Content warning: sexual assault
A response to Shannon Burns on childhood sexual assault
In the late 1980s, around the age of 11, I hit puberty with the force of an 80-tonne road train. I became the third-tallest child in my primary school and grew exquisitely painful adult-sized breasts whose entire surface was livid purple scar tissue. When I started high school, at 11 going on 12, I looked old enough to be allowed to buy cigarettes at the milk bar down the street for the year-ten boys who were old enough (the smoking age was then 16) but didn’t look it. Despite my school uniform, adult men began to follow me in their cars. Despite my school uniform, adult men began literally to leap out of bushes to accost and proposition me. I wish this were hyperbole. It was sometime in this era—the impossibility of knowing when is scalp-crawling all on its own—that my stepfather began to entertain the fantasy that he and I should have a sexual affair.
My stepfather was a man to whom the world owed something. By the time he was 40 and considering fucking his wife’s 12-year-old daughter, it was proving to be a delinquent debtor, and he was furious. His own father had died young, and a later stepfather had reportedly allowed the family to be swindled by a con artist and left in penury. My stepfather had what our family understood to be an undiagnosed learning disability; he’d left school early and struggled to read and write; he owned no books and only looked at the sports section of the Sun. He took the view, not unjustified by his family history, that smart, educated or articulate people were crooks out to get him. He did the entirety of his business recordkeeping in a pocket-sized spiral notebook, and had never held a bank account before my mother opened one for him.
He spent all day running deliveries in a light box-truck with a cabin upholstered in cream vinyl that had gone virulent sepia from his pack-a-day Winfield Red habit. In the truck he listened to shouty AM talkback radio about how the Asians were taking our jobs, and about how university-educated, broadsheet-reading, Labor-voting people like my mother thought they were better than him. (To be fair, they—and since in my adult guise I am a member of this group, let me say we—do.) He sold catering consumables wholesale to restaurants and food businesses; as a one-man operator he could not buy in sufficient bulk to compete on price, so instead added value largely by effusively sucking up to them. His customers were far more successful businesspeople than he was, while also smarter, more cultured and better dressed, and knew very well he needed them more than they needed him; they treated him accordingly. By the time he got home at night, he was nursing an ego wound that could only have found succour in being feted like a king returning to his castle, his feet anointed with perfume and women’s tears like Christ’s.
Instead he came home to another man’s two smugly academically gifted children sitting on what he considered to be his furniture and eating what he considered to be his food. And he had a private-school-girl wife who was unhappily slumming it, and beginning to realise what she had got herself into by throwing over my cultured but cold and sarcastic father for who she’d thought was a warm and humble blue-collar man. My stepfather expected to come home, plant his arse in a chair and be waited on as if by a servant, drinking solidly, in absolute control of the TV remote, for the rest of the night. My mother was minimally willing to comply—but not graciously, and certainly not warmly. She had left the workforce to raise children a decade before, which unluckily happened to be the decade in which computerisation completely transformed the mechanics of white-collar work. I suspect by this time she had already begun to fear that she would never again be able to obtain substantive employment, and was thus an economic captive in her marriage—a marriage to someone who had proved, once the bloom was off the rose, to be an incompetent breadwinner and a drunk and unpleasant buffoon.
It was in this environment, perhaps not unsympathetically, that my stepfather began wondering if he’d be better off seeking succour for his emotional wounds somewhere outside his marriage. Where sympathy begins to fail is when we observe that the prime candidate he identified as a potential healer—the proposed healing being vaginally administered—was aged 12.
In a strange way, I have felt healed by turning 40 myself. Now that I am at the age at which my stepfather decided he should have sex with my 12-year-old self, I have the authority of personal experience to say conclusively: a 40-year-old wanting to fuck a 12-year-old is absolutely motherfucking insane. For instance: I’m bisexual, and my friend has a 17-year-old daughter who is by any objective measure spectacularly hot: she has a gorgeous figure and an absolutely amazing arse. When I try to imagine being sexual with her, I want to vomit my digestive tract inside-out. Frankly, I don’t think I could even date someone in their twenties any more, at my age. I love them, but their little faces are like uncooked dough. I can’t even entertain a 12-year-old as a thought experiment. Humanity is not a species that eats its young.
In the autumn 2018 issue of Meanjin, Shannon Burns wrote a memoir about a time when he was 15 and having difficulties at home, and went to stay at a friend’s house. One night, his friend’s mother drunkenly initiated a sexual relationship with him, which carried on for some time. He writes, ‘There were times when I was obviously a willing participant, times when I was more reluctant and times when I was at loss.’ My understanding of the phrase ‘I was at a loss’ is that at those times it was explicitly non-consensual. This is a vulnerable story for someone to share, and my stance towards it was inclined to be one of care and respect. But Burns has a variety of other things to say, among them:
Sex and sexual advances are now regarded as loaded, power-infused acts that need to be approached with caution and sensitivity, but I struggle to take them so seriously. Even as a child I believed that those who invest sex with greater meaning, and seek to censor or control it, were more likely to do sexual damage than those who treat it with unwary humour. The Catholic Church might serve as an example.
