A man’s take on coping in a world that stigmatizes victims of sex crimes.
In my early 20s, I read hundreds of documents related to my childhood sexual abuse—psychological evaluations, interview transcripts, police reports—but I couldn’t remember anything vividly. I wondered if I had maligned an innocent man—my stepfather. I wondered if I had made everything up. Somehow, I thought I was the one to blame.
It’s hard for survivors of sex crimes to cope with their emotions in a society that stigmatizes them. It’s difficult for them to find closure in a society where mysogynists like Dan Rottenberg justify sexual violence by blaming the victim.
Perhaps you’ve read his stunningly insensitive editorial in the Broad Street Review. Two weeks ago, Rottenberg—in a commentary about the rape of CBS reporter Lara Logan—argued that women could stave off attacks by taking such “sensible precautions” as locking their doors and dressing more conservatively. He suggested that men can’t help themselves when women show skin, that rape is the natural consequence of their arousal.
To his credit, Rottenberg recognizes that rape is a brutal human reality. Unfortunately, his logic is woefully simplistic. Arousal is natural, sexual assault isn’t. I have no natural right to rape my wife or any other woman. Any man who feels differently should seek counseling.
Rape is not about pleasure or sex. The sex is a vehicle for violence. It is an excuse for the pathetic and insecure to hurt women and men and children. In the end, sexual abuse is about dominating another human being. It’s about preying on the defenseless.
My stepfather, Danny, started abusing me when I was 6 years old. I told my dad that he had touched me in ways that made me feel uncomfortable. Dad believed me, but no one believed him. Meanwhile, Danny convinced my mom and older brother that he had been falsely accused. He said that my dad and I had conjured up lies to ruin his reputation, and that we were trying to tear his new family apart.
The New Jersey Division of Family and Youth Services investigated my complaint, but my dad and I were outnumbered. No one had witnessed the crime. It was my word against Danny’s, and he had the rest of my immediate family on his side. Investigators concluded that the allegations were unfounded.
Five years later, at age 11, I told my dad that I wanted to kill myself. He knew I had slept with a steak knife under my pillow the past three nights. In the emergency room at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, he scribbled a question on a yellow legal pad and asked me to write.
“What did he do to you?”
“Fooled around acted like complete moron because he was drunk.”
“What do you mean?”
“It would seem like he was gay.”
“Did he touch your penis?”
“Sort of like tickled it.”
During my six-week stay in the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center at CHOP, authorities launched a new investigation. Danny continued to portray himself as the victim of an unjust inquisition. He refused to cooperate.
But in their June 17, 1994, report, Delaware County investigators said that I had provided a “clear, consistent and credible” account of being sexually abused by my stepfather. “The victim stated that the perpetrator fondled his penis,” according to the report. “Perpetrator would force child to bend over and would insert his fingers in the child’s anus. Perpetrator would groan when he did this.” He also urinated on me in the shower.
It was too late to prove any of this beyond a reasonable doubt. But police reports and hospital records showed that Danny had wrenched my arm and bruised my sternum. And it was no secret that he was a drunk and a recreational meth user. He finally admitted to endangering the welfare of a child—a misdemeanor offense. My father accepted the plea bargain. It was the only justice we could get.
To some degree, Rottenberg’s beliefs are shared by many people. They empathize with the perpetrator at the expense of the victim. This is one of many reasons why sexual abuse is notoriously underreported. Many survivors, fearing revenge and humiliation, are too ashamed to say anything. Some drag their secret pain to the grave. Others fight every day to reclaim their souls.
At 28, I’m learning to accept that my stepfather abused me—sexually, physically and emotionally. I may never remember everything that happened to me. But I know I did nothing to deserve it. Neither did Lara Logan.
What you are about to read is a selection of eight first-person stories chosen from our first ebook that all capture, in their own way, the long and turbulent recovery people affected by sexual abuse must endure.
The lies that enable sexual assault to be practically a rite of passage while growing up—1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are molested—are already everywhere, so deeply rooted in our culture you have to dig deep to yank them out. Staying silent has never helped a situation of sexual assault, ever. We say no. We say there is no better time to learn more and write more reality checks.
We need to hear from you—the survivor, the loved one, the advocate. We need you to tell your story, in your own words. To do so would help bring to light the one thing that’s missing from the national conversation: the reality of what it’s like to heal from the devastating effects of sexual abuse.
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide