How do I frame this past incident if it ever comes up?
May 26, 2014 8:04 AM   Subscribe

In the light of recent Metas about sexual harassment, and countless other Metas from the past, there is an incident from my childhood I haven't been able to fully or comfortably contextualise. Details below the cut.

What happened to me seems so unusual that I'm afraid that if I bring it up, I'll be saying something along the lines of, "It isn't always that bad." What's worse is that, the human memory being what it is, I have trouble remembering if it actually happened. I was in grade school, and the person who convinced me to do the act was classmate who disappeared the next year. It was just the shedding of pants and some light touching of privates, nothing further, and occurred in a corner of the school which was dim and unoccupied.

To the best of my knowledge it didn't happen again. Perhaps I said no the next time he asked and he didn't pursue (this is what I believe happened) or something else stopped him. I don't remember.

I don't know what happened to him, and nor am I interested in seeing him called out or anything like that; we were little kids. I doubt he had any more idea of what he was doing than I had of what he was making me do. I had rationalised that maybe he had seen it on television, or that he had seen the act done in his presence. But I'll never know these things now, and nor do I want to find and ask him these things. Heck, it happened well before I was educated about what it could possibly mean.

What I'd like to say is I'm only minutely concerned about what this reflects on me, but these days I'm not so sure. I don't know what to do about it; the experiences I read about on the internet about sexual encounters rarely have two children of the same age who do the bit and (at least with me) are hit with no resulting consequences. I'm female. I'm in my twenties now. The incident as I look back on it looks very, very bizarre. As my awareness about the implications of it expanded it started taking on an indescribable shape. This is a thing that could mark me for life yet at the same time it's a thing that doesn't really feel like a thing, because I felt very little impact from it growing up.

In a conversation about rape I feel irrelevant -- a statistical outlier. I don't know what to make of my experience and I'm afraid of giving ammo to the side that's less considerate. I feel that I don't want to diminish other women's experiences, but in the process I feel completely, and utterly alone. And completely unable to offer any emotional support, because my experience isn't anywhere remotely as bad. I got off lucky. So lucky. It breaks my heart.

Yet at times reading another woman's experience will bring out a feeling of confusion. I hesitate to say lack of sympathy. The lack of empathy, I think, bothers me. I'm not always left cold but sometimes I just struggle to feel anything and I feel bad about it. I've taken myself aside and told myself that my experience was tame and that I shouldn't bother anyone with it. Adding in my two cents will help nothing. I should respect the other women and give them their space.

Being a person who generally keeps to themselves the chances of me feeling remotely like bringing this up even if I feel it's relevant are low. But in the rhetorical scenario that I do bring it up, how do I frame it? Is there any sensible way to frame it at all?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total)
In a child development class I took the professor mentioned it is fairly common for children to engage in consensual play with each other's privates (I hate to say "sexual" because often the kids themselves don't know the implications of their actions). It's like a kid touching themselves--they have no idea of what it means, just that they're curious and it might feel good. More than one parent will reluctantly admit to getting the phone call that their kid took off their pants on the bus in kindergarten or were caught "playing doctor" with another child. It is one thing when one child is clearly being violated against their will, another when it is more of an exploratory, curiosity thing. If you weren't forced or coerced to do this then I would put it under the heading of "kids are weird and don't always understand the meaning behind touching each other's privates" and leave it at that.
posted by schroedinger at 8:20 AM on May 26, 2014 [19 favorites]

It's a shame that we're so politicized about how we talk about bad things that happen to us that we have to worry about something like this.

You seem to understand the problem; you could potentially come across as dismissive to someone who was actually raped, for example. Since you do understand the problem, I doubt you'll ever make a serious mistake in this area.

What went on with you is in fact extremely common, which doesn't make it less of a problem; the fact that you remember it and it seems to bother you after all these years makes it something that helps you understand and empathize with people who have also had similar problems, whether those incidents are more severe, or less severe.

Not mentioned in your question, but perhaps something you ought to do - therapy or just talking to a trusted friend about what happened so that you can put it in context a bit better. That's something you might need to do for your own sake. You describe it as "lack of empathy," but it sounds a bit like a normal reaction to having been traumatized yourself (if you found it traumatic). I'm not a psychiatrist, so I won't try to put labels on that, but rather than thinking maybe you're a bad person, maybe you should consider seeking help.

Not sure if the comparison is apt, but I was in the hospital for a few weeks after an accident a few years ago. I completely recovered. But the experience gave me an empathy for those who are sick or injured, or in the hospital. Whether they're there because they just gave birth, or they're there because they're terminally ill, I can still relate to them. If I talk with them about problems sleeping in the hospital, or managing pain, or hospital food, we can still relate. It's not a competition. I'm not saying my experience, what I went through, was worse than what they're experiencing.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:20 AM on May 26, 2014

Two things that I don't think you addressed in your question are 1) your ages at the time of the incident and 2) whether or not it was consensual. I think that both these details are relevant in characterizing the incident: five-year olds checking out each other's privates and maybe even touching them is not the same as a 10-year old boy forcing you to let him touch you. Not to minimize the incident, but the former scenario is not uncommon and is simply a result of curiosity. The latter, however, I would perhaps characterize as unwanted and unwelcome touching based on how you described it.

