When I was about 13 years old, I got my first bra. I didn’t really need it, but I was highly self-conscious, and also, I desperately wanted to be older and bigger than I was. The first day I wore it to school, no less than 4 boys pulled at the back strap of it, snapping it against my spine. It was hilarious to them. I went home that afternoon and I cried. When I finally started actually needing a bra, the boys I went to school with made it clear they’d noticed. Because they talked about my chest. In detail. To my face…as if that was the most natural, appropriate thing ever. I was maybe 15. The insides of my yearbooks from 7th to 12th grades are a great resource if you ever want to know the things that boys actually think about girls. At that age, they’re still too stupid to hide it, and it’s written all over the insides of those books. I won’t even let my girls look at the inscriptions when they open my yearbooks because some of them are just horrible. I truly didn’t know back then that it wasn’t really ok to speak to girls this way. I just assumed this was normal stuff.
When I was a sophomore, I skipped a class at school and got caught hanging out in the swimming pool area of the school by a security guard. It was quiet and I foolishly thought I wouldn’t be found as I hid out there. After he found me, he followed me into the girl’s bathroom and berated me. Let me say that again. He followed me into the bathroom. No one else was in there. He assumed I hadn’t been alone and of course because I’m a girl, he assumed I’d been performing sex acts on whomever I was with. Because that’s what 15 year old girls just DO, don’t you know? He kept saying, “Your knees are dirty!” I wasn’t quite 16 yet, and I had never even seen a real penis at this point in my life. And yet, this grown man was standing in front of me, yelling at me, suggesting I’d been on my knees with a boy.
At 17, I was head over heels for a boy who actually told me that I was pretty much only good for one thing. And still? I let him take my virginity. At 19, I was called a whore by my boyfriend. More than once. I had been with ONE person before I met him. And, while I couldn’t say the same thing of him (he’d had plenty of other girlfriends) that made me a whore. One day, his own father made a lewd comment about my body in front of both of us. They both laughed and stared at me. I sat in uncomfortable silence not knowing how to stand up for myself in front of them. I didn’t know it wasn’t really ok to say things like that to girls. Not because I was raised by people who didn’t show me respect, or tell me right from wrong, but because it was so normal for me to hear these kinds of things, I just assumed that it was fine, or that somehow I must have deserved it.
I’ve been groped. I’ve been grabbed. I’ve been whistled at and cat called. I’ve been asked for my phone number on the street by strangers and then was yelled at and called a bitch when I refused and walked away. I’ve been called “baby”, “sexy”, “slut”. By complete strangers. When I worked in the bar business I heard this stuff constantly. Once, I was pulled over around 2am by two male police officers on my way home from work. They made me get out of the car to speak to them, which seemed odd to me. I knew they were actually looking for the boy I was dating at the time (another story for another time) and there was no need for them to ask me to exit my car. That was, until one began making comments about my body and about my outfit. I was 22, and I was alone, and I was completely terrified. But I also knew that they thought they had something to hold over me, so I stayed quiet. Eventually, they let me go without as much as a warning, but by this time, I was starting to figure out that this would not have happened if I was a man.
This week’s rash of “Me, too” posts on Facebook has me thinking about how much this behavior toward women has been normalized in our society. It’s made me dredge up these memories and more. The thing is, when I wrote the “Me, too” post on my own Facebook page, I could only think, “This seems really stupid for me to even write, haven’t we ALL been sexually harassed or assaulted in some form?” You guys. This is who we are. This is our normal. This it the culture in which I’m raising two daughters. And it is FUCKED UP. I actually feel lucky that I don’t have a rape story to tell. I feel lucky that I don’t have other, more horrible things I am unwilling to share. There are times I’ve actually caught myself saying or thinking, “I’m pretty lucky. All those situations I put myself in, I should have been ______.” Because my brain has been conditioned over the years to think that somehow, when a woman is assaulted, she must have deserved it. Things might have gone differently if only I’d not put myself in that situation. Think about that for a moment, please. That statement makes me cry.
So, Harvey Weinstein has brought women out of the woodwork who are willing to say that this kind of stuff has happened to them. It happens DAILY. And, yes, there is strength in those numbers. This is good, to call attention to the horrible behavior of some. And yet, how many times have you caught yourself saying, “I know, not ALL men are like that.” And how often this week have you read Facebook posts from men telling about how they are teaching their boys to do better? You know what? That’s because you SHOULD be teaching them to do better. It shouldn’t take a scandal like Weinstein’s to make you qualify how to treat a woman kindly and with the same respect YOU want for your sons.
We begin even before birth to put gender roles and expectations onto our children. We buy toys for our boys that we would never buy our girls, and vice versa (thankfully, this is one area I feel we got right in my own house), but in general this is STILL an issue in 2017. We raise our little girls to think that when a boy makes fun of her, he must really like her. Think about that. When a girl is teased at school, there are STILL people excusing this behavior, saying that the offender must really like her. These are the things we teach our girls and then we wonder why they won’t stand up for themselves? We wonder why they hide when terrible things have happened to them at the hands of the same boys who “must really like them”? This stuff has to change. We have to do better.
I am exhausted by this. I’m exhausted reading the myriad of posts by the amazing women in my life recounting and detailing the sexual harassment or assault that happened to them. It makes me physically ill to tell you that I can’t think of one single friend of mine who hasn’t experienced some form of sexual trauma. Not one. What’s worse is that I don’t know how to fix this for my girls. I don’t know how to protect them from something that I know is going to happen to them. And it’s not IF it’s going to happen, but when. We must do better. We must keep talking to our girls. We must keep encouraging them to stand up and to report the first signs of this kind of behavior. When a boy in your 7th grade class calls you a bitch? Report it. When that same kid corners you and berates you for reporting it? Report it again. Clearly no one told that kid how to behave, but I’m teaching my girls that NO ONE gets to hurt you and get away with it. The time of “boys will be boys” is over. When you know better, you do better. And we must do better.