The Haunting of Sexual Abuse

By Jessie Fano

I recently had the opportunity to be alone. By myself. No family. Just me and the house. Wow. What a treat. And then I went to a bar. Ok, I didn’t actually go to a bar, I went to a restaurant when it was crowded and they stuck me in the bar for a few minutes until a table opened. But in that time I met a guy who seemed a little tipsy. Under other circumstances I would have thought he was attractive. We’ll call him On-the-make Bob, and even though he didn’t make a formal pass at me, I felt uneasy with the way he looked at me. I became conscious that I was wearing a low cut top and suddenly felt a little naked. I flashed my wedding ring but he didn’t shut up. Other people were at the bar. One woman even seemed to realize Bob was a little creepy and asked about my husband. I was totally safe. Before long I got my table and got away from the guy. He had done and said nothing wrong, but I felt vulnerable for some reason.

My meal passed without incident and I went home and got in bed.

That’s when the demons hit. I didn’t sleep all night. It was a true “dark night of the soul” where, in a sleep-deprived state, I imagined one of my long-time nightmares of being naked with strangers – naked men – around me and their very presence sending shoots of terror through me.

It was a very long night. I missed my husband terribly and would have gone for a midnight cuddle.

Wrestling the demons

In the morning I got up bleary-eyed and did some yoga. (I used to take yoga regularly and my yoga teacher had taught us some simple meditations to calm our nerves.)  I began the poses as my nerves were still jumpy from sleeplessness and I wanted to figure out what the hell that night was all about. I mean, On-the-make Bob didn’t do anything! He might not have been on the make at all. Maybe I even made up his interest to flatter myself, but I really wanted to know why I’d been so upset that I couldn’t sleep.

In my meditative state I got beyond stupid Bob and spent more time with the emotions that had kept sleep away. I began to put the pieces together and I tripped over something that I usually remember to forget.

(Warning: Jessie gets vulnerable and mildly graphic.)

I am a victim of sexual abuse.

I don’t actually recall the event. I was about 7 and he was about 13. I was walking home from the candy store through a field – it was a common shortcut all the kids took, but not that day. That day I was alone and he was walking down the path towards me. That’s the last thing I actually remember – until my memory reappears at home with my mom and telling her something, feeling very ashamed. And I remember the police station with my mom and dad there. What I remember most was my shoes. They were loafers. And a bunch of pictures of boys. I picked one. I can actually still see his face in the picture. I think I knew him from the neighborhood. I recall that he was a bully.

Beyond that, I only know what my mother has told me in later years as she’s tried to get me to talk about it. That he pushed me into the grass. That he took down my pants and felt me, pressing his finger into my vagina. That he showed me his penis and told me to touch it. That he told me he’d kill me if I screamed or told anybody. And finally, that the police did eventually bring him in and charge him with some kind of misdemeanor.

But that’s all hearsay. For all I know he actually raped me and that’s the story I told my mom. I was 7. I didn’t even know the word “rape.” I honestly don’t know. I can’t remember anything after seeing him walking at me on the path and feeling my anxiety rise.

Memory resurfaces

In my adult meditation, struggling to identify what had spooked me so about On-the-make Bob, I managed to reach a distinct feeling of helplessness and vulnerability associated with being naked. This tracks with a general anxiety I’ve always had about nudity, especially around men I don’t know – and I realized that even though I do feel deeply ashamed about my body, possibly stemming from this incident – it turns out my deepest fear wasn’t that I would be so ugly that men would never want to touch me, but that I wouldn’t be ugly enough. My real fear of being naked is that a strange man might actually want to touch me. When I let this fear surface in the meditation I suddenly felt a sweaty hand over my mouth and tried to send out silent screams for someone to save me. I could almost access that 7-year old’s terror, total helplessness and desperate sadness when no one came. My meditation ended with many, many tears.

But the tears released something important and I felt better. I crawled back into bed and took a nice nap to get my bearings and – though I was a little uneasy the rest of the day – I slept 11 hours the next night and gave my husband a huge hug when I got home. I am so grateful for my husband, sons and friends who have given me such a happy adult life that this memory so rarely surfaces.

