Sketchy Sexual Experiences

I was talking to my friend the other day on the phone. I wanted to know some of the less discussed details about the beginning of her relationship with her now husband. When did they first kiss, how long did they wait before having sex, etc. Even though I know that these things are highly personal milestones in any relationship, I felt like it would help me to have some idea of the timelines for other people. Discussing this with her was highly therapeutic for me. I realize that I don’t need anyone else to justify my decision on waiting to have sex. In the end it’s my decision and whenever I choose to have sex with a partner is valid. Yet it did help me feel more confident and reassured after hearing someone else’s perspective and experience.

Working at a child advocacy center for over a year now, I’ve learned a lot more about sex and consent than I expected. It is absolutely heartbreaking to hear the stories of some of these teen girls who we see here. Their stories all sound so similar. They tell us they didn’t want to scream or make a scene. They second guess and doubt their own intuition and perspective. They are ashamed. They blame themselves. They don’t know what to do. They feel bad for their abuser even, at times. After a while, something finally clicked inside of my head and I began to see my younger self in a lot of these girls. Some of the scenarios they describe sound so familiar.

When the Me Too Movement first started a few years ago, I felt somewhat conflicted. I saw everyone around me sharing stories of times they had been abused or disrespected by men. It seemed like all women had at least one story. Yet after searching my memories, I felt I didn’t have any of these types of experiences. I felt lucky, of course, grateful, but I also felt confused. Why didn’t I have any of these stories when so many other women did? I couldn’t find a satisfying answer. Of course my self-hating, low self-esteem mind told me that it must be because I’m not attractive enough to be assaulted. Which I know is offensive and ridiculous.

Since that time, I’ve thought about a lot to different sexual encounters I had growing up. It feels weird to say, but looking back, I feel like I was victimized at least twice without even realizing it or acknowledging it. How can that be possible? I’ve asked myself that question, and I still don’t know. Maybe the only separation is whether or not you feel like you’ve been traumatized. That doesn’t seem right to me either though. Just because a lot of the kids we see at our center are in love with their abuser or even enjoyed the sexual experiences they’ve had, doesn’t mean how things happened wasn’t wrong. It doesn’t mean these adult men haven’t broken the law and done egregious things. Does the fact that at the time I was complacent or believed I deserved what happened because of the situation I put myself in make what happened to me acceptable? I don’t think so.

It’s not as if I want to go after these boys from my past or have them prosecuted. Although I’ve come to accept I wasn’t to blame for what happened back then, I don’t necessarily put the blame on those boys either. I think what’s more important is to address the toxic, sex-phobic culture we were raised in. The culture that led me to believe being drunk and alone with boys meant it was my fault if I was then sexually assaulted. The culture that taught these boys what they did was normal, perfectly alright behavior. This is what I want to address. I don’t think the boys from my past had any intention to harm me or even disrespect me. They were just doing what young boys are expected to do. I doubt they viewed themselves as sexual predators, nor do I necessarily want them to. I just want us all to learn together how we can communicate better and respect one another so we can facilitate healthy sexual experiences, especially for teens and young adults.

During that phone call with my friend, we talked a lot about my sexual promiscuity when we were in college. Her impression was that I just had a high sex drive, that I was being care-free and having fun. She seemed surprised and somewhat saddened when I told her that actually wasn’t the case. I just didn’t know myself well enough, didn’t understand relationships enough, to make the right decisions. Given that my first sexual partner was someone that I was dating and who I was deeply in love with, I didn’t really grasp the correlation between love and sex. Desperate to feel that same emotional intimacy, that spiritual closeness, I found myself confusing it and conflating it with physical intimacy. I really didn’t have desire for the actual act of sex with most of the men I’ve been with. What I desired and hoped to obtain from sex was actually love and tenderness. As you might imagine, it took me a long time to understand and process the pain of never finding it.

This is one of the many reasons why we need to teach our children how to have these important conversations surrounding sex. The more prepared we make them, the easier it will be to talk about with their partner when the times comes. I wish I had been wise enough, brave enough, to ask more questions of my partners before having sex with them. Questions like: what does sex mean to you? where do you see our relationship going, if anywhere? do you have romantic feelings for me or are you only interested in a physical relationship? I always made the mistake of just assuming we were on the same page. Then I felt heartbroken and wronged upon discovering that wasn’t the case.

In addition, we need to emphasize that while no means no, only an enthusiastic, informed yes is true consent. Pressuring someone until they eventually give in is not consent. An obviously reluctant partner that hasn’t verbally said no is not consent. It is so important that we all work to improve society when it comes to its ideas and understanding of the complex issues surrounding sex. I only wish I could go back in time and share this new, deeper understanding with the young girl I once was. Instead I will try to help other young girls avoid my same mistakes.

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Empathy for All

I consider myself incredibly lucky to work in such an interesting field. Psychology has always fascinated me, but actually working with kids and families in my community has broadened my horizons even more than I could have imagined back when I was still in school. Given that I’ve struggled with social anxiety for the majority of my life, it seems strange to me that I would have such a good time working is social services. However, I’ve learned to be more fascinated than fearful of people. Even so, I also believe that I am on the autistic spectrum which I feel gives me an interesting perspective on interpersonal matters. I have always been able to set aside my emotions around a subject or situation fairly easily and act based on logic and facts rather than my feelings.

