I never intended to talk about this in public. For 26 years, I’ve kept it stuffed way back in the recesses of my memory where no-one can get to it. Every so often, I’ve gone crawling back there, just to take a peek. I’ve never lingered. The recollection is too blinding, even in the dark.
The memory of being sexually abused still sparks such a wild mix of emotions and reactions – anger, betrayal, confusion, disbelief, hurt, shame – I can never quite pinpoint what I’m actually feeling. The cauldron overflows every time another celebrity is revealed to be a serial abuser of women. It happened with Bill Cosby. It happened with Donald Trump. It’s happening with Harvey Weinstein.
I try to look away. I retreat to that old dependable state of denial. When allegations surfaced that the ultimate ’80s TV dad Bill Cosby had sexually taken advantage of a number of women, I asked myself and others: “But why now? Why are they all coming out with their stories years later, at the same time.”
I thought if I could convince myself they were wrong about what had happened to them and Cosby was innocent, I could convince myself I was wrong about what had happened to me.
It wasn’t until Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual harassment and abuse became trending news that the answers finally dawned on me. They waited so long for the same reason I have been spending decades walking around with a painful memory shoved deep inside of me, concocting excuses and justifications, inventing reasons why it couldn’t have happened to them, too.
I was scared. I was terrified of how people would react. I thought they wouldn’t believe me. Or they’d think I was asking for it. Or maybe they’d say I am a gay man, horny and sex-obsessed. I must have enjoyed it.
I didn’t. As the scores of women who have endured it know, there’s no enjoyment in having a man in a position of power take advantage of you sexually.
For me, it didn’t go down on a Hollywood casting couch, or during an encounter with an A-list celebrity. It happened when I was 22 years old. I had recently graduated from the University of Florida in Gainesville with a journalism degree, and had just moved to New York City to begin an internship with People magazine.
A few weeks into the job, when a nasty sore throat and intense nausea threatened to upset my perfect work attendance, I feared the worst: strep throat. I went to a doctor near my office for a diagnosis and relief.
The appointment began inauspiciously. The doctor, a portly middle-aged man with a neatly trimmed beard, looked at my throat. He looked inside my ears. He listened to my chest. He nearly made me gag when he did the throat culture.
“We’ll know in a few minutes. But I think I should also test you for a hernia,” he announced after completing the predictable portion of the check-up.
I couldn’t imagine why he might suspect I had a hernia. I thought that was something that usually happened to middle-aged men. And my symptoms were all from my chest up. Nothing unusual was going on south of my belly button. But I was feeling so weak and listless that I didn’t argue.
“OK. How do you do that?”
“You’ll need to pull down your trousers and underwear so that I can test your groin area.”
I didn’t think this sounded quite right, but he was the doctor, so I followed his instructions. As he pressed my groin and rubbed my testicles, he asked a string of personal questions.
“So did you just move to New York?”
“Where are you living?”
“Do you live with friends, roommates?”
“I live with my uncle.”
“Oh, your uncle? Is he close to your age, or is he older?”
“He’s around my mother’s age, so older.”
“Oh. Have you met a lot of guys your own age here?”
I didn’t understand what these questions had to do with my health, but I answered them anyway. The exam seemed to go on for an hour, but it couldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes.
After I pulled up my pants and my underwear, and the doctor washed his hands, he gave me his diagnosis. No strep throat. I just had a mild case of the flu. I should take the rest of the day off and stay home from work the next day if I wasn’t feeling better in the morning. Oh, I didn’t have a hernia either. We both knew that already.
Being a lifelong hypochondriac, I was relieved there was nothing seriously wrong with me. But I felt sicker leaving the doctor’s office than I had entering it.
On the subway ride back to the Bronx, I replayed the appointment over and over in my head and wondered: Could it have been? Did he? Was I? Why did I let him do it? I imagine the women Cosby, Trump, and Weinstein targeted asked themselves some of these same questions.
And like so many of them, I kept it to myself. I told a few friends, who were all supportive, but I never filed a complaint or even confronted the doctor. It would have been his word against mine. He was a highly respected medical professional. I was a gay kid just out of college who’d danced the previous Friday night away at Limelight. Who would believe me?
I was embarrassed. I’m a man. How could I have let another man do that do me? I should have kept my pants on and gone to another doctor. Maybe it’s not really sexual abuse if it happens to a man, especially one who’s physically strong enough to stop it.
Not much has changed in twenty six years, even as I write it out loud: I was sexually abused by an older man in a position of power. A part of me is still trying to rationalize it to myself and come up with reasons why no-one will believe me. Maybe I misinterpreted the situation. There’s that old devil called denial again. What I think happened, happened.
If anything good came out of what I know happened, it’s that I can feel true empathy with others who have been in similar situations. It took me longer than it should have to connect the dots, but I now understand, from my firsthand experience, why so many stay silent.
And angry. Yes, I’m still angry. I’m angry at the doctor. I’m angry at myself. I’m angry at society for making it so difficult to open up about sexual abuse. I’m angry at every story that describes people like me as “victims.” I don’t consider us to be “victims” of sexual abuse. I never have. We’re survivors.