CW: This essay discusses sexual and physical assault.
When I was in the 8th grade, my “boyfriend” at the time, who was a football player, stole a pair of my worn underwear and passed them around the whole football team only to have one of them hand them back to me in the school cafeteria, saying something lewd to me about them. That same year, the same boy who handed me my underwear pulled his penis out during our Social Studies class and showed it to me without my consent or desire to see it. Not that it matters, but it was the first penis I had ever seen. Same guy, same year, he told me I looked like I was wearing a padded bra because he knew my “titties” weren’t that big. When I didn’t say anything, he stuck his hand down my shirt and grabbed my breast before I could get away.
I never told anyone.
We were both 13 at the time and the he treated me changed my confidence, the way I felt about my body, and my innocence. It wasn’t like I could get away from him either. I was around him all the time throughout the rest of middle school and high school. These kinds of incidents start early for many girls and women, and the messages we receive shape our perspectives about ourselves and about men.
Not many years after this, I began a 10-year on-again-off-again severely emotionally abusive relationship. There were a few times where things got physical and I was thrown from a parked truck or dragged from the driver’s seat of my car. I was called every name in the book and was threatened with being cheated on or dumped if I didn’t have sex with him when he wanted to. Our relationship and the effects of it have followed me into marriage and motherhood; the shockwaves are still something I have to face almost every day.
Even though I haven’t seen or heard from him in almost 12 years, the memories of the worst moments don’t fade. I have long forgiven him, but if he were to decide to run for the Supreme Court or any kind of higher government office or religious leadership, I most certainly would. Could my earlier experiences of being assaulted as a young teen predispose me to being in an abusive relationship? It’s hard to know for sure, but I do believe that any incident where a woman feels unsafe, used, and as if she doesn’t have the rights to her own body only compound with each incident before and after it.
I felt like it was all my fault.
When I was 19 and in my freshman year of college, I started hanging out with a frat guy who was friends with a few of my sorority sisters. I was in one of my “off again” moments of my long-term emotionally abusive relationship and was hoping to not date and just focus on enjoying my college life. Most of the time my new friend and I would meet up to have drinks with all our friends at a local college hangout and play some pool, but one evening he walked me home and I invited him in. My roommates were home so we went into my room, which was really just a bed, nowhere else to sit. We chatted for a few minutes and then he leaned over and tried to kiss me, something he hadn’t done before. Even though I didn’t like him like that, I kissed him back. Things quickly progressed to us making out on my bed. He tried to take my shirt off, and I said no. He then sat up and tried to take his pants off and I told him no again.
His expression changed from a smile to frustrated. He got back on top of me and pinned both my hands behind my head with one of his hands, while he pulled up my shirt and unsnapped my bra with his other hand. I was trying to say no and was pushing to get him off me, but he covered my mouth with his and kissed me hard so I couldn’t talk or yell. He then began to bite me hard up and down my sides while still holding my hands down. I was saying it hurt and to stop, but he kept biting me on my neck. It was shocking and unexpected. He then bit my breasts and nipples. Finally I was able to scream loudly and kick him off me. He looked down at me and saw the blood and all the bruises that had already formed and then at me. I yelled as loud as I could and he ran out of my apartment.
My roommates immediately came in my room and were shocked to see what had happened to me. They told me to call the police, but I refused. So they took pictures of the bruises for me just in case I changed my mind and wanted to report it.
I felt like it was all my fault. I had invited him in and sat on my bed with him. I had kissed him back.
He tried to act like everything was fine the following day and my roommates helped me to stand up for myself instead of give in to the desire to pretend I was fine, too. I told him he hurt me and I never wanted to see him again. He was actually mad at me because I was supposed to go to his fraternity formal with him and now he had to find another date at the last minute.
I never told anyone but my roommates about what happened. I had to wear turtlenecks for weeks in the heat of a fast-approaching summer in order to cover the bruises up and down my neck. He got to go on with no consequences at all.
I remember why I didn’t tell anyone. It was the same reason I didn’t tell anyone about what happened in the 8th grade, or just how abusive my relationship was in high school. I didn’t want to be the one blamed and retaliated against.
There are unfortunately more incidents I could write about as I went through college, into early adult life, and even recently were I was mistreated by men, but I want to focus on what happened to me while I was a teenager in order to demonstrate that what happens when we are teens matters then. Matters in all the years following.
I am a mother now to two amazing little guys who are 3 and 5. My husband and I have done our very best to teach them how to be respectful, loving human beings from the moment they could understand.
Today, I am married to an amazing man who can’t imagine any boy or man mistreating a woman the way I have been mistreated. We will be married seven years next month and I can tell you that the abuse, assault, and harassment I have experienced at the hands of men throughout my life has affected our marriage.
