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“What happened to me is pretty normal”: On incest, coercion and the normalcy of sexual abuse

Genetic sexual attraction shouldn’t be shamed. But the abuse that it causes is unacceptable


Jenny Kutner
February 22, 2015 6:00AM (UTC)

Sometime last month, over a pitcher of beer, a friend was trying to help me figure out what I want to do with my life. More specifically, he was trying to help me figure out what sorts of stories I want to write, and we got to talking about the pieces I’ve published that made me feel the most. Immediately, the personal essays I’ve written about my abortion and a sexual relationship with a teacher came to mind — not just because I am proud of the writing, but because of the responses both stories got.

After publishing the account of my abuse, in particular, I received countless emails from people saying that something similar had happened to them — that they’d been in confusing, ambiguous relationships with teachers, family friends, baby sitters, uncles, cousins, parents. The list goes on. All had been difficult and damaging; most had been secret. I told my friend as much.

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“I think the reason people are so drawn to those stories,” my friend said, “is because you talk about these things that aren’t really normal life events. They’re rare.”

Given the massive number of messages I’d received with the same stories of abuse over and over, that seems unlikely to me. “Actually,” I told my friend, “I think people responded because what happened to me is pretty normal.”

“Normal.” It’s the same word Natasha Rose Chenier used in a powerful recent essay she wrote for Jezebel, referring to the genetic sexual attraction she felt for her biological father when she met him for the first time as an adult. The word stuck out to me so much in her piece that I used it in a headline. It gutted me a little. Chenier says her romantic feelings, and the phenomenon of GSA, are “very normal, and very real.”

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I hate using “normal” to describe something so malignant as sexual abuse, whether it’s incestuous or not, but there is something about the word that felt so right to me when I read it in Chenier’s essay, and when I said it aloud myself. After all, what else is it but normal to fall for the authority figure who grooms you? What else is it but normal to develop intense feelings for someone so close but whom you’ve never known, with whom you’ve never been taught appropriate sexual boundaries? Isn’t it the most normal thing to give in to coercion? The feelings victims have within these complex sexual relationships make sense, especially given the power dynamics — and that’s exactly what makes the relationships abusive.

We tend to downplay the role power and authority play in sexual abuse, ascribing victims' agency in situations where they have little to none. In my experience, this is what can lead to the confusion embedded in these harmful relationships; feelings of complicity make it nearly impossible to recognize abuse as abuse. Chenier beautifully explained the misunderstandings of consent that inform those feelings in a follow-up interview with Jezebel’s Jia Tolentino:

Consent is a simple word that overlooks so much. When a parent asks their kid whether they want to have sex, does the answer matter? Isn't the question wherein the wrong lies? My father did ask for my permission before we first had oral sex, and I said yes. But it wasn't me.

That lack of control too often gets lost in our conversations about sexual abuse, but it isn’t really so complicated: coercion is coercive. Clearly, though, it’s harder to grasp that tautology than it is to blame the victim — or to make victims feel as if they aren’t victims at all, but rather equal partners in an inherently imbalanced relationship.

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And that is part of what makes manipulative, uneven and abusive sexual relationships so common. Stigmatizing problematic attractions does nothing to help survivors of the sexual relationships that result. What victims and survivors are feeling is normal. What happens to them should not be.

And yet, sexual abuse is normalized. It’s facilitated by the creepy fascination we have with “comic” parent-child incest and with fetishized student-teacher relationships, and by bystanders who keep their eyes and mouths closed. It’s also facilitated by the feeling that these attractions are neither prevalent nor normal, by the belief that we are alone. And so that opens up the need for these stories, and it explains why people are so drawn to them. Sharing stories of sexual victimization and survival isn’t easy. But it can be easier than living with them alone.

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“Whatever happened to us, we have to live with it for the rest of our lives,” Chenier told Jezebel. “What I do know is that it doesn't get better if you keep it a secret. You sit there, it lingers, it comes up, and you feel horribly alone. In sharing my story, I feel less alone. When I came out about it initially, several members of my family and greater community came forward with their stories."

And the point of all that? "There's nothing to hide or to be ashamed of.”


Jenny Kutner

MORE FROM Jenny KutnerFOLLOW @JennyKutner



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