On preview, what schroedinger said.
posted by amro at 8:24 AM on May 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Something like this happened to me as a child as well. At the factory my mom worked at, there were a bunch of kids hanging around (since our parents couldn't afford to send us to afterschool). And, in one isolated area, another kid and I showed each our privates, and there was some touching. I think I was nine or ten at the time. I don't recall if anything else happened after that.

And it's not really something I think about very much. I was molested earlier in my life (and sexually assaulted several years later) and those things are what I tend to think about when I think about stuff like this. I don't think of the above incident as something for me to be concerned about. I feel like it was consensual, and really, as such I didn't feel like it was a big deal. And the way to frame it, I think, is exactly as you or I just did.

But, if it helps you to talk about it, you should talk about it. and, I think you should talk to a therapist about this. It might help with any unresolved feelings about this.
posted by and they trembled before her fury at 8:29 AM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you feel the need to get help with this, absolutely get help. This is exactly the kind of thing experts can help with, such as a psychologist, pastor, trusted friend, or any of the many organizations set up to help with exactly your situation- feeling alone and isolated with something that is causing you difficulty.

This sort of event is fairly common. It was likely innocent curiosity. However, only you can decide the appropriate response, now. Is it something that bothers you now? If so, please do get help. Your pain is valid and deserves attention and care. If it doesn't bother you, that too is fine. You don't have to make A Big Deal of it now if you don't want to.

I hope I'm making enough sense, here. I doubt anybody would judge you if you decided it wasn't a big deal to you. I sincerely hope nobody would judge/attack/compare scar sizes if you did reach out for help.

I don't think finding said young guy is going to help things, no. The why isn't that important. (it happened, and you may never know why, but you can get help or be ok without knowing the whys) But if you want to get help with this, please do. This incident does not make you bad, dirty, un-worthwhile, damaged, or unable to help others. In fact, helping others in their times of need is often extremely cathartic. At the end of the day, though, you do what you need to to be the best you you can. If it involves anger at this incident, this is ok. If it involves hurt, that too is ok. If it involves shrugging and carrying on, that is also ok. But please don't be afraid to reach out for help if you want.
posted by Jacen at 8:36 AM on May 26, 2014

What happened to me seems so unusual that I'm afraid that if I bring it up, I'll be saying something along the lines of, "It isn't always that bad." [...] It was just the shedding of pants and some light touching of privates, nothing further, and occurred in a corner of the school which was dim and unoccupied.

Playing doctor and various other forms of "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" are - when relative ages are appropriate - absolutely normal and common in children's sexual development. It can turn inappropriate very easily and sometimes abuse begins with a similar experience, but is not in and of itself childhood sexual abuse unless your experience of it was or is abusive.

It can, however, still be troubling in retrospect - because it worked out okay for you but could have gone horribly wrong as it does for some people. If I'm reading your question right, you're worried about diminishing someone else's experience because yours wasn't "all that bad" (I myself am worried about telling you how to feel, so forgive me if that's an inappropriate assessment). I think if I was cornered I would go at it like, "A thing happened to me that is common in child development and didn't have any serious consequences for me, though that's obviously not true for a lot of people and I respect that."*

If you are feeling as if you *should* feel traumatized, I don't think you are required to do so, nor is that fair to people who do feel traumatized.

I don't think any child gets through childhood without some incident like this, and even in the most benign of circumstances it's going to have a weird feeling about it, because we kind of know even as quite small children that the curiosity that drives the event is...grown-up stuff somehow. It comes with big complicated feelings, but that's not automatically the same as bad or traumatic.

*I use a similar tactic in talking about adult experiences of harassment, as well. I think there are lots of ways to say "I acknowledge the danger but I was okay in that particular situation" without implying that nobody should be bothered by it.

But if someone was telling me about their actual childhood abuse, I'd just shut up. My experience is not relevant unless they are specifically asking me about my experience.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:37 AM on May 26, 2014 [7 favorites]

Pay attention to how you feel, and let go of trying to find a category or label for what you experienced. An important measure of trauma is how you react to an event and the effects it has on you.

You were a little kid. You were confused and it was a stressful experience. You didn't understand what was going on, or why the touching was happening. The adrenaline produced by your body guaranteed that your memory of that day would last and last, even if the exact events are blurry. Now you don't even have anyone to blame, because you were with another young child. You get upset about it now because the feeling comes back -- it doesn't matter that you can't remember details.

I had some things happen in my childhood that, from an adult perspective, were benign. But at the time, my confusion and my surge of anxiety were overwhelming -- and the memories keeps coming back along with the feelings I had then. Some of the "harmless" stuff actually felt worse than the time I was actually molested because in that case I told my mother, and she talked with my about how I felt, that it wasn't my fault, and that the man was very wrong and we weren't ever going to see him again.