I’m so not alone

I’m writing this for myself – to help the tears expunge the pain – but I’m also writing it for the hundreds of thousands of us who live with these secrets, most of them more memorable and horrible than mine. At least I am blessed with a blank memory. Knowing how even the thought of it has haunted me, I have to believe my brain simply tried to spare me the actual memory of terror and pain. As a result I have a healthy sex life and this event seems to come back to me in small doses like this that I can manage. I also think this explains my lack of interest in BDSM (though I know other women who actually feel drawn to it to help them process such memories.)

But the fact is that 33% of women in our country have experienced sexual abuse, 44% of us under the age of 18. That means that one out of every three women (or girls!) you encounter in your daily life has some version of the story above. It’s like breast cancer – which is at 12% – in some ways, but not in others. All our lives are touched by it, but many of us don’t even realize it because so many women – like me – try to forget the shame and don’t talk about it. (When I let my husband read this post he said he couldn’t remember me ever talking about it in our 20+ year marriage.) Sixty percent of us who’ve experienced abuse still don’t even report it and 15 out of 16 rapists don’t spend a night in jail.

And the saddest part is, unlike breast cancer, this scourge on a third of the female population is preventable by men choosing to be responsible adults instead of bully-predators, and it’s preventable by parents and society raising their boys to be those responsible adults and stop tolerating bullying of any kind. I know there are lots of “reasons” why this doesn’t happen (including the fact that way too many bullies are raising bullies), but when I read about situations like the 11 year old girl gang raped by 18 boys and men in a Texas town, and then practically blamed by the media for her own rape, I just want to be sick. It’s no wonder so many of us don’t go to the cops. When will our culture turn the corner on this issue? When will victims feel safe coming forward?

So for every woman who’s got a story about abuse, please know that you are not alone. You are SO not alone. And most importantly, it’s not your fault. Feel free to share your story in comments if telling it will help you heal (anonymous comments always welcome.)

I love you all.


Researcher of WTF? Questions You’d Ask Your Sex Therapist If Only You Had One? Got a question? Ask me! (Twitter @JessieFano)



andrew h.
- -6 years ago

it may help a bit (please use your intuition/good judgement/prayer etc) to decide if its right for you or not), but on in the archives is recordings by Rikka Zimmerman on abuse.

It may (or may not) help, but is only one way to possibly help. You have to pay $48 to listen to the recordings,

Sherlyn Simon
Sherlyn Simon6 years ago

I have been a victim too. Not just once but twice. I was very young when a stranger squeezed my breasts in a local bus and I dint know what to do about it. I was shy but still have a picture of that man in my head. And yet another time was when my principal decided to attack me. I don't know whether I can associate it with a rape but he played with my vagina under my dress and sucked my lips till they were swollen. I felt so numb i could do nothing about it. I felt like a dead body in the hands of a stranger. I was 13 and scared to tell anyone. When things got out of hand and he started calling me a little too regularly over the phone, I had to tell my parents. They protected me but no legal action was taken. Till date, I haven't been able to throw that emotion out of my head. So much so that I sometimes feel its affected my relationship with my 5 year old long distance boyfriend. I am hardly ever able to open up to him even in the rare times we get to meet. Even when we get physically close when we meet, I am unable to involve myself and feel nothing but being used. Wish I could do something before my relationship gets ruined.

Angi W.
Angi B6 years ago

Thank you for sharing this!

Lika S.
Lika P6 years ago

And just remember, rape and assault is NOT about sex or pretty. It's about power and control. You can be the ugliest person on the planet and still be a victim of a sex assault. And you're still blamed for feeling victimized because you are blamed for not appreciating the attention, even though you're so ugly no one else will pay attention to you. Looks mean nothing, when it comes to that.

Lika S.
Lika P6 years ago

"At least I am blessed with a blank memory. Knowing how even the thought of it has haunted me,..." Some people's minds do block it. I don't know why.

