My father's bed

I thought it meant that I was special. I didn't know it would turn sex into an act of shame.

Published May 16, 2001 7:17PM (EDT)

My first lover was my father.

It's ugly and, even now, more than 25 years later, difficult for me to say. With my father, in his bed, I first experienced the bump and grind of sexual relations. It was his genitals I first explored; he was the first to touch my body sexually, and those hands have left an indelible imprint. I have no memories that predate his abuse -- his rubbing and touching, his forcing me to touch him.

I was 4; it was 1972. At night, while my mother worked, he took me into their bed and made me believe he was doing me a favor, giving me a special privilege. It took me a long, long time to really believe there wasn't anything special about it, that it was all just sick. For many years I held onto the notion that in some way, his attention and his obsession with me made me special.

In bed he would watch TV, snapping the edge of the sheet between his fingers and the mattress while I pretended to fall asleep. Knowing what was ahead, of course I could not sleep. After a while, the snapping of the sheet stopped and I knew it was time. He would grope me, run his giant hands under my nightgown and into my flowered panties -- the kind that little girls wear, with yellow and pink daisies on them -- and he'd talk to me. He was always talking to me, whispering things, telling me he loved me. He'd tell me how nice I made Daddy feel. He never penetrated me with his penis, but his fingers would routinely enter my tiny vagina. It was terrifying. At times I fought with him, begging him not to touch me, and he responded by scaring me further, pressing his hands too firmly against my neck, ordering me to be quiet, to behave. He spoke in the harshest voice I knew from him, as if I had started screaming in church. Sometimes he would leave me alone in the closet until I begged to come out, but when he let me out it was more of the same. I learned to be quiet. I learned to "behave."

Other times, the routine was different. He would work up to things slowly. We'd be wrestling, rough-housing playfully, maybe in the living room, and he would casually, repeatedly touch my vagina through my clothes. Later in bed he would hold me close and we'd laugh. He'd ask, "Who's my No. 1 girl?" And he would touch me under my nightgown, and I would like it.

I could hardly wait for him to reach into my panties and give me that tingling feeling. I didn't know then that I was having orgasms; it would be years before I learned that word, and even longer before I admitted to myself that what I experienced was orgasm. But sometimes the incest felt good -- that special feeling, all that attention and love and affection from my nice daddy. And he was, in my young mind, my nice daddy; he hugged me and put Band-Aids on my skinned knees and sang Sinatra songs to me.

Eventually my parents separated, meaning I spent two nights a week at my father's house. Those nights, I stayed in his bed with him, all night long. Somehow, the lie he'd told my mother to explain why I was often in their bed when she came home from work -- that I was too scared to sleep alone -- became truth. I don't know if I was truly scared or if I simply came to believe I was, but I rarely spent a night in bed by myself until I was 13 years old.

Even at home with my mother, I would crawl into her bed to sleep at night. Meanwhile, at Dad's house, the abuse continued. I'd go to sleep, genuinely fall asleep, and he'd get in bed. I'd wake up and feel his warm skin, his erection against my bottom, his breathing in my ear, the slight scent of Budweiser on his breath. One afternoon, there was a spanking after a sexual encounter and the link between sex and shame became permanent in my brain. I believed that I had let the sex happen, and that it was my fault; I believed that I was the bad one.

The abuse was the center of my universe. I created an imaginary friend, Charlotte, who was the only one I confided in. I had conversations with Charlotte in my head all the time about the ways my father touched me. We would devise elaborate strategies, some plotting to get rid of my dad so he'd stop doing it and others scheming to get rid of his girlfriend so he would never stop thinking I was special.

I acted out my distress in myriad ways. My kindergarten teacher caught me gritting my teeth as I pretended to strangle an imaginary attacker. She notified my mother, who questioned me. I told my mother that I was cold -- that I was shaking because I was cold. Her solution was for me to carry a little white sweater to school with me every day. Once when a friend and I were playing at my house, I stuck my fingers in my vagina and asked her to sniff them. In my neighborhood, a small group of us kids used to expose our genitals to each other, but only I let one of the boys try to put his penis in me. Once I made my best friend, Jane, pull down her pants and lie across my lap as I pretended to spank her. I told her she was a bad girl. It was what had been done to me.

Shortly after I started spending nights at my dad's house, two girls in my neighborhood disappeared. One was 11, one was 9. It was traumatic; their disappearance spooked me horribly. There was whispering, never substantiated in any way, that maybe their father had been "messing around" with them and they ran away from home, or that he killed them to protect himself; this theory stuck with me. The day they ran the dogs in the woods across the street, the day they dragged the pond searching for their bodies, those are two of the most vivid and horrific memories of my youth. I worried for my life, that I would disappear or that I would be killed. I started writing my will. I was 6.

One of the other theories surrounding the girls' disappearance was that they had been sold into "white slavery." While I didn't know what this was, I intuitively knew it involved sex. Adults did not so much as pause before discussing the kidnapping of the girls and the possibility that they had been murdered, but their hushed tones and grim faces when "white slavery" was mentioned made me know it was about sex. And I could tell that it was something bad, shameful, and not to be talked about. Yet it was something being done to me all the time.

My whole life, I have been haunted by an intersection between shame and pleasure. As a young child, I was hurt again and again and led to believe that it was my fault, and that if only I weren't bad, my dad wouldn't do those things to me. But at the same time, I thought I was special because it was happening. I'd tell myself, "Look how much my daddy loves me," but still I knew it was bad and that I should be ashamed. And sometimes I liked the way it felt, but a lot of times I was scared. And I knew that if I told anyone, he would hurt me.

