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What Lifetime Experiences of Sexual Abuse and Violence Have Taught Me

What Lifetime Experiences of Sexual Abuse and Violence Have Taught Me

Published on
Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Edit Views How a Life Experiencing Sexual Violence Taught Me This: Be Alert

Support ourselves and others, speak up and organize for change

Despite the harrowing experiences that have shaped her, Mattheus writes that "anger and disappointment do not rule my life. Just the opposite, I am an optimistic activist." (Photo: Pranavian/flickr/cc))

West Germany, 1958 — I am three years old. My mother tells me never to take candy from a stranger. But strangers with candy have not been a problem.

1959 — I sit under our table and play between the feet of women – friends and relatives. They talk about war and rape; name women who were raped during the war and in the chaos afterwards. I always knew the meaning of rape.

My mild-mannered mother hates her father, who I never met, and she never reconciles with him after being sent to live with her uncle’s family at the age of 12, or was it 14? He abused her mother and I suspect Mutti was not untouched.

As a child I read stories, I watch movies about war and Holocaust. So much killing, so much rape. I am terrified. When will they come for me? When will I be called to help a neighbor? Will I survive? And if I do, what will be left of me?

I rehearse scenarios. What to do when I am in a concentration camp … when the Vikings and Mongols come back? I learn to fight. I fight with boys. I take Judo classes. I train to be perfect at running, hiding, climbing, being still, swimming, diving, conniving. Hiding under water is such an important skill. A reed can be used as a straw. I am angry. (Even now, I am still angry.)

1960s — I am scared of our neighbor whose two daughters are my friends. I avoid being near him. One time I throw up in his car. I am sorry, but I’m also gleeful because I’m getting back at him for driving too fast. Later I learn that he embezzled from the Red Cross and from “two old ladies,” whoever they are. I also hear later from village gossip that his youngest daughter, a heroin addict, “ran off to the city.” The eldest daughter tells me that her sister was sexually abused by their father. I am not surprised.

1968 — I am 13 and the cat calls are coming in my direction now. My heart beats fast. I feel threatened and embarrassed. The accepted norm. No one helps. I avoid construction sites, find long alternative routes. I wish I was a boy.

1969 — I have a doctor’s appointment and am late for class. As I enter, I apologize. My male teacher asks loudly: “And what did the doctor do?” My school mates giggle. My knees wobble. We all know he’s referring to sex. I want to leave my body.

1968 to 1978 — Many of us hitchhike. How else would we get around? I try to be safe. I never accept a ride with 2 men in a car. I always know how to open the door. I do not accept rides from guys who set off flutters in my gut. “Thank you, but I am not going there,” I say instead of getting in.

1970 — Coming from school, two miles from home, the truck driver veers off onto a dirt road. With a forceful voice I tell him to stop the truck and let me out. He keeps going until the highway is far behind. I imagine what he’s planning. He stops in a place near the forest and grabs for me. Fury rises. I twist and my right fist smashes into his pudgy face. My left opens the door. I jump, run into a field. Run, run, run. I never tell.

1971 — I work at a large department store to earn money for a student trip to Ireland. The store manager frequently stops at my station in the men’s sweater department. We chat and I feel special; he’s a mature man in his 40s. One day he asks me to step outside. I do. I am curious. He tells me he adores me and wants to have sex. The child within me wants to giggle at the idea, but my emerging adult self is angry. Imagining him touching me makes me feel yucky. I say “no.” I see fury in his face and he yells: “Those stupid Irish! How can you go to a fucking country like that?” I yell back: “You know nothing about Ireland! How can you put them down?” I go back inside. It never enters my mind that I could be fired.

1971 — My father is dying. The pastor grabs and kisses me in his office. He smiles lovingly as he offers his hand. Let’s do more, he means. A door separates us from his wife and eight children eating lunch. I am flabbergasted and shaken, beet red and angry. I open the door and another door and leave with what I hope is some dignity. I never teach Sunday school again. I never go to church again. I tell my mother and ask her to talk to the pastor. She does not. She does not speak against powerful men. He comes to our house to be with my dad, who never needed or wanted a pastor. I know he is looking for me. My mother offers him cake, as is the convention. I climb a tree and only come down after he leaves. I feel so betrayed.

