Content warning: This piece deals with the aftermath of sexual abuse.
The first time I was sexually abused, I was five. My abuser was someone I knew and loved, a surrogate father figure. The details aren’t essential to share here. I’ve shared them before in a variety of contexts to trusted friends, family members, and therapists (thank goodness for therapy!). When I was 10, I was sexually abused again by someone else I knew and loved (the son of my first perpetrator). I considered my second abuser an older brother.
Because of the closeness I shared with both men, it wasn’t until well into early adulthood that I realized that what they did to me constituted abuse. I thought that if people victimized you, you were supposed to hate and fear them. I didn’t. I loved the people who had abused me. As I got older, I began opening up about these and other formative experiences. I started talking about what had happened and how early sexualization had impacted my beliefs about love, intimacy, and my body.
How was I supposed to feel?
To my surprise, nobody blamed me for the things that had been done to me. Sadly, some people did blame me for not blaming my abusers.
Friends, family members, and even several therapists said things like “They should be in jail!” and “You must hate them.”
Here’s what no one told me, which could have saved me a lot of self-recrimination and shame: “What they did was wrong, and you deserved better than that, but it is okay for you to love them.”
The pressure to vilify my abusers generated as much shame and self-loathing as the abuse itself did. The more I was told I should hate my abusers, the more I hated myself. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t feel the way I was “supposed” to feel?
A radical choice
I’m not sure exactly how or why or when my perspective shifted, but at some point, I made the radical choice to give myself permission to feel all my feelings. That was the beginning of the end of sexual shame. I admitted (to myself at first, then to a few trusted others) that I loved my perpetrators. Then—and this was the hardest part—I stopped trying to change that. That doesn’t mean I let them have access to me. I cut ties with the man I still thought of as a father figure and his son.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 93 percent of juvenile survivors know their perpetrators. Considering that this statistic takes into account reported cases only, this number is likely to be higher.
I wish I’d known that when I was struggling to accept the complexity of my emotions. I wish someone had explained that when a person you know and love and trust hurts you, it doesn’t mean you immediately abandon a lifetime of tender feelings toward the person, or that you can erase all your positive memories. It’s been a decade since I first began to grapple with my feelings about my childhood sexual abuse. Nowadays, I’m okay with saying that I love myself and I love my abusers. I don’t assume that other people who’ve been sexually abused early in life need to feel as I do about the people who violated them, but I do think it’s helpful for survivors to know that their feelings can be nuanced.
I am overjoyed by the progress that the #MeToo movement made possible. No matter their power and privilege, rapists, pedophiles, and sexual abusers are being held accountable for their actions. The current societal rage and vilification of victimizers lets people know that abuse is NEVER okay. I am thrilled to see this. But I can’t help but wonder if, in our attempts to keep survivors (and people at risk of abuse) physically safe, we’re neglecting to let them know that they are allowed to feel myriad emotions.
The first time I spoke about still loving my abusers in a public forum was August 22, 2019. I was the final speaker for the RISK! Podcast’s 10th anniversary episode. I shared the details of my experience and how I came to realize that loving my abusers is not the same as loving the abuse.
What I know now
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and in honor of the brave people who are moving forward despite painful and problematic pasts, I wanted to share a few things I have come to believe every sexual-abuse survivor should know:
- What happened to you was not and will never be your fault.
- You deserve to be safe.
- Children can never consent.
- There is help.
- You are not alone.
- All of your feelings are valid and you have a right to express them.
If you need help, you can call RAINN at 800-656-HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.