I don’t think of it as I’m driving my 12-year-old to her first sleep-away camp, two and a half hours north of our home in Michigan. It comes to me that night as I’m falling asleep, in the dreamy limbo just before sleep, in the enchanted hour of exhaustion effortlessly turning to panic, in the sweet spot reserved for self-sabotage. Drip by cortisol drip, I involuntarily recall a story I heard on NPR. A group of boys rape a 12-year-old girl. In an abandoned hunting cabin in the woods. At a summer camp. In Michigan’s wild Upper Peninsula. This is how I remember it. I haven’t read Roxanne Gay’s new book, Hunger, but popular media likes to rehash the book’s triggering narrative of her rape. The boy who led her to the cabin was her boyfriend or at least she liked him like a boyfriend; the others were an ambush. This violence marks the end of her illusions of safety and strength. It marks the beginning of her “false self,” a personality presented as gift to the world, the one who can love and be loved when the real self is hiding in the back of a basement freezer. I remember Gay told no one. I remember her trauma not a moment before because I was waiting until there was nothing I could do, no way to retract leaving my daughter in the opening shot of that story.
It is common to leave your only child in the woods a long way from home for a week or a month with strangers, and yet, we had never done it. I had never gone to camp as a kid, either, which I thought was for rich people. True, the YMCA camp where we left our daughter had been in operation for 90 years of safety-first outdoorsy adventure. Many children came back every year and sent their own children. I’m banking on the nerdy reserve of Midwestern camp counselors who seem to wear their uniforms without angst and are eager to sing along with silly camp songs. Yet isn’t the whole thing—lakeside yurts, a treehouse library, zip lines and horseback riding trails—a little too wholesome? As I walked through the camp grounds, I remember thinking, “This is just like a movie set,” which now seems a puddle jump from “This is just like a front, a façade for believing in something that doesn’t exist.” I had been alarmed by the number of teenage boys I saw as we were pulling into camp, and the grown men who seemed to be lurking in the shadows, each slightly furtive or flashing a too charming smile. When I tell my friend about the swarms of 17-year-olds, she exclaims, “Sex camps for teenagers and the parents pay for it all!” What allows this to be remotely funny is that she, unlike me, is imagining teenagers having consensual sex with one another. We both know that by far most sexual violence happens between friends and family, not strangers.
But look around and the whole population feels like family. Michigan has the third largest number of sexual offenders in the country and the fourth largest per capita number of registered sex offenders. Our town, Ypsilanti, claims one sex offender for every 56 residents, higher by far than the two “most dangerous” cities in America that happen to be in Michigan, Saginaw and Detroit. Could I turn these fun facts into a different kind of story? And off the girl goes, safely away from friends and family and our sleazy little hometown! Off to camp where all the forest animals gather around the girl to protect her from her own kind. Off into the wilds for the most risk-free week of her life!
But here is something else I know. Abuse begets abuse. As a person who was sexually exploited as a child, I am haunted by the fear of repeating my history, reenacting it in a kind of zombie trance. People who have been abused tend to pass it on; in fact, the first thing I learned about being a “survivor” was that it runs in families. Sexual assault leaves something below the skin: a magnetic impulse, a compulsion. It’s as if sexual assault were a feeling or desire that wants to perpetuate itself, that needs a host to complete its life cycle. Picture this desire as a parasite. My perpetrator left a parasite in me. No matter how much therapy and yoga I do; no matter how many kind, empathetic supporters I have; no matter how aware I become of others who share my experience; no matter how vigilant or well-intentioned I am, the parasite will control my behavior. Inevitably, I will act out the parasite’s deep program. In this story, I am a host manipulating the scenes of my daughter’s childhood into a familiar script, a horror show, a sad afterschool special. Then we will both be zombies, and there’s nothing a zombie likes better than company.
Here’s an analog from the annals of nature: a parasitic fungus releases a mind-controlling chemical cocktail in the carpenter ant that eats it. The fungus hijacks the insect’s central nervous system, which makes the ant march up the north side of a tree and bite down hard on a leaf. Once the ant is lock-jawed on a leaf, the fungus grows out of its brain for another ant to eat.
A parasite grows from my brain. Once I outgrow the target age and have a child of my own, the parasite will force me to bait my own child. Under the biological sway of the parasite, I will do exactly what I need to do to feed my child to the other pedophiles and molesters, the child rapists and pornographers. If I do not perpetrate those same horrors, I will find someone who will. My mother is a prime example of someone who used her daughter to reenact her own experiences of being molested. She left my bedroom door open, practically with an “enter here, pedophile” welcome mat. She may not have intended me to take her place as the child object, but she did nothing to prevent it.
