Sexual Violence: An Interview with Rebecca Sukanen

Sexual Violence: An Interview with Rebecca Sukanen

“All people and systems that perpetrate sexual violence transgress the command to love and to protect our neighbor. The body of Christ should always be a place of justice, protection, and healing for those who are, who have been, and who continue to be affected by sexual violence.” —Church of the Nazarene 2017-2021 Manual, ¶31

HT: The Nazarene Manual speaks out against sexual violence in many forms (including rape, sexual assault, sexual bullying, hateful speech, marital abuse, incest, sex trafficking, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, bestiality, sexual harassment, and the abuse of minors and other vulnerable populations). How has your work encountered these sad realities in our world?

RS: I worked in Moldova for four and a half years as Director of the Moldova Mobile Medical Intervention Clinic in the red-light district in one of the major cities. I worked with those who were sexually exploited: sex-trafficking victims, prostitutes, and those who were at high risk of being trafficked.

Through that work, I saw victims of physical abuse, stabbings, and those who had been raped. We received calls from women locked in apartments by their “boyfriends” (pimps) and individuals who had been through so much sexual trauma that they became incontinent. I witnessed doctors turn people away because of their conditions (syphilis, in one case), and we had to advocate for them to get the care they needed.

One woman, a wife and mother of five children, had been working the streets for years and ended up dying from cancer. Our group of ministers went to the funeral and were able to help the father of the children with legal advice for custody of the children. 

This organization has been there for those who have tested positive for HIV and supported them through the process of finding resources in the community to help.

HT: In what ways does sexual sin have both personal and social implications?

RS: Sexual sin, to me, is hard to define, because it may include what is done to you and what you engage in by your own free will. The question of choice was often very convoluted with the women I worked with.

Sexual exploitation itself leads to sickness and death for the person being exploited, often in a slow way. The societal consquences of sexual sin are that it devalues relationships. Instead of asking “How can I commit to having a bonded, loving relationship in which I can rear my children up in a healthy way?”, sexual sin turns the question into “what satisfaction can I get out of this?”.

Women we worked with had little opportunity to escape their situations. We verified this through our research. Those lacking choices, education, and support are the most vulnerable. We must understand that there are no easy answers. Sexual violence corrupts at such a deep level that women caught in this system feel they have no other options that would keep them and their children alive. It is not difficult to see the rationale of these survival-based choices.

The breakdown at the family level is a significant root cause of these problems. We need to focus our attention as a faith-based organization on building strong, healthy families that support females and males equally.

HT: What systems allow for sexual violence to spread and what systems fight against or prevent this evil?

RS: The systems that allow for sexual violence to spread are those that tend to have power imbalances. These corrupted systems, in many cases, exhibit signs of hatred, dislike, mistrust, and mistreatment of women. Corruption can occur in any institution of influence, including Church, government, education, family, and business. They tend to hush those who are victimized—men, boys, women and girls—and often tell them it’s their fault they’ve been victimized. These systems protect the person who inflicts the abuse by introducing shame and secrecy to the victim’s life.

We must be honest that the church can cover up or condone this pattern of behavior. At times, leaders have been protected so as to squelch the rumors and issues of sexual abuse and avoid having to deal with the hard issues at hand. In addition, the watching of pornography (including child pornography) has desensitized and normalized acts that are often in violation of human rights.

Systems with corruption at the government level tend to allow for more sexual violence. They may have well-written laws but must also have people who uphold moral values to follow and enforce them.

HT: How do we, as Christians, talk about and bring awareness to the issue of sexual violence?

RS: We condemn it and prosecute it where and when we can. We do not silence the victims and protect the guilty and accused. We must support justice at all levels. The mistrust people have with authority structures can be at times validated when they have experienced corruption. Leaders must be transparent, innocent, and honest in both their intentions and actions. The Church of Christ is the answer for a broken world.

HT: How can we participate in God’s healing of brokenness?

RS: We can participate with God by bringing brokenness out into the open for all to see. We must surround those who have been in this situation and help bring healing through long-term, relational support. We need people who are willing to become trained, trauma-informed caregivers and ministers, so we can provide the care that these individuals need and help them find new avenues to commit to the goal of lifelong restoration. 

HT: What victories have you witnessed among those who have suffered from sexual violence?

RS: We have seen women leave the streets for new professions. We have seen women purchase sewing machines and start businesses from home. We have seen others take small steps by reaching out to a community of hope, such as the church, in order to get care and resources for themselves and their children, so they will not have to use their bodies as commodities for income.

One woman we served had just had a C-section when we found her in the red-light district. We were able to help pay her bills and get her reconnected with her mother where she was safe, she and her child were cared for, and where she did not have to sell herself.

HT: What message of hope can we offer to a world marked by sin? 

RS: We can offer the world hope through showing mercy and justice to both victims and abusers. Sin grows in the dark. We can be honest about sin and its destructive nature for individuals, society, and the church. We can act, without hypocrisy, in a holy light and bring a message of hope to the nations. By doing these things, the Church of the Nazarene can proclaim truthfully what we are fighting for and what we are fighting against to those who have been abused, mistreated, and violated.

Holiness Today, Nov/Dec 2019