Four years old, junior kindergarten, the bell has rung and kids are filtering into the classroom after changing into their indoor shoes. I’m one of the first to sit on the carpet to wait while the teacher is occupied outside the door directing kids inside. A boy from my class stands in front of me and exposes his penis a foot from my face.
I don’t tell anyone because I’m embarrassed and feel like I did something wrong.
Five years old, I’m the flower girl at a family friend’s wedding. I woke up that morning sick (and I will always have a nervous stomach; I’ve sine learned to not eat for a day before an event), and felt queasy all day, including during the ceremony. The minister leans over to whisper harshly, “Smile!” Instead of, “Is anything wrong?” or “Are you okay?”
While it seems like a minor thing, in retrospect I realize this is the first of many times men I don’t know will feel it’s their place to tell me to smile. It will never stop–twenty-five years later, strange men will still feel it’s their place to tell my lips what to do. The minister stopped at “smile”; in the future, it goes from there to demands for acknowledgement, name-calling when I don’t respond.
Six years old in winter, an older boy starts following me during the 1km walk home from school. He grabs me from behind, holds me in place, and whispers in my ear all the sexual things he’s going to do to me. Over and over. For weeks.
I tell my mum. My babysitter. My teacher. He’s bothering me, I’m scared. Help.
“He just likes you,” is the resounding response.
One day he has me pinned again and he tells me he’s going to pull down my pants and all the cars driving by will see my underwear. Something clicks in my brain and I know no one’s going to help me. I elbow him in the ribs and stomp on his foot and while he falls, I run. And run. I run and burst through my babysitter’s door and that is when the adults take me seriously.
But I will never forget that no one’s going to help me but me.
Still six years old. I’ve always seen the aftermath of my father’s drunk, violent temper on the occasions he visits, but this time I see the storm hit. At night, I’m in the front seat of Mum’s car in the hotel parking lot in the city. I can see into the room where Dad’s yelling and throwing things. Mum’s crying and Dad’s yelling and I’m huddled in the car and when another man walks through the parking lot, my father yells at him to mind his own business.
When Mum tries to leave, Dad leaps on the car’s hood and tries to kick in the windshield. His gaze meets mine as he slams his heel into the glass. Mum slamming on the brakes dislodges him and she drives away.
No one helped her either.
Twelve years old, a girl in my circle of friends is “dating” a twenty-six-year-old man. The voice in my head that questions if this is normal is repeatedly silenced by everyone’s assurance she is just really mature for her age. Besides, the guy isn’t weird–he buys them cigarettes and is really friendly when he hangs outside the middle school’s fenced in property on our lunch hour.
I’m incredibly grateful to have a curfew to fall back on so I don’t have to hang out with them in the evenings. I don’t like how he looks at me.
Thirteen years old. On a bus, coming home from seeing a baseball game with a church group. An older boy–sixteen or so–repeatedly puts his arm around me and tries to rub the back of my neck even when I say no and try to move. Eventually I smile coolly, do the same to him, except I grasp the fine hairs on the back of his neck and give them a yank.
I assume he’ll back off; apparently he takes it as encouragement and won’t allow me to leave. So I scream at the top of my lungs.
He gets up and sits elsewhere on the bus. Everyone whispers about how uncool I am and my female friends chastise me for not being nice to him.
Still thirteen years old, in eighth grade. We have one of those teachers, the one all the girls talk about because he makes them uncomfortable. He physically touches the girls, putting his hand on their shoulders. He teaches art and has me sit beside him so he can draw a portrait of me, saying how I’m a very pretty girl. I snarkily say, “I know” and laugh it off because if I act uncomfortable and show weakness, I worry it’ll make me more of a target.
This isn’t the first time; he’s been doing this for over twenty years. My best friend’s mom had him for a teacher in middle school in the seventies, she tells us, and her main memory of him was when he pointed out one girl in class who wore makeup and said she was very pretty, and the rest of the girls should be trying to be like her.
I complain about him. Constantly. Anonymously, usually, through a system set up in the guidance office to leave notes for a counselor. About the things he says and does, to me and my friends. One day, a friend of mine is talking back to him after an assembly and he grabs her arm and twists it. She cries and I take her to the office to report him.
We’re called into the principal’s office with a guidance counselor and the teacher in question, and the principal tells us if we want to press charges or pursue this, she’s standing with the teacher. I later find out from the guidance counselor that she’s been sharing my anonymous complaints with the teacher and he responded with, “That sounds like Skyla and her feminist concerns.”
He retires a few years later but they keep having him come back to teach art.
Fifteen years old, art class. A male friend who sits beside me drapes his arm around the back of my chair and starts casually rubbing my back over my bra strap. My entire body ices over and I can hear my pulse in my ears, but I don’t know how to say stop because it’ll hurt his feelings if I say I’m uncomfortable and I don’t want it to be weird in our circle of friends. So I sit on the edge of my seat to put distance between us and never sit beside him again.
Nineteen years old, I work midnights at a convenience store. Every few weeks the same middle-aged man comes in and strikes up a conversation while buying condoms, asking what my boyfriend thinks of me working there at night. Eventually I tell him my boyfriend works there too and he leans on the counter, asking if we ever have sex in the backroom, and if anyone’s back there now.
He finally leaves when a male friend of mine stops in on his way home after work. For future shifts, I try to arrange things so a friend hangs out in the store until later in the night when most of the weirdos have gone, even if it gets me in trouble with my boss.
