Update 7: CSA in Amish, Mennonite, Hutterite, Anabaptist & Other Religious Communities
By: Mary Byler and Tara Mitchell
As our final update on the results of the study, we would like to thank every one of our participants for being willing to share their experiences with child sexual abuse. We recognize that this is a difficult and often traumatic topic to discuss. We are working towards publishing the results of the study in a research journal. It can take years to be published, which is why we shared the results here first.
We hope it will help guide professionals who may come in contact with survivors of child sexual abuse to be able to better recognize child sexual abuse within insular religious communities, as well as provide better interventions and support when they have the opportunity to do so. We could not have completed this study without your willingness to provide your story.
Mary and Tara
Participants were asked to what they thought child sexual abuse was. Their responses were analyzed for common themes based on their current religious affiliation (Anabaptist or not) and personal experiences with child sexual abuse (yes, no, or unsure). We used these categories based on a desire to understand if personal experiences and membership in an insular community (as well as possible language differences) affected the definitions provided. Of the 410 participants, 314 provided a response that could be analyzed for thematic content. Three participants did not indicate their personal abuse experiences. All three of those participants included the possibility of non-contact forms of child sexual abuse, although only one mentioned the possibility of older children as perpetrators and that child sexual abuse was done for the sexual gratification of the abuser. The other two participants defined sexual abuse as happening to a child, without indicating anything about the perpetrator’s status. Of the 27 people who were unsure of their own child sexual abuse that responded to the question to define child sexual abuse, 10 were currently Anabaptist and 17 were not. Those who were not currently Anabaptist mentioned non-contact forms of abuse, but were also most likely to mention only the fact that sexual abuse happened to a child, rather than details of the perpetrator. Two of the 10 did not even mention the fact that the abuse happened to a child. Those who were currently Anabaptist were more likely to mention the age of the perpetrator involved (adult or adult and older child), but they were less likely to indicate that child sexual abuse could include non-contact. Finally, they were more likely to use words with a negative emotion/connation, such as defining child sexual abuse as something that must be stopped.
Of the 129 participants who were not abused that responded to the question to define child sexual abuse, 57 were not currently Anabaptist and 72 were. Of those who were not Anabaptist, the vast majority included examples of non-contact sexual abuse in their responses, and several also included that the abuse was for the purpose of the abuser’s sexual gratification. A few used negative emotion/connotation words, such as evil, and mentioned touching of the genital area only as forms of abuse. Among the current Anabaptists, a few also mentioned negative emotion/connotation words, such as evil. However, they were far more likely to define sexual abuse as touch only, particularly of the genitals, or touch and showing pornography only.
Of the 155 participants who were abused that responded to the question to define child sexual abuse, 57 were currently Anabaptist and 98 were not. These definitions were the most likely to contain negative emotion/connotation words, such as evil, violation, and afraid, and their description of what child sexual abuse was often personal. They were also more likely to provide a response that did not indicate a definition of what child sexual abuse is, but rather a statement about its effects, such as taking advantage, making them uncomfortable, harming, or destroying. Although those who were currently Anabaptist were more likely to specifically mention exposure to pornography in their responses, those who were not currently Anabaptist were more likely to mention other non-contact forms of child sexual abuse, as well as mentioning the abuse may be committed by an older child, which was for the purpose of sexual gratification of the perpetrator and included grooming. Interestingly, they were also more likely to indicate more than just child sexual abuse, including physical abuse, perhaps suggesting that physical abuse was part of the sexual abuse they experienced.
Among those who have been abused, it is those who are not currently Anabaptist that are more aware of the possibility of older children as perpetrators, the fact that abuse is committed for the sexual gratification of the perpetrator, and that abusers may groom children or their families. This matches the types of responses given by those who were not abused as well. As a result, those who are not currently Anabaptist provided responses that showed a greater understanding of why abuse occurred, the possibility of grooming, and the likelihood of older children being perpetrators. They also were more likely to include forms of non-contact child sexual abuse, other than exposure to pornography.
Taken together, this suggests that there are qualitative differences in how people define child sexual abuse based on both their own personal experiences and their current religious tradition. It is important that these differences in how people define child sexual abuse be understood.
For one, we need to understand how the experience of abuse may influence the way survivors think and talk about what abuse is. However, it is also vital to understand what both people who experienced child sexual abuse and did not experience child sexual abuse believe CSA it is.
Research has shown that both law enforcement and jurors hold schemas, or beliefs about, what rape is, and they are more likely to believe survivors whose stories match their beliefs about what rape is (e.g., Stuart et al., 2019; Venema, 2016). So, survivors may be less likely to recognize that what they have experienced is abuse, or they may be less likely to believe other survivors, if their experiences do not match what they believe child sexual abuse is.
More importantly, though, it is possible that the people meant to help survivors of child sexual abuse – law enforcement, social workers, sexual assault advocates, teachers, and so on – may be less likely to believe survivors if their experiences do not match what those people believe child sexual abuse is. As a result, child sexual abuse survivors may not be believed or supported in the way they need. The very people who are supposed to support child sexual abuse survivors the most may be the ones to victimize them further.
Stuart, S. M., McKimmie, B. M., & Masser, B. M. (2019). Rape perpetrators on trial: The effect of sexual assault-related schemas on attributions of blame. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 34(2), 310 – 336. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260516640777
Venema, R. M. (2016). Police office schema of sexual assault reports: Real rape, ambiguous cases, and false reports. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 31(5), 872 – 899. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260514556765