by Brad Sargent aka brad/futuristguy
* * * * * * *
Introduction: Changing Our Language to
Remove Neutrality Toward Abusers and Negativity Toward Survivors
Who typically gets trusted or distrusted by default — the reported perpetrator, or the victim who reports? That is especially important in understanding the realities faced by survivors of abuse. Language is crucial to communicating what abuse took place, and specifics of whether it involved violation/violence that is emotional, physical, spiritual, sexual, or all of the above. But there are problems with victims speaking up about such things.
For instance, as we’ve seen in the case of Rachel’s report of experiences with Tullian Tchividjian, it often takes many months to have enough understanding to articulate what actually happened. When it is ripe, it includes:
- Observations and evidences that are relevant and rich with detail.
- Analysis that is robust and critiques actions of self and others.
- Interpretation that is well-reasoned and insightful about the big picture of what happened.
The extensive version she presented over several posts on Spiritual Sounding Board built up gradually over time for her. (For more about that process, see the Final Thoughts section on “Bits and Pieces Build the Big Picture,” in Rachel’s story, Part #4.) But her transparency and her thoroughness contributed to why it appears to have served as a turning point that “flipped the script” on Mr. Tchividjian’s seemingly contrite serial communications over the past two years that at most acknowledge vague sins, mistakes, and harmful actions and respond with a façade of guilt, regret, and apparent repentance.
I sensed something significant had shifted when I saw this news agency report on December 1, 2016, in a Christian Post article by Czarina Ong: Women Accuse Tullian Tchividjian of Being a Liar and Serial Manipulator, Claim He Made Advances on Them. That news article was posted about a week after the accounts of “Lisa” and “Kara” appeared on Nate Sparks’ blog (November 21 and November 23, respectively). Does anything in particular strike you about that headline? Anything seem unusual about it?
Here’s what I noticed: “Tullian Tchividjian” is the object of the verb, not the subject. It isn’t about what he said, or that he did — but what others are saying about him, doing to him. Start looking at Christian news/magazine reports, and they overwhelmingly have his name as the subject of the verb in the headline. But not that one on December 1st. And he has been the object of headline verbs more frequently since that date.
For instance, in the first two examples below, Tullian Tchividjian is the subject of the headline (even if his name is not the first thing that appears), and in the last two examples, he is the object of the verb in the headline:
1. November 26, 2016. Christian News Network. Year After Affair Admission, Divorce, Tullian Tchividjian Emerges With New Wife, Preaches God ‘Bends Toward’ Sinners, by Heather Clark.
2. November 28, 2016. The Christian Post. Tullian Tchividjian Allegedly Tried Reconciling With Ex-Wife Before New Marriage, Asked Woman to Pray for Brother’s Death, by Leonardo Blair.
3. December 6, 2016. Christian News. Publisher Won’t Pull Tullian Tchividijan Book Deal Despite Former Mistress Coming Forward, Calls for Repentance, by Heather Clark.
4. December 7, 2016. Christian Daily. Pastors and friends call on Tullian Tchividjian to repent and quit Christian ministry, by Lorraine Caballero.
I emphasized that these are from news agencies, because that is already the kind of headline we’d more likely see on an abuse survivor blog. That’s because survivors have a platform there to find their own voice and speak out about their abusers. (If you want to check out this hypothesis for yourself, use the Resource Bibliography on System Issues Related to the Tullian Tchividjian Situation listing of article titles to see how news agencies and survivor blogs title articles differently, and any shift in emphasis around December 1, 2016.) Check other examples in the Resource Bibliography. Even if the name “Tullian Tchividjian” appears first in the above headlines, the gist of the sentence is still what others say about him or suggest he do, etc.
I think about words and their meanings a lot, in part because my formal academic training is in anthropological linguistics and teaching English as a second language. Also, because I have had ongoing excursions into journalism since my preteen years. And because, over the past 45 years, I have spent more time serving in “recovery” ministries working with survivors of abuse and those overcoming addictions than in any other area.
Thankfully, spiritual discernment is not dependent on degrees or I.Q. And it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to discern how abusers and those who support them try to control the narrative, how they misuse or manipulate terms and leave false impressions. These are issues I’m continuing to learn about — ones I believe we as survivors and/or bloggers need to consider more deeply.
