Editor’s note: This article contains graphic discussion of rape and sexual abuse. Please read with care.
Here in New Zealand, a long history of sexual assault committed by a prominent local music fixture has recently come to light. The response has been exactly what you’d expect: a mixture of silence, “not all men,” and (most concerningly to me) an intense, scandalized focus on the pedophilic elements of Andrew Tidball’s behavior—to the complete exclusion of the fact that he, y’know, also raped and impregnated a young adult over the age of majority.
This is profoundly worrying. All the other women documented as subject to Tidball’s scumbaggery support Nicole, the young woman in question, and maintain that Tidball’s behavior was (as with many abusive men) about control and power, as opposed to any predisposition or inclination toward youth independent of the vulnerability that youth entails, and yet the conversation remains a swirling mass of the same old distancing of pedophilia from “our community,” from “normal people.”
When the Tidball story broke, I was sitting in lingerie and fuzzy cat slippers in the lounge at work, placing adult services adverts on my tablet. I saw it pop up on Facebook and had read half of it before I felt the nausea and tremors that are part of my post-traumatic response kick in. Nicole is a close friend and sex worker mentor of mine, whom I’d heard talk about Tidball; being isolated from the music scene, I hadn’t known who he was until this article. I also hadn’t known that his behavior on Internet Relay Chat would be so painfully familiar.
I joined a large online community at fourteen, the extremely precocious eldest child of two paranoid and conservative Christian Asian migrants who’d placed every sort of filter possible on my computer. I quickly became extremely social in this community, including on their IRC channels; having never had access to any more mainstream chatrooms, I didn’t know what to expect. I was thrilled to find a vibrant international community full of adults and other young people who didn’t treat me like an idiot for being a tiny brown girl who thought she knew things. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t an outsider—I was at home in a community full of awkward nerds, many of whom were as autistic as I was.
I thought I was pretty damn smart. My userpage coyly inferred that I was a university student; I generally spoke and acted, online and offline, like somebody at least five years my senior. Chatrooms make that sort of thing pretty transparent, though: it only takes so long before some conversation about movies makes it clear that you’re younger than several Disney films. Like many lonely, bright kids, I couldn’t help but talk about myself: cautious as I was, I was flattered by all the attention and considered myself as unique as these faceless usernames from around the world found me.
I changed my username to my first name, during a period when accountability became the new trend in this circle. I got it verified. I mentioned my high school onsite, which led to a phone call from another New Zealander on the website alarmed and asking the school principal to warn me to stay safer; before I could really do anything about it, the school was receiving calls accusing me of being a camgirl using their Internet for lewd sex shows. This was only the very start of my troubles.
I was a pretty fucked up kid. My family’s move to New Zealand was in part precipitated by my sudden decline into extreme depression as a preteen; believing that I was having trouble at school, my parents decided a change of environment would do me good. What they hadn’t realized was that “trouble at school” meant I’d been targeted by a pedophile ring and subject to their attentions at the beginning and end of every school day for six months. At fourteen, in family therapy after intense suicidality, I finally told my parents; they didn’t believe me. On IRC, every time I thought I could trust somebody, or simply when my delayed-onset PTSD was too much to bear, I was private messaging people about it. These random white men reacted with far more compassion and far less disbelief than my own father had. IRC became my lifeline to the point where I once risked suspension by using a teacher’s account to access it.
I was the subject of many, many IRC users’ intense attentions, but two stand out: a white American man who was then an undergrad four years my senior, who I’ll call Jesse, and a white then-PhD student and lecturer who identified as a cis man at the point we met, now a trans woman who goes by the first letter of her assigned name. Let’s call her K. I’m using pseudonyms for them for my own safety, not theirs, for fear of backlash.
Jesse was nineteen when we met. A political science major who was regarded as an awkward dork even within our circles, he zoomed in on young Asian women on IRC, taking to private message to talk about his life, his attraction to Asian women, and to hamfistedly flirt through awkward jokes about their figures. He was always on IRC when I was, and incredibly persistent about making conversation; I didn’t see any reason not to just talk to him. An open chat window was a random person to offload on, after all. I did have the foresight to save snippets of chatlogs where he said the most egregiously inappropriate things, joking about “beating the Asian out of me,” how “rapeable” I was, or urging me—“in good humour,” of course—to “show me your huge teenage tits.” One other isolated Asian girl in our circles, a year older than me, also bore the brunt of this attention, eventually being pressured into sending him a censored nude, which he then promptly sent to me with brutal commentary about how “weird” her figure was and how I was much more fuckable. He meant it as a compliment.
