Why I Share My Story of Abuse
If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
I met him on a sort of social network for gay youth. He enticed me with comments about my profile picture, complimenting my partially straightened Bieber-lookalike cut, brushed to perfection. We’ll call him Ben. He was 21, and I, 13. He wasn’t the only man to message me on that website but was the first I responded to.
At 12 years old, a year before, I went to sleep away camp for the first time. During that week of laying in bunks in cabins with no air conditioning and what seemed to be the world’s worst mattress, the other campers and I hiked, swam, sailed, and fished. We also took showers. Daily. Lined up in the bathroom in squiggly, giggly lines of half-dressed teenagers, waiting for one of the five showers to open up, the smell of soap and Axe body wash burning my nose, I realized I might be into boys.
The fear I felt that night, laying in my sweaty sleeping bag atop my brick of a cot, would not let me sleep. I tossed and turned through much of the night. Depression set in with horrid thoughts such as my bullies were right, and nobody will ever love me. And coming back home and settling into my new life as a not-straight preteen wasn’t as bad as I feared, but the reception of my sexuality on the side of my friends and loved ones could have gone better. While my parents didn’t send me off to conversion camp, and they told me they loved me, I sensed that our relationship would never be the same. In that, so far, I am right.
Not getting the acceptance and support from the people I craved it from most, I turned, like any kid from my generation to the internet. On the wonderful world wide web, I found everything a curious boy could dream of and more. I learned about sex, porn, and STDS. I researched statistics and suicide rates of LGBT youth. I read news stories focused on homophobic bullying. And then, I found the Gay Youth Corner, a now-defunct website that marketed itself as a safe place for LGBT youth to talk and make friends. With an allowed age range of 13-23, many men whose profiles mingled with my own hadn’t lived with their parents or asked permission to go the bathroom in nearly half a decade.
As my life offline seemed to spiral more and more out of control, with insistent bullies, parents who were angrier at me than helpful, and no one I felt I could talk to who would understand how I felt, I spent more and more time online.
At first, I talked to people my same age, ignoring the random messages from people more than a couple of years my senior. But as text and Skype IM conversations bled deep into the night with my fellow preteens, I quickly concluded that if I wanted any support on how to deal with my parents when it came to my sexuality that I needed to talk to someone older than me. Enter Ben.
I found him attractive in the same way I crushed on the band teacher at my middle school. Apparently, he reciprocated the attraction. He liked to stay up late like me and preferred to send IMs while we smiled at each other over muted video chat.
I got exactly what I wanted in the early stages of knowing Ben. He listened, or at least responded to my messages when I vented my frustrations about my parent’s inability to accept something about me I could not change. He gave practical advice about how I might gently talk to them or another adult regarding my orientation towards men. He said nice things about me, to me. More importantly, he was the one person I could always count on to be there when I needed him. I knew that every night as the late evening became the next morning, I counted on the dot next to Ben’s profile to be green.
Ben liked to drink, so much so that for the first year or so of our relationship, I was able to pinpoint the exact moment he got drunk every night by the way the muscles in his face relaxed through the HD camera of his MacBook. I don’t remember how different drunk Ben was than sober Ben, but I distinctly recall that about the time his drinking climaxed was when we were “dating.”
Dating Ben, an adult man who lived several hours away from me, both of us living with our parents, meant lots of late-night chat sessions, sporadic phone calls, and loads of fatherly advice that felt too sexually charged. But Ben told me something I never heard from my parents daily: I love you.
I kept talking to Ben every night for years. I trusted him more than I trusted myself. The first time I smoked weed and the first time I drank, which happened on the same night, I ensured he witnessed it. At 13 years old, I hadn’t the slightest clue how relationships work or any idea about consent laws or that sexual grooming existed.
Ben told me about all sorts of things. He taught me about masturbation in more detail, how to not get caught hooking up with a guy, and how to make myself appear younger. He talked to me in a way I understood, in kid’s terms. In his emotionally immature text lingo, he warned me against getting too close to my parents, threatening an end to Ben and I’s conversations if they ever found out about him.
But Ben was and maybe still is so much more than just a few pixels on a screen or a block of text with some emojis. He had a family, life, and friends of his own.
As I grew older and into my teens, my body changed, and the men I surrounded myself with did too. Many more men came after Ben, some much harsher and crueler than him. And I watched him change too. He gave up the booze and decided to focus more on his studies. He no longer called me his boyfriend. I no longer looked like a child, and I wore an itchy crop of brown hair above my upper lip. He stopped telling me he loved me.
Ben and I never met in person, and while I know now that our relationship was inappropriate, it was tame compared to the sexual abuse I experienced later in my teens. Now double the age I was when I first met him, I can look back and know that what we experienced was not love. Through therapy and other mental health resources, I can identify the damage he did to me and the lies he told me to convince me to talk to him.
As I progress in this process, while sometimes I am angry, sometimes I am scared; I feel bad for Ben. While what he did to me, what I believed when I was talking to him, was awful. These lies fundamentally changed how I interact with gay men older than me, yet, I can see Ben just as he is: another sick person. It’s not an excuse or a get-out-of-jail-free card, but Ben is human, too.
I cannot change my story, and I certainly cannot change Ben if he is even still out there somewhere. But I can use my narrative and this mantra — that hurt people hurt people — to break the cycle and help kids, who, like me, don’t know about sex, don’t know about pedophiles, and trust everyone they meet online.
Getty image by Westend61