Let’s Teach our Daughters to Make a Scene

If you want a boyfriend, keep your hair long and your nails polished. Or, so said my 6th grade teacher. In 7th grade I was asked by a male teacher to explain intercourse to my history class. In 8th grade, a boy sitting at my lab table reached across and pinched my nipple through my shirt. All of this was allowed. Never punished. After all, what else can you expect from 13 and 14-year old boys? Or their male teachers, I guess.

I didn’t tell my mother about the nipple pinch because she didn’t like the shirt I had worn to school that day. Maybe I was doing my mom a disservice. I never gave her the opportunity to tell me it wasn’t my fault, I just assumed she wouldn’t. I was taught not to make a scene.

I was groomed, we were all groomed, to accept it as normal. So, when we arrived at college, we were ready for it to continue. If we drank too much at a party, boys wouldn’t bother asking for our consent. Drunk girls consented by the mere act of being drunk.

My assault happened at one of my first college parties, a few weeks after my mother had walked me through campus admonishing me to smile. I remember waking up in a boy’s room I had no memory of entering. I had no recollection of removing my discarded shirt that lay on the floor. There was a pant-less boy telling me everything was okay, he just wanted a blow job, or a hand job. He was climbing on top of my terrified body when I threw up over the side of the bed onto my shirt. He grabbed one of his shirts off the floor and shoved it in my direction, then shoved me out the door.

I remember reading somewhere that if someone tries to rape you, you should fight like hell and try to urinate, defecate, or vomit. I was saved by my own vomit. Apparently, rapists can’t deal with bodily fluids. I only thought about how lucky I was.

I can still see the shirt he offered me. It was a red and white striped Brooks Brothers broadcloth. I crumpled it into a ball and threw it in the back of my closet not even noticing the heft or indulgence of the fabric. I didn’t see him again for weeks. I didn’t go looking for him, he didn’t come to apologize. When I did see him, he flashed me a sneer that told me it