I don't have a lot of really clear memories, but I remember this. When I was in the fourth grade, on this one particular day, I was the picture of coolness. Denim skirt (it wasn't Guess? I'm sure, but we will say it was) and Dexter shoes. Not 100% on the shirt, but in all likelihood it was a Coca-Cola rugby. Neon Swatch on fleek, or whatever the word for that was then. It was sunny, because we were outside, walking back to class from the lunchroom. The sidewalk curved around the building. I had to tie my shoe, so I did. And then I saw (realized? was told?) that [NAME REDACTED} had LOOKED! UP! MY! SKIRT! Oh, the fourth grade horror. I don't know if I reported it or if someone else did, but Mrs. [REDACTED] gave me a private lesson on The Appropriate Way for a Lady to Bend Over When Wearing a Skirt.
I was 10 years old and had learned a very important lesson. However, it took me 27 years to realize that the lesson that day wasn't the Bend and Snap, it was that I had done something wrong to invite this behavior. I can't be sure, but my general feeling is that my classmate was not counseled for his behavior. Not seriously any way. And I have laughed off this memory for the past 27 years, appreciating the knowledge of how to bend daintily, and Ha Ha Ha and all that. I don't know why it came to me this morning, but in the steam of my shower it was clear in a way that it never has been before: I was told that I was to blame. Not him, but me. And I never questioned it. In retrospect, why should I have been reprimanded in any form and made to feel shame for bending over? I wasn't lifting up my skirt for the world to see; he had to stop, bend over, and actively look to see up my skirt. But the message to me was clear: I had to monitor my actions to ward off unwanted behavior from boys. We don't start by teaching girls not to be raped, per se, we start by eroding their self-confidence and self-worth and blame them for the seemingly small actions of others at such an early age that it becomes so ingrained in our minds that it becomes a matter of course. A muscle memory. I can't begin to put into words how problematic this is on so many levels.
As with most of my epiphanies, I called my mom, not knowing if she would really see my point or agree with my sentiment. And as I told her of my realization, I gave myself a voice. "I am indignant, and angry, and sad that I was made to feel like I was at fault." I told her. And she agreed. This is the message that we give our daughters: that they are responsible for how people treat them. Be quiet; be polite; be small. Don't attract too much attention. If something bad happens, you have brought it on yourself. I mean, sure you can do anything you want to do, just as long as it fits into this neat little box and doesn't upset anyone. And stand up straight and suck in your stomach. Conform.
Well, fuck that. I have a lot of feelings about personal responsibility (spoiler alert: I'm in favor) but I take great issue with a culture that tells women that they have to act, think, and be different than what they are so that they can maintain their safety and value and yet allows men to behave any way they please. I am done with that.
Please tell The Huffington Post that they are welcome to reprint this article. ;)