It Took 30 Years for Me to Understand that I’d been Sexually Abused by My Female Camp Counselor
by Barbara Graham
I thought it was love. The kind young girls dream about. A passion too bold, too grand for our timid little world to handle. She said that she’d never felt this way before. She wanted to spend the rest of her life with me. And I had never felt so cherished, so visible, even though everything that happened between us took place in the dark.
I was 14. She was 28.
The year was 1962. I’d never heard the words: Sexual abuse. Molested. Pedophile. The words weren’t yet part of our national consciousness, let alone public discourse. I’d vaguely heard of rape, but I had no idea that the term could apply when the two parties involved were sort of — or so I thought — consenting.
It took me thirty years to grasp that sexual abuse and all those other words best described what took place in the dark between my camp counselor and me. Thirty years to understand that, legally, I was incapable of consent. Thirty years to recognize that my counselor, who went on to become an esteemed educator, really should have known better. It took another decade for me to stop feeling that the abuse was somehow my fault, that it was due to an intrinsic badness inside me — and, finally, to forgive myself.
I suspect that there are many thousands of others among the estimated 238,000 annual victims of sexual assault in the U.S. who have yet to forgive themselves.
But though I may have spent 30 years confused as to the nature of the relationship with my counselor, New York State — where the camp was located — was not. According to state statutes, I was raped. And because she was over 21 and I was younger than 17, it was deemed — or would have been if I’d taken her to court — rape in the third degree.
In the years since I figured out that our relationship didn’t fit the mutual-feelings-expressed-by-two-equal-partners meaning of the word, I’ve researched sexual abuse of girls by women. Many experts consider the outing of female perpetrators to be “the last taboo.”
It turns out that women are perpetrators in about 14% of cases against boys and 6% of cases against girls — conservative estimates. This is because so few incidents of sexual abuse by women are ever reported. In a 2013 New York Times article by Julia Hislop, a psychologist and author of Female Sex Offenders: What Therapists, Law Enforcement and Child Protective Services Need to Know, she states that although female sex offenders are not easily identified, “it is important that investigators recognize that females can and do commit serious sex crimes. Their victims can be seriously harmed.”
Yet, our prevailing cultural mythology portrays women as nurturing non-agressors. When a female offender was brought before a judge in Washington State, the judge declared, “Women don’t do things like this,” and dismissed the case. And in therapeutic settings, the disclosure of sexual abuse of girls by women is often delayed. Experts suggest that these clients experience added shame because the offender was female.
My own story underscores both points: Had I been molested by a 28-year-old man, I seriously doubt whether it would have taken 30 years for me to recognize what had happened and to call it by its rightful name. Moreover, as a feminist it was hard for me to point the finger at a sister — especially a lesbian. But as I’ve learned, the abuse had nothing to do with the fact that she was a lesbian or that I wasn’t — though it took some time for me to sort out my confusion over that question.
Still, my story, like so many stories of sexual abuse — whether perpetrated by a man or a woman — began with kindness. Late-night talks when everyone else in the bunk was soundly sleeping. She’d sit on the edge of my cot listening patiently as my closely guarded secrets and fears came tumbling out. Then she’d nod and smile and assure me that I wasn’t crazy, simply human. Never before had I felt so appreciated, so special. Which is how these stories tend to go.
Besides, at camp we all had our crushes. Like color war, falling in love with the counselors was a camp custom. They were so cool, so bronzed, so strong — more like goddesses than any women we’d ever known, especially our mothers. We were mad, hungry, juicy, flirtatious girls who could barely contain the energy coursing through our bodies. It felt as natural to fall in love with one of the female counselors as it did to lust after Elvis or Rob, the heartthrob stablemeister. But as lovesick as we may have felt, there was a built-in cure: unbreachable boundaries between Them and Us.
Except, as it turned out, for me.
The night she slipped her hand beneath my scratchy gray wool blanket, I was too shocked to move. Too stunned to say a word. I didn’t say a word for the rest of that summer and well into the fall.
She said she loved me. She wanted us to live together as soon as I graduated from high school, which I hadn’t yet started. I tried to act normal with my friends and family, but I was only halfway present, in the same way that I was in my body and not in my body. Mostly, I was off in some secret, parallel universe where there was nobody else, just her and me in the dark.
One day in the middle of my first year of high school I realized that I really would go crazy if our relationship continued, so I worked up the courage to put a stop to it. But in my childish imaginings I believed that she would still love me. To my mind, she was more than my lover; she was the keeper of my secrets, the first person to whom I had bared my soul. But, as it turned out, it wasn’t my soul she was interested in. This, in its way, was as shocking as the original violation.
Which is also how these stories tend to go.
Thirty years later, I was asked to write a magazine article on recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. This was in the early 1990s, when new cases were making headlines every day. Daughters were coming forward and accusing their fathers; former students were pointing the finger at teachers; men were just starting to speak out about the trauma of being forced to have sex with priests.
I didn’t believe any of this had a thing to do with me. I’d always framed what happened between my counselor and myself as a relationship — albeit a weird and unusual one — and so did my serial therapists. We were all in denial. It wasn’t until I researched the article that I understood that I’d been raped. It was the first time in my journalism career that I missed a deadline.
I cried for a week.
To admit the violation, to lay bare my dirty secret and call it what it was stripped me of my power, a power I never really had, an illusion of power I had clung to for 30 years. But acknowledging the truth also returned to me my innocence, the shy girl I was before my counselor took what wasn’t hers. I began to see — slowly, tentatively — that I hadn’t done anything wrong. I wasn’t bad.
I also began to calculate the damage: two failed marriages, the confusion of sex with power, of hunger and longing with love. The belief, coded in my body, that boundaries are there to be crossed.
Many people have asked if I’ve been able to forgive my counselor. That was the easy part, I tell them. Although I’ll never know what she was thinking the day she started touching me, I believe that in her own broken, warped way she thought she loved me. And I’m almost positive that she herself had been sexually abused, as is the case with about 75% of female sex offenders.
The hard part, I tell those who ask, was forgiving myself.
Camp Paradox, Barbara Graham’s memoir about her experience of being molested by her camp counselor and its aftermath has just been published by Shebooks.
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