How Not to Talk about Sexual Abuse

When we talk about sexual abuse, we’re talking about nakedness. All abuse involves some form of nudity, whether literal or metaphorical. And whether verbal or physical, sexual abuse uncovers what should have remained protected. 

Abuse is a heavy topic. It ought to be.

When we talk about sexual abuse, our neighbor’s nakedness — their uncovered vulnerability — is at the center of the conversation. And, as we discuss it, our neighbor is watching to see what we’ll do with it. Will we be tender, discreet, protective, and compassionate? Will we turn in disgust and revulsion? Will we ignore it in shame or apathy? Will we laugh?

We are naturally uncomfortable with heavy things. So, we seek to make them go away, to find some way to shift the weight, transfer it to another’s burden, or set it down. We often can’t stand the unresolved tension of another’s suffering, especially abuse. So we often ignore it. Or we offer thoughtless platitudes. And, sometimes, we laugh.

I know too well my propensity for using humor to lighten a moment. Laughter can be a gift, interjecting levity at the right moment in the right situation. But jokes have their place. And we must be cautious not to inadvertently trivialize the gravity of certain topics, especially sexual abuse. Wrongly used, humor is tragic. It signals to the suffering that they are too much for us. Wrongly used, humor signals to our suffering neighbor that we must — and will — shift our collective focus. And wrongly so, we laugh.

We’ve all had that dream. You’re standing before a watching crowd, naked as the day you were born. There is no place to hide, nothing to cover yourself with. Everyone is looking at you, pointing their fingers, and laughing. There are few things more humiliating than having your naked body laughed at.

Perhaps this is why the apostle Paul’s prohibition against sexual immorality and inappropriate joking go hand-in-hand. He tells the Ephesians that “sexual immorality … should not even be heard of among you” (Eph 5:3). He doesn’t mean it can’t be talked about (he is talking about it here). Rather, there should be no reports of it happening among the Ephesians. It is not “proper for saints,” he continues. Similarly “Obscene and foolish talking or crude joking are not suitable” (Eph 5:4).

Sexual immorality is the abuse of nakedness, the use of one’s own body and or a neighbor’s body in ways God did not intend. A crude joke can do the same. We understand how “dirty jokes” degrade and dishonor the human body and the sanctity of sexual pleasure. But the subject of the joke need not be sex per se for it to abuse our neighbor’s nakedness. Context is crucial.

What does it communicate to survivors when we use laughter to alleviate our own discomfort in the context of sexual abuse? Their exploited nakedness is the topic at hand. We’re hearing about it, discussing it, looking at it, and responding to it. And, to get some release, we laugh. Just like the abusers who looked at their naked bodies and smiled as the tension released. 

With a crude joke, we invite more of the same. Using humor to lighten the atmosphere of another’s sexual abuse, even if entirely unwittingly, reinforces the abuser’s message that the naked body has no dignity, deserves no protection, and may be set aside with a smirk. Such posture toward pain is ungodly, because it is unlike God.

When the Lord discovered Adam and Eve naked, ashamed, and fumbling with fig leaves to cover themselves, what did he do? He did not leave them to clothe themselves. Nor did he turn away in disgust. He certainly did not laugh. Instead, compassion moved him to clothe them.

When God encountered inappropriate nakedness, he provided a costly, suitable covering to restore their dignity and protect them from harm. “The Lord God made clothing from skins for the man and his wife, and he clothed them” (Gen 3:21). He slaughtered one of his own animals, taking its covering to cover them. This allowed them to stand before him and one another. It protected them in the newly dangerous world, which now had thorns, thistles, and neighbors who would exploit each other’s bodies for their own sake. He paid for it; they did not.

This foreshadowed the work of the promised Son, who would be slaughtered so that his righteousness could cover us. Jesus was made “like his brothers and sisters in every way” and “has been tempted in every way as we are” (Heb 2:17, 4:15). He was stripped and abused by a company of soldiers. His naked body was publicly displayed on the cross before onlookers who mocked him. In this voluntary humiliation, Christ wore our nakedness, as it were, so that we could be “clothed with Christ” (Gal 3:27).

There is relief to be found for the nakedness of sexual abuse — but it is not in laughter. It is in the tender compassion of the gospel, by which Christ clothes us at a significant cost to himself (and never at our expense). His covering protects us from harm, heals our wounds, and restores us to a state better than we knew before. The only laughter we will hear is the rejoicing of a shepherd who has removed sin and death from our context, welcoming us into the joy of a world in which all things (even our naked bodies) are made new.

Being imitators of God in Christ means we do the same. Compassion moves us to humble ourselves, entering into the gravity of suffering to provide cover, healing, restitution, and restoration. Their comfort comes at our cost, and never the other way around.

Brothers and sisters, abuse of any kind is no laughing matter. Let’s resist every temptation to heal wounds lightly, especially by carelessly lightening the mood. May our crucified and risen Lord give us grace to speak “only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29).

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