Why did I click on the link? I was sexually assaulted as a child and I read articles like this to understand what happened to me and to keep it from happening to others. Also Cord is a wonderful, thoughtful human whose opinion I value.
I was just a few words in when I realized the lede was very graphic. I didn’t stop reading. It was too late. I ran into my hotel bathroom and threw up. I sat on the edge of the tub, feeling sick and ashamed. Horrible memories started flashing by and I felt like a helpless 7 year old all over again.
God, the shame can be so overwhelming.
But life goes on. I had lunch plans, a plane to catch and cheerful texts to return. I put on my happiest face and moved on. Somewhere near the North Carolina/Virginia border and because I couldn’t shake the lingering shame, I decided to finish reading the piece. I’m glad I did. Not just because of the substance of Cord’s argument but to prove to myself that I can do this. Live in a world where there is always a finger on the trigger.
I was 19 when I finally told someone what had happened to me. The abuse stopped when I was 11 or 12. I don’t really remember because I blocked it out. I went through life trying my hardest not to talk or think about it. I wanted to tell my mother and couldn’t muster the courage to. I wanted to tell my father but didn’t know how he would react. I wanted to tell my sister but I was afraid she’d have a similar story. Instead, I obsessively watched every Oprah Winfrey Show episode on the topic. She became my therapist, carried my secret and throughout the seasons helped me cope with the shame and slowly become free of it. On the show finale she said: “People started coming on this show saying things they couldn’t say to their own family members. Little by little, we started to release the shame.” Church/preach.
I’d gone my whole life internalizing the abuse and for some reason on that trip in Mexico, the memories came flooding back. I had nightmares and was terrified of sleeping. I still remember the look and the love on Brittany’s face when I told her and she just held me and let me sleep in her bed.
That was almost 10 years ago and I’ve opened up about it more since to people I love. I still watch those Oprah re-runs. I go to a real therapist. I work really hard on loving myself. Most days are great.
Two days ago, I heard Ashley Judd talk about coming to terms with her own sexual abuse saying ”what was a wounding is now my strength and resilience”
Those words really stuck with me and I want to believe those words even more during the hard days. The days when I can feel those men’s hands crawling on my body. The days when even the slightest touch from my closest male friends makes me want throw up. The days when I can’t get out of bed because I’ve had a nightmare. The days when I’m paralyzed by shame because I think it was my fault. The days when I read about another graphic sexual assault on a child.
I don’t know that trigger warnings are always effective but I appreciate the illusion of safety they provide. I needed that safety today. You can read someone smarter talk about this here. I also really appreciate Cord responding and wrestling with this.
Little by little, we started to release the shame
My good friend Aminatou wrote the above piece. After a night of restless sleep, an email from her is what I woke up to this morning upon opening my laptop the way a bomb squad might open a strange black suitcase. I emailed her back, thanked her for writing this, and told her that I loved her. I also told her that, though I know she didn’t write it to make me feel better, reading this piece, for whatever reason, soothed me.
I never expected the pedophilia piece to be beloved by many people. When I touched on the topic last year, one of my coworkers told me directly that she wouldn’t be reading “that trash.” When I told my friends Amanda and Megan I was working on it, they both balked and warned me that I would probably have to live forever with the Google suggestion “cord jefferson pedophile.” Before AJ and Emma gave me the go-ahead at Gawker, two other publications had turned the pitch down with haste, both for pretty much the same reason: “That’s not really the conversation we’d like to start.”
I knew the story would make some people loathe me, and others loathe me more. I knew other writers would fire off angry screeds about what I wrote. I knew people would unfollow me on Twitter and Tumblr. I knew there was a good chance I would hurt people’s feelings. If I’m being honest, I started to let all the fear around the whole thing goad me on—I wanted to be the kid who went into the haunted house while all my naysaying classmates stood and watched from the sidewalk.
