Sunday, June 21, 2015

Was the "Sinful Woman" in the Gospel of Luke a Child Sex Abuse Survivor?

A woman enters the house of Simon, the Pharisee, and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair while he dines.  Her story is told in the Gospel of Luke (7:36-50).

Simon remarks to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman is touching him, that she is a sinner.”

Jesus hears Simon and rebukes him with a parable about two debtors owing money to the creditor.  The creditor forgives both debts.  Jesus asks Simon which debtor is more grateful.  Simon correctly understands that the debtor owing more money is more grateful.  The parable is normally understood to illustrate the power of God’s forgiveness of sin.  As a survivor of sexual abuse, I think there is an untold story in this Bible passage -- the story of Jesus’ feeling special compassion for the losses and pain endured by abuse survivors.

Many people assume that the sinful woman is a prostitute.  Her sin of sex outside marriage makes her unclean and unfit to touch a man, especially a priestly man.  Scientific studies show a strong correlation between childhood sexual abuse and prostitution.  One study found that adults who were sexually abused as children are almost 28 times as likely to be arrested for prostitution as adults who were not abused. (1)  Another qualitative study of female prostitutes found that 63% of participants reported being sexually molested as children. (2)

When adults sexualize their relationships with children, the children often grow up learning that their greatest value to others is through sex.   Sometimes the survivors already feel so degraded that deliberately prostituting themselves comes easily.  If such a strong correlation between abuse and prostitution exists today in a time of less stringent social condemnations of moral flaws, then a case could be made that in the time of Jesus, a prostitute was even more likely to be an abuse survivor.  

Particularly in young children, it has been shown that sexual abuse can cause irreversible, biochemical and structural changes in those portions of the brain governing emotion, memory and the body’s reaction to stress.  Medication, therapy, retreats, workshops, conferences and emotional support can help abuse survivors to cope better.  However, many survivors never completely recover.

Perhaps Jesus knew what Simon the Pharisee and his own disciples did not know -- that the sinful woman was a sexual abuse survivor, plagued by feelings of guilt and shame, and condemned by a society completely lacking in compassion for her plight.  In our own era, many abuse survivors are unable to hold steady jobs up to their level of abilities so crippled are they by depression and low self esteem. Indeed, a few survivors turn to prostitution because they find it difficult to earn a living in other ways.

Why wouldn’t there have been such an interpretation written into the Gospel?  Jesus was crucified and gone by the time the Gospels were written down.  Moreover, he would likely have kept the woman's painful secret knowing that revealing it would have resulted in more condemnation and judgement of the woman had it been known.  Two thousand years ago there were no psychiatrists, no psychologists, no social workers working with and studying people who survived abuse.  Understanding of the consequences of childhood sexual abuse simply did not exist.  

But I think there is a lesson for today in the story of the "sinful woman".  Even today, in more enlightened times, many survivors do not receive support and compassion when they come forward.  Can we  treat victims of child sex abuse, sexual assault, date rape, domestic violence, clergy abuse and even prostitutes with the same compassion with which Jesus treated the "sinful woman"?  They all have untold stories we don't know.


1.  Widom, Cathy Spatz, “Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse--Later Criminal Consequences.” National Institute of Justice Research in Brief, March 1995.

2.  Dalla, Rochelle L., “Exposing the ‘Pretty Woman’ Myth: A Qualitative Examination of the Lives of Female Prostitutes.”  Journal of Sex Research, Nov. 2000.

© 2010 Virginia Pickles 

Virginia Pickles Jones was sexually abused at age four by two teenaged boys and raped on a date at age 22.  She was baptized Catholic in 2002, by a priest who was removed 11 months later when it was revealed that he had sexually abused children.

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