We stayed in touch for years, Jesse latching on as an annoying tagalong to most of my closeknit friend groups from that website. He made me my first Facebook account, since I couldn’t access Facebook directly, then linked it to a widget that wasn’t blocked on my laptop; as soon as I could, I changed my Facebook name from my real name, which he’d made it under, to the [first name] [pseudonymous last name] format I used online—but it was already pretty late for that. He made lascivious comments on my community userpage and all over my Facebook. Jesse became a meme in our circles, his comments followed promptly by replies from some of my other older male friends calling him “creepy.” I quietly liked those comments, and said no more about it. That was the way things went. It didn’t deter Jesse, or do anything, really.
Eventually, Jesse rose in stature in the organization that formed around our community’s website, becoming a facilitator of a real-world chapter. This concerned many, and when women at meetups started reporting aggressive sexual advances he’d made, a friend pointed administration my way to verify a history of similar behavior. Nineteen and long since estranged from that community ever since I’d come out as transgender, I sent them everything I had saved: first, the snippets of chat conversation, some of which K found through searching her incredibly extensive records, then, under pressure, what I could find of mixed-media evidence, including, very reluctantly, the censored nude of the other young woman that Jesse had sent me with his disgusting commentary attached. Jesse’s chapter was promptly cut off from funding unless they removed him from his leadership position; desperate and confused, he sent me a volley of Facebook messages pleading about how his younger self was “an idiot but not a fucking rapist,” complaining about these “made up complaints” that people had lobbied against him. He was at an international community meetup when this news broke, and spent the entire convention gathering sympathy and attention for himself against the invisible “made-up females” smearing his reputation. “I’m ruined,” he lamented, messaging me at 3 AM. I remembered then that he’d told me something else: when he was twenty, and I fifteen, he’d raped an international student at his university. “I just had sex for the first time. She didn’t really want to,” he’d told me, post-coitus. “But it’s always that way with Asians, you know? I learnt an important lesson today: never give up until you get a yes.” He’d laughed. “She just starfished though. Lay there and didn’t really get into it. I bet you’d be a way better fuck.”
I sent those logs through to administration and started ignoring his messages, but I didn’t unfriend him for years. He never suspected me, or maybe he just wanted to stay friends with me in case he ever managed to “visit you and actually see your fucked up but hot hermaphrodite body.” Last I checked his Facebook, he’s on to his third Asian girlfriend.
This entire fracas with Jesse took a huge emotional toll on me, and it put pressure on my relationship with K. At nineteen, and dredging up chatlogs from four years ago, I had just been accepted into law school, was in my fourth year of a long-distance relationship with K (who was thirteen years my senior), and had newly started dating my current fiancée, a trans woman my age who’d recently been turned out of her flat; within months, my parents would find out about her and evict me, leaving us both homeless. It is within this context that my relationship with K came to an even messier halt.
K had fallen for me as soon as I’d mentioned my height on IRC. She had a thing for short girls, she said; four foot nine and articulate with a classically precocious mischief to my sense of humor, I was “impossible for her to resist”. She PMed me a “Hi :-)” and we went from there. It was perhaps two days before she told me she was in love with me. I sent back “:)” timidly. I was astute enough to realize by that point that there was something in this for me: K was doing her doctorate in a subject which I was by then—accelerated at school as I was—doing at a university level with absolutely no academic support. She was also an extremely pleasant, supportive person to talk to; while she still thought of herself as a man, she was gentle, sweet, and didn’t scare me like any of the other guys on IRC.
K and I talked for hours every day. I managed to make a proprietary app work on my Symbian phone so that I could message her in class, phone tucked into my sleeve where I touch-texted in T9 during classes and assemblies. These conversations rapidly became more and more explicit, descending into textual cybersex, Skype sex, and, eventually, K flying to New Zealand when I’d reached sixteen, the age of consent. She knew about my history with the pedophile ring, and told me I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to; then, upon first meeting me in person, she pressed me up against the sink of the dingy caravan she was renting and made out with me for hours. She was my first kiss, and, two days later, on New Year’s Eve, my first remotely consensual fuck. Her other New Zealand partner, an autistic white trans woman, broke up with her in tears: she couldn’t get over K’s relationship with a minor. K framed it as her being worried she was going to be usurped by me, a “cis girl” with the “right parts,” and I believed her. K came back for me again when I was eighteen, taking me on a week-long trip to another city where we stayed in a dingy motel and mostly had sex, even though at this point I identified as asexual and sex-repulsed and was valiantly employing my limited vocabulary of nice ways to say no.
