The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly : Coming of Age as a Sex Object -- Part I : The Ugly
When I was eleven years old, a classmate of mine came up behind me, grabbed me by the hair, violently slammed the heavy metal locker door I was kneeling in front of on my head and walked away. I nearly blacked out. When I managed to stand up again, I went to my school counselor and reported the incident. She answered that I dressed provocatively and that my clothing elicited sexual feelings in boys my age. She explained that the only way those boys could express those feelings was through violence. So I wanted the violence to end, I needed to change the way I dressed. While she was right that I did dress provocatively, I’d be damned if let someone beat me into submission. So I kept doing my thing. I refused to accept that male violence was a natural comeuppance for my decision to feel good about myself.
At fourteen I was standing outside my friend’s house, waiting for her to finish lunch. It was summer in the Italian mountains. I was no more than six feet from her front door. A man walked up to me. He was in his twenties or thirties with a backpack. He had black hair. Without really talking to me, he put his hand on my breast. I froze but it felt like the world had frozen around me. Terror ran through me, cold and colder. It felt like I stopped breathing. He then put his hand on my butt, coming closer. He asked where I lived. I lied and pointed somewhere other than the place where I shared my grandmother’s home for the summer. I thought, over and over again, that I could run to my friend’s house. But, and here is the oh-so-standard but so counter intuitive part of it, I kept thinking about how it would be such an inconvenience to them if I interrupted their lunch. He touched my breast again, under my shirt. I started dry sobbing; when panic steals your body of its tears. All of a sudden, he walked away. I just stayed there, unable to move. To this day I don't know why I didn't run right then and there. Maybe I didn't think I could get away? He came back a few minutes later and told me he knew I’d lied because he met my grandmother. The terror flooded me again. The unformed image of what I thought was about to happen pushing inside my brain. Now what? Now what? Now what? the voice inside my head kept screaming, silently answering itself. But then, suddenly, he stepped away and left. For good.
At fifteen I was lacing up my boots in the hallway of the school gym. I was one of the last ones there. All of a sudden, a schoolmate, two years my senior, came up behind me and grabbed me by the waist. He started dragging me toward the bathroom. I stomped his foot, elbowed his stomach, and tried to punch his face with the back of my hand. He let go. I ran to the metal door. It was so heavy I couldn’t open it in time. He came back at me, pinned my arms and dragged me further. I tried to grab onto the smooth cement walls of the hallway, but there was nothing to hold onto. I held onto the metal door frame, but he was able to yank me off of it, tearing my hands in the process. He pushed me up against the sink. Then he made a mistake. He wanted me to face him, so he turned me around. I grabbed onto the porcelain sink behind me, pulled both legs into my chest and kicked as hard as I could. He flew out the door and into the wall. I sprinted and made my way out. I didn’t tell anyone. After all, I knew the school’s position when it came to violence against me. To make matters worse, I had propositioned the same boy a few weeks earlier. He’d turned me down because “He couldn’t do it”; his words, not mine. I saw him most days for the next two years. I knew where the exits were and I didn’t turn my back to rooms I had not cleared first.
Also at fifteen, I was standing outside my bus, waiting for it to take me home. A boy inside, two years my senior, was unleashing a torrent of insults: “cunt,” “slut,” “whore,” “how much for a blowjob?”, “bitch,” “fucking prostitute,” and on and on. I told him I’d slap him if he didn’t stop. He didn’t stop. I slapped him. He punched me so hard be broke my braces and threw me out of the bus onto the one parked beside us. The school reprimanded me for becoming physical first. He wasn’t reprimanded at all. First, he was “so close” to graduation that it would not be “fair” to let this get in the way. Second, his “culture” demanded that he respond physically to women who failed to show him proper respect. This was the International School of Geneva. Misogyny knows no boundaries.
These are only a few of the assaults and instances of harassment I was subjected to before my twentieth birthday. From my earliest years, I was taught that men were watching. I was also told that whatever feelings I generated in those men, I should bear the consequences of those feelings just because. Time and time again my autonomy and boundaries were placed at the mercy of a man’s or a boy’s desires.
Despite the above, I consider myself lucky. My story is neither particularly horrific nor particularly atypical. It is a standard coming of age tale for a woman. In fact, looking back, I got away easy. Nothing “bad” ever happened to me; I wasn’t ever actually raped. I write this today to aid in the process of lifting the veil covering our lives as women. This stuff happens, over and over again. We are just told, also over and over again, that there is nothing to be done about it. So we keep our heads down and get back to work.
To men, when a woman tells you she’s been hurt: believe her. Not because you think it could be true based on your own life experiences but because you only have an inkling of what we go through.