For most of history, the perceived stigma of being a survivor of sexual harassment and assault has kept many people, particularly women, quiet about their experiences. But ever since #MeToo and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings — the latter being more or less a live broadcast of how survivors are questioned, scrutinized and treated as the perpetrator when they come forward — survivors are beginning to tell their stories in unparalleled numbers.
They’re also highlighting the spectrum of inappropriate conduct, bringing attention to the emotional abuse and manipulation that often serves as a precursor to something even more sinister.
Sara, 40, is a survivor of this kind of abuse. As a teenager, she felt safe in the company of a revered high school history teacher who treated her like an equal. But she eventually realized that his behavior was nothing more than an attempt to “groom” her for sex later — especially after she learned that her friend Katie experienced even more aggressive grooming.
As such, earlier this year — 20 years after the misconduct first occurred and now emotionally equipped to go public with their experiences with this widely beloved educator — Sara and Katie came out about the abuse via Facebook and a series of in-person conversations with family, friends and their alma mater, despite fears that their teacher’s reputation would invalidate their experiences in the minds of others. Below, Sara recounts the reaction, explains why she felt she couldn’t stay silent any longer and outlines what she hopes happens from sharing what she and Katie went through.
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It was known around school that each year this teacher would pick an (always female) “protégé” who would get special attention and opportunities from him. I felt special to be chosen as that person my senior year. Two years later, it was Katie.
While in high school, I had no idea that there was a problem with any of this, or that he could be grooming me for a sexual relationship. It never occurred to me that a man in his 50s shouldn’t be doing these things with a high school student, and I guess it didn’t occur to my parents, friends or other teachers either. (In retrospect, though, some people have shared that they thought the close relationship we had was weird.)
Honestly, I probably spent more time with him than with my friends — a lot of alone time, too. He would drive us to and from activities and always drop me off last. He’d come through the drive-thru at the restaurant where I worked. He’d pick me up at a moment’s notice if I was arguing with my parents, and we’d go out to dinner, which he always paid for. We’d talk on the phone regularly. All the while, he shared private information about his marriage.
To fully explain the harm caused by our relationship, it’s important to note that this teacher was a mentor, role model, parent figure and friend to me. In fact, he was kind of a celebrity in our small suburb. He taught American history with a somewhat radical lens and challenged students to think differently about history. As part of this, he’d started a community service program that had won our school district countless awards. It also garnered him a profile in the local newspaper, in which he was lauded for helping students explore topics of social justice. The program also gave students in our relatively conservative community opportunities to travel and to win prestigious scholarships.
The summer before I left for college, Katie and I were both very involved in this program. We quickly became close friends. So much so that we stayed in touch after I left for college. Once, when Katie came to visit me, I told her that our teacher had emailed me about a week after I arrived at college to tell me that he’d thought about having sex with me. When he sent the email, I didn’t connect it at all to the behaviors that he’d shown when I was in high school.
Right after he told me that, though, I definitely felt a sense of betrayal and confusion. I can still remember sitting in the computer lab at my college in the early-ish days of email, reading his words and feeling flushed and dizzy. But because I was so young and still thought of myself as his equal — an impression he’d encouraged — I just thought of it as an awkward situation where he’d expressed sexual feelings that I didn’t share.
Later, when Katie was in college, we saw each other again. This time, she told me about everything that had happened between the two of them — that they’d had an inappropriately close relationship; that he’d told her he was in love with her; that he’d commented on her appearance; and that he’d sabotaged some of her relationships. I think the fact that we told each other what had happened shows that we both had an awareness that something not okay had happened, but we were still too young to grasp the implications of it.
Plus, knowing that people regarded him so highly made it feel more weighty and scary to come forward. We knew we’d potentially be ruining the reputation of someone who people really liked and admired. At the same time, there was also something infuriating about the irony that this person who had harmed us was always held up as someone who cared about social justice, treating people with respect, etc.
In the end, though, we didn’t say anything. I think Katie and I just felt guilty at the thought of ruining our teacher’s life and legacy — not just for him, but for all of those who still believed he was a heroic, upstanding person.
I’ve obviously thought about my relationship with him often over the last 20 years, but the way I thought about it has changed over time. I realized that even though nothing physical ever happened (other than a lot of long hugs, which I shudder about now), I was being emotionally manipulated by someone whose end goal was likely sexual. I slowly became aware that a relationship that I’d thought was based on mutual respect, admiration and trust wasn’t that at all. Instead, it was a textbook example of the American Bar Association’s definition of “grooming”: “a preparatory process in which a perpetrator gradually gains a person’s or organization’s trust with the intent to be sexually abusive. The victim is usually a child, teen or vulnerable adult.”
I couldn’t believe how perfectly this category of behaviors described what had happened. It was like reading my own journal. Maybe even worse, when I finally talked to him about my discomfort with the situation years later, he didn’t seem in any way contrite or aware of the harm he had caused. I imagine his nonchalance about the situation just further persuaded me that this was all “nothing.”
