by Theresa Moxley
Every time the topic of sexual assault comes up, someone asks the question, “Why didn’t the victim ever say no? Why did the victim even participate?” These types of questions are always, without question, a form of victim blaming and deflect attention from the real reason why sexual assault and abuse happen: power and control. The question of saying no deserves a bit more attention, however, because it reflects a norm in our society that makes it easier to victimize people, and women in particular. We can find this norm in any institution but particularly in places of employment, worship spaces, and even our own families. It is hard to say no.
We all have, at one time or another, felt as if we could not say no when someone asked us to perform some task or duty. Think about how this plays out in places of employment. Most job positions come with a definitive job title; however, employees are frequently asked to perform duties outside of those responsibilities. Women often find themselves taking on more of the menial work, such as taking meeting minutes or clearing the company dishwasher. Are we even able to say no at our job when asked to stay late or to work over time, or when asked to travel, or to be present at work rather than care for a sick family member?
Think about in faith communities, when the signup sheet goes around for the church potluck. No one wants to be uncooperative, so everyone signs up for something, even if it puts him or her at an inconvenience. For women, who already bear the heavy burden of the nurturing responsibilities in faith communities, this is especially difficult. Churches rely heavily on volunteering women to take on childcare responsibilities, cooking, fund raising, and administrative duties, usually without pay. In fact, women who are already conditioned to take on nurturing tasks may find it more difficult to say no, and perpetrators of abuse take advantage of that.
So when the pastor, or associate pastor or choir director or Sunday School teacher, asks someone to perform a duty in the church, it is hard to say no. Pastors and others in positions of authority in the church hold a unique power dynamic in their congregations that is often unspoken, but nevertheless exists, and has a strong influence over whether or not it is safe to say no. When speaking about sexual abuse in the church, or any institution, we have to talk about the power dynamic that comes with positions of power.
This plays out in family dynamics, as well. Think about Aunt Kay, who has always hosted Thanksgiving dinner and then suddenly states she will not. The family might respond by bad-mouthing Kay, ostracizing Kay, or otherwise retaliating against her simply because she said no. The consequences can be quite disturbing, and this power dynamic can exist in any family system. People within that system can often predict precisely what will happen when someone says no, or they can tell you all about the last time someone said no and exactly what the consequences were. This sets a power dynamic in families that makes it unsafe for people to say no.
Sexual abuse and assault are always about power and control. The perpetrator uses their power in the community, and over the victim, to get their way. They manipulate entire communities and groom entire groups of people, often using their charismatic popularity. They paint a convincing picture of themselves: that they are trustworthy, so very kind and generous, and no one would ever believe they would ask for something that was inappropriate. Perpetrators of abuse use that trust to gain trust of their victims, and they often use the power of the community over them as well. No one would ever believe they would ask for sex acts, but a perpetrator of abuse would ask and then would use that power dynamic to make it happen. The community plays a role in this power dynamic by reinforcing the negative consequences of saying no.
The power dynamic is even more prevalent for childhood victims of assault. Children are trained to be obedient. Children, in particular, know the consequences of acting out, of saying no: we call that defiance and we punish children, quite severely, for acting out. In the case of sexual abuse, children do not even have the capability of understanding what is being asked of them. And they know the consequence of not complying, as well.
With the power dynamic, it can be impossible for even adults to say no. If Susan can’t say no to baking a pie, then we can know for sure that Susan will not be able to say no to sexual assault. We can already predict the outcome if Susan says no. Susan, when approached by her family member, her boss, or her pastor, already knows the outcome if she says no. She knows she faces a risk of being ostracized, shamed, or retaliated against, and she must make a difficult choice. There is not even time to make the decision; the trauma brain takes over and does what it has to do to survive. Her brain already factors in the unspoken consequences when it responds, and her response is on autopilot. She knows she must say yes or else face the consequences, and she has already been trained by her culture to say yes. She is used to performing nurturing tasks, and the perpetrator uses all those factors to their own advantage to gain cooperation.
Again, it isn’t even about saying no; it is about the power dynamic that perpetrators of sexual abuse use to gain cooperation. If the victim were to say no, the perpetrator will double down and use additional tactics to gain that cooperation, threatening and affirming for the victim what she already knows: that if she does not cooperate, she will face consequences because this perpetrator holds power over her and power in the community.
It is up to the community and those in positions of authority to create an environment where it is safe to say no if we are going to give victims the responsibility to say no. Even if victims have the ability to say no, we must balance authority with safe structures and accountability so that sexual assault and abuse do not occur within our systems and families.