One word that repeatedly echoes through stories of sexual abuse survivors, child trauma survivors, research that collects these stories, or journalists who dig into these stories is “innocence“.
Their innocence was stolen from them.
Children are innocent (presuming a state of innocence), or innocents (naming all children as characteristically made up of pre-worldly exposure).
Innocence was taken away.
Sexuality disturbs innocence.
In light of the allegations against Josh Duggar, and in hearing that word again — innocence — I wanted to go a little deeper. My intuition says that innocence perhaps is a far greater state of being than how we have relegated it to sexual interference, abuse, exposure or trauma. In no way am I intending to diminish experiences and traumas of survivors, and I’m certainly not looking to make excuses for perpetrators. I am, however, trying to explore this world we call innocence to see if sexuality alone can destroy or steal what, for all appearances, a terribly fragile state.
Merriam-Webster defines innocence as follows:
: the state of being not guilty of a crime or other wrong act
: lack of experience with the world and with the bad things that happen in life
Full Definition of INNOCENCE
Related to INNOCENCE
- blamelessness, faultlessness, guiltlessness, impeccability, innocency,irreproachability, irreproachableness
As you can see, innocence is and has been attached with chastity (sexual purity in various forms) for a long time, and also with ignorance or a lack of knowledge. And yet these aren’t the only defining lines when speaking of this state of being. If you wade through the synonyms, you can see that innocence refers more to a state of integrity, honesty, and being without fault. This expands the realm of innocence from sexual connotations and creates an even greater one able to give light and life in very dark places.
Sexual abuse: rape, incest, human trafficking, prostitution, pornography, and all other forms of violations wound us in ways other forms of abuse cannot. Sexuality is deeply intwined with our spirituality — our souls sometimes feel like they’ve been burned alive, slashed, or stolen away so that we believe we are left with no souls at all. This is certainly not to say other forms of abuse aren’t traumatic or painful. What I am saying is that sexual abuse, with all its rage for power and control, has the capacity to destroy us physically, emotionally, mentally, sexually, spiritually, and relationally. The damage runs that deep. And when influential leaders whom we trust don’t believe us, or make damaging judgment calls when we disclose, the wounds bleed all the heavier.
So we sometimes use the phrase: “Our innocence was stolen from us”, because innocence has often been tied to ignorance, particularly sexual ignorance. Children aren’t ready for the full birds and bees talk all at once, and we gently reveal a more nuanced, deeper truth to them as they are ready to receive it. In the meantime, 6 year olds who might be discovering anatomically correct names for body parts are usually unaware of the emotional and spiritual connections those body parts can be used to create. And this is a good thing! There’s a lot of abstract reasoning that goes into understanding sexuality, and 6 year olds can’t be expected to understand the abstract. They understand concretely.
I understand, then, when abuse occurs that it feels like something has been stolen. A state of freedom and fearlessness is violently disturbed, and we can’t ever go back to the way things were. When abuse happens, when our consent is taken and our voices muffled, we truly know within ourselves that we have been robbed of many things good, pure, happy, and free.
However, allow me to propose a deeper realm:
Josh Duggar’s case exposes glaring dangers within tightly knit fundamentalist groups where sexuality is oppressive, patriarchal, and sin-based. Women’s bodies are to be feared because they lead men astray (body-shaming, responsibility displacement); guilt is encouraged as a sign one is attuned to God’s Spirit (victims’ being forced to repent for invisible sins); and sexuality as a whole is idolized even as it’s demonized. When innocence is attached to a sexual purity ethic such as this, how can we not expect fear… shame… silence?
Am I excusing sexually violent or violating behaviour? Not one bit.
What I am doing is pointing towards this clenched relationship between innocence and sexual purity as a myopic, fearful worldview that robs people of their identity of innocence in God. When they are wound too tightly together, the result is catastrophe.
Purity is far more than anything sexual. And sexual purity, as it relates to people’s life and spiritual choices, isn’t inherently a bad thing! Abstinence is a healthy, viable choice and lifestyle (one that is too often shunned and shamed in a hyper-sexualized culture). If I choose to abstain from sexual activity as a lifestyle, what’s that to you?
More to the point of the post, innocence is a far greater realm than being exposed to sexuality (consensually or non-consensually). It is a realm where, I believe, wisdom grows in the place of ignorance, and freedom persists in the face of violation. It is not an easy realm to cultivate, nor is it one full of sunshine and butterflies. But when we begin to look at innocence as a state of blamelessness — especially in light of Christ’s sacrificial work in life and death — then we become free to grow in our innocence. No one can steal it away from us. No one can snatch it from us. No one can hide it from us so that we feel forever dirty and filthy inside and out.
We can, sadly, be invaded and violated. Our realm of innocence can be attacked, wounded, gouged open with multiple gashes (sometimes over long periods of time). But if we choose to believe the reality that innocence is more than pre-sexual knowledge or experience, we take back our lives. We can learn to live believing ourselves free, blameless, guiltless, good and wonder-hearted. The act(s) of what was done to us is exposed in the full light of this realm — we see it, acknowledge it, and often re-live it again and again through our ways towards healing.
However, we become empowered to know that innocence is our realm of identity. It is not for thieves or robbers. We are children of God, and as such live in innocence from all condemnation, guilt, shame, fear, and death. This is no easy thing to say. As I already said, sexual abuse has a disturbing and almost unique power to crush our innocence.
And sometimes it does. No one can deny that.
However, it can never be taken because sexual predation has no right or authority to steal something so vast, so large, so wondrous, and so defining.
It’s time we returned to innocence and begin to discover how to live in the light of this realm, knowing we were created to be just so.