This article is written by a woman who has had first-hand experience of living with the effects of sexual abuse as she is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. To maintain anonymity, she will be referred to as M.T. As a survivor, M.T. encountered many challenges in life as a direct result of being sexually abused and she continues to struggle even as an older female in her 70’s. She has so graciously chosen to write her story to demonstrate how child sexual abuse is real and how easily a child can be targeted by a predator. I am very grateful to her for allowing me to share her story with the world in hopes that it shines a light on the devastating and sometimes long-lasting effects of sexual abuse in children. Here’s M.T.’s story:
Childhood Sexual Abuse: My Upside-down Life
When Mom told me that my aunt was coming to live near us with her new (third) husband, I was excited. I loved my aunt dearly. She had no children of her own, and always treated me like a precious and special daughter, unlike my mother, who simply yelled at me a lot. I was eight years old when I first met Uncle Bud. He seemed like a great guy. We’d walk to the drugstore and he’d buy me ice cream sodas and hot fudge sundaes. He told me if I was his little girl, I could eat ice cream every day. He also told me that my mother shouldn’t yell at me the way she did. My father was very distant, and Uncle Bud seemed to fill in for his emotional unavailability by always being on my side, telling me I was beautiful and smart and that if he could choose a little girl of his own, it would be me. I had fantasies about going to live an idyllic life with them.
Uncle Bud worked as a high school guidance counselor, but his hobby was photography. He even had his own darkroom. The two of us would often stop at the park on our way back from the drugstore, and he would take pictures of me, telling me just how to pose. Oddly, those pictures never “turned out” when he developed them. At least that’s what he told me and my parents, and I suppose my dear aunt.
I loved to read, and one summer when I was about ten, I read 20 books and got a special award from the library. I read most of those books sitting on Uncle Bud’s lap. To me, it was wonderful to have hours of attention from my substitute father.
Now I know that all of this attention was what is called “grooming.” I don’t doubt that he was getting a sexual thrill when I sat on his lap, and that those photos he took were probably some version of child pornography—even though I was wearing clothes–but at the time I was too young and completely clueless about sex to have any idea what was going on.
I found out when I was twelve. The rest of the family had gone to bed, but I was staying up late, reading in the living room, already in my nightgown with nothing on underneath. Uncle Bud approached, ostensibly to give me a good-night kiss, and as he did his hand crept underneath my nightgown and he touched me between my legs. I froze. I knew what he was doing was not right, and I wrestled my way away from him and ran to my bedroom, where I locked the door and stood there shaking and crying.
I didn’t know what to do. Was this normal? No, I was pretty sure it wasn’t. Was it my fault for wearing my nightgown with no robe and no underwear? But it was summer and hot, and I always did that. Mom had never told me not to.
That was the first of many incidents, some of them worse than that one. I never told anyone. I was pretty sure if I did, my mother would say I was lying to get attention. Besides, Uncle Bud told me I’d better not tell or he’d end up in jail. I didn’t want that on my conscience, and I certainly didn’t want my poor sweet aunt to have to deal with it.
He found ways to be alone with me, telling the rest of the family to go ahead and walk down to the lake (something we often did after dinner) and he’d help me with the dishes (my job). Of course, helping me with the dishes meant he would grab me from behind and rub against me, breathing hard, and then disappear into the bathroom that was just off the kitchen. I didn’t have any idea why he was doing that. I just knew I shouldn’t tell anyone. I was too naïve to know I shouldn’t wear short shorts—until he began sliding his fingers into them while forcing me to put my hand on his bulging pants. I wore jeans after that, no matter how high the temperature got.
If I knew I was going to be left alone with him, I’d run into my room, lock the door and climb out the window. There was a wooded area behind our house, an old overgrown apple orchard, and I knew it well, so I would run into the woods and keep going, often climbing high up into an apple tree. He sometimes came to look for me, and when I think about that I can still feel my heart pounding and see him walking by under the tree, calling my name. Unfortunately, there were still many opportunities for him to abuse me.
When I was sure the family was back, I’d go back home and have to answer for not doing the dishes and for my strange behavior of leaving the house without telling anyone where I had gone. My mother accused me of meeting a boyfriend—although I didn’t have one to meet. She called me a sneak and a liar. I said nothing.
When I was thirteen, we moved to a different town. Shortly after that, Uncle Bud suddenly lost his job as a guidance counselor and they moved to another state. My mother was mystified that he hadn’t given a reason for being fired. Of course, I was pretty sure I knew the reason—but I couldn’t believe that he got another job as a guidance counselor!
Our move meant a new school and leaving my friends behind. I unfortunately looked like a very attractive 16-year-old, and all the girls in eighth grade hated me. They immediately started a rumor that I was pregnant and that was why we’d moved, and that soon I’d have to leave school. At that point, I didn’t even know how someone got pregnant. Another “new girl” decided to be my friend. We were a lone duo, but I will always be grateful for her friendship. She had three brothers and told me all about sex. Now I was terrified. Maybe I WAS pregnant! After all, he had repeatedly touched me “there,” something no “nice girl” would have let happen. And he didn’t always go into the bathroom to “finish up.” I had often ended up with “something wet” on my leg, or on my stomach when he pushed me onto the floor and got on top of me.
Girls in those days talked a lot about how far they’d “let a boy go.” I was pretty much of an outcast even after it was clear their rumor was untrue, but I listened to them talking. I felt like I had already been ruined. I had already almost “gone all the way.” I was without a doubt worthless.
And as I got older and began to date, I became very promiscuous. What the heck, any virtue I could have had was already gone, what difference did it make? I didn’t actually have sex with my high school boyfriends, but I did everything else—and felt absolutely nothing sexually myself except, “This is what you’re worth—nothing. This is your only value.”
Sadly, that guilt and shame continued throughout my life. It seemed I preferred men who used and abused me, confirming my low self-image again and again, right down to my continued “frigidity.” I had no idea that my inability to respond sexually was due to the abuse. My first husband was a drunk and a cheater. The second one was a worse drunk, and committed suicide, giving me another reason to feel guilty and stupid.
But it also gave me a reason to go to counseling, because by then I had an 11-year-old son who to this day is the dearest, sweetest person on earth to me. I sought counseling for him because of the suicide, but I attended sessions alone too. The first counselor was a man about my age. When he tried to kiss me, I found a female counselor for both of us.
Long after my son decided he had worked out his issues with his father, I kept seeing Carol. I was dating again, worse men than ever, and I was beginning to see the pattern. I finally told Carol about the abuse. It took many, many sessions to go over all the bad decisions I had made in my life and to see how they all went back to my childhood sexual abuse. I stopped seeing any men and got a good job at a college counseling center that was staffed almost entirely by women. The only man on the staff was gay, and one of the nicest men I had ever met. I could open up to Bob, knowing he wouldn’t hit on me, and with his help I was able to begin to see myself in a different light. Because of Bob and Carol’s encouragement and the fact that my job allowed me to attend classes tuition-free, I was able to get my degree and begin a career that I love—writing and editing.
Despite counseling, I will never be able to have a good marriage. I will never be whole. I’ve accepted this and understand it. No victim of childhood sexual abuse escapes without permanent scars. It’s estimated that 33% of women and 18% of men have been traumatized by childhood sexual abuse—and that many more cases are not reported. The trauma is something like the trauma of war—if you haven’t been there, you can’t understand that it will affect your personality and all of the decisions you make about relationships, work and everything else for the rest of your life.