Twenty-one years old, and I’m walking my dog at night. A group of men around my age shout “hi” at me, and it’s been ingrained in me to simply not respond, so I don’t. They call me a bitch and whisper and then follow me, down the street, through the shadows around a school. I walk with one hand poising on the pin to the personal alarm I keep clipped to my jeans and the other with my keys poking between my fingers in case I have to claw someone with them. I focus my attention on my friend’s house three blocks away in case I have to knock on their door. I lose my pursuers in a field by the school.
I never take that path when walking again but it doesn’t matter because there are always groups of men and they always shout at me no matter where I am.
Unless I’m already with a guy.
Twenty-six years old, the man who sometimes delivers my groceries steps into my apartment and lets the door close behind him. He looks nervous when he tells me how much he likes me and I feel guilty for not reciprocating the attention, but I tell him I have a boyfriend. He pushes and asks if we can hang out as friends; eventually I relent.
He calls early the next morning–he has my phone number because the store makes him call before a delivery–and wakes me up, and suggests he visit and we “go for a walk” on his day off later in the week. I freeze up, confused and unguarded, and mumble a yes. I chuckle with my friends about accidentally making a date but my stomach is twisting up. The day of the “date”, I leave the house and avoid the phone. More than anything, I hate myself for being too scared to flat out say no, you’re making me uncomfortable–I am angry with myself for caring about sparing his feelings when he’s shown no regard for mine–but he has my number and my address and I don’t know anything about him; avoiding him seems safer than a flat-out rejection.
Because I know his work schedule, I start having my groceries delivered a different day. Months go by without contact until my boyfriend is visiting, and then I have a delivery on a day he’s working, so he can see the boyfriend–part of me thinks that seeing me as another man’s property might be the final nail in a coffin.
Twenty-seven years old, near Christmas. Either the delivery guy has a different shift or I messed up the day, but he comes with my groceries. Once again, after I’ve paid and signed off on the delivery, he doesn’t leave but lets the door close behind him and starts chatting, not taking my one word answers and crossed arms as a sign I’m uncomfortable. As usual, he goes to shake my hand before he leaves but this time pulls me to him for a hug. I’m practically shaking and he kisses me on the cheek, keeps leaning close until I back up. Finally he goes.
Minutes later he calls to make sure I was “okay” with everything that happened. I stammer my reply and hang up.
Immediately I let my boyfriend know I’m really freaked out. He is worried as well until I get through the whole story and says, “Oh, he just tried to kiss you–I thought he tried to rape you or something.”
I question everything that happened and wonder if I’m overreacting. He “just” kissed me, after all.
I move out of town. I hear later he’s still asking about me.
Thirty years old and I think I know better now. I think I can see danger coming, I think I’m strong and not susceptible to this bullshit.
A friend mentions to me a mutual online acquaintance makes her uncomfortable and I pass off his behavior has harmless, socially awkward, etc, despite all the red flags he’s shown, but still we dig a bit deeper. And deeper. And when a group of us get together to discuss him, we realize he’s been stalking me and using my friends to help him do it. He’s been worming his way into my life, manipulating with gifts and creating a sense of obligation, and I’d fallen back into old habits and ignored the warning signs. We narrow down his immediate goal into getting me to leave the country and meet with him, and swiftly nip it in the bud.
He plays the victim. Says it’s just a misunderstanding. He keeps trying to get another foot in the door. Firmly saying, “This behavior is creepy and unacceptable”, while true, feels like its pushing against the grain of a culture that’s says I should be more concerned with his feelings than my own.
Despite his skillful manipulations, I feel like it’s my fault for not seeing it coming.
Thirty-one years old and I’m sitting here looking at this blog post and all the things I haven’t said.
Because even saying #YesAllWomen and seeing stories that reflect my own, and witnessing my friends speak up about the horrors visited upon them, there are stories I can’t share in detail. I still fear being told it wasn’t that big a deal or simply not believed. I’m still ashamed of things I shouldn’t be.
Even when we lay so much bare, there are still stories women won’t tell because we have entire lifetimes of experiences telling us not to.
This is why I rant about why I write the terrible things I write. Why authors like Krista D. Ball are adamant about consent in literature because too often the world of fiction reinforces the rape culture we live in instead of pushes back against it.
I’m thirty-one years old and all the women I know have stories of sexual harassment. Nearly all of them have been molested or raped. Many of them have been stalked. If we’re walking alone at night and a man is even a block behind us, we cross the street. Those of us who are single and go on dates give one another information on who we’re seeing–name, address, where we’re going, etc–with a promise that someone will call the police if we’re not heard from by a certain time.
We go on dates entirely prepared to be murdered. And it is seen as normal.
We’re blamed when we don’t say no loud enough, when we don’t fight hard enough, but ignore the experiences that have taught us saying no will at best be ignored and at worst be even more dangerous.
And before the “not all men” battle cry starts, that’s not the point–the point is that women are menaced at various points in their life, over and over again, on both small and large scales, by different men. This isn’t one guy following us throughout our lives repeating this behavior–it’s a whole lot, and it’s from men raised in a culture that teaches them they’re entitled to do so. That it’s romantic when men use the word “no” as the opening to negotiations. That a woman’s default position is “yes”. That even other women perpetuate these things because it’s so ingrained in us as normal.
#YesAllWomen is not about your experience; it’s about ours.
No, not all men are violent misogynists who kill women. No one is saying that. We’re saying that yes, all women to varying degrees know what it’s like to be treated as if men are entitled to our bodies. It’s still too many men. And we can’t always tell the dangerous ones from the harmless ones until it’s too fucking late.
I still walk with the personal alarm clipped to my jeans and my keys between my fingers.
Because I still know when–not if, as it’s just an eventuality we prepare for– something happens, no one’s going to help me.