I had my first French kiss at age seven.

It was innocent, as those things go. My boyfriend* was a boy from my class, and I was visiting his house for a play date, or whatever we called play dates in the 80s. We had walked to a nearby park, and were playing on the jungle gym.

“Hey, uh…” he began. “Did you know grownups use their tongues to kiss, sometimes?”

“Ew. No. Sounds gross,” I said as I traversed the monkey bars.

“Do you—Do you want to try it?”

I wrinkled my nose. “What, do they just, like, lick each other?”

“No, I think they — Well, I can show you.”

I hesitated. “I’m not sure.”

“If you don’t like it, we don’t have to do it again,” he said, shrugging.

I took a breath. “Okay,” I said, afraid that, if I declined, it would ruin the visit.

Neither of us had ever actually seen anyone French kiss, and so we weren’t quite sure how the whole thing was supposed to work.

“That wasn’t very fun,” he said when it was over. I agreed.

I kept that kiss a secret long after our “relationship” fizzled; even at that young age, I knew I’d done something wrong and I didn’t want to get in trouble.

It was innocent, until it wasn’t.

A year later, I became involved in a toxic friendship with a girl named Amber. Her affect would alternate unpredictably between loving and hostile, and I often went to extreme lengths so she would “like” me.

One evening, I was at her house for a sleepover. “You know,” she said, “my friend taught me a way to pretend you’re making out with someone, without actually kissing. Wanna see?”

I shrugged. After a year of being friends with her, I knew she’d show me, regardless of whether or not I wanted to see.

She demonstrated by putting the back of her hand to her mouth and gesturing for me to do the same. She then brought her face to mine so that our palms touched, and she moved her face back and forth like we’d seen people do in the movies.

Oh, I thought, perking up. Oh, this is wonderful. Amber had given me the perfect way to connect with her. I reasoned that I could be sure she liked me if she was willing to do something so intimate with me.

I had no interest in girls—at eight years old, I don’t think I had genuine interest in anyone — but I was obsessed with being seen by this particular girl as worthy of love. And so I went along with it, and I told myself I enjoyed it.

Amber never talked to me after that sleepover.

A short time later, a same-age cousin asked me to experiment sexually with him.

By then, I had become accustomed to saying yes.

I knew what we were doing was wrong. I knew that I shouldn’t be doing it, and that he shouldn’t be asking me to. But I was so afraid that he would refuse to play with me anymore that I consented to do things that were completely out of my depth as a nine-year-old.

I was ashamed and embarrassed about these encounters. I believed I was complicit—nay, that I had actively invited them—and so I never told anyone about any of these experiences until I was much older. Instead, I played them on repeat in my head as a way to continually reinforce the inner narrative that I was worthless and undeserving of love.

I was constantly seeking something that wasn’t there.

Most of my early sexual encounters were for the same reason and followed the same pattern. I did it to appease the other person; I didn’t really want to do it; I found no love, or even pleasure, from it; and I was ashamed afterward at having done it — both because each time, I realized after the fact that I was being used, and because I knew I was doing something which I didn’t fully understand.

The first boy I had consensual sex with was fourteen when I was twelve. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing, and I didn’t enjoy it.

Later, when I broke up with him and subsequently expressed interest in getting back together, he used sex as a tool to wield power over me. He made me agree to do things—both with him and with his best friend—that sicken me to think about now, but which I accepted as the price I needed to pay for the mistake of having let him go.

It is unfathomable to me now that I was willing to sacrifice my body and my emotional well-being so easily.

Thankfully, none of these requests came to pass. I’d like to say it was because I’d found a way to love myself, or at least found the courage to say no to such obvious manipulation. In reality, it was mostly because I was twelve and didn’t have a way to get to his house.

For the next several years, I was driven by echoes of the voice that spoke to me when I was eight—the one that told me the only way I could be sure Amber truly cared about me is if she would be with me physically. Repeatedly, I was used and thrown away like so much trash, but I kept coming back for more. I so fiercely craved love that even a cheap knockoff would do, for a little while.

