Commentary Sexuality

Talking with Your Kids About Sexual Abuse: Questions the Sandusky Trial Prompted Me to Ask

Martha Kempner

From the Sandusky trial to new revelations about the Catholic Church to the stories about Horace Mann in the 1970s, it seems like sexual abuse is always in the news. These topics are particularly tricky to discuss with kids—how do we keep them safe without making them scared? I turn to two experts for advice.

Recently, when my almost-six-year-old daughter and I arrived at her dentist’s office she went right to the obligatory waiting room aquarium and I began to watch CNN’s coverage of the Jerry Sandusky trial. A few minutes later she sat down next to me and tested her ability to sound out words by reading his name off the bottom of the screen. Just when it occurred to me that she might read the next line —“sex abuse trial”— and ask me what it meant, the receptionist let out a little gasp and quickly turned to Nickelodeon. 

I am relatively comfortable talking about sex with my daughter (I am after all a trained sexuality educator). We’ve recently discussed fertilized versus unfertilized eggs (in answer to a question about why the eggs we were eating were never going to be chickens), sonograms and fetal development (in answer to a question about what you make bones out of), and kissing (in response to something she was watching on, well, Nickelodeon).  But sexual abuse is a tricky one and it gave me pause. I want her to be safe and informed but not scared of adults or sex and like many parents I was worried that I might say the wrong thing.

In light of the Sandusky trial, ongoing revelations about Catholic Churches around the country, and the recent New York Times Magazine story on Horace Mann, I thought it might be a good idea to check in with some experts about how to discuss sexual abuse with children of all ages.

First I spoke to Steve Brown, PsyD. who is the director of the Traumatic Stress Institute of Klingberg Family Centers and a former board member of Stop it Now. I also spoke to Deborah Roffman a sexuality educator whose third book, Talk to Me First, Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ Go to Person About Sex, is set to hit bookstores this summer. 

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Though we often talk about using current events as “teachable moments” to spur discussions about important topics, neither expert felt like it was a good idea to sit your kids down and discuss sexual abuse just because so much is going on in the press right now. This could cause more anxiety than it quells and raise more questions than it answers. Instead they felt it was important to have ongoing discussions about sexuality as well as power and abuse. 

Need a New Approach

I recently watched a rerun of Law & Order SVU which depicted a sexual abuse prevention program for first or maybe second graders. Counselor/actors with puppets told kids that if someone tried to touch them in a way they didn’t like they should say no, run away, and tell a trusted adult. “Now remember, boys and girls,” the puppet said in a patronizing voice, “if someone tries to touch you, you…”  The kids yelled back: “no, go, tell.”  I have never seen a presentation like this in real life but found it disturbing —as if the large-mouthed felt friends were telling kids that it is their responsibility to stop whatever might happen next. Both experts agreed that our current approach to abuse prevention does exactly that and that we need new methods for addressing this issue.  

Steve Brown said that he is not a fan of telling kids to say no or to get away because it does put the pressure and responsibility on the child rather than on the adults around them. He thinks it is much more important to emphasize the “tell” part. He suggests stressing this message in all of your conversations with young people and coaching children about the importance of talking to you. For example, you could say:  “If anything happens having to do with your private parts — you tell mommy or daddy or someone else you trust.”  

Deborah Roffman also worries about these kinds of sex abuse education programs and especially about the focus they put on “private parts” (a term she strongly dislikes). She believes it is almost impossible for young children to differentiate the messages we give them. They are not yet capable of truly distinguishing: “it’s bad for someone to touch me there” from “there is bad” from “touching there is bad” from “feeling pleasure when I touch there is bad.” Not only do the messages we give now put the responsibility for preventing abuse on children but they also cast sexuality in a negative light from an early age. She prefers an approach that focuses much less on the sexual aspects of abuse (like genitals and touching) and much more on power dynamics involved and how adults can and do take advantage of children in a variety of ways. 

She added:

“The more we focus on educating children about sexual abuse the less we focus on adults and they are the ones who need to protect children.”

Lay the Groundwork

Brown agrees that we don’t want the first messages young people hear about sexuality to be about “the most awful stuff” which is why he says that parents really need to lay the groundwork first. If you’ve already had conversations about body parts (with proper names) and how babies are born and other basics, he says: “you’re in a lot better place to have discussions about the darker side of sex.”

Brown also feels that you don’t want to spend too much time talking about sexual abuse because it can create a lot of anxiety in children but by having these other conversations first, you can refer back to them and say things like: “Remember when we talked about how no one other than mommy and daddy or your doctor should touch your vulva, well, some adults have a touching problem and they try to hurt kids by touching their private parts.”  Again he emphasizes that the most important message in these conversations is for kids to tell an adult as soon as they can: “If you tell me, I will do everything possible that I can to make sure you are safe and no one would hurt you by their touching problems.” 

