During my late teenage years, I had a rather close call with someone I thought was a little too “touchy-feely”. Although I was not physically molested, I was in the “grooming process” when a predator tries to inure his/her victim to behavior that crosses the line.
Towards the end of high school, my town participated in an international relationship building project that involved an exchange of visitors. We became partners with a city in Europe.
My Mom is extremely insecure and feeds only on an inflated sense of pride. She thought her family should be international representatives, and welcomed the foreigners into our home. Initially we were supposed to get a young couple, but plans changed at the last minute and we were presented with a man in his fifties and a younger bachelor male in his early twenties.
During their time in our home, the older man seemed a little off. He was single and dating a female, but acted childish and was eager to horse around with my brothers and I. He tried to tickle us at times. He also bought gifts for us. At the time, we just thought he was a very extroverted person and trying to make a good impression on our family.
One day the man sat down with me and we looked at postcards from his city. He sat very close to me and would occasionally touch my leg. At first I thought it was by mistake, but eventually it seemed awkward. I felt really uncomfortable, but didn’t say anything because my Mom was busy playing “international host” and the rest of the town media was covering the event.
The man said we could visit his town and stay in boats on the water. My Mom bought all this hook, line, and sinker. She thought it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
A year later, our family joined about 20 others from our town and headed “across the pond”. I was nervous about the trip for two reasons 1) Flying such a long distance made me anxious and 2) I just didn’t feel right about this guy. My Mom and Dad dismissed my fears as being unnecessary anxiety that they didn’t understand.
So we landed in Europe. Oddly we didn’t stay in boats. Instead, the older man invited our entire family into his small home. My parents had one room and my three brothers and I the other. We all shared a bathroom. The shower curtain was clear plastic. Once in a while, the man would burst through the door when my brothers and I were showering, claiming “a pipe needed adjustment”.
He took pictures of us throughout the trip. Most were typical pictures tourists would take. Others weren’t so typical. One morning he woke my brothers and I up with tickles and shouts. He also photographed each of us coming out of bed in our underwear. We were all under the age of 17, and my youngest brother was barely 10. Again, I didn’t mention anything, because it was an official visit with various government dignitaries and public events. Telling someone about “pictures in our underwear” would have ruined the entire trip.
The most egregious event occurred one morning when I went downstairs early for breakfast. The older man had the TV on and we watched some morning talk shows. Small talk ensued, eventually leading to more personal subjects. Then, the man randomly stated, “What color are your pubes?” (Pubic hair). I was aghast but gave him an answer and the rest of the day went on as usual.
Our time finished up and we returned to the USA. The man sent us greeting cards every two weeks. He also sent us home with gifts.
Talking To My Parents After the Trip
I tried to discuss my concerns with my parents afterwards, but they didn’t quite get it. My Mom was wide-eyed that HER family was chosen to “go abroad”, and that I could list the wonderful exchange on my transcript for college. My Dad was indifferent about the experience, although I think he had some concerns that he thought were unwarranted because his children didn’t mention anything. I didn’t speak to my father about anything since we were having a difficult time in our relationship.
I knew my Mom wouldn’t believe me so I went to my school library and poked around the internet for information. The internet was just taking off, but some European news agencies already had their stories online. I searched for news about the town I visited for about a month. One day, my worst fears were realized.
Two local newspapers announced a man (the guy we visited and who groomed me) was under arrest for molesting multiple young males over the course of 2 decades. Charges were also being brought by international authorities because he apparently molested boys during a stint in Canada with youth scouting. I was able to gather a couple articles that included his photo.
The man eventually faced the courts and pleaded a European equivalent of “guilty” and was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, with a psychiatric evaluation and supervision upon release.
A few other important details came out:
1. The younger man who came to our home was actually in a consensual homosexual relationship with the older man now facing charges of molestation. It is unclear whether or not the relationship began after the younger man was an adult or teenager.
2. The man had questionable photos of males found in his apartment, business, and on his computer.
3. He had more than 10 victims, although only 2 or 3 pressed charges in his own country.
4. The man’s parents, who were still alive, claimed they did not abuse their son, and that he was a normal youth who excelled in school and business (this was all technically true, but they weren’t about to air their dirty laundry in a newspaper interview).
When confronted with this evidence and my own stories, my Mother was dumbstruck. At first she thought I was making it up. When I recounted all the events that “crossed the line”, she came up with excuses. For example, she explained the photos of my underage brothers and I in our underwear “were summer camp games”. When I mentioned that he questioned me about my pubic hair, she blushed and had nothing to say.
Eventually my parents collectively said to me, “We’re sorry this happened. We’ve ceased corresponding with the man. We’re sorry we didn’t know the danger we were involved with.”
That’s actually a big apology from my parents, who usually never admit their mistakes about ANYTHING. Clearly my mother’s pride not only put us in danger, but also prevented her from seeing the plain truth.
Pride is such a selfish emotion. She wanted to feel proud so she got her family involved in an international exchange program. Then she wanted to feel proud – and avoid shame – by NOT acknowledging that anything indecent happened to her children.
I still don’t know what to think of it all. I knew I wasn’t physically touched or harmed, but I also knew boundaries were crossed. The most damaging aspect of the experience was psychological: 1) I was already questioning my sexuality as a teenager and never had a date – it seemed I was only attractive to male pedophiles; 2) My parents ignoring my concerns and invalidating me on multiple occasions, choosing only to believe me when I had proof in writing; 3) That I lacked the confidence to actually stand up to the man when he started grooming me, regardless of how embarrassing it would have been for the town and media covering the exchange.
Never ignore your gut when it comes to inappropriate advances from much older adults. Your gut is probably right. I can’t list guidelines because every situation is extremely unique with its own complications. Here’s a rule of thumb: After something questionable has happened, remove yourself psychologically from whatever place you’re in – because vulnerable people are prey for pedophiles – and ask yourself if hearing about the same experience you had from another person would feel good or bad.
If your friend mentions, “When I was 12 I was tickled by a 50 year old guy 5 hours after meeting him”, and you think, “Wow, that’s totally wrong”; guess what, your reaction to your OWN situation is totally accurate and reasonable.