I have tried to have my stepfather prosecuted but unfortunately it is almost impossible to meet a criminal standard of proof for historical sexual assaults that lack witnesses or physical evidence. Happily, I was able to meet a civil standard of proof in the view of the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal, which continues to pay what has been a life-long psychotherapy bill for depression and anxiety, amounting to tens of thousands of dollars and climbing. I haven’t had sex in 17 years due to intrusive trauma symptoms and I imagine I will have aged past fertility by the time I can manage it again.
Needless to say, the suggestion that I am merely foolishly choosing to take sex too seriously, and would otherwise be fine, rather sticks in my craw. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard from thousands of victims who had experienced life-altering suffering. The Ballarat and District Survivors Group reported as recently as 2015 that it had lost ten members to suicide in the previous year.1 Burns would not, I hope, argue that they are all just duffers with the wrong attitude.
My own life suggests that Burns’ view that censorious attitudes to sex are primarily to blame for harmful sexual assault is sadly naive. My own household was post–sexual revolution sexually liberated, which meant my mother and stepfather felt free to expose themselves to me naked whenever they wanted, regardless of whether I wanted it, and to walk in on me changing or showering, regardless of whether I wanted it. It meant that my stepfather was free to come into the bathroom while I was showering night after night, and wash his hands for a longer time than I think I have ever seen a human being wash his hands, and I was mocked for objecting.
When he decided to purport to educate me about sex—as a way, of course, of suggesting I should have it with him—while lying on my parents’ bed when my mother was out, he did it using hardcore pornographic playing cards that one of their friends had given them as a joke. The cards were considered humorously déclassé, but not at all wrong or taboo; they were kept out openly on the sideboard in the dining room. Sexually predatory people will manipulate any prevailing belief system to provide cover for their behaviour, be it the sexual revolution liberalism of my family, Catholicism as Burns suggests, or the general excessive moralism Burns attributes to his sexually poorly behaved father.
There is curious passage in the middle of the piece where Burns speculates:
But what if I were to undergo a change of heart? If I began seeing a therapist, or spoke at length about my teenage years to a trusted friend, and the counsel of my therapist or friend led to the realisation that those early events had served to impoverish my life in some fundamental way?
This seems an odd thing to be afraid of.
I, for example, close the door on evangelists, or skim past the Flat Earth Society comments on NASA’s Instagram, not because I am afraid they may convince me, but because I am serene that I cannot be convinced, and I know I will find the attempt awkward and odious.
The paradox of denial is that its existence can only be proven retrospectively, when it ends. Until then, a person who is in denial about A and therefore insists B is true instead is outwardly indistinguishable from a person who unconflictedly believes B. And both are likely to be insulted by the suggestion that they are in denial. I am aware that to the sceptical, this kind of talk starts to sound like an evangelist saying God will not prove his existence to you until you
If Burns were my therapist’s client, I imagine her saying to him, very neutrally and gently, ‘Why do you think you’re worried that I could convince you you’re traumatised?’ And perhaps also, ‘What made you want to write this article at this time?’
Then I imagine Burns being very annoyed. Therapists are, of course, very annoying, as they ask you questions about matters you would otherwise not have chosen to talk about. Interpersonal therapists will be warmly and engagingly annoying, and Freudian analysts will be annoying like an impassive alien robot who’s obsessed with puns—it just depends which annoyingness you prefer. What they don’t do (at least, not the competent ones) is try to convince you of things. They ask rather than tell.
One of the reasons a person would deny that a coercive sexual experience was an assault, or deny experiencing trauma from it, is that sexual trauma is what psychologists call a spoiled identity, carrying social stigma and internalised shame. To identify as being victimised means conceding the uncomfortably narrow limits of one’s personal power and autonomy.2 I can say that everyone I’ve ever shared a support group with has gone through a stage of aggressively announcing that they are not traumatised. Mine was in my very early twenties. Once I conceded I was traumatised after all, I fell into major depression and pretty much lay down on the sofa and wept for five years, which made it very hard to hold down a job, run errands or feed myself.
Clinicians report that male survivors of sexual assault are often especially reluctant to disclose their experiences. The idea of being victimised inherently violates traditional masculine identity and its values of mastery and aggression. Boys abused by women often struggle to identify that an encounter was abuse at all. This may be because women often use seduction and manipulation rather than violence, leaving the victim feeling complicit; because social constructs of masculine sexual aggression and feminine sexual passivity create conceptual confusion about what has taken place; and because the idea of being victimised by a woman adds an extra overlay of humiliation to the victim’s masculinity.3
Clearly I do not have access to the inside of Burns’ brain, and cannot possibly know whether he is traumatised and in denial or not. But I will say that if he is not, he has had a lucky escape. His friend’s mother fired a bullet in the vicinity of his head. The fact it didn’t hit him does not mean that bullets don’t hit people in general.
