I was in middle school the first time that it happened. My best friend and I were walking from another friend’s house to my parents’, which required passing by a green belt on a secluded and rarely trafficked street. This particular stretch always creeped me out, before this incident but particularly so afterward. It was late spring, maybe summer, and due to the warm weather we were wearing skirts. We were 11 or 12-years-old so, no, they weren’t mini skirts, not that it matters how long or short or tight or loose they were. Perhaps you already see where this is going?
We were halfway along this street, heavily wooded and green on one side, a fence on the other, when a sedan with tinted windows coming toward us slowed as it approached. The passenger side window, which was closest to us, rolled down, revealing the leering face of a man at least a decade older than we were. I don’t remember what was said, but I do remember how I felt – the fear, the sense of violation. I sprinted the rest of the way home, my friend right on my heels, the man’s laughter ringing in my ears.
We arrived, panting, at my house, and I tried to explain to my parents between breaths what had happened. I couldn’t articulate then what I can now, because that was the first time I had ever been catcalled and forced to bear the projection of a man’s desires. I had merely suffered the misfortune of being present in the wrong place at the wrong time, yet I felt dirty with shame.
Psychology states that for young children it’s a milestone when they become fully self-aware as a unique entity in the world. Well, for girls there’s a second turning point when we realize just how little ownership we have over our own bodies; how regardless of our self-confidence and self-empowerment, society sees us as objects to be quantified, ridiculed, and passed judgment on. How many times have I been hanging out around groups of guys and heard the phrase “let herself go” in reference to a mutual female acquaintance, as though we are living and breathing an episode of America’s Next Top Model on continuous loop? No matter our intellect or accomplishments, our bodies and faces are what people notice first and assign value to.
I’ll never forget the time that a male colleague (and a manager at that) at a previous job said, “She’s nice, but she’s really unattractive,” regarding a female co-worker. I can offer no context because the comment came out of nowhere. Regardless, since when does physical appearance have any bearing on how well someone does her job? I work in kitchens, so naturally I was the only woman in the vicinity. And it made me wonder, how did they talk about me when I wasn’t around?
When Millie Bobby Brown, the 13-year-old powerhouse at the center of Netflix’s Stranger Things, was included on a prominent magazine’s list of sexiest TV stars, I was appalled and disgusted, but not surprised. The move was merely a symptom of a culture that routinely sexualizes and fetishizes young women, parading around heavily made-up girls like JonBenét Ramsey or the high school cheerleaders that Roy Moore had such a penchant for and touting their youthful allure. From Larry Nassar to Harvey Weinstein, the vast majority of men publicly accused of sexual abuse and harassment committed said crimes against females significantly their junior – in the former’s case to the point of pedophilia.
And these men, who once wielded undue power in their respective fields, are toppling like dominoes, issuing non-apologies as they go and leaving in their wake a collective hand-wringing and head-shaking similar to the aftermath of yet another mass shooting. “I can’t believe this happened again,” says the only nation where such catastrophically violent acts are epidemic, perhaps even endemic.
Most men will never know what the inherent vulnerability of being a woman feels like; to squeeze your keys between your knuckles when walking home at night; to stay silent when a male manager says or does something inappropriate for fear of putting your job and reputation in jeopardy; to feel self-conscious to the point of defensiveness when wearing yoga pants or other fitted clothing in public; to hold your drink by its rim with your hand covering the top lest unwanted substances make their way in. I think back to my twelve-year-old self. What if the car had fully stopped and one or both of the men had gotten out?
I’ve reached that age where many of my peers are getting married and starting families. But for me, the prospect of bringing a daughter into this world is absolutely terrifying. How would I begin to talk to her about sexual assault, mistreatment in the workplace, body image, and eating disorders – all things that I’ve gone through like some twisted rite of passage and am still trying to reconcile?
If I had a son, at what point would I need to delineate all the nuances of consent? And how? The mother of a young man accused of sexual assault on a college campus went on record with The New York Times saying, “In my generation, what these girls are going through was never considered assault. It was considered, ‘I was stupid and I got embarrassed.’”
I’m not blaming the parents – society as a whole failed these boys, just as the academic institutions and the justice system failed to adequately protect their victims and support them after the fact. The behavior of the Brock Turners of the world is a manifestation of a media landscape that normalizes such acts and both perpetuates and celebrates bro culture. It also points to the need for a specific kind of discourse in the home and in the classroom.
Like Turner, I was once a Stanford undergrad. (Unlike him, I completed my degree). Before setting foot on campus as students, we were required to complete a brief online course called AlcoholEdu, which expounded the different types of alcoholic beverages, their standard sizes, their effects on the body, and what safe and unsafe BAC levels look like. If the curriculum hasn’t already been modified to address consent, its definition and complexities when alcohol is involved, then it’s way overdue.
Senior year my friends and I were at an outdoor concert on campus organized by the Greek community, when we encountered an undergrad aggressively grinding against a girl. Her upper body was bent completely forward, as though twerking Miley Cyrus-style. Her head came up suddenly for a moment, and we saw that her eyes were wide and blank – no doubt she was already blacked out. Perspective of the situation instantly changed; they were not just another horny couple dry humping on the dance floor. He wasn’t holding her; he was holding her up. We asked if she was okay, but she was too far gone to respond coherently. He ran away.
What we need most today are allies. Where were all of Turner’s teammates when he was outside preying on Jane Doe? Why is it that I’ve never heard a man leap to his friend’s defense when her body became the subject of critical discussion? At the concert were that kid’s friends too preoccupied with rubbing their dicks against other girls to notice just how creepy and predatory he was being? The era of bros before hoes, which is to say complicity, has passed.
Speak out for those who are vulnerable and have too little agency to do so themselves, and call out the ones who reinforce the oppression and power imbalance. Time is up on remaining silent, passive, and enabling. Be a better man, and the world will thank you for it. We may be strong but we’re only half the population, and we can’t fix everything ourselves.