Each month prior to writing I am always struck with some sort of theme and from there the post is created, and this month the theme that has been stirring veers away from fitness, but is definitely women’s health related. Lately, I have been overwhelmed with thinking about women and girls and their place in the world. I have had moments of peace reminiscing about the first woman to run the Boston marathon, the first Olympic women’s team to compete in combat sports, and yes, even the first woman who is a primary candidate for president. But rest assured, this is not a political post; this is a post about the objectification of women and how we as a community continue to endorse a culture of abuse.
When I was ten I took the school bus to and from school everyday. I was in fifth grade, and walking home from the bus stop was something I had done for the past three years. This particular year, however, stands out to me because it was a time marked with fear. About midway through the school year, two boys who were in my class began following me home from school. They lived in the same apartment complex as I did, and at first I thought nothing of it. One of the boys asked me to be his girlfriend a few months prior, but I was too shy to even respond. Now, everyday, like clockwork they followed me home from school–they didn’t walk with me, they followed me. My mom was at work during this time so I knew no one would be waiting for me to arrive, but I had my house key and I always felt safe as soon as I made it in the door.
Little by little the boys began making their presence more obvious. At first they would just call me names, and I would giggle but walk a bit faster. Soon it escalated onto physical assaults. One day in particular stands out. They were close behind me becoming more aggressive in the words they were saying and were physically closer to my apartment than they had ever been before. Thoughts were racing through my head, “do they know my mom isn’t home?” “What if they try to follow me inside?” To my relief they “allowed” me to walk up my apartment stairs by myself, but unlike the other days, I was so distracted by their close proximity that I did not get my house key out of my backpack prior to reaching the door. I knew I made this mistake halfway up the stairs and I quickly tried to dig my key out of my pencil holder. However, before I could make it to the top of the stairs it hit me—a huge rock. I turned back to kind of giggle in hopes that my “sweet smile” would keep them away…but instead it just egged them on. They began throwing rock after rock at me. My hands were shaking at this point and I was having such a hard time getting the door unlocked. I remember asking them to stop, but not in an authoritative voice, it was a giggly please stop I’m fragile voice. They didn’t stop. The last rock they threw landed me in the head and they both started laughing. Thankfully I was able to unlock the door and get inside shortly after.
I don’t remember what happened the next day but I remember being scared. But as scared as I was, these were not the people I was warned about. They weren’t older, they weren’t strangers, they weren’t dangerous. Right? They were in my class, they played with me on the playground, and did school work with me in the classroom. I had nothing to be scared of. These were not the people or the situations that I was supposed to tell an adult about. But even after rerunning these “facts” in my head, I was still nervous to get on the bus. I talked to some of my friends about it, and they gave me the same reassurance a schoolyard teacher gave me a few days before. “Samantha, he likes you!” I smiled, and sincerely felt reassured. See Sam, this is normal behavior and it is okay. Shortly thereafter there was a new girl who started in my class. I noticed the boys began following her and I assumed that they found someone new to like. Years later, looking back on this situation, what bothers me the most isn’t what these boys did necessarily, what bothers me is that instead of helping the new girl, I was jealous of her. They no longer followed me, called me horrible names, and threw rocks at me…all because someone new came into town who must have been prettier. I guess it didn’t take much for this 10-year-old girl’s self-value system to become shattered.
Over the course of my life situations similar to this have surfaced. This was the only physically aggressive moment that I can recall involving boys, but there were other times that words or sexual aggression were just as damaging. “You’re a tease,” “I thought you liked me,” “Everyone’s having sex they just lie about it.” I remember I was in the 8th grade when a friend of mine told me that the boys in 7th grade were enjoying “locker room banter” and talking about me, saying that I had a nice butt. I was on cloud 9. Pleasing 7th graders was clearly a vital aspect of my existence. But as I grew older, and completely disassociated myself with everything I grew to learn about boys, men, and relationships, I started to uncover the dangerous culture that we as a community teach young girls and young boys that this is considered normal.
For work I am a mental health clinician, and a few months ago one of my 11-year-old clients; who had a long history of suicidal ideation, attempts, and self-harm behavior; stopped going to school. She disclosed that she was being bullied by a few boys and didn’t want to face them. I called a school meeting, and my team and I attempted to problem-solve the existing situation. As I sat in the meeting listening to the little girl explain, in tears, that everyday the boys call her a “hoe,” “slut,” “skinny,” and that she doesn’t want to go back until they stop, I was devastated. Yet even in the midst of her tears, internally, I was so proud of her ability to advocate on her own behalf. So proud, in fact, that I almost stopped paying attention to the adults in the room…that is until I heard what I have heard my whole life. The lead mental health clinician at the school responded,” I know that must be really hard for you, boys have a hard time expressing their feelings. Do you think they were just flirting?” There it was…the belief system that helps perpetuate the culture of abuse against females. I was in such shock hearing these words out of a licensed woman therapist I almost couldn’t speak. Thankfully, her mother said what I was too dumbfounded to articulate. “It is not okay to tell my daughter she can be verbally abused because some boys like her. I do not want my daughter to think this behavior is okay or that she deserves that.” I was thankful that she said what I couldn’t at the time; but I was also terrified of the kind of sexual culture being circulated by trusted adults.
The “boys will be boys” defense or the “locker room banter” defense is not a defense at all. Sending the message to young girls and women that verbal, physical, or sexual violence is the misguided, but “innocent” way that males signal to females that we are pleasing to them, is not only damaging but absolutely disgusting. I have imagined throughout my life if I ever had a daughter, what kind of woman I would hope to raise. I would want her to be strong, empowered, independent, and kind. To be honest I never thought much about having a boy, but now that I am eight months pregnant with a boy, I have realized how important it is to raise this child with the same value system. It is not just about raising strong girls who can “stand up for themselves,” but it is also about raising strong men who are allies with women, fighting the damaging culture of abuse against females.
No we will not just laugh it off relieved that someone finds us pretty, no we will not stay silent in hopes that it will just go away, and no we will not discard it because “boys will be boys.” We are not sex objects, we are not here for the sole pleasure of someone else, we are not to be sold, we are not to be raped. We are women and we are done believing that this makes us something less.