Chapter 5



God of immeasurable love, who suffers with those abused by the ones they hold most dear, the ones they just met and the ones who silently invaded their lives: Hold these most vulnerable lives in your care; protect them, comfort them and strengthen them; embolden their voices even as you quell their pain; and summon them to lead us in defending the sanctity of human relationships; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


  • Examine the prevalence of domestic abuse and sexualized violence in the United States and the physical, psychological and spiritual consequences for both survivors and perpetrators

  • Explore the social, economic, racial and psychological factors which contribute to domestic abuse and sexualized violence

  • Consider evidenced-based strategies to mitigate domestic abuse and sexualized violence and the potential opportunities for faith communities to assist in implementing them


For consideration:

Judges 19:25b-29 So the man seized his concubine, and put her out to them. They wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. As morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light. In the morning her master got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. “Get up,” he said to her, “we are going.” But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey; and the man set out for his home. When he had entered his house, he took a knife, and grasping his concubine he cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel.

2 Samuel 13:8-14 So Tamar went to her brother Amnon’s house, where he was lying down. She took dough, kneaded it, made cakes in his sight, and baked the cakes. Then she took the pan and set them out before him, but he refused to eat. Amnon said, “Send out everyone from me.” So everyone went out from him. Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food into the chamber, so that I may eat from your hand.” So Tamar took the cakes she had made, and brought them into the chamber to Amnon her brother. But when she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, “Come, lie with me, my sister.” She answered him, “No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile! As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel. Now therefore, I beg you, speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you.” But he would not listen to her; and being stronger than she, he forced her and lay with her.

John 8:1-11 Then each of them went home, while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”


On September 27, 2018, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing. In straightforward, but nonetheless pained detail, she described Kavanaugh’s non-consensual assault of her while both were in high school. There was no rape … only the “grinding,” she recounted. But, the powerlessness, degradation and exploitation she experienced shaped her memory and her life. Justice Kavanaugh vehemently denied her accusations and was eventually confirmed. Importantly, however, was the overwhelming support she received. Regardless of partisanship or perspective on Kavanaugh’s suitability for appointment, Blasey Ford’s narrative was largely deemed credible and believed.

Although an archetypal “He said. She said.” scenario, the public response to Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony was a marked departure from the reception Anita Hill received from the same committee when she testified in 1991 in Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination hearing. In unrelenting, belligerent questioning from members of both political parties, Hill was diminished, humiliated and marginalized. Thomas claimed the hearing to be nothing less than a “high-tech lynching” emboldened by a vengeful former employee. He subsequently was confirmed, and Hill’s integrity and character questioned and ridiculed.

Indeed, much has changed in our understanding of sexualized violence and harassment, as well as domestic abuse, since the days of the '15-minute rule' described by Dawn Bradley Berry (2000). “As late as the 1970s, it was not uncommon for a prosecutor to base the decision of whether to bring charges against the abuser on the number of stitches required to close the woman’s wounds. Prosecutors joked about the “fifteen-minute rule” – if, after spending fifteen minutes with the victim, the lawyer was ready to beat her himself, he would not pursue the case.” Nevertheless, the advent of the #MeToo movement, demands for increased accountability for personal behavior and the ongoing discussion of boundaries and power differentials in relationships suggest that significantly more work is required.

The ensuing discussion is offered with the hope of encouraging this conversation in an environment that is both safe and respectful – a setting in which personal stories are welcomed and believed. The issues explored in this discussion are among the most difficult and painful and touch so many of our lives. Thus, care and sensitivity are essential in approaching them.

No form of violence has been more tolerated and condoned – let alone encouraged – than the abuse of women by the men in their lives. However, the use of physical force, verbal intimidation and psychological manipulation to control women is neither a recent nor American phenomenon. From the dawn of history, acts against women have been deeply imbedded in family life and often affirmatively codified in public morality and statutes. For example, both Ancient Israel and the people of Jesus’ time treated (if not defined) women as “property,” exposing them to the violent outbursts of men with little defense or recourse. The Roman Empire sanctioned behavior by men that, if done by women, would subject them to death, including for example: adultery; public intoxication; and even attending sporting events. The routine beating of women – even burning them alive – was tolerated throughout the rise of

Western Europe and subsequently exported to the New World. Even today, acts of violence against women -- from domestic abuse to genital mutilation and rape as an instrument of war – are rampant across the globe and prominent in every society and culture (Storkey).

