I listened to a podcast at the gym this morning saying that about five women have come forward as part of a sexual harassment allegation towards a respected news editor. The article portrayed each woman as separate beings woven together by the incidents that surrounded their boss’s lewd remarks, assault, and extremely inappropriate display of pornography.
It was interesting to hear how they all experienced a lot of the same things, but each of them struggled to know where the line was and how much they should put up with. I began to feel some solidarity with these women as they tried to explain why they struggled to know if they should let this man keep getting away with his despicable actions because they felt he had started their careers for them. The reporter did a fantastic job of illustrating the experiences that led up to their time at the company. I found myself growing angry because I have experienced so many of the same incidents that led me to misunderstand whether or not I was raped.
My parents worked hard to help me understand that no boy should ever touch me without my consent. They told me I was smart. They encouraged me to work hard and focus on my education. They encouraged me to seek good friends who would influence me to be the best that I could. It appears that I was armed with an arsenal of confidence when it was time to face the world, right? It totally does and I did, until I started watching romantic movies.
In the movies, men kiss women forcefully, they admire their bodies from afar, and all too often, they start out as the foe who is snarky and rude to the female characters. But they always find love, don’t they? They always work through it and discover that the boy was just being a boy, and being a jerk is totally normal for boys, right? When I began to accumulate this information, it didn’t exactly match up with the information I’d gathered up to that moment, but the two conflicting philosophies could co-exist, couldn’t they? Could I make a boy fall in love with me by being smart and not putting up with his crap?
While my ideas and understandings about love and romance were slowly convoluting with the information I had been given by trusted adults, I entered middle school. At the age of twelve, I was playing at a creek with my friend when we were approached by an older boy who decided we needed to see his penis. We had been flashed. Neither one of us knew what to do with that information. Was that wrong? Was that a sign of attraction? What the heck was it? I spent a long time struggling with whether or not what happened was wrong. I obviously knew that flashing your genitals in public isn’t considered normal, but was it a really bad thing or was it a kind of bad thing? Did it mean he was attracted to me?
Now I understand it was a form of assault. I understand that he had no right to flash me or my friend and I understand how much I hated it. I understand that whether or not it seems bad to anyone else, it was abhorrent. To a 12-year-old girl, it was the most disgusting and inappropriate thing that had ever happened to me at that point.
The thing is, I wasn’t mad. I was embarrassed. When my friend confided in a school counselor about it, I was so afraid they would tell my parents it happened to me. I didn’t want my parents or anyone else to think I had participated in something so lewd. I had subconsciously decided that this act was my fault. It makes zero sense, but in our society, if a man assaults a woman, or in this case a child, the woman was asking for it based on her appearance or interest in the man. It’s infuriating.
Very soon after this incident, I entered the phase of needing to wear a bra daily. I was growing faster than my cohorts and I was soon named “Wonder Bra” by the boys in my grade. They would snap my bra straps and poke the dimples in my shoulders when I wore tank tops. They would make comments about my butt or my boobs. During all of this, I really thought this was just the norm. Boys are stupid and this is what happens. Everyone around me put up with it and didn’t see it as a big deal, so why should I act any different? It really embarrassed me and I withdrew a little bit more.
Around this age is when I started to fear men taking advantage of me. I started to fear being raped, even by the men in my life, none of whom were ever inappropriate with me in the least bit. I started to believe that if this was the cultural norm, why shouldn’t I fear every man I encountered?
As an adult, I see how unhealthy this is. I see how irrational this is, but it happened! It happened because society taught me that it was my job to make a boy like me, and to do so, I had to be open to unwanted touching or kissing. I wasn’t ready, but I felt like I was forced to be ready because of my age and my gender.
By eighth grade, I had a boy pressuring me to have sex with him in the bushes behind school. He was an older boy in high school who insisted he knew better than me, and in order for our relationship to work, it meant I had to put out. At this point, I was scared and told a friend, who told the principal at school. We had planned to meet and I had ditched him. I came home to very worried parents who wanted to protect me.