1972 — Now my dad has died. I am stoic, show few emotions. Waiting for French class to start I sit on a high window sill. My legs hang down and I dream. I hear commotion. The teacher has arrived. I am ready to jump down, but the teacher grabs my right leg, circles my ankle with his fingers and laughs: “just wanted to see if my fingers fit.” I am speechless and furious at myself for not finding words and turning red. I don't bother to tell my mother.

1972 — My mother and I move to Hamburg where we have many relatives. I go to an ice cream parlor. The sole male attendant reaches over the counter and squeezes my breast. “Don’t!” I manage to gasp, swatting his hand away. “I will never come back.” I leave shaken and humiliated. I tell Tante Anneliese and Mutti about the encounter. Ask them to confront the man. They do not. I ask them never to go to the parlor. They continue to go when in need of a treat. I feel betrayed and furious. Time to consolidate my armor, to be always on alert.

1972 — My girlfriend Ulla and I are attacked by a motorcycle gang. Huge guys put us in a “squeeze” -- surround us tightly so they can feel us up and... There are many people in the area, but they don’t notice or are too scared to help. I appeal to the gang leader, his power and pride. “Can you help? Are you able to get your men to back off?” I lock into his eyes while I feel hands all over my body. He orders them to let us go. Ulla and I are rattled and relieved. We escaped! I don’t tell anyone.

1972 — My half-sister and I are best friends. She’s a generation older than me. She helps me to explore Hamburg, my new home. She tells me about her new relationship with a man who was in a Soviet WWII POW camp. “He was tortured, sexually tortured by the female warden. He has scars – physical and emotional.” I listen whenever she talks about him, but I am too terrified to ask questions. What is sexual torture?

Philadelphia 1974 — I work for a German volunteer organization and my assignment is with the United Farm Workers Union. I’m helping with the grape boycott organized by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. My coworker at Philly’s United Farm Workers office comes back from an organizing assignment. She is disheveled and cries. She was raped. I sit with her. I hold her. What to do? Our director calls the police.

1974 — One of my regular UFW picket line participants, a white woman with an interracial child, tells me that a white police officer and she have a deal. She has sex with him in his car whenever he wants in exchange for him not beating up her black boyfriend, the father of her child. She tries to avoid the guy, but carries the burden to keep her family safe. I am appalled, furious. The picture of her being regularly raped in the back of a police car never leaves my mind. It is still there.

1975 — On my way back from a picket line I pass a block where all houses were torn down. I see a man hit a woman. She falls. He kicks her and punches. She gets up, stumbles to get away. I stop my car, get out, wave my arms and yell. “Stop hitting her!” He punches. “STOP” I scream. Both look up. “STOP hitting her!” The man walks away. What else to do? After a while I drive on.

1975 — I meet an 80-year-old man at a demonstration I organized for the union. I am told he is a veteran Communist and organizer. He tells me about McCarthyism and the Wobblies. I like him. I want to honor and learn from movement elders. He invites me to have dinner in his apartment. We eat. His place looks barren and poor. We sit on his one and only sofa. He tells me his parents died in a fire when he was young. Then he lunges at me, plants a kiss and tries to roll on top. I push him off, my legs and arms creating distance. I am flabbergasted. He is 80! He worked for good causes! I could hurt him but do not. I rush out the door, shaken and deeply disappointed.

1975 — I move into a collective house in West Philly and join the Movement for a New Society. We have an arrangement that our neighbor can stay with us whenever her husband gets violent. We look out for her. At times she can barely get into the house before he catches up, yells obscenities and kicks at the door. She always goes back.

1976 — On one of the main streets of my new neighborhood a black man stops me with a friendly “Hi.” I say “hi” back. Then: “Hey girl I want to fuck you.” “Not interested.” I say more kindly than he deserves, but I don’t want a fight. “Fuck you, its’ because I am black, right? Hey you fucking racist!” I walk on, shaking. What a scam!

