My kids are grown, but I still interact with teens on a daily basis. If I’m not teaching English to teenagers in a small rural district, I’m often talking to teens online and in person through my work as an author. Interactions with these young people affects me deeply–they get into my heart and stay there, and they plant seeds for stories in my mind.
Ali Raisman’s amazing testimony and the subsequent conviction and sentencing of Larry Nassar + Eliza Dushku’s experience on the set of True Lies + the #MeToo Movement are doing what I try to do with my work: dragging the ugly secrets out of the shadows and expose them to sunlight.
Sunlight, you see, is the only thing that kills shame. Keeping secrets is deadly in so many ways, from killing one’s soul to causing people to take their own lives.
I was sexually abused throughout my childhood. When I was maybe 4, a neighbor boy forced me to expose myself to him. My stepfather began molesting me at 8 age, and it progressed to rape in my teens. My grandfather pulled me into his lap and French-kissed me when I was 13. Not once, at any time I told about any of this, was my outcry acted on.
When my children were young, they probably tired of me telling them, “If anyone ever touches you in a way that makes you feel yucky inside, you tell them NO and then tell me and Daddy. We will believe you and we will take care of you. Even if the person tells you NOT to tell, you tell. Okay?”
I credit my three daughters turning out as assertive and independent as they are in part to my husband being the sane one when they were growing up (semi-attempt at humor…although my kids would tell you, “Yeah, boy.)… They have a sense of self that was sorely lacking in me until I was at least 40, two years into therapy. What I really love about my daughters, in addition to a laundry list of other Proud Mama stuff, is that they take no shit. They have a sense of self, and I am so, so grateful for that. When I talk about some of the situations in the news with my daughters, I ask them how they would handle themselves in a situation such as the one recently in the news with Aziz Ansari (a situation that has divided members of the #MeToo Movement).
The story is troubling, and I understand that my daughters were not in the young woman’s position, but I want to believe that, based on what they’ve told me, they would have left. They would not have felt any sense of submission. I’m not judging the young woman in the story. She may have had a history that set her up for freezing. I have a history that sets me up for freezing. I hope I wouldn’t freeze now, if I were in that type of situation.
Over the years in my jobs as author and teacher, teen girls have trusted me with their stories of being in situations where they did not want to do what a guy wanted them to do, but they were afraid to hurt their feelings, and even when what the guy did sounds a lot like sexual assault, they still feel this obligation to protect the guy.
THIS HAS TO STOP. Parents and Trusted Adults: we MUST rid our daughters of the belief that they have to be nice at all costs. We MUST believe them when they tell us that something happened and they were uncomfortable.
Males need to be taught from a young age that they are not entitled to take what they want or cajole or pressure young women into doing what they have already indicated they do not want to do. NO means NO. It does not mean, “No, unless you convince me otherwise.”
Look at the Olympic gymnasts: many of them TOLD THEIR PARENTS. They told people what was going on, and they weren’t believed. Look at Eliza Dukshu. She TOLD HER MOTHER what was going on, and the mother was afraid to speak out for her daughter. The mom was afraid of the powerful men on set.
The last time a teen girl confided in me about being pressured to do things sexually she did not want to do, I made clear to her that she should not do anything she feels uncomfortable doing, and I shared with her two websites so she could have a better idea of what was going on, and how she can react in the future: Consent & Consensual Sex & Scarleteen.com
Coming from the position of a person whom young people often trust with stuff they wouldn’t tell their parents, I’m begging you: please, please, please: if your child has a sexual experience at a young age, please try to HEAR them if they trust you enough to talk to you about it. Please don’t shame them. I once had a reader tell me that, after she had sex at age 13, her mother told her that from that day on, people would be able to tell that she’d done it, because she’d walk funny. I told her, “That is not true, and I am so sorry that you may have felt shame as a result of what was said to you.” Then I talked to her about her life. I asked her questions about what was going on. I listened. Given her very young age, I was concerned that she had been abused.
Please. Do more listening, and more believing, and, from a young age, we need to stop teaching girls that they always have to be nice. Even though women are nurturers by nature, that does not and should not extend to doing what another person wants us to do if it makes us uncomfortable. Sex education is sorely needed, and it needs to come without a side dish of shame. Then, perhaps we can raise a generation of women who do not feel obligated to do anything that they are not ready for, or that makes them uncomfortable, or that they DO NOT WANT TO DO.
We need to do a better job of educating our kids about their right to autonomy over their bodies (and their LACK of a right to control whether others choose to allow them to do things to them).