The #metoo campaign to publicise the extent of sexual assault and harassment has taken social media by storm. But it’s not anything new, writes Lucy Kelly. For most girls, sharing stories of sexual abuse is part of growing up. So what are the stories that boys tell themselves?
Content warning: this article contains discussion of childhood sexual assault.
I am seven years old, skipping home from school, stopping to check there are no cars coming out of a driveway when a man walking by stops and tells me I have a pretty skirt and that he’d like to see what’s underneath it. I smile and say thank you and continue skipping home.
Now I am 22, I walk home from work after dark, I see a lone male walking toward me and I instinctively reach for the Swiss army knife and the whistle in my bag. He passes me, and I watch him walk away in the reflection of a store window, making sure he isn’t doubling back.
When you grow up identifying as a girl, you learn things that are different to what boys learn. Perhaps now more than ever our society is beginning to realise how ridiculous gendered upbringings for children are, that determining some things as inherently “girl” or “boy” is limiting and archaic. But when I was little I was taught things that were specific to my gender. Like how to braid my hair, how to stop my skirt flying up when I rode my bike, how to paint my nails, how to recognise potentially dangerous men, how to scream for help, how to say “no, don’t touch me,” how to avoid eye contact with men, how to duck my head and pretend I couldn’t hear when men yelled things at me as they drove by. Until I learnt that I could flip them off and yell at them to crash their cars into a tree and burn in hell.
When I was ten one of my friends was talking about how a man who caught the same bus as her after school would stare at her with his hands down his pants. “Me too,” one of my other friends said. A few months later one of the girls talked about how two of the boys in our class would try push her up against the wall and kiss her even when we tried to squirm free and say no. “Me too,” I found myself saying.
The #metoo campaign has taken social media by storm, and my goodness is it telling an important story and shedding light on an epidemic of sexual violence and rape culture. But it’s not anything new. We’ve been echoing “me too” since we were little girls, and still now that we are strong women. But it’s taken til now for people to stop turning their heads and pretending it’s not their problem.
As women, we are programmed to believe that sexual violence and rape culture are simply an inevitable part of being female, and that it is our responsibility to mitigate it. People have been teaching me how to keep safe in public for as long as I can remember, but when I ask any of my male friends when they started learning to respect women both in public and in their private lives they look at me with a blank-faced stare like I’ve asked them when they first started fostering abandoned ferrets.
I have found myself sitting amongst my girlfriends on summers evenings, all of us drunk enough that we are speaking honestly with scratched raw voices about issues that normally we wouldn’t be brave enough to share. As we talk we count on our hands the number of us that have been forced to engage in sexual behaviour we didn’t want – all of us. And all of us have experienced this more than once.
When I was sexually assaulted, I was 13. The man responsible was going on 30. It happened multiple times over the course of summer. I finally found the courage to tell my coach. She told me not to be so dramatic, that I was probably leading him on. A week or so later I heard some of the mothers of other kids in my age group whispering about how I should have expected him to “get that kind of idea,” since I was always wearing a bikini. I was competing in surf sports. My uniform was a bathing suit. I was 13 and still very much prepubescent, and I was blamed, for wearing a bikini. So I shut up, I stopped talking about it, I stopped showing up at the surf club. Until one day months later, when my friends were talking about the things they’d done with boys. As I listened to them describe their intimate adventures, the extent of what this man had done to me hit me like a ton of bricks. The next day I told one of my girlfriends what had happened that past summer, and as I cried and she held me, she whispered into my hair “I know, me too, since I was really little.”
The chairman of the surf club at the time told my parents that he wouldn’t ask my abuser to leave as he “didn’t want to draw negative attention to the situation”. I’m not entirely sure what kind of attention he did want drawn to a situation involving the sexual assault of a minor that his surf club failed to intervene in, but there we have it.
What happened to me is nothing unusual in the grand scheme of things. In fact, it’s a pretty normal story of being a young woman in a male dominated environment, being blamed for your own sexual assault despite the fact that you were underage and saying no, being silenced by those in power, and continuing on with life with your own guilt wreaking havoc on your soul.
Since then I’ve faced verbal assault over a dozen times, I’ve had friends try force themselves on me when I’ve said no, I’ve woken up to guys I trusted with their hands down my pants, and I’ve had a man smash a bottle on my face because I didn’t reciprocate his sexual advances. I am a woman who carries a Swiss army knife and a rape whistle at all times, who knows self defence, who never wears high heels because I have shitty ankles, nor wears short skirts because my personal thermostat is permanently set at freezy freezy cold. I am doing everything that rape culture tells me I should be doing to keep myself safe. And yet still, I’ve found myself a victim of men who see me as nothing but theirs for the taking.
We all know women who have been sexually assaulted, violated, abused.
So how many men do we know who have perpetrated that assault, violation or abuse?
I could never keep count of all the times I have been taught about how to avoid being assaulted. But ask the men in your life what they do to make sure they educate their peers about not taking advantage of women, ask boys if they know that when a girl says no to respect her wishes. Ask men if they know other men who’ve not gained a woman’s consent before forcing themselves on her. Ask them if they know what these men have done, and chosen to stay silent and complicit with that knowledge.
Saying “it’s not all men” is no longer a valid response (not that it ever was). Because while not all men rape or assault women, all men play into a culture that normalises the objectification and mistreatment of women. Every time you call a woman a slut, that’s rape culture. Every time you try coerce a woman into sex, that’s rape culture. Every time you yell at a woman from your car as you drive by, that’s rape culture. Every time you talk to your mates about grabbing a girl, or thrusting your tongue down a girl’s throat or your hands up her skirt like it’s a normal jestful act of manhood, that is rape culture.
And if you’re a man who truly doesn’t play into that culture, then it’s your responsibility to educate your brothers about how to also negate this culture.
As wild an idea as it seems, perhaps this is a men’s issue. Because the culture in which our boys are raised is to blame far more than the actions or inactions of women. Why are women having to relive their most traumatic experiences in order for men to so much as start to pay attention? Why aren’t they already enraged, and angry, and wanting to change the toxicity of the rape culture that permeates every inch of our society? Why are girls taught from the moment they can speak that men are the most dangerous beings in this world, and that it’s their job to not attract these men? Why aren’t boys taught from the moment they can speak how to do so with respect, patience and kindness?
Instead of pouring all our time into teaching girls how to stay safe and not get raped, how about we teach our boys how to treat women with respect, how to ask permission, how to behave in ways that create safe environments. And that without consent, any sexual contact is assault.
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