At this point, I was massively confused about how I was supposed to act, what I was supposed to do, and how far I was supposed to allow a boy to go. At the time, I didn’t realize how confused I was, but now, it makes so much sense.
Enter my ex. THE ex. I was in no way prepared for what came with this guy. He came with romance, manipulation, physical affection, and aggression. He brought me feelings of intense love and feelings of indescribable fear and confusion. The love notes and the dancing and music outweighed him shoving me into lockers and holding me down when he was angry with me. The mind games and cheating could be overlooked when he offered sweet words and affection.
His behavior was a power trip at its finest, and I was deeply swayed by his abilities. So much that when the night came that changed everything, I had no idea what had happened, how it happened, what was wrong with me. I just knew I felt dirty and no one could know about this. Everyone would know that I brought this on. That it was my fault. They’d know that I had hurt him by telling him that what had happened was not consensual. If it didn’t happen in a dark alley, was it really rape? Didn’t rape happen when some stranger grabs you and takes advantage of you?
He cried to me for hours, telling me that what he did was a complete accident. He didn’t hear me, and if I were to say something, it would ruin his life. His mom wouldn’t love him anymore. I should be the one who was sorry for misunderstanding his actions. But if all of this was true, why did I feel so gross? Why did that incident sit in my memory swirling with questions for years?
Soon after, I stood up for myself about what happened and told him I wouldn’t put up with his demeaning behavior any more. He slammed me into the lockers and held me there as he yelled at me. This was in the hallway at school, and a female teacher separated us. She told him to get lost, but she never took his name and he was never held accountable. Why wasn’t he held accountable? Why wasn’t he written up or sent to the office or suspended? It was against school rules to get into a fight or hurt someone, but not for me. What was I supposed to think about my worth in that setting?
To this day, I worry about my safety from him. I worry he’ll find out what I’ve written and identify himself. I’ve thought of confronting him on numerous occasions, but I know I never will. It won’t change anything. But I’m the one who gets to spend hours of therapy working through these feelings of fear and anger. I cannot even begin to explain the complexity of the emotions I’ve experienced through this process. At one point, it had me questioning my entire identity. While I know the chance of ever having any interaction with him is minuscule, the fear still lives inside me. Maybe one day I’ll conquer it. I hope to. Sooner than later.
What’s sad about this is that I’m not the only one with this story. Almost every woman can relate to a moment of sexual harassment, inappropriate behavior, being pressured to go further than she’s comfortable with, or feeling like she’s required to put out to be worth it. It’s not okay. I do not believe this is exclusive to women, because it most certainly is not. It happens to men as well.
While I was listening to this podcast, I continued to think about my girls. They come home with stories about wanting to be noticed by boys and about the lists of girls these boys have and where they stand on said lists. What do I teach them? What do I say? How do I help them understand that no boy who puts you on a list is worth fighting for? I feel helpless. They’re only six and nine. This can’t be happening this soon.
As parents, we are the only way this is going to get better. We have to model and teach respect to our children regardless of their gender. We have to be the ones to help our kids understand that we are their safe place to confide. We have to teach them that they should never be made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe in their work place, school, or social setting. We have to teach our sons and daughters that sexualizing each other is not okay. Commenting on each other’s body parts is not okay. Touching each other without consent is not okay. There are just so many things that ARE. NOT. OKAY.
It starts with us. We are the ones who are going to make a change for the next generation. Educating and modeling these behaviors are the only way this is going to get better.
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“We’ve been there, experienced that. Trauma, Pain, Abuse & Rape. These are the lessons that we brought back.”
–Tonya GJ Prince has been a leading subject matter expert (SME) in domestic violence and sexual violence.
For over 25 years she has helped people heal, prevent, and overcome domestic and sexual violence.
In order to accomplish this mission, she founded several diverse & inclusive platforms designed to allow Survivors to use their own voices including;
WESurviveAbuse.com, SurvivorAffirmations.com, & BraidtheLadder.org.
Tonya is an author, activist, advocate, Survivor, speaker, counselor, & mentor.
B.S. Organizational Management & Development/Bluefield College
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