I remember the first time I was sexually violated. I was 13 years old and just out of middle-school. While I was “in love” with a boy in my 8th grade class, I had no idea what sex was. I do not recall ever having a “sex-ed” class at school. As far as my young mind was concerned, sex was kissing a boy with an open mouth.
My first lesson in the biology of sex would surface itself one hot summer day in Kentucky. As I walked through the mall parking lot towards the entrance all that my mind was focused on was gossiping with my friends and window-shopping. As I crossed the final row of cars, the entrance to the mall was about thirty feet directly in front of me. Just then, an old rusty orange Cadillac caught my eye. I noticed the car first. It slowly drove right to where I was headed. I remember looking at the rolled down car window curiously not noticing that there was a man inside looking at me. As if time briefly stood still it dawned on me that he was not only staring, but also holding something in his hand and waving it towards my direction. I remember the car was just far enough away for me to be confused about what was happening, yet just close enough that I could see the man looking right at me with a disgusting grin on his face. As soon as our eyes locked he sat back down, yelled out an expletive at me, and then sped off. I never told anyone about the experience. At thirteen-years-old I made the decision that it was easier to put it out of my mind.
I remember the first time I became aware of how men looked at me. I was 17-years-old and a senior in high-school. After school one day, one of my boyfriend’s friends had offered to take me to my boyfriend’s house one afternoon after seeing I did not have a ride. He had been playing rugby in the soccer field and saw me walking away from campus. I was only one-year younger than him, but as I rode in his beat up old Saab I felt like a child. He had already graduated and seemed so much older than he really was. I had not been impressed with him in my minimal interactions, and in hindsight I think he knew it. As I sat in the passenger seat next to him I could feel him stare at me every chance he got. I was acutely aware that the weight of his gaze on my body. I had long red hair, which I knew people were struck by. I was not particularly comfortable in my developed body either. Not having been around many “older” boys by this age, I recall trying to act composed as if his stares were not a big deal. After some time, he said he had a question for me. Glad that conversation was going to kill the silence, I said sure, what is it? He said, I have always wanted to know if the carpet matches the drapes. I hid behind my hair a little confused by his inquiry, not saying anything. He put his hand on my thigh and continued, is it true that you are red everywhere? Embarrassed and feeling humiliated I sat there stunned not knowing what to say. Instead, I sat silent and willed the car ride to be over. I never mentioned what happened to anyone. Just as I had done four years earlier, I thought the best decision was to put it out of my mind and keep my mouth closed.
Over the course of three more decades, I will have been leered at by men, and been made to feel intimidated. I will have been called derogatory expletives related to my gender. I will have been made to feel threatened and fearful just by walking down the street alone. I will have been groped more than once without my consent. A strange man will have put his hand underneath my skirt in the middle of a dance floor. In most of these instances I chose to remain silent. In almost all, I diminished what had happened and assigned blame to myself.
Between the ages of thirteen and forty-seven, as a female walking through the world, there have been men who have taken it upon themselves to define my worth as a human being based on my levels of attractiveness and sexuality. How is this right? Why is it that at thirteen and seventeen years old, as well as every decade hence did I not speak up, or speak out? The society I live in has conditioned me to believe that egregious and lewd behavior made to me by men is just a way of life. I have been led to believe that my consent is secondary to the will of another. While it has taken some time and also deep reflection on experiences in my life as related to my gender, I know the micro-assaults and sexual objectification is not okay. I am not putting the experiences out of my mind any longer. I have done this for too many years already. Rather, I am now questioning the societal conditioning itself and making amends to break the chains. Instead of choosing to sit in silence—I choose to sit in liberation.