On Marrying a Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Dealing with misinformation, feeling powerless, and slowly getting better together
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I thought the article would validate my husband’s experience. That’s why I emailed him the link to the decade-old New York magazine article about his alma mater, the American Boychoir School for vocal prodigies, where alumni from as late as the 1990s estimate that one in five boys were molested. Boys like Travis.

“It used to feel like an isolated incident that affected just me," Trav said.

It was the end of my workday on an October afternoon; I had just set my keys on the kitchen table. My coat was still buttoned.

“Now I know I spent nearly three years of my childhood at a boarding school not just with random pedophiles, but in a culture that allowed it.”

As his wife, how do I respond? That he survived? That he’s brave? That he’s a hero for letting me talk about it? That I will stand beside him with a personal mission and public vow that nobody will ever hurt him, physically or emotionally, again, the way they did during his 30 months as a choirboy from 1988 to 1990?.

Trav deflects these statements. He understands my protective instincts, but it makes him feel weak and uncomfortable when I say the words with such elevated drama. He is not brave, he says. Not a survivor, and certainly no hero. It doesn’t matter anymore, he says, so I suck in my breath and nod.

Mostly, I listen. I listen, and I do not laugh when my husband needs to secure the perimeter of our home each night. He keeps a machete by the nightstand. A long pillow divides our bed.

Trav believes his story is too familiar to be interesting. “I’m just another kid who got molested.” This breaks my heart to hear, but he’s not wrong about his story not being unique: The generally accepted estimate is that one in six men are sexually abused as children.

When high profile cases dominate the news, I feel for the victims, but I also scan for images of their partners and wonder how they deal with it. I want to ask what’s inside their medicine cabinets and if their husbands sometimes wince when touched, too.

I want my husband to sleep at night, and if it takes a machete in the bedroom, I've learned not to mind.

Search for Americana singers in our state, and Trav’s name usually tops the list. As a musician, he built a business on his terms, one small stage at a time, and now plays at least five shows a week. He has a kind energy that draws people to him. He is a Reiki master and meditates daily. He defuses bar fights with humor and loads heavy gear with confidence in and out of dim back alley doors. Our niece and nephew run to him, and our chiropractor once called him the nicest man he’d ever met. His shoulders and arms, muscular and tattooed, project strength and confidence. “You’re so lucky,” women tell me after they hear him sing.

There is a hum about Trav—Hawaiians call it “big mana”—so much so, people might be shocked to know about the other, darker parts of him. For all his bold stage presence, he is an extremely private guy.

My husband does not want to be a spokesperson for child sex abuse survivors. His experiences are his own, and he finds no comfort in commiserating with others. He only agreed to this essay as a way of taking the conversation into the light, removing the shame, and saying to some other little boy, “With help, you, too, can heal;” to parents, “Be careful;” and, to partners like me, “Please do not give up.”

Still, there is something in people that always wants details. Partners like me know that even if I ranked every distinct act of pedophilia from bad to worst, the emotions—fear, trauma, sadness, anger, shame— are exactly the same for every crime. While Trav’s experience might not equal the horror of some, I don’t believe in “molestation lite.”

Instead, I read statistics from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network and nod along. These are the details that matter:

“Victims of sexual assault are 3 times more likely to suffer from depression, 6 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs, and 4 times more likely to contemplate suicide.”

Misinformation is the worst. Child sex abuse victims are not destined for deviance, but despite its repeated discrediting, a “cycle of abuse” myth persists. Put in the simplest terms by Houston’s Children’s Assessment Center, 500,000 babies born in the United States this year will likely be sexually abused before they turn 18. The vast majority of these victims will not grow up to be sex offenders.

“I have never, ever had feelings like that,” Trav once told me, as if I did not already know his character, and I was sad because he felt he needed to say the words out loud.

There’s also the guilt of not telling. He described the pressure he felt during his time at the prestigious school. “My folks borrowed money to send me there. If I quit, my whole family would have been seen as a failure.”

Both of us grew up in the same small community, and I remember seeing his photos in the local newspaper and the pride shown by our hometown. Looking back, I imagine that weight on the shoulders of a 12 year old, worried about his mom and dad. “I didn’t say anything to them or to the teachers,” he said. “If they knew what happened, I thought it would destroy them.”

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Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a writer based in Maine.

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