It happened then, why is it still happening now?

So I was catching up on my blog reading after a couple of busy weeks when I ran across this post: Lord of the flies, over at I blame the patriarchy. Yeah, too true.

I remember all too well the near constant sexual harrassment that I and others endured at high school. In the course of my grade 8 and grade 9 years (I was aged 12-14 at this time) I endured the following:

  • being touched and grabbed on the bum and the breast by boys I hadn’t invited to touch me there, who were touching me only to humiliate me and make me feel bad and to assert their own power;
  • having signs posted on my back in classes and in the hallways, the most memorable of which read, “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw!”;
  • general rude unsolicited comments about my body to do with the fact that by god I had *breasts* (A-cup, fer gawd’s sakes) and my breasts *moved* when I walked or ran (like any other normal part of my body), also, if I wore a bra, that I was wearing a *bra* and this meant that I was all ready for sex (hmm, might this have something to do with my dislike of bras? other than the uncomfortableness, of course);
  • general rude unsolicited comments about my body to do with the fact that I was wearing a menstrual pad and they could see that through my clothing and did I like having something touching me “down there”;
  • general rude unsolicited suggestions that what I really needed was a good fuck, or to suck them, and that would make me happy; and so on.

At the time I walked around in a state of near-constant baffled suppressed rage, ignoring everybody and jumping down everybody’s throat (whether they were nice or not) if they tried to talk to me, because they might just be pretending to be nice so they could get close enough to harrass me some more, as happened when I started receiving “love notes” from a boy, and then a phone call at home which quickly turned to “You have great tits.” and similar not particularly complimentary comments. However true that might have been (and fer gawd’s sakes, I was 13 and had not much in the way of breasts one way or another), it was still unwelcome, and the choice of language used didn’t portend respect or hope for a relationship. I just hung up, and then endured being teased about how so-and-so “liked” me and I was mean not to go out with him for the next two weeks.

I didn’t tell my parents about much of this because I knew that even though they loved me fiercely they were ineffectual on the topic of bullying, having both been bullied as kids themselves, and knowing about my bullying just brought that back for them. Their saddened advice was always just to ignore them and not give them the satisfaction and eventually they’d go away. But this didn’t address the fact that a) it was impossible to really ignore them when they were touching me without somehow giving them tacit permission to do so, b) I didn’t really know and neither, I think, did they what ignoring them really meant (not reacting outwardly? not hearing them at all? walking right past them when they’re taunting you? avoiding the places where they would be and where the harrassment would occur?) and c) ignoring them didn’t work and they didn’t go away. They just tried harder and harder to get a reaction to know that they’d won.

In fact, in putting the pieces together now from a more educated feminist perspective, my weirdness and antisociality in high school is pretty understandable. And you know? I wasn’t over-reacting, or making much of something that didn’t matter. It mattered. It matters now and it’s still happening. The more I learn the more I get actually seriously angry. But it’s a very freeing anger. The anger of my teenage years was often anger at myself for doing something wrong that made the harrassment happen, or for not being able to make it stop, which is a very hard anger to live with.

I just want to add to all of this, perhaps defensively (I acknowledge), please don’t comment with some dismissive comment about how you would have done this or that or the other and the situation would have disappeared *poof* and that’s what I should have done. You know, when I was a shy, lonely, harassed 12-14-year-old. I get that there are reasons I was harrassed more than some people and was more sensitive to it (or perhaps the word is “conscious”) but that doesn’t make it my fault, or okay. The idea that every young woman has to have superior harrassment-evasion techniques mastered by the age of 12 or she deserves what she gets is ridiculous and only comes out of the fact that we take it for granted that young men will sexually harrass them, as unpredictably but inevitably as the rain. This attitude releases them from all responsibility.

*deep breath*

Also, boys, I would just like to give you this gift when wading into feminist arenas/debates/spaces. It will serve you well. Just remember the following: If it’s not about you, it’s not about you.

