By Jim Walters  |  28 October 2018   |

With the theme “Unveiling: Women, Faith and Sexual Abuse,” the Association of Adventist Women (AAW) convened Friday and Sabbath (October 26-27) in Riverside, California. It was not your typical Adventist conclave by traditional standards. However, for vegetarians like me, the food couldn’t have been better. But more substantively, the conference was characterized by being intensely personal, inter-faith and multi-disciplinary.

Most religious conferences, usually organized by men, strive for a type of detached objectivity, but this conference—organized by women and featuring women—was refreshingly personal. The organizers’ goal was to openly recognize the extent and depth of sexual abuse against persons of faith—mostly, but by no means only, women.  Sometimes that abuse is committed by clergy, but more often religious institutions are guilty of silence because of discomfort in talking about sex and its abuse.

Perhaps the most personal presentation was neurologist Dr. Lisa Sovory’s confession that she was “coming out” in personally sharing how she was stalked in three unrelated incidents, beginning when she was 21 in Sabbath school—when a fellow member repeatedly assured her that God had told him that she was to be his wife, and he pursued her at school, church and home. In her 30s as a single mother, she was cyberstalked by a previous intimate who physically threatened to stab and kill her, and hounded her at office and home, despite direct disavowals of affection and filing of multiple police reports. The third incident involved cyberstalking by an unbalanced stranger who went so far as to photo-shop Sovory’s head onto a naked body that he sent to several people, including Sovory’s office and alma-mater, the School of Medicine at Loma Linda University. Sovory suffered immense personal trauma, and filed six police reports.

Sovory said it was difficult to share her story, but did so because in Adventist circles it is difficult to speak of sexual abuse, but it’s “important” so we can be aware of what happens to even highly successful people. Sovory reported that although 7.5 million cyberstalking incidents are reported each year, 60 percent of cases are never reported, and the 18 to 24-year-old cohort is most vulnerable.

The clearest call for frank discussion of sex—its joys as well as its abuse—came from Dr. Celeste Holbrook, a graduate of Southwestern Adventist University who took her doctorate at Texas Woman’s University, who only half-jokingly spoke of herself as probably the only practicing Adventist sexologist. She boldly advocated for the importance of “good sex”—seeing it as a missing aspect of the Adventist wholistic approach to health. Holbrook’s central point was to contrast our society’s ever-present pornography with underappreciated joys of good sex—something that can be learned by proper sex education. Good sex is an act of intimacy, and it involves vulnerability as well as mutuality—because it takes place between two equal partners (and hence, the principle of justice comes into play). Porn, on the other hand, is devoid of intimacy and vulnerability, and it concerns a solo activity whose goal is only individual satisfaction—something Holbrook didn’t see so much as bad as incomplete.

Holbrook called for education, starting with our six-year-olds, that gets us comfortable with such terms as penis, vagina, vulva, arousal, and touching. A child can’t avoid inappropriate sexual behavior if the child doesn’t know and isn’t comfortable with the topic.

Holbrook drew an analogy between Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and sexual satisfaction: Basic human needs involve safety and food; most basically, physiological sex can be found in masturbation and pornography.  At the higher levels humans thrive through self-actualization; the best sex is sexual actualization found in a loving relationship.

Holbrook accepted our society’s sex-drenched media and the quick availability of pornography as a given, and grappled with how an Adventist Christian should deal with sex and its abuse as society now exists.

In contrast to Holbrook, Dr. Neil Nedley, president of Weimar Institute, an independent ministry in northern California, lamented at length present society’s sexual practices—e.g., that only five percent of women are virgins at marriage, that Americans are obsessed with sex, that free sex is driving down rates of marriage, and that hyper sexual activity is so widespread. American society, said Nedley, seems obsessed with the primitive limbic system, where too many seek a dopamine high through too-frequent sexual activities and by satisfying a craving for novelty in different partners.

Nedley made a strong case for how greater life satisfaction, and greater sexual fulfillment, come from moderate levels of sexual activity in a marital relationship, citing how testosterone peaks at 7 and 14 days after ejaculation, and thus less is more. Greatest marital happiness is found among couples who in their dating years had fewer sex partners. By transcending the “wants” at the limbic level, one can focus on the human “needs” found at higher levels of the brain where Nedley sees greater and more subtle satisfactions:  tolerance, self-control, tenderness, touching, friendliness, and overall fitness. Nedley extolled his 90-day “reboot” program that addresses limbic obsession through “frontal lobe enhancement therapy” which involves diet, exercise and education. The Nedley Depression and Anxiety Recovery Programs are available at Weimar.

Most of the presenters were Adventists, but two notable presentations were made by a Jewish woman rabbi from West Los Angeles and by an Islamic professor. Both were warmly embraced and added valuable perspectives.

Rabbi Rachelle Robins grappled with what believers should make of their ancient sacred texts in this #MeToo era. She found the ancient writings interestingly relevant. Or HaChaim, an 18th century Talmudist, wrote of the “70 faces to the Torah,” allowing Robins to use this as a type of proof text to buttress her contention that Jewish thinkers are “meant to” argue with sacred texts, making them speak to current times. A text’s “sacredness stays present through its inexhaustibility.” Robins likened Torah to a tree of life that only grows as its roots dynamically grow by leaving aside parched soils in favor of more fertile ground. Her moral: “Don’t idolatrize the ancient interpretations,” but rather accept God’s invitation to become “co-creators” in being authentic to our own intuitions as contemporary believers. One attendee said this was her favorite line from Robins: “Wrestle with the text but never leave it.”

Attorney Najeeba Syeed, a professor at the Claremont School of Theology, reflected on how Islam should be involved in the contemporary societal discussion of abuse of women. Ironically, her central point—like that of Rabbi Robins—was appropriate use of sacred texts. She called for “critical engagement” with one’s holy books, underscoring the imperative for relevance to today’s culture. Accordingly, transparency is a must if Islam is to “survive” in our time. Professor Syeed was clear: “secrecy kills.” Seen correctly, Islam will abhor sexual violence against children, because they are “the most free of sin,” and “closest to God.” Women are not mere “vessels,” but must be seen as the “whole persons” that they are.

Further dimensions of the challenge of sexual abuse were developed by other diverse specialists:  Victoria Jackson, a professor of social work at LLU, indicated that 1 in 3 women will be sexually abused, and that often men set women up with nice words and gifts before they strike. And, because of the societal and church taboo on this topic, it’s not uncommon for the wound to fester for half a century or more.

Barbara Couden Hernandes, a family social scientist with LLU’s School of Medicine, warned against thinking that a religious conversion can readily change a sexual perpetrator. Often such individuals are “sheep in wolves’ clothing.”

Pastor Heather-Dawn Small, the General Conference Women’s Ministries director, reported on her efforts to educate about sexual abuse around the world. Both Gail Jenkins and Esther Hatfield Miller spoke of their experiences of clergy-abuse, and how they survived, and have gone on to create ministries to aid other victims.

Dr. Carla Gober-Park, a professor of religion at LLU where she also directs the Center for Spiritual Life and Wholeness, challenged victims of sexual abuse to view memory as dynamic, and to re-tell one’s story making the fragments of a formerly shattered life achieve integration. Gober-Park demonstrated the power one has to recast even a tragic story so despair can result in a life of deep joy.

“Unveiling: Women, Faith and Sexual Abuse” was a captivating conference, with a powerful collection of presenters who easily kept the attention of attendees—and videos of the conference presentations will shortly be available on the AAW website.  However, the AAW officers who diligently planned the conference were understandably disappointed that only a hundred individuals, at most, attended at least some sessions. “Of course, we are disappointed that not more folk attended,” commented Lourdes Morales-Gudmundsson, AAW president, “but this is a difficult topic for many. However, this is just the start; we plan to go to local churches.” The conference was made possible by a grant from the Versacare Foundation, an Adventist philanthropic group.

Jim Walters is a contributing editor for Adventist Today and a professor in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.

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