In my middle-American hometown, there remains a notorious
high school teacher. Every decade or so, he ends up with another former-student
girlfriend. The first of the young women taken in by his authoritative charm
later married, had a child with, and divorced him before he started luring my
generation with a seemingly cool babysitting gig that found more than a few
underage girls sleeping over. Last I heard, he had become involved with a girl
roughly thirty years his junior. Where I’m from, it is the town’s worst kept
In a revised second edition of her groundbreaking book Invisible Girls: The
Truth About Sexual Abuse, Dr. Patti Feuereisen explains the intricacies
of mentor abuse among the other variants of sexual abuse and assault that many
young women face. In the United States alone, at least one in four young women
will survive some sort of abuse before she turns eighteen. Because sex crimes
remain so underreported, it is easy to assume that these numbers may in reality
be much higher. While many books written for young women exist, Dr. Feuereisen’s
book is intentionally mostly comprised of girls’ personal stories and letters.
Critical to this dialogue, she believes, is encouraging young women to tell
their own stories of abuse, from their own perspectives. Dr. Patti – using her
preferred semi-formal name in an effort to remain accessible to the women and
girls for whom she advocates – has been working with young survivors in group
counseling and private therapy for the past twenty-five years.
For Feuereisen, the message is simple: in a sexually
permissive culture that does not honor women and children – and often equates
women’s physical maturity with readiness to have sex – women’s sexuality
remains a commodity. While it may not always be bought and sold with money and
gifts, it is often used as barter among families and predatory partners. We all
know that young women are incredibly vulnerable to incest, date rape,
acquaintance rape, and mentor abuse. While we decry priests who abuse young
boys – a horrific crime – it is nevertheless telling that we ignore the
hundreds of thousands of young women who are regularly abused by teachers,
coaches, and pastors. It is easy to act horrified every time we hear that one
of our daughters was violated, but as a society, it is our duty to listen to
and support them.
Among her primary convictions, Feuereisen believes that
telling one’s own story as early as possible will lead to greater healing over
a lifetime. Young women are routinely violated and just as routinely silenced,
which Feuereisen believes can lead to personally destructive behavior later in
life. Feeling isolated in your experience can further exacerbate the pain of
sexual abuse and assault for many young women, who may later act out or shut
down. Without using scare tactics, Dr. Feuereisen’s urgent message is to seek
trusted assistance as soon as possible. There is no time like the present,
especially when you know you are not alone.
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Many girls’ individual stories fill the fairly depressing
book, but then, reality is often dismal. Many young women, for example, escape
their abuse in fantasy worlds. While many therapists have dismissed complex,
imaginative fantasies as unhealthy, Dr. Feuereisen believes that they have been a
necessary coping mechanism for many of her clients’ survival. Some young women
leave home; others later change their names in an attempt to erase incestuous
linage. More than advocating one path or set of choices, Feuereisen applauds
not just survival; she validates the difficulties of being a young woman today.
From a practical perspective, Invisible
Girls offers a lot of useful information for young survivors. Women of
any age can have difficulty advocating for themselves in the wake of sexual
abuse, but young women are arguably the most vulnerable. From detailing STD
testing, rape kits, and filing police reports to a thorough back-of-book
resource section, Feuereisen explains the ins and outs of recovering from
abuse. She doesn’t offer advice; she puts the tools for healing in her readers’
Not one to shy away from controversy, Dr. Feuereisen also devotes
a chapter to prostitution, which she claims is sexual abuse. While her rhetoric
may anger some former sex workers or pro-sex feminists, her arguments are
solid. She compares an older john who pays for sex with an underage prostitute
to an uncle who bribes an underage niece with gifts and explains the same type
of “do it for daddy” coercion exists across the spectrum of sexual abuse.
Equating sex work with frat house culture, Feuereisen points out that we
imprison prostitutes instead of their patrons and pimps, further supporting the
idea that women are routinely sexually devalued in our society.
When dealing with familial issues like incest, it’s
difficult to avoid blaming an adolescent’s parents. Perhaps because it can be
so difficult for others to offer this crucial validation, Feuereisen repeatedly
takes a stand against parents – and communities – who fail their children by
looking the other way. Dr. Patti explains that physically or emotionally absent
mothers are often compliant in father-daughter sexual abuse, and she does not
believe that forgiving your inattentive family – or your abuser – is necessary
for recovery. Instead, because assault survivors so often carry immense guilt
and shame, she repeatedly explains that the only person you have to forgive is
Perhaps most relevant to increasingly wired generations are
Dr. Feuereisen’s online communities at her foundation’s website, GirlThrive, and on Facebook.
Sent to Feuereisen through various online channels and included in the book’s
updated Epilogue are collected stories of hopeful survivors and letters from
Rape is still the number one violent crime against women in
the United States, and young women ages 16 – 25 are at the greatest risk for
date rape. It should go without saying that a culture permissive of this
widespread abuse against its women and girls, ultimately fails us all.