For instance, here are some pairings of terms that illustrate the essence of what my friend Jason stated in the opening quote: We tend to trust the abuser, doubt the accuser. What do you see in these various words and phrases that supports abusers’ “it isn’t so bad” narratives and amplifies their shade-throwing onto their victims?
Alleged, supposed — versus — reported.
An affair, an inappropriate relationship, adultery, it was consensual — versus — I was seduced, he seduced me, he exhibits sexual predator behaviors.
Mistake, failure, put myself in a compromising position — versus — clergy sexual abuse, clergy sexual misconduct.
An instance of moral failure — versus — a pattern of sexual indiscretions, sexual addiction, womanizer.
Controlling the narrative minimizes the offense and marginalizes the victim. It attempts to view the abuser at least neutrally, if not positively. For instance, it spins the sins to portray the perpetrator’s actions as an incidental event that was consensual — instead of as a pattern of intentional acts that were seductive. In other words, a passive scenario of “It just sort of happened because we fell in love,” versus an active scenario where he was seeking and stalking her so it was predatory.
This kind of language manipulation grants reported perpetrators an automatic “benefit of the doubt” because “there are two sides to every story.” It lets their promoters and protectors repeat that those accused are “innocent until proven guilty.” It issues demands that so-called evidence by accusers be “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
This language tends to leave the survivors struggling in the dust, often all alone in trying to figure out what happened, and deciding whether it’s worth it to try to tell their side of things or just remain silent. And if they do decide to speak out against a celebrity, what platform do they have? If no one listens and they get louder and go shrill, will they end up going silent anyway?
Words have power to harm and to heal, to help us take responsibility for our action or attempt to shirk accountability. We need to keep exploring deeper into this.
What other terms have you seen used that automatically favor the reported perpetrator, or automatically hold the survivor in disfavor?
What vocabulary issues do we as survivor bloggers need to consider?
If you could recommend changes in language that Christian news agencies currently use about abuse survivors, what would they be?
Post your comments to let our communities know …
* * * * * * *
A Facebook Conversation: Language of Seduction
that Seeks to Neutralize the Perpetrator’s Responsibility
In light of the importance about our continual learning about the language of abuse, what follows is a recent discussion — December 1, 2016 — on my Facebook page. It followed a thread where I posted the link to the breaking news about Tullian Tchividjian. Because that particular post was a “Friends Only” post in terms of privacy settings, I asked Jason (who is a Reformed church pastor) and Erica (who is a biomedical research scientist) for permission to copy their comments into this post, which they kindly agreed to. I had also previously asked my friend Dr. Christy Sim if I could quote a Facebook dialogue we had, and she also said yes.
I have edited out side comments to keep the focus on the issues of language raised there. Those gaps are noted by […], and any notes to summarize the missing content are also in square brackets.
It’s important to note that my friends Jason and Erica are highly aware of issues of abuse survivors, and have always shown concern for supporting victims, advocating for justice, and addressing systemic abuse. We’ve had numerous discussions about these and related topics over the 15+ years I’ve known each of them. I believe the high quality of their thoughtfulness and empathy shines through the following thread.
* * * * * * *
JASON. I’ve been wondering what the role of publishing houses is when events like this occur. I don’t know how contracts are written, but someone’s behavior runs counter your “brand” or your ethics as a Christian publishing house then I imagine there is an important role to play. It’s got to be about more than the profit margin.
[…] [NOTE: Then there were some comments about what some publishing houses and denominations have done in cases of extreme plagiarism, and sexual harassment and abuse by authors, etc. I plan to use these in a forthcoming case study to illustrate how to do things right in requiring accountability.]
ERICA. Let’s name the behavior by the pastor by its true name- it is “seduction” of vulnerable females. The term comes from the Latin which means ” to lead astray”.
Having serial affairs while in leadership is bad enough, but this is worse because it appears to be deliberate and intentional serial seduction of women based on my reading between the lines of the articles. Seduction was a crime in the past and carried severe emotional, economic and social consequences for women in society. In modern society this activity is more hidden and not seen for its true nature. Understanding what seduction is and its power should help victims of seduction because the perpetrator is responsible for the sexual relationship and it cannot be viewed as having the same moral equivalency as an “affair” has for both parties.
