some victims hope that the abuser will acknowledge some wrong-doing, even if they don’t admit to sexual assault. Oftentimes abusers have justified their actions for so long that they don’t consider what they did as abuse. This can result in the abuser denying the claim against them.
Another expectation that is commonly unmet is that it will feel fulfilling or bring closure. Confronting an abuser gives victims a chance to express exactly how they feel about what was done to them. Many victims do feel a sense of fulfillment, strength, healing, freedom, and standing up for themselves, but those experiences are not guaranteed, no matter how well or poorly the abuser responds.
Most victims expect to not be blamed by the abuser. Tragically, there appears to be a societal impulse to blame traumatized individuals for their suffering. Victim blaming is especially common among perpetrators. Many perpetrators inflict verbal and psychological abuse on their victims by degrading, insulting, and blaming them for the assault. Confronting the perpetrator could make victims susceptible to further emotional and verbal abuse.
Some victims expect to get satisfying answers to questions such as “Why did you hurt me like you did?” or “Do you have any idea how much what you did hurt and affected my life?” While some perpetrators may provide answers that are satisfying, most will lie, deny, not answer, ramble, or try to justify what they did.
Question 3: “What should I consider in planning to confront my abuser, and how should I do it?”
Focus on doing the confrontation for yourself, not for the response you want to receive. Establish the boundaries, pick the time and place so it is comfortable, convenient, and safe for you.
Be prepared to feel again some of the painful emotions and other effects of the assault. Confronting is not easy because memory know no time, and confronting can cause victims to remember the assault and feel the pain all over again.
Work with a pastor, friends, family member, counselor or someone you trust, and role-play before the encounter. Write out the main points you want to make and memorize them or bring notes with you. Keep in mind that the goal of the confrontation is to say what you want to say and ask for what you want.
Know what you want to say. We encourage people to write down what they want to say so they can communicate it clearly. Just being near the perpetrator can cause a flood of many different emotions that could significantly influence how and what is communicated if it is not written down.
Call it what it was: a serious sin and crime. It wasn’t an “unfortunate occurrence” or a “misunderstanding” or “something to get over.”
Do not confront your abuser alone. Even if you aren’t concerned about safety issues, it is still a good idea to have a support person there with you before, during, and after the encounter.
Oftentimes it is not possible for a victim to confront the abuser because the individual is unknown, deceased, in prison, not safe, geographically distant, or missing. You can still engage in a form of confrontation by writing a letter or visiting their gravesite.
Question 4:”Justin, as a pastor, what have you said to perpetrators of sexual assault?”
I’ve said something like this before:
“Sexual assault is a sin and a crime. You have committed a serious sin and crime.”
“First, for your sin, you need forgiveness. Trust in Jesus because He died in your place and for your sin of sexual assault and all other sins. On the cross, He was treated like a criminal so you could place your trust in Him and be declared righteous, forgiven, and innocent before God. There is no sin beyond the grace of Jesus. You can’t out-sin His abounding grace.”
“Second, for your crime you deserve justice and need to make restitution. This means you will need to turn yourself in to the proper authorities. You also need to repent and apologize to the person or people you sinned against. Put it in writing first so they don’t have to see you unless they want to. Offer to meet with them and any family or friends they want present if they want to confront you on person. Offer to pay for the counseling they endured because of your crime.”
Question 5:”What kind of advice would you give to a forgiving victim and a repentant offender who are mutually interested in reconciliation? If both parties were interested in experiencing healing of their relationship, what kind of guidance would you give?”
Forgiveness and reconciliation are miracles. So, the first thing is to acknowledge that a desire to forgive and reconcile is a gift from God. God was in the business of reconciling us to Himself even while we were still enemies of God and committing cosmic treason. Only experiencing the forgiveness of God provides the deepest motivation and ability to forgive others.
But that doesn’t mean the victim should be forced into interaction with the perpetrator if they don’t feel safe. Be patient and very aware of how the victim feels. The fracture in the relationship was severe, so healing and building trust can take a long time. Go at the victim’s speed and listen to their concerns and needs. Their will was violated in the assault, and they should not have it violated again in the healing process. Offenders don’t get to dictate what they want in the process.
Be hopeful that God makes sinners into new creations. The perpetrator, if they trust in Christ, is forgiven, but the consequences of their sin could last for a lifetime (such as registering as a sex-offender, divorce, and not being able to see the grandchildren alone). While celebrating the fact that sinners are made new, err on the side of caution in pursuing renewal of the relationship between a victim and their assailant.
Involve others in this process. A husband who assaults his wife doesn’t have a right to privacy in marriage anymore, and others need to be involved. Be wise and pursue healing of the relationship with a pastor, counselor, and others who can give support to the victim and be involved in the relationship as an advocate for the victim. Accountability and involvement of others is crucial.
For more information and resources on the topic of hope and healing for sexual assault victims, see Justin and Lindsey’s book Rid of My Disgrace and their blogs on the topic: Justin Holcomb.