I recently told my husband a story that I dredged out of the depths of my memory.
My husband and I have two daughters, ages 7 and 3, and occasionally our opinions clash when it comes to how they should be raised. Around the time of the Women’s Marches that erupted after President Trump’s inauguration, I expressed a desire to talk to our girls about these marches and why they were happening. My husband didn’t really see the need in this, arguing that they were “just too young”. Too young to understand. Too young to be affected by these current events. Too young to have to deal with these heavy subjects.
I understand and agree that sometimes children are “too young” for certain experiences and subject matters, but frankly I don’t think any girl is ever too young to learn about women’s rights.
And this is what led me to tell my husband about something I was “too young” for: the first time a boy told me I made him “horny”.
I was in the 6th grade when I caught the eye of an 8th grade boy. I don’t remember much about our first few interactions, just that he always seemed to be looming over me at my locker, or leering at me from down the hall. He once told me he liked the way my legs looked in shorts. I would typically take something like that as a compliment, but hearing it from him gave me the creeps.
The day of the “horny” comment, I was trying to maneuver through the crowded 6th grade hallway to get to my locker in-between classes. Suddenly my not-so-secret admirer was hovering over me as usual. We made small talk, then just as I was walking into my next class, he pulled slightly on my arm, leaned in, and whispered in my ear that I made him “very, very horny”.
I spent the next few hours mulling this over, as I did not know what the word “horny” meant. Later that afternoon I was finally able to ask my female friends. Only one of them had an answer, and she told me that he had meant that I turned him on, making him want to have sex or participate in other sexual activities.
At this point in my life, I knew that sex existed. Not only did I understand that sex made babies, but I was also aware that people found pleasure in it. But I still didn’t understand the logistics. Sometimes while playing Barbies (yep, I still played with Barbies when I was 11), my dolls would have sex. Barbie and Ken sex always led to a baby. I would undress them both, lay them down next to each other and cover them with a blanket, and then boom: Baby Kelly.
I knew there was more to sex than this, but I also knew I wasn’t ready to lay naked next to a boy under a blanket, so I definitely wasn’t ready for whatever sex actually was.
At 11 years old, I did want a boyfriend. I wanted one very much, actually. I had crushes on celebrities like Mike Vitar who played “Benny the Jet” Rodriguez in the movie The Sandlot and Devon Sawa in Casper (as human Casper, not ghost Casper.) In reality, outside of fantasies about cute child actors in family movies, I had started eyeing boys I actually knew and had more realistic daydreams about passing notes, holding hands, or sitting next to them in the lunchroom. My daydreams never involved sexual scenarios or the use of the word horny.
Gradually, I started trying to avoid my unwanted sidekick. I started carrying supplies for several classes with me so I could cut down on locker visits. This worked most of the time, but on several occasions he would just come straight to the class I was sitting in and beckon me to come out.
After several more weeks of mild stalking, he finally asked me to be his girlfriend. I had been waiting on this question for quite some time, hoping that I could just say no, and possibly be done with the whole thing. He didn’t ask me himself, he sent a friend to do it instead. This was commonplace in my school at the time, but I hadn’t expected him to send a messenger. He had, after all, be quite brazen up until that point. I told the friend to pass back the message of “no” and hoped that would be the end of it.
I didn’t see or hear from my admirer for the rest of the day. Though I didn’t like him, or his company, I felt bad that I might have hurt his feelings. That teeny, tiny part of me that felt bad was told to shut up by the larger part of me that felt relieved and free of the burden I had been carrying.
The next morning when I arrived at school, I was energetic, cheerful, and ready to embrace the day without having to dart from class to class or endure one-sided conversations in which lewd things would frequently be said, and that I often wouldn’t understand. I wouldn’t be touched without my permission, like when he would poke at my belly, or grab me around the waist, or try to give me a shoulder rub. It was a joyous day.
That joy was short lived.
I was turned toward my open locker, leisurely gathering my supplies for third period when someone suddenly pushed my head, hard, from behind. My head slammed into the interior shelf of my locker. I turned around quickly, thinking that someone had accidentally bumped into me while rough housing, but instead I saw him walking away from me toward the gym and in that moment I knew it had been him.
I grabbed my belongings and hurried down the hall to class. My heart was pounding as well as my head. My eyes were burning, either from the desire to cry or from head trauma. I felt embarrassed, stunned, and unsure of how to react, so I went on autopilot. As I made my way down the hallway to get to class on time, I passed a friend who informed me that I had something in my hair. I reached back to find a huge glob of sticky, gooey gum. I was immediately disgusted that something that had been in someone else’s mouth, particularly his mouth, was now lodged in my hair.