Still, I started to feel more and more guilty about not coming forward publicly. At the same time, I was more scared than ever to do so. If anything, the more time that passed, the weirder it felt to contemplate saying something — no matter how badly I wanted to.
Looking back now, there were many reasons why it took about 20 years for us to come forward. Maybe the biggest was that we’d told a variety of friends and partners over the years, including some who knew our teacher and knew of our close relationship with him, but no one had ever encouraged us to report it.
When #MeToo started, however, Katie contacted me to say she was thinking about finally saying something. I immediately told her that I’d been feeling the same way. My main motivations were to give others the chance to speak up if something similar had happened with him, to let people know that even “idols” can do harm and to be able to tell my own children that I’d done what I’m always telling them to do — to say something if an adult acts inappropriately with them.
Katie and I talked a lot about our feelings about coming forward and our strategies for how we actually wanted to do it. We also talked to some close friends and even to some lawyers and PR experts before taking our first step of “coming out.” We eventually settled on our first step being a letter that we would send to the superintendent and school board of our childhood school district, outlining to them what had happened, its impact on us, our goals moving forward and how we wanted the school to help. We shared it on Facebook with close friends as well, many of whom already knew about this situation.
Later, I shared an update on how our action steps were going with all of my Facebook friends. For some, it was the first time they’d heard about what had happened. I was touched that so many people were cheering us on and believed that what we’d done was important and valuable. Via Facebook, we were also able to connect with other people who had similar experiences and who gave us advice about how to most effectively take action.
I didn’t tell my parents, however, until after Katie and I sent the letter to our school district. It was uncomfortable telling them, but I’m glad I did. I think I waited so long to tell them because I was worried that they’d feel guilty for not realizing it at the time or upset that I’d waited so long to tell them. My partner had already known about this for many years. I can’t remember when exactly I told him, but he’s always been incredibly supportive of me processing my feelings about what transpired and of what Katie and I are doing together.
Several people wrote us directly about how upset they were to realize he wasn’t who they thought he was and to express how sorry they were, or to tell us that they’d had something similar happen in their own lives and that they appreciated us coming forward. We had parents of our childhood friends, our former teachers and others reach out to us as well to tell us they’d be happy to help us with whatever action steps we wanted to take. We’d spent so long convincing ourselves that this was “nothing” that it surprised us that people took it seriously and were sufficiently horrified by it.
Our school district has tried to be supportive. At our request, they removed the teacher’s name from a scholarship that’s been given out every year for a long time. They removed a glowing description of him from the school’s website, too. They were willing to talk to us and try to explain what they do now with respect to training teachers, parents and students about grooming behaviors.
Still, we’re not convinced that current students and parents are getting the education they need about grooming and sexual misconduct by teachers and staff, so we’re working to encourage the district to be more transparent about what they’re doing and to ensure that their efforts are in line with best practices nationally.
Additionally, we contacted two other places of employment where the teacher had worked after retiring from our high school — the same year that Katie graduated, perhaps not coincidentally. Similarly, we reported what happened to the Office of Professional Conduct at the Department of Education in our home state. Since he’s no longer teaching, it’s unlikely any action will be taken, but we were told that he’d receive a letter stating that a complaint had been made, and that if any future complaints follow, ours will come up in the system to corroborate them.
Having that paper trail and knowing he received that letter means a lot to me, and makes me feel like we did our job in hopefully supporting others who may come forward in the future.
Overall, I’m grateful for the experience and knowledge all of this has brought, and I truly believe it will help me better protect my own children. I’ve shared my story with them, too, and I hope that my having decided to come forward will give them strength to do the same if something similar ever happens to them. I’ve worked hard to make sure they understand what kinds of interactions between adults and children are acceptable and what kinds aren’t — and what to do if something inappropriate happens. That said, it’s sad and exhausting to assume that every male adult in your children’s lives may be a perpetrator.
Along those lines, I thought I knew how pervasive sexual assault, abuse and misconduct were, but after Katie and I told our story, friends and family members came out of the woodwork to share similar experiences that were heartbreaking. So many people I’ve known closely for years told me disturbing stories that they’d never shared before. Often they hadn’t said anything because “it wasn’t physical,” and because they’d convinced themselves that what happened was “just weird” but not worthy of reporting.
I’d be lying if I said I sometimes don’t feel the same — even now. There’s weirdly still a part of me that questions whether what happened was actually wrong and worth sharing. Particularly because I know that so many people have gone through so much worse and have been physically harmed and experienced extreme trauma. This isn’t the case here, so on occasion, I feel like I don’t deserve to speak up.
Those doubts eventually fade, though, leaving me only with resolve. Because I do think there’s value in coming out about the full spectrum of sexual misconduct that occurs. After all, the roots of all of it are the same. Not to mention, emotional harm is real, and no matter the “end result” of grooming or inappropriate sexual behavior, the lasting impacts on people’s mental health should be discussed and acknowledged.
Personally speaking, I know that as a result of this experience, I’ve found myself less trusting of men in general and particularly less trusting of men who work with children and are in positions of authority. I also know, though, that by finally discussing what happened to me with my parents, friends and community, it’s been a healing experience, too.