When Candace Jackson, Betsy DeVos’s civil-rights secretary, announced that 90 percent of campus sexual assault accusations are about being drunk or breakup sex, she voiced a common sentiment, a psychologically loaded lie that’s widespread enough to be taken as fact. Women are fickle and full of vengeance. We are prone to victim fantasies. We are ashamed, illogical, slutty. We don’t know what we feel or think. We are hysterical, meaning we are a lot of fun until we are not. We turn on a dime. We become paranoid. We lash out.
My partner and I agreed to talk with our daughter on the way to camp, not for the first time, about physical boundaries and what to do when they have been crossed. When the time comes for the conversation, though, everyone seems really into the songs coming out of the car speakers, singing along with desperate gusto. But I proceed; I ask my daughter what she would do if someone touches her in a way that makes her uncomfortable. She rolls her eyes and pantomimes her self-defense plan to the beat of the song: thumbs in the eyeholes, knee in the groin. She makes a dance of it. Is feeling strong and invincible the same thing as being it? I decide it will do for now.
Nature is actually full of zombie creatures doing the dirty work for their clever parasite hosts—a phenomenon known as adaptive parasite manipulation. In Central America, ants that eat bird droppings can end up ingesting a parasite that lays eggs in the ants’ bellies, which transform the ants physically—turning them bright red and round—to look just like local berries that birds like to eat. And one wasp, the emerald cockroach wasp, attacks cockroaches with venom that allows it to control the roach’s movements. The venom blocks a neurotransmitter, which creates a zombie roach that the wasp can lead right into its nest: food for its larva. Do you think humans do not make slaves of one another? In North Pole, Alaska, one in every 35 citizens is a registered sex offender. Santa is the perfect parasitic pedophile and children come pre-groomed to sit on his ample lap and keep secrets. Think of it: why would we have a strict taboo and laws against sleeping with children if we did not desire it?
Pedophilia is apparently irreversible; you just live with it. It controls your fantasies, your arousal and your desire for a lifetime. Sounds a lot like plain old ‘sexuality,’ doesn’t it?
I don’t mean you, unless you do. Sleeping with children is nothing new, and we seem to work hard to protect the practice. As attachment parenting becomes the norm—I count myself among these ranks—we have unprecedented intimacy with our children. The intensity of this closeness may directly correlate to our fear of pedophilia, a fear that our intimacy might cross a line. In the first year of my daughter’s life, in a parenting book given to us by one of our therapists, I read a throwaway line about the normalcy of feeling aroused by tending the baby. Don’t be alarmed, the book said, it doesn’t mean you are a sexual deviant. The feeling will pass. Reading this, I wondered if intimacy and sexuality have become so divorced from one another that we might mistake one for the other, especially when sleep deprived and in the murky grounds of a new identity. The assertion of sexual arousal as a fact of parenting seemed scandalous to me at the time, but it also gnawed at me until I became grateful—if a little daunted—to know I could just acknowledge it as a fleeting phase. I never did feel sexual attraction to my infant (perhaps I was doing it wrong!), but I worry about people who do feel it, who get freaked out by the feeling, identifying too strongly with it, fetishizing it or burying it. In many cultures, pederastic relationships were considered part of the norm, with the relationship between the older man and the adolescent boy ending once he was considered a grown man. Other people’s sexuality can be hard to identify with—weird, creepy, uncomfortable, embarrassing, awkward or confusing. I find myself thinking, even in culturally sanctioned, age-appropriate heterosexual couplings. Him? Her? Or more kindly, I guess it works for them. When I look back at some of my own past partners—at men I wanted—my own sexuality is incomprehensible to me. I cringe. I can’t connect to the person I was or find the thread of lust that led me to get with them. And eroticism at its best is mildly panic-inducing and overwhelming; no wonder it calls out extreme reactions. Put another way, who hasn’t had a sexual fuck-up or misstep or transgressive fantasy? If my community ostracized me for each one, shame might super-charge those moments, creating an erotic abyss. If I were not allowed to reenter my life, I’d be way more secretive about my sexual proclivities by all means.
What is a sex offense anyway? Each state draws it differently, but here is the FBI’s attempt to provide clarity: “Offenses against chastity, common decency, morals and the like.” Each item on this list raises the hairs on my neck a little higher. There are many possible distinctions between kinds of sexual violence and their relationship to power, but the registry makes none. Michigan’s three-tier system is a blunt attempt to acknowledge levels of severity. The easiest way to get a tier-three offense, which lands you on the list forever, is to commit a sexual offense against someone under 13 or to rape anyone at all. Of the hundreds of mostly men on the list in Ypsilanti, more than half have tier-three offences.
