Christians Who Survived Assault Ambivalent About SlutWalk

Editor's Note: Some names in the article have been changed to protect the privacy of those who wished not to be identified.

Ashley Dunn had donned pajamas to stand in front of an assembly at Grace Temple Baptist Church in San Angelo, Texas. This was obviously an atypical gathering on a Friday night in April - a time of ministry to sexual-assault survivors. Dunn's clothing was meant to replicate what she wore during an obstetrician/gynecologist appointment in which she was sexually-assaulted, she said, and show that - contrary to community gossip - her attire couldn't have been intended to provoke her doctor.

One week later and more than 1,600 miles away in Norfolk, Va., another group of women demonstrated on behalf of rape victims in a more provocative manner. Fishnet stockings, Daisy Dukes and bikini tops were among the fashion choices on display. The women there held signs that carried messages such as "My outfit is not my consent," "Still not asking for it," and "Tell our boys not to rape."

Dunn's message was that a woman might become a target no matter how modestly she is dressed. The Virginia rallying cry was that a woman shouldn't become a target no matter how immodestly she is dressed and was part of a movement known as the SlutWalk. A Toronto police officer who reportedly told a group of college women to "avoid dressing like sluts" if they don't want to be raped sparked the movement in Canada last year. Since then it has spread not only to the United States, but across the globe to places as far away as Singapore , Australia, and Germany.

The movement is meant not only to fight the idea that a woman is partly culpable in rape because of what she wears. It is also to suggest such incidents should be considered heinous whether committed against someone as chaste as a nun or as libertine as a prostitute. Christian women like Dunn have mixed feelings about the movement.

"I just wish they didn't have to call themselves sluts," she said.

Sarah Hall said the very name SlutWalk underscores a spiritually unhealthy outlook held by its demonstrators.

"They were never meant to be called those words," said Hall, who was raped by a boyfriend six years ago while in college. "They were meant to be called 'far above pearls,' 'treasures,' 'beloved' and 'cherished.' These are words that are a part of me now. That's who God made me to be."

SlutWalk demonstrators lack existential understanding, Carol Johnsen also said while agreeing with their overall message.

"When a woman says 'No' a man should respect that, no matter how she's dressed," said Johnsen, who was sexually assaulted by an ex-boyfriend in her apartment in 2007. "I also believe that what a woman wears shows how she feels about herself. I think it's sad that women would degrade themselves in that manner and call themselves sluts, because that's not who they are."

Although they disagreed with the tack taken by SlutWalk protestors, each woman sympathized with the movement's moral outrage. Each of them has had to endure blame for being sexually assaulted - episodes they say had devastating personal spiritual consequences.

Guilting and Shame

Jurors found that Dunn's doctor had assaulted her while she was sedated during a February 2006 appointment. He is suspected of having done the same to dozens of other women.

Dunn, 36, was furious when she heard whispers that she was culpable for what happened to her, which compounded the pain of the ordeal. She said she sees that kind of anger in SlutWalk protesters.

"At first, after I was assaulted, my anger was righteous anger and it motivated me to speak out. Then it turned into bitterness and that's what I think has happened with" SlutWalk demonstrators, she said.

Her personality changed after the episode and she became irritable, lashing out at family members at times, she said. Weeks after first reporting her doctor to police, her mother predicted that Dunn would triumph over her trauma and help other women do the same. That didn't happen until after Dunn began to look to her faith for healing in 2009.

"The Holy Spirit convicted me about anger and bitterness and helped me to find joy and smile again," said Dunn, a teacher's aide.

Johnsen, 32, said her ex-boyfriend requested a visit with her on Oct. 3, 2007. He suggested the two have coffee and catch up. Shortly after arriving to her suburban New York City apartment, Johnsen said, "his tone changed and it became clear that it wasn't about coffee."

Five hours after he left the apartment, Johnsen called the police on the advice of her pastor's wife, Nancy Salvesen. When she got to the police station, however, she didn't find officers helpful.

"They asked 'Why didn't you scream' and 'Why didn't you fight harder.' Statements like that didn't help my self-esteem at all," said Johnsen, who had struggled with depression since her teen years.

Police insensitivity cemented Johnsen's decision to not press charges against her assailant. She said she partly blamed herself for letting him in her home.

Johnsen said Salvesen helped her recover from the guilt and shame she felt following the rape. She said Salvesen was always there to listen and pray with her. Nearly five years later "I couldn't tell you the last time I had those thoughts" of self-condemnation "which is really good" Johnsen said.

Hall, 26, of Lexington, Ky., also had to overcome the feeling that she was responsible for her rape - which was committed by a college boyfriend during her freshman year at Eastern Kentucky University. One reason she decries use of the word 'slut' in protests is that she "used horrible words" to describe herself, believing that because of something she did her boyfriend "must have thought I wanted" to have sex, she said.

She said God helped her begin to think of herself differently last year when she deepened her commitment to Christianity.

" How could I degrade something that God made," she said.

From Survivors to Activists 

Dunn is a founding member of Pride in Justice, a group dedicated to helping survivors of sexual assault overcome the despair of victimhood. The organization is her platform to share the message that rape should not be assumed provoked by what a woman is wearing. She points to data that suggest most rapes are instigated by a victim's acquaintance. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 60 percent of rape victims say they knew their assailants before the crime was committed. Dunn's wears pajamas to speaking engagements to underscore what she calls the misguidedness of blaming the victim.

"When I speak in my PJs, it's for a visual because a lot of people have that way of thinking 'What was she wearing' when a woman is raped," she said. "I want to let people know that it's a crime - it doesn't matter what she's wearing."

Johnsen said she eventually opened up to other women in her former church, Neighborhood Alliance in Pearl River, N.Y. , about being assaulted. She hopes her testimony will encourage other assault survivors to share their stories and find the moral support and healing they need.

"When I tell my story, I'm able to release the emotions attached to that experience," she said. "It's like a freeing exercise."

Hall has also dedicated herself to helping women she believes have distorted self-images because of sex. She works with BeLoved Ministries Inc. in Lexington, Ky., an organization that reaches out to one of SlutWalk's constituency groups - sex workers. The organization's goal is to make such women feel valued apart from their trade. Hall said if she ever encountered a SlutWalk demonstration, she would extend her ministry to them by encouraging participants to find a more personally uplifting way of promoting their cause.

"I would walk up to someone there and say 'Do you know that you are far above this?' I'd give my contact information and just ask why would they want to describe themselves this way," she said. "'You're beautiful women and there are far more beautiful words to describe yourselves.'"

Dunn said she would offer a measure of encouragement to SlutWalk participants.

"I would commend them for their strength and let them know that I stand by their cause," she said. "I'd share my own story and hope that it would change their hearts."

Hall said the women who participate SlutWalks are reacting to more than righteous indignation, but also to an unmet desire for appreciation.

"I really love these kinds of women and it's an honor to show them how much I care about them and how much they really matter," she said. "Most of these women are rarely ever shown any kind of honor and respect."