I don’t have a sexual assault story to tell. I wasn’t raped, attacked, groped by a stranger, pressured into sex, molested as a child. I did have a male camp counselor tell me I’d be beautiful when I grew up and hug me close one time. I proudly introduced him to my mom! There was also the exposure to a vibrator via a clueless girlfriend of my dad’s: “Oh, it’s like a massage machine. Here’s how it works!” It felt great. I was five; I couldn’t figure out why my dad wigged. I saw guys in parks with their things out. In college, there was a peeping Tom outside our house who got caught. As a teen and young woman, I had encounters that could have gone badly but my male partners respected “no,” or maybe I said “yes” at the right times. Overall, I had luck on my side.
Many — most — of my female friends didn’t.
The million women who tweeted Kelly Oxford their sexual assault stories in the course of one evening didn’t.
That I belong to the miniscule percentage of women lucky enough not to have been overtly sexually violated by a man doesn’t make me feel good. It’s wrong that it happens, period. That it happens with chronic, relentless regularity, in an endless variety of ways, makes it overwhelming, insidious, tragic. Like racism. Like poverty.
I have a daughter, and, as her mother, I am now painfully aware that when I staggered home from the bar by myself, when I got in a strange man’s car, went to his house, smoked his weed, let a boy I’d just met come into my bedroom, partied and flirted in basements and fields and parking lots and made it home unscathed, I was getting lucky each time. Especially because I did a lot of these things in a small New England city that used to have one of the highest rape rates in the nation, a beautiful place where nightmares came true. A college girl went missing, was found a month later strangled by her rapist; two 13-year-old girls were kidnapped on their way home when I was in middle school and raped and stabbed in the woods the next town over — only one survived when she escaped, naked and bleeding, onto the road.
Mostly it was dumb luck for me. But I can’t help but wonder if my own mother helped, a little, to staunch the flow of high-probability sexual assault.
My mother was (is) a mixed bag of power and fear: a second-wave feminist, artist, breadwinner; an outspoken, chauvinism-stomping lifter of women in one of the most egalitarian marriages (with my stepfather) I’ve known. She told me her childhood molestation story when I was young; she told me her own mother never believed her and made her say “hello” to the man who’d molested her. She told me if anyone touched me in a way I didn’t like, to scream, run, tell someone. I hated having to think about that stuff. Now, I’m glad she made me think it (though too late to save me from my dad’s clueless girlfriend. And the camp counselor. Even a kid who’s been warned would probably have a hard time clocking a sneaky pedophile).
I believe it helped that I never saw my mother smile or heard her giggle when a man said something inappropriate about a woman. She spoke up when she had a problem. And she had a lot of problems. She worked in a male-dominated world. She had ambitions. She showed her anger. She didn’t care if it made people uncomfortable. If others made her uncomfortable, she let them know. She embarrassed the hell out of me.
In this universe, I have a daughter. And I have a son. He’s too young for these conversations, but I already see how the potential to violate begins.
My mother looked and acted powerful, but she was also afraid and suspicious. She operated on the assumption that most people do bad things. Not only men, yet often men. “I think he beats her,” she said once about the new boyfriend of a friend of mine. “What makes you think that?” I asked. “I don’t know, just a feeling,” my mother said. She often had “feelings” about people. “I don’t like him,” she’d say about somebody she barely knew, and I’d end up doubting that person’s intentions. This wasn’t always a good thing. But it did make me privately wary, even as I rolled my eyes at her.
And that friend’s boyfriend? He beat her.
A mother can’t protect her daughter from everything — from most things. All she can do is try to put a voice in her head that makes her look out for herself. I was a latchkey kid, often alone after school, and I knew about intruders. I knew to look behind me, lock the door, never let anyone in. I did not see the two boys who broke into our house when I was ten. They hid and fled while I was in another room. More dumb luck.
When I started going out at night, my mother reminded me of the awful things that might happen. She gave tips. Stay alert. Hold your head high. Walk with purpose. If you get a bad feeling, run. Scream. Don’t leave your girlfriends. Don’t do anything you don’t want to do. Her vigilance annoyed me. I often ignored her and lied. At the same time, her voice got into me, her dire warnings hovering behind my decisions. I always knew when I was taking a risk. Knowing might not make the behavior less risky, but it makes it more calculated.
Through my mother, I developed my own dysfunctional radar. Dysfunctional in that it involved shame, an inability to trust or be vulnerable (a relic from the clueless girlfriend?). Maybe it protected me sometimes. It made me viscerally intolerant of unwanted attention. It made me ambivalent about intimacy, so that in high school, even though I was mortified that I had not lost my virginity and never had a real boyfriend, I didn’t allow myself either experience until college. It made me say “no” to my history professor’s invitations to meet about my future. It made me tell needy boys I couldn’t help them. It made me blow off the guy I was supposed to meet one night whose texts got increasingly demanding when I ran late.
Which is completely and totally not, NOT, NOT to say that women who are assaulted lack “radars” or hyper-vigilant mothers. Nothing can prevent the assaults of many women and girls except luck. Or living in a different universe.
In this universe, I have a daughter. And I have a son. He’s too young for these conversations, but I already see how the potential to violate begins. He’s full of energy and seems fascinated and compelled by the female body in an unconscious, babyish way. He believes he has an inalienable right to touch his sister and me whenever and however he wants. He is affectionate and cuddly, and sometimes he’s rough. He does not doubt himself. I love his confidence and the ease he has in his skin. I don’t want to snuff it out. So I’m teaching him — trying to teach him — to ask before he sticks his hand under my shirt. I’m trying to teach him not to pull down his sister’s pants or poke her butt, even if she thinks it’s hilarious sometimes. I’m trying to teach him to respect bodies that aren’t his, and I’m trying to teach my daughter to respect boundaries around her own body. I’m trying to do this without shaming them. Sex is confusing enough without the addition of shame.
I must try to help my son become a man who respects and loves women and never violates them, even if I fail. So I tell him: “I am a person. Your sister is a person. Our bodies belong to us. If we say ‘no,’ it doesn’t mean you’re bad or that we’re bad. It means you may not touch our bodies. You may touch only if we say ‘yes.’” He doesn’t like to be told “no,” but he understands.
My son doesn’t doubt himself. My daughter doubts herself often. I don’t know why. Are we doing this to her, our world? I want my daughter to feel strong, and right with herself. I want to try to help prevent her from being sexually assaulted, coerced or degraded. So, like my mother told me, I tell my daughter: If someone does something, touches you, if you get a bad feeling: Run. Scream. Tell someone. Maybe to that I’ll add: “It’s never your fault if someone makes you uncomfortable. If it feels wrong to you, you are right. You are always right.” Even if I fail, even if whatever radar she develops doesn’t protect her, I have to try to put that voice in her head. I don’t want her only defense to be luck.