Sexual Abuse Did Not Start In A Vacuum

Me in France

I specifically chose not to include the more profound abuse I have experienced. Unfortunately the experiences I included here are quietly commonplace. When I am all alone and safe, the phrase I think of are “culturally insidious, misuse of power and epidemic abuses.” In fact, I think the small acts of petty domination, verbal threatening, and entitled abuses of power have become (almost) ordinary. As a society we are not just guilty of re-victimizing women who have suffered horrific sexual assault. We are guilty of letting casual dominance slide until it is commonplace. My guess is most men who commit sexual misconduct do not start off by raping women. In fact, I would argue that sexual assault may actually be an outgrowth of entitled people throwing their weight around and misusing their power.

…There I was.
In a college classroom.

After the professor asked for feedback and promised he was open to whatever we had to say, I spoke up. Class finished. Two classmates and I stood  in the hallway talking. My professor walked up. I asked him a question about my upcoming paper. Instead of answering, he asked me to follow him onto the elevator — alone. Obediently I followed. The doors shut. We stood in silence. Several long seconds later, we arrived on his floor. He stepped out and I followed him into his office. He shut the door behind me. I sat down across from him. Before I could ask my question, he interrupted. Assuming he forgot why we were there, I gave him the benefit when he began berating me for speaking up in class. Nevertheless, I was blindsided. He told me it was not my place to give feedback and that I should know better than to challenge him. Several times he admonished making claims such as,  “Beth, your words are unacceptable. Do not embarrass me in public again.” On and on he went until his words blurred into one powerful message:

“Beth, you are bad. I am good. Do not challenge my power!”

With my sense of right and wrong knocked off its axis, tears screamed down my face. I needed this to end. Defending myself only incited him further. I was breathless, frustrated and needed him to stop telling me how bad I was. I needed to get out of the room.  Instead of realizing I could just get up and leave, I found myself apologizing. My apologies only made things worse. I was trapped. He was angry. I don’t know if it was my wet face or my silence. Eventually he finished. I left. We never talked about my assignment.  A month or so later, I sent him an apology.

…Years earlier I was working on campus at a job I loved. My boss at the time was giving a tour to some outside visitors. I had no idea I was in his way. Regardless, he forcefully grabbed me by the upper arm and held it tight. Then he abruptly yanked me from where I was standing. As I stood there stunned, he looked back and admonished:

“Next, time you are in my way. I need you to move.”

I actually knew what he did was not right, but I had no idea what he did was criminal battery. I did nothing. Later that semester I withdrew from some of my classes. The secretary at the time asked me to fill in for her for a few hours when her father-in-law passed away. Of course I said yes. A week or so later that same boss sat me down in his office. He asked me not to speak. Here is what he said,

“Beth, by working for the secretary you were deceitful and are unworthy. I could fire you. Instead, I will ask you not to return next semester.”

I make no excuses, yet had no idea that I could not work if I was not a full time student.

…Around the same time, I was dating someone I thought I would marry. Even though we were not having sex, we crossed a lot of lines. According to Brigham Young University professor Brian Willoghby, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ stance on premarital sex is the following:

“Although the church discourages ‘any kind of sexual behavior’ before marriage, sex is considered a ‘bonding experience’ once the couple has entered a committed union.”

As a practicing Mormon (at the time), I understandably felt guilty, so I did what LDS members are encouraged to do: I went to my ecclesiastical leader to confess. My Mormon bishop said it would not be easy and that he may excommunicate me. He asked me to make a chart of my repentance progress and then to show him my chart progress during our weekly visits. He said my forgiveness was contingent on how I filled out my chart. He also said that my forgiveness was also contingent on me not seeing my boyfriend, which he asked me to keep track of on my progress chart as well. The bishop and I met for several months. One week I was five minutes late for my appointment. He stated, and I quote,

“Because you are late, you are showing God that you do not want to be forgiven. Do you even want to repent? I need to know.” He paused for a long time and continued, “Beth, I am not sure. I will have to think about your behavior today. You may need to be disfellowshipped.”

