When I was 11-years-old and getting ready to enter middle school, I remember my mom sitting me down and explaining sexual harassment and assault to me.
She taught me that anything other than an enthusiastic ‘yes’ means ‘no.’ She taught me how to say no without laughing or apologizing or even smiling a little to ease the situation. She taught me it’s always okay to say no. You don’t need a reason. You don’t need an excuse. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. The fact that your answer is no is enough. Then, we practiced in the mirror how to say no forcefully and directly.
But she also taught me that sometimes ‘no’ won’t be listened to or taken seriously. She told me I should never feel guilty or ashamed about that. It’s not because I didn’t say it with enough force or because I could’ve done more or acted differently, it’s because ‘no’ – no matter how loud and clear and emphatic – isn’t always respected. Because some men aren’t taught that no means no. Some men are taught that boys will be boys.
This was a great lesson from my mom, and I look up to her so much. My question is, though, as an 11-year-old girl and even now as a 26-year-old woman, why am I responsible for learning to say ‘no’ with enough force to just possibly – maybe – convince someone that what I mean is, I don’t know, no?
Why am I responsible for practicing saying it in the mirror over and over without laughing or smiling or apologizing? Why am I responsible for learning how to deal with the guilt or shame I might feel if my emphatic ‘no’ isn’t taken seriously or treated with respect?
‘No‘ is an important word to learn in general. But I’m so tired of women having to bear the responsibility that clearly isn’t theirs.
This ‘boys will be boys’ mentality is toxic. It teaches women that if they don’t say no ‘the right way,’ it’s their fault. It teaches them if their ‘no’ isn’t taken seriously, it’s their fault. It teaches them if they keep quiet, it’s their fault. It teaches them if they speak up, it’s their fault.
And then questions are raised about why so many women don’t report.
For any woman who chooses to come forward about a sexual assault or rape: I believe you. I support you. No questions asked.
I know how challenging, time-consuming and draining it is to process what happened yourself, let alone have the mental and emotional strength to share it with others. It can take years. The healing process can’t be confined by a statute of limitations.
The news doesn’t always help. Social media can be exhausting. It feels like one step forward and a million steps back sometimes. But if there’s a silver lining, it’s that things like this are finally being discussed more and more. Conversation around these issues is happening, and maybe it’s beginning to become clear little by little how widespread these problems are and how little they are addressed.
This is important because silence is powerful. It bullies you into shame. It convinces you that no one will believe you or understand. But conversation – even if it’s just an exchange of two simple words: me too – can go exponentially far in breaking the isolation and reminding someone they’re not alone.
So don’t be afraid to lean on someone else. Don’t be afraid to lend a hand or a shoulder or a smile to someone who needs it, either. No matter what, we need to stand with each other. We need to understand that the power of ‘we the people’ is not in passive aggression but in active hope.
You’re allowed to feel discouraged. Let yourself be upset for a while. Sometimes it feels like no matter what you do, it’s never enough. But you owe it to yourself to remember that your words and actions are more than enough. You are more than enough.
So keep speaking up when you’re ready. Keep holding the hands of the women around you and giving them a gentle nudge in the direction of courage with a simple ‘me too.’