I was 12 when he tried to rape me. On the cusp of puberty. A young man I knew slipped into my bedroom at night and, while joking about sex, ripped his clothes off and tried to make me have sex with him.
I’ll never forget the words he said:
“This is how it’s done. You like it?”
What? No, I didn’t like it. I hated it. And from then on, I hated him.
I was more confused than anything. I felt terrified by what had happened, but I couldn’t quite articulate why. I only knew that something was very, very wrong.
Like most kids, I thought that everything that happened to me was my fault or responsibility, so I was consumed with guilt. This was my fault, I thought, though I simply could not understand why.
Feeling responsible, I told no one. Not my parents. Not my friends. Not a counselor. No one. For almost 20 years.
Although I fought him off, the wound had been inflicted. I had literally been violated.
It was as if a seed of terror had been buried deep within me, and at the time I had no idea how it would affect me in the future.
For the longest time I convinced myself that I had gotten “over” it. I assumed that because this kid hadn’t been completely “successful” in raping me, I must have been fine.
I was wrong. The damage was done, and it was precisely because the damage seemed to be “minor” that made it all the more devastating.
THE HELL OF SEXUAL SHAME, AGGRESSION, AND FEAR
In the years after the incident I was met with a dichotomy of pains: I was prone to aggression and debilitating sexual shame at the same time.
I came to tell myself a horrifying story about what I was: a loser, a weakling, a less than. I had fallen prey to what is known as self-verification theory, which posits that we often want to be understood by others according to how we see ourselves; the stories we tell about ourselves. It doesn’t matter if the manner in which you see yourself is damaging or self-sabotaging; sometimes the stories we tell ourselves falsely protect us from damage by being damaging. We become one with our stories, and they become interwoven with our identities.
This is exactly what happened with me.
Abuse leads to many damaging responses, but the most ubiquitous response is hiding. Hiding in shame. Over the years, I came to understand that the incident was really an experience of violation and shame; except in this case, the shame was personified. It was like being stabbed with a knife of emptiness, and feeling like being stabbed was something I deserved.
The experience fucked with my relationships with women in destructive ways. I became more withdrawn from my mother. I developed a social anxiety with women so strong it almost overwhelmed me. When a girl was interested in me, I'd often intentionally put myself in the "friend zone" because I felt that I had to protect myself, even when I really wanted to be with her.
When I did try to be intimate I would be consumed with rage not with others, but with myself. I felt as if I was damaged goods, so how the hell could I be a strong partner to a woman? How could I deserve to be honored in any way? How could I be worthy of love and affection? This left me lonely, fearful of people, and constantly anxious.
Over time I came to view my sexuality as some sort of necessary evil. As St. Augustine spoke about in his Confessions, I almost came to lament that sexuality existed at all. I knew it was never going away—and I didn’t want it to—but I also did. I didn’t know how to carry it. It was like a stain that wouldn't ever come out.
I was stained.
For many years, I had almost no confidence with women. I would recoil in fear at the thought of engaging in any sort of sexuality; of any intimacy that demanded vulnerability.
My inner dialogue would go something like this:
Back the fuck off of her
Sex is dangerous...if you express yourself sexually you will panic.
You don’t deserve her. Keep your distance or you will DIE.
That’s right: I almost came to believe that I would be abusive if I let myself be sexually vulnerable. It's ridiculous, yes, but fear is often most debilitating when its irrationality goes on steroids.
There were other reasons for my lack of confidence when I was young, of course. Yet every time I had the opportunity to assert myself with a woman—especially a woman who wanted me to—the trauma would resurface and desecrate me.
But this damage was much deeper than my ability to express myself sexually, because this really wasn't about sex, but intimacy. What happens when that most universal of human longings—intimacy—is corrupted, robbed from you? What happens when your desire for connection is maimed by an unease that never dissipates? What happens when your hunger to find a partner means you must hide one of the most intrinsic parts of yourself, lest you be found out?
What happens when the experience of intimacy is robbed of its joy and turned into pain?
Emotional intimacy has never been difficult for me, and innocent physical contact is something that has always filled me with bliss. The splendor of an eight hour conversation, or the touch of a woman’s hand, enraptures me and makes me feel safe. But for many years, the slightest sexual advance made me freeze in terror. Even when I was able to pull it off and express myself confidently, I often felt closed off, as if my body was involuntarily placing a fortress around my soul. When I was with a woman I'd become hollow, desperately trying to shield myself from re-experiencing the assault in the moment.
While I've now worked through many of these self-destructive behaviors, there are still times when touch beyond a certain point pierces me, and the walls resurface. It happens a lot less now, but the walls are there. Because the scar is there.
WHEN THE TRUTH CAME OUT
I always assumed I'd just keep it a secret forever; a wound I'd merely have to carry with me to my grave. But that came tumbling down when during my most serious relationship, I found it almost impossible to express myself intimately at all. While I could be gentle and honest, a certain hole in my ability to be vulnerable wrecked me. It’s not that I didn’t want it—I had just as much of a desire for connection and a sex drive as potent as any other guy. Yet every time the contact went beyond innocent physical touch, an avalanche of internal walls would begin screaming at me. This hurt my girlfriend so much I had no choice but to rip the walls down once and for all.
I "rehearsed" telling my girlfriend by sharing the story with my therapist first. Opening up to him—sharing this story for the first time ever—was a defining moment. Not because it healed me, but because for the first time, I acknowledged what had happened out loud.
