How many times have I heard this story: ‘She/he did [this] to me. They were the last person who would ever molest a child. When I confronted them, they were shocked and horrified. Shocked because, to them, what they did was perfectly innocent. Horrified because they would never sexually abuse a child.’
Sometimes, parents and caregivers do step over the line. They may not mean to sexually abuse their child. The very idea may horrify and repulse them. It’s something they would never, ever do. But the child feels molested nonetheless.
In c. 1594, an unknown artist painted Portrait présumé de Gabrielle d’Estrées et de sa soeur la duchesse de Villars, a beautiful portrait of the King of France’s favorite mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées. She is depicted stark naked in a bath she shares with her (also) naked sister, the Duchess of Villars. In the painting, the Duchess is pinching Gabrielle’s nipple.
Is it sexual molestation? Incestuous lesbianism between sisters? Or something else?
A friend once told me this story. Her mother and aunts had gathered and the conversation turned to whether my friend, we’ll call her Polly, had entered puberty yet or not. Before she knew what had happened, Polly found her shirt pulled up and fingers probing her breasts to determine if they had begun developing or not.
She felt absolutely violated.
Thirty years later, Polly’s mother tried to do the same thing to her granddaughter. Polly stepped in and protected her daughter from molestation and her mother was shocked. She saw nothing inappropriate in her actions although admittedly her viewpoint is skewed by her personality disorder.
I’ve approached this subject before in my blog entry https://blogs.psychcentral.com/full-heart/2017/10/struggling-to-say-metoo-when-you-feel-oopsmybad/
Back then I wrote, ‘How can you know if you were molested as a child, but were either too young to remember or so traumatized that you blocked the memory? We can’t know, not for certain, but there are clues. According to Parents Protect!, children who have been molested behave in predictable ways listed on their website, www.parentsprotect.co.uk/warning_signs.htm ‘
This blog post takes one step back from obvious, overt, intentional, penetrative or non-penetrative sexual abuse. It’s about non-penetrative acts that occurred at the hands of an adult who would never, ever, ever intentionally touch any child inappropriately. But somehow, they crossed the line with us anyways.
Perhaps they simply have extraordinarily bad boundaries. Perhaps they never learned appropriate boundaries at their parent’s knee. Perhaps they are mindlessly parenting exactly how they were parented. Perhaps they are so sure of their own innocence, they don’t realize how their actions feel to a very young child who has just become emotionally aware of their private parts.
For example, while researching for this post I read an article online that post-nappies, if a child needs ointment applied to a rash ‘down there’ the parent should have the child apply it to their own genitals. What a difference from my own childhood! As I told in a previous post, ‘Every week, (my aunt) Modryb made me lay spread-eagled on the bed while she washed my genitals, saying she couldn’t trust me to make a good job of it.’ I was already in Year 3 of school while she was doing this.
Would she consider it molestation? Never.
Was she a paedophile? I don’t believe she was.
Did she mean it as molestation? As far as I know, probably not.
Was it inappropriate? Without a doubt! It was over the line, inappropriate and very confusing to a young girl utterly confused on boundaries and what was or was not sexual abuse.
In the interest of hygiene, Modryb made me feel mortified, at best, and violated, at worst. No part of my body was off limits to her. She was the first to touch my genitals and after I entered puberty, the first to touch my breasts. She thought nothing of pulling down my pants for a joke or stripping off my jumper because she fancied herself a doctor, able to diagnose all my ills. I would be in the Fifth Form the last time she touched me inappropriately.
But to this day, Modryb would be horrified and shocked if anyone accused her of molesting me, her niece.
In a strange way, her ‘innocence’ protected me from the trauma of sexual abuse. Because I knew Modryb would never sexually abuse me, I did not experience that trauma.
But there was still embarrassment and mortification. Her actions destroyed my boundaries. They instilled utter confusion regarding what was or was not appropriate touching. I grew to be a young woman positioned to be the perfect victim for actual, bona fide sexual abusers who know exactly what they’re doing. Men like Modryb’s husband, my uncle.
If you’re still reading this blog post, the same is true for you. You experienced actions that horrify your friends. ‘Mate’, they say, ‘that was sexual abuse. My folks never did that to me’.
You feel violated. Confused. Puzzled. But perhaps not the extreme trauma of overt, purposeful sexual abuse.
I too am exactly in that place. The place that the crowds who flock to the Louvre to view Portrait présumé de Gabrielle d’Estrées et de sa soeur la duchesse de Villars feel as they ponder why one sister is pinching the other sister’s nipple.
Common wisdom claims the gesture was merely to signal that Gabrielle was pregnant with the King’s illegitimate child who might someday become king. But our modern eyes see something entirely different.
This is the contradiction, the rock-and-hard-place, the juxtaposition in which we find ourselves. Were we sexually molested or merely treated by someone blind to boundaries?
Like the painting, we may never know.