It’s estimated that 1 in 6 men have experienced sexual abuse at some point in their lives, and often are unable to talk about it. I believe that we have to talk about it. Despite what society has groomed us to believe, boys are not immune to sexual abuse just because we’re boys. I should know.
The first time it happened is one of my clearest memories from childhood. I was five years old
Mel quietly pried open the double doors just enough for us to slide through before they closed, as if on their own, with a solid ‘thud’. The room was pitch black, except for slivers of sunlight piercing through gaps in the heavy velvet drapes that billowed within picture windows that were two stories tall.
“Where are we?” I asked. “Shh…” she said.
The air was stagnant, thick and smelled of dust. Within seconds, my skin became shiny with perspiration. Slowly, images began to reveal themselves from the darkness: a chair; a dresser; a night light peeking through a half-opened bathroom door; a bed with a large headboard of fancy brass swirls. It was obvious that this bedroom was rarely, if ever used.
Hand in hand, she led me across the room. The carpeting was especially plush and white–even at that age I remember thinking that white was a terrible color for carpet.
She placed my back against the array of small brass swirls that comprised the bed’s footboard. The metal was cold to the touch and felt good pressing into my skin. She crouched down in front of me. The look on her face suddenly became very serious and she began to whisper. The details of which I cannot recall but it only took a few moments and together, we took an oath, a vow of secrecy. We agreed never to discuss what was about to happen, with anyone, ever.
“I won’t. I promise.” I said.
On her knees in front of me, face to face — so close that I could read her lips, even in the darkness:
She tugged and released the drawstring of my bathing suit. Her long hair smelled like candy as it brushed against my chin. She leaned in closer, her lips to my neck. I stood motionless and in one choreographed move, she guided my bathing suit down, over my butt, past my knees, behind my heels and under my feet, then tossed it aside. The warmth of her breath felt good sliding down my chest, across my tummy and past my belly button before settling on my genitals.
It was the middle of the afternoon and summer sun was showing no mercy. The air in this bedroom was heating up. Her skin was shiny now, too. How had I not noticed before how beautiful she was? It was in that moment that I surrendered. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was or what we were doing, but it didn’t matter. I had resigned myself to do whatever she asked me to do. I wanted to please her. I was lonely and I wanted her to be my friend.
In the 1970’s, the Crescent City still had plenty of room for expansion, so my parents opted to leave the hustle and bustle of Mid-City and raise their children in a new residential development nestled on the outlying bayous of New Orleans. Our house was one of the first to build in this new neighborhood. There weren’t very many people at first, and there certainly weren’t very many young couples with children my age. There were a few other kids of varying ages scattered among the subdivision and Mel was one of them.
Melanie was her name but everyone called her “Mel”, for short. With no other kids living on our street at the time, we became friends by default. I don’t remember how old she was but she was old enough for my parents to trust her to look after me. And she did. She was a baby-sitter/big sister/best friend all in one. Mel was a bit of a tomboy and wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. She cleaned up well for Sunday mass but she was most comfortable in cut-off jeans, tennis shoes and tank top.
You wouldn’t know it to look at them, but Mel’s family had money. They lived in a mansion that stretchedovertheentireculldesacatthedeadendofmystreet. Maybeitwasn’tamansion, but it was certainly grander than the few other modest homes in the area, including mine. It was a very large two story Plantation-style house of red brick, surrounded by an intricate wall of wrought iron and mortar. Six tall white columns evenly spaced across the front porch were offset on the right by a sweeping driveway leading to a four-car garage. Opposite the garage, to the left of the main structure was a large veranda and pool, to balance off and complete what was quite a majestic impression.
I spent a lot of time at Mel’s house. And if she ever grew tired of having me around, she never let me know it. She dutifully kept an eye on me, always making me wait thirty minutes after lunch before swimming and she always had ice cream. Lots of it. And she had ice cream toppings too, like the ones you would get at real ice cream shops. Every so often, when there were no adults around, we would sneak off to have one of our ‘secret’ playdates. It was always in the same place – that dark musty, bedroom, tucked away at the back end of the property. After a few visits, I learned that the room was intended for Mel’s aging grandfather but he died while the house was under construction. Now the only people who went in there were the cleaning ladies. The cleaning ladies and us.
I don’t know exactly how many trips we made to the clubhouse, it was more than a few but none are as vividly recalled as the first. I’ve done a respectable job of keeping most of the experiences locked away, but there are several that I cannot keep down.
In one instance, I remember being on the bed, in nothing but my birthday suit. Mel was there, lying back in her bikini top and cut-off jeans. At one point her hand disappeared behind her back and like magic, the top of her bikini fell apart, leaving her bare chested.
“Take off my jeans,’’ she whispered.
I did. We had been swimming and there was a distinct smell of chlorine and girl sweat that I can’t quite describe but can never forget. It wasn’t the sweat of a woman, it was the smell of adolescence.
She positioned me between her legs, coaxing me to insert my penis into her vagina. I couldn’t, there was no erection, but the moment was strangely enticing and exciting.
“I have to pee.” I said, a bit too loudly. “Shh… Go ahead, pee in me.“ she said. “What?” I laughed.
I jumped off the bed and raced into the bathroom, making sure to shut the door behind me. The look of disappointment on her face is etched in my memory.
I believe that moment was the catalyst for what would develop into a ‘gratification complex’. I disappointed Mel. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone else. I had an obsessive need to sexually satisfy my partners. I honed my skills to the professional level, literally. Becoming an escort was my way of satisfying that obsession. Having people pay for my services was validation that I knew what I was doing.
On what would be our last trip to the clubhouse, Mel brought someone new. Her name was Lily. I recognized her from church and knew she lived a few streets away. I don’t know how Lily ended up at Mel’s house that day, but there we stood, in the dark, naked as jaybirds, exploring each other’s genitals under Mel’s direction, cloaked under the playful guise of ‘Simon Says’.
Then, one day, Mel was gone. Just like that. I was told that she decided to live with her biological father and I never saw her again. No more swimming, no more ice cream toppings and no more clubhouse. Almost like it never happened. But it did happen.
As an adult, I now recognize that what happened at the mansion is not Okay. Clinically speaking, what I experienced was ‘sexual abuse’. I have always struggled with the term “abuse” because at the time, I was having fun. I didn’t have many friends and I liked the attention. I was never harmed, and it felt good. By definition I was a victim of ‘sexual violence’, but by experience, I wasn’t. There was nothing the least bit violent between Mel and me. I was never harmed, threatened or felt like I was in danger at any point. In fact, with Mel, I always felt safe. She would never let anything happen to me.
That’s where things get complicated. The concepts of sexual abuse and violence are beyond the spectrum of what a young mind can comprehend or understand. Regardless of how I was feeling at the time, a child cannot consent to any form of sexual activity. Period. Even if it feels good in the moment. At the end of the day, I was a boy vulnerable to manipulation. I was betrayed by someone who selfishly exploited my needs for attention and affection to use me sexually. It’s taken me a long time to admit that.
Many boys and men who have been sexually abused either don’t report it, don’t talk about it or don’t believe it actually happened. The masculine image that young boys are given to aspire to, supports an idea that males cannot be sexually abused. We’re taught that for boys, any type of sexual experience is a feather in his cap, or a notch on his belt on the way to becoming a ‘real man’. Focusing on the sexual aspect rather than the abusive one–the exploitation and betrayal by a trusted and admired person–only compounds the confusion of an already complicated situation. The reality is that premature, coerced or otherwise abusive experiences are exploitative and never positive.
The #MeToo movement, which began in 2006, was intended to empower young, vulnerable women through empathy. Used as a hashtag, Alyssa Milano encouraged using the #MeToo phrase as a way of revealing the extent of how many women were experiencing problems with sexual harassment and assault.
Since then, the #MeToo movement has grown beyond its original purpose to include women of all colors and ages, especially marginalized women in marginalized communities.
Our country is at a turning point on so many levels. And as thrilled as I am to see women finally getting some of the respect and equality they have unjustly been denied for so long, I don’t want to see the young men of this country brushed aside or discounted as victims of sexual abuse.
That’s why men HAVE to talk about it. The best way to make sure that the young men and boys of our community stay represented is to speak up. If it’s happened to you, talk about it. Talk to a friend, to a therapist, hell, talk to that well-worn Billy Doll you keep hidden in your nightstand, but just get the conversation going. The more men speak out about their unwanted or unprovoked sexual experiences, the more likely it is that other young, terrified boys will discover that they are not alone, they are not bad people and it is not their fault.
Almost 45 years later, I still wrestle with abandonment, intimacy and trust issues, linked to Mel and the clubhouse. But by identifying and acknowledging their existence, and finding out what triggers them, gives me the chance to make different choices than the ones I’ve made before. Choices that will work for me instead of against me. I cannot let the past define my future. I can’t erase it either. I’ve forgiven Mel and I’ve forgiven myself for the guilt and shame I carried around for so long. What’s done is done. But now that I know better, I can do better. Every day offers me the opportunity to live my life and make my decisions, based not on who I was, but on who I am. And who I am today – is completely up to me.
Thanks for reading. Until next time…