It has taken me much longer to be able to trust my husband despite his being consistently loving, respectful, honoring, and caring to me at all times. I have had to go to counseling several times over the last few years, and each time what happened to me in my past has always come up. There are some women who have never experienced abuse, assault or harassment, but there are many more that have in one way or another and more than once.
For many women, our life stories are an unfortunate culmination of mistreatment by men in big and small ways that are very significant in how we view ourselves and form our perspectives of the world around us.
I am a mother now to two amazing little guys who are 3 and 5. My husband and I have done our very best to teach them how to be respectful, loving human beings from the moment they could understand. It is very important to both of us that we raise them in such a way that they would never desire to or even imagine disrespecting or asserting control over a woman — or any human for that matter.
We have been very purposeful in our parenting in order to instill our family values even at these young ages, not limited to:
Body autonomy. When the boys were old enough to begin washing themselves in the bathtub, we taught them how to properly clean themselves and their private parts so we could teach them the importance of owning their own bodies. We have always told them the proper names for their private parts (and women’s as well) and teach them that no one is supposed to touch our private parts unless it is for a medical reason and Mommy or Daddy are there with you at the doctor, or for a trusted grown up to help you go to the bathroom — and even then only to do a quick wipe.
They understand that not only is no one to touch their private parts, but they are also not to touch anyone else’s. We explain to them that private parts are wonderful, but they are not for anyone else and the same goes for anyone else’s private parts. It can be difficult to teach them to be proud of all their body parts and not be ashamed of them, and at the same time teach them to keep them covered for their own safety, but it is well worth it to find the right balance. Boys and men who respect themselves and their own bodies are much more likely to respect everyone else and their bodies.
Consent. When we are tickling or rough-housing with our boys and they say “no” or “stop it,” we stop immediately and say back to them, “You said no/stop so I stopped.” One of the easiest ways to begin teaching young ones about consent is to respect them when they ask you to.
Of course, this can be complicated when you have to change their diaper and they don’t want you or or give them yucky medicine they don’t want to take — it’s not like they are always going to give a resounding “yes!” to the things they don’t like or prefer. But it is important to strive to let them know you hear them and understand why they don’t want it and then work to still do the things you need to do, like get them in a car seat, without constantly making them feel overpowered or not heard.
They also understand that if Mommy and Daddy or any of their friends tell them to stop something they need to stop right away. This is something that takes a lot of reminding, but consistency will pay off and they will become better and better at understanding consent as they grow older and mature.
Boundaries. As a mother and a woman it can be expected of me to give of myself to my children, family and others to the detriment of my own health and needs. I have always made a conscious effort to draw boundaries in order to have my own needs met and prioritize the self care I need to be the best version of myself. My children see me doing this and are learning that healthy boundaries are good for us. Of course, they don’t want me to go out for the day without them, but when I do it anyway, assuring them how much I love and that I will be back, they learn that everyone is allowed to set limits for themselves and they need to respect them.
We also help our children set up boundaries while playing with each other or their friends. If a friend does something hurtful, tell them you didn’t like it calmly, we teach them. If they continue, you need to walk away and get some space. And if they continue to not listen to you over and over again, then they may not be a good friend to have.
Kindness and respect. We teach our boys that the most important thing for them to learn — even more than reading and math — is kindness and respect. Both for themselves and for others. When we teach our children to be kind to themselves when they make a mistake, they are more likely to be kind to others when they make mistakes. When we teach our children to respect themselves and their boundaries and needs, then they are more like to respect others.
Gender stereotypes. In our home, our boys are allowed to like anything they want as long as it isn’t harming anyone. Our oldest son, Isaac, loves Wonder Woman, unicorns, sparkly things, cars, mud, reading, and science. Our youngest son, Noah, loves anything that has an engine, pretending to be villians, and eating. We support them in their interests even when their interests don’t conform to traditional gender norms. If we tell them playing with a doll is somehow going to make them weak, then what are they going to think of girls who play with dolls? That they are weak as well?
When we begin creating a large gender divide at such a young age instead of bridging the gap, we are setting our children up to not see other genders as equal to them, not as worthy of love and respect as they are. In a world that has a major power imbalance when it comes to gender, it is very important to teach our children all the ways in which boys and girls are the same and celebrate the ways in which they are different instead of making one better than the other.
If we can teach our young boys how to respect and honor women they will grow up and create a world that is safe for everyone. A world in which everyone is equal in worth and value, is worthy of love and respect. Instead of teaching our girls and women how not to be assaulted and raped, we need to be teaching our boys how to never desire to assault or rape in the first place.
If you're a victim of sexual assault and need help, contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800.656.HOPE to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area. You are not alone.