I never would have found the pictures if I hadn’t needed to poop. We hadn’t been dating long enough for me to feel comfortable going with him in the next room, so I told him I needed to "rest" and sent him off to his doctor’s appointment alone.
I used his bathroom, sprayed copious amounts of air freshener and then got on his laptop to check my email. When he got back, we would drive into the city for a Halloween party. Instead, an hour later I was packing my bag and fleeing his house. I couldn’t just sit and wait until he got back, let him kiss me hello, let him touch me. I couldn’t sit around and wait to ask him to explain the picture of a young girl, maybe 12 years old, standing with her back to the camera.
I don’t know what I’d been expecting to find. Not that. We’d known each other for years, but had only been going out a few months. He’d recently begun saying "I love you," to me, and I’d begun mumbling it back. It was almost true. Sometimes I did love him. But I didn’t trust him. I always felt, no matter how he insisted differently, that he was hiding something.
Within minutes of looking at his Craigslist history, I knew I’d been right. He was hiding a lot.
He had looked at many, varied ads for casual sexual encounters. Women, couples, transvestites. Interesting. Weird. Fine. OK. I could have left it there. I hadn’t intended to snoop in the first place. But instead I started typing letters into his browser, going through the alphabet, to see what URLS popped up in his history. On another tab, I started watching an episode of “The Office.” Then, there they were: the words that changed everything.
7-year-old Lolita topless.
I looked through the website. My brain stopped processing what I saw. It was as though someone had thrown a switch inside my head, filling it with white noise. My boyfriend liked to look at little girls naked. Unhappy little girls that were probably being raped and exploited. My boyfriend is a pedophile.
I called a good friend. She asked if I had prayed. I said I couldn’t quiet my mind enough to pray. She promised to pray for me. As we spoke, I started looking through his hard drive. Pictures of a recent camping trip. Pictures of flowers. Pictures of me sleeping. Then, the picture of the young girl, the one with her back to the camera. That’s when I knew. It wasn’t forgivable. I couldn’t talk to him. I told my friend in a new, firm, voice, that I had to go.
“Make sure to pray,” she told me.
I knew the consequences if I turned him in. He would be arrested, imprisoned and labeled a sex offender for the rest of his life. His family would go through hell.
I spent an hour on the phone, sobbing, asking someone to make the decision for me. I called people who had been molested as children and people who worked with the victims of sexual abuse. Should I tell the police, I asked them? Nobody would say yes or no.
“Have you talked to him?” they asked me. No, I hadn’t. He’d texted and called me, and I’d put him off, saying I needed some space and would call him soon.
“Maybe you should ask him. Maybe there’s an explanation.”
But I didn’t want to hear his voice. I didn’t want him to know that I knew. I knew that if I saw him or talked to him, my voice would tip him off. And I didn’t want him to erase the evidence off his computer.
Women who collude with pedophiles are often portrayed by the media as anomalies, in conflict with what should be an instinctual feminine drive to protect children. Our popular culture is simultaneously obsessed and titillated by stories of sexual predators and their prosecution. Every episode of “Law and Order SVU” or “To Catch a Predator” reinforces the simplicity of the equation. Child molesters=bad. People who report child molesters=good.
What goes unspoken when we think about women who fail to protect children is that there is an equally tangible societal pressure to stay silent. For every woman empowered by Mariska Hargitay’s character on SVU, there’s another who’s received the message, explicitly or implicitly, not to rock the boat. The message is that a woman’s greatest gift is her ability to negotiate, to stand by her man, to keep the family unit cohesive and calm. And what does it say about a woman’s worth that she’d get involved with a guy like that in the first place?
“Maybe if you tell him what you found, he’ll find a psychiatrist and get the help he needs.”
And maybe he would. Maybe he would erase all of those pictures and never look at anything like them again. But who, then, would trace the pictures of those sad little girls back to their source? Who would rescue them?
What kept me in a state of indecision was how badly I wanted to play the part of the heroine at his expense. I was angry. I felt used. What did it say about me that he hid this stuff so badly anyway? Did I seem like the kind of woman who would keep his secret? Was this the reason I'd held back from letting myself love him the first place, a silent alarm in the back of my subconscious saying something was very wrong? Was I his beard, his way of disguising his interest in children? I didn’t trust myself, in the face of all this anger, to make the right decision.
I finally did call the police. They told me that an officer would call me back shortly. Then I knelt and prayed. I asked for a sign that I was doing the right thing. I was still on my knees when the phone rang.
The detective I spoke to asked for details. He wanted to know the URL, what the girls had looked like, their race, what they were wearing. I told him as much as I could remember. The detective told me to call back if he contacted me. I slept like a baby that night. I knew I had made the right decision.
For months, I left all the lights on when I left for work, not wanting to return to a dark house. I circled the block to see if his vehicle was parked nearby. I carried pepper spray and entered through the back door of my house, looking in the closet and behind the shower curtain before I set my weapon down. I knew that he had a criminal record but had assumed it was all part of an outgrown past. Now I was scared. He knew where I lived and where my family lived. When the detective told me he’d been released on bail, I began sleeping with a knife beside my bed.
A mentor and friend who had worked with victims of sexual abuse told me that my fears were out of proportion. Pedophiles are cowards, she said, that’s why they pick children as their victims. Cowards, yes, but cunning. Pedophiles are often charismatic and manipulative. I was reminded of that when my ex emailed me.
“Now that you’ve left me and begun dating others…” the email began, and my first instinct was to protest. I didn’t leave him so I could date others. But then I realized he was trying to draw me in and confirm my guilt. He told me that the police had come and beat down his door and that his life was in shambles. I wasn’t sorry. I forwarded his email to the police instead of replying.
More than a few friends questioned my decision. I don’t think they’re disloyal for doing so. I know my motives weren’t pure. I was angry. My self-esteem was damaged. But I made the decision I had to make to keep my soul intact. I’m aware how cold it sounds, but I haven’t allowed myself to feel an ounce of sympathy. Sympathy would only complicate the following, hard-earned truths, and they’re complicated enough:
I am a woman who slept with a man who likes little girls. I hate that woman.
I am a woman who went out of her way to destroy the life of a man she sometimes loved. I don’t trust that woman.
And I am a woman who protects children. Don’t mess with me.