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Should I stay or should I go? My boyfriend disclosed that he has sexually assaulted two kids...

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mlti asks:

I am in an extremely confused state right now. I'm almost in the state of breaking down too and I just cannot accept the irresponsible fact that my boyfriend has raped a family member and a girlfriend's sister before who were both kids. It happened two years ago. He told me with all out honesty yesterday about it all since he didn't want to hide it from me as I am his girlfriend. He said that he is an overall changed person now...and he was really terrible to ever thought of doing such things, it was mainly because of his uncontrollably strong sexual desire and that it was harder to find a girlfriend at that time. He promised it will never happen again and he repented. I am very disappointed and terribly upset about this incident. But I weighed the good and bad sides of the problem. To me, it is beyond wrong to do such a thing and unacceptable to me. He also lost his virginity in that way and though guys are less skeptical about their virginity, I really didn't like him losing it that way. But there's nothing I can do about it now...what's lost is lost. On the other hand, he has every right to be forgiven too. This not only happened in the past, there was nothing of that sort after that and at the present moment. If he had repeated it, I wouldn't be so tolerant. He also chose to tell me the honest full truth even though he knows I was gonna be terrified. Furthermore, we are already planning a future together and we love each other very much. What should I do? Should I move forward, focus on us now and the future as well as forgive his past mistakes...or stop being with him? I really need some good advice.

CJ replies:

It’s understandable that you’re feeling pretty overwhelmed and confused about this new information you’ve received about your boyfriend’s history and experiences. Learning of multiple sexual assaults in someone’s history is no small thing and can certainly change your outlook on your relationship. Before I get too much further into my answer, I want to give you some hotline numbers that you could call if you are feeling very overwhelmed right now, or as you read this answer or consider your options in the future. Although you were not directly sexually assaulted by your boyfriend, calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-856-HOPE will connect you with your local rape crisis center and they will be able to let you know if they have services or counseling available for secondary survivors (those who were not assaulted themselves but have a relationship with the survivor) or other people who have been impacted indirectly by sexual violence. The National Hopeline (1-800-SUICIDE) is a hotline for those who are in crisis. Counselors are available 24/7 to talk about whatever issues are on your mind. I hope that if you are feeling really overwhelmed by all of this that you’ll reach out to get some support.

The situation that you’re in sounds really stressful to me. To be completely honest with you, my immediate (and strong) reaction to reading this question is that I think you should exit this relationship as quickly and safely as possible. I am going to try to address some of your points in more depth but I want you to know my bias and bottom line right from the beginning: I think you deserve better than someone who has repeatedly shown that he is disrespectful of others’ bodies, boundaries, and well-being.

Something in your question that jumped out at me immediately was the statement that he raped two youths “mainly because of his uncontrollably strong sexual desire” and because “it was harder to find a girlfriend at that time.” If you can only receive one message from this response to your question, I hope it is the understanding that rape and sexual assault are acts of power and control, not of sexual desire. It’s not about being horny. If you’re horny, you can masturbate or do any number of other things that do not involve forcing someone else to be sexual with you. Rape is about holding power over another person, and when someone chooses a child as a victim that power differential is highlighted even more. Rape uses sex and sexuality as a tool to control another person; it takes away that person’s ability to choose.

Just as rape is not about being really turned on and unable to control yourself, it also simply cannot be excused or justified because it was too hard to otherwise find a partner who was willing to have sex. Many of us will have periods in our life where perhaps we’re not partnered or we’re unable to find a sexual partner. That is just one of those things that occurs across the lifespan for most people. And whether that is the rationale he used to explain away some of the wrongness of what he did or whether that’s something that you’ve decided for yourself as a way to manage his disclosure, it’s not an excuse. A lack of a willing sexual partner does not equal your right to coerce or force someone else into being sexual.

Of course, I cannot know why your boyfriend chose to disclose this part of himself and why he chose this moment in which to do it. I wonder if part of it was so that he could revisit what he did but develop better feelings about it. You mentioned that he “repented”, and I find myself wondering if, in his mind, he thinks everything is ok now because he confessed his past and said that he was terrible for acting in that way. I don’t think it’s ok. I am also concerned if his telling you about this was, in a way, a warning to you. If he believes that his actions were justifiable because he was really horny and because he couldn’t find a willing partner, what does that mean for you if at some point in the future he wants to have sex with you and you’re not feeling it? Does that mean it will be ok for him to sexually assault you? A sibling of yours? An acquaintance?

I do believe that change, in some cases, is possible. However, nothing that I’m reading from your question indicates to me that his attitudes have changed. In fact, his attitudes about the assaults (that they happened because he was really horny or because he couldn’t find a girlfriend) are the kind of attitudes that enable rape and allow it to perpetuate in our culture. From my reading of this question it seems like your boyfriend feels that he was entitled to something and so he had the right to do whatever it took to get it. That would not be an attitude I would want in a potential partner, at least personally. The ability to change comes not only from a desire to do so, but also a drastic shift in one’s attitude. A promise of change does not always turn into action. Unfortunately, abusive behaviors tend to continue--and worsen--without structured intervention. In cases of intimate partner violence (which can be separate from sexual assault but shares some similar power dynamics) we often hear abusers assuring partners that they will change, that it will never happen again. That rhetoric tends to be empty, and my concern is that your boyfriend’s promises will prove to be similar. You also mentioned his complete honesty when he was discussing this with you, but I just want to throw it out there that we have no way of knowing whether he's telling you the complete truth. People who sexually assault often have multiple victims, so while he's disclosed two instances we don't have a way of knowing if there could be others. In my mind, honesty is different than justification. Honesty is more than admitting; it's taking responsibility. It sounds from what you wrote as if your boyfriend is still putting blame onto someone else and justifying his behaviors. "It was terrible to do that, BUT....[insert justification here]."

