I Was 12, He Was 20 -- So Why Did Everyone Blame Me for Our Sexual Relationship?
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Over the years, I have called it an “inappropriate relationship.” I have called it “an incident with an older man.” Most frequently, I have called it “the thing that happened that summer.” As in — remember the thing that happened that summer?
I never called it sexual abuse, because it felt like an overly dramatic Oprah-ization of what happened. The word “abuse” seems to imply victimization and has always made me uncomfortable in this instance. Until now, I have been far too politicized to admit the chief reason I never called it sexual abuse in spite of the fact that it would be considered as much from both a criminal and a clinical perspective. The real reason is because I believed I asked for it.
The summer I turned 12, I went to sleepaway camp. I shaved my legs for the first time, dumped Sun-In in my hair and tanned with baby oil. I had my first boyfriend — a skinny, freckly arrogant kid a year my senior who took me for two paddle boat rides and then broke up with me, declaring me a prude and, I was sure, ruining my romantic life forever.
I turned from real life to fantasy, and eschewed the hazardous boys my own age in favor of a secret crush on Nathan, the 20-year-old swimming counselor. Nathan was sarcastic and slouchy and unusually stylish for a camp full of spoiled East Coast Jewish kids. His dyed black hair spilled over one eye and he wore his shorts low on his hips. Trumping all, he was from New York City, mecca of all things wild and wonderful. I spent countless hours imagining myself into a future in which I strolled through Washington Square Park with Nathan, preferably on a fall day in between college classes.
Nathan didn’t quite fit in and there were all kinds of rumors circulating about him. He was bisexual; he was friendly with Morrissey; he was a model for the United Colors of Benetton. I, too, felt like an outsider, never able to summon the same gung-ho camp spirit as the other girls. I imagined Nathan understood me in some fundamental way, he just didn’t know it yet.
One morning in the chilly lake, Nathan swam up behind me to correct my stroke and an electrical charge passed between us that was unlike anything I had ever felt before. My whole chest seemed to tighten around it. I was flooded with the exquisite realization that I was not alone in my desire. After that, my crush flowered into something more raw and persistent. I plotted and preened and placed myself in his eyeline at every possible moment. I gave myself asthma attacks and stomachaches with the anxiety of it all.
This went on for weeks before I finally found the courage to seek him out alone. I was asking for it, to be sure, but what exactly was I asking for? I wanted to kiss him; I thought about it constantly. But ultimately, I was asking to be loved, without grasping the possible manifestations that love might take.
The night I snuck out to see him, I slept carefully on my hair, set my alarm clock under my pillow and stationed my white Keds at the ready by my bedside. It was a long walk across camp and the darkness outside my flashlight beam seemed alive and threatening. I was covered in a cold sweat when I arrived. Nathan’s bunk smelled like feet and mold and was strewn with the detritus of the 8-year-old boys for whom he was a counselor. I tread silently, aware that the stakes were very different than those of any of my previous transgressions.