ETA: Warning: Mention of unwanted sexual contact
I was a teenager with a typical schoolgirl crush on a man in a position of spiritual authority. At the time, I didn’t mind his affection; I didn’t think it meant anything. He was married and much older—that it signified anything more was just a silly fantasy I was too embarrassed to admit to having.
He paid attention to me, of course, and I thought that I liked it. I had never felt pretty or special. Even if it was just kindness, I thought made me womanly and feminine that I could get a man to look at me. He never touched me or tried to kiss me, but he made comments to me. About the way I looked. About how smart I was. About how I was different from other girls my age.
We’d been alone together, the circumstances of which I won’t detail here. Because men and women—and boys and girls, and adult men and adolescent girls—were not supposed to be alone with each other, he told me not to tell anyone. I didn’t breathe a word. I just basked for several months in the glow of this strange not-quite-relationship.
Until the day he allowed me to feel his erection.
I could feel it pressing slightly against my hip. At first, I wasn’t sure what it was, until he made small, purposeful movements that were just enough for me to understand. I told myself at the time it wasn’t on purpose. It was in the context of what should have been a perfectly chaste, fatherly hug. I told myself I had imagined it, or that it was something else. It was accidental.
Only it wasn’t.
When I reflected on the situation and the circumstances, I knew it had been intentional. He had wanted me to know that was how he felt around me. It was no mere accident, despite the fact that it happened in full view of anyone who had cared to notice. I panicked; that wasn’t at all part of my girlish fantasy. I wanted hearts and flowers and hand-holding and maybe a few innocent stolen kisses; I wasn’t ready for real, grown-up sex. I felt so incredibly violated.
Except that I knew it was my fault. On the outside, I was the picture-perfect Christian girl. I never dressed in ways that would attract guys. I didn’t flirt. I blushed modestly any time someone mentioned s-e-x. A couple of the boys at school had dubbed me “The Puritan.” Even when I went to college, my friends called me the good girl.
But I knew the truth. I thought about sex sometimes, imagining what it would really feel like. I examined my body and wondered if men would one day find me beautiful. I read books with overt sensuality. I fantasized about kissing and touching and making love, even though I was far away from wanting it to be real. I gave myself pleasure.
I decided I had no other option. I took the blame squarely on my own shoulders. It was a sign of how dirty and impure I was that I made a grown man hard. Somehow, everything I had kept hidden from the other girls must have been visible to this man and led him to the conclusion that it was what I really wanted. My secret thoughts must have bled through that and encouraged an adult man to take notice of sixteen-year-old me.
I was terrified that someone else would find out. After all, he had told me we shouldn’t be alone. Wasn’t it all those times we had talked without anyone else to chaperone at fault? If I told anyone how upset I was, surely they would agree that I had been the guilty party.
Never mind that he was an adult and I was a particularly naive girl. Or that he had authority in the church. Or that he was married. Or that he had admitted to me that he was what the church called a “porn addict.”
The shame still belonged to me for not stopping him.
I am convinced now that I was likely not the only girl he did this to, but at the time, I told no one because I believed I was the only one. I vaguely knew his wife, and she didn’t like me. I am certain that, like many within the church, she would have agreed that I had done something wrong and would have done whatever she needed to in making sure the church didn’t do anything to her husband.
But underneath, I am positive that she knew what kind of man he was.
So I never shared what had happened. I made sure we were never alone again, though, and I stayed away from him after that. I suppose people around us noticed the change, but no one else ever said anything about it.
I’m sure there are people reading this who think, “That wasn’t all that big a deal. How could that have made you feel so violated? It’s not like he raped you” and others who think, “Damn straight it was your fault—you were obviously leading him on and encouraging his lust.” Neither of those things is true. It was a big deal, and I did nothing to make a married adult man think it was okay to make advances on an underage girl.
This week, I have spoken with other women who have had similar experiences: The woman who was ogled by a man in spiritual authority and whose church inexplicably took his part by telling her that her “boobs were too obvious.” The woman whose pastor violated her by putting his hands on her and making his arousal clear to her, then blaming her when she told someone. The woman blamed for the intimate partner violence she experienced because it was a “natural consequence” of her sin. The many underage young women whose photographs have been used without their permission on the website “Is This Modest” (which I will not link to because of the violating nature of the web site).
This is what a destructive modesty culture does to us.
I don’t share this story so that I can unload guilt or make anyone feel sorry for me. I no longer feel shame about what happened. I know that my adolescent crush—as well as my curiosity and experimentation with my sexuality—were all absolutely normal, but that his behavior was inexcusable. Decent adults know better than to take advantage of children. I hope that anyone else who has ever been in my place knows that too. I hope that the girls in those photographs know that they do not need to be ashamed of their bodies, nor do they need to hide them in order to conform to some modesty standard that someone has told them will prevent them from being violated.
We are not merely bodies that exist for the gratification of men.