Having worked extensively in the field of sexual assault (both with perpetrators and survivors), I always heard a saying that only those who are committing the rapes can stop them from happening. A survivor of sexual assault could not have stopped someone from raping her or him; the person who could have stopped it was the person who chose to rape. But I don’t think that saying really tells the whole story. While rapists and those who choose to sexually assault others are certainly in charge of their own choices it’s also up to all of us not to buy into rape-enabling attitudes and beliefs. As long as we are justifying rape or talking ourselves out of anger or rage about an action (crime) that is always reprehensible and inexcusable, we’re contributing to the problem. Saying someone “must have wanted” to be raped because of the way they dressed or because of previous sexual experiences or that they must have actually enjoyed it, that survivors frequently make up accusations of rape, that rape is a crime of passion, that only really violent or mentally ill people would rape another person…these are often ways that people distance themselves from the harsh reality of sexual assault. If we believe that rape only happens to “those” people, then we are safe because we are not one of them. If we believe that all rapists are easily identifiable by certain features, we feel safe since those aren’t the people we hang out with or know. But these beliefs feed into how rape culture is perpetuated. It’s dangerous to buy into these myths.

I think that it’s dangerous for you, given that your boyfriend is still exhibiting some pretty blatant rape enabling beliefs, but it’s also dangerous for others. I’ve yet to mention the two young people who were victims of your boyfriend’s rapes. I don’t know whether these sexual assaults were ever reported but I would strongly encourage you to consider reporting the assaults to police, or at least an adult family member. The young people who were sexually assaulted deserve help and support even if time has passed since they were assaulted. Remaining silent about rape, along with buying into rape-enabling attitudes and myths, only makes it more difficult to bring support and healing to those who have experienced sexual assault. Too, know that your boyfriend could still be held criminally responsible for these rapes even though time has passed.

Your discussion of repentance and forgiveness raises other questions, ones that I cannot really answer. We each have our own set of morals and values that guides us as we consider those issues and how they play out in our lives. There is a question of whether we will—or want to—forgive a person or forgive an action if we choose that route of forgiveness. Likewise, I think it is possible to love a person but not love their actions. Love can make situations like this a lot more challenging than they might otherwise be. If you didn’t love him, my guess is it would not be a hard call to walk away. To draw another parallel to intimate partner violence, which is also fundamentally about power and control, we see that abusers rarely abuse immediately in a relationship. If someone hit you in a first date, most people would probably forgo the second date. But after you’ve been with someone for a while and gotten to know them and appreciate them and develop feelings, it’s much harder to merely walk away if some kind of violence (physical, emotional, sexual) happens. I’m bringing up intimate partner violence not because I’m suggesting that your partner is abusing you at this time (I don’t have enough information to make that call) but because I’m seeing a lot of the same tricky power and control dynamics in his words and actions that we often see in people who become abusive to their partners.

While you stated in your question that you and your boyfriend love each other I wonder what kind of impact this knowledge about his past, let alone his present or future actions, might have on your relationship. I’m not sure anyone else can make that call except for you. I know what decision I would make if I were in your situation—I wanted to make that clear from the start of this answer—but we’re each left to make those decisions for ourselves. If your values around repentance and forgiveness have been informed by a spiritual or religious community, it may be helpful to consult someone in that community if you are struggling with those concepts. That said, not all faith communities are necessarily well informed about rape or child sexual abuse, as has been evidenced over the past several years as we have learned more and more about abuses committed by clergy. But these are definitely big questions—values questions—that are yours to consider.

Regardless of whether you stay or go, I’d highly recommend that your boyfriend try to get connected with some kind of counseling. His beliefs about rape and about power strike me as dangerous and if change is possible for him, I suspect that professional support will be critical. If you are in the United States, contacting your local chapter of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers may be a place to locate a counseling professional who has expertise working with those who have perpetrated rape or child sexual abuse. You may also want some support and counseling for yourself as you evaluate this situation and decide whether or not you feel that you want to stay in this relationship. If neither of the hotlines I linked for you in the first paragraph seem like good resources for you, I'm hoping that you can talk to a trusted adult (family member, doctor, etc.) to see if someone can help you find a counselor who can offer you some support at this time. If you want to find out more information about sexual assault or child sexual abuse, which might help you make more informed choices about next steps in your relationship, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) website has a lot of information and resources that might help you learn more about rape myths and facts. Advocates for Youth, an organization that champions efforts to help young people make responsible and informed decisions about their health, also has a fact sheet about child sexual abuse, which can give you some more information about prevalence and the impact child sexual abuse has on survivors.

Some other articles, websites, and resources that might be helpful for you are:

written 15 Jul 2009 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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