Roffman also thinks parents need to set context for their children and agrees that a basic concept to teach children is: “Your body belongs to you and people don’t have permission to touch it and they especially don’t have permission to touch your genitals which we usually keep more private.” 

That said, she feels that the more important background discussions to have aren’t about sex or genitals or bodies but about power:  

“Sexual abuse is not about sex and if you frame it that way you set up problems.  This is about adults misusing their power.”

In order to help young people understand this she suggests explaining that: “Most adults would do anything to help children but there are some people who you can’t trust. It’s a very small number but they do exist and here’s what you do about it…”   She cautions:

“Don’t label it sexual abuse. It’s abuse. It’s one of a number of ways adults abuse their power over children.”

Roffman says that once you have had these conversations with your kids and conversations about how to recognize bullying (whether by an adult or an older child) you can call on these concepts if and when you discuss sexual abuse: “Remember we’ve been having this conversation that adults can take advantage of kids because you’re smaller and because they’re bigger and taller and know more?  Well, in this case the person took advantage of a child by touching them in a way that they should only be touching adults.”

Answering Direct Questions

Both acknowledged that with everything in the news kids may have questions. They agreed that you should take a simple, direct approach to these questions whether they are about a story on television or something that’s happening in your own circle of friends or community. 

When I asked what parents could say about Sandusky to kids who had heard of the trial, Brown said to be descriptive without being explicit. Labeling it sexual abuse doesn’t mean much to kids so instead you could say, for example, “He had a very bad touching problem. He hurt kids by touching their private parts. It’s wrong, it’s never okay, he will probably go to jail and he needs lots of help.”  He warned, though, about our tendency to use words like “pervert” or “monster” to describe Sandusky or anyone accused of abuse because this can contribute to a young person’s idea that it could never be someone they know and could never happen to them.

Given the sometimes graphic details that have emerged from the Sandusky trial, I asked both experts how to answer questions about specific behaviors. Again, they both said to answer honestly but cautioned about giving too much detail. Roffman says that you should start with the most general answer which will often satisfy children.  For example, if a child asked what rape is you could start by saying: “Rape is a legal term that’s used when one person forces another person to do something they don’t want to do.” If the child is not satisfied with that and wants more information, he or she will ask. The you can gradually tell them more. The key is to start with broad information and follow the child’s lead. 

Brown has similar advice for discussing specific behaviors like oral sex which has come up in the Sandusky coverage many times.  He says to give very basic answers such as: “That’s when someone puts their mouth on another person’s vulva or penis.” Then you can add some context: “I know it may sound yucky but it is something that grown-ups do together when they love each other, but grown-ups should never do this with kids and kids shouldn’t do it with each other.”   

Roffman reminds us, though, that kids are often looking for reassurance more than information: 

“If they ask a question about sexual abuse what they are really saying is, ‘This sounds scary to me. Am I safe? Are you safe?’”

Developing Instincts

In educating kids about the issue over the long term, both experts essentially talked about helping young people develop instincts about individuals and situations. Roffman says her focus is on general guidelines for recognizing when adults don’t have young people’s best interest at heart rather than specifically on sexual abuse situations.  Her guidelines for kids include any time an adult:

  • Talks to you in a way you don’t like
  • Touches you in a way you don’t like
  • Tells you to keep a secret, especially from your parents
  • Makes you feel confused (“This is an adult, I’m supposed to listen to adults, but this doesn’t feel right”)
  • Gives you something so that you will do something for or give something to him/her in return

She suggests reminding kids that these situations aren’t always wrong but if they ever have any questions they should come talk to you—especially if the person says not to tell anyone or threatens to hurt them or their family. The goal is to establish early on that your child come to you. She cautions, though, that the message to kids isn’t necessarily “I will always believe you” (because sometimes you might not) or “I won’t be mad” (because sometimes you will be) but instead the best message is: “I will always listen to you and I will always hear what you say.” And, of course, that you will always help in whatever way you can. She points out that as kids get older and spend more time away from their parents it’s also important to set up other adults who will be with them in various situations who they should go to with concerns. 

Brown similarly thinks it’s important to help young people develop instincts about adults and to point out that the people who hurt kids this way are often people they know like coaches, neighbors, teachers, scout leaders, babysitters, or even relatives.  Parents should explain that these people sometimes try to get close to kids and build trust by “giving gifts, money, or special things” and that it can be hard for kids to know when it moves from friendly to inappropriate. This is why it’s so important that kids know they can come to you for help figuring this out:  “If someone ever tries to touch you in a sexual way and if you ever feel uncomfortable or like someone is a little creepy you should tell me or someone you trust immediately.” 