And so I did that, and the blowback was mostly what I expected, but with a twinge of the unexpected, as well. I had anticipated people saying the doctors and I were wrong, and that all pedophiles should “go to the therapy of Smith & Wesson,” as one commenter put it. I had anticipated people telling me to kill myself. I had anticipated people writing off the studies I referenced as junk science. I had even anticipated molestation survivors writing me to tell me how insensitive the piece was. What I didn’t expect was being branded a “rape apologist.”
There’s a logical fallacy my friend and former boss Ann and I have talked about at length during beer-drenched post-work chats: the mind projection fallacy. As described by Wikipedia, the mind projection fallacy “occurs when someone thinks that the way they see the world reflects the way the world really is.” Saying that bell peppers taste terrible is a mind projection fallacy, because what you should say is bell peppers taste terrible to you. You could probably argue that most bigotry is the product of mind projection fallacy, too. Essentially, it’s a way of saying that most everyone perceives things differently from you, and so you must keep that in mind always.
I bring that up because when I looked at the lede of my pedophile piece, which is the part with which the majority of people seemed to have the biggest problem, I never imagined how hard to read that would be for someone who’d lived through molestation. The trigger warning decision was out of my hands. But the language contained in that lede is something for which I will accept total responsibility. And while I didn’t approach those paragraphs gingerly—the interview from which those sections came is far, far more upsetting than what I included—I’ll admit that I wrote and read them the way a guy who was never molested would write and read them. My editors and I, for instance, wrote the headline and lede using the dictionary definition of “sex,” which describes a physical act of intercourse irrespective of consent. Of course I know a 7-year-old can’t consent to sex with an adult man, meaning that situation is obviously a rape. But what I didn’t know is that even calling it sex—which, again, I’ve only ever considered to be a description of penetration—is deeply hurtful to some people. That the abuser “fell for” the young girl is also cringeworthy in retrospect. I wish my editors and I had been more aware of all this beforehand, because I believe we would have changed a lot of that language. Alas.
I think we handled the lede and the headline poorly, and for that I really do apologize, to Aminatou and whomever else we hurt. In my first draft of the piece, I didn’t even mention Terry’s attack anecdote. We added it in later after discussing it for a while, and, obviously, I’m not sure it helped the article at all. That sucks, because not only did I traumatize some people, I also feel like I didn’t do right by Terry, who told me he was only willing to tell his story because he wanted to provide some guidance and support he never had. Clearly his story probably wasn’t able to do that. Worse still, it looks to have turned people who might otherwise have been interested in the piece away. For what it’s worth, for all his faults, Terry really appears to be a man who is actively attempting to turn his life around and be a better person in this world. I wish I would have been better to him.
That all being said, I do not believe that I published 3,500 words of “rape apologia,” and the claims that I did were what really kept me tossing and turning in bed last night. Add on to that the accusation that the only reason I wrote about pedophiles was to be “edgy,” and to me it starts to sound like an almost intentional attempt to misread and then mischaracterize and malign me. What you want to write on your blog or your Twitter feed or wherever else is certainly your prerogative, but it baffles me that some people demanding nuance when it comes to the discussion of what the word sex actually means won’t afford me the same careful dissections of meaning when it comes to my piece. Did I defend pedophiles—and child molesters—in that I said I believe they have a right to exist in a world that sees them as human beings deserving of life and support? Absolutely. Did I defend rape? Absolutely not, and many, many people, some of them survivors, have written to me or commented to say that, to them, my intended message was conspicuous.
If I had to write “Born This Way” all over again, I think the ways in which I’d change my approach are pretty obvious. But I’d still write it and publish it. This morning, two messages after Aminatou’s, was another email, this one from a man who said that, after decades of being attracted to young boys and not acting on that attraction, he read my piece and is finally ready to talk to someone about his problem. He could be a troll, obviously, a teenager out for a laugh. But if he’s not, maybe knowing there are people in this world who don’t think he’s a disgusting animal changed the course of his life and his unrealized victims’ lives forever. I just wish I hadn’t hurt people to possibly help others.