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The Legacy of Survival

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I am the daughter of a sexual assault survivor. I have been aware of this fact since before I actually understood what sex - much less sexual assault - was.

When I was about six years old, my mother was going through therapy. She’d kept the secret of her assault from her family for nearly two decades, allowing her brother-in-law (her attacker) to walk free. She’d started having flashbacks and panic attacks. Maybe this was triggered by me - perhaps she was terrified of my starting school and being away from her protective and watchful care.

Whatever the trigger was, she realized she need to address her past. She told her mother about it, and her sister (who promptly divorced the bastard. The Catholic Church even gave her an annulment.).

And then she told me. She told me she’d been hurt by someone who should have never touched her. Then she explained sex, but only the genetic aspect - how chromosomes join together to make a child (I understood the differences between X’s and Y’s before I understood the differences between penises and vaginas). She described sex as “a close hug” between a man and a woman.

I avoided hugging my male relatives for years. When I did figure out the physical mechanics of sex, it was without her help. Books alluded vaguely to “entering” confused me, so I looked up “sex” in my parent’s ancient encyclopedia. I was intrigued, and at a tender age started dreaming up all sorts of fantasies and discovered the art of self-pleasure.

My parents’ perspective on sex confused me. I could tell that my mother was a sensual person - she was an artist, and painted and sculpted things which I now realize to have been deeply sexual. My father often came home with little paper bags with silky lingerie for her. There was definite passion there. At the same time, there was a high degree of morality. My mother had learned to accept sex, to differentiate it from rape, by viewing it as holy - something wonderful, but only when between a man and a wife.

When I got to high school, and later college, she started lecturing me. Any movie portraying sex would be followed by an awkward “don’t go having sex with someone just to see if you love them.” When I informed her I wanted to go on birth control in order to manage my monthly cycle, she lectured me for an hour about how “this isn’t a free pass to have sex. Because, really, if you sleep around now, you’ll mess things up later when you get married. Lots of people get divorced because of that.”

In spite of being a very liberal, very vocal feminist, my mother preaches puritanical views on sex. What my mother doesn’t - and perhaps can’t, because of what she’s been through - understand is that sex has no connection to morality for me. I was raised to be religious, but organized, close-minded politicized dogma never made sense to me. I dropped religion as soon as I left home.

I started dating then, too. I’d refrained from it while I was with my parents because I didn’t want to trigger my mother’s fears and flashbacks. She’d panicked enough at the prospect of my leaving for college, so I appeased her by taking self-defense classes and not talking about dates for two more years.

Although I’ve rejected the moral aspect of sex, my mother’s assault still follows me. I have trust issues. I emphasize respect and boundaries more than any person I know. I don’t consider sex to be shameful, but I automatically assume that that particular topic of conversation will make people completely uncomfortable. This oxymoron has lead my friends to call me both prudish and slutty.

I don’t fault my mother for failing to teach me that sex can be empowering. I don’t blame her - at least, not anymore - for teaching me to fear men. I understand that she was hurt more deeply than I can possibly understand, but I am incredibly thankful that I had the audacity to develop my own philosophies.

What I learned most from my mother is what she didn’t teach me. I learned that for sex to be beneficial, women need to understand that their value does not come from some supposed notion of purity, that their worth is not derived from having only one lover in their lives. I learned that my worth comes from my choices, from my belief in my unique being. I learned that no one can change who I am. I am not defined by my body, but by my person.

And while I’ve survived being a survivor’s daughter without inheriting the entirety of her trauma, many such others are not so lucky. My brother is an example - his relationship with sex was complicated even more than mine, because when he reached puberty, my mother didn’t just fear for him, she feared him. I’m sure this wasn’t conscious, but at that time, their relationship changed. There is a constant struggle for control between the two of them that has resulted in an utter lack of trust and understanding. Both are incredibly talented at saying the things that hurt the other most, whether they intend to or not, and I’m afraid that their relationship is beyond repair. This breaks my heart -all I can hope is that if my brother ever has children, he will manage to separate his baggage from what they need to know about life and love.

I hope I can do the same.

–Submitted by Hope

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