Eventually, my father remarried and the whole thing came to a halt. My "friend" Charlotte disappeared and I experienced a strange combination of relief and grief. Despite how horrible it was, I lost something when my father stopped being sexual with me. I felt like I lost his attention, his affection and his adoration. Those feelings, wrapped up so tightly in those interactions with him, had become my world, and suddenly that stopped. It traumatized me in all new ways.

The abuse stopped when I was 9, and I became a voracious masturbator. I longed to relive the sensation that had grabbed me between the legs and had felt so good. I would lie on my stomach and rub around the outside of my vagina until I came. Sometimes I used the stream of water from the bathtub spigot. My father once walked in on me taking a bath and masturbating in that way, and he didn't say a word about it.

When I was 12, my girlfriends and I sneaked in to see "An Officer and a Gentleman," a movie that explicitly depicts Debra Winger and Richard Gere having sex. It was the first sexual encounter I had ever seen outside of my father's bed, and it was tremendously erotic for me.

Soon after that, I developed an after-school routine that involved putting on my mother's fanciest dress, shoving her diaphragm into my 12-year-old vagina and masturbating until I came, pretending that it was Richard Gere rubbing my genitals. Or I'd imagine that it was an older boy, Jack, who was a friend of my family. (Jack owns a car dealership; last year I bought a car from him, and he had no idea that it is painful for me to see him. He has no idea that he helped give me a sexual fix that I needed to hold my fragile sense of self together. He has no idea how difficult it is to be reminded of the desperate, sexualized child I was.)

I was desperate, and needy. I rarely saw my dad, and when I did he was cold and dispassionate. He didn't treat me the same way, and I wasn't his No. 1 girl. I no longer held his attention, and I was no longer his obsession. I felt that I'd lost his love.

Around the same time, I initiated a phone sex relationship with Mr. Bernard, the neighborhood "perv." He lived alone; he was normal looking, maybe 60 years old. I don't know how we kids knew he was a "perv" -- it was just common knowledge, information passed along, as many things were, by the older, wiser sisters of my peers. My friend Kathy's parents used to tell us, "Oh, leave him alone, he's just an old alcoholic man." But the wisdom of the sisters reigned supreme. At slumber parties, we would crank call him and scream "You're a perv!" into the phone. "We know what you do to little girls," we'd taunt, and then hang up.

But at home, alone in the afternoons, I called him and struck up a twisted kind of friendship with him. On the phone, I called him Chris, and the name I used when I talked to him was Susan. We'd talk, Chris and "Susan," and he'd drink. I'm now certain that as we conversed he'd slowly get drunk. Eventually, we'd get to the phone sex. He'd masturbate, and describe to me what he was doing. He'd tell me, "I'm touching him, he's happy" and he'd come. He'd say, "Yes, yes, oh yes, baby" -- and I'd be rubbing my vagina the whole time. After we'd get off the phone I'd masturbate to orgasm.

It was a habit I kept for a long time after those days -- I'd make myself come but not in the presence of others. It was like a vestige of Daddy; for a long, long time, only Daddy would make me come. Chris gave me a lot: He replaced my father as the man who kept me front and center in his gaze, something I so desperately needed. But here's the catch, something I didn't think about until recently. How did the girls know? How had this rumor managed to get passed down? Who else played with Mr. Bernard?

My relationship with Mr. Bernard tortured me and added to my feeling of shame. It enabled me to tell myself that I really was bad at my core because only bad girls would be doing what I was doing. I didn't have to do it; I initiated every contact. It made me feel awful, but, like the sexual contact with my father, it made me feel wonderful, too.

My mom and I moved when I turned 13, into a new house where my father had never touched me and would never have the chance. I began sleeping in my own bed immediately, and I gave up my relationship with Mr. Bernard shortly thereafter.

I didn't need him anymore. I had developed something of a relationship with a real boy, Jeff, a kid in the new neighborhood. Jeff would beg me to let him kiss and touch me, and I would tell him no. That expression of my power made me feel great. Here someone was sexually focused on me, which made me feel alive. But at the same time, I was able to prove to myself that I wasn't an awful person because I didn't let him do things to me. As an added bonus, I had the opportunity to reject unwanted sexual advances, something I was never able to do with Dad.

Some of the hardest times in life never completely end, and this was just the beginning of a long process -- unhealthy, complicated and, of course, unsuccessful by definition -- of using men to give me what Daddy had given me when I was so young and impressionable.

Recently I read that national radio host Tom Leykis urged his male listeners to "hit on" female victims of incest and sexual abuse: "If you think that a woman's more likely to put out, or more likely to be good in bed because she has a history of abuse, is it wrong to try to find that out and then go for the gold?" At first I cringed in anger that the comment had been made, but then I cringed in shame, knowing that in some ways the comment described me. I had been promiscuous. I had gone out of my way to make sure that my lovers thought I was a talented sexual partner.

During my adolescence and all through my 20s I accommodated men sexually as a way of getting attention, as a way to feed my emotional needs: "He loves to have sex with me, that must mean I'm special." It was all-important to me that I be the object of someone's, often several someones', sexual attention. It made me feel whole, complete, energized.

But the sex itself wasn't necessarily enjoyable for me. I wanted the sex, no doubt, but I also used it to keep feeling ashamed. I was casual and cavalier about having sex, refused to take it seriously -- and as a result ended up feeling awful about some of the sexual choices I made.

I was eager to replicate both the good and the bad feelings that had come from the abuse, without even realizing it. It would take me a long time and a lot of unraveling the lessons of my childhood to see sex as something I could enjoy, choose, participate in joyfully. To want it, not need it. To learn that sex didn't have to feel bad to be good. Even now I am careful to think through my sexual motives and actions to make sure that what I'm trying to "get" from sex isn't shame, isn't obsession. Though the abuse itself ended long ago, the impact is everlasting.

Some lovers you just never forget.

By Delaney Anderson

Delaney Anderson is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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