Trigger warning for child/teen sexual abuse, pedophilia, gaslighting/emotional abuse, and severe PTSD.
I think I’m ready to talk about this now.
Most of us know that phrase, especially those of us with PTSD, those of us who are trans, but in particular – those of us who have been there. There’s a bad habit of talking about with euphemisms. One of my favourite books called us ‘children of the Secret’, other friends have just called us ‘fucked up kids’. Recently, ‘CSA’ has caught on, an acronym that is technically telling the truth, but hidden behind three letters. Child Sexual Abuse.
I think I’m ready to talk about this now. Talk about what? It’s always supposed to be one thing, one moment, one reason you’re a mess and can’t seem to stay in your body while you’re getting fucked (and it’s always getting fucked, not having sex or making love) because if it’s one thing, then you can fix it and then everything will go back to normal.
When it happens to kids, you forget what normal is, if you ever knew. I started getting pushed around and groped and coerced when I was fourteen, fifteen – early high school. But the big one, the one that I can’t talk about, was when I was sixteen. Old enough, you’d think. Old enough to consent. Old enough to tell people, if I wanted to.
When I was sixteen, I met a man online. He was thirty-one, but we could actually talk like people. Every time I tried to talk to people my own age, I got brushed off, or if they did pay attention, I could feel them looking at everywhere on me that wasn’t my lips or my eyes. Jerry was online, so Jerry was safe. Besides, we talked about metal, and we talked about history, and we talked about writing. He told me I was smart. I told him I was scared. I didn’t trust myself with sex. Everybody kept telling me I was a slut because I actually expressed myself when I wanted somebody, because I didn’t know how not to be direct. And more than that – I’d wandered into some strange sites online and I’d kind of liked what I’d seen.
Jerry said that was okay. Because he liked them too.
It took him another month to tell me he was a pedophile. Another month after that to tell me that he was getting divorced. Another month after that to tell me why – because he was awaiting trial for possession of child pornography. The real stuff. The scary stuff.
I stayed, because he told me he was sorry. That he couldn’t help it; that he’d never hurt a real child. And no sixteen-year-old ever thinks they count as a kid, too.
I think I’m ready to talk about this now. The reason it’s taken me so long is because, well, Jerry convinced me I was a pedophile, too. Never mind that a sixteen year old looking at a cartoon that looks like them and thinking it’s attractive isn’t that weird. Never mind that I was ace and traumatized and had never said anything that even hinted that real children were ever in danger. (They’re not.) Never mind that every single piece of ‘evidence’ he used to convince me just happened to line up with being sexually and emotionally immature – with being, say, the kind of kid who’d been traumatized into wanting their childhood back.
The reason it took me even longer even after he was gone is that everybody else seemed to agree with him. A common piece of discourse – I would say ‘these days’ but it’s been years now – is that if you engage with something fictionally, it says something about you as a person. Said like that, it’s not so terrible. But the endpoint of it is that if you look at, write, draw something ‘illegal’ (murder, rape, child abuse, abusive relationships), then you’re condoning it or participating in it. Context, to far too many people, doesn’t matter. The actual messaging doesn’t matter.
A lot of that is bunk, of course. There’s a responsibility on the part of artists and writers to take care about what they put into the world, but that doesn’t translate to only creating morally good characters that never do anything wrong, and bad things in the world already happen; art is a result and a symptom, not a cause. But more importantly, fiction and lines on paper can’t ever be a crime on the same level as those that hurt and kill people. Fictional transgressions shouldn’t put me on the same level as habitual predators. Even if they were, it shouldn’t have been enough to push me back into the circles that people like Jerry inhabited, over and over.