Teachable Moments for Parents

Though the Sandusky trial and other news stories might not be the moment to sit down and discuss sexual abuse in detail with your kids, these stories should certainly serve as a reminder to adults of the importance of ongoing conversations and laying the groundwork we need in order to have these discussions over time. More importantly, though, these stories should serve as a teachable moment to parents — reminding us that it is our job to keep our kids safe.

If the allegations against Jerry Sandusky are true, he preyed on young people who did not have strong adult presences in their lives. Almost all of the boys who have testified grew up without fathers and many were in and out of the foster system. The adults who were in their lives clearly failed to pick up on the many red flags that should have been set off by Sandusky’s behavior. The inordinate amount of attention he paid to the boys, the gifts and money he gave them, and the multiple sleepovers at his house should have tipped adults off that all was not right with these relationships.

Just like young people, adults need to develop instincts as well. Roffman says that you don’t have to assume that everyone is out to hurt your kid but all parents should “educate themselves about the dynamics of [abuse] situations.” Pay attention to signs like adults who spend all their time with children and don’t have same-age relationships or adults who lavish a lot of attention and gifts on your child. As Brown puts it:

“If it seem too good to be true, it is usually bad.” 

The Impact of an Acquittal

An underlying theme in the recent news stories seems to be about how adults essentially got away with years of abusing children. The Horace Mann situation went on for years with just whispers in the background. The Church paid out millions and reassigned priests rather than really holding anyone accountability. In the Sandusky case, while there is finally a trial, the number of people who knew about or at least suspected the abuse for years and said nothing is staggering.

I will end this article by saying that while the recent stories about ongoing abuse that no one tried to stop are beyond disturbing at least we are now talking about it. Maybe (hopefully) this means that the next time an adult sees, hears, or suspects anything—he/she will step in to protect the children instead of turning a decades-long blind eye.

Analysis Abortion

From Webbed Feet to Breast Cancer, Anti-Choice ‘Experts’ Renew False Claims

Ally Boguhn & Amy Littlefield

In a series of workshops over a three-day conference in Herndon, Virginia, self-proclaimed medical and scientific experts renewed their debunked efforts to promote the purported links between abortion and a host of negative outcomes, including breast cancer and mental health problems.

Less than two weeks after the Supreme Court rejected the anti-choice movement’s unscientific claims about how abortion restrictions make patients safer, the National Right to Life Convention hosted a slate of anti-choice “experts,” who promoted even more dubious claims that fly in the face of accepted medical science.

In a series of workshops over the three-day conference in Herndon, Virginia, self-proclaimed medical and scientific experts, including several whose false claims have been exposed by Rewire, renewed their efforts to promote the purported links between abortion and a host of negative outcomes, including breast cancer and mental health problems.

Some of those who spoke at the convention were stalwarts featured in the Rewire series “False Witnesses,” which exposed the anti-choice movement’s attempts to mislead lawmakers, courts, and the public about abortion care.

One frequent claim, that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, has been refuted by the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. But that hasn’t stopped “experts” like Dr. Angela Lanfranchi, a breast cancer surgeon and anti-choice activist, from giving court testimonies and traveling around the world spreading that brand of misinformation.

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During a Thursday session titled “The Abortion-Breast Cancer Link: The Biological Basis, The Studies, and the Fraud,” Lanfranchi, one of Rewire’s “False Witnesses,” pushed her debunked talking points.

Throughout the presentation, which was attended by Rewire, Lanfranchi argued that there is “widespread fraudulent behavior among scientists and medical organizations to obfuscate the link” between abortion and breast cancer.

In a statement, the irony of which may have been lost on many in the room, Lanfranchi told attendees that sometimes “scientists in the pursuit of truth can be frauds.” Lanfranchi went on to point to numerous studies and texts she claimed supported her theories and lamented that over time, textbooks that had previously suggested a link between abortion and breast cancer in the ’90s were later updated to exclude the claim.

Lanfranchi later pivoted to note her inclusion in Rewire’s “False Witnesses” project, which she deemed an “attack.” 

“We were one of 14 people that were on this site … as liars,” said Lanfranchi as she showed a slide of the webpage. “Now when people Google my name, instead of my practice coming up,” Rewire’s story appears.

Priscilla Coleman, another “False Witness” best known for erroneously claiming that abortion causes mental health problems and drug abuse, similarly bemoaned her inclusion in Rewire’s project during her brief participation in a Thursday session, “The Conspiracy of Silence: Roadblocks to Getting Abortion Facts to the Public.”

After claiming that there is ample evidence that abortion is associated with suicide and eating disorders, Coleman suggested that many media outlets were blocking the truth by not reporting on her findings. When it came to Rewire, Coleman wrote the outlet off as a part of the “extreme left,” telling the room that “if you look deeply into their analysis of each of our backgrounds, a lot of it is lies … it’s bogus information.”

