Content warning: Sexual assault
I knew it wasn’t OK. Something was wrong: not with me but with you.
Still, I would convince myself I was the problem, that any physical interaction would lead straight to domination — exposing my virgin skin to a cold, cruel world.
That holiday evening, as you stripped me of my clothes, you peeled my innocence away with them. Your forceful grip reminded me of straddling the swing at the park down the street. This felt familiar, predictable even, and I told myself the feeling would fade as soon as I dismounted the playset. But, this time, there was no dismount.
In the beginning, it seemed innocent. After all, family is supposed to keep you safe. You were only trying to hold me — your second cousin, dressed up for Thanksgiving dinner, adorned in tights and topped with a bow. But you couldn’t quite get your hold. I was still small enough to carry, but not as easily as before, especially for a 16-year-old boy such as yourself. So, you lifted me and readjusted your grip over and over so that my small body wrapped perfectly around your torso as you positioned your hand between my legs, moving along the seam of my tights with a wavering pressure.
With time, I buried the memory of you beneath the rest of my childhood — beautiful, happy and safe — attempting to keep you locked away as I grew older.
I repressed any sexual thoughts, skipping passages of books and movie scenes and avoiding the girl meets boy storyline that was infiltrating the young adult section at the library. So I never thought about you. Why would I want to?
Eventually, I exited the cocoon of my otherwise spotless childhood. Growing up meant I would not be invited to every birthday party, that boys smelled bad and Santa Claus was not real. Most importantly, I realized the reason why you were not at last Thanksgiving or the one before that — my aunt’s bedroom was not a playground, and your hand was not the seat of a swing. Something strange had happened to me that Thanksgiving day — that was as far as my middle school mind could take me.
I remember the whispers and giggles throughout my high school corridors when girls announced their intensifying sexual relationships with boys: starting with their first kiss and usually, by senior year, climaxing with sex. I was a foreigner to the gossip. My desire to fit in overwhelmed my sensitivity to sex; no way I would risk being branded the Catholic school “prude.”
My first kiss should have been an innocent moment with the boy I spent my freshman year of high school crushing on. But instead, it released your memory, unearthing the encounter I, for so long, kept hidden away along with my sexuality. His lips grazed mine, and your touch returned, ravaging my body.
Hours later, I purged my first kiss. The moment became sour, and I flushed it away with the remnants of my dinner. The thought of sex made me sick.
I would wonder what it felt like to seek a man’s touch, even celebrate it, to not be terrified of experiencing it again — the sweaty palms and displaced underwear. But the other girls liked it: the strong hands, the merging of skin and a deliberate vulnerability.
I don’t know if I will ever understand that kind of intimacy, and you are responsible. It took years for me to accept myself, that dazed little girl, as a survivor. I am not excessively dramatic or sensitive. I am not confused or misinterpreting your affection. It is your fault. Unfortunately, this is the silent truth I will continue to battle with for the rest of my life, how you held an unwavering grip over my adolescence and cast a shadow on my adulthood.
It hasn’t been easy to tell my story. Truthfully, it’s terrifying. From sharing my experience with family, friends and now the public, I worry that people will look at me differently, discounting my sexual identity while throttling me years back into childhood. But I have grown, reopening myself up to a world I can trust and relationships I can depend on.
I wish I had the antidote to cure the fear and misgivings of his touch, but I never found a way to reverse my feelings. The only treatment was time, an abundance of welcomed advances and experiences: safe, predictable and tender.
My struggle was validated by the people I began to let in, allowing me to recognize the source of my timidness — the result of a trauma no one deserves. I found that not only was I not alone, but my loved ones cared. I learned to understand I was not broken. I was worthy of true love. It was hard for me to trust anyone’s embrace, but as emotional intimacy surrounded me, my willingness and desire for physical intimacy soon followed.
With time, the shadow falls further behind and the grip loosens; and it did get better for me. I would eventually be able to go on dates, kiss girls and boys and one day fall in love.