This post talks about sexual harassment, sexual assault,
and the concepts of shame, self-shame, and inflicted shame.
I’ve been spending a lot of time on my back porch, drinking wine, telling my husband stories about moments in my life, starting at the age of seven and going into adulthood, when I was vilely disrespected or assaulted. I imagine a lot of women have been doing something similar this past week. A lot of women, like myself, are finally entering the rooms of our minds that we’d previously boarded up the windows to. Memories I’d abandoned because in the context of my life at the time they didn’t make sense. But now, suddenly these deserted spaces are becoming relevant. These experiences are part of a bigger picture of growing up as a girl and then becoming a woman in a society where it is expected that you will encounter maltreatment, disrespect, and the understanding that your body is not yours to make decisions about.
I don’t want to get into the specifics of my most painful sexual assault experience. It’s simply too difficult to talk about in a public forum. Not because I’m ashamed -I realize I didn’t do anything wrong. What makes talking about this assault difficult is not the admission that it happened, but the fear that there are people out there who would parse out my words, dissect my memories, and judge me for being at least partially at fault. This victim blaming is something that, growing up a female in our society, I have gotten used to. But it only adds to the shame and disrespect women experience on a daily basis. Not only are we assaulted, and touched without our permission, but when someone gets the courage to talk about it we are accused of misremembering the most vividly vile experiences of our lives, of drinking too much, of being too flirty, of dredging up the past, of trying to take someone down.
I’ve been hearing excuses for the unacceptable behavior of boys and men since I was seven years old. It’s the same old story. I know good men exist, evidenced to me by the decent and respectful men and boys I know. And so I also know that the excuses made for the bad ones are horribly inadequate justifications of intolerable behavior.
There are many men I have profound respect for and I love deeply. My husband is at the top of this list. But I find it sad that one of the reasons I fell for him was because he never pushed me to do anything I didn’t want to do. He never made me feel guilty, never made me feel ashamed, never coerced me. He gave me space, he gave me time, and when we were finally intimate for the first time he only kissed me. He tried nothing more. It was a breath of fresh air. He won me over. But now I look back and realize how heartbreaking it is that my expectations were so low. I expected him to try to do something I didn’t want to do, because that had been my previous experience.
Most of my best friends are guys who have always looked out for me. I consider them my brothers. There was a night in High School when I was assaulted at a party by someone who I thought was a friend. When I managed to get away, one of my best guy friends found me in the bathroom. He didn’t know I’d been assaulted, but he could see I wasn’t myself. He got me water. He found me a couch near to where he was sleeping. He covered me with a blanket, tucked me in, and when I asked him to sit with me until I fell asleep he stroked my hair until I did. He is still one of my closest friends.
There are lots of good men out there, which makes it all the more troubling when people make excuses for the bad ones.
I think what’s equally as upsetting as what happened to me as a young adult is what happened to me as a child. As children we are supposed to be learning boundaries. This is the time in our lives when we should be learning right from wrong. This is when adults should be stepping in and saying “this isn’t right” instead of saying “he just has a crush on you.” Because when adults, who should understand right from wrong, ignore the telltale signs of harassment and disrespect, they are paving the way. By condoning this behavior they are not only teaching the boys that this is ok, they are also teaching the girls that this is ok. They are teaching girls that we will endure this kind of abuse and harassment for the rest of our lives. In short: Get used to it. So we learn to expect it. We learn to anticipate it. We learn to endure it. And we rarely speak up because the last time we spoke up we were told WE were wrong. We were told it wasn’t as bad as we said it was. We were told that we were being too sensitive. So we stop talking. We roll over. And we take it.
| When a boy tugs on your ponytail five times a day, every day in class…tugging so hard that at seven years old your neck hurts | When a boy sits next to you during story time and puts his hand on your bare thigh, a thigh that had been revealed by the dress that hiked up when you sat cross legged on the floor. A thigh he claimed as his own to touch | When two boys sing songs on the bus about the parts of your body your parents told you were private. Songs that use your full name and words you only ever heard your doctor and your mom use to describe those parts. Songs so descriptive and vile that the rest of the girls on the bus cringe with shame, hunching down in their seats, hoping the songs won’t be sung about them | When a boy follows you down the hallway in middle school, poking at your behind, doing it so often that you find a cadre of your best boy friends to walk behind you to protect you. But it’s not enough, so you buy a new wardrobe of baggy clothes |
Is this acceptable behavior? Is this behavior justified no matter who is on the receiving end? Is this behavior you would deem acceptable for your daughter to endure? Behavior you would deem acceptable for your son to engage in?
Imagine you are that girl. You endure this pain and embarrassment and shame for weeks and months until you can no longer take it. You tell the adults you trust. And because those adults don’t quite know what to do about it, they tell you “not to worry.” They tell you to “ignore it.” They tell you to “avoid him.” The parents of those boys tell your parents that “he just has a crush on her.” And so you are forced into a room by the adults. Forced into a room with the boy who has been harassing you so that he can tell you to your face that he likes you, and he’s sorry. But you can tell by the way he’s staring at you that he’s not sorry. His apologies are too late anyway. You’ve already absorbed so much shame and disgust inside yourself because you believe the things he’s said to you, the things he’s said about parts of your body you can’t even comprehend are yours to defend, words the adults have dismissed: ‘your butt is jiggly, that’s why I like to touch it’, ‘Your hair is stupid, that’s why I pull on it.’ ‘I think you’re pretty, that’s why I sing about your v*****.’
At the age of seven, eight, ten, twelve, girls have not even claimed their bodies as their own. We are only just beginning to understand the smooth spaces that turn to curves, the creases that are hidden from the light, the fuzzy, the darkness, the soft -the shifting colors and textures and spaces. We don’t yet know this shape shifting place that is our body. But the boys have already staked their claim. They have planted their flag. They have branded us with their names. They have written overtures. They have grabbed, and threatened to grab, they have poked, they have slapped, and they have fondled. They have planted the seeds of shame and the seeds of possession. Seeds that are watered by adults who condone it. Adults that insist it’s not a problem. Adults who ask the girl what she’s done to provoke this kind of behavior. Judging us for being at least partially at fault, or for bringing this harassment upon ourselves.
And when boys continually get away with this harassment -what happens? They think it’s ok. And so they keep doing it. And some of them grow up to do much, much worse. Why wouldn’t they? And why wouldn’t women continue to keep our mouths shut?