After being molested at the age of thirteen, Marcus Williams struggled to reconcile his libido with his fear of making an unwanted advance.
[All names have been changed, but the story is true.]
A couple years ago, I received a puzzling piece of mail from a police department a couple counties away. It was addressed to me by name and informed me that a detective there wished to speak to me, so please get in touch. It did not say what this was regarding, but there was a hand-written note in the margins saying that the detective would be on vacation for the next week, so please wait until such-and-such date before calling.
The vague letter and extra week gave me ample opportunity to speculate and worry about what a detective could possibly want to talk to me about. I hadn’t witnessed any crimes or accidents that I could think of, and hadn’t been anywhere near the city he was contacting me from in a long time. I briefly worried that maybe I’d accidentally landed on some Internet porn that red-flagged me somehow, but I was pretty sure I stuck to the legal stuff and if it was something like that, it seemed unlikely they would tip me off with a week’s notice. I was still stumped after the week had passed, when I finally called Detective Avery to say I’d received his letter.
“Mr. Williams, I collect information for possible use in parole hearings. Do you know who Charles Dunn is?”
It wasn’t a name I could have retrieved from memory, but it felt uncomfortably familiar. Given the context of the call, I made a guess that took me back more than 25 years to a memory I’d mostly tried to ignore.
“Is he by any chance doing time for sexually abusing kids?”
When I was 13, I was a “good” boy. I got good grades, had lots of friends, didn’t get into trouble, didn’t experiment with alcohol or drugs, was a frequent altar server at Sunday Mass, and got along well enough with my parents that I actually enjoyed being in a family bowling league with my mom. There weren’t many teams in the league, so we got friendly with the other teams pretty quick. Most teams consisted of parents and their kids, but one team who was a father short filled out their team with their good family friend, Charles Dunn.
A few months into the league, Charles and the family he bowled with said they were going skiing that weekend and invited me to come along. My family never skied but I had always wanted to try, so this sounded great. To facilitate getting an early start on the day of departure, Charles offered to pick me up the night before and I could stay at his place before meeting the family to all drive together the next morning. The night of the pickup, I remember my mom saying something about how nice it was to have adult friends like that who were trustworthy, not like all those creeps you had to worry about.
This isn’t a play-by-play recap where I’m seeking a cathartic retelling of every detail I can remember, but suffice to say that I got molested that weekend by Charles. As stories of sexual abuse and violence go, mine was fairly mild, in that there was never any penetration, he didn’t make me touch him, and it never recurred after that weekend. What started out as a creepy feeling escalated to inappropriate touching and staring, especially since I was not given my own bed or sleeping space, and finally to me waking up one morning with him fondling me through my underwear, at which point I pretended to be asleep and rolled over. He didn’t try again after that.
It would be years before I’d tell anyone about what had happened, and by the time I did, I didn’t even remember my abuser’s name. I talked about it to girlfriends, therapists, and eventually family, but never to report it to law enforcement. When Detective Avery put a name to that memory again, and told me he was in prison as a sex offender, I felt both relieved and guilty—relieved that he was there; guilty that I hadn’t played any role in putting him there so he’d almost certainly abused other kids after me.
Puzzled as to how the detective got my name, he told me that Dunn was having one of those “come clean” moments that convicts sometimes have and had listed every victim he could remember. My name was on the list. My last name (my real one) isn’t common, so it creeped me out quite a bit that more than two decades after it happened, when I couldn’t even remember his first name, he could come up with my full name. It still creeps me out. When I told my story to the detective, he told me I’d been a strong kid to turn over like that, because he was the kind of offender who wouldn’t get violent, but he would just keep escalating until or unless he met any resistance. I felt terrible for his victims—I have no idea how many—who were too afraid to even roll over. I remember how hard it was to believe it was even happening.
Having heard so many horror stories, I’m glad my experience of sexual abuse wasn’t worse, and I feel almost embarrassed counting it when hearing or reading someone talk about more serious and sustained abuse, but the fact is, I was sexually abused and it had (or has) a lasting impact on me. It’s that impact, more than the abuse itself, that I want to discuss here. In GMP’s recent (September, 2011) series of articles on Rape and Sexual Violence, I read many profound, tragic, and often inspiring stories of survival, but I noticed that most of the male perspective being expressed was with regard to how to support women who had survived it and how to reduce it’s incidence through either personal change or activism. That’s all incredibly important and valuable discussion to have, but I was never quite having that feeling of, “Finally, someone is giving words to what I’ve felt!” so I’m resorting to my own words, in hopes of giving someone else that feeling.
