I vividly remember the boys chasing us around at recess and smacking our butts. The game was not “fun” for anyone involved. We felt hurt, terrified and ashamed. The boys acted out gender stereotypes hoping it would make them men. It lasted several weeks, the girls creeping along the wall so as not to open ourselves up for assault. One day, fed up with the harassment, I punched a boy in the face.
Guess who was sent to the Principal’s office? Yeah, me.
I have always had an open relationship with my mom, but even at nine years old, I was ashamed to tell her why I punched him, a boy I had known and been friends with, since kindergarten. The Principal punished me because I maintained my silence.
There were other incidents, situations that escalated to the level of police reports and restraining orders. The officer who took the report blamed me for provoking a man who couldn’t control himself. I channeled my rage (in the moments when I could be constructive) into participating in the creation of a short film on sexual assault. I led a support group for other young women who were victims of assault. And I started speaking out on gender inequality whenever I saw it.
But other times I channeled my rage and shame into self-destructive acts as well. Yet, when I spoke out about assault, even in the ‘safe spaces’ where my confessions should have been met with compassion and understanding, there was always the unspoken accusation, “You should not have put yourself in that situation.”
And it’s true. I should not have been there. But that still does not excuse what happened to me.
One day my children will need to hear my story, and that terrifies me. But I also know that my own experience is more powerful than any hypothetical situation. My husband and I are open with our children, teaching them about body autonomy and consent, but we are still fighting an uphill battle against societal norms. We are still combating centuries of gender discrimination and culturally sanctioned patriarchy.
It is not enough to teach our sons about consent in their own relationships, we must also teach them to stand up for women, as allies. And we must teach our daughters to fight for ALL women, not just the ones who look, think, pray and act like we do. And we have to keep talking about sexual assault. It is time to destigmatize sexual assault so that it becomes an acceptable dragon to publicly slay, rather than a personal failing to hide away.
This year, the Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign is Engaging New Voices. “The focus will be on involving coaches, faith leaders, parents, Greek Life, and bystanders with preventing sexual assault. Many groups know about sexual assault and believe it is a problem, but they don’t know how they can help. With this year’s toolkit and postcards, the NSVRC [National Sexual Violence Resource Center] hopes to help these new voices begin to talk about preventing sexual assault.”