Spotlight Interview: Justin Holcomb on hope, healing for sexual assault victimsMay 2, 2017
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. We spoke with Justin Holcomb. He is an Episcopal priest serving as the canon for vocations in the dioceses of central Florida. He serves on the boards of two organizations that are relevant to today’s subject. One of them is called GRACE, Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments, and REST, Real Escape from the Sex Trade. He is the author of many books and he is the co-author of several books with his wife including Ride of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault. You can find what he’s writing about and thinking about at justinholcomb.com.
For more on this topic: We previously spoke with Karen Swallow Prior about a piece she wrote for ChristianityToday.com sharing what sexual assault victims want us to know.
Listen to our interview:
Carmen: Justin, thank you for joining us today on The Reconnect.
Justin: My pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about an important subject.
Carmen: It is an important subject. It’s a terribly disturbing. Lots of people don’t know how to talk about it, don’t even think maybe we should be talking about it. Tragically, it’s also the realty with which a lot of people around us are living every day and living with the effects of every day. Can you give us a sense of who is dealing with sexual assault trauma and, like what are the numbers, and what are the kinds of people who have this in their histories.
Justin: Yeah. All types of people have this in their history. Sexual abuse, sexual assault knows no religious, socio-economic, racial, gender distinctions. The conservative numbers are one in four women and one in six men are or will be survivors of sexual assault in their lifetime. Particularly with regard to children, my wife and I wrote another book together called God Made All of Me, which is a book for children to help them learn how to protect their bodies. One out of five children, before their eighteenth birthday, will be sexually abused. And about 90% of the perpetrators are people that the family members know. Either they are family members or they’re friends of the family. So only about 7 to 10% are actually strangers.
Sexual abuse, sexual assault knows no religious, socio-economic, racial, gender distinctions. The conservative numbers are one in four women and one in six men are or will be survivors of sexual assault in their lifetime.
So, the numbers are horrific. They’re staggering when you look at the numbers. And we pick the conservative numbers. There are some numbers that even paint a worse picture than that. And what that means is it’s about 25% of the population, one out of five out of the population. So those one out of five are suffering but then there are their loved ones, if they know about it, who are also suffering with them. So, it’s exponential in the way that this type of suffering grows and affects so many people.
Carmen: Well and I think that it’s certainly fair to say that every relationship that that individual will ever have is then affected by this traumatic experience that they had related to something about our lives that is intrinsic to who we are. And at some level, it defines part of us. So can you talk about the post-traumatic stress that survivors experience and maybe speak into that?
Justin: Yeah. And you said something very important I want to point to quickly is if you are not the victim, someone you know … I’m a 43-year old man and I happen to be one who has experienced this. But I have a wife, I have two daughters, I have a mom and dad and a sister and just in that circle, and in-laws, there’s at least ten people that are very, very close to me. Chances are, one to two to three have experienced this. So it’s not out there in some other community or culture or country, it’s all over the world. And it’s actually, the numbers are worse around outside of the United States.
Now back to the effects, it is. The enemy has used something that God has given us as a gift of marital union, both as a symbol of intimacy, but also in the Garden, God said multiply and take dominion, so part of our call was to multiply and take dominion and marital union and intimacy is the tool for that, one of the major tools for that, to actually make other people. And so for the enemy to take something that is a symbol of peace, harmony, union, and shalom, and also something that is done to fulfill God’s call for his people, and to distort that into a weapon of pain … He’s taken a gift. The enemy’s taken a gift and turned it into a weapon that harms us. And that’s what you end up seeing.
The enemy has used something that God has given us as a gift of marital union, both as a symbol of intimacy, but also in the Garden, God said multiply and take dominion, so part of our call was to multiply and take dominion and marital union and intimacy is the tool for that, one of the major tools for that, to actually make other people.
As though the numbers are staggering, the effects are even more staggering. For example, post-traumatic stress symptoms and disorder. War vets are the number one people who experience PTSD. Second are sexual assault victims. So if you experience sexual assault, there likely will be some sense of PTSD, a deep sense of shame, feeling like you need to minimize it, anger, a sense of guilt, distorted identity. The effects are emotional, spiritual, psychological, social, and physical. Every part that it means to be human is affected by the destruction that sexual assault brings.
Carmen: I think that if my listeners are anything like me, we’re feeling a deep pain even as you talk about that, even as you speak of these realities, we’re probably thinking of people that we know in our own lives and we’re considering the weight of this that they’re carrying with them even today for things that may have happened in childhood, things that they may have never told anyone about. And so I imagine that some folks are wondering, how can I invite this conversation? How can I even attempt to open what is going to be a wound for someone to talk about and et recognize that giving them the space and opportunity to talk about it and for me to say, ‘This is not your fault and it’s not who you are and it doesn’t define you, ultimately.’ Tell us how to do that.
Justin: Great question. Most people who have experienced sexual abuse have not talked about it. The shame and the sense of their responsibility and they feel like they’ve done something to deserve this or they did something to bring it upon themselves. They just feel defiled and dirty and filthy. So there’s so much shame and silence that most victims experience. To get them to talk about it, or to even … So you have to, basically … You don’t know who in your world has actually experienced it, so if you have, one of the most powerful things you can do is to actually talk about it yourself. Not matter of factly and coldly and stoically… So since I experienced it when I was a young boy, an extended, extended family member, when I talked about it, people go, ‘Okay, I can talk to Justin about it.’
So the number one thing to remember; there have been studies on this and they said okay, what are the things that people can do to help you feel hope and healing. And they said here are ten things. The number one on the top of the list that those who have experienced sexual assault said are helpful for them is being listened to and believed. So it lowers the bar. Because people think, ‘Well I’m not a counselor, what would I do or say? I don’t know the experience. I didn’t experience it.’ All you have to do is listen and be believed.
