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Holding the Tension

Updated: Jan 16, 2021

This article was originally published on

The Institute for Collective Trauma and Growth website.

It seems like everyday over the last few months we are confronted with another example of a man misusing his power and connections to humiliate and sexually abuse both females and males of all ages. Whatever has shifted in our culture - that has emboldened victims to speak up against those who forcefully shamed and silenced them - needs to continue. Also, this shift includes actual consequences for some of the abusers. This reckoning is necessary and long overdue. And, it is a sign of hope.

Still for those of us who have experienced sexual violations, and loved sexual predators, even with survivors speaking up, the current environment is triggering. It is not simply because predators exist. It is the complicated combination of predators and the reactions of those who defend them or hate them. When I learned my former husband was sexually abusing a young relative I experienced various constantly shifting emotions. I vacillated between rage and fear, and of course empathy for the victim, but also confusingly I felt sympathy for the abuser. When I separated from him, I missed him. After all, I had known him since we were teens and I’d been married to him for a decade.

I encountered two main reactions from others: the expectation that I should forgive him and remain married to him – often based on their theological understandings of marriage, or that I should hate him and cut him off completely. The reality that I felt both love and hate for him was deeply unsettling for many people, particularly my Christian friends.

Culturally many people are struggling with conflicting feelings now. Beloved entertainers are suddenly day by day being revealed as predatory. As Savannah Guthrie asked after learning her friend and colleague Matt Lauer had been fired for sexual misconduct, “How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly?... I don’t know the answer to that.” She is allowing herself to feel and think conflicting things. The resulting ambivalence is uncomfortable, even painful. And many people choose to pick one side or the other in order to ease their discomfort.

For example, consider Lena Dunham’s striking defense of her friend and colleague Murray Miller. Dunham, an outspoken supporter of survivors, surprised her Twitter followers with her assumption that women should be believed unless it is one of her friends that is accused. The difficulties with this way of thinking are obvious. Every sexual abuser is the family member, friend, and colleague of someone. Sure, it would be easier if abusers were all monsters. They are not. Instead, they are regular people, just like us.

Another problematic response is the shifting of blame towards those who are not the perpetrators. This minimizes the impact of the abusers deceptions and behaviors, which also has the effect of alleviating the discomfort of embracing the tension. Roxanne Jones of CNN wrote such a response shaming women that she argues enable men like Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose. She writes, “Behind every sexual harasser, be he Matt Lauer or the man next door, likely stands a woman willing to excuse, cover up or feel "heartbroken" for the abuser once his lewd behavior is exposed.”

What Jones refuses to acknowledge are some of the reasons why women often behave this way in response to allegations of sexual violations. For example, one reason is that the “enabling” woman has internalized the beliefs of the abuser from having been abused herself, or from having been groomed in an environment that limits her influence and power. Another reason, and I suggest it is quite common, is that sexual violators excel at deception and manipulation while intentionally seeking empathy from those around them. They present themselves as victims and gain support and allies through their ability to access others’ empathy.

Jones’ article shames women for not stopping men’s abuse. I agree that a woman in a position of power needs to deal appropriately with allegations of sexual impropriety or assault, but Jones’ attitude is problematic. Jones berates Savannah Guthrie for her quick and compassionate on-air response. Jones argues, “This type of selfish, blind loyalty is what enables these predators to reign with terror over working women in the first place.”

Jones’ description is unfair and incorrect. “Predators reign with terror” because they are predatory. The women they work with are not responsible for abusive men’s sexual actions. Plus, Guthrie’s response was far from selfish, nor did it display loyalty to Lauer. Yes, she was grappling with her own difficult emotions, and yes, she said she was heartbroken for her friend Lauer, but she also stated clearly that she was also “heartbroken for the brave colleague” that disclosed his abusive behavior. Plus, she affirmed the recent cultural shift of abusive men being held accountable. At no point did she deny Lauer’s behaviors, or minimize them. She didn’t attempt to cast doubt on the victims’ credibility – unlike Dunham’s tweet.

To sum up for congregational leaders

Remember to believe victims and offer them support without any requirements being expected of them. Do not require forgiveness or empathy for their abuser. In fact if they have been groomed effectively they will feel an inordinate amount of empathy for their abuser with little, if any, empathy toward themselves. Conversely, if the victim does not feel empathy and does feel anger, that is totally normal as well.

So, do not expect them to feel the way you feel about the abuser. If you are angry, that’s fine. If you are confused, that’s fine. If you are sympathetic towards the abuser, that’s fine – although you need to be self reflective and ask why, particularly if your empathy is greater for the abuser than the victim. If you feel all of these, that’s fine too. Just make sure you do not expect the victim to feel any specific way. Let them feel their feelings, whatever they are with no judgment. Also, make sure you do not make them feel responsible for your feelings. At no point should a victim feel like they need to soothe your anger, or ease your anxiety.

Another thing to remember is that only abusers are responsible for their abusive actions. No one else. Victims are never responsible in any way for the abuse they endured. Not even if they are coerced, or cooperate with their abuser. For example, if a woman removes her clothes when asked to, or stands still as her abuser masturbates in front of her. Cooperation does not equal consent.

Plus, those around the abuser are not responsible for the abuse either. Sure, if there are individuals who explicitly know that abuse is happening, and have the power to hold the abuser accountable, then they may be responsible for denying, or covering up abuse. However, colleagues, family members, and friends often have no idea that abuse is occurring. Many people assume that those closest to the abuser must have known. The truth is abusers are often charming manipulative people skilled at lying.

Now, back to holding the tension. This is where we are. And it is where we need to stay, for a while at least. Sexual violation is a complicated issue and there is no black or white solution. Therefore there should be no black and white response. We need to be willing to embrace the discomfort, to sit with the ambivalence. We need to withhold our defense of the abuser, and our minimizations of their behavior. At the same time, we must refrain from demonizing them and denying their humanity. We need to hold this tension and live with it. It is uncomfortable, even painful. Yet to do one without the other is to remain vulnerable to the tactics of abusers. We must accept the truth that predators are regular people unremarkable in their ordinariness, not monsters that can be recognized as dangerous.

Plus, for those of us who were groomed and sexually violated by our loved ones, and perhaps your loved ones, having others hold this tension is encouraging. Many survivors hold this tension daily. When others refuse to do so, and then react without reflection, it is usually triggering at best and re-victimizing at worst.

One thing is certain, our culture is experiencing a traumatic shattering of the assumption that our culture is safe for women, teens, children, and of course some men. Hopefully, as triggering as all this is, it will ultimately be a good thing leading to a safer culture for all.


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