Despite its prevalence, a standardized definition of “domestic violence” has remained elusive. Nevertheless, the one proffered by Safe Horizon, a national resource for the care of survivors of domestic abuse, includes the elements widely accepted in the professional and academic communities. Specifically, “Domestic violence involves violence or abuse by one person against another in a familial or intimate relationship [and includes]: actual or threats of physical or sexual violence; emotional or psychological abuse; stalking; financial abuse; and threats to “out” a person’s sexual orientation to family, co-workers or friends.” Although popularly conceived as abuse perpetrated by a spouse or romantic partner, domestic violence encompasses a broad array of behavior by family members and includes both heterosexual and same-sex relationships (

The prevalence of domestic violence is staggering. Twenty-five percent of women and more than 14% of men will be severely physically abused in their lifetime, with more than 1,500 women killed annually by a current or former intimate partner. And, approximately half of all women and men will be psychologically or emotionally abused by an intimate partner at some time in their life (

In addition to the survivors themselves, more than 15 million children witness acts of domestic violence annually, more than 3,000 of which are fatal encounters. And not only does domestic abuse affect families and intimate relationships, it has a profound financial impact, as well – costing the American economy more than $8.3 billion a year in medical care and lost productivity (

Mistakenly, discussions of domestic and sexualized violence often are cast exclusively in the context of heterosexual relationships. However, 40% of lesbian and 60% of bisexual women and 25% of gay and 33% of bisexual men will be physically assaulted, stalked or raped at some time during their lives ( And, 50% of transgender individuals will experience sexual violence during their lifetime ( Overwhelmingly, these reported assaults are perpetrated by heterosexuals, many of which are identified as “hate crimes.” The extent of intimate partner abuse and sexualized assault within the LGBTQ+ community is not well-documented and only recently has become a topic of focused research (Brown and Herman).

Clearly, domestic abuse and sexualized violence take many forms and occur in all types of relationships regardless of the gender of those involved. Most common, however, are acts perpetrated by men against women and, consequently, will be the focus of the remainder of this discussion.

Not surprisingly, the most consistent factor in predicting domestic violence is a previous history of it. However, other variables also are associated with a home at high risk for violence, including a man who: was physically or sexually abused as a child; lacks appropriate coping skills; has low self-esteem; exhibits codependent behavior; has an untreated mental illness; abuses alcohol and/or drugs; feels extreme socioeconomic pressure; and has a prior history of criminal arrest. However, while these characteristics are often associated with domestic abuse, they are not causal. Simply because a man has a diminished sense of self-worth does not predict future violent behavior (

Markedly more important to our understanding of domestic violence than imprecise and non-specific social characteristics is the motivation of the abuser. “Virtually all the experts in the various fields who have studied the dynamics of domestic violence and the abuser personality agree that the goal of the abuser is power and control over his partner … Abusive men have a terrible fear of abandonment and become desperate when they feel they could lose their partner. Over and over, studies find that men who exhibit dominating behavior are in fact extremely insecure, vulnerable, and dependent. They tend to be unreasonably jealous, both of other men and of anyone or anything else that takes the partner’s attention away from them – family, friends, work” (Berry).

Violence within the home originates in several potential ways. In her groundbreaking work 35 years ago, Dr. Lenore Walker (1984) documented a “cycle of violence” in which tension first begins to build as the male partner becomes increasingly critical, and the woman attempts to mollify him. The second phase of the cycle is characterized by violent rage and acute battering – often with little warning or apparent provocation. Regret, profound remorse and promises by the man of future self-restraint typify the final phase. Tragically, this cycle almost invariably repeats itself (Alexander and Mills). In addition to this sequence of escalating violence and contrition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified two other paradigms of domestic violence: the abuser whose violent outbursts are episodic and infrequent; and “the rapid cycler” who engages in frequent acts of violence, often in multiple settings with different people (Berry). Perhaps the most chilling (and dangerous) element of sequential domestic violence is the inability of the batterer to temper his attack – let alone stop it – once initiated (Jacobson and Gottman).

In the face of ongoing violence, the question remains why a woman would continue to exposure herself to it. Sadly, far too many sense they have little choice – dependent, for example, on their partner for financial support, without access to an automobile or public transportation and fearful of retaliation. Lack of community resources to support women fleeing abusive relationships, the uncertainty of abandoning a familiar (although dangerous) “home” and the unrealistic hope that the abuse will stop frequently contribute to the reluctance to leave an abusive partner. In fact, “The average victim leaves her abuser at least eight times before she escapes for good” (Berry).

The impediments to leaving an abusive relationship are not simply economic, physical or aspirational. Significant psychological factors also compromise the ability of a battered woman to assess the peril of her situation, consider realistic options and devise a plan of escape. The diminution of agency and control created by incessant humiliation, degradation and beating, the “learned helplessness” fostered by years of abuse and the effects of the “Stockholm Syndrome” which perversely bind the victim to her abuser may each limit the capacity to flee.

To be sure, beatings, bruises and battering characterize much of the violence men perpetrate against women, especially those whom they hold close. Sexual assault, however, does not know the bounds of relationship. The location can be a bar, bedroom or back alley. The perpetrator can be a husband, boss or stranger. And while assault can take many forms that do not involve penetration – groping, flashing and voyeurism, for example – rape is among its most violent expressions.

The reported prevalence of rape in the United States is staggering: almost 18% of women and 3% of men (Cooper-White). However, rape is notoriously underreported. The survivor’s shame, guilt and fear of retaliation, as well as skepticism and hostility in the criminal justice system and the low rate of successful prosecution, all conspire to greatly dampen reporting. Consequently, the prevailing opinion in the professional and research communities is that as many as one-third of women will be raped in their lifetime. Also confounding public reporting has been the considerable inconsistency among definitions across jurisdictions. However, the FBI’s recently adopted revision of its definition should speed the movement toward greater uniformity. Specifically, it defines rape as, “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” (Cooper-White).

Similar to issues surrounding domestic violence, any discussion of rape is fraught with myth, misunderstanding and misogyny. The pastoral theologian, Pamela Cooper-White (2012), has offered a compelling and well-researched challenge to ten of these myths and, consequently, provided a foundation for an honest, evidenced-based exploration of sexual violence.

  1. Myth: “Rape is an impulsive act, beyond the rapist’s control.”
    Reality: In fact, the vast majority of rapes are premeditated and not a response to irrepressible sexual desires.

  2. Myth: “Sex appeal is of primary importance in selecting targets. Beautiful young women are more likely to be raped.”
    Reality: Victims are most frequently known to their rapists, vary infinitely in their physical characteristics and are targets of opportunity and access.

  3. Myth: “Rape is an act of sexual passion.”
    Reality: Quite to the contrary, rape is an act of power, control and humiliation in which the desire for sexual gratification is, at best, secondary or even absent.

  4. Myth: “No woman can be raped against her will.”
    Reality: Perhaps the most misogynistic of all the myths surrounding rape, the reality of a perpetrator’s physical force and threats of harm or even death often incapacitates the victim.

  5. Myth: “Women secretly want to be raped.”
    Reality: The act of rape fantasized by a small minority of women and men differs significantly from the brutality and horror of an actual rape.

  6. Myth: “If you’re going to be raped, you might as well lie back and enjoy it."
    Reality: The most successful responses to attempted rape include immediate physical resistance combined with other defensive actions (e.g. running away and screaming).

  7. Myth: “Women cry ‘rape’ to get revenge.”
    Reality: Only 2% of rape accusations are demonstrated to be false – a frequency similar to other reported crimes.

  8. Myth: “The myth of the black rapist.”
    Reality: White men are three times more likely to commit rape than blacks; however, more than 50% of the men incarcerated for rape are black.

  9. Myth: “Most women are raped by a stranger in a desolate place.”
    Reality: The overwhelming majority of rapes occur in a residence and by someone known to the victim.