I had stopped lying to myself.
The next day, I told my girlfriend. I did not offer it as an excuse for my shortcomings. Instead, I hoped it would allow her to see a part of my brokenness; a glimpse of the wound that had played such an outsized role in hiding my unconditional presence from her.
Her response was unequivocal: love. She received me. She heard me. She loved me.
Although our relationship didn't work out in the end, telling her what had happened was one of the most vulnerable acts I've offered anyone I've ever cared for.
THE LIES THAT ABUSE UNLEASHES
In the excellent film Spotlight—about the Boston Globe’s breathtaking reporting on the Catholic church abuse scandal—there’s a magnificent scene where one of the victim's lawyers admits to the Globe staff that many of the earliest victims received pathetic settlements from their abusers. But then he says something remarkable:
All most of them wanted was some acknowledgment of what had happened.
Yes. Acknowledgment. Not money. Not retribution. Acknowledgment.
This is one of the most pernicious aspects of abuse: most people never talk about it. The shame, guilt, and self-destruction that abuse engenders are simply too much. This is why thousands of college students don’t report being raped every year. This is why children who are beaten by family members often lie about the abuse, protecting their abusers. This is why when the truth does comes out—if it does at all—it often happens many years later, as it did in my case.
Abuse is a a silent killer, and it destroys lives.
By hiding it for so many years, my brain settled into a pattern of trying to protect me by rationalizing something that could not be rationalized. It was bullshit—and I knew it—but it didn’t matter. I was too scared. Somehow intimacy and terror became conflated.
HOW I NAVIGATED IT
This is the first time I’m sharing this publicly.
It's very important that you know I don’t have some sort of solution to "beating" the effects of abuse. Abuse is a serious trauma and if you've found yourself the victim of assault, it's critical that you find professional support.
With that said, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that making the choice to stop hiding it was paramount in my coming to terms with it, and I hope that by sharing this with you, you may find a glimmer of solidarity. I know that navigating the experience in therapy was a great source of refuge, because I found that I had someone to forgive. Though the person most essential to forgive wasn't the perpetrator, it was myself. Over time I found the resolve to forgive myself; for blaming myself, for hiding it for so long, and for shaming myself so deeply.
Somehow, in that forgiveness I was also able to forgive the young man who had done this to me. I will never condone what he did, but I did come to accept that it happened. In that acceptance, I learned to be courageously vulnerable on my own terms, free of the chains that abuse had suffocated me with for so long.
Today I’m much more confident with myself and in my relationships, I have a much healthier understanding of intimacy, and I no longer blame myself for what happened. To this day I sometimes feel the pangs of unworthiness, even though it’s much more rare. When this happens, I immediately bring myself into the moment, and notice how my body feels. Usually it’s a deeply buried tension in my stomach and a feeling of paralysis, as if the world is going to fall apart.
But I quickly pull myself into a place of clarity and observe my emotions objectively. By doing so I see that the terrors of the past do not have to dictate my choices today. I'm able to remind myself that the wounds of my past are not my identity, and I will not allow them to be ever again. When the fear of intimacy rears its head, I whisper, it’s not your fault. Because it isn't.
There’s a lot of baggage around being a survivor, of any kind. And of course there’s the classic “victim” bullshit. I’ve spoken with many survivors of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, and most of them don’t come across as self-pitying "victims" at all. What's alarming is how many of them never reported their abuse, both because of the shame engendered and because they didn’t want to be ridiculed for their transgressions. I've seen this over and over again, with both men and women.
So I want to end by offering very vocal pleas to men and women who've been victims of abuse of any kind:
You may feel ashamed by what happened to you. You may feel as if you’re not manly, or weak, or a coward for “allowing” your abuse to happen.
You’re not. Do you hear me? You’re not. You were abused. It wasn’t a test of your manhood and you didn’t deserve it. It wasn’t meant to cleanse you or teach you something. It fucking sucks, plain and simple, and it’s not your fault.
I only implore you to do one thing: please, don’t hide it. Don’t bury your pain in a fortress of shame. Don’t make the tragic mistake of assuming that talking about it will expose your weakness, or that you’ll be complaining, or playing the victim. You won’t be. Anyone who says you will be doesn’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.
Remember: millions of men are abused every year. Abuse is desecrating. You don't have to dishonor yourself by internalizing that desecration with silence.
I'm not a woman and won't pretend to be, so I'll say only this: I don’t understand. I have no idea what you’ve endured. You don't need me to tell you of the disgusting terrors that women endure—often at the hands of men—on a daily basis. I can’t explain the horrifying ordeals you've had to live with. But I acknowledge your wounds. I stand with you and offer my love.
I honor your decision to forgive those who’ve harmed you, or your decision to tell them to fuck off. It’s your voice, and it’s your choice.
The only thing I ask is that you acknowledge yourself. That you seek out support. That you don't spend your life blaming yourself for what is never, ever your fault.
My words are but an offering to all those who've suffered any form of abuse. There are millions of you, and that's millions too many. So while I cannot heal you, I can honor you. And I can remind you:
You are not alone.
If you've suffered a sexual assault of any kind, please do not hesitate to call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE. They are available 24/7.
The RAINN organization does amazing work with survivors of sexual assault: rainn.org.
The 1in6 organization provides resources to men who've suffered sexual abuse: 1in6.org.
I was also very personally moved by Lewis Howes' heartbreaking story of his being raped as a young child. He spoke about how that changed and affected him here.