13 Comments »

  1. vintagefan said,

    June 6, 2007 @ 4:36 am

    Well, that certainly brings back memories, except I went to an all-girl school so my butt was grabbed by grown men on the way home from school. I remember though any form of sexual bullying in college from men was justified because they somehow considered themselves entitled to it, plus if you didn’t take it you were just uncool. If anyone retaliated in a similar manner, referring to the size of their dicks and such, it really hit them in the gut. I think we should have a list of foolproof rejoinders so they know exactly how it feels. Ignoring does not always work, they’ll just find another victim.
    And ofcourse the education of men will stop sexual harassment. They have to stop assuming that they’re entitled to it.

  2. dew said,

    June 6, 2007 @ 1:14 pm

    Sometimes it starts even earlier. When my daughter was in SECOND GRADE, a boy in her class turned around in line and poked her in the crotch and said, “Why don’t you have any BALLS?” She didn’t tell her teacher because she couldn’t bring herself to say the word “balls” to her. So I told the teacher. She just brushed it off, saying that the boy was EI (emotionally impaired) and behaves inappropriately. Yeah? So um, you ok with that happening to my daughter again and again, or what?

  3. Beppie said,

    June 7, 2007 @ 3:14 am

    I came here from the Carnival of Radical Feminists.

    I was just telling a friend of mine today that I would never teach high school (which here in Australia goes from grades 7-12), because I’m scared of 12-14 year old boys. For me, 7th and 8th grade in particular, were typified by a constant stream of harrassment from my male peers (it came from my female peers too, but at least not ALL the girls treated me like I was less than human). I just learned to block it out by reading, and, when that didn’t work, I learned to “justify” it– those boys needed their fun, and I was lowly enough that I was a “good” target for it. Once, an older girl saw the sexual harrassment I was facing on the bus, and reported it to the police. I felt guilty– not for being harrassed, but for getting the boys in trouble for their “jokes” (jokes that made me feel like crap, but what did my feelings matter?) I had some experiences like yours, where guys would try to touch me inappropriately in order to humiliate– a gross parody of sexual attraction, meant to emphasise the fact that they believed I was unworthy of any “true” sexual attention (and of course implying that my value lay solely in whether or not men find me attractive). More common, however, was emphasising my lack of sexual attractiveness directly, by refusing to come close to me– jumping away, screaming if they came within a few feet of me, making sexual comments about me that were not even a parody of desirability– just focusing on my undesirability. Once, when a boy I had a crush on found out about that crush, he started calling me an ugly dog to my face every time he saw me, and spread it around the whole school that this was his opinion of me. When my peers grew up a bit, it was less bad, but I got much of the same from the younger students.

    I think I coped about as well as I could– at some point, I realised that I wasn’t going to let their opinions dictate my body image– but there was still damage to my overall self-image, that made it hard for me to form relationships. I was twenty before I was able to actually tell a guy directly that I liked him, because I was always seized by the fear, not simply of rejection, but outright hatred, if he found out about it.

  4. Sarah said,

    June 7, 2007 @ 5:47 am

    Thank you.

    It feels so redeeming to read this, because it happened to me, too.

  5. Sarah said,

    June 7, 2007 @ 5:49 am

    Oops, hit “submit” before I was finished!

    I was going to say that telling a bullied child to “just ignore them” is the WORST possible advice, for all the reasons you stated. It puts the burden of stopping the abuse onto the victim, which is wildly wrongheaded and also DOESN’T WORK. I really hope they’ve stopped telling kids this, but I doubt they have.

  6. Kenzie said,

    June 7, 2007 @ 7:35 am

    Wow! Comments! That never happens! *grins*

    vintagefan: It would have taken a lot more confidence than I had at the time to use sexually dismissive rejoinders in response or retaliation, and I kind of wonder whether when you’re one of the powerless underdogs of a school environment, retaliation would even work to stop the bullying, or whether it would just escalate things. It often seemed to me that when I reacted angrily or made any kind of comment I just got pushed around more than if I just got out of dodge.

    I think it’s not just what you say, but how you say it that makes this approach work for the people it does work for… I know from observation that it can sometimes be used to great effect by confident young women with perceived social power.