BRAD. These are crucial points, Erica — thanks for sharing them. Survivor communities need to pay ever more attention to our language and how the terms we use come across. Will be sharing what you posted with others … and see below in thread for more.
BRAD. Erica posted in a reply just above this with important points about what terms we use to describe the behaviors in this case: “seduction” …does not have the same moral equivalency as an “affair” has for both parties. (see above for full quote.)
I’m reposting here an exchange from a thread from the comments on Parts 1 and 2, if I remember right, between Dr. Christy Sim and myself, on terminology that we used in the [Spiritual Sounding Board article] title: “Survivor of Tullian Tchividjian’s Alleged Clergy Sexual Abuse Goes Public with Her Story.” This is a version I posted on a blog thread, so it’s got an introduction from that version. QUOTE:
An important interaction from Facebook, with my friend Christy Sim who is Executive Director of Stronger Than Espresso, a non-profit dedicated to survivors of violence and abuse. I’m copying it here, as my Facebook posts [have privacy settings marked] “Friends” not “Public.”
Christy Sim One thing… it starts off with the word “alleged” to describe victims. It’s a word we fight so hard against.
The word ‘alleged’ makes it sound fake. Instead we encourage the word “reported.” It gives the same intention without the weight of… “oh she ‘allegedly’ claimed to be raped. But no one believes her and we can’t prove it.” (That’s what we hear in ‘allegedly.”)…That it hasn’t been proven yet and it’s up for debate on if she’s full of crap.
We hope by changing the language people start thinking differently.
She “reported” gives the picture that she turned in her story. That’s what we want. She voiced her story. And we have no reason not to believe it.
Brad That is very, very helpful, Christy, and thank you for noting that for us. There are many issues with words that we agonize over in writing for and from spiritual abuse survivor communities. So it’s crucial to keep striving for terms that are more accurate, that are more supportive, and that don’t carry implications that minimize what’s being said or — even more so — those who are saying it. I’ve been writing on related issues, and case studies, and helping people share their story for nearly a decade, and still important things to learn …
Christy Sim Thank you for hearing me! I was so worried that I overstepped.
Brad I’m really glad you said what you did, Christy! We know that words have the power to crush or encourage. So we have to keep stretching ourselves to communicate better. It’s too important to ourselves as survivors, to the friends we support and advocate for, for those we seek to challenge for abuses and protecting abusers.
BRAD. I’m starting to list sets of words to sort through for the nuances they do/don’t convey. It’s messy.
ERICA. Thanks, Brad, for this enlightening discourse about the unintentional but nevertheless subtle bias in our language. When women speak up about an illicit sexual relationship with leadership, it’s important to distinguish the features of a seduction from a mutual affair. The nuances of well-chosen words can accurately and succinctly communicate the severity of the transgression, and also focus the responsibility where it belongs, which is squarely on the shoulders of the seducer. A target of a seduction is not complicit in the active pursuit.
Conversely, use of the term “affair” to incorrectly characterize a seduction shifts at least partial responsibility to the victim of seduction by implying mutual agreement. This difference in use of the word “seduction” to describe the context of the sexual relationship could be extremely empowering for the victim and also result in her account being taken more seriously by others, although that remains to be seen.
JASON. Erica thank you for drawing this out. These women were groomed by a person in power and influence over them for the express purpose of sexual advancement. Tullian normalized the adulterous nature of his intent and actions by manipulating theological words, phrases, and ideas. He manipulated the person by perverting and using her/their own faith against them for his own gain. A faith he was helping form. Pastoral leadership is not an ordinary kind of leadership. He misused it and perverted it, which to me is unconscionable. Though he was disciplined by his denomination, I think it is unfortunate that he was allowed to resign. He should have been fired after due process. He is allowed to retain his “innocence” while his victims live with the shame of being groomed and exploited.
BRAD. Well stated, my friends, Erica and Jason. The image that comes to mind is from fundraising fairs we had as a kid, and “The fishing booth.” You know, a pole with a string and some kind of hanger or magnet on the end, and you cast it over a curtain and when the “fish” yanks on the other side of the curtain, you pull it back and see what you hooked. All very exciting!