Feelings are never wrong. In your case, they seem wrong because they don't match up with your idea of sexual abuse. You had inexplicable feelings and those have stayed with you, and that in itself is emotionally difficult.
posted by wryly at 12:45 PM on May 26, 2014

I asked a fellow five year old if she wanted to "make love" (I knew this probably involved removing clothing, but that was about all I could envision). She politely declined, and that was that. Within a few years of that, I had compared genitals with other boys (including some vaguely erotic wrestling), and briefly went to school with a kid who liked to illustrate his penis with crayola markers and then offer showings during recess (they were surprisingly well attended). Also around this age, a significantly older girl who babysat in the neighborhood seemed to get an unusual amount of enjoyment from watching her male charges in their underwear/getting ready for bed.

Later, at approximately age 13, a girl a few years older made a pretty strong play to have sex with me; this time I was the one who demurred. I was curious, but not ready yet.

Out of all these experiences, the only one of these occurrences that makes me feel even remotely icky was the stuff with the babysitter. Everything else strikes me as totally normal, and totally harmless. (So much so, that -- previous to reading this thread -- it would never have occurred to me to avoid talking about those instances, for fear of bringing up bad memories in other people, or otherwise freaking people out. I will now note this as a risk.)

Objectively, OP, at least based on what you are sharing, your experience seems to fall towards the "relatively harmless" end of the spectrum. If I were you (which I'm not), I'd go, "Hmmm, kids sure do some hijinx, huh?" and move on. Yet you seem to feel that maybe it was harmful? Only you can figure that out. I do get a sense that you feel you should feel that it was abusive, but this is kind of an issue of self-definition, isn't it? In other words, it's only abusive if you feel that it was abusive. One-size, blanket definitions of any childhood explorations as "abuse" are not necessarily useful diagnostic tools, here.
posted by credible hulk at 5:58 PM on May 26, 2014

It's a little hard for me to tell from your question whether you are feeling traumatized and think you shouldn't, or not feeling traumatized and think you should, or possibly both.

Either way, you don't need to feel anything you don't actually feel.

I've worked as a therapist with survivors of sexual abuse. For some of them, similar events were very traumatic; we worked on those. For others, similar events were not at all traumatic; we ignored those in therapy because we didn't need to do anything with them.

Nobody really understands yet why certain events or situations are traumatizing and others aren't. A lot of it seems to do with how much stress the person was otherwise experiencing, which means that a not-very-dramatic event happening in an already-stressful life might be more traumatizing than a very-dramatic event happening in a well-balanced life. It does seem that the more in control one feels, the less trauma one experiences -- your belief that you said "No" and that made it stop speaks to a belief in your own agency in the situation (and that's true even if what you remember is not what really happened).

Part of the misogyny in which we all live means that most women have some sort of sexual abuse/assault/harassment experiences that we often write off as "everyday life" -- I don't think of myself as a survivor of sexual assault, but I've had (multiple) guys rub their crotches on me on the subway, I've had one try to force his way into my home after walking me there, I've had a stranger follow me through empty streets and only stop when I called the police. That's not even counting all the catcalls, pinches, come-ons, etc. In a sane world, those things absolutely count as sexual assault and harassment -- but we don't live in a sane world. Minimizing those experiences is normal and can be healthy; it can also be healthy to stand up and say, "This is fucked up, and it's fucked me up." You are absolutely allowed either reaction, or any reaction in between, or all the reactions in between, just as any survivor of sexual assault, abuse, or harassment is allowed their own reactions.

If you are worried that your lack of empathy/sympathy is because you're thinking that other survivors should just get over it like you did (again, I can't quite tell if that's what you're worried about), then that would be a good thing to talk to a therapist or rape-crisis-line counselor about -- sometimes if we're denying our own feelings, we get triggered when someone else is not denying theirs, and that's a good sign that we might need to do some digging into what we're repressing.
posted by jaguar at 7:21 PM on May 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm with the camp that says this kind of child play sounds not unusual and not unnatural (i.e., it's simply one particular manifestation of children's curiosity). So it doesn't sound like it's necessarily something you need to frame as a type of assault or violation. But if it feels that way to you and it bothers you and you want to frame it that way, then I doubt anybody would think less of you for feeling that way and for expressing it that way. What right would anyone else have to tell you how you should or should not feel?
posted by Dansaman at 10:23 AM on May 27, 2014

Kids do this stuff, I guess you need to decide if it was a mutual thing, or if you felt compelled in a way to do it (and if so, what it was about.) Most of us just chalk it up to childish experimentation, we feel a bit of shame about it and when we get older we realize it's pretty common and we get over it.

If you feel that the incident has affected you negitively, then you might want to speak to a professional to help you process it and put it in to context.

If you were to discuss it, you might say, "when I was a kid, I was compelled to do some sexual experimentation with another kid my age. While I realize that a lot of kids do this stuff, to me it felt sinister and bad. I have a lot of shame about it, and in some ways feel violated by it."

Everyone processes things differently.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:35 AM on May 27, 2014

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