I went to my class and and showed my teacher. I only showed her the gum and told her someone had put it there. She didn’t ask any further questions and sent me to see the school secretary.
The secretary smeared peanut butter in my hair and left me alone in the bathroom to pry the gum out. Afterwards, my hair was wet and greasy and smelled like peanut butter. I just wanted to go home, but she sent me back to class after yelling at me for not turning off the water in the bathroom after I was done. I don’t know why I left the water running.
I spent the rest of the day feeling more freaked out than angry. I had been looking forward to leaving for a Girl Scout overnight trip that afternoon after school but suddenly I just wanted to go home and curl up in bed under the covers with my favorite stuffed animals and watch Nick at Nite and eat Twizzlers until I fell asleep.
Had I known to say the words at the time, I would have said “sexual harassment”, but I didn’t know what those words meant. I was embarrassed and ashamed and afraid he would do something else to me, so I chose to keep my mouth shut and ignore it.
I’m not sure I was afraid he would physically harm me, though I probably should have been considering that he already had. I just remember that I desperately wanted to stay away from him and spent the rest of the year avoiding him, turning down other hallways when I caught a glimpse of him. It was a relief when the year was over and he moved on to high school.
I never talked about it again, and I never told my parents the truth; they were the only ones who ever pressed me for more information. I repeatedly insisted I didn’t know who had done it, just a random boy that I hadn’t gotten a good look at, probably just some upperclassmen hazing the newbie 6th graders. After awhile they just quit asking.
I have thought about this memory on and off over the last few years. I’ve wrestled with the thought that maybe if I had just shut him down on day one, that could have been the end of it. I’ve asked myself why I felt like I needed him to ask me out before I said no. Why I felt like I needed him to open the door and give me a choice, why I couldn’t initiate it on my own.
He scared me, though at the time I’m not sure I was aware of that. Over time I have been able to recognize behaviors like altering my routines and inconveniencing myself (by carrying all my books around with me all day instead of going to my locker) in order to avoid him as fear induced behaviors.
This incident is the first of many like it that would occur over the next several years. It took me a long time to find my voice and I want my daughters to feel more empowered and informed than I did as a child. I want prepare them and educate them so they will grow into strong women that know how to stand up for themselves. I want them to understand what sex is before the age of 11. I want them to know what the term “sexual harassment” means and how to recognize it and respond to it.
There are varying degrees of mistreatment and abuse and they don’t always look the same. It isn’t always loud, or messy, or obvious. But one thing is always the same: these acts always make you feel hollow, ashamed, and embarrassed and often leave you asking yourself, “Did that just happen?” and “How?”.
When I was done sharing all this information to my husband, his face was drained of color. To my surprise, I was actually crying. My husband admitted that he could not stand the thought of what had happened to me at 11 happening to one of our girls, and them not telling either one of us about it. And this is how I won the argument about whether or not we should talk to our daughters about the Women’s Marches. It is also how my husband and I came to the decision to get matching “third wave feminism” tattoos.
About a week after talking to my 7-year-old about the marches, she came home from school to tell me that a boy had been picking on her. She said he would hide her favorite eraser from her, make fun of the food she brought for lunch, pull her hair, and chase her at recess. Her friends told her this was because he had a crush on her.
My daughter didn’t understand this because she didn’t like the way he was treating her. His actions left her feeling angry and sad, so why would he do these things if he liked her? She actually asked me that question. She told me that when she liked someone that she would be extra nice to them, share her beloved items with them, color pictures for them, and play with them during free time or recess.
We had a long conversation about how to handle when someone, even a peer, does something that hurts her or makes her feel uncomfortable. She now knows that she needs to tell that person to stop, loudly, so that other people will hear her. She knows to tell them to stop because they are doing something she does not like, and she doesn’t need to give any other explanation beyond that. I told her she should always tell an adult, whether it be a teacher or a parent or a coach that is around. And lastly, she knows she should always tell me.
I want my daughters to be empowered to speak up and fight back. I don’t want them to be polite and quiet out of fear of being told they are overreacting or being dramatic. I don’t want them to be afraid of hurting a boy’s feelings when he is doing something that hurts them.
And finally, I want them to know that yes, sometimes when they speak up, there will be people that won’t be on their side, but then again, there will also be those that are. And I will be one of them. Always.