    I also wonder at the advisability of continuing to approach sexuality in such an adversarial way, or letting sexuality be the territory for aggression and harrassment on both sides, even if *they* started it. Yes, I know I’m off in my utopian fantasy again (it’s so *nice* there), but I wonder whether there’s some other way to turn it around that doesn’t tacitly accept sexuality as this battleground, or possibly also doesn’t make it (high school, social interaction between the sexes, etc.) a battleground at all…

    Thanks for the comment, very thought provoking!

  7. Kenzie said,

    June 7, 2007 @ 7:40 am

    dew: It sounds like the teacher is a little confused about the importance of context. Ya know? To your daughter it really doesn’t matter if the boy who said that said it because he’s emotionally immature or any other reason. It matters that he said and did it and she was bothered by it. Context is an adult thing, not a 7-year-old thing.

    And surely it would be most helpful to the boy’s development that he learn as soon as it is possible for him to learn such things that it is NOT OKAY to touch other people in the crotch and ask them questions about their private parts?

  8. Kenzie said,

    June 7, 2007 @ 8:07 am

    Beppie: Your experience sounds awful. I’m sorry that happened to you.

    It amazes me (though it shouldn’t) that it gets you coming or going… Either you’re “attractive” (whatever that means in that time and that place and to those people), and therefore subject to the male sexual gaze as manifested in unwanted comments, touching, etc., (“gaze” is such a passive word for what that really means) or you’re “not attractive” (whatever that means in that time and that place and to those people), and therefore derided for not being subject to the male sexual gaze. I guess that’s partly what we mean when we speak of women as the “sex class” in the patriarchal world view.

    When I was a teenager I just wanted to be well out of it, androgynous and neuter, until I was ready to think about my sexuality in my own terms, and even then I never wanted to be abused for it.

  9. Stop the shame and confusion « Gangly Thoughts said,

    June 11, 2007 @ 6:30 pm

    [...] 11 Jun 2007 Stop the shame and confusion Posted by jolt under Assholes , Patriarchy , Parenting , Kids , Feminism , Rage  Reading thispost via Carnival of Feminists reminded me of all the ways in which I, and some of my friends, were humiliated during those awkward years of 11-14.*  All these emotions and memories come rushing to the forefront and it seems impossible to type down in any coherent fashion.  But I think it’s important to get this out there – the regular confusion, assaults and resulting shame due to confusion about who is to blame (the self? the aggressor?).  [...]

  10. Unmana said,

    June 13, 2007 @ 10:47 pm

    Thank you for writing about this.

    I went through a lot of harrassment as a kid too, though it wasn’t in school. I used to think it doesn’t happen in countries like the US.

    It’s sad that children have to go through all this.

  11. sundog said,

    June 15, 2007 @ 8:44 am

    I went through this too. I am so sorry you had to experience this. I went through this in the military as a 19 yr old. Thank you for sharing this. I am homeschooling my girls because I dont want them to learn about their bodies, about being girls or about sex from a culture like that.
    And that culture is everywhere.

  12. Kenzie said,

    June 15, 2007 @ 11:28 am

    That’s certainly one of the benefits of homeschooling to me too.

  13. Kate said,

    July 4, 2007 @ 1:15 pm

    I hear you loud and clear.
    I was recently in a brutal argument with someone who was denying that women are objectified anymore than men. I used several examples of the imbalance, including my own experiences with harassment that still continue to this day. (He’s never met me, this is just some idiot on the internet) His response was: “Sounds unpleasant. I’ve been to Canada and everyone was really nice to me. Perhaps you’re not a people person?”

    I honestly wanted to shake my computer around. To think that kind of ignorance and victim-blaming from a priveledged position exists nowadays still boggles my mind. But then again, it doesn’t at the same time.

    I’ve been told if I were “truly confident” about being a woman (ie. a strong, feminist woman who KNOWS we matter) then I’d be able to laugh it off and not let it ruffle my feathers. It’s that kind of thinking that’s keeping younger girls from reporting these issues now and standing up for treatment they know they deserve.

    Stay strong – others hear you!

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