I’ve been struggling to write this post – or indeed any post, but this one in particular, for the whole week. This year has been difficult for people who’ve ever been sexually assaulted, and the last week in particular has been ugly. Because there’s always another one, isn’t there? Another abuser, another person who has gotten away with assault because we don’t believe people who come forward; at least not the first 10 times. Or 20. Or 30.
It’s good HW has been outed, kicked off of boards and clubs and companies, forced to admit to his wrongdoing. But it’s always disheartening to hear all of the “Oh, well, what were those women wearing/doing/saying/thinking, and how could they have ended up there? Oh, there aren’t that many men like that. Oh, statistically speaking, it’s really not as bad as it looks….”
Yes. It is. It is in fact, far worse than it looks. Because your math is wrong. The statistics are important up to a point, and that point is when you start to excuse the behavior as not that many, not that bad, not so terrible really.
As I said on someone’s page tonight, even if hashtag notallmen, it IS ALL WOMEN. ALL women, ALL feminine-presenting people, and I’m pretty sure, ALL non-binary gender people, and an extremely large number of men, have been sexually assaulted, harassed. ALL OF US. And if your math is ignoring that, then you’re not nearly as smart as you think you are. Because we have to have a culture that allows that to happen in the first place. We have to bring boys and men up to believe that they get to have any body they want. They have the last word in what happens in any encounter. They get to decide if they’re having sex, or if they’re having sexual contact, and the other person’s opinion means nothing. It especially means nothing if that person is a woman, or is feminine, or is marginalized in any way, because that person is less of a person. We have to have a culture that teaches that expressly, and keeps it so much in everyone’s minds that we even have sayings like “boys will be boys.”
We have a toxic masculinity problem. We have a culture that teaches boys that they are entitled to other people’s bodies. Maybe not every man grows up to believe it, but it’s out there; it’s the air we breathe; it’s the water we drink. Like racism and sexism and other bigotry, we are swimming in it. And I am always going to be someone that the culture says is OK to hurt. That my body isn’t really mine. That I’m not really a person, not truly, not compared to the man in the situation. Especially not the white man. The further you get from our culture’s margins, as far as we’re concerned, the more of a person you are. Which means the more in the margins you are, the less you are a person. I’m not as far into the margins as some, but I’m still in there. And our culture treats me accordingly.
I’m going to preface the next bit by saying – no one owes anyone their story. I’m telling mine now because I’m moved to do so. And mine are nowhere near as horrific as others’ are, so the stigma is maybe less. You should believe people when they say they’ve been hurt. You should believe them. You’re not a judge, or a jury, and you get to choose, but if someone is telling you that they’ve been hurt, they’re probably telling you because they hope you’re a safe person to tell. Oh, and also, content warning for the below. It’s not as bad as some, but everyone has their limits, so fair warning.
The first time I was sexually harassed and threatened I was nine. I was nine years old. It was a classmate and his older brother. I was in the high school where my father was a teacher. It was some kind of school fair. They followed me around making a lewd gesture with their fingers, and saying they were going to “get me.” I didn’t really know what they meant, but I was scared. I’m pretty sure my best friend was with me. Those two boys seemed to be everywhere, every time I turned around. We kept trying to find somewhere they couldn’t find us, but the school just wasn’t that big, or full. I can’t remember what I told my mom and/or a grownup, but I do remember that I didn’t have the vocabulary to tell them exactly what was happening. And that I was so enraged, so confused, and literally worried they were going to touch me in some way. I don’t remember what anyone said to me about that incident exactly, but what was normally said about stuff like that was “they’re just teasing. Ignore them and they’ll go away.” That advice is hardly ever true. But it was all anyone ever told me when I was being bullied in any way. (My best friend totally had my back, but she didn’t have the vocabulary, either.)
The first time I was groped, I think was probably Jr. High. And I want to iterate here, especially for someone who made some comment of every woman having this sort of thing happen to them before the age of 40, that this sort of thing happens to most women, and a lot of other genders, *before the age of 13,* so adjust your fucking math. I had my ass grabbed in 7th grade. Several times, really. And I wasn’t a popular girl, I didn’t dress any differently really, than I had at 10 or 11, so 12 (I was 12 in 7th) shouldn’t have been a big change. And my father was a teacher in the school. Honestly, everyone should have been worried I’d tell. I don’t think I even knew what to do about it. I barely remember what I did next. It was a crowded hallway, I didn’t know who it was, I became known as a girl who would swing her purse or backpack around wildly if upset.