Remember that lone guy slinking around the children’s section at the public library? It’s so common that dealing with this guy is part of the training manual; it’s part of the job in the children’s section of all three branches of the Ypsilanti Public Library.
Pedophilia is apparently irreversible; you just live with it. It controls your fantasies, your arousal and your desire for a lifetime. Sounds a lot like plain old “sexuality,” doesn’t it? In this light, all sexuality is a kind of mind-controlling parasite that makes us all act against our best judgment. In Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Acrasia is a witchy seductress of knights, who possesses the Circe-like capacity to transform her lovers into monstrous animal shapes. Who hasn’t turned an ex-lover into a monster? This is my mother’s favorite word: akrasia (or acrasia). It means the state of acting against your better judgment, or a lack of self-control, having a weak will. I didn’t know it was my mother’s favorite word until she ended her most recent email to me with the confession. It was meant to be lighthearted and eccentric, probably, but I read it as an apology, or what suffices as an apology, I guess, for basically offering me up to the same man who sexually abused her, her father. It’s a code she knows I know. “Akrasia” is tied to sexuality by its use in the New Testament when Paul warns that a wife or husband withholding sex might encourage akrastic behavior. This is the exact excuse my mother offered me when I was in the eighth grade and finally told her about her father slipping into my bed the mornings we slept over at my grandparents’ house. She asked no questions, but said, “I’m not surprised; your grandmother’s a prude.” Then as an afterthought, she instructed me for next time: go to the bathroom and lock the door. We exchanged no more words about it for eight years.
Pedophiles by definition prefer prepubescent children, but only rarely are they exclusively attracted to children. Pedophiles are usually men and can be attracted to either or both sexes. Put this way, pedophilia seems like a crime of opportunity more than a driven compulsion toward children. We like to think that pedophiles are made by other pedophiles—a parasite needs a new host—but chances are that being molested, raped, or sexually abused as a child will not make you a pedophile (but it might). Chances are you will simply arrange for your own children to become jail bait, as we used to say, but then again, you might not or you might arrange it badly, ineffectually. This is how the statistics shake down into narrative. We like our transformation tales about women and girls to be brutal: we rape them and hold them hostage in our fantasies. We indulge in the sanctimony of female vulnerability so that they can pass through “survivor” and “victim,” but what then? Are we suspended in this defining agony forever? Unrelenting misery turns human beings into monsters. And poop becomes berries. A skull becomes a fungus pot. A friend writes, “Have you heard about a man in a blue truck that has been reported trying to get girls into it? Sue told me that. We were just talking about how/when to let our girls go places alone. I guess never?”
These are not helpful thoughts when you realize you have left your tween girl to the wankers. I have sheltered her, to be sure. I have withheld information about sexual assault, not wanting her first understanding of sex to be colored by violence. I have fast forwarded over rape scenes; I have not given her Snapchat or even a phone; I have limited her sugar and screen-time. During her first week of public school, in sixth grade, she asked me to define “dabbing,” “twerking,” and “YouTubers.” I took her to the mall for the first time, at age 11. When we pushed through Macy’s—like pushing past the coats to get to Narnia—she stopped at the threshold of the store, where it shoots you out into the mall interior. Staring dumbstruck with awe, she said, “There’s more?” How was this girl going to defend herself against grooming? Against predator manipulation? Against me and everyone trying to protect her?
Defendants in sex offender cases are treated as enemies rather than criminals. That we have enemies is undisputed. Maybe that is not the right word; “enemy” is a childish word. We have sides, we have opponents, we have greedy and selfish motherfuckers; we are at odds with some. But we aren’t sure we can name them. We don’t know who they are because we don’t know who we are exactly. Are the pedophiles our enemies? Or the rapists? Or the people who want their names, addresses and license plate numbers forever on a list?
