It's taken me over a week to write this post.
Partially because I've been busy. Voices of Hope had our big fall Gala this Saturday, and life was sort of a whirlwind leading up to that. But, if I'm being honest, the fact that I was in tech was just an excuse to put this off. For once, I actually don't want to write something. I'm not chomping at the bit to share my opinion. I feel sick, and sad, and I kinda wish I could skip it.
But I can't. I can't skip it because it's lingering in the back of my mind, and I don't think it will go away until I write something. And I can't ignore it because I know that the more we talk about these things--the more light we shine on them--the harder it is for them to continue.
Still. I don't really want to write this. Bear with me.
Bottom left, I'm five or six in this picture.
I was probably five the first time a man touched me inappropriately. I don't really remember precisely, I was little enough that it's one of my earliest memories. Certainly, I was little enough that I couldn't reach into the rabbit pen at the local pet store and pet the bunnies. And I wanted to pet the bunnies. That's why, when a stranger offered to pick me up and hold me so I could reach them, I agreed without hesitation.
I always trusted adults. There were so many in my life, and they were all trustworthy. So I assumed it was an accident when his hand--instead of staying safely on the outside of my little jean skirt--found its way beneath the hem and between my legs, hoisting me up in a very intimate grip. I didn't like it when his fingers slipped under the edge of my underwear, though, so I squirmed until he put me down. I remember thinking it took a long time to get him to put me down. Then I ran to find my mother, and tried to forget about the man.
And I almost did.
But not really.
On the right, about ten.
I was in first grade the first time an authority figure ignored what was going on, right under their nose. There was a boy in my class--Jeremiah--and everyone knew that he didn't keep his hands to himself. Our teacher assigned our seating, and always arranged us boy-girl-boy-girl at our little clumped up desks. Why, I don't know, but she was adamant about sticking to it, so when Jeremiah ran his hands up the girls' legs and they complained she would just move him to sit next to another little girl.
It was warm out when he was moved to sit next to me, and I liked to wear shorts. Jeremiah would reach out and stick his hand between my knees, sliding his sweaty fingers all the way up my inner thigh until it reached the edge of my shorts. Then he would squeeze, and breathe hard. When I complained to the teacher she told me there wasn't anything she could do about it. She'd already moved him all around the room, and the end of the year was so soon. Couldn't I just tolerate it for a few weeks? I spent the rest of the year sitting as far away as my desk would allow, with my legs pressed tightly together.
I was nine the first time someone pinched my ass on the bus. I was twelve the first time a boy grabbed my boobs without permission. I was fourteen when my Sunday School teacher told me he didn't hold with rape, but if a woman was mowing the lawn in a bikini then clearly she was asking for it. When I was sixteen a guy I disliked just announced he was my boyfriend, and started showing up places when he knew I would be there. When I was eighteen a male friend took me to his friend's house and basically offered me up like a host gift. We walked through the door and he said to his friend, "Here, I brought her for you."
I have thirty-seven years of stories like this. My entire life's memory is peppered with them. I have grown up with these incidents as a facet of my life.
Some of them are truly frightening--like the time a man followed me from the parking lot late at night in a rest area on I-81, and was waiting when I came out of the bathroom. He followed me back towards the car, and I started to panic, not knowing what to do. I will be grateful to my dying day to the friendly man that saw him and stopped to talk to me, refusing to leave until the guy following me finally gave up, got in his car, and drove away. Thinking about that still terrifies me.
Some other stories are more commonplace, like the guy who commented loudly on my ass while I was doing some grocery shopping during the heat wave this summer. Apparently he liked my short shorts.
All of them--every single one of these stories--are about a man who, in some way or another, treated my body like it wasn't mine. Like he had some sort of right to it--the right to touch, the right to pass judgement, the right to offer it up.
When people defend the culture of treating women like property, it makes me sick. I don't care if it's a presidential candidate, or a movie star, or a guy at your office. When we say "that's just how guys talk" or "he didn't mean anything" we are reinforcing the idea that it's okay for men to think of women this way. And it isn't. Even if most of them wouldn't act on it, the perpetration of the thought alone makes it more acceptable for those who want to act on it to do so.
Charlotte, age six.
My daughter has already been kissed without her consent. She's six. It's just starting. She will have a lifetime of stories to tell, as well, and it makes me want to scream and punch things.
Screaming and punching won't help, though. Instead I will tell her simple truths, and hope they sink in.
Your body belongs to you, and no one else.
You alone have the right to say who can touch you. You alone have the right to say what you will do with your body.
Enjoy sex. Laugh at bawdy jokes. Flirt with people. None of those things takes away your right to have the final say.
Appreciate the men who ask if they're crossing the line. Who tell you to let them know if they do. Those are the men you can trust.
Never be afraid to tell someone when they've crossed a line, even if they don't ask.
Don't judge other women for internalizing this cultural lie of being public property. They've been misled their whole lives.
Don't be afraid to say no.
I will tell her these truths. And I will tell her all my stories, so that, as she grows, she knows what to look for. So that she doesn't assume it was an accident. So she doesn't sit quietly and press her legs together to not make trouble.
I will tell her so that she knows she's not alone in the experience, and that she doesn't have to be ashamed. So she knows that she didn't do anything wrong.
So that, even if I can't help her learning to accept that this shit happens, at the very least she won't start thinking it's okay.
It's not okay.