Among the many hard-hitting revelations that came with the resurgence of Tarana Burke’s #metoo movement, was the twisted truth that I am fortunate to have had the vast majority of my sexual harassment occur at the hands of an unpowerful, uninspired fellow student when I was in the 8th grade. This kid blatantly grabbing and groping and claiming my body as his to offend was bad, yes, and I clearly call my disgust and frustration as he violated me repeatedly in the locker bay of our middle school. But I was never alone with him. Our interactions never went past the unwanted, in public, aggressive touching.
I realize now that this boy was never taught the meaning of “No.” Perhaps he spent his afternoons as a latch-key kid watching rump shaker videos, or worse. Perhaps his father treated women like they existed for his entertainment, never considering the eventual effects on the girls his young son would one day meet. Maybe his mom worked too late or drank to much or abandoned him when he was younger and she never had the energy or clarity to tell him that “No always means No.”
In the crowded halls of our nondescript suburban middle school I’d yell and kick and punch, making desperate attempts to appeal to any sense of his humanity, or at the very least put distance between his hands and my body. But, he never understood. No matter how loud I protested that my body was my own and he had no rights to it, he always believed the opposite.
Despite my upset, I acknowledge that this story of harassment is mild. I have never been further assaulted. I have never even felt like I had to carry pepper spray or place my keys just so between my knuckles, in hopes to ward off potential attackers. I have never lived in a perpetually threatened state of mind. I have never feared for my life or my safety or my job because someone saw fit to use me as an object and ignore me as a person. In later instances that could have ended badly, I’d been lucky enough to get away. I recognize this as a privilege.
But, I also never had the tools to stand up for myself. I never had the ability to get this middle school molestation to stop. I didn’t know well enough that I had choices beyond trying to fight this boy off while I balanced an arm full of textbooks.
Sexual assault has always been at the very top of my list of parental concerns. How do I prevent a predator from molesting my boys? Is there a foolproof way to send them to sleepovers? How do we know who to trust and where? School, house of worship, t-ball, is any place safe? Will my intuition enough to keep a predator away? I check the sex offender registry when we move. I tend to be more protective than most over where they spend their time. I will embarrass myself by awkwardly and frequently checking on them when they are around people we don’t know very well. I do everything I know how to do.
Then I consider how I can teach them to protect themselves. I teach them the real names of body parts. I tell them who can and can’t touch what and why. I talk to them about being confident enough to fight and run if anyone tries to hurt them and comfortable enough to tell a trusted adult after they’ve gotten to safety.
More recently, as timelines fill with #metoo and stories of sexual abuse come into the forefront, I often think, “Well, holy shit, how do I keep my sons from becoming one of these deplorable, predatory men*?!”
What a monumental task.
To teach impulsive, active 3 & 6-year-old children the tools to avoid ever becoming 8th graders who lay claim to a girl’s body in the locker bay or men who trade sex for job titles. What a heavy responsibility it is to teach kids who are currently all-consumed with robots and dinosaur stamps that as they grow older, they can never use their immaturity or perceived entitlement to physically invade and molest the space and existence of another human being.
I don’t have all of the know-how to take on this weighted job. I am unequipped. Though I give examples of and tell my sons to respect the words and space of others, I don’t know all of the nuances of the ways in which we subconsciously reinforce misogyny and encourage a disrespect of bodily autonomy. I continue to do everything I know how to do, while knowing I don’t know how to do everything.
Nearly all of us are saying (or thinking) #metoo. And for me, as a parent, #metoo leads directly to taking action to ensure my kids will grow up to say #notme. It leads to arming them with the fight and fury to say #notme to being victims of sexual assault and educating them with a deeply held respect for the well-being of other humans. It leads to holding them up with the comfort and the security to know they will never be blamed or ignored or unworthy if they have to come to us and say #metoo. This powerhouse movement of bold transparency leads to the realization that while we can’t change the existence of millions of #metoos we can influence the coming generation with a wealth of #notmes.
*This goes for women, too, but I happen to have two boys.
Our first special, free mini-issue of Hold the Line will explore the complexities, responsibilities, and management of raising children who resist and reject a culture of commonplace sexual harassment. To make this issue happen, we need personal essays, input from mental health professionals, suggestions for resources for parents, and practical guides to ways we can change this narrative as families committed to social justice. Please view the Submissions link for more information about the requirements for contributing to Hold the Line. This call for submissions begins on January 8th, 2017 and will continue until we have collected the necessary content, we’ll update this page when submissions close.
By the way, I see that #notme has been used by others, but I hope we can own it and make sure it is being used for the right reasons.