Many stories of rape or sexual abuse of women that I’ve heard lead to promiscuity; I went sort of the opposite way. I don’t know if that’s typical for a male survivor or not, but having no sexual assertiveness sucked when I still had all the desire.
If you’re expecting to hear how getting molested transformed me from a “good” 13-yr old into a rebellious, substance-abusing juvenile delinquent, you’re out of luck. Outwardly, I stayed pretty much the same kid: good grades, rule follower, got along fine with my parents, etc. The main difference in behavior was one that was easily attributed, even by me, to teenage shyness and awkwardness: my social circle shrank to almost nothing, and I was painfully shy when it came to dating. It would be a long time before I realized that a lot of my social awkwardness probably had something to do with being molested. Making that connection didn’t make anything easier, but it at least made sense.
Getting molested did not stunt my sex drive at all. Between the usual urges that accompany puberty and being a bookworm who read a lot about sex even before the Internet made it easy, I had no shortage of sexual desire. What it did stunt was my willingness and ability to make a move. Deep down, I was so afraid of violating a girl’s space by making an unwanted advance, that I refrained from making moves even at times when any “normal” guy would be seeing nothing but green light.
The more sexual or physical the move, the harder it was to make, but the really insidious thing about this fear was that it was inhibiting even at the point where potential sex gets started, like flirting or asking a girl on a date. I was not incapable of interacting with girls, but I’d always be so “nice” and asexual that I was one of those guys who ended up with plenty of platonic girl friends who infuriatingly told me time and again how lucky some girl would be to have me.
Fortunately, I didn’t remain trapped as an involuntary celibate forever, but I can’t say I overcame the fear of making unwanted advances, either. My first kiss was at 18 in a South American bar where the girl did 80% of the kissing, and it took a girl willing to make the first move on a date to finally have my first girlfriend and sexual experience in my fourth year of college. My lifetime number of sexual parters is not large, but almost every one of them not only showed interest first, but flirted first. Even if I initiated the first bona fide sexual move, it only happened when I was all but certain it would be welcome. If there was a campaign for “Only Enthusiastic Consent Means ‘Yes’ ”, I would be the poster boy.
That probably makes me sound like model citizen to some, but to me, it’s more about how getting molested made me afraid to initiate sex. I look back on dates I could have asked for, or probably could have gotten physical with if I’d just taken the chance and been ready to respect a “no”, and in retrospect, I think it was distorted thinking to act as though any unsuccessful advance would make me a sex offender and scar the girl/woman for life. I think there’s a huge middle ground between rape and enthusiastic consent, much of it morally acceptable to both (or more) parties, but my early experience on the bad side of the spectrum restricted my comfort zone to that level of consent that happens so infrequently—especially to a man waiting for it—that I’m more or less doomed to a life of not enough sex. On an intellectual level, I know that I can’t just passively wait for as much sex as I want, but fear of violating someone else the way I’ve been violated is a huge initiative killer.
These fears and inhibitions haven’t been so all-consuming as to prevent me from having any long-term relationships, including the marriage I’m in now. They just manifest in different ways. I’ve read and heard a zillion times that women want sex just as much as men when they’re with the right guy, and when they’re in a wanting mood, I find that believable. However, practically all my anecdotal experience—both direct and indirect—tells me that if women’s libido is comparable to men’s in intensity, it’s not nearly as durable or frequent after a couple of years. In that early part of a long-term relationship when we’re both hot and heavy all the time, it’s smooth sailing, but when that desire on her side drops off, I’m back to the wounded guy who’s afraid that me wanting it too much or touching at the wrong time will hurt the body or feelings of the woman I love. On top of that, it’s hard to ask for what I want, or how I want it, because at the first sign that she’s anxious about it, I back off, and then tend not to bring it up again. It’s not exactly a great recipe for healthy communication about sex.
Given my hang-ups about how much consent is enough (and my wife’s own issues I won’t even get into but everyone has something about sex, right?) it’s amazing I ever have any good sex, and yet I do. The kind with enthusiastic consent is the best, no question about it, but it’s not the only kind. It’s all consensual, though, so when I tune out that wounded 13-yr. old lurking inside me, I think I still qualify as a good man.