(A different version of) this post first appeared on Feministe. Trigger warning for rape, abuse.
When I was 15, my cross-country coach was accused of child molestation. The girls he was accused of hurting looked like me–blonde, blue-eyed runners. I was confused and angry about the whole situation, and asked my mother why I hadn’t been targeted. She responded that predators can tell when a child is properly looked after, and they avoid those children. She said that Mr. Vespie* could tell that I had a mother who was my fierce advocate, and no one would come after me because they knew she would come after them.
Bullshit. I had been experiencing sexual abuse for several years by the time the scandal came to light. My mother’s “protectiveness” had not prevented me from being targeted. In fact, it was her “protectiveness” that kept me from feeling like I could talk to her about what was already happening to me – because it was my girlfriend who was hurting me.
My parents’ reactions to my burgeoning sexuality deepened my confusion about what was happening, and made me feel even more isolated. When Adrienne* first kissed me, I excitedly told my mother, expecting her to share the joy of the moment with me. Instead, she disgustedly told me that she “didn’t think that was a good idea” and didn’t speak to me for several days. Unfortunately, my parents were also abusive. Their mistreatment of me rarely left physical marks, but it left me with shitty self esteem and a firmly-held belief that my body did not belong to me. This treatment, along with my mother’s practice of socially isolating me, made me even more vulnerable to manipulation by an older, cooler girl.
I have struggled with convincing myself that what happened to me was abuse. I often feel like I can’t trust my own gut, my own memories. And, unfortunately, a lot of people laugh at the idea that a 17-year-old lesbian could rape the 13-year-old she was dating. I’ve had friends call it “surprise sex.” And it was. It was a surprise to me that I was suddenly having sex, without having agreed to it, or talked about it. It was not a pleasant surprise.
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When I tell people about my first sexual experience, I tell two different stories. I tell most people that I lost my virginity when I was 13, in a trailer, during school hours. I tell it like I was a bad-ass, like I had agency. The real story is a little chillier. I had cut class and was making out with my girlfriend behind our school when she abruptly asked me if she could “try something.” She slid my underwear down my thighs a little and gave me head. I didn’t know how to react, and I was partially immobilized by my half-shed clothing, so I stayed still. It would be ten years before I had my first positive experience with oral sex. I mostly told the people I slept with before then that I just didn’t like it.
The abuse continued for years. I continued to have difficulty saying no. Once, when we were making out in her car (I was 14, she was 18), she climbed on my lap and started grinding on me. She was using me to get off and I felt no corresponding level of arousal. I was embarrassed and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t feel like I could ask her to stop, because I didn’t want to discourage her. I didn’t want her to think that she was bad at sex or that I didn’t like or want her.
Later in high school we started smoking pot and snorting pills together. I developed a sense that I owed her for the drugs she’d get me, so I’d sleep with her. Once, Adrienne came to visit me at college for my 18th birthday. She brought me some amphetamines, about $100 worth, which was a lot of money to me. She didn’t ask me to fuck her in return, but I felt like I had to. So I started kissing her, expecting to have the same emotionless, boring, uncomfortable sex we usually had, but instead she very roughly fucked me. In an attempt to retain some of my dignity, I wouldn’t let her kiss me. She didn’t seem to mind that, or my whimpers of pain. I bled all over my sheets, and then couldn’t fall asleep. So, I put the sheets in the wash, made the bed up with clean sheets for her, and then went for a run, still high. When she woke up I took her to the dining hall to get breakfast and introduced her to my friends.
The most confusing part of my recovery process has been dealing with the fact that I was very sexual at 13. I wanted Adrienne. I liked it when she kissed me and I was interested in doing more. It has been and is so hard for me to call what she did rape, because I did want her, sometimes. It’s hard to believe, but I do have to remind myself that it was rape because there was no consent. Even though I’ve been reading about sexual assault and consent on feminist blogs for years, I still struggle with so much internalized shit about which survivors are the right kind of survivors that I failed to name my own assault.
This is the story of my rape(s). I want to share it because the facts of my rape and continued abuse are not cut and dried. I am not a perfect victim. I am a truth-bending, queer, promiscuous drug user. But nothing about my background, or my age, or my consenting to other sexual activities with the woman who raped me make it any less rape.
Eleven years later, I forgive** my rapist. I’m no longer angry at her, but I am still angry. I am angry that as a 13 year old who was already a sexual being, I had no access to information about intimate partner violence. I am angry that I was made to feel so ashamed of my sexuality*** that I still haven’t told my parents that I was abused, because that would mean acknowledging that I was sexually active. I am angry that I believed for years that I deserved every rough fucking, every unsolicited touch. Not a single person explained to me that I had the right to decide how to use my own body. I am angry that I had no one to guide me through exploring my sexuality in a healthy way. I’m angry that I didn’t get to choose when I started having sex. I’m angry that I didn’t know how to say no.
Adults, especially those who work with children, need to wake up and prepare children for the process of navigating their sexualities. Because young children are having sex, and denying that hurts them. Here’s what we can do:
- Talk about consent. This is an excellent primer on talking to kids of all ages about respecting personal space and their own bodies.
- Look for unhealthy behavior, and monitor it. As an educator, as an aunt, as a citizen, as a father, as a friend, as a bailiff, as a passerby. When you see a teenage boy leaning over a scared-looking girl on the subway, intervene if you can. When you catch your older daughter holding down your younger daughter’s arms until she’s crying, end that shit. When a kid in your youth group tells you his boyfriend refuses to wear condoms, listen to him and ask him if he needs help.
- Give kids the means to be proud of themselves. Pay attention to their interests, their talents, and their dreams. Ask them about themselves. Regularly. Don’t slap them or scream at them. My mother only cared about me doing well at something I sucked at (getting good grades), and forbade me from pursuing things I liked and was good at. My stepmother hurt me, belittled me and yelled at me. I didn’t think I deserved better than Adrienne. I didn’t know life got better, or that there would be a thousand things I’d discover I loved to do, and many people who would respect my sexual boundaries, after I broke up with her for good.
It’s hard to protect kids in a culture where bodily autonomy is frequently disrespected, but it is possible to give them the tools to fight back. It doesn’t matter what your relationship is to the kids in your life–treat them like people. Give them good information on how to keep safe and healthy, and tell them what they want matters.
**Personally. I personally forgive her, based on a variety of reasons that make sense to me. I am not making a comment on how other survivors should feel about their rapists, nor making a value judgement on whether it is better to forgive and/or forget, or stay angry.
***My desire to have sex, not my orientation