I wrote this post in 2016, when “locker room talk” was recent news. It’s been sitting in my drafts page for more than a year, because it’s a touchy subject. But, because of the encouragement of a good friend, I have decided to share it with you all. Even though “locker room talk” isn’t recent news, we in the US have finally started really talking about sexual harassment and assault, which is a good step forward. With that preface, here is my overdue post.
When I was 13, a boy in my PE class thought it would be hilarious to do whatever he could to make me feel uncomfortable. That included sitting right behind me while we were stretching and putting his arm around me as we walked around the track. He put his name inside a heart in my yearbook with the title “your boyfriend.” He terrorized me for months, even into the next school year when we were again in the same PE class. When I went to the homecoming dance in high school, I praised a friend for “saving my life” when he distracted this boy long enough for me to run away from him. The best thing about moving to a new school my junior year was that it meant I wouldn’t have to see this boy again. I’m fine now; I’m not traumatized or anything, and I only remember this situation every once in a while, as if it were a dream and didn’t actually happen. I didn’t even feel like it was serious enough for me to say #metoo (that’s the wrong response to that movement, I know). It wasn’t until recently (aka more than a year ago) that I started thinking about this more, seeing the broken situation for what it was: a reflection of rape culture.
When I was 13 and this was happening, there was a part of me that knew I should report what was happening. I’m pretty sure I was able to label it as harassment, something that should be reported, but I didn’t. And I always decided that the reason I didn’t report was because I wasn’t brave enough. I wasn’t strong enough to take a stand for myself, even though I didn’t even need to confront him to do so. I always blamed myself for the fact that it kept happening. But that’s not okay. Because I was 13. And my teachers should have been advocates for me. I remember a few admonishments; it’s not like they did nothing. But what I really needed in that time was for someone with power to tell me that what was happening was absolutely not acceptable, that they were on my side, that they would give me power where I felt I had none.
I was 13, and my biggest concern was about being strong enough to tell someone that a boy was harassing me. I was 13. And I had believed the narrative that it’s the woman’s responsibility to make sure she is not harassed, and not the man’s responsibility not to harass her. I don’t even know where I learned that story, but I memorized it and sang it back to myself, making it a part of my story too. When a woman is sexually assaulted, society asks, “What was she wearing? Did she have anything to drink? Why wasn’t she more responsible?” We don’t ask, “Why did no one teach that man the importance of consent and human decency?” And that is ugly.
Now you may be sitting back and saying, “But Brianna, he just put his arm around you and sat really close behind you. You said yourself you’re fine, so what is the big deal?” Yes, my story is tame, but it’s still significant. And the big deal is this: when we deem an action acceptable (whether that’s officially condoning said action or just tacitly allowing it to happen), we open the door for more actions similar to that.
Have you seen this picture? This picture is why I am talking about this here today. This picture is what we forget when we get outraged when people rape but are content to say that “boys only care about sex, and you can’t change that.” The idea here is that rape culture builds. Rape culture isn’t about sex; it’s about power. It’s about people with power (not always men–that’s an important point!) who think that that power means they can do whatever they want with another person’s body. And when no one criticizes the small things, that just feeds the power. If you are going to be outraged when rape happens, then you need to be outraged when any person with power and privilege takes advantage of another person, whether it’s in a sexual way or not, even if it’s “just words.” Words give power to actions, and even if they didn’t, they would still be unacceptable.
As a society, we need to do a better job of criticizing not just the top of the pyramid, but the more “harmless” actions and words that give people with power a foundation to victimize people in the future. Let’s get rid of victim blaming and actually believe the people who come forward about sexual assault. Let’s call people out for rape jokes and cat calling. Let’s not celebrate men who ask for consent like actually decent human beings. Let’s advocate who, for some reason or another, cannot advocate for themselves. And that’s just a start. As I said at the beginning of the post, the moment we’re in now is a powerful one, and I really hope it brings about real change. Some of that change is going to come from institutions and laws, but some of it will start with simple actions done by individuals. May we be empowered and empower those around us to do so.