My first semester of college, I wrote a satirical essay for class advocating for the castration of men before coming to college. My teacher, a graduate student, wrote in double underlined red pen at the end: You should have read this aloud to class! In my speech class, I wrote a talk about sexual assault on campus that substituted the words “potential rapist” for the word “man,” which infuriated my entire class. I was attracted to poetry because there, I could both tell and not tell, have a secret and confess at the same time. I had plenty of great sexual experiences by then but no framework for understanding my relationship to sexuality. These academic acts felt provocative to me and I courted a provocative edge. If I had grown up in the internet age, I shudder to think what mistakes I would have made on it and with it. I was reckless, transgressive and akrastic in a million ways, but there were no cameras, no live tweeting, no instashame, no cyberbullying, and people would move on and I would move away. My daughter, however, doesn’t have the luxury of being provocative or sexually reckless. Two days after she turned twelve, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Reauthorization Act of 2017. This new law requires states, tribes and other jurisdictions to register children who have committed sexual offenses. Requires them. To register offending children. Of any age. On the public list. The definition of “sex offender” has widened so dramatically that you could find a sexually aggressive kindergartener on the list, and in some states that might mean a lifetime on the registry. An adjudicated juvenile can be on the list for consensual sex or sexting. A third party can make the claim. Who is this law protecting? Because something is against the law does not mean it causes harm. Consensual sex between teenagers probably doesn’t cause harm. A five-year-old acting out sexually probably needs therapy, not a lifetime of alienation and criminalization.
A century ago masturbation, cunnilingus, fellatio and sodomy were “unnatural acts” in state law and medical texts. It’s still technically illegal under Michigan state law to have anal or oral sex, but the antiquated law from 1931 is unenforceable at the federal level. Consider this: anti-sodomy laws only became obsolete in the 21st century. Up until 2003, broadly written anti-sodomy statutes have been used, on rare occasion, to prosecute men or women deemed “sexual deviants.” A dozen states still have anti-sodomy laws on the books 13 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional. In Michigan the law was revised to focus on animal abuse, but it still actively addresses human sodomy. The legal definition of sodomy in Michigan is typically vague: “the abominable and detestable crime against nature either with mankind or with any animal.” The imagination runs wild! Nature itself becomes less wild. The language dates back to a 1697 Massachusetts law that forbade “the detestable and abominable sin of buggery with mankind or beast, which is contrary to the very light of nature.” The state generally understood “buggery” to mean anal sex. At least in cases of bestiality, no one cares about the biological sex of the participants.
Around the corner from my house, two men on the list for child sexual assault and making child porn live at the exact address of the now closed Humpty Dumpty Day Care. How long have they lived there? The owner of the house, the director of the day care, lives next door. When fewer children enrolled, he overcharged their parents and started renting the top floors of the house to tenants. Eventually repeat violations including fraud and negligence shut down Humpty Dumpty.
Down the street, a middle-aged man on the list now lives with his mom. As a 35-year old, he raped the 14-year-old sister of his 19-year-old girlfriend in her own room as she was trying to sleep.
Two blocks away, a man who had previously been arrested for trying to lure minors into a hotel room was rearrested for filming boys in the locker room of the high school where he taught.
Another man on that block tried to rape his grandson at his graduation party.
Why, people ask me, do I want to spend my time thinking about this? I might say, “Our president is a sexual predator” but I think, It’s the parasite. Instead of leading my daughter into the sex offender’s house around the block, with a cheery, “Be back soon,” I am thinking up arguments to get rid of the list altogether, to defend every human’s right to be treated like a member of the community.
Parasites became a fascination of mine as a young adult, and I devoted hours to reading, writing and talking about their amazing variety and resourcefulness. It was clear who the enemy was, then, whose part I didn’t want to play, what story I didn’t want to own. This is where the metaphor exhausts itself. When I didn’t realize what my fascination was tied to, I could have it freely; now I don’t have time for indirection or stories I know too well. Getting older makes our own gross potentialities all too clear. What is it that you thought you’d never become? I remember the astonishment of many when I decided to have a baby. And who would have imagined that I could live in one place for two decades? That I would turn 50? That I’d become a field hockey coach or a professor? That I’d agree to go camping? Who ever dreamed I’d go to a Zumba class at a gym and use drumsticks on exercise balls to Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”? I’d like to think there was no way of seeing any of this coming. Who would have imagined this life? Now I know that I have less and less to scorn in others, that I have less and less to laugh at or pity in them, because there is nothing that I can be sure I could not become.
Christine Hume is the author of The Saturation Project (Solid Objects, 2019), a lyric memoir in the form of three interlinked essays, as well as three books of poetry. Her chapbooks include Lullaby: Speculations on the First Active Sense (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008), Ventifacts (Omnidawn, 2012), Atalanta: an Anatomy (Essay Press, 2016), and a collaboration with Jeff Clark, Question Like a Face (Image Text Ithaca, 2017). She teaches in the interdisciplinary creative writing program at Eastern Michigan University. She lives in Ypsilanti with her partner, Jeff Clark, and their daughter, Juna.