1976 — A Movement for a New Society friend Amy and I hitchhike to Kansas for the national MNS gathering. Our last ride is with a long-haul trucker. Amy sleeps in the booth behind the seats. I spend the night warding him off – his hand and words – while Amy has a peaceful night. “You owe me,” he says. “You owe me sex for getting a ride.” We make it to Wichita OK. Bleary-eyed, I stumble into the meeting and tell a friend about the harassment. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. I am furious at his nonchalance.

1977 — I take a nonviolent self-defense course, we tell stories of survival and victories. I join Women Organized Against Rape, Women Against Abuse, help organize Take Back the Night marches. I cry and rage in peer counseling sessions.

1977 — I volunteer as a rape crisis counselor. We sit in tiny rooms in one of the only two hospitals equipped to deal with rape, often at night. We wait for survivors to arrive. I don’t know what to do with the children. I have no skills or words. For them life will never be really OK again. Some nights the hotline is transferred to our house. The phone wakes me up. “Women Organized Against Rape. Can I help you?”

London, 1978 — Scott and I run nonviolent direct action training for the Operation Namibia boat crew, in solidarity with the African struggle against imperialism. We sleep at crew members’ apartments. My place comes with a drunken, crazy father who camps out in front of my bedroom. The hall is tight and he grabs for my crutch every time I go to the toilet. I push him away. He is not very strong and I know how to deal with drunks. But I can’t sleep. I am afraid he might break the locked door and catch me unaware. My co-facilitator Scott is sunny and rested. The son shrugs his shoulders when I tell. “Yes, that’s my old man.”

Philadelphia, 1979 — I am waiting for my trolley at the 30th Street train station. On the other side of the track stands a tall man. Something is off. He catches my eyes, opens his coat. He is nude, penis erect. Got cha! I feel invaded, furious. I gasp. When I tell a friend, he says. “I am glad nothing bad happened to you.” What?

Street comments in the U.S. echo Germany’s: “Hey honey, want some nookie?” “Nice breasts!” “Like a fuck?” “Slut.” “Kissy, kiss.” “Ooooh! Look at that ass!” “You don’t know what you are missing.” I am old enough, by now a mother and experienced activist, to talk back. But I keep my distance. Many guys are uncomfortable with eye contact when I say: “Stop.” I don’t want to be beaten up. It will take many more years for my heart to beat normally when I pass construction sites.

I have not even touched the 1980s. I have 40 more years of stories. In 2018 sexual misconduct is in the news along with the question: why did you not say something? Often, we did, and sometimes it led to change.

I tell my daughters that no matter what, I will always be there for them. When they complain about a slight or insult, I always say: “Want me to come, organize a picket line?”

Anger and disappointment do not rule my life. Just the opposite, I am an optimistic activist. The stories here are real, but only a part of my life. I have a wonderful family, loving friends and joyous communities. Being exposed to sexual abuse and violence are a window into the suffering experienced because of war, race, class, gender or sexual identity. The main lesson is support ourselves and others, speak up and organize for change. The only lingering challenge is that I have a hard time sleeping at hotels, on trains, in cars or in friends’ houses. Sometimes I wake at home when the wind blows, trees moan and shutters rattle. My unconscious tells me: be alert.

Author's note: In the above, I only mention a person’s race when it is pertinent to the story. The dialogue is often summarized and recalled to the best of my recollection.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

Antje Ulrike Mattheus

Antje Ulrike Mattheus was born in 1955 in a small village in the Westerwald region of West Germany but has lived most of her life in the U.S. She is a human rights activist and retired organizational development consultant. She joined Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (actionreconciliation.org) and moved to Philadelphia as a volunteer in 1974 to work with the United Farm Workers’ Union (ufw.org). Her forthcoming book is: Cresheim Farm, An American Story. (Photo credit: B.side Photography)

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The men who abused the writer over the decades were miserably disturbed, searching in futile, pathetic, twisted ways for love and some kind of human connection. One must feel sadness and pity for the 80 year-old man’s desperation and loneliness that he would try do what he did. The world truly is a sad and lonely place.

Earlier today I read in CounterPunch an article by Kim Domenico which asks the question: “How much of this endless sexual war is due to the loss of culture and community that kept us consciously in relation to each other . . .?”


