Lynn Beisner, herself a survivor of sexual assault, examines Richard Dawkins’ assertion that the so-called “light pedophilia” he experienced as a child didn’t harm him.
This week brought a confession from Richard Dawkins that he had been sexually molested and physically abused as a child. Unfortunately, that story was overshadowed by the way in which he chose to frame it.
Instead media attention has focused on follow-up statements in which he tried to minimize his abuse in several ways: First he claimed that it did no real long-term damage. Second, he said that it is unfair to judge behavior committed more than half of a century ago by today’s moral standards. According to him, caning and light molestation were not considered really abusive in the 1950’s, but now are. And third, Dawkins claims that what he experienced should not be put in the same category as, for example, anal and vaginal rape of a toddler.
I agree with him on the last point. Fondling a child and sexually torturing a child should not be called by the same name nor should they be in the same class of crime. We need to have degrees of child sexual assault not to minimize punishment for those Dawkins seems to be excusing, but rather so that we can maximize the penalties for those who violate children in unconscionable ways.
But Dawkins’ recent revelation raises a serious question: Are we willing to hear the stories offered by survivors of abuse, even if they are told in a way that we do not like? And if they tell their story in a way that is distasteful to us, why do we immediately skip past their victimization and begin attacking them? There has been a huge outcry against victim-bashing, but that courtesy does not extend to those who are not framing it in a way that we approve of it.
This same question came up a few years ago when Nicolas Sarkozy’s father wrote about groping his nanny when he was eleven. In his story, he was the aggressor in a child/adult sexual relationship. Victims’ rights groups expressed great outrage.
And before that, Mackenzie Phillips told the story of what she considered consensual adult sex with her father. The public responded in a way that Phillips describes as “deeply cruel.” Eventually, Phillips went back and reframed her story in the acceptable way, that even adult children can never give consent to incest.
I faced a similar dilemma last winter when I wrote about a sexual assault so violent I nearly died of my injuries. For me, even giving a name to what happened was deeply complicated. After all, I had been told by officers that since I had initially given my consent and had never verbally withdrawn it (I was in both physical and psychological shock), I could be sued if I called it rape. My point in writing the article was that there are complicated and nuanced situations that are befuddling to their victims. But instead of helping me grapple with how complicated and nuanced the situation felt to me, many people simply attacked.
We need to remember that the story that people tell publicly is usually the one that they tell themselves. And the process by which people construct narratives to explain to themselves the horror of abuse and assault is very complicated. Often it is as based on how they want to see themselves today instead of what actually happened.
For that reason, I understand Dawkins’ need to assert that there was no real harm done to him and that it was not a big deal. He is known for his belief that he is not just okay; he is quite superior to many others. So what I believe he was doing was constructing a narrative of an event that matches his overall view of himself at this point in his life. He recently wrote a coherent narrative of his life, his autobiography. In that process, he had to tuck in the odd ends – these events that do not fit his overall narrative. If he were to deal with his experiences as true abuse, it would endanger his view of himself. So he figured out how to fit them into the narrative of his life without, in any way, changing how he views himself.
I sympathize with Dawkins because I know what it is like to fit the stories of the abuse that I suffered into the narrative of my life. I was brutally beaten and abused in other ways from the time that I was an infant until I was an adult.
Do I tell myself the story of me as someone who battled the odds and by sheer force of will overcame the damage done to me? Well, that narrative isn’t helpful because it could easily lead to me feeling superior to those who struggle more than I do. What is worse, it suggests a final closure, the idea that one can be healed forever from abuse. In that way, it would be like a redemption story, and such stories make it hard to say, “I am going through a bad patch just now.”
Another option is to acknowledge that the struggle is ongoing. But with that approach comes the risk that abuse will end up defining you. I would like to believe that many things have had a greater impact on me than the abuse had. I want to believe that standing in front of a Monet painting, reading The Poisonwood Bible and falling in love with Nina Simone’s voice all had a greater hand in shaping me than my mother’s beatings. I want to believe that the experience of creating a loving family defines me more than all of the pain that came before.
The fact that there does not seem to be a good way to integrate abuse into a happy, fulfilling life is why it is tempting to do as Dawkins has done and downplay it as not a big deal, keep it a secret, or even to take responsibility for your own victimization.
I have tried each of those approaches. Most people who know me have no idea that I was an abused child or that I was the victim of an assault as a young woman. I have tried to downplay it, but people who know and love me were so genuinely horrified that I could not continue to do that. I have even tried to take responsibility. I have told skeptical therapists and myself that in a childhood devoid of physical affection, I was the aggressor in a series of sexual encounters that I had with an adult. Thankfully, the therapists were gentle in helping me see the situation differently, because I would have bolted had they confronted me directly.
What most people do not seem to understand is that there is the truth, and then there are the facts of what a person experiences. The truth is that of course Dawkins was injured. It changed him in ways he might not even want to see. And the truth is that I was no grade-school Lolita.
I see the following facts about the sexual experiences that I had as a child: the person was tender and was offering me comfort after some of my mother’s worst beatings. His abuse was physically pleasurable and that pleasure gave me a brief respite from the horrific pain that I was in. Those facts do not match the truth that he was a pedophile who took advantage of my vulnerability for his self-pleasure.
But the facts as victims see them do not always line up with the truth as the rest of the sane world knows it. Dawkins sees the fact that he and the other boy that were molested have both had a relatively good lives. He cannot reconcile it to the truth that what happened to him was abuse, no matter what year it occurred in.
It is difficult as a survivor to get to the point where you can see the facts of your particular situation as matching the truth that it was abuse or assault. But even after we have finally made that step, there are times when we slide back into denial of harm, minimization, or sympathizing with the abuser. It takes a great deal of wisdom, luck and courage to be able to tell our stories as survivors in an unvarnished, unflinching way and to not let the patina of age make them more palatable.
We cannot, nor should we, expect every victim to be able to tell his or her story “the right way,” especially the first time that the person speaks about it publicly.
However, this does not mean that we can or should leave statements like Dawkins’ s about so-called “light pedophilia” unchallenged. But we should phrase our criticism in a way that extends compassion to the victim and the hope that eventually the person will come to see it differently.
Here is the statement that I wish every victim’s group had made this week:
“Our hearts go out to Mr. Dawkins for the abuse that he has suffered. We understand that he claims that it has done him no serious harm, but such proclamations are not unusual. They are common coping mechanisms for survivors. We hope that one day Mr. Dawkins will be able to talk about his experiences in a way that affirms the rights and dignity of the child that he was, and the same rights and dignity of his fellow survivors. In the meanwhile, we wish him all the best.”