But, I remember all of mine, and no, I don't have recurring nightmares. I am not a victim. I faced it, worked through it, dealt with it, and I did music therapy, which was my savior. I am not just a survivor, I'm a thriver.

I truly wish all could get help for this, because many times it's not the event, it's the unresolved emotions and psych that causes us to remain lifelong victims, because it DOES haunt us. Way too often.

And these days, 1 in 6 boys are victims of sex abuse. And the males who are sexually abused get less help than we as females do, with more stereotypes and assumptions. Lets stop the cycle.

Roxanne N.
Roxanne N6 years ago

"...and it’s preventable by parents and society raising their boys to be those responsible adults and stop tolerating bullying of any kind."

Well, what about when its the parent who's the abuser? Like my father, and my mother who pretended ignorance. Even now, many years later. Both my parents were highly dysfunctional people, with their own sets of psychological baggage, and they shared a miserable marriage. But my mother didn't stand up for me or protect me, and it took decades for me to stop hating her...I'm trying to forgive my father now, even though he's been dead for 20 years.

But abuse isn't easily preventable by parents, sorry. Parents are often the abusers and often look the other way rather than acknowledge what is happening in their family.

Mary A.
Mary Allchurch6 years ago

No you are not alone but that doesn't make it any the easier does it. I knew for years that there was a reason why I felt awkward around a male cousin of mine and why I wouldn't allow my children to be alone with him. But it wasn't until his wife died when I was 40 that the years of sexual abuse came flooding back. These were from when I was 10 years old and had gone on for a long time and I'd managed to blank them out. Yes it was absolutely awful going through the resurrgence of the memories, I thought I was going mad, and it took me a long time to get back on my feet. But with the help of my GP, a counsellor and my close family, who thank goodness believed me when I told them what had happened, I came out the other side a stronger woman. The memories answered why I acted the way I did in many situations. Some ways useful and others not. I had become stuck emotionally at 10. I had been adopted as a baby and the hold my abuser had over me was the fear he instilled in me that my parents would believe that I was being stupid and causing trouble and send me back to the home. They wouldn't have sent me back as it turned out. So if ever you are worried about a child please gently say something to them so that they do not have to suffer for years as I and many others have. To all the survivors out there, because that's who we are SURVIVORS, although it may not always feel like it, feel proud of who you are. I am good most of the time and the abuse is rarely thought about unless I

Tammie A6 years ago

Its plain and simple objectification of females in this world.Men need to step up and protect their sisters,instead of molesting them.Its only a scandal when boys are touched.They sue the Catholic church.When girls/women are abused it seems nature's way,or something aceptable and merely unpleasant.

Lyn Simcock
Lyn Simcock6 years ago

I encountered my first physical abuse from my fiance in 1979 (also my first sexual experience), then 6 years of sexual abuse from my husband who thought that sex was a sin and enjoyment of sex was an evil that had to be punished ... 5 months later I was raped by someone I should have been able to trust.

Bearing in mind that all of this happened before 'rape' in marriage/relationships was considered real and the police were more likely to believe that you asked for these things to happen to you. No-one believed that my husband left me for 3 hours in the bathroom lying in a pool of blood where he'd 'cleaned me' inside with a wooden backed loofah, or that the scarring on my nipples is from where he stubbed out his cigarettes to try and stop them reacting, or even that my rapist cut my rear-end open with a filleting knife so he could gain access.

Now 51, and after many years of not being able to enjoy sex, I've finally been able to process the lessons learnt and now have a really satisfying relationship with someone 14 years younger.

It is possible to put it behind you and become whole again. I grant you it's not been easy. That inner strength takes time to re-accumulate. But it is possible to do anything that you put your mind to. Have faith in yourself.

Rita White
Rita White6 years ago

I also am a survivor of sexual abuse. My mother's boyfriend repeatedly abused me and my mother blamed me when she found out. I am now 51 yrs old and this still haunts me at times.