Everyone on IRC knew we were going out. Everyone also knew K was thirteen years older than me, and that I was fifteen.We were constantly flirting in public chat, and while I was reticent about it to my friends, it must have been clear to everyone firstly that K was an important fixture in my life, and secondly, that things weren’t quite right. A year or so in, as she began to explore her gender, I started calling her Kay or Kaycee, feminine names taken from her initials which she quickly adopted as her own. K had, by the end of our relationship, several largely public albums on a large photosharing website filled with photographs of me, some in various states of undress. Some, taken at a local comics event, included other comics fans around my age, who later turned out to be trans women I’d become friends with in adulthood to whom I’d have to explain the “weird middle aged person who was constantly photographing me.” Later, I learnt that my other IRC friends thought our relationship was “troubling”, but didn’t know if intervention would simply make me more determined to persist in it.
When I started looking for chatlogs involving Jesse, K was naturally involved, as she was in absolutely every part of my life at this point. She had logs of basically everything that had happened on IRC for the last eight years, and turned everything she could find to me. But as the investigation progressed and more and more action was taken against Jesse, she became uncharacteristically moody. One day, it came to a head: “if Jesse was so wrong in what he did,” K asked me, “why aren’t you calling the cops on me?”
Equipped at this point with a grounding in social justice that K had introduced me to herself, and having been forced to consider the same question for months, I knew how to answer. I finally told her that her repeated arguments that “age is just a number” and that maturity and compatibility were what mattered were entirely decontextualized from power. I told her that a year before that, when I’d pointed out that it would be fucked up for her to date a middle schooler because “no matter how mature they are, they can’t be removed from their social context where they’ll be ostracized because of you,” I was mincing my words. I also pointed out something that I was appalled I had only just realized: K had confided in me over the years that she’d fallen for at least two other fifteen-year-olds. When we’d first met, she was trying to chase down one woman whom she’d bought copious gifts for when she was fifteen, until said woman threatened to file a restraining order; after we’d started going out, she’d fallen for—and flown across the country to meet—another precocious fifteen-year-old whose ego she flattered as she did mine. K and I both knew very well that I didn’t believe in carceral or legal justice, and that the only recourse I had of that sort was going to the Feds anyway, who would hardly care. I told her I didn’t want her punished. I just wanted her to understand what she had done.
She absolutely lost her shit. What followed was an array of pseudoapologies that ranged from repeatedly messaging me after I’d told her I wanted space, offering to help me with my assignments because she “still cared about my academic success,” right through to creating fake social media accounts on which to track not only my social media but that of all my real-world friends. Then one day, I got a message from a friend who was still involved in moderating that original online community: K had made a public Facebook post all but admitting to being a rapist, and did I know anything about it?
I didn’t, and when I saw it, it made me incredibly angry. K’s post was an ode to future celibacy and self-pity worded such that it was extremely obvious who she had raped. It was worded such that I was suddenly being emailed by multiple people in bureaucratic positions in the organization I’d long since quit, asking me what they should do, what I knew, whether action should be taken as it had against Jesse. K had voluntarily resigned from most administrative positions she held, in the most cryptic, guilt-trippy way possible, and all the questions about everything were being directed at me. I tweeted about this, enraged, and K messaged me yet again: “I’ve deleted the post. I didn’t mean for all this to be on your shoulders again. I’m sorry.” It didn’t matter. I had long since fallen too far behind in my classes to catch up, and had to drop out of law school.
In both cases, as in many other pieces of drama around this community, the final blow was association with child sexual abuse. Everyone knew K was fucking with multiple teenagers in the community. Once a simple data analysis showed that one other user who was troubling me only ever talked to users who appeared young and female, he was immediately and decisively completely erased from the site and its history. A third case involved somebody who was clearly not a young girl pretending to be a young girl who was subject to sex trafficking, and gaining the trust and sympathy of many other traumatized teenagers on the website that way—then being exposed as potentially linked to the actual abduction of a six-year-old in the real world. Years later, a banned ex-user messaged Jesse warning him that I “was not what I seemed.” What he meant was that I, as a transgender person who had so many associations with users later outed as pedophiles, must have been the leader of some ring of transfeminine “kiddy-fiddlers.” Jesse laughed it off, and passed it on to me, coyly suggesting that it was “wild” that this ex-user thought I was “a trans in that direction” I responded to him just long enough to get transcripts of the conversation, then muted him again.
