I Fear That I Sexually Abused Someone

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Reader’s Question

I am an openly gay male in my early twenties, and have been struggling with a regret for quite some time now. When I was a teenager, I babysat several children. When I babysat, I used to play games with the children where they would sit on my head or my hands, which they thought was funny. I, as sick as I realize this is, took pleasure in those games in a way that I shouldn’t have. I would usually initiate playing the game. During that time, I also fantasized about them, but never acted on anything aside from the games we played together. I never forced any kind of sexual acts with those children, and I surely never wanted to hurt any of them in any way.

I have not fantasized about children since I came to terms with my sexuality, and when I think about those fantasies now, I am sickened. Although I was very confused and in denial about my sexuality at the time, I realize that that does not excuse what I did. I take full responsibility that I have done wrong. I know I would never again do anything like it, but I feel like I need to tell on myself. I think bringing this up to the children would cause far more harm than good, but I’m terrified that I’ve caused some sort of psychological damage. Also, these children are no longer in my life.

I have recently seen a psychologist because I have OCD, but never mentioned this deep regret. I know that this is fueling my OCD, as I’m spending most of my days in constant fear and indulging in compulsions (hand washing is most common). I’m terrified I’ll be reported and sent to jail. I’ve been living in constant fear, and it’s affecting all parts of my life. What can I do to move on?

Psychologist’s Reply

There are a few angles from which to consider this question. First of all, I think it is usually best to err on the side of caution when considering a child’s welfare. I would say in most cases, especially if OCD is not part of the picture, if someone feels guilty or ashamed about his or her interactions with children, it is important to explore that. I think for some, it could be tempting to rationalize a pattern of sexually abusive or inappropriate behavior by disguising it as play or by saying, “but the children did not realize it” or “but the kids were having fun.” I do not want my response to appear to support this type of self-deception. With that said, my thoughts below are written within the context of your OCD diagnosis, as this could be one explanation for your tremendous guilt. I will put the OCD piece aside for a moment and start with a review of a federal definition of sexual abuse from the Child Welfare Information Gateway. This group states,

Sexual abuse includes activities by a parent or caregiver such as fondling a child’s genitals, penetration, incest, rape, sodomy, indecent exposure, and exploitation through prostitution or the production of pornographic materials.

Sexual abuse is defined by the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) as ‘the employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct or simulation of such conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct; or the rape, and in cases of caretaker or inter-familial relationships, statutory rape, molestation, prostitution, or other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children.’

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Given this definition, I think the concern I can understand is that your hands or head were coming close to or in contact with the children’s genitals, perhaps, through the game. However, from what you have described, the game was not sexually explicit and they remained clothed. They were not asked to remove their clothes, and their genitals were not the identified focus of the game, as I understand your description. Did this game seem like normal play to them? Did they show any reluctance to play? Were you ever coercive about making them play? These are the elements that would point us toward the idea that your behavior was out of the norm for them.

Consider the affectionate pat on the buttocks given by a coach to a young player as the player rounds third base on a homerun hit. This contact could be considered normative and expected within the game of baseball. Would the child be harmed by this if that coach were to fantasize about it later? No. Would it become a concern if the coach acted on his attraction to children in some sexualized way? Yes. Another example might be a young girl who has not yet become clear about her sexual orientation, but feels aroused when she hugs her female friend, to whom she is attracted. The thoughts or fantasies or physical sensations she experiences are not harmful to her friend. Private, internal thoughts or fantasies are not in and of themselves harmful to others.

Ultimately I cannot guarantee you that the children were not harmed by your game with them, because I did not observe it or discuss their experiences with them. If you were to share this with your therapist, he or she might be able to walk you through a more thorough consideration of what happened and even how your OCD may be impacting your thinking about this.

This brings me to my second point, which is that when obsessive-compulsive disorder is in the mix, the aspect to watch for is the drive for certainty. At this moment, you are uncertain about whether you harmed the children you babysat. You reached out to me for reassurance and certainty, and I am unable to give it to you 100%, given that I did not observed firsthand what happened. Let’s suppose that this fear that you harmed the children is fully an extension of your obsessions. Many people with OCD obsess about causing harm to others, go to great lengths to avoid doing so, and engage in compulsions to reduce the anxiety about harming others (e.g. hand washing). I do not know if harming others is the kind of obsession that is common for you. If it is, it would seem that this could be seen as more of an obsession, part of your OCD, than a truth or fact.

If I were your treating therapist and we were assuming that this was an obsession, I would encourage you to try to sit with the anxiety that you harmed the children and refrain from seeking additional reassurance about that or engaging in compulsions such as hand washing. This is an example of a typical intervention in the psychological treatment of OCD, called exposure and response prevention (E/RP). Again, it may be productive (and relieving) to share this fear and regret with your therapist.

The final element I want to mention is your sexual orientation. I have a lot of compassion for you as you described yourself, confused and in denial about being gay as an adolescent. Becoming certain about one’s sexuality as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or queer is a tough road for teens in our heterosexist society. It is hard enough to be an adolescent in puberty without adding the additional element of fear: fear of not fitting in, fear of being bullied or teased, and fear of being rejected in general for being ‘different.’ Although things are changing for the better in terms of tolerating and accepting differences of all kinds, it is certainly not safe in all communities to identify as gay. I want to congratulate you on coming out, speaking out, finding a therapist, and tackling personal challenges head on.

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