This paragraph struck me:

“The outsized annihilating anger driving the Me Too movement comes from an abandonment of the indigenous psyche. No longer forced to do so, we do it voluntarily, in obeisance to ignorance and fear. If instead we practiced the art of womanliness, even surreptitiously but defiantly, growing our plants, mixing our potions, practicing our white magic, away from the watchful keepers of the norms, we would not be rageful furies, but mending, healing mothers of the new culture. To continue to refuse the inward direction we’re called to from deep humanity, we can only be forces for divisiveness, weakening the whole, refusing our bond with our brothers, scaring our sons into being good boys with powerful neuroses.”


Quite an interesting article! Patriarchy and Capitalism seem to go hand in hand: Objectification, materialism, consumerism, being their bi-products.

Women mixing their potions, doing white magic, and tending their plants–well, we all know where that got us back during “The Burning Time.” But yes, I long for the days, the “looking backward” days, when women felt their innate power as Women! I agree. Being “equal” is nonsense! Who wants to be an equal pawn in a Patriarchal, corporate cyborg world?!


And we are ‘modern’, advanced, the pinnacle of the human race… the definition of bullshit given the evidence that the deluded attempt to make sure never becomes known. 21st century society is sliding down the fecal hill it has been loading centuries into the swamps like ole foggy bottom.

Thank you for the stories, and for your bravery. amazing to read. sad too. unbelievable.

Mankind is bad. no other way to put it. but maybe from now on things will start to change for the better. it already started.

I am opposed to sexual abuse of course.

But is anyone concerned that this “Me Too” movement which is displacing other activism and awareness in a big way, represents an oh-so convenient issue, taken up by the bourgeois class and their corporate media and capitalist “entertainment” industry to divert us away from a whole host of more important issues - most of which involve challenging the bourgeois interests?

To repeat, how convenient!

The mainstream media is indeed loving the me too stories because they are characterized by elements that sell well in the media.

Mainstream media is also giving us daily doses of corporations telling us stories about showering their workers with trickle down from December’s GOP Inequality Exacerbation Act (IEA) disguised as tax reform, with no mention about how those showers are gimmicks no different than the checks the Dubya regime sent to taxpayers to lend credence to their 2001 tax cuts.

Media is also not mentioning the astounding return on lobbying (euphemism for bribery) investment the IEA provides for the 1% and their corporations.

All of that being said, discussion with several female friends through the years confirm that the author’s experiences are not unfortunately not unusual, in many circles sexual abuse is the rule not the exception. The more victims who tell their stories, the better.

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I admit that much of my own views are based on simply not having any experience or accounts with incidents of sexual abuse. As someone who grew up a troubled awkward aspergers kid, much of the abuse in the form of snubs by women along with the more overt cruelty by the male kids and young men. Needless to say, I did not go to the prom - or any other date until I was almost 30.

What I don’t understand is how all sorts of, frankly minor harmless stuff (the flasher was a classic) get lumped in with the genuinely horrible stuff. Ms. Mattheus should pare her “log book” down to the stuff that constitutes genuine abuse and rape that she has experienced or witnessed.

I was the victim of an attempted molestation and attempted murder at the age of nine. I have been judged, stigmatized and shunned my whole life. People read or hear my story and walk away. Chronic and severe PTSD is my prison. I have spent a life-time in Hell. It’s nice someone gets to have a support system, I sure haven’t and yes I am angry about it,

Bourgeois. Hmm, tell that to the 700,000 plus women farm workers who duly noted, that yes, indeed, #metoo.

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Sobering history. Thank you Antje.

Why is nobody talking about the brutal pay, grinding poverty, and toxic pesticide laden working conditions that far more farmworkers - both female and male, are subjected to?

If acquaintances walk away, it is because there is nothing they can do and would be intrusive if they did try something. I hope at least a few of them suggested that you find a psychologist or social worker that you feel comfortable with.

I long overdue to find a therapist myself for anxiety and depression which is probably shortening my life - although it is difficult to tell the boundary where my anxiety and depression ends and the day’s news begins.