I’ve learned throughout my life though, that this analytical character of mine can often be seen as cold and calculating by those around me. Many times I have offered up an opinion about something that seems perfectly logical to me, but has been terribly shocking and offensive to others. For instance, a recent conversation I’ve had with a friend at work sticks out to me. We were discussing the idea of legalizing all drugs and illicit substances. We both agreed that at face value, this seems like a shocking and unethical idea. I think most people have a gut reaction to this proposal that causes them to condemn it right away. However, I have read the research on this idea from countries where similar policies have been implemented. It came as a surprise to me, but legalizing these substances actually has the opposite effect than you would expect. Rather than more people abusing drugs and overdosing, there are less instances of this behavior. This is because people are more easily able to reach out for help. There is less of a stigma surrounding drug abuse. People that use are also able to do so more safely than they are when it’s illegal, which results in less instances of overdose and infection.

After discovering this data, I was fully on board with legalizing all drugs. Even though my emotional reaction to the idea remained unchanged. It still felt like a bad idea, but I was confident in the science enough to overlook my personal biases. However, when I shared this information with my coworker, he refused to change his position on the matter. I asked him, “So you’re still against it even if it results in less drug abuse?” This seemed so interesting to me. That even highly intelligent people will often side with their emotions rather than the facts.

A similar discussion came up the other day at a meeting with people we work with on cases of child abuse. We began discussing the idea of virtual child pornography or child sex dolls. Of course the idea is repulsive. Everyone’s initial reaction is of disgust and condemnation. Yet, I remain convinced that if there is data that shows these things lessen the likelihood that actual children will be abused, then I think they should be allowed. I’m not aware that there is any such data. It could very well be the exact opposite. But even in this hypothetical situation, no one else would agree that this should ever be legal. Even if it stops children from being abused. Once again, I was left feeling amazed at the irrationality of these smart individuals.

I am careful to watch what I say, lest I upset anyone, but a lot of the time, I don’t find it as easy to condemn the alleged perpetrators as I feel I should. Obviously child abuse of any kind is inexcusable and all measures must be taken to protect children from these offenders. However, this doesn’t make me incapable of still feeling sorry for everyone involved. After all, a lot of pedophiles were once the innocent victims. This obviously doesn’t justify their crimes, but it does somewhat explain them. We are unable to just cast these people out of society. The fact remains that putting them in prison for ten years doesn’t solve the problem. They are very likely to go on offending as soon as they are released. The science has shown that as upsetting as it is, pedophilia is a sexual orientation. It is something that cannot be changed. These people must learn how to control these urges and understand that although they cannot control their thoughts, they are able to control their actions. If they are considered monsters by society for their thoughts alone, why wouldn’t they give in to their urges? There needs to be an effort to rehabilitate these people, not just punish them.

Often we will interview a child because they have been abusing other children. We won’t ask them about what they’ve done, rather we try to ascertain whether or not something has happened to them that is causing them to act out this abuse on others. I think it’s very interesting that when a child hurts another child, we still feel empathy and compassion for both of them. It makes me wonder at what point we draw the line. When does a troubled child become an unforgivable adult? Does the limit of our compassion end at eighteen? Why do we make that distinction?

I find it hard to make sense of this divide, even though I do feel it viscerally within myself. It is much easier to vilify an adult than a child for the same crime. At the same time it seems illogical to arbitrarily make a decision that someone isn’t culpable at 16 but they are at 18. How exactly were they expected to “fix themselves” now that they are legally an adult? This atmosphere of shame and condemnation only makes it harder for the “undesirables” in society to seek help. Apparently in the U.S. you may be reported to the authorities for even mentioning you feel sexually attracted to minors to your therapist, even if you’ve never acted on those urges.

At the end of the day, despite our feelings on these difficult matters, we need to act and make decisions in a way that results in the best outcomes for society as a whole. Sometimes it may end up to be something that at face value seems counterintuitive. But we’ve got to learn to look past our emotional impulses and trust the data. I certainly don’t know all the answers to these very challenging questions. I just hope that we can be objective and open as we continue to search for those answers.

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Grateful for the Chance to Give

It has been nearly a year now that I have been working as a Child and Family Advocate at a local Child Advocacy Center. Before I began this job, I had no idea that this place even existed or what a Child Advocacy Center was at all. I’ve come to learn that they are incredible things, especially mine. Here we help children who have been physically or sexually abused or neglected and their families. We facilitate forensic interviews, which are basically just recorded disclosures by the children of what they’ve been through.

I know a lot of people shudder at the idea of hearing these often heartbreaking stories from the mouths of the children themselves. However, it’s easy for me to focus instead of the wonderful opportunity I have been given to be a part of these kids’ lives and to help make sure they are protected from now on. To be honest, I really admire the kids that I meet every day. They are so incredibly resilient, strong, and loving despite it all.

I know I have made posts in the past about not having children in order to save the environment. And I still stand by that position and never plan on having any of my own for many reasons. But I’m so grateful that this job has allowed me to have children in my life. Until now I never really had the chance to be around them. To be honest, my social anxiety was even worse whenever I was. I didn’t know how to act or what to say to them. Now I have so much fun getting to know all the kids that I meet and seeing how unique they all are.

I am also extremely grateful for the few people I work alongside at this small non-profit. They are truly some of the most wonderful people I have met and I deeply admire them. They are smart, empathetic, passionate, skilled, and witty as hell. I greatly enjoy having them in my life now. I hope that I am able to continue to contribute and improve and stay here with them for a long time. I may have blindly stumbled into social work, but I am happy to be discovering how rewarding and fulfilling it can be.