I didn’t think I had a reason to join the #yesallwomen postings because I, thankfully, have not been sexually assaulted. But I also understand that EVERY DAY of my life, that status could change. Even when I’m 95, it will still be a possibility, since sexual assault is not about how young and hot you are, but about your proximity to a depraved mind attached to a body stronger than yours. Then I realized why I want to add my voice to this chorus- because that possibility is something I’ve always lived with, understood, and tried to mitigate, just like all the women I know. And now that I have a precious daughter, I’m pinning articles on how to best protect your kids from sexual predators, and I see how all-encompassing rape culture is and it pisses me off and lets me know now is the time to NOT be silent- maybe if enough of us speak up we can make a change.
Rape echoed through my life before I was even born. My mother was raped by her father from the time she was 11 until she was almost 13, when she told her mother. My grandmother (who I believe was also abused by a family member when she was young, but she’s never said so) didn’t protect my mother- she apologized to my grandfather and stayed with him. He didn’t touch my mother again, but she lived in the shadow of her rapist and faced the fear of rape every day until she married my dad at age 21.
The echoes continued as my mother tried to protect me by never letting me be alone with my grandfather, by telling me about good touch and bad touch when I was very young, and by explaining the mechanics of sex when I was 5, so that if anyone tried to do anything to me, I’d know how to tell her about it. And when I was old enough to understand- I think 8 or 9- she told me her full story because she desperately wanted me to understand that any man could hurt me, even those closest to me. I HATED my grandparents after that, even though my mom had forgiven them. I eventually forgave my grandmother and tolerated my grandfather, but it had a profound effect on my understanding of the world and personal safety as I dealt with the knowledge that there had been and still was a rapist at all our holidays and family events, from the day I was born until he died when I was in college.
(SIDENOTE: My mother has always amazed me with her strength in sharing her story and her passion for helping other survivors of sexual abuse. She’s done amazing things, despite her parents. Yes, I got her permission to share this portion of her story before I published this and she even helped me edit it.)
Not even church was safe from the echoes. When I was in my early teens, there was a man at church who always told jokes and said inappropriate things, including things that were on the borderline of sexual. As I got older, his comments became more and more directed at me and my friends and more lewd and crude. He said these things even in front of our parents, always as a joke- “Hahahaha, no need to get offended, we’re just kidding around- haha” – but I always felt uncomfortable around him. He was a ‘deacon’, a well-respected member of the congregation, brother-in-law to the preacher, with a daughter a few years older than me. No one ever told him not to say those things, it was just acceptable for a man to make 'jokes' like that. I learned that you just put up with it and make sure you keep away from men like him when you can and bring a friend when you can’t.
The lessons I learned early helped me protect myself and others from real and potential treats. In college, I took a class that included a Spring Break trip to Scotland. It was a lovely opportunity to learn and see a whole new culture. Our group was a nerdy bunch- most of us weren’t big partiers or rule breakers, but the drinking age there is 18, so the group cut loose in the pubs. Except me- I’ve never been comfortable drinking in front of people I don’t know and trust- it’s one of the echoes that rape whispered through my life, always keeping me extra vigilant**.
(**Another SIDENOTE: I am NOT saying that women who are raped when under any drink or drug influence deserved it. I AM saying that because of the rape culture that says it’s not really rape that I lived in fear of being taken advantage of in that way.)
One night, in a tiny town in the Outer Hebrides, we were the only ones in our hostel’s bar with an out-of-town all-male construction crew. One of the girls in our group, usually very quiet and timid, got quite drunk and was dancing in a world by herself. One of the men started dancing with her and my spidey senses tingled a bit, so I kept an eye on them. Soon he started almost carrying her towards the rooms that weren’t ours. She could barely walk and seemed completed oblivious to where she was headed- she didn’t even know the name of the man escorting her away. I stopped him and refused to let them go. He got very nasty and balled up his fist to hit me. Thankfully, two of the male members of our group noticed and came over to lend a hand. Our group ended up hiding in our rooms for the rest of the evening, away from the angry man who didn’t care that she was not able to give consent for what he planned. It was a sobering experience for all of us, especially her, when she realized what had happened the next morning. And it triggered an awful memory for her roommate- who had experienced an assault- she kept thinking she heard that man coming up the stairs for them.
Those whispered echoes keep me awake at night, now that I’m a mama to a precious one-year-old girl. My whole life is now about protecting her from all the possible harms that I can, which includes sexual abuse. My Pinterest parenting board is full of articles on how to teach your kids about strangers, words to use for private parts so that strange words will be apparent, what behaviors from family and friends are too friendly, and signs of abuse. It pisses me off that I’ve had to think of these things, but we live in a world where the reality is that I’m a REALLY lucky girl to have avoided sexual abuse for 33 years. Many of my friends and loved ones have not.
I always carry my keys in my hands as a potential weapon when walking at night. I never park next to large vans or in unlighted areas. I’m hyper aware of my surroundings as often as I can be and I will go out of my way to avoid strange men. I will wait for the next elevator if I’d be on it alone with a man I don’t know. I check my backseat before getting in my car and lock my doors when I get in. I am extremely aware of how vulnerable we are when I'm buckling my little girl into her car seat and not able to keep an eye on our surroundings. If I’m dropping a friend off, I wait until they get inside their door before I drive away. I ask friends to let me know they got home safely by phone or text.
Looking at that list, it sounds like I live in constant fear, but I actually don't. I’ve always done these things- most of the women I know do them. Until the #yesallwomen conversation started, I'd never really looked at this list consciously as the reaction to real danger. They are so much second nature that it took me a few minutes to even realize that they are special behaviors to mitigate the possibility of assault.
Even at home, I am 99.9% sure my husband is a good man who would never harm our kids, but I can’t quite get that last .01% of certainty, because my grandfather never seemed like a rapist to me until I knew otherwise. The scariest truth is that most rapists are not scary looking and creepy- they are just 'normal' members of the community. If we have a son, we plan to spend as much time teaching him NOT TO RAPE as we will teaching our daughter to avoid it if she can. (And we’ll teach him about protecting himself too, as I know that men- especially young boys- can also be raped.)
My hope is that one day my grandkids won’t have to learn those lessons because our culture will have shifted. And my most fervent prayer is that not one more person will suffer abuse at the hands of another. I know we're nowhere near there yet, but we can each shine our little light in the dark for progress.
With great love & oceans of light-