The number one on the top of the list that those who have experienced sexual assault said are helpful for them is being listened to and believed. So it lowers the bar. Because people think, ‘Well I’m not a counselor, what would I do or say? I don’t know the experience. I didn’t experience it.’ All you have to do is listen and be believed.
Now the way for anyone to talk about this is someone’s going to have to take the risk and usually it will be the person who has the story that they have not told, kind of risking it with the friendship. And when someone does bring it up, not asking probing questions, not asking detailed questions, telling them, you know, responding with verbal and nonverbal of indicating I am sorry this happened to you. Thank you for telling me, and I believe you. Indicating and communicating that in numerous ways is going to be very helpful. That’s the bulk of it.
Now depending on where they are in hope and healing, connecting the dots of how the work of Jesus relates to their experience of disgrace, we have the one. We have the God who brings us grace in the cross and resurrection. So we have grace from God. But we have the disgrace that people experience from their abuse. How in the world do those actually connect to each other? And that’s where a lot of the help can, in reminding them of the good news that we all need and want.
Carmen: And Justin, my heart really, and I know this is true of everyone who considers these issues; it’s one thing if we’re talking about adults who are victims of sexual assault. It’s another thing when we’re talking about children who are victims of sexual abuse. And I know that parents want nothing more in life than to protect their children from these kinds of experiences. Can you tell us, can you give us some answers to that question? Because I think that in addition to directing them toward the book that you and your wife wrote entitled God Made All of Me, I’d love for my listeners to just have some clues, particularly as we head into let’s say summer about who they give access and how they limit access to their kids.
Justin: Yeah, wonderful. I’m a father of two daughters and they’re six and eight and we’re a foster family, so yeah, this question … That’s why we wrote God Made All of Me. In the back of that, and it’s on the website, there’s nine things, practical things families can do. And caregivers. One is teaching children the proper names of their body parts. Not giving body … Give them just the proper names. You can go ahead and teach them the other names. You don’t have to be like cold and scientific all the time, but making sure that they know what their body parts are because treating their body parts like they’re shameful thing that need to be given some other name is like … My arm’s my arm. It’s an arm. It’s not like some other thing that I’m ashamed of.
So just call it what it is. Don’t build in shame that the children aren’t feeling. And it’s also helpful because it has a basic sense of dignity of their body parts. So proper names for body parts. That’s also really helpful for children; that’s kind of step one or in case they need to report. Also, because it doesn’t make their private parts a play thing. You don’t give it a toy type of playful name. It’s a body part.
Another one is to realize who the perpetrators are. 7 to 10% are strangers. 90 to 93% are known to the family because they’re family members or because they are coaches, ministers, youth ministers, doctors, baby sitters, neighbors, sleep overs. That’s when things actually happen. So being aware and not just giving access to your children.
Another one is seeing if you can re-route playing doctor. Playing doctor is a way that other children end up doing things that they shouldn’t be doing and usually, children do to others what have been done to them. So if one child has experienced abuse, playing doctor is a way that a child can sexually abuse another child.
And another one is, there’s a whole bunch, but I’m kind of just rapid fire giving just some ideas to get parents and caregivers thinking about it, percolating ideas. Another one is letting children decide when they want to express physical affection. Children have a way, especially in America and particularly in the south, of needing to be polite and be nice and, you know, Grandma asked for a hug, you better go give her one. It’s like, no, it’s okay. Sometimes my daughters don’t want to give my dad, who’s a wonderful, sweet man a kiss hello or a kiss goodbye.
And I remember the first time a few years ago when they were younger, my mom and dad were visiting and they were getting ready to leave and my dad said, ‘Hey, give Grandpa a kiss,’ and my daughter said, ‘I don’t want to kiss right now.’ And he said, ‘Oh, come on, give Grandpa a kiss.’ And I pulled my dad aside and I said, ‘Dad, do you want to train your granddaughter that when men beg for physical affection, she should give in?’ And he started laughing because he got it immediately and said, ‘No, not at all.’ And he said, ‘How about a high five?’ And she gave him a high five and then she ran to the car and gave him a kiss. It worked out wonderful for everyone.
But not making children be polite and give hugs and kisses when they just don’t want to. So those are some of the … And be aware of who’s watching your children. Don’t send your kids across the street or down the street or somewhere else. Find out if there’s going to be a sixteen-year-old brother who’s there in the house alone, or be aware of sleep overs. And go with your instincts. Parents kind of have some intuition sometimes and a lot of parents wish they would’ve listened to them. Go with your instincts and risk being a helicopter parent. And personally, we have kids come over to your house to play, we just don’t send our kids over to some other house and we don’t do sleep overs. That’s just how we do it. We’re fine with that, kids are fine with that. But be really thoughtful about who has access to your children.
Carmen: Wow, I so appreciate … As a stepmom, I so appreciate all of the advice you just gave. I was making notes. I will also be visiting the website. It’s justinholcomb.com. And I’m just going to go ahead and I’m going to order my own copy of God Made All of Me because I think that what you are talking about is just the kind of very, very practical information that we need to be equipped to live in the culture in which we live and the day and time in which we live, which is not necessarily a very safe place for our kids. So thank you so much for being with us today. Thank you for your writing. Thank you for your attention to this matter and for helping to equip us to honor God and honor others in these very difficult conversations during this month of sexual assault awareness. Justin Holcomb, thank you for being with us today on The Reconnect.
Justin: My pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity.