Feeling Responsible for Her Own Sexual Assault: A Youth Group Case Study

by | Mar 31, 2023 | Parenting Teens | 32 comments

Church Youth Group ACNAtoo
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I read a story about how a youth group culture contributed to a young woman feeling guilty about her own assaults.

I’d like to share it today, because it fits in to everything we’ve been talking about with She Deserves Better, our new book that launches April 18 (and when you pre-order, you get lots of bonuses, including a free audiobook when it drops and access to an exclusive webinar!).

It’s Amber’s story from the ACNAtoo website, detailing some of the sexual abuse allegations coming out of the ACNA denomination. You can read the whole thing, but I’d like to summarize and highlight a few of the issues, because it’s easy to see how this could become anyone’s story. I’m not naming the church or individuals here, but you can click through and see all the information. 

1. She was assaulted at the age of 8 by an older boy at church.

Her story starts with something an older boy did to her in church:

…cornered me and coercively pressured me to take off my clothing, assuring me, “It’s important to talk about grownup things.” This boy then trapped me under a blanket and tried to initiate kissing and sexual touching. Although I was able to narrowly escape this situation without being physically molested, I was deeply impacted by it and was left feeling deathly afraid of telling anyone about what had happened to me.


Amber's Story

She never told anyone because she was deeply ashamed. 

Many kids starting youth group have already been sexually assaulted. About 1/5 girls and 1/9 boys is sexually assaulted as a child (and some studies have those numbers higher). How we talk about consent in youth group, then, and how we talk about assault affects how kids process what has already happened to them.

2. Youth group activities broke down important personal space boundaries

When she started youth group, she was very surprised at how the activities differed from what had been in children’s programs. The junior high and senior high kids were combined, so all of the games were taking place with 18-year-olds mixed with 12-year-olds. She explains:

 For one game, a youth group version of musical chairs, the objective was to find someone’s lap to sit on, which included adult youth group leaders’ laps. In another game, kids and youth leaders would lean in close to another person’s face and say, “Baby, if you love me, please won’t you give me a smile?” in a flirtatious and suggestive manner, in order to try to elicit a reaction.


Amber's Story

The boy who had assaulted her years earlier was in this youth group, and she often had to sit on his lap during games, or sit on youth group leader’s laps. She felt very uncomfortable. 

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3. The youth were often unsupervised and encouraged to run wild.

Hours would go by during youth group activities where nothing was actually planned, and kids were encouraged to just run around the ministry center. She reports:

This created an especially vulnerable and frightening environment for me, as I would occasionally find myself suddenly alone with the older boy who had abused me, despite my best efforts to avoid him entirely. Many youth group games and activities regularly created situations where I was out of sight and earshot of any youth leaders; when this coincided with being near this abusive boy, it was terrifying for me.


Amber's Story

To avoid running into this boy she would try to stick near the youth leaders. However, they found this to be clingy, and two separate youth leaders told her that she had to stop being clingy and had to participate with the other kids. The leaders, apparently, needed breaks sometimes. 

4. She tried to disclose the abuse and was brushed off. 

Finally, in desperation, she tried to talk to the head youth pastor about why she didn’t want to be alone with this one particular boy.

On one occasion I attempted …to request that I be moved to a different small group so I wouldn’t be near him so often. I started to say, “So, there’s this boy in my group…” but [the youth leader] cut me off, said he didn’t have time to talk to me, and abruptly turned and walked away. For the rest of that evening, [the youth leader] avoided me and would not even make eye contact, so I gave up on trying to advocate for myself. 


Amber's Story

She felt brushed off and alone. After all, no one else is apparently finding these games at youth group inappropriate. She is the only one complaining. And the leaders find her to be a pain. She’s causing difficulties. She’s not easy to deal with.

It’s important to note that when teens want to disclose something, it is very, very difficult. Speaking about a trauma that you endured is hard, because our mouths often literally cannot physically form words to discuss trauma–that’s part of the trauma response! Thus, if a teen looks like they need to say something, but they’re having difficulty doing it, the answer is not to become frustrated with them and say that you’re too busy for this. The answer is to take them to a safe, quiet place with people they’re comfortable with and give them time. 

Youth leaders should be trained in this, because youth leaders will hear more abuse disclosures than anyone else on a church staff. 

Unfortunately, all too often kids are treated like Amber.

Amber never tried to disclose again. She felt like she was the problem. 

5. The youth group environment valued boys over girls. 

There were frequent talks on how girls had to be modest and control themselves, but at the same time boys were expected to run wild. Here’s one example Amber gave of the unequal treatment:

One time a girl’s purse was stolen by a group of youth group boys who threw it around, eventually breaking open a bottle of nail polish which spilled out onto the floor. The girl was reprimanded by the youth pastor, not only for bringing nail polish to church, but for leaving her belongings unattended. The boys who had stolen and broken this girl’s personal property were not corrected in any way.


Amber's Story

6. Girls were told they were responsible for boys’ bad behavior

Because boys couldn’t help themselves, and because boys were so susceptible to lust and had such high sex drives, girls had to act in such a way so as to not prompt boys to do something bad. 

In the youth group I was specifically taught that boys were incapable of controlling themselves if any amount of temptation was presented to them, so it was up to us girls to ensure the boys around us did not fall into carnal sin. After hearing this message enough times, I began to believe it.


Amber's Story

In our focus groups for She Deserves Better we heard this over and over again. The boys would go play basketball in the gym and have a great time while the girls were given lectures on modesty and how you can’t let a boy go too far. Often these messages that were given to girls were not also given to boys, and boys would get to have fun while girls were lectured to.

Not surprisingly, many girls internalize these messages, and then end up blaming themselves for their own date rapes. Since he can’t control himself, if I start making out with him, and then he can’t stop (in other words, he rapes her), that’s actually her fault because she consented to start making out. So her consenting to make out is worse than him not honoring her consent and raping her. 

While Amber did not endure date rape in high school, the youth group messages she internalized did cause her to re-evaluate the episode at 8, and made her feel like she must have somehow instigated it through what she was wearing or how she was acting. 

7. As an adult, when she endured repeated sexual assaults, she felt it was because she was a bad Christian. 

She explains what happens when she leaves youth group:

I struggled for years with feelings of inadequacy as a Christian. I went on to experience various sexual assaults and abuses over the years and because I had firmly accepted the…purity culture narrative, I blamed myself fully for every abusive sexual experience. These painful incidents only further reinforced that I must be a bad Christian, and I lived in constant shame and self-hatred because I believed I had somehow invited or allowed these horrible things to happen to me.


Amber's Story

She felt further and further from God, like she had to give up on her faith, because obviously she was such a wicked person since these things kept happening to her. God must be so upset at her.

8. When she sought help from the church, they framed it as consensual sin. 

Later, she met up with a friend from the church, to whom she disclosed one particular horrendous sexual assault. The friend invited her to go to confession at the church (it was Anglican) and work through these things with the priest. 

I’ll post a longer account here, because it’s important:

At confession, I was very scared and physically shaking when [the priest] invited me into his office, closed the door, and sat down across from me. I began to fumble with my words, explaining that I had never attended confession before, and that there was something I needed to disclose about a sexual experience that had happened to me, but I did not know exactly how to say it. Before I could explain further, I was interrupted by [the priest]. He said confidently that he knew what I needed to confess and explained that if I did not know what to say, he had a confessional prayer sheet that I should follow. Before I could even voice my objection, he had already placed a piece of paper into my hands and instructed me to read through the entire prayer, start to finish.

I tried to explain that I thought this was the wrong prayer for what I needed to confess, but [the priest] dismissed my concerns and told me just to read through all of it first, assuring me that if I still had questions we could discuss them afterwards. This particular prayer was one intended for the confession of sexual sin and [he] instructed me to repeat the portion where I was to name each person I had ever had any form of sexual contact with. Reading through the prayer, I was not able to provide any context for the sexual contact that had occurred. Under pressure from [the priest], I followed the prayer sheet and named and forgave each person who had abused and assaulted me and then proceeded to beg God’s forgiveness for allowing them to violate my sexual purity. By the time I was finished, I was so embarrassed and ashamed that I did not even attempt to explain again that this was not what I had needed to confess. As soon as I got out of [his] office, I immediately sought out an empty room and cried alone for nearly an hour because I was so mortified and embarrassed.


Amber's Story

9. The friend discouraged her from filing a police report.

Ten years later she finally got up the courage to file a police report, but her friend discouraged her, telling her that there are two sides to every story, and the important thing was that she had no contact with him anymore anyway. The friend advised her to withdraw the police report; she did not.

The thread that runs through all of this is a complete lack of understanding of consent.

Imagine what would have happened if just once, from the time she was 8, someone at that church had talked about the importance of consent, rather than just the importance of avoiding sexual sin.

Imagine if just once someone had talked about boys’ responsibilities to respect girls and women, rather than just girls’ responsibilities to not cause lust.

In our research for She Deserves Better, we found that only 25.9% of girls reported having a robust understanding of consent when they graduated high school. That’s only 1 in 4. And yet:

  • 68% believed that if you’re making out with a boy, a girl has a responsibility to stop the progression because he won’t be able to
  • 80% believed that a boy can’t help but lust after a girl who is dressed like she is trying to entice it.
  • 78% believed that you have a responsibility to protect the boys around you by wearing modest clothing.

They couldn’t tell you what consent means, but they sure could tell you all the ways that THEY were sinning against boys and were causing boys to not be able to help themselves.

She Deserves Better!

Because we all deserve a big faith.

Your daughter deserves better than what you likely grew up with in church.

What would it look like to prepare the next generation without toxic teachings about modesty, sex, or consent, and instead set her up for a big faith?

This lack of understanding of consent permeated the whole church culture.

It wasn’t just the youth leaders. It was also the head priest. It was also the adults who had grown up in the church. It was also  her parents who never explained consent to her.

And the youth leaders, the ones specifically entrusted with the safety of girls, did not show any attention to actually caring about girls. When you have mostly male youth leaders, who have been raised to believe that girls are responsible if they are sinned against, how can girls feel safe?

Amber’s story is awful, and it should never happen.

We wrote She Deserves Better so you can have these conversations with your daughter so she understands consent, and so she can see through the bad teachings at youth group.

But wouldn’t it be nice if there weren’t bad teachings to see through? If youth group were actually safe?

Unfortunately youth group is often one of the most unsafe places in the church. 20% of our respondents reported being sexually harrassed and abused in youth group, and 10% of those were abused by the head pastor; another 20% by youth pastors.

Youth groups are often separate from adult eyes, and with little supervision, run by very young and inexperienced people. And yet we entrust our kids there.

Please, be careful with your kids. Volunteer at youth group. See what goes on. Know your kids’ friends. Be super involved. Because we heard too many horror stories about youth groups, just like Amber’s, and our kids deserve better.

Church Youth Group ACNAtoo

What do you think of Amber’s story? Do you see other red flags I didn’t comment on? Did you have a similar experience? Let’s talk in the comments!

UPDATE: I had another thought after I hit publish.

Look at all the ways she was taught that consent wasn’t a thing.

  • She was pressured to play games that involved people violating her boundaries (sitting on laps, etc.)
  • She was told that she would have to hang out in situations she considered dangerous (boys running wild with no supervision)
  • She was brushed off when she spoke up about any reservations
  • Girls were told they had no right to their own possessions, and it was their fault if boys took them

And so much more! The whole youth group experience was just one big violation of consent. Wow.

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Jo R

    Church youth group, or junior high make-out party?

    • Nessie

      Your comment prompted a memory told me by a friend- she was around 11, pretty, very modest, and during youth group (an extremely conservative church) they played sardines (played in the dark, when you find the original person hiding, you hide with them till everyone finds the hiding spot) an older boy starting deeply kissing her when she was hiding with him in a dark closet. Seriously messed up. She did not want it to happen and was very confused by it! She started down a somewhat promiscuous path after that because if a church boy was doing it, it must be ok- because he was older, wiser, and male.

  2. Angharad

    “For the rest of that evening, [the youth leader] avoided me and would not even make eye contact, so I gave up on trying to advocate for myself. ”

    Am I the only one who suspects from this that the youth leader knew just what that boy was like, and was deliberately avoiding hearing this poor girl’s story so that he didn’t have to deal with it? I very much doubt this was the first time this kind of thing had happened, because abusers tend to keep abusing.

    The ‘I’m too busy’, I can pass as ‘too busy/not wanting to be bothered’ (although this is still appalling behaviour from someone whose whole point of being there is to help young people. Safeguarding, anyone?!!) But the avoiding and refusing to make eye contact after…nope, this was a guy who KNEW what she was trying to confide and didn’t want to hear it.

    • Angharad

      Oh, and not forgetting that the youth leaders themselves were encouraging inappropriate behaviour by getting the girls to sit on their laps…sounds like an abusers’ support group rather than a youth group.

      • exwifeofasexaddict

        Yeah, my first thought was that he was afraid someone would point the finger at HIM.

    • Nathan

      That would be my guess. If he just said “I’m to busy” that might be written off, but he said that AND avoided her as much as he could.

      He likely knew, but felt that rocking the boat was worse than a girl being assaulted.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, very likely.

    • Taryn

      I figured he just thought she was crushing on a guy & he didn’t want to hear any high school drama. A more subtle form of misogyny, but it leads to the same types of harm. Explains to me why he would avoid her all night, too. The leader just thought she was a silly girl with nothing important to say & he didn’t want to be bothered.

  3. Jane Eyre

    Let’s pretend that it’s sinful for girls to be assaulted. Just pretend.

    If so, aren’t BOYS the stumbling blocks for girls? Every time he pushes her boundaries, he’s a stumbling block!!

    • Nathan

      That does actually make a bizarre kind of sense.

      First, assume that boys lusting is sinful, even though they can’t control it, but girls MAKE them lust and sin by not being submissive and modest, so it’s really the girl’s fault.

      Then it logically follows that a girl sins when she gets assaulted, even though she can’t control it, but boys MAKE her sin when they attack her, so it’s really the boy’s fault.

      Both are ridiculous, of course, but both of these flow from the basic belief that other people are responsible when we sin.

  4. Nathan

    Another sad thing is that, even though this story is horrific and heartbreaking, there are people who will read it and wonder what that vile, wicked temptress of an eight year old girl did to entice and trick the older boy into doing what he did.

    Coverups and blame redirecting must end.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      They absolutely must.

  5. Mara R

    The boys stealing a girl’s purse and then the girl is the one that got in trouble for the damage that they did. The violation of her boundaries and privacy didn’t even register with the leaders there?

    If that isn’t a picture of the injustice of it all.

    All these stories. And people wonder why we are calling it out. People wonder why we are rocking the boat.
    It’s because churches like this are unjust. The culture is completely broken. The power balance is screwed up beyond any reason.

    Proverbs 11:1 A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is His delight.

    The scales of justice are all off kilter in these situations. And this is an abomination. To God.
    This culture where girls are made to pay for the sins of the boys in church settings, this cannot continue. Not if the Church wants to be taken seriously in the world. Judgement begins at the House of the Lord.

    • Shoshana

      “The boys stealing a girl’s purse and then the girl is the one that got in trouble for the damage that they did. The violation of her boundaries and privacy didn’t even register with the leaders there?”

      In high school, I set the combination lock on my locker so I could open it without using the combination as many kids did so they can get their stuff at the end of the day faster. Well, some guy, who used to bully me, decided to steal my jacket and put it in an empty locker. I found the jacket, but I told the principal in an effort to make this guy stop harassing me. The principal immediately interrupted me to say that I “shouldn’t have left my locker unsecured”. I told him that was beside the point as this guy shouldn’t be going in my locker anyway. The principal kept repeating that I should’ve secured my locker. While I told him, it maybe wasn’t wise of me to do that, what I did wasn’t illegal while this guy was stealing my stuff. Anyway, the guy was talked to, but he still harassed me in other ways. I kept my locker more secure after that, but it still bothers me that the principal was more focused on what I did rather than that stupid guy. In other words, it was all my fault. In the real world, if I kept my house unlocked, and someone robbed me, do you think the cop would care about me unlocking my door? Anyway, this blame the victim stuff with sexual assault survivors is the same mentality like, “she shouldn’t wear that, or she shouldn’t go out alone at night, blah, blah, blah…”. It’s mindblowing.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        It absolutely is!

        I think it’s also an attempt on the part of the leader not to have to deal with something. Always blame it on the one who is the least problem.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, my goodness, Mara, I never thought of all of this in regards to the false balance! Thank you. That’s going to play a role in our new marriage book! That’s a brilliant analogy.

      • Mara R

        Well, expect push back.

        I used that verse to try to illustrate the injustice in other gender situations and I was told, point-blank, that that verse is about commerce, it was not about male female relationships or justice or anything but commerce.
        There was no convincing that guy.
        But all I could think was, just because you don’t want it to be about injustice, this doesn’t mean it isn’t. You just want to dismiss whatever doesn’t agree with you.
        So frustrating.

        But we keep talking and we keep using the verses.

        • Nessie

          It’s amazing the many boxes people put God into, like He couldn’t have used that sentence to mean commerce AND how we treat others, our heart intentions, etc.

          Really great observation of yours!

  6. JWren

    I worked on staff for a Christian youth organisation in my 20s. I worked in a local area, and rented an office in a building owned by another similar Christian youth work team.

    A guy on the other team decided that I was his soul mate, but I didn’t reciprocate. He made my life miserable for several years – he never abused me physically but he was manipulative and emotional. He seemed unable to cope with my presence, and my attempts to be friendly and courteous always ended up with me being accused of leading him on.

    When I eventually spoke up, I was told by his boss, a Christian man in his 50s, that I should keep my office door closed so that this guy wouldn’t have to deal with the temptation when he walked past my door.

    I believed completely that I was an terrible person for leading this guy on and causing him to stumble. It is only now, 15 years later, that I am beginning to ask if his behaviour really was all my fault.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, that’s so uncomfortable! I’m so sorry you felt that way. That is textbook sexual harrassment in the workplace. How awful.

  7. Codec

    About the stealing the purse thing. I have a distinct feeling that if it was not nail polish the story could have ended very differently.
    It is messed up that they violated her boundaries both sexually and by plundering her property but think about this.

    If they instead found a knife or a gun and messing around with it they hurt themselves or if they found a lighter and burned themselves I think we would look at the thieves as rightfully being stupid. If it was money you have a pickpocket. If it was say adoption papers it would be a gross invasion of privacy.

    Something like nail polish or for a boy maybe something like a pair of sunglasses might be seen as superfluous.
    Even if that is the case though ( I do not think it is) it is stealing.

  8. Nancy Clark

    The message I received when growing up was not the girl had to be the one to stop the boy because he couldn’t stop but because he wouldn’t stop. A guy would try and take whatever he could get and not stop until the girl said so or pushed him away. One had to dress modestly (even though I wore mini shirts) so no male would think about sex with me. So I grew up thinking that all males were interested in was sex. That has caused problems in my marriage.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      It is a very problematic message indeed.

  9. Boone

    I first learned at the age of twelve that there’s no Justice for the good kid at church. They’ll side with the bad kid every time. The reason being that the bad kid needs to be there much worse than the good kid. The good kid is always going to be around. If you make the bad kid mad he might leave and not come back. The good kid is expendable.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      This was my daughter’s experience exactly!

  10. E

    I read the whole story on the link. The time/space unsupervised with being able to go into dark areas of the church reminds me of how a friend of mine and her boyfriend had sex in the upstairs sanctuary while youth group was going on below. She was only like 13 or 14 at the time. I was a couple years older and never even thought of mentioning it to a youth leader etc. I just thought it was wrong because it was sin. But what on earth business did the church have leaving the upstairs open/unsupervised/dark— and this was a larger church in our area.
    Also definitely remember playing that game. We didn’t sit on other people’s laps, though. But it was definitely meant to push other people’s boundaries!
    I can’t wait to read your new book! Here is hoping to change things for my kids!

  11. Beta

    My youth group didn’t play those games but one we did play was everyone held hands in a large circle, and we had to pull the group around avoiding small carpet samples and if anyone stepped on a carpet sample they were out. The circle would get smaller and smaller until 2 people were left. Lots of teasing about who was holding the opposite sex hand, and I was very uncomfortable playing this game but the peer pressure and no other options to do instead made it so I participated every time. Not nearly as close physical contact as the sitting on laps game, but I do think it helped erode my sense of only having physical contact if I wanted it. A month into college my first boyfriend wanted more physically than I was ready for and I didn’t feel I could say no. When I ended it with him and told him it was because of being uncomfortable with the amount of touching he was so upset at me and I almost considered getting back together with him because I felt like a mean person. Thankfully a friend backed me up and I avoided that guy the rest of college as much as I could.

    • r

      Yes. There were so, so many youth group games that had to do with pushing physical boundaries and it’s sick. I was forced to play a game where they lined us up boy girl boy girl and we had to try to pass an orange under our chins. It was supposed to be funny because it was supposed to look like the people who had the turn of taking/receiving the orange looked like they were making out. I really think that most youth groups in my area in the 1980s were mostly geared toward trying to get boys and girls more comfortable touching each other so they would agree to marry someone from church as soon as possible. I have a lot of female friends who married in the 1980s or 1990s before age 23 and often before finishing college, even though they were also pressured to go and get a degree. It was very confusing and a lot of those husbands were or still are abusive.

  12. Nathan W

    My (at the time) girlfriend was (IMO) assaulted in her own car by a guy who had interest in her. He shoved her seat back and tried to climb on top of her to kiss her. She fortunately pushed him away and got him out of the car. Then she told her young adults group leader, who said he’d make sure the guy never showed up to youth group again.

    Guess who showed up the next youth group (and has remained there) and got baptized recently? All the while pursuing married women and smearing her name for “rejecting a good guy like him for some Long-Distance Boyfriend” and “being unreasonable”. She’s needed to find a whole new group of friends because he charmed the whole church.

    Sure, he’s lost and needs Jesus, but he won’t stop creeping on the married women! And it’s somehow not perceived as his fault, but as 1) my gf’s for rejecting him and 2) mine for being at a distance right now (for school). Like she’s the gatekeeper for his behaviors…exhausting

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so sorry, Nathan! We talk about this a lot in She Deserves Better–where girls were told they were being mean and selfish for not wanting predators to be allowed to come to youth group, because didn’t they know how much those boys needed Jesus? It was so backwards and wrong.

  13. Bria Z

    I wonder if the reason the Church is so uncomfortable with consent is because if you want to explain consent you have to acknowledge that you also have agency to say “yes” if you want to. Since they feel they can’t endorse ever saying “yes” to non-married sexual activity, we can’t teach consent at all? So dangerous and harmful.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think that’s a big reason. If the only thing you want people to know is “don’t do it if you’re not married,” then teaching about consent assumes that at least one person is going to try to do it. So if we just teach the “don’t do it” thing louder, maybe that won’t happen? (hint: that doesn’t work, but I’m sure that’s the reasoning).


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