(In Mormonism, “disfellowship” means a disciplinary action less severe than excommunication.) We continued our visits for a few months. I was terrified and began to think I was evil.

After my boyfriend and I broke up I was casually dating a few people. One of them was very well liked member of the community. One day I stopped by his work to say hello.  He said,

“Beth, sit here. I will be right back.”

I was a little confused when he asked the few remaining customers to leave. Then he locked the door. I tried to leave. He insisted I remain where I was sitting. He walked up to the table and sat across from me. As the abuse started, a sort of twisted negotiation began. If I let him do what he wanted to do and told him it I liked it, then he would let me leave.  I was afraid to move. He is much bigger than I am.  I am not comfortable saying what happened next. At the time, I also did not want to upset the community by getting this well liked individual in trouble. Consequently,  I did not go to the police. Instead, I told a couple of our mutual friends. One of those friends told some of this man’s co-workers. Instead of offering me help, validation, or just staying out of it, these co-workers told me I was not welcome at their place of business.

Upon reflection, I can say I noticed red flags in all of these situations. I even asked for help and was often told that I should let it go or just go along with it. I kept my head down and thought if were a better person, these things would not happen. After many years and many experiences, it finally hit me. I did not cause the abuse or cause someone to misuse their authority. It was not my fault. Nevertheless, I remained silent.

Regarding the news of Harvey Weinstein’s gross sexual misconduct this week, for instance, just as I am I am glad that celebrities such as Matt Damon are “sick to their stomach” now, they were not talking all those years ago. Why did it take so much effort to bring awareness, and ultimately action, to the situation? Is it because of silence? Or is it that popular, powerful or even patriarchal people get a pass? Are we the enablers? Is that why pleas for help fall on deaf ears? Because of the sorrow my own silence has caused, I would suggest that our collective conversation can help break these culturally baked-in patterns.

And yes, what the news of  Harvey Weinstein has done this week is (again) open a dialog. And now we have an opportunity to be different. We can chose to stop reacting off of sound bytes and social media outbursts. Instead, we need talk.  We need all the voices. (I also recognize that getting people to listen is not always easy.) As I mentioned, I have tried a thousand different ways to begin this conversation myself. Something always stops me. Usually that something is my fear of embarrassing those closest to me. Ultimately, I stop talking, slow down my own healing, and pretend that everything is ok. Usually I realize that my need not to embarrass those I love only serves to enable the abuser. Then something like hearing about the years of Harvey Weinstein’s disgusting and abusive behavior, wakes me up. Again, I ask myself,

“Why did it take so long for people to speak up?”

Obviously I have already internalized the answer: Embarrassment, shame, fear, or complacency. All of these things kept me silent.  I also know that my silence perpetuates the abuse cycle.

I have a lot of rationalizations. I live in a culture where a man is the man and for me to scream is a sign of disrespect, which again enables the cycle: silence. And to fight the silence, I know I need to keep talking, but then the fear of upsetting my loved ones takes over. Even though I know that talking will protect us and that our conversations will teach us balance and discernment. Why I am speaking up now is that I recognize that words are also power. Our conversations will only serve to help us teach our children that they deserve respect; that our daughters do not have to compromise their integrity; and that our sons must be good men, even when society is telling men that they have a role: predator, (a.k.a. teenage boy who wants to touch a teenage girl’s boobs).

I also recognize that patterns are hard to break. I am a wife, a mother, a daughter and a sister. I want to be better. I want to do better. I think we all do. I want my boys to be transparent. I want to model boundaries and I want my boys to have boundaries. And that is why we dialog. I drill consent and talk about the things that are uncomfortable. I think it is also fair to mention that parenting alongside other parents can be muddy. We have dealt with other parents and their reactions to my sons, like the dad who asserted,

“I know how teenage boys think. I was one.”

As a mother, I wanted to disagree (because I do) and scream,

“Why can’t we do better?”

