A few years ago I was at a conference. I ended up going to dinner with several women I had met that day. We were mostly from the US, Scandinavia, the UK, and some other parts of Europe. We got on the topic of how different life was when we were growing up compared to now. We lamented how people these days keep their kids inside out of fear, that many parents don’t let their kids play freely outside. We felt glad that we were not those kinds of parents.
We began wondering if the world is really that much more dangerous, or if our collective perception of the world has changed to a culture of fear. We got onto the topic of sexual predators and pedophiles. We started sharing stories of all the times that we’d been harassed as girls.
Each one of us had more than one story. And for the most part, we hadn’t told our mothers about it.
I remember being 7 years old and getting followed home from school by some guys in a black car. “Ha ha, wanna get in the car and have some candy little girl?”
When I was 8 I got an obscene phone call. I kept talking to the guy because I didn’t understand what he was talking about or the expressions he was using. And because I thought it was the priest from our church. How’s that for interesting. To this day I kind of wonder if it actually was.
When I was 10 and doing my paper route in the rain some guys followed me for several blocks, calling out the car window to me. The empty streets and closed up houses meant there was no one else around.
When I was 12, walking home from school late in the dark, near Christmas time, a guy followed me. I thought to myself, he doesn’t realize I’m walking here or he’d stop playing around with his zipper. Nope. He was unzipping his pants expressly because I was there. He began walking quickly towards me and I got scared. Out of nowhere came my voice and I screamed “Get away from me!!!!” He said some obscene things and kept walking. My mom asked me to run an errand when I got home and I refused. She got mad at me. I let her be mad.
When I was 13 a car pulled out of an alleyway as I walked home from school. The guy was naked from the waist down.
At a high school party, I went out on the roof to smoke a cigarette. The guy sitting on his porch across the street started staring up at me and jerking off for my benefit.
Lest you imagine that middle America has an inordinate amount of these guys, it doesn’t. They are everywhere. And I suppose they don’t only go after little girls.
In college, Southern California, out for a morning walk and a guy opens his car door as I walk by. He’s fully undressed and fondling himself.
Another morning walk, different route. A guy sees me coming and opens his robe and steps out onto his porch to show himself off to me. Ugh.
But it’s not just in the US.
I spend some time in Latin America. There it’s not guys showing themselves, they keep their clothes on and actively physically and verbally harass me.
They make kissing noises and say complementary things about my anatomy. I usually just let it go.
I start expecting that guys who walk past me on the street might decide to grab my ass.
When it crosses that boundary, it’s not so easy to manage and I get angry. I develop a “don’t fuck with me face”. One time I throw an ice cream cone at the jerk (and miss dammit!). Another time I turn around, go up behind him and kick him in the ass with all my strength. Not sure what that accomplished, and it was probably dangerous to do that, but I felt a little better afterwards.
A guy goes past riding a motorcycle as I’m crossing the street, reaches out and grabs my breast.
A guy comes up behind me as I’m walking home from the gym one evening and fully gooses me. I swear at him, enraged.
A guy traps me in the bus seat and won’t get out of my way until I physically shove him. I get out of the bus with my legs shaking from the adrenaline.
It’s not until after I am married and have children that I start telling anyone about this kind of thing. I suppose a psychologist could have a field day interpreting that one. But whatever. I don’t happen to think my story is that different than a lot of other girls and women.
So… back to my lovely, strong and smart friends at dinner. We start wondering why as girls we didn’t tell anyone. We had nice mothers who wouldn’t have blamed us or shamed us. Why didn’t we tell?
We start wondering about our own daughters. Have times changed at all? Will our more open relationships with them mean that they will confide in us when it happens to them? Or will they bear the silent confusion, fear, and tightness in the pit of the stomach that we did?