The boys got older and older, until they were men — five, six, seven years older than me. Each time it was mostly the same. I’d talk to them on the phone for a day, maybe two. We’d arrange to meet up, usually after my parents went to bed at night. We’d have sex. I would hear from them again, maybe—if they wanted to have sex with me again.

I’d feel shitty and worthless and stupid afterward, hoodwinked yet again.

“Where did all these guys come from?” my therapist asked me a few weeks ago.

I thought about it for a minute. “I don’t know, really,” I finally responded. “They were all in the same circle, I guess. They all knew each other.”

In that moment, I realized.

I had to swallow back the bile that was rising in my throat. It’s not often that I feel the kind of existential panic that makes me wonder if spontaneous combustion is a thing that can happen, but this was one of those times.

“Was this some kind of pedophile ring?” I managed to ask, rhetorically, before my throat closed completely.

Jesus, I hope I’m wrong. I hope I was the only one who suffered at the hands of these people.

Whether or not this was an organized club, the very possibility that it was changed things for me.

Shifting responsibility away from myself changed the way I viewed my experience.

I’d always blamed myself for the fact that, despite repeatedly being tossed aside, I’d been naïve enough to go back each and every time, believing these men could love me.

I should have known better, I would say to myself. I’m such a slut**.

Never once—not once, until I was in my thirties, and had kids of my own, and there was enough distance between 1994 Nikki and today Nikki that I could think objectively about these events—did it occur to me that these guys were fucking creeps.

I’d always been told I was very mature for my age, and that I definitely looked much older than twelve.

Did they tell me that on purpose, to boost my ego so I would have sex with them? Did they tell themselves that, so they could pretend they weren’t having sex with a child?

I felt like a slut for sleeping with so many guys — and they were all friends with each other, so I knew they were talking about me.

Did they pass me around intentionally, feeding on my desperate need to be valued?

I longed for someone to tell me they loved me, and some of these guys did. Later, they explained that it was okay to say “I love you” during sex, even if you didn’t mean it. Only much later did I realize that there could never be love between a twelve- and a twenty-year-old.

These encounters were not about love. No, they were about men who wanted to feel powerful at the expense of a little girl who desperately needed to feel loved. I realized all of these things as I got older.

Now, though, I finally realize that it wasn’t my fault.

Actually, I need to say that again.

IT WASN’T MY FAULT.

For my entire life, I’ve been fighting against myself, telling myself that I should have known better. I was so smart, after all. Why didn’t I understand that those guys were just using me, and once I did realize that, why didn’t I just stop doing it?

The truth?

Because I was a baby. I was a little girl, inexperienced in life and love, as I should have been. I used to read books, and play with my dogs, and hunt for frogs at the creek, and play catch with my dad, and pick apples from the trees out back.

Those innocent pleasures, though, went up in smoke as my childhood was burned to the ground, taking my self-worth right along with it. And now, all I can make out is the indistinct outline of innocence through the veil of soot and shame all those people left behind.


Author’s note: For a long time, I thought I wasn’t abused. I was also really skilled at hiding the warning signs just enough so my family members (who preferred to live in denial, anyway) didn’t ask questions. Like many of my childhood experiences, I live in fear that my children will one day go through what I did, and be afraid to tell me about it. Here is a list of warning signs of childhood sexual abuse. Read it. Keep it. Talk to your kids. Know who their friends are and what they’re doing. Be annoying. They might not like it in the moment — they might not even thank you for it later — but it’s better than the alternative.


Footnotes:

*It nauseates me to use the term “boyfriend” in this context, especially given my status as parent to a seven-year-old daughter. Nevertheless, that is how I identified this boy at the time.

**I learned the word slut in the context of my upbringing, and identified with it for an uncomfortably long time. I no longer use this word. I note this because it was very uncomfortable using the word in my writing, but it most accurately captures my mental and emotional state back then.


This piece is part of a series I created for mental health awareness called Myths About Me. If you liked it, chances are you’ll like the others as well. I’d be honored if you’d check out the series!