When was the first time you realized that the world was less safe for you than it was for the boys? Was it one horribly scary, painful event that happened in what seemed like an instant and without warning, or was it a slow accumulation of indignities that happened so gradually yet so often that you started seeing them as nothing more than the normal, petty annoyances of a girl’s life, like having to wear nylons or getting your period?
I was twelve. It was a Saturday afternoon and my mom was at work. We lived in a basement apartment; three college-aged guys lived in the flat upstairs. They were having a party and the driveway was full of their friends’ cars and pick-up trucks. The party had spilled out onto the walkway and lawn, and though my brother was only eleven, he’d gone out to join them. He was a tough kid, always looking to mix it up, so the lure of teens and twenty-somethings blaring music and drinking beer was more than he could resist. After he’d been out there for maybe a half an hour I decided that enough was enough. The guys were getting louder by the minute and I didn’t want my little brother getting into any trouble.
It wasn’t the first time I’d had to drag him inside and away from troublemakers. More often than not we were left to our own devices, so I was nearly always in charge of keeping an eye on him. My mom told me all the time how lucky she was that I was mature for my age, though she knew that in the privacy of my bedroom, I still played with Barbie dolls. Part of me was still very much a little kid.
As soon as I stepped outside, one of the guys wobbled over and tried to talk to me. I side-stepped him and with a polite smile said, “I’m just bringing in my little brother.” He was a grown-up in my eyes. A drunk grown-up, to be sure, but still an adult and I was taught to always be polite to adults. I took another couple of steps and noticed my brother goofing with a couple of the neighborhood kids just to the rear of a big, black pick-up truck. I told him it was time to come in and he howled for me to give him five more minutes. I said no, time to come in. He howled again. “Fine,” I shouted, trying to call his bluff, “But I’m gonna tell Mom that you didn’t listen and you’re gonna get in trouble…”
I’d turned back toward the front door when the guy said something else. He was uncomfortably close to me and I could smell the beer on his breath. He had a thick, brown beard and his blue flannel shirt was open. He was rambling, something about what was my name and why didn’t I stay outside, too. I was scared now; he was weirdly close and something about his body posture made me think that I needed to get away. Then he reached for my arm. I pulled away. He reached for my arm again, dropping his beer this time and calling me a bitch.
I took off running down the stairs and into the apartment. I tried to slam the front door but he yanked it open. I ran down the hall. He was still right behind me, yelling something about “…just wanted to talk to you, you f*cking bitch!” I ran into the bathroom and tried to slam the door but he was so close that his arm got stuck. I remember bracing my whole body weight against the door and the whole time he was cursing and screaming for me to “…open the door you f*cking b*tch! You’re breaking my arm you little c*nt!” At some point he managed to get his arm out. I locked the door and didn’t come out until my mom and grandparents showed up.
They didn’t call the police. My mom took me to the doctor. The next day my grandfather brought the guy back and made him apologize to me. I remember him sitting on the couch next to my grandfather and he wouldn’t even look at me. Being in the same room with him, even with my family all around me, was absolutely terrifying. His arm was far from broken; it didn’t even seem sore. He mumbled sorry and my grandfather walked him out. Through the open living room window I could hear my grandfather telling him not to come around anymore; that he’d gotten off easy this time, what with my mom not calling the police, but that he wouldn’t get that lucky the next time. “I hope you learned your lesson…” my grandfather growled at him. I guess he did, because we never saw him again.
I also learned a very important lesson that day. Right after the guy left, my mom and grandma gave me a talking to about how I was a “young lady” now and that I had to “be careful”. Those were the words that they used, but this is what I heard: That I’d brought the entire, horrible experience upon myself. Because I was a girl, I was responsible not only for my own behavior but also for the actions of boys (and men) if they hurt me or acted badly around me. That if I didn’t learn to curb myself – the way that I looked, walked, talked, dressed and kept in check the “vibe” that I gave off, that something like that was bound to happen again and that it would be my own fault. I understood that my mere existence was an invitation for boys (and men) to act badly, ie. “Boys will be boys, after all. You know how they are; just don’t encourage them.”
The thing that really stuck with me, though, maybe the real crux of the whole “talking to”, was that because I was a girl, I didn’t get to be safe. That no matter how many times a well meaning teacher or coach or school counselor had told me that my body was my own and that I was allowed my personal space and privacy and that no one was allowed to touch me if I didn’t want them to, that those were just words. I learned that day that the world didn’t care about those words; that because I was a girl, my safety was nothing more than a footnote in a book that was written to serve boys.
It took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t to blame, and even longer than that to realize that I didn’t “bring it upon myself”. But all these years later – even with all of the strides that we’ve made toward gender equality and education on violence against women – is the world a safer place for me, or for any female person? No; it would be foolish and dangerous to tell girls and young women anything different. What I would say to them, though, is that you don’t deserve to feel uncomfortable or scared just because you’re a girl. You deserve safety. You deserve peace of mind. You also deserve to be treated with respect, no matter how you choose to walk, talk, dress or the “vibe” you give off. You deserve every bit of dignity that is afforded to boys and men, not in spite of your gender but because, like boys and men, you are a human being with inalienable rights.
I think that’s the best lesson of all.
Every year approximately 63,000 children are the victims of sexual assault. 34% are under the age of 12, 66% are age 12-17. Girls aged 16-19 are 4x more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault. (www.rainn.org)