When I was still dating K, I bristled at the word “pedophile”. She’d well and truly gotten it into me that “ephebophile” and whatever the other words in that category are were valid and important distinctions; that being naturally attracted to pubescent persons was different from an attraction to small children; that what she was doing to me was nothing like what had been done to me when I was nine. For that short period when everything was chaos, I felt validated only in sitting down and retconning everything: K was a pedophile. Jesse was probably a pedophile and definitely a racist fetishist. All these other users, and real-world church people, and doctors, and whatever, who’d come after sweet, open teenage me were pedophiles. And that was the be-all-and-end-all, case closed, book shut. It was an easy way to talk about things, just like succinctly describing what was actually regular experimental assault by a group of kids a few years older than me as a “pedophile ring” got people to stop asking me questions. And as I looked forward toward my twentieth birthday, it was a way for me to hope things would get better, that all the years I’d spent subject to such a variety of unwanted sexual aggression would melt away once I was well and truly an adult, a homeless goodfornothing failed out of school, no longer some kind of precocious gem worthy of all this doting attention.
I don’t blame myself for that. It’s a coping mechanism, and a pretty sensible one. But what I’ve learnt from growing up and still facing the exact same sort of attention from the exact same men is that it wasn’t ever really about exactly how old I was. For at least the great majority of the people who went after me, I was a sweet, vulnerable, trusting thing—something many children are. And I was already sexually aware, distrustful of my parents, and rebellious—something that made me easy to exploit. As my situation changed, people, largely (but certainly not entirely) white men in positions of power, tried to gain sexual favors from me using every aspect of my life: my homelessness, my status as a sex worker or their student, my being treated at a mental health facility, and literally everything else.
What Andrew Tidball did to all the women in that article, he did by way of knowing they were women and girls who had lesser facilities to rebuff his advances than he had to make them stick. The man at church who tried to lock me in a broom closet with him also made passes at my petite, meek mother, and at elderly women and young homeschooled church girls who had no idea what he was doing. Most of the women Jesse was harassing were older than him, but newer to the movement, unsure of themselves in such a male-dominated space. Even the one guy I actually went to the cops about when he told me he’d considered making videos of his younger siblings in order to have more material to trade for other child porn was aggressively pursuing a shy, reserved young woman his own age when he tried to rape me.
Most of the people who hurt kids—and I mean kids of all ages, without some kind of weird “Tidball went after a 12-year-old so that makes it official” hard line which makes it pedophilia—aren’t attracted to kids for their childishness by genetics or some other switch that’s independent of the ways in which youth plays into power. They just get off by getting what they want from people they can get it from—and on the Internet, that has been and continues to often be young people, isolated people, people with nobody in real life they can turn to about what’s going on with them, including a huge number of teenagers who distrust their parents and might have histories of familial abuse or abandonment.
When discussing power, we talk a lot about how attraction is not separate from power; “no fats no femmes no Asians” statements on Grindr, for example, are an oft-discussed example of hegemonic power as it plays into sexuality and sexual attraction and behavior. Sexual behavior with children is no different, except for the inability to consent on the part of the victim: it doesn’t only come from freakish, abnormal people. More importantly, it isn’t impossible that someone respectable in your community might target the vulnerable by way of youth, just as it’s not unbelievable that a leftist man might be a misogynist or a cis lesbian a transmisogynist.
At the risk of attracting sex worker exclusionary feminists, I will say this: many, many clients of mine, men from different walks of life, have expressed joy about my youthful appearance and submissive work demeanour. A good few have attempted to exploit this and rape me while simultaneously making comments about how “women have all the power,” how “whores extort men so they can meet one of their basic needs,” and so on. It’s not about anything other than their perception of power, and about where it really lies: I’m not hot because of some natural prepubescence I embody, but because of its connotations for vulnerability, and because—Lolita-style—it’s all too easy for them to blame the victim.
Andrew Tidball is not a pedophile. He is a rapist, and one who targets the vulnerable, be they impressionable children online or young women trapped in abusive relationships with him who are physically unable to move his weight when he’s pinning them down. When the women involved call for you to examine your own communities and be aware that men like him are anywhere, they’re not suggesting that your mate might be a genetically warped shell of a man who stares hungrily at twelve-year-olds by nature, but that they might be a man, or a white person, or a cis person, or an adult—and an opportunist about how they use that power, sexually and otherwise.
Keep your eyes peeled for people exploiting power imbalances, and hold your friends accountable. Nicole didn’t deserve Tidball’s whorephobia and abuse any more than any of the younger girls he preyed on did, and any argument to the contrary is rape culture at work.
Art by Jun Joestar.