Oprah interviewed Gregg Milligan on her show this morning (watch full interview). To my surprise, and in contrast to her prior show about female abusers, Oprah did not treat Gregg’s abuse or female-perpetrated child rape as a novelty. Likewise, she did not make overt excuses for abusive women or give them a forum to present themselves as victims (although in this instance that could not occur as Gregg’s mother died several years ago).
That said, some moments did cause my eyebrows to go up. Oprah referred to abusers’ behavior as “seduction.” In context the word choice seems more like an attempt to demonstrate the damage the abuser caused rather than excusing it. “Seduction” carries much more weight and places responsibility on the abuser more than “grooming” does. However, “seduction” also carries the connotation that the seduced person willingly engaged in some part of the act. It also reflects how society excuses female sexual violence against boys and men. So while certainly applicable, “seduction” perhaps is not the best word.
The other moment occurred early in the show as Gregg described the violence his mother committed against him. In two segments Oprah tried to get Gregg to say the sexual abuse felt good. Oprah seemed emphatic about this, and it is unclear whether she did so because of her projecting her experiences on Gregg or because she may still not believe women could or would force a 10-year-old boy into vaginal intercourse.
Nevertheless, Gregg and his story are more important. Gregg talked about the severity of the abuse, how it began with physical violence and escalated to sexual violence. He spoke of how his mother would beat him if she did not reach an orgasm and how she would push him away and throw him out of her bedroom if she did. He shared how his mother would use two different tones of voice with him. Swearing and shouting preceded the physical abuse, while his mother spoke gently to him, saying “Mother needs you” before the sexual abuse. Eventually his mother, who prostituted herself occasionally, began to prostitute her son.
Gregg’s experiences were similar to many men I have spoken with and similar to my own. Gregg mentioned thinking the sex was consensual because his body would respond to stimulation. As a young child Gregg could try to prevent getting an erection, but as he got older his body responded as programmed to, and in his mind the erection denoted consent. Many boys and men think this, largely because they have no other frame of reference. The abuser usually will comment on it as well, reinforcing the false notion that boys can control their erections and that getting one means a boy wants the abuse to happen.
The sense of the betrayal is profound. As I got older, I noticed it took more effort to avoid an erection, and most of the time I failed to prevent it. I could not understand why my body would do something my mind clearly did not want to do. I also could not understand why I could will an erection to occur, but could not will it away. The worse was the orgasm and later ejaculation. Gregg hinted at the same thing during his interview, but could not get the words out without choking up. For me, the orgasm was the ultimate betrayal because I could not control it at all. When it occurred while being penetrated it was much worse because it felt more intense. I hated the sensation, and each time it occurred I felt like garbage.
Gregg also spoke about how the abuse made him feel. He mentioned something I experienced, but never mentioned to anyone. Gregg spoke about not being able to get rid of him mother’s smell. Even after the abuse her smell lingered on him. I did not think others experienced that. This happened to me occasionally, but it was particularly bad when I engaged in acts with my aunt. I could not get her scent or taste off me. Sometimes I would think that other kids or teachers could smell it on me or on my clothes.
Like many abusive households, it is not just one child who gets abused. Gregg’s sister April also shared how her mother would abuse her. Eventually, their mother went from prostituting herself to prostituting Gregg. When she attempted to do this to April, Gregg stepped in to prevent it, and he succeeded in making it next to impossible for his mother to sell his sister. Gregg would take the abuse instead. That too is something I understand, although unlike Gregg I failed at actually managing to protect anyone. I wanted to, but I could not keep my brothers and cousins from being hurt, even though I am the second oldest and that was my only real responsibility.
What Gregg’s story shows is how abusive women mask their actions behind a façade and behind people’s willingness to ignore child abuse. According to Gregg, his neighbors knew his mother’s reputation for prostituting herself and behaving belligerently in public. Instead of stepping in to help her children, the people told their own children to stay away from Gregg and his siblings. Even his older sisters did not step in to help until Gregg spent two weeks begging for them to come and get him and his siblings. While many child abusers look for situations like this or create them, abusive women receive more benefit of doubt and get a much greater pass than abusive men.
This was also another point where Oprah slipped. As previously stated, Oprah did not overtly excuse female-perpetrated child rape, but she did covertly minimize it by framing Gregg’s mother as a “damaged, troubled woman.” It probably was not intentional, but one of the worst narratives that helps keep female abusers hidden is the notion that women who abuse were victims themselves and only abuse because of that or because they are crazy. That conveniently absolves them of any real responsibility for their actions by allowing abusive women to blame someone else or blame nature.
However, when one actually reads accounts from these women, the accounts read the same as accounts from abusive men. Women who rape children appear to be no more “crazy” than men, or emotionally stunted, abused or damaged. The excuses made happen not because women who rape children are actually rare or literally only abuse because of mental illness, but because the narrative in the psychological community has been for decades that only males abuse. Rather than acknowledging that perhaps the professionals overlooked or ignored female violence, these professionals essentially minimize it. They do not ask children taken from physically violent mothers whether any sexual abuse occurred, and they do not create an environment where abused boys and girls may feel safe enough to share that information.
Female sexual violence against children remains hidden and “rare” because the people supposedly to studying these kinds of problems do not want to admit they got it wrong.
Now, one can be certain that in the coming days several feminists will write about Gregg’s story. That is fine, however, this needs to be stated: it should not take an Oprah show before feminists will acknowledge female-perpetrated child rape.
Over the past year there have been several articles about female sexual violence, especially given the Sandra Cantu’s alleged rape and murder by Melissa Huckaby and Vanessa George’s arrest and conviction in the Britain. Yet few mainstream feminists discussed those articles. Feminists simply do not talk about female violence, and especially not female sexual violence – at least not unless feminists want to attack men’s rights groups.
It is time for that to change. Addressing female-perpetrated sexual violence should take a prominent role in the feminist movement because it is a women’s issue. Not only do women have greater access to children than men, but female-perpetrated violence appears to have a greater impact than male-perpetrated violence. People abused as children by women tend to have more mental health issues, relationship issues, drugs issues and a host of other problems than those abused by men. Also, a large percentage of those who abuse women were victimized by women as children. It is important for feminists not to create or perpetuate excuses for women who abuse. Even if feminists harbor negatives views about boys and men, feminists should be careful not to create a framework in which their ideology can so easily result in protecting female abusers or in the worse cases result in women abusing children.
It is fine if feminists acknowledge female-perpetrated violence following Oprah’s show, but the point is that it should not take a report from another feminist before they will actually care about or address the issue.