Sunday, November 23, 2008

On sexual harassment. And worse.

I don't update this thing for a month, and then I come back with this? Yes, you have permission to scowl at me for this. But it's timely. It's not my place to go into the details of why, but I'll give a very brief overview:

A friend of mine has a daughter who is...let's leave it at "middle-school age". I adore my friend, and I adore her daughter; I love how strong my friend is, how opinionated she can be without treading on others, and she's clearly passing that same inner and outer strength along to her young lady. But I don't think it's just my affection for them that has me so outraged over what happened to this girl a few days ago. It makes it worse, yeah, but I think I'd probably be sickened by any permutation of this. And I expect you will be, too, which is why I'm writing about it.

This girl - who we'll just call A. - went to school, as usual. While waiting for the bus to arrive at her usual stop at the end of the day, a few of her classmates - boys - approached her and started doing that thing that all adolescent boys do. You know, whatever the modern day equivalent to pigtails in the inkwell would be. Teasing, kidding around, kinda being jerks, but...whatever. It's all part of the experience of entering teenage-dom, right?

Right. Until the tone of it all changed and turned into something that no adult woman should have to tolerate, much less a girl, no matter how strong and smart she is. A girl just waiting at a bus stop, like any other day, in broad daylight, with other kids around. Lascivious remarks, graphic objectification, all culminating in actual physical contact that, while she wasn't harmed in a bodily sense, was way over the line of what any boy (or girl) should ever be allowed to do to a classmate.

Because I haven't yet gotten permission, as it were, to write this about A., I'm trying to refrain from going into too many details, which I know will make it hard to convey the horror of it...but I can draw a parallel for you between A.'s experience and something that happened to me when I was a few years older than her.

When I was about 16, I had a boyfriend. He and I got together when I was 15 and he was 17, and we were together into university. In our high school, there was nobody who didn't know we were a couple, and I think that probably insulated me from a lot of things that other guys might have chosen to visit upon me. But there was one guy friend who, out of nowhere, opened my eyes to the unpleasantness that can mark male-female relationships. He was a friend of my boyfriend, too, so it never struck any of us as weird that I would occasionally talk to him on the phone at night, after school, before bed, about class projects or pieces of music we were studying or our respective relationships.

But one night was different. One night, in the midst of him trying to explain how to get an A+ on my paper about A Tale Of Two Cities, he just changed the subject completely and started asking totally inappropriate questions about my physical relationship with my boyfriend. I deflected for as long as I could, and then he switched tactics. He asked me if I "ever got [my]self off". I think I laughed, either out of surprise or because I thought he had to be kidding. This wasn't something we'd ever so much as hinted at discussing before, and it sure as hell wasn't something I was up for talking about - with him or with anyone!

So I said the first thing that came to mind. I snorted indignantly and said, "Why? Do YOU?"

To which he responded, "What do you think I've being doing ever since we got on the phone?"

I think I'll take a moment to let the feeling of revulsion I still feel, sixteen years later, pass.

I hung up. We never talked on the phone again, and whenever I had to see him, at school or at parties or at music functions, I would dodge him as best I could. On a couple of occasions I had to come right out and tell him that I was ending my association with him. There was even an incident, later, where a group of us were walking back toward our high school on a lunch break, and he took it upon himself to smack me in the back of the head several times for no apparent reason (bear in mind that he was 18 by now); that resulted in my boyfriend grabbing him by the throat and holding him up against the chalkboard in our music room, threatening to kill him if he ever came near me again. The freezing-out process eventually led to him engaging in some really distressing stalker-type behaviour, including one night when he drove to my house in the worst imaginable blizzard to deliver my Christmas gift, and even as I hid in the living room, out of sight, with my boyfriend (who by now wanted to kill the guy), and let my father try to convince the scary bastard that I wasn't home, he wouldn't let up. He just wanted to come in for a minute; he just wanted to leave the box on the kitchen counter; he just wanted to leave a note; he just, he just, he just... My father finally made him go, back out into that hellish weather at 10 p.m. on a weeknight, and if I remember correctly, I turned to my boyfriend and started to cry, asking him, "What did I do to make him think this was okay?"

People who know me know that I'm no shrinking violet. If there's a "type" who would normally blame themselves for not reacting strongly enough to something, or for "letting" someone do or say things to them without punishing them immediately and painfully, I have never been that type. But that was probably the first glimpse I got into the other side, the dark side, where a girl realizes that she's not necessarily as prepared or equipped or defensive enough to deal with the things an arrogant, entitled, sick bastard will visit upon her when he gets the chance.

Many of you know that I have, unfortunately, come up against worse incidents since that high school situation. And in me turning to my family and friends for support and advice, I learned just how many of you, too, have stories that vary in detail but that all end in the same feeling of anger and helplessness and fear. We're all women who thought we should have reacted differently, that we ought to have visited bodily harm on the swine who thought they could take whatever they wanted from us, and we've all had moments when we beat ourselves up for not doing what we should have done. We all know that's just not right - that turning these things into our own fault is salt in our own wounds, and is simply wrong - but we do it anyway. We spend days, weeks or years asking why we didn't break the guy's nose or take him to court or even avoid whatever situation we found ourselves in, and it's a waste of energy. It's not our fault that there are people out there who'll wait for you to be vulnerable, even for a second,and then move in for the kill...whatever form it takes.

Of course, I can say this, but as some of you - those closest to the ordeal I suffered in April - well know, I've done exactly the same thing. I've run the gamut of self-blame and am still caught in the "it could have been worse; it could have been rape" cycle of thought. I know I shouldn't do that to myself, but it creeps in sometimes, all the same.

Back to A., then. She's younger now than I was then, and what she dealt with a few days ago was, in many ways, creepier than my Phone Call From Hell. She had to hear things like that from boys who were right there, physically, in front of her. And brava to her, because she did everything right, and with any luck those boys won't be bothering anyone again anytime soon. But my reason for writing this is simply to express my disgust and horror at what little girls are apparently having to deal with from their peers. Hell, I was freaked out by my situation at the age of 16, when I had a built-in protection system in the form of a football-player boyfriend; I simply cannot imagine how I'd have felt, going back to school the next day, had I been a few years younger or less insulated. How I'd have dealt with it had it been more than one creep, and was instead a group of friends who thought it was okay to say vile things to me and lay their hands on me. I'm so proud of A. for having her head on so straight; she's dealt with this beautifully, and I applaud her and her parents for just taking care of business and getting on with it. Here I am, days later, still furious and horrified on her behalf. Less than half my age, and the girl has more poise than I do.

So what stands to be gained from typing all of this? I don't know. Awareness, maybe, that these incidents are happening earlier and earlier in young people's lives. Commiseration, perhaps, among those of us who've had to deal with someone harassing or assaulting us, treating us like their own personal playground while we freeze up inside and are left with scars that probably never fully fade. Another friend of mine was brave enough to share her experiences with sexual assault in her blog some time ago, and I remember turning to her for advice and comfort when I had my demoralizing experience - first with the assailant, then with the police - this past spring. I guess my writing this is my way of saying that I hope I can do for someone else what that friend, and others, did for me in the sleepless nights that followed my assault.

And in all of this there is a young lady who's now been introduced to one of the most unsavoury parts of human nature, at such an early age, and she's dealing with it. It bothers me that we can't protect anyone from this sort of thing, because it's so...ubiquitous. Kids can't even just be kids anymore. They instead get smacked in the face - or the backside, if you will - with things nobody should have to confront, least of all a fledgling teenager who should still believe in respect and harmless crushes and pigtails in the inkwell.

It's heartbreaking.

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