Trigger Warning: This post contains sensitive content about child sexual abuse.
*Like all vignettes featured in this blog, it reflects not one specific true story, but a disguised amalgam of too many. It changes any potentially identifying information but preserves clinically relevant details.*
“I know this might sound strange. But we were kids. We were pretty sheltered- no TV or internet in our house, hardly any newspapers. Definitely no body- talk; safety or otherwise. My brother was eight and I was six when it started. He called it ‘the game.’ He would invite me into his room, and we would snuggle. Then, one day, he asked me if I wanted to play a game. It was a touching game. Something about it felt off and secretive, but it didn’t really hurt. He usually asked first, and he would reward me afterwards by playing a game of my choice- usually a regular game like cards, dolls, or board games.
“Over the next few years, he invited me in for ‘the game’ every so often. I wasn’t sure I liked it at first, and knew I dreaded it after a while, but he always seemed so into it that I couldn’t say no. At some point – I think when I was 8 or 9, and he was around 10 or 11, he just stopped. We never talked about it- not during or after. I’ve never asked him about it, but I’m sure he remembers. He was overall a nice brother, actually, and we had a pretty good relationship. I’ve never wanted to be alone with him since then; always keeping sort of an awkward distance. I had no idea about what our ‘game’ really was. I don’t think he really did either. We barely even knew the correct names of our genitals- much less what we were doing, or what it meant. I do know that we would always look away, embarrassed, when people would say the word ‘game’ and almost never went into his room.
“I guess I buried it somewhere in my head, but it stored as what I considered a ‘normal childhood memory.’ How would I have known otherwise? We just have our experiences and we don’t know how they compare to what’s ‘normal’ or healthy.
“I always attended all-girls’ schools, so I didn’t have much to do with boys or men until I got married. That’s when I started to get flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks. I didn’t even put it all together right away. But I knew when my husband touched me that I was not okay, and eventually I made a connection. Only at that point did I start to recognize the impropriety of ‘the game’ and the effect that it might have had on me. And maybe on him too, for all I know.”
This story is excruciatingly common. When people hear the word molestation, they might think of violence, adults exploiting children, intimate partner abuse, or workplace sexual harassment. But another form of molestation can seem more innocent yet have equally traumatic reverberations.
Some people feel that children touching other children sexually isn’t considered abuse. And it probably isn’t, as far as accountability of the “perpetrator,” in a case so young and uninformed. But from the vantage point of the victim, it can absolutely process as sexual trauma, psychologically and neurologically (although it doesn’t always.)
In many situations like this, neither child understands exactly what is happening, yet both can end up dealing with severe consequences for many years after. This happens in all kinds of families- including the ones you might not suspect. And it usually goes unreported. One tragic fact about incestuous molestation is how preventable many of the cases are through better education and supervision.
Children who experience sexual trauma are at risk for a number of mental health and relational problems, both in childhood, and beyond. These include (but are not limited to): depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, sexual problems, fear of intimacy, and even suicidality. Neglecting to educate kids so they know what is ok and not ok as far touch can result in a tremendous amount of suffering- for kids and parents, and eventual partners.
On the other hand, teaching children about bodies and boundaries as part of honest, clear, safe, age-appropriate sex education can literally save lives and marriages.