It was a typical day. I was enjoying the crisp autumn air outside, hanging out with my friends outside school between classes. Then I spotted the new boy and his best friend. I often caught these two eyeing me in classes or following behind me at a careful distance as I walked through the halls. Their intentions did not occur to me but I knew enough to feel frightened. On this particular day, I made the mistake of wandering off with one of my friends. I liked to sit on this steep hill beneath the trees and look up at the clouds.
We sat on the hill away from the others when the two boys appeared. They moved quickly. One held me down as the other groped between my legs, his hands exploring freely while I struggled. I heard my friend laugh as I tried to wriggle away from their hands. When the school bell rang, it suddenly stopped. Not knowing what else to do, I got up and went inside to class. I was eight years old. I went to school with those boys for another ten years. I didn’t speak up to my parents until years after. I thought I would get in trouble and I felt ashamed. Although they didn’t attack me again, I recently heard that one of the boys is now in jail.
A few years later when I was eleven or so, I went to summer camp. I had my twin sister there with me but I was still nervous and shy. I was at an age when boys were starting to notice me. Their gaze would linger longer than usual. One boy at camp did more than gaze. He stared. He followed me around the campground with his friends. He handed me notes on folded notebook paper.
To other girls this may have seemed cute or charming. He had a crush and was following the cultural norms of expressing interest. He didn’t ever touch me. But he stared. He followed. And I was frightened. I didn’t understand why I was receiving unwanted attention or how to make it stop. But he didn’t grab me. So I ignored the unwanted attention for a week, hoping that once I left camp the problem would end.
Between then and now, I went through high school, college at a party school, a semester abroad in Australia, and a few years of online dating. The problem did not end at summer camp. In high school, a guy grabbed my ass at a dance and then resumed dancing with his friends like it never happened. When I was sixteen, a boss of mine asked me to go to Florida with him just the two of us.
During my semester abroad in Australia, I walked on the beach with a guy who kissed me, grabbed my breasts, and put his hand down the back side of my jeans, grabbing away as I walked back to our group of friends waiting outside a bar. He pulled his hand out of my pants only when we got closer and more visible to our friends.
When I entered the online dating scene, I was cautious to always meet new people in public places and regularly text my sisters updates. However, I made the mistake of saying “yes” to a movie on a first date one time. The guy interpreted my “yes” as consent to grab my hand in the dark theater and place it on his crotch. I stopped dating for a while after that one.
But I had other random incidents while avoiding the “romance” scene. One guy asked me out and then gave me his business card. I checked out the website on the card and discovered a gallery of nude photos of the guy by himself and in sexual poses with various women. Another man followed me on the street in the city one day, shouting “goddess! beautiful goddess!” at me for a few blocks. I had to hide away in a record store and wait for him to leave. Multiple customers have leered, made inappropriate “jokes” or comments about my body, one even being so bold as to exclaim “nice ass!” at me from the drive-up window.
I have to confess. I’m guilty too. I didn’t make it clear that I was not comfortable. But I kinda thought it went without saying. I often nervously laughed it off or pretended to be OK with the jokes so I wouldn’t offend a customer or coworker. I sometimes even enjoyed the attention, thinking it meant that I had value, not that they were objectifying me and disrespecting me.
At some point, I became numb and stopped noticing when my boundaries and my rights were violated. It was the norm. I bought into the notion that my body was an object up for grabs and should be commented on by shouting men on the streets or lonely customers. The disrespect became so routine. Plus, I didn’t think I was worth the effort of saying NO. STOP. THIS IS NOT OKAY.
Maybe because I grew up in a culture where I saw women constantly disrespected and devalued. Maybe because I saw women used and abused for having smaller bodies and collectively humiliated for having larger bodies. Maybe because after hearing so many stories of rape from my friends, I considered myself lucky to have lived so long undergoing only minor assaults. Maybe I thought, if I laughed it off and pretended it was OK, I wouldn’t be raped.
This is the definition of rape culture. Abusers justify their abuse and blame their victims. Victims hide in shame and start to believe they deserve the abuse and even caused it. Rape is shamed into silence and assaults are shushed. So many girls grow up thinking their bodies can be controlled by men. So many boys believe they’re entitled to that control and even view it as a major component of becoming a “real man.” Some of us start to rationalize the problem and justify it by saying “boys will be boys” or “it’s just locker room talk.” I too have been complicit by remaining silent during assaults on my dignity, my body, and my basic human rights. But it’s time for me to say NO. THIS IS NOT OKAY. THIS MUST STOP.