Torah Bontrager wants to overturn the Wisconsin v. Yoder Supreme Court decision so that Amish children can have access to a quality education —and she wants to address sexual abuse within the Plain sect community. She believes both issues are intertwined.
While Amish leaders and other experts do not deny there is abuse within the community, they don’t see the correlation.
Bontrager and other former Amish believe that the lack of education — specifically sex education — can lead to the perpetuation of abuse within the community.
Bontrager, the founder of the Amish Heritage Foundation, says the Amish community is already patriarchal in nature, and the lack of information about sex that children receive while growing up can also lead to abuse.
“We women don’t have any rights,” Bontrager says of the Amish community. “We don’t have any women in leadership positions. We’ve been around for over 300 years and there’s not a single woman in a leadership position.”
Bontrager argues that if children are not given a sexual education in school, they won’t know how to vocalize their experience if they are abused. They won’t have the vocabulary to explain what happened to them.
A woman who was raised Amish in Lancaster County but has since left the church agrees. She did not want her name used because she was sexually abused as a child.
“There’s so much [abuse] in the Amish system, and a lot of people don’t understand,” she says. “They don’t even have the vocabulary to express what’s going on. And they don’t have the vocabulary to express or even how to report it. There’s so many things. It’s sad. I could sit here and tell story after story after story.”
One Lancaster County Amish leader, who did not want to be identified because the Amish shun publicity, sees it differently.
“As far as the sexual abuse, we’re not immune from that,” he says. “But that really had nothing to do with the Wisconsin v. Yoder case, and I do not feel that that is making sexual abuse worse.”
Bontrager disagrees and says the lack of knowledge can leave women feeling isolated.
Bontrager, who says she was sexually assaulted by relatives when she was a child and teenager, says she received pamphlets from her mother explaining puberty to her — although in broad terms. One pamphlet, she says, said that boys were going to start being interested in her and that she must stay away from them.
When she got her first period, she says she had no idea what it was. She assumed it was an accident and put her underwear at the bottom of the hamper. Bontrager says her mother beat her when she discovered it.
“Who knows how many children have a dysfunctional relationship with their bodies and sexuality because of a lack of sex ed and that kind of experience,” she says.
The former Amish woman says she had a similar experience after she and her husband married. She says neither of them actually knew what sex was, beyond believing it was something reserved for married people so they could procreate.
“Nobody spoke to me, nobody told me how it worked, nothing,” she says. “Nobody told my husband how it worked; there was nothing,” she says. “I know that’s not the case for everybody because everybody’s different. But that was our story.”
The Amish leader who spoke to LNP says he believes sex education should be taught inside the home — not in school.
“We do feel that that’s very critical and very important in today’s world,” he says. “The abuse cases, [Bontrager] makes it look like it’s a lot worse ... and I’m sad to say there’s too much of it. But percentage-wise, I don’t think it’s any worse, or not as bad, in the Amish than it is in the outside world.”
The Amish leader says, if anything, the Supreme Court decision might be helping to curb abuse.
“I guess I would rather feel if our kids went to school until they’re 17 and were rubbing shoulders with each other, very possibly it would even be worse than what it is this way,” he says.
Donald Kraybill, who is widely considered an expert on the Amish and is the distinguished professor and senior fellow emeritus at the Young Center of Elizabethtown College, points out that abuse happens in any religion.
“Abuse is a human problem and it’s everywhere, and the biggest factor is patriarchy and male dominance, which unfortunately historically has infected almost most of our cultures worldwide,” he says.
Bontrager, however, believes a lack of education also can play a role.
“Education includes knowing how to love your children, includes other members of the community recognizing signs of abuse and looking out for each other and reporting to the police if they see things,” she says. “And had people done that for me, when I was a kid, maybe, you know, I would never have been raped at 15, at 16,” says Bontrager, who wrote about her experiences in a memoir titled “An Amish Girl in Manhattan.”
Individual cases of sexual abuse are well-documented, but opinions regarding its prevalence in Amish communities vary considerably. Even in mainstream society, gathering accurate data on abuse is difficult; for the Amish, no reliable statistics are available.
Bontrager says an Amish bishop in Arthur, Illinois, told her that the leadership committee within an Amish community there actually has a policy to report abuse to the police.
“So that was a huge, major breakthrough,” she says. “I mean, this is really a historic breakthrough to now know that this is official Amish policy.”
The Lancaster County Amish community has implemented an initiative called the Conservative Crisis Intervention committee. The Amish leader who spoke to LNP says that the committee works with law enforcement to report abuse cases to them.
“So, it’s not that we’re sweeping things under the rug,” he says. “It’s not that we’re not reporting cases.”
Bontrager believes education could go a long way toward reducing sexual abuse in the Amish community.
“[My story of abuse] is on the extreme end of the worst, but it’s not unusual and it’s not abnormal, and that’s really the heartbreaking thing,” she says. “And I attribute this all to a lack of education.”
— Erika Riley was an intern at LNP this past summer.