I thankfully stayed out of trouble. I’ve never participated in anything I’m truly morally ashamed of (read: I’ve never hurt anybody this way. That’s important.), and once I realized that Jerry’s impassioned cry of ‘it was only once!’ was that much bullshit, I was gone. But the discourse around ‘bad ships’ being the same as pedophilia kept me around MAPs (minor-attracted people) longer than I should have, because if I was already marked, what was the point? If non-offending pedophiles were the only ones who weren’t going to hate me for existing, and the only price I had to pay was letting them traumatize me more when I couldn’t feel anything anyway, there wasn’t much point in doing anything else. I got abuse from one “side” for trying to articulate how I felt, and when I went back to the abusers and their kind, they made me feel good and wanted again. And the more I was pushed into things I didn’t want to do, the more I was marked as broken, marked, impure – beyond saving. Nobody was interested in helping somebody who was already in hell; it was all about saving the ‘innocent kids’ from damaged people like me.
Obviously, this was all a long time ago, even before I found out that I was ace. (A total lack of sexual attraction can look the same as being attracted to everybody, when you don’t know what attraction is. Try describing the ultraviolet spectrum.) But it’s still left its mark. I can’t be part of any discussion about pedophilia without preparing myself, which means –
Well, I think you know where this is going. When a discussion about ships and fanfiction can turn so sharply left into ‘oh, so you ship a creepy pedo ship’, or I can run across tweets condemning loli and shota in the most explicitly hateful language they can manage, my mental health isn’t safe. I blacklist the terms as best as I can, but that’s not why I’m angry. I’m angry because the people who do this claim they’re protecting people like me.
Protecting me from what? Who are you saving?
Because here’s the other thing to consider. I’m not abnormal, for a CSA survivor, in any other way except that the ‘major’ incident came much later in my childhood. (To my knowledge, anyway. I don’t feel comfortable discussing more than that.) Many therapists have talked about how CSA survivors/victims will draw or write about their experiences as a way to externalize them, and when posted anywhere, a common reaction has been disgust – disgust that, whether intended or not, feels like an affirmation at how ‘broken’ we are. We’re rejected.
And that’s when the MAPs show up. They tell us we’re accepted, that we’re special. They tell us all these things. When I was on Tumblr, one of the members of a major anti-anti blog was openly a MAP… at seventeen. That’s not okay. A seventeen year old identifying themselves as a pedophile (and, “coincidentally”, also a CSA survivor) has been manipulated. But when any version of coping and trauma that isn’t clean and pretty is punished, sometimes by straight up lying about the content, it creates conditions that are fertile ground for this kind of abuse. Pedophiles take advantage of people who are already vulnerable – and one of the easiest ways to target people who have already been abused is to convince them that it’s damaged them forever.
I can already predict that one of the arguments – reasonably enough – is that it’s not the fault of people who want to see media be better that predators are what they are. That’s true, and ‘fault’ is such a complex word – the fates of people who fall into the MAP cult aren’t your responsibility in terms of guilt, or restitution. But when you see the teenagers with ‘MAP Positivity’ twitters and blogs, the running theme is that they’ve been told how their taste in fiction defines their morality, and it’s their rejection of that which pushed them so far into the wrong arms. I’ve never seen “fiction makes you a pedophile” save or help anybody, but I’ve seen it hurt hundreds of people.
The truth is, the argument is that you don’t want to see pedophilia ‘normalized’, but it’s too late. It’s already here. It leaves its traces on more children than I can possibly imagine, more than you want to account for. It shows up in baby beauty pageants, in school policies that punish kids for ‘making trouble’, in cultural norms that kids be okay with being touched and hugged. It sinks its tendrils into lonely kids who think they’re the only ones having dark thoughts and reach out for help, and possesses every adult who sees the vulnerable ones and offers their hand in exchange… for a price. Trigger warnings are a small thing to do to let us decide when we want to engage, and considering our existence is the lowest possible bar to set. Everybody has a role to play in changing rape culture, and it’s not always the one you’ve been told it is.
You’re not preventing anything. The damage is done. And if the only help you have to offer is breaking the ones who have already been hurt, then it’s not any form of help I want to see.