I forgot about that last part until just now. I was a weird kid, is how I remember playing that off. But if someone grabs your butt as you’re walking down a hall and you can’t even tell which someone it was, what do you do?
I remember in 9th grade one boy, who I thought was cute, and who was always nice to me, stuck his hand up my shirt and fondled my bare waist. In math class, as we were walking past each other, either going in or out of class. He just grinned at me, and I stared at him in shock until he walked away. I didn’t know what to do then, either.
I know my ass was grabbed in Jr high a lot, and high school, too. I know a lot of other stories from other girls in Jr high and high school that were much, much worse. Those aren’t my stories to tell. So I always just thought that I’d been lucky.
I want to scream about that. I thought I was lucky to *just* be fondled and have my ass grabbed by friends and strangers.
The most egregious sexual assaults that happened to me I didn’t even think were sexual assaults at the time, because it didn’t occur to me that my body was mine enough to matter to anyone but me. I was frightened, and enraged, but I wasn’t “hurt.” I wasn’t injured, and I wasn’t hit by anyone, so I thought, well, who would care? It was wrong, of course. I was mad. But I didn’t think “sexual assault.”
It was sexual assault.
Just a couple of years ago, a friend of several of my friends, who I considered friendly, or at least a friendly acquaintance, was at a party I attended. He was drunk. The party was crowded. He told me, drunkenly, that the only reason I was with my boyfriend was because he (my boyfriend) “got there first,” as though I were some prize in a race. He then hugged me, which I shruggingly tolerated, and grabbed my ass. I froze. He moved on. I didn’t know what to do that night, but the next day I wrote to him saying it was unacceptable behavior and I expected an apology. He never apologized, and won’t speak to me since. I won’t speak to him either, but he has yet to apologize, so. I’ve told this story to a lot of people. Most have stayed friends with him, because “well, he’s not really like that, or only when he’s drunk/with this bad influence.” My boyfriend is still friendly to him when he sees him. Everyone knows what he’s like, because I’m not the only person he’s gotten “handsy” with. (The man did apologize … to my boyfriend. Who told him “I”m not the one you need to apologize to.” Still. Waiting.)
In the first week of college I was thrown onto a dorm bed and dry humped by a guy I barely knew, held down while screaming and kicking, and the 5-8 other people in the room stood by and laughed. They told me I was over-reacting when I came up swinging and screaming more. That guy was a rapist, and by the middle of the year everyone knew it. I don’t actually know if he was ever stopped.
Some rando dude grabbed my breast as he rode by on his bike while I was walking down the street. I was alone, it was night, and I screamed “asshole” after him, but I was immediately afraid he’d come back and do worse. I hurried back to the hotel I’d been leaving, so I would be around people. My people were there for me, but that dude was long gone, so there wasn’t anything to report.
In high school, a boy I had a huge crush on goosed my ass hard, close enough to my vulva to really hurt, and I jumped about a foot. In front of my male music teacher, that I was trying to talk to, that I was trying to impress. I turned about eight shades of scarlet and nearly broke down in tears right there. I know my voice went whisper soft and I tried to keep talking to my teacher, but he (the teacher) gave me a look. I never really knew if he’d back me up if I made a scene, and I was afraid that look meant that he was disappointed in me, so I stuttered through asking my question. After, I pushed that stupid grinning guy out of the teacher’s office, and told him off, and never spoke to him again, but I was always a little worried that my music teacher thought less of me. Because of someone else’s actions.
I had already learned that it was always my fault. Because if you ignore them, and they don’t go away, then you’re doing it wrong. Because if they embarrass you, it’s your fault. If they hurt you, it’s your fault. That’s the lesson, isn’t it? We learn it very early. And if you tell people what happened, they might just tell you that. And there might not be any repercussions for the person who did the assaulting. And meanwhile now everyone is giving you that look. You know the look. We give the look to ourselves, sometimes. We even give it to other people who’ve been hurt, because it’s an ingrained toxic behavior, that look.
But we don’t deserve the look. It’s not our fault if someone hurts us. It’s not our fault if someone doesn’t believe us, either. And I’m here for all of us survivors, those who’ve survived as bad, or not as bad, or much, much worse. It’s not our fault. And it’s time we were believed.
It’s time we changed the culture. I don’t know if any of what’s happening now will do that, but I can hope. I can hope my story does its part. And I can learn to be a safe place for other survivors, and be my own safe place, too.