[Editor’s Note: The author of this piece has asked to remain anonymous out of sensitivity for several of the people discussed.]
A few months ago, I was winding down the night the way I often do, scrolling through articles and news on my phone while sinking deeper into the bed beside my husband. I had just finished reading about a publication which noted that nearly half of all Black girls in the United States would experience sexual abuse before the age of 18. Stunned, I quoted this bleak statistic to my husband, and added “that could be one of every two Black women we know.”
A beat passed, and he offered with hesitation, “…didn’t that happen to you?”
“Me? What, no. Do you know what sexual abuse even is—”
“Yeah, I know, but, you know…”
His words seemed to stretch out long in the air above our heads, observing our actions from above.
I bit back hard on what my own gut was telling me and closed the conversation. “I don’t think that’s what happened to me.” I closed out the apps on my phone, and smoothed out the blankets with a flourish of finality. “We’re not gonna talk about that right before bed. It’ll mess me up.”
My husband was referring to the time when I, at a co-ed sleepover, performed oral sex on the 21-year-old on-again-off-again boyfriend of an older friend of mine. I was 14. A freshman.
I am considerably more experienced in sex and dating than my husband. I was his first serious girlfriend and the first person with whom he did most of his sexual exploring. Our most terse conversations at the outset of the relationship were almost exclusively around my sexual past: What he didn’t want to know, what I felt I needed — felt almost physically compelled — to share, and what to do with the information dropped in either of our laps. We talked extensively about how he did not have the right to make me feel ashamed of my past, and how all the experiences I had been through, good or bad, were just as much a part of who I was as any other experience that didn’t have that sexual charge. We talked about slut-shaming, and why I felt judged by the way he would bristle at some of the stories and dynamics I divulged. We found a way through it with growth on both our parts: Him growing more secure in himself and our relationship to tread into that uncomfortable terrain, and with me growing to understand the ways in which I had used relationships and sex to manipulate others and to validate myself prior to and even into the present.
So as our relationship neared the half-decade mark, those conversations seemed to happen less and less. The stories seemed less relevant, the characters in them fuzzier, the interactions in them less meaningful. But one of the histories that never seemed to dim for us, that has remained a sore spot to this day, was the sleepover story.
In my early teens, I tumbled out of my child’s body and emerged at 5’5” with a DD cup by the time I walked across the stage at my middle school graduation. I was coming to terms with what my body meant, doggedly wanting to do grown-up things with it and also feeling sickly disgusted by it when others would insinuate or outright say what my body meant to them. I was catcalled and ogled by older men with regularity at that point, and an older boy at school cornered me after school to ask if I let boys feel my boobs for a quarter behind the big gym. It didn’t help that I was also a light-skinned Black girl in a predominantly white environment, where my white peers knew nothing about race or sex, but who tested out their emerging theories on my body. We didn’t know the name for the trope of the Black Jezebel, but you would have thought those children had a thesis handed to them at birth by the way they taught me to feel about myself and my body. I was neither protected by having women of color around me to make my body feel normal or beautiful, nor protected by the cult of femininity that enshrouded my white female peers to be sought after. I toggled between feeling hideous and feeling boldy sexy, sending dirty IM messages, getting rejected, getting attention from older boys, kissing boys in the dark of a theatre, but having to keep it secret because their white girlfriends might find out. All these incidents were instructive about my body: That it didn’t wholly belong to me, that it was meant for nasty things, not love, and certainly not love in the light; that it gave me power, but only the kind that wracked my guts and made my breathing shallow, made me want to simultaneously call my mom howl-sobbing on my Nokia phone and hide things from her.
Based on the education I received about my body, it should come as no surprise, that I felt I was given a gift when an older man — a popular man, a man who seemed to be the life of parties, who was the center of the community theatre scene I had found myself in — with whom I had exchanged a few flirty glances at after-parties and gatherings took notice of me late that evening at the sleepover. We had stayed up together, watching television and keeping ourselves awake long enough for everyone else to fall asleep, to be alone. It should come as no surprise that when he started to kiss me, I felt that my body was doing what it was supposed to do. It should come as no surprise that when he showed me the first erect penis I had ever seen, I did what I thought he would like. It should come as no surprise that I felt wanted, beautiful, special, grown-as-hell.
That night would go on to ruin relationships, get me ejected from the niche little group of weirdos I’d weaseled my way into and have me labeled a slut. I regretted the people hurt by the actions we took that night, but also wore it in a weird way I can only describe as a kind of internalized oppression pride. You told me what my body was for, world, and I used it the way you told me to. My body laid the groundwork for me to be a Jezebel, and I wore the role well.
And that’s what I remembered for an embarrassingly long time: The slight twinge I would feel when I’d see my friends from that circle pop up on social media or at parties, how I felt I’d succeeded in seducing an older, coveted man, but no hard feelings for the man involved. It was a mistake, but one I felt equal share in and didn’t regret too terribly.
Hence my confusion when my husband seemed to be near-vomiting when he heard this story, how he raised his voice nearly to a shout when he realized I was still friends with this man on various social media accounts, his saying he wished someone would hurt the man for what he did, that someone would out him as a predator.