Well, there’s a difference between two magnets getting attracted to each other [“affair” – “adultery”] versus someone in a position of power and control (like a pastor) tossing a line and magnet out into the pool and working it around to see who he can drag back [“seduction” – “clergy sexual misconduct”].
ERICA. Jason, you’ve aptly stated the seriousness of his breach of trust, and the failure of his denomination to apply the appropriate censure commensurate with his actions. The garden variety seduction is egregious enough, but when seduction is committed by a person entrusted with spiritual formation it reaches an exponentially higher level of harm to the individual who was targeted.
BRAD. The power/influence dynamic is why this is sometimes identified as “Clergy Sexual Misconduct” and a “violation of fiduciary duty” by a person in a position of power. The law on this is not consistent because it is implemented state by state, but some states disallow the seducer in such cases the defense of “it was consensual.” Same goes for counselors/clients, officers of the law/prisoners, medical practitioners/patients. No. It is *not* consensual.
BRAD. In those states that explicitly disallow the defense of “consensual” for sexual assault, it generally applies to “religious workers,” not specifically “Christian pastors.” And sometimes there are additional specifications about counseling relationships. But basically, keep in mind, it’s NOT “an affair,” it’s an assault.
If you’re interested in an overview of which states have laws about this, check out this post on The Wartburg Watch. One night when I had insomnia, I went through the entire RAINN state-by-state website and posted the state and key portions of their legal code. One state per comment. Here’s the link, and search for comments by “brad/futuristguy.”
ERICA. Read this link to see one professionals’ opinion about the difference between seduction and rape.
Don’t Be Seduced! Six Crucial Warning Signs. [NOTE: The subtitle sentence for this Psychology Today article is, “Seduction seeks sex whether or not it harms the seduced.”
* * * * * * *
Two Final Thoughts
1. Please check out the article Erica recommended: Don’t Be Seduced! Six Crucial Warning Signs and also this site from Baylor University on Clergy Sexual Misconduct, with research by Dr. Diana R. Garland and Dr. Mark Chaves.
The Psychology Today article has a “checklist of seduction,” and it also explains well the differences between seduction and rape, and the issue of “consent.” Then take that knowledge and checklist, and go through Rachel’s story to see where reported actions of Tullian Tchividjian fit with the various points. I think you’ll find that homework quite enlightening …
The Baylor site has an especially good Executive Summary page that includes sections on definition of Clergy Sexual Misconduct (CSM), and its prevalence, how it happens, and strategies for prevention.
2. Blog commenters who are adamant about both parties in adultery having equal moral culpability … I’ve noticed that they don’t seem to discuss this in ways that show they have any “theology about seduction.”
They want both parties to share equal responsibility, as if they were full, peer partners in the sin. I don’t hear them talk about deception, manipulation, power dynamics. They generally refuse to accept the legal concept of clergy sexual abuse, which is sometimes called clergy sexual misconduct, or violation of “fiduciary duty” — where members of the clergy or other specified professions are legally barred from claiming consent as a defense for sexual assault with a congregant, counselee, etc.
The only things that seem to matter to these commenters are (1) that the parties engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage, and (2) it was by mutual consent. Yes, “consent” distinguishes sexual interaction as adultery or fornication instead of as rape. But these commenters have a limited view of what consent is about, when it comes to issues of seduction. Apparently, rape is only about physically overpowering someone and forcing them to engage in sexual activities. Where is the acknowledgement of emotionally overpowering someone, or using one’s position of authority/power in the relationship (such as mentor, pastor, counselor, employer) and what you know about the person’s emotional vulnerabilities as a result of being in that official relationship of trust, oversight, ability to fire, etc.?
So — this directly relates to the commenting policy here at Spiritual Sounding Board. You may find your comment edited or removed at the discretion of SSB moderators if you comment about situations of sexual abuse in ways that do not acknowledge any dynamics of power/seduction going on with survivors, or the manipulation of potential victims through preliminary emotional/relational grooming. A lack of theology about seduction means using language that blames the victim and minimizes the responsibility of the person in a role of power. It silences the voices of the victims. And that is not tolerated here.
* * * * * * *
Update: Link to the Baylor University site added in the final section on 01-06-2017.