Note: The following essay includes depictions of sexual assault.
After three years of intensive therapy and a lifetime of denying the reality of my past, I can finally say it out loud: When I was 8 years old, I was sexually assaulted.
My mom dropped me off at a family friend’s house while she ran errands. She believed I would be safe with “Sawyer,” who was watching me, because he was a teenager with a “good head on his shoulders.” Little 8-year-old Christian just wanted to watch Disney Channel and drink Capri Sun until Mom got back. He never expected to be violated. One minute we were watching TV, and then before I knew it, Sawyer had pulled my pants off and forced my hands onto his body. I tried to fight him off but he told me I was “crazy” for not wanting to touch him. I continued to resist him until I no longer knew how I could stop him. I felt completely powerless. I remember him whispering in my ear, “This will feel great for both of us,” and that I’d love this “new trick” he was teaching me.
When my mom picked me up later that evening, I was quiet ― incredibly quiet. I felt as if I witnessed a car crash and didn’t call for help quickly enough. I had been in shock, as if I was someone else watching it happen to me. After a few weeks passed, Mom asked if I wanted Sawyer to babysit me again the next night. I didn’t know how to articulate what happened, so I didn’t say anything. During the subsequent encounter with Sawyer, he introduced me to porn. He explained that this would “make me cool,” and I should watch it “often,” but he made me promise not to tell anyone about what we did or what he showed me. I listened. I saw Sawyer as someone with authority over me. He told me this will “make you feel like a grown-up” and that he was “only sharing it with me,” and that made me feel special. I couldn’t comprehend the gravity of being sexually active, and though it felt wrong, I wanted to make Sawyer happy.
I continued to watch porn frequently and showed a few friends what I’d been exposed to. It wasn’t long before my playdates were getting canceled, yet nobody told me or my mom why. I now realize my conservative town was filled with people who preferred to run away from a problem or sweep it under the rug instead of addressing it. I was dubbed a troubled outcast and I began to despise myself.
As more time passed, I tried my best to just get through the days. Life around me went on like regularly scheduled programming. I didn’t know why I was sad so often. Sawyer, who I hadn’t seen again, promised me I’d “be cool,” but I felt far from it. At church, I learned that the thoughts I was having were “sinful,” so I felt even more disgusted with myself. I also knew I had to keep them a secret. I wasn’t sure who I was or what my sexuality was but I knew that even if I was attracted to other boys, I could never act on it. So, I buried everything I was feeling deep inside of me, where it fueled my intense self-loathing.
I worked hard to craft my straight identity and put the past behind me without properly dealing with it. From the outside looking in, I had a quiet, normal childhood. Nobody knew what happened to me, and I was determined no one would ever find out.
By 2018, I had moved to Los Angeles and was in a relationship with my first girlfriend. I was elated. As soon as I began exploring sex with her, the anxiety attacks began. I wanted to be present and enjoy the experience so badly, but my anxiety refused to allow me to do that. I couldn’t stop thinking, “Does she like me?” “Am I going to be able to get it up?” “Can I keep it up?” “Am I ugly?” “Is she enjoying this?” “Remember what Sawyer did to you?” “You’re not a real man, so stop trying to be one.”
At this point, I knew I was bisexual, but I was far from ready to announce it. I had told myself I needed to be a tough, straight, sexually dominant man, but I couldn’t perform when I most needed to. I wasn’t very good at hiding my apprehension. Luckily my girlfriend was incredibly patient with me, and, as I got more comfortable, I got better at controlling my intrusive thoughts. There were good days, and there were bad days.
When our relationship came to an end, I became aware of the heavy shame I was carrying. It overwhelmed me and bled into every part of my life. I finally told my mom everything that had happened, and she welcomed my brokenness with open arms. I booked an appointment with a psychologist and began the work of deconstructing the trauma I had experienced and for which I still blamed myself.
During one session, my therapist told me that at least one in six men have been sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives, and that this statistic is probably a low estimate, because it doesn’t include non-contact experiences and cis men are less likely to reveal or talk about their sexual assault. I was angry. Sexual assault has happened to this many other guys, and almost nobody talks about it? Society had conditioned me to believe these incidents were reserved for “weak people,” and if you were a “real man,” this would never happen to you. My therapist told me this statistic isn’t about weakness, it’s about resilience. She said, “not blaming yourself for these experiences is crucial to stopping this trauma from being generational.” The false and toxic version of masculinity I’d been sold for so many years was beginning to crumble for me, and I took my first sigh of relief.
I continued to work on myself, to process the trauma I experienced and to accept my sexual orientation. I confronted the reality of my assault and how it affected my day-to-day life ― the anxiety it caused so many years later and the shame that poisoned how I saw myself. I made the conscious decision to make peace with what happened without contacting my abuser. I learned that the attraction I have for men has nothing to do with my abuser being a man, even though so many people are quick to use sexual assault as a way to explain queerness.
As I progressed, I hoped acknowledging my sexuality and coming to terms with my assault would make the trauma magically disappear. I wasn’t that lucky. Instead, I still felt fearful going into new sexual encounters, especially with men. I worked with countless different sex therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists, and they all told me to be patient and gentle with myself.
The amount of self-doubt and shame that I have carried into my adult life is, undoubtedly, the most challenging obstacle I’ve ever tackled. As I’ve continued to accept my past and work to let go of the blame I feel, my overactive mind has gotten quieter. But PTSD can’t necessarily be cured with a few years of weekly therapy ― overcoming sexual trauma may be a lifelong recovery. Even though I never signed up for it, I must actively make a choice every day to work toward clarity for my own well-being.
I am happy to report I’ve found more ease and less neurosis in my day to day life. Since coming out as bisexual, I was in a long-term relationship with a man and I’ve discovered that, for me, being comfortable with sex requires two things: trust and time. Casual hookups haven’t been conducive to my healing, but every one is different. Pursuing connection that embodies reliance and assurance has been the strongest antidote to my anxiety-ridden sex life. As of late, I’ve realized that periods of time without dating or sex is perfectly healthy as well. Removing sex ― and the pressures and problems that can accompany it ― from the driver’s seat of my life has been the most liberating part of my recovery process.
I’m privileged to have an inner circle of friends and family who’ve accepted my pain and have never made me feel like it is ― or I am ― a burden. Their compassion inspired me to share my experience publicly, even though at times it feels terrifying. I wholeheartedly believe that if men had more open and complex discussions about their pain, we could witness a colossal transformation in the world we live in today. This isn’t easy ― it might be the hardest thing I’ve ever done ― but I know my story of sexual abuse is far from the only one out there and I hope that sharing it might make others feel less alone, start a conversation, and bring about change.
Christian Weissmann is an actor and writer, originally from Chicago, Illinois, who now lives in Los Angeles. Christian got his start in theater and commercials as a child, then moved out to LA as a teenager to pursue acting professionally. He’s appeared on Netflix’s “Dear White People,” ABC’s “American Housewife,” and most notably, as Nate on Peacock’s “Saved by the Bell” reboot. He’s also published two essays with the Los Angeles Times. Find him on Instagram @ChristianWeissmann and on Twitter @cpweissmann.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.