When I was eleven, a boy from my class grabbed my ass while I stood at the crosswalk outside our Elementary School.
I looked around, unsure how I should respond.
My peers looked away, giggling.
My girlfriends shrugged their shoulders and rolled their eyes.
And the crossing guard - an assistant teacher at school - looked me right in the eyes and proceeded to turn away.
In that moment I learned an important lesson. It was okay for someone to grope my body without my consent.
When I was thirteen I took a walk with my best friend. As a pick-up truck zipped by us our ears filled with cat-calls, whistles and “Hey sexy’s.” I turned to my best friend - in the same way I had sought guidance two years before. But she had learned the same lessons. These calls were compliments disguised by profane words.
We shrugged our shoulders, batted our eyes, and took the compliments we had been given. And no one stopped us to ask if we were okay, to make sure the men did not come back for us, or to teach us a new lesson.
So we carried on believing our bodies could be touched without our consent; and objectification equaled validation.
When I was sixteen I lost my virginity. I got on the pill. I used a condom. I was in a relationship. I did everything my health class instructed. I had safe sex.
So that's why, when I was seventeen, in bed with an older man who pleaded and pushed; a man who grabbed my ass without asking, who called me sexy, who told me he needed it, that is wasn’t fair, I didn’t say what I wanted to say. I didn’t say no. I followed the lessons I had learned.
I asked, “Do you have a condom?” and I laid underneath a man who I didn’t really want to sleep with, feeling so lost and confused. That's why I kissed him afterward; telling myself it was okay, I had said yes and we were safe.
After all, the lessons I’d learned had taught me: this is how things were done
At eleven I learned that men could touch my body, even if I didn’t really want them to.
At thirteen I learned that if a man found me sexy and begged for what he wanted I should be flattered, or at least shrug, bat my eyes and pretend to like it.
At sixteen I learned that safe sex is more about condoms than consent.
At seventeen I had “safe sex” with a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer - and I learned that maybe this was okay too.
And at eighteen I told my friends about the sex I really didn’t want to have and they all assured me that is was okay, they’d been there too, and after all, in the end, we’d all said yes.
So, from eighteen to twenty-one I had sex that I didn’t always feel comfortable having. Sex that didn’t usually make my body feel great, safe or taken care of.
It was not until I was twenty one, at my date’s apartment, as he offered me NyQuil, while taking his shirt off and climbing on top of me to hold me down that I felt transported back to that night of unwanted sex at 17. Until that moment I had gone through the motions, practicing the lessons I’d learned.
But at twenty-one, once again underneath a man I did not want, I couldn’t ignore that same feeling I’d had 4 years earlier. That gross uncomfortable feeling. But this time, after years of unwanted sex, manipulation, of resulting therapy and a college education that finally taught me about consent, the feeling wasn't accompanied by a sense of being lost.
This time, I felt clear.
“Nope, I'm done” I said.
And when I got up to put on my shoes and he grabbed my wrist hard, I yanked it back, picked up my keys and walked out the door, “I said no!”
As I drove home, my body shook and my mind raced. Because it hadn’t always been easy to say no. And it hasn’t always been so easy to say no since then either. Ten plus years of lessons tend to stick around, even when you do the work.
The most impactful part of writing this post, and reflecting on the lessons I learned as a little girl, as a teenager and as a woman, is that they are not unique to me.
My friends at eighteen reassured me that they had slept with people without really wanting to, but it was okay. And these same friends, and new ones alike, can now reflect on the multiple sexual experiences we've all had, the unwanted, or the forced and guilted experiences, and realize how not-okay they were.
But this realization does not negate the fact that these experiences are shared by all of us, that we did not understand how to say no, or when to say no because of the lessons we learned.
Before I left the office my colleague pulled out a pamphlet he was handed at a local coffee shop about consent. And I thought to myself, now that is reassuring. At least people are talking about it. But how many eleven year old girls are hanging out at coffee shops in the middle of a Friday? Not many.
The lessons we learn early on are the lessons that stick.
This being said, I don’t have a steadfast solution. But here’s what I have to say: all the young folks in my life will be taught different lessons than I was. My goal is to be open to them, to choose to make eye contact when they look to me with concern, rather than look away. My goal is to share about my experiences, to open the conversation, to pull back the blanket of shame and create a space of togetherness. A space free of giggles that submerge the guilt, eye rolls that mask questions, and kisses that conceal pain.
So, in any case, here’s to sharing a little more about myself in hopes that my words open a space for you.
Oh, and those lessons I learned from eleven to twenty-one, fuck them, because they are totally wack. Throw those lessons out, like you throw out your fears. Set them free, and in turn, set yourself free from them! You are an empowered warrior queen. Just saying.
Sending love and light to you all,