  10. Myth: “Only women are raped.”
    Reality: More than 90,000 men are raped annually in the United States.

Clearly, rape is a terrifying experience that forever scars the life of a survivor. Although each woman’s journey following an attack (whether completed or not) is unique, researchers have identified a “rape trauma syndrome,” in which recovery often occurs in stages over an extended period of time. The initial stage can last from weeks to months and is characterized by physical and emotional reactions to the rape, including: shock; fear; self-blame; depression; withdrawal; and heightened vigilance. It is often followed by a second, much longer phase in which the victim appears to be readjusting but is, in fact, still emotionally haunted by the assault and limited in the ability to trust. The third stage is characterized by the victim’s increased understanding of the rape, the perpetrator’s full responsibility for it and her ability to integrate the assault into the broader narrative of her life (Cooper-White and Storkey).

So prevalent are incidents of domestic abuse and sexualized violence in our culture that it is impossible to imagine a faith community not touched by them – perhaps repeatedly. Fundamental, however, to their shared lives is a mutual commitment to support, safety and care. Consequently, it is incumbent on both the lay and clerical leadership of congregations to create an environment that models healthy relationships, ensures that all are kept safe from harm, holds abusers accountable and embraces those who have survived, supporting them in their healing and recovery.


The Reverend Kristen J. Leslie, Ph.D.
Professor of Pastoral Theology and Care
Eden Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri


  1. What socioeconomic, political and religious factors have contributed to the longstanding history of violence against women and tolerance of the men who commit it? How has the socialization of young boys and girls influenced the perceptions of each other and the behaviors that are (un)acceptable?

  2. How has the criminal justice system conspired to devalue women who have been assaulted by men and limit their opportunities for justice?

  3. To what extent can the #MeToo movement change the societal response to domestic abuse and sexualized violence? How?

  4. To what extent do sexualized hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community require a distinct response from both the criminal justice and faith communities? Why and how?

  5. How might faith communities work to prevent domestic abuse and sexualized violence and care for both survivors and perpetrators?



At the core of physical abuse is vulnerability and helplessness, conveyed in this photo by the awkward pose of the doll. Her arms are over her head as if she has tried to protect herself, and her legs and feet have bounced in the air. Dolls have been used in the movies to scare us, but the unease with which we view this doll reflects the knowledge we have of the human body and all its frailties. I shot many frames in an attempt to reflect this and, of all the photos in the curriculum, this was the most difficult.


Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who settest the solitary in families: We commend to thy continual care the homes in which thy people dwell. Put far from them, we beseech thee, every root of bitterness, the desire of vainglory, and the pride of life. Fill them with faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness. Knot together in constant affection those who, in holy wedlock, have been made one flesh. Turn the hearts of parents to the children, and the hearts of children to the parents; and so enkindle fervent charity among us all, that we may evermore be kindly affectioned one to another; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer).


Click the link below to download a printable handout for this lesson:


Click the link below to download a slide presentation for this lesson:


Alexander, P.C. Intergenerational Cycles of Trauma and Violence: An Attachment and Family Systems Perspective. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.

Berry, D.B. The Domestic Violence Sourcebook (3rd Ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Brown, T.N.T. and Herman, J.C. Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Abuse Among LGBT People. Los Angeles: The Williams Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles, 2015., 2019.

Cooper-White, P. The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response (2nd Ed.). Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012., 2014.

Everhart, R. “The Bible’s #MeToo Stories: Abuse and Abusers in Scripture” in Christian Century. 135:16, 2018.

Fortune, M.M. Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.

Hein, T. Understanding Sexual Abuse: A Guide for Ministry Leaders and Survivors. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2018.

Jacobson, N. and Gottman, J.M. “Anatomy of a Violent Relationship” in Psychology Today. 31:2, 1998.

Miller, T.C. and Armstrong, K. A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America. New York: Crown, 2015.

Mills, L.G. Violent Partners: A Breakthrough Plan for Ending the Cycle of Abuse. New York: Basic Books, 2008.

Raphael, J. Rape Is Rape: How Denial, Distortion, and Victim Blaming Are Fueling a Hidden Acquaintance Rape Crisis. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2013., 2019.

“Sexual Assault in the LGBT Community.” San Francisco: National Center for Lesbian Rights, 2014.

Storkey, E. Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming Violence Against Women. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2018.

Walker, L. The Battered Wife Syndrome. New York: Springer, 1984.