An extensive review conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2008, however, found “no evidence sufficient to support” claims such as Coleman’s that “an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion.”

Rounding out the medical misinformation pushed in that session was Eve Sanchez Silver, the director and founder of the International Coalition of Color for Life. According to the biography listed on her organization’s website, Silver bills herself as a “bioethicist” who focuses on “the Abortion-Breast cancer link.”

Silver, who previously worked at the Susan G. Komen Foundation but left, she said, after finding out the organization gave money to Planned Parenthood, spent much of her presentation arguing that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. She also detailed what she referred to as the “Pink Money Cycle,” a process in which, as she explained, money is given to Komen, which in turn donates to Planned Parenthood. As Silver told it, Planned Parenthood then gives people abortions, leading to more cases of breast cancer. 

The seemingly conspiracy-driven theory has popped up in several of Silver’s presentations over the years.

Though Komen does in fact provide some funding to Planned Parenthood through grants, a July 2015 press release from the the breast cancer organization explains that it does “not and never [has] funded abortion or reproductive services at Planned Parenthood or any grantee.” Instead, the money Planned Parenthood receives from Komen “pays for breast health outreach and breast screenings for low-income, uninsured or under-insured individuals.”

On Saturday, another subject of Rewire’s “False Witnesses” series, endocrinologist Joel Brind, doubled down on his claims about the link between abortion and breast cancer in a workshop titled “New American Export to Asia: The Cover-Up of the Abortion-Breast Cancer Link.” 

Brind described the Indian subcontinent as the ideal place to study the purported link between abortion and breast cancer. According to Brind, “The typical woman [there] has gotten married as a teenager, started having kids right away, breastfeeds all of them, has lots of them, never smokes, never drinks, what else is she going to get breast cancer from? Nothing.”

When it came to research from Asia that didn’t necessarily support his conclusions about abortion and breast cancerBrind chalked it up to an international cover-up effort, “spearheaded, obviously, by our own National Cancer Institute.”

Although five states require counseling for abortion patients that includes the supposed link between abortion and breast cancer, Brind told Rewire that the link has become “the kind of thing that legislators don’t want to touch” because they would be going “against what all of these medical authorities say.” 

Brind also dedicated a portion of his presentation to promoting the purported cancer-preventing benefits of glycine, which he sells in supplement form through his company, Natural Food Science LLC. 

“If I sprain my ankle it doesn’t swell up, the injury will just heal,” Brind claimed, citing the supposed effects of glycine on inflammation. 

In a Thursday session on “the rise of the DIY abortion”, panelist Randall O’Bannon questioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) March update to regulations on mifepristone, a drug also known as RU-486 that is used in medical abortions. Noting that the drug is “cheap,” O’Bannon appeared to fret that the new regulations might make abortion more accessible, going on to claim that there could be “a push to make [the drug] available over the counter.”

O’Bannon claimed there are “documented safety issues” associated with the drug, but the FDA says mifepristone is “safe and effective.” A 2011 post-market study by the agency of those who have used the drug since its approval found that more than 1.5 million women had used it to end a pregnancy in the U.S. Of those women, just roughly 2,200 experienced an “adverse event.” According to the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, mifepristone “is safer than acetaminophen,” aspirin, and Viagra.

Speculating that misoprostol, another drug used in medication abortions, was less effective than medical experts say, O’Bannon later suggested that more embryos would “survive” abortions, leading to an “increased numbers of births with children with club feet, webbed toes, and fingers [and] full and partial facial paralysis.”

According to the World Health Organization, “Available data regarding a potential risk of fetal abnormality after an unsuccessful medical abortion are limited and inconclusive.”

Commentary Violence

This is Not The Story I Wanted—But It’s My Story of Rape

Dani Kelley

Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.

A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.

There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.

When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”

Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.

This isn’t the story I wanted.

Unlearning My Training

I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.

If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendency to demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.

The heart of those teachings isn’t only present in this admittedly small sect of Christianity. Rather, right-wing Western Christianity as a whole has a consent problem. It explicitly teaches its adherents they don’t belong to themselves at all. They belong to God (and if they’re not men, they belong to their fathers or husbands as well). This instilled lack of agency effectively erases bodily autonomy while preventing the development of healthy emotional and physical boundaries.

On top of that, the biblical literalism frequently required by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.

Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”

Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.

But Some Habits Die Hard

Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.

When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.

He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.

When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.

So…I brought him home.

This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.

That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.

Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.

As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?

When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.

I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!

Right?

If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.

That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.

He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.

Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.

Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”

With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.

I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”

“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”

Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.

It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?

Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.

I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!

All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.

The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are

Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.

Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.

On top of that, my conservative background whispered accusations of being a Jezebel, failing to safeguard my purity, and getting exactly what I deserve for forsaking the faith.

It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.

Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.

So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?

Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.

Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.

We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.” Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.

So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.

I was raped.