During a pretty intense therapy session this week, it was pointed out to me that an older female relative groomed me sexually as a pre-teen and teenager. My therapist noted, accurately, that although there was no inappropriate physical contact between myself and the other person, what transpired qualifies as sexual abuse on her part. As I reflected on the specifics, I couldn’t really argue the point, but just to drive the point home, my therapist went on:
“If the genders were reversed, if you were a twelve-year-old girl and the other person was an adult man, you wouldn’t hesitate to call it abuse. Nobody would.” My therapist suggested that this person’s advances hadn’t been any manner of innocent flirting, and she was right; again, I was a child and my relative was an adult who should have known better. Then she showed me a series of possibilities in which she used these advances – specifically my fear of being discovered and blamed by my parents, itself undoubtedly caused by my in-born Catholic shame – as ammunition to manipulate or coerce me into further such interactions.
I suspect that I largely avoided these possibilities because the relative in question wasn’t somebody I saw often; she lived several states away, and while we did typically see each other often given the distance, interaction was infrequent enough that it wasn’t an issue. As far as I know, anyway. Don’t be surprised if I post an update reflecting new revelations and no-longer-suppressed memories.
I agreed with my therapist’s assessment of the relative. The person in question is my uncle’s wife, now ex. I don’t know if I ever discussed this person here at the blog, but I cut her out of my life and the lives of my family years ago for unrelated reasons; she isn’t someone I’m going to confront. Even if she was a five-minute drive away, or otherwise someone with whom I still have casual social contact, I wouldn’t bring it up. For one thing, I see no reason to put myself in that situation. It isn’t going to help; all it’s going to do is dredge up old shit that I don’t want or need dredged up.
Also, the likelihood that the person in question would revel in the confirmation that she harmed me in some way, that the long game she began playing in the late 1980s had bore fruit, is more than enough reason to keep mum. She’s the sort of person I’ve long considered a sociopath – this label justified by my therapist this week – and not only do I not expect remorse, I see no reason to give her the satisfaction she’d undoubtedly get from being told how her behavior affected me.
So why did I not realize this was abuse until now, nearly thirty years later? Beyond the fact that the grooming of a child by a usually predatory adult is something I didn’t understand and wasn’t aware of back then, the most obvious reason why I was slow to get it is because no physical contact occurred. There was no sex, no copping a feel, no open-mouth kissing. There was nothing that my parents would have recognized as overtly sexual, though I’m guessing that my mom, at least, would have disapproved of her buying me an issue of Penthouse Forum.
If the behavior wouldn’t have seemed abusive to them, it wasn’t going to seem abusive to me. A shapely, sexually confident woman was not only flirting with me, but talking about sex with me, letting me see her in minimal clothing as much as possible, and circumventing my parents in order to ensure that I had jerkoff material. (Obviously much of that involved getting me alone, something that was not lost on me.) Of course, what did I know? I was a hormone-fueled, perpetually-horny adolescent boy awkwardly staggering through six of the most awkward years of public education.
The main reason why I’ve been so slow to acknowledge the insidiousness of her actions is because, to my mindset, it didn’t fit the profile. I was a boy. She was a woman. Wasn’t abuse usually perpetrated by men against girls, or as we all saw on that very special episode of Diff’rent Strokes, against boys? Women just didn’t do that, did they? I’m not saying that it wasn’t in their nature or anything; the relative in question had certainly always seemed self-serving and exploitative. Had I given it more than a cursory thought, I probably wouldn’t have put anything past her. It’s just that, as far as I could tell at age fourteen or however old I might have been when these things occurred, a straight-identified boy couldn’t be abused by a woman to whom he was attractive. I mean, it just wasn’t possible, was it?
Before I go any further, I need to beg your pardon over my woeful lack of common sense regarding the above point. As I said, this occurred between age twelve and my late teens – eighteen, maybe. I didn’t know much about anything, and I was admittedly ignorant to the greater long-term repercussions of my interactions with her. Though I didn’t think she was hot for me, exactly, all that mattered was that an attractive older woman was expressing some sort of interest in me. Whether or not it was faked – and I suspected it was – I didn’t care. She gave me a boner and sufficient visuals to get off to when I was alone; I couldn’t really see a downside.