I remained silent. And really I am not always sure how, but I think we can do better. My initial step was to get comfortable with me (not easy still) and next to have a healthy relationship (with a man). And that is why I cannonballed myself into the deep end and dated a lot top notch guys [insert heavy sarcasm here].  First, there was the guy from church who told me I would never get married if I didn’t marry him (I was 19). At some point there was the “upstanding guy” who wanted me to reimburse his expenses after the date because I would not have sex with him;  the dude who took his clothes off while I was not looking and insisted on walking to the car naked (even after I insisted he put his clothes back on); oh and the guy who said,

“Beth, you would be so much more comfortable if you took your pants off.”

Then there was the guy who dated me while engaged (he lied to both of us),  the guy who liked to come to the door in a towel. As soon as I walked into his apartment, his towel would drop to the floor, and the guy I had a huge crush on. When we finally were alone. He asked me to give him a hand job, but not kiss him. He told me.

“I just broke up with my girlfriend. Kissing you is too intimate and makes me think of her.”

At least he eventually apologized.  Finally there was the seemingly gentle guy who in a firm voice said there was something wrong with me because I did not like Disney movies.  What? (He also freaked out and berated me when I tried to end our relationship).

“You will not find anyone better than me.” he insisted.

Dave and I in Castres, France

Thank God he was wrong and double thank God for Dave. I chose him specifically because he was different than the others. He had boundaries and he respected mine. And here is the good nudge: I chose. I did not sell myself or settle (even though I was encouraged to). Instead, I literally decided that I was tired of dating men who treated me poorly. And seriously, by the time Dave and I found one another, I do not think most people thought I was worth someone like Dave. It did not matter. I found my worth from within. And that is what I want to say out loud:

“Learn from me. You get to chose who you love. You deserve a healthy relationship.”

Society does not make self worth easy either. Ultimately, I told myself that I was worthy of a healthy relationship. And maybe that is a first. Consequently, I deliberately turned a corner and there he was. It was not magic. It was hard. I was not Dave’s property. Our relationship was not solely based on our sexual connection or manipulation. I did not have to entice him sexually to get him to like me, nor did he ever coerce me to do anything I did not want to do. He did not humiliate me. He respected my boundaries. He liked me, and was delightfully amused that I did not want to watch “The Little Mermaid,” or any Disney animated film, for that matter. Dave talked to me. He held my hand, and he was honest (even when he wanted to break up with me — like all the time).

Even though our marriage can help stop the cycle of abuse, Dave cannot heal my pain or break the patterns. And that is why he also supports me speaking up and healing. As a parent, he does not want to perpetuate unhealthy societal patterns either. That is why he wants his sons to treat others with the respect he treats me with. Again, learn from me, even though you speak up, the pain may remain close and awkward. It is ok. Mine does. I think it always will. Maybe I can use my pain to effect change in a culture that patterns abuse. That is what I am doing now.

And what happens when we take our conversation beyond this page?
Answer: a lot

Such as, what if your abuser is a relative, close friend, a professor, or your boss? What if the abuser is someone in a position of power or authority? What if he or she is someone you have been taught to respect or revere? What about people who are wrongly accused of abuse? Does that happen? What about the under-reactions, over-reactions, misdirections and inappropriate responses? I know how people freak out over minor issues and how others will take the secret of being raped to their death. I also know that people who actually have been abused do not trust they will be heard. And then there is another uncomfortable, yet extremely important aspect to the conversation: women undermine healing for other women. How do we address this issue? How do we talk to the parents who are modeling unhealthy relationships and boundaries? How do we tell a drama-inducing or checked out friend that they are actually teaching their daughters to be abused? And then what do we do about the women who scream abuse when there is none?  How about the attention-seeking women — those who make man-hating their cause? Should we give them the floor even when their words often serve to hijack the space for those who actually need the floor? Or because they are drawing attention to a cause, should we let them speak? Truth be told, even women who excessively truth-adjust their victim stories need to be heard. What about people who politicize abuse? What do we do about all of these issues?

I do not have a perfect answer. I think we just realize that the issues are complicated, and that is ok. Nevertheless, and from whatever lens you are viewing  my words, I think the conversation is key to healing. So maybe the answer is to keep it simple. Trust that we will figure it out. Know that you are not alone. Just keep opening your mouth and using your voice. The more we use it, the easier it will become.