Last Wednesday, Texas Monthly published my lengthy personal account of the illicit, abusive romance I had with a teacher when I was 14. “The Other Side of the Story” percolated for quite some time before going live: I started the piece seven years after the end of my relationship with Trace Lehrer (a pseudonym) and then sat on a finished draft for another year before submitting it. I never once expected to reach such a wide, varied audience, because despite what I’d been told by family, friends and editors for months, I still didn’t feel my story was that important.
What has become clear to me in the past week, though, is that my story is exactly “that” important — not because it has been posted and reposted or because my name is in the byline, but because my story is not just mine. My story is also that of countless other women who walk around with the scars of sexual and psychological abuse; it’s a story that has appeared dozens and dozens of times in my inbox, each retelling packed with slightly different details. More than once, names and ages have been the only variations from my personal experience. I’ve found too much twisted solidarity with women whose histories are too much like my own.
I’ve also been told that my parents overreacted when they filed a police report against my offender, or when they advocated tirelessly for him to be taken out of the classroom and thrown in jail. One commenter wanted to know if I felt guilty for helping a man cheat on his innocent wife. Clearly, these people missed the point. What happened to me was not my fault, because a middle school girl who has a relationship with her teacher is not a willfully consenting participant — and if the teacher is married, she’s not a willfully consenting home-wrecker, either. She is a child who has been coerced, through one adult’s acts of careful grooming, into believing she can make a decision when she can’t.
That type of coercion is one of the key mechanisms in psychologically and sexually abusive relationships. In my situation, it feels unfair to my past and present self to erase my own decision-making ability with regard to my abuse. But to underestimate my judgment is also to underestimate the power of my offender’s manipulation to overpower and influence that judgment. To say that young girls lack the agency to make their own decisions in cases like mine is not to strip females of their agency altogether. It’s admitting that someone else is at fault. These girls are the survivors of criminal violence, but we can also accept that some of them feel like victims too. Would we ever neglect to call someone who's been mugged "a victim" just because he or she also survived? The victim/survivor labels are not mutually exclusive. It is not infantilizing to call a victim “a victim” when she’s been taken advantage of, lied to, violated.
What is infantilizing, though, is letting perpetrators off the hook so easily, by treating sex offenders as if they are incapable of plotting acts so sinister, conniving and wrong. This is a corollary of victim blaming. When we accuse victims of complicity in their own violations, then fault them for being assaulted, then tell them to shut up, we implicitly condone continued abuse. And that is, by the way, exactly what we do: We pejoratively call girls “fast” when their bodies mature early (as Hood Feminism's #FastTailedGirls hashtag explored), or tell young women they drank too much at the parties where they’re assaulted (as happens all the time), or ask people like me if they feel bad for wronging someone else’s wife by being abused.
These attitudes produce a stigma attached to sex abuse that is difficult to overcome, in part because it’s so very difficult to discuss. But the stigma, the shame, the secret-keeping — they are the tools of abuse on both a macro and micro level. The relationship I had with my offender happened because I felt as if there was no one else who would understand what was going on, and I knew that what was going on was wrong. But I felt that I was choosing to be a part of it — and we grow up with the understanding that we are responsible for our own decisions. We don’t have sympathy for those who make bad choices.
But we also don’t give much thought to how those choices are made. When Trace Lehrer, whose real name I chose to withhold for my own protection, threatened to kill me if I ever left him, was I really “making a decision”? Would anyone else — any other child — have made a different choice?
The quick answer is “no,” but the more complicated answer is “maybe.” Maybe, if I had grown up in a world where it’s not so easy to take advantage, I would have been able to speak up about the manipulation I was facing. Maybe, if the media didn’t sensationalize abuse stories or present them in a way that looks and sounds nothing like reality, I would have recognized the game that was being played. Or maybe, if society didn’t condone the rampant, secret-swathed violation of girls and women, people like me wouldn’t have stories like mine to tell.
Talking about abuse can help prevent other women from suffering similar violations. Unfortunately, not every victim is able to speak out. People said that my decision to tell my story was brave, but consider my situation: My abuser was not a member of my family, and my parents were supportive of me throughout the ordeal. Not everyone has this luxury. According to RAINN, 7 percent of women are abused by a relative; can we really expect those victims to speak up only to be accused of destroying their families, or disbelieved because ignorance is easier?
Nothing in these situations is easy, but the current level of difficulty involved in addressing sexual abuse is unacceptable. Changing the victim-blaming status quo requires attitude adjustments for everyone. Most crucially, we have to stop blaming victims and telling them they are at fault. We have to let them tell their stories.
Telling them is only possible when the audience has ears open and mouths shut, is not so quick to point fingers at women who have already been shamed and manipulated enough. Not every victim will be brave enough to say something, but no victim should have to be so brave. Instead, it should be safe for anyone to share her experience with sex abuse, because it truly can happen to anyone. Let’s talk about how many anyones there are.