It strikes me in writing this that I would never make this kind of intervention with a friend. If a male friend sat me down and disclosed that an adult woman had sex with him when he was 15 against his will, but he’s perfectly fine and he doesn’t see what the big deal is, I would keep my response neutral and my opinion to myself. My opinion would very likely be that he was in denial, but to say so would be obnoxious: claiming that you know what is going on in someone’s head better than they do is pretty insulting.
However, if he began proposing to write an article in a prestigious literary journal suggesting that other people who claim to be traumatised by similar experiences are whingers with a victim mentality and a prudish attitude towards sex, and furthermore ought to be grateful for the moral growth opportunity the assault offered them, at that point I would have to throw tact to the wind and strongly advise the friend against it.
Burns says in his conclusion:
Above all, I worry that we are forgetting the value of moderate hardship. Most of us know what it is like to be drawn into something unwillingly. The capacity to manage and resist such forces—to maintain our agency at the vital moment despite the implied expectations or consequences—is often reliant on familiarity and failure. Our failure to speak up and resist when we are surprised by undesirable behaviour, and the frustration or shame this typically provokes, can prepare us to respond in self-assured and principled ways the next time we are tested.
If my friend proposed to write this, I would feel obliged to point out that decades of clinical studies have shown that people who are sexually abused as children are at much higher risk of being raped as adults compared to the general population, and are often repeatedly raped throughout life. Early theorists such as Freud used to blame repeat-victims for being either masochistic or unconsciously seductive, but modern clinicians theorise instead that early sexual assault leaves a young person with learned deficiencies in self-protection and boundary-setting.4 In effect, the only thing sexual assault teaches you is how to be assaulted again.
I might also question why we’ve somehow moved from talking about coercive sex between a teenager and a significantly older adult to coercive sex between adults—for Burns references the #MeToo movement. I might ask my friend if he had spent any time with 15-year-olds recently, and if he really thought they were easily mistaken for adults—if they were really people whom his adult self would be interested in dating, rather than seeing them as juniors, whom his adult self would feel an implied duty to protect.
I might further suggest that it’s a bit rough to position yourself as the determiner of the moderation level other people’s hardship, and certainly seriously rough to characterise a sexual assault as a failure on the part of the victim. I might seriously question what a ‘principled’ response to sexual assault is even supposed to be—does it follow that a victim who cannot resist an attack is unprincipled? I might point out that Harvey Weinstein’s non-compliant victims were stalked by hostile private investigators at best, and had their careers destroyed at worst,5 which hardly constitutes a rousing triumph of principle.
I would also have to say very strongly that I think putting this kind of message out into the world is a real unkindness to other men who are survivors of childhood sexual assault, especially when the message gains potency and authority by coming from a fellow man. Male survivors as a group are known to be isolated, reluctant to seek help, and at risk of addiction, relationship disruption and suicide.6 For the sake of this group of my friend’s fellow travellers above all, I would feel absolutely obliged to risk annoying my friend to tell him: Don’t do it. •
Belinda Rule’s work has appeared extensively in Australian journals and anthologies.
Resources for those who may need them:
Lifeline Australia: Crisis Support and suicide prevention: 13 11 14
1800RESPECT: National sexual assault, domestic and family violence support service: call 1800 737 732 of visit https://www.1800respect.org.au/
Living Well: Queensland-based information and counselling service for men who have experienced sexual assault: https://www.livingwell.org.au/
- Konrad Marshall, ‘Suicide common among clergy sex abuse victims in Ballarat’, Age, 19 May 2015, amended 20 May 2015, https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/suicide-common-among-clergy-sex-abuse-victims-in-ballarat-20150519-gh535a.html. The final report of the royal commission is available at https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au.
- The term ‘spoiled identity’ was coined by Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1968. For a more recent discussion, see Rachel Yehuda, David Spiegel, Steven Southwick, Lori L. Davis, Thomas C. Neylan and John H. Krystal, ‘What I have changed my mind about and why’, European Journal of Psychotraumatology, no. 7 (2016), <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5106864/>.
- Mike Lew, Victims no Longer: The Classic Guide for Men Recovering from Sexual Child Abuse, 2nd edn revised and updated, Harper Collins/Quill, New York, 2004, pp. 60–2; Christine A. Courtois, Healing the Incest Wound: Adult Survivors in Therapy, W.W. Norton, New York, 1988, pp. 282–5.
- Judith L. Herman, Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, reprinted edition with a new afterword, Rivers Oram, London, 2001, pp. 111–13. Herman notes this data mostly relates to women survivors; men are less well studied.
- Joyce Chen, ‘Peter Jackson: Harvey Weinstein Blacklisted Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino’, Rolling Stone, 15 December 2017, <https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/peter-jackson-harvey-weinstein-blacklisted-ashley-judd-mira-sorvino-w514167>; and Ronan Farrow, ‘Harvey Weinstein’s Army of Spies’, New Yorker, 6 November 2017, <https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/harvey-weinsteins-army-of-spies>.
- Lew, pp. 71–148.