You’re undoubtedly familiar with Mary Kay LeTourneau, the high school teacher who did hard time for having sex with an underage male student. Or Debra Lafave, Carrie McCandless, Pamela Rogers Turner, and countless other women in positions of authority who have taken sexual advantage of younger males in their charge. Likewise, you’ve undoubtedly heard people dismissing these serious charges because of the genders of those involved. These boys aren’t victims, they might have said. These boys are heroes. I recall the hosts of a popular morning radio show I listened to in my twenties celebrating those abused by women, calling them kings. Humorously, perhaps, but without much in the way of irony or reflection.
As boys, we are taught to value sex with women. It’s a goal to which to aspire. It’s something to which we are told – verbally or through subtle programming – that we are entitled. So why would a boy below the legal age of consent who has sex with – or is groomed by – an older woman consider that abuse? He’s likely to consider it a victory.
We all know that what Mary Kay LeTourneau did was a crime. Yes, I recogize that she and her victim later spent more than a decade together, raising multiple children. It’s still a crime. And even if you don’t find it icky, it’s still illegal.
At the time that the relative in question was prancing around in a new bikini, giving me up-close looks at her ample breasts and ass, I was happy with it. When she was making plans to take me camping on the Oregon Coast the summer after my junior year of high school, I didn’t consider that abuse. As she was pointing out every porn shop in her neighborhood when I’d come up to visit just to put it in my head that she was aware of such things, that she thought about them, and perhaps to make me think about visiting such an establishment – or consuming its wares – with her, I was excited.
At this point in my life, I wasn’t getting laid. I was probably too awkward and unconfident at thirteen or fourteen to make that happen, and on some level I knew I couldn’t handle the potential repercussions. I won’t go so far as to say I didn’t want to get laid, but to a kid like me sex required a relationship and a relationship took work, took money, took a driver’s license. Add to that the risks of pregnancy, of HIV, of being forced to sit through dinner with a girl’s family, and at least at that age, I was happy to opt out.
This relative, on the other hand, gave me a wealth of masturbatory material. Why she did it I couldn’t possibly have guessed at the time, though as I said, I was pretty sure she wasn’t genuinely into me. She and her boyfriend – my uncle – had what appeared to be a very close relationship, and while I’d heard of people cheating on television and in books, I didn’t suspect she was so inclined, certainly not with a scrawny pip-squeak like me. Of course, had I known at the time that she met my uncle through her boyfriend, who dumped her when he found out she was cheating, I might have held out hope.
Was she trying to be the “cool aunt”? Was she trying to compensate for a lack of self-esteem or perceived value? Per the former, my uncle was always the “cool uncle”. Years earlier, he’d watch cartoons with my cousins and I, he’d imitate the voices of various characters, and he’d take us fun places and relate to us even though we were children. That is admittedly a far cry from buying porn for someone whose mother forbade it. To me, that seemed above and beyond the call of duty.
So I’ll admit that she was probably compensating. My aunt was certainly attractive, especially back then, in her late twenties and early thirties. Her looks had undoubtedly been the focus of her value to most men, and was probably the first thing – or maybe even the only thing – they noticed about her. For someone who is college-educated, and likely has a wide array of interests and positive qualities, to be reduced to a pretty face and/or body likely takes a toll. Not that I’m trying to make excuses for this awful, awful person.
The point of all of this is that my therapist suggested that, good or bad, this experience may have in some way shaped my current sexual profile. I’m not yet sure how, exactly; we barely delved into it during this most recent session. Could my all-encompassing need for multiple partners, long a driving factor in nearly everything I’ve ever done, be borne of this person’s subtle manipulations? (I feel compelled to point out that the subject of my previous theory as to the origin of my non-monogamous tendencies predates meeting this woman by three years.)
Now, I don’t necessarily believe that my inability to be happy in a monogamous relationship is a result of sexual abuse, nor do I think that’s what my therapist – who herself identifies as polyamorous – was positing. Further, I don’t think being unable or unwilling to conform to societally-imposed standards for love, sex, and relationships is necessarily evidence of childhood trauma, even long-denied or deeply-buried childhood trauma like my own. And again, I don’t believe that was necessarily what my therapist was referring to; the breakthrough came near the end of the session; she didn’t attempt to link what transpired during my formative years with my tendency toward non-monogamy specifically, though that is probably the biggest facet of my sexual identity.
Still, I do find myself wondering how my adult relationships might have been different had my uncle dated someone less destructive. I guess time will tell.