And me, God, I can scarcely put these words to paper because they fill me with a shame I can’t scrub clean: I defended this man. How could he help himself? He was only human. He couldn’t have known how old I was. He didn’t initiate again. Where was the harm?
When I say that, nearly 15 years later, when my husband asked me, so gently as not to knock my sense of self from myself, “…didn’t that happen to you?” I had never entertained the idea that what happened to me was statutory rape, or anything other than two “consenting adults,” doing something they ought not do out of respect for their friends.
I hadn’t considered that though my body looked grown, it didn’t give a person the right to treat me like anything other than what I was: A child. I hadn’t considered how my body, how my skin, had betrayed me by helping this man see me as less innocent, less deserving of protection, more deserving of his restraint. I hadn’t considered that just because I wasn’t physically forced, I might have been compelled by his age, his stature in our community, his good looks, his charming way of putting his palm against the small of your back in a crowded room, in such a way it made the people around you seem to disappear. I hadn’t considered what I would find as I conducted no fewer than a dozen Google searches over the coming days that, that there was no way I could have been a “consenting adult,” as I was scarcely old enough to possess a learner’s permit, or go to a PG-13 movie by myself, let alone consent to sexual activity with a man seven years my senior.
As I begin to investigate, I treated it as an anthropological exploration, an esoteric question, “what defines abuse?” I thought, holding what had happened to me at arms’ length, not yet entertaining my husband’s suggestion. But as I scrolled, my horror mounted, and I found myself gulping and wincing through intermittent tears. For the first time, I saw the incident through my husband’s eyes: A 21-year-old pushing his penis into the mouth of a girl not yet old enough to hold a learner’s permit. When he heard the story, he wasn’t disgusted by what I had done in my sexual past; he was disgusted by what a 21-year-old man had done to a 14-year-old girl at an innocent sleepover. I had read my husband’s disgust as the same disgust with which my peers had viewed my body in my teens, the context and bedrock from which this incident sprang, the desperate need to be seen as desirable and beautiful in whatever way possible. It was like I was viewing him from the expensive sofa where it had happened, a 14-year-old girl in fleece pajama pants looking up with wet eyes, asking “Am I sexy?” and desperately needing the answer to be yes. The answer had to be yes. The answer had to be so surely yes that he could not resist. All my life, my friends, family, strangers, the world had told me my body was one of two things: a) disgusting and repulsive or b) sexy to the point of danger and past decency. What was I supposed to do? Which would my brain have chosen in order to cope with what happened to me? Which one helped me feel less disgusting, kept me from asking the question I’d refuse to answer for years, “Am I a victim?”
And what are the other ways I’ve found to not ask myself that question? What are the other ways I’ve helped other women bury their traumas in so many layers of self-deception and self-preservation? And why did it take another man, fifteen years later, to make me feel safe and protected enough to face this reality? What are the ways I am still a victim, and still a child figuring out how to give head quietly enough not to wake the others, but loudly enough to show I was enjoying myself to the grown man with knees splayed on either side of my face? What are the ways I’m refusing that question even now, even now as I write this, pulling back wailing sobs at my kitchen table in the dark, my husband out of the house, writing anonymously, refusing to call the man described here as what he is: A statutory rapist? There are questions the darkness asks that we shut down and shut out until the morning when they can scarcely be remembered.
Viewing my husband’s response as an adult radical feminist/womanist twenty-something who’s made much better sense of the world and myself since our first conversation, of course it wasn’t me my husband found deplorable, because whether or not I was cute enough or sexy enough didn’t fucking matter, because I was 14, and no 21-year-old-man does that to a 14-year-old. He wanted to kick his teeth through the back of his head; he could give a shit what 14-year-old me thought I wanted; He wanted 14-year-old me to never have been in a room with that man, to never have been preyed upon.
To be clear, sexual abuse was defined by what I was reading as “unwanted and forceful contact between an adult and a prepubescent child, such as child molestation,” so I still don’t know if I would count myself as the one in two Black girls who experiences sexual abuse before the age of 18. What I experienced, as I understand it, was statutory rape. I feel I must say this because I know there are Black girls out there who experience traumas that my mind could not conceive of, and at much younger ages. I also say this because I find myself, like many of the women survivors of childhood and adolescent sexual contact with adults, groping in the dark to find the right terms, all while navigating the reticence I feel to use the word to describe myself.
And that too is a layer to the victimization. I wake up some days angry as hell, wanting to scream and shake the men who took my childhood from me. The men who whistled outside movie theaters, the curious boy who asked about what he thought was happening behind the big gym, the 21-year-old who didn’t stop to think about how his actions would ring and ripple through my life. Or maybe he did think and didn’t care. I wake up some days and am enraged by the man’s girlfriend, a dainty and sweet white girl, and the other women who shamed me instead of him, while also wanting to love her and remember that she, too, has endured traumas I cannot know. She was 14 when they started dating, too. A freshman to his senior.