It’s clear you’re suffering, Yunzer, and I’m so sorry. So many people are now, and we have to stick together or none of us will get what we need. I’m pushing for universal health care for people who need all kinds of help, whether their need is something I’ve experienced or not. My experience does tell me that both people in your situation and people in the #metoo movement are suffering because of the same forces in society. As paularae suggested at the top, patriarchy and capitalism, racism, sexism, class struggle, religious persecution, ecological and climate denial and so many other problems that threaten us come from the same roots, and to deny the legitimacy of someone else’s experience because it’s not our own isn’t going to help any of us get what we all need.

Minor sexual abuses set the scene for major ones; they intimidate both intended victims and bystanders while serving as trial balloons for the worst abuses (with plausible deniability, in our denying society). Small abuses have outsized psychological effects on those they’re aimed at relentlessly; many so-called minor abuses can be as damaging or even more so than one major trauma.

Trauma can be fixed by a loving context and caregivers’ providing safety; when the society is proven to be unsafe by constant “minor” invasions there’s no safety and no loving context and the developmental damage can be profound. Look at the results in those who are running the country now–empathy and reason damaged beyond repair and addiction unregulated. Most of them haven’t suffered major trauma; their damage came from minor slights, reinforced tens of thousands of times, from earliest childhood up to this morning.

To have a different outcome we have to do things differently from the start.

"I’ve had enough of white people who try to deny my experience"
Afua Hirsch
On a TV panel show I was forced, yet again, to explain the reality of racism to those who believe they are colour-blind. It’s exhausting

"Making Contact: Angela Davis and Tim Wise: Capitalism, Privatization and Hope"

at 7:30 in the podcast: The meaning and ramifications of ”public”.
”Indifference has a cost”
at 10:00-15:40 Story of the letter from an out-of-work white guy ”This wasn’t supposed to happen to me.”

Yes, but the goddess wasn’t killed was she? With books like Anne Baring’s The Dream of the Cosmos, I think the idea of a non-dual, feminine goddess is more alive than ever. Buddhism is a feminine religion in that there is no essential separation between nature and humans, in terms of worth. Every Buddhist meditation practice first invokes the enlightenment of all sentient beings.

I’m optimistic about very little these days, but I think that what we’re going through with Trump is cause for hope. I see him as the embodiment of the desperate death throes of a patriarchal world. If there ever was a phallic force, it is this guy; even his vehicle is a giant flying penis.

There has never been a catalytic symbol such as this flying penis to mobilize the forces opposed to a dualistic, hierarchical worldview of separation that may have started with the idea of an unapproachable God, the one in the old testament who banned humans from the garden of Eden, because they ate some fruit, something like disobeying a don’t walk on the grass sign.

Jesus is a much more feminine idea of God, Christianity just hasn’t caught up to him yet (except the Christian mystics). Hinduism has always been there in its most profound interpretations; every male god has his counterpart female goddess and they’re equally powerful.

Christianity has become a dogma and a code of morality. There are no symbols left, especially in Protestantism, that connect the human to the divine. The cross, a bridge that once bridged earth and heaven has become simply an instrument of torture. And when religion loses its symbols and becomes doctrine and rules, it’s no religion at all.

Anyway, this is what I’ve been thinking on lately.

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I like what you’ve been thinking on lately.

Yes, the goddess made a huge comeback in recent times, but the backlash, as usual, has been fierce. Every time we come to this point of: “Maybe now is the time?” the Patriarchy rises and gets uglier. Trump is the ugliest. His cabinet are like minions–demons even.

The Jesus I know is the one who became angry with the Pharisees of his time and called them “white washed sepulchers.” I see the churches that way now. I agree–most haven’t caught up to the Jesus who showed humanity how to touch the Divine within.

My quest many years ago was to find “The Feminine Face of God,” and I was shown. I’ve read so many books and found so much solace in the fact that male and female–both aspects are Divine. Will we ever (again) have an egalitarian world, devoid of hierarchy and Patriarchy? Can we embrace gylany (Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade)? I pray it happens in my lifetime…but I’m getting up there now.

Thank you for your beautiful post. In my heart, I feel this is the only Hope we have left–that humans will wake up fully and realize who and what we are, and what we are doing to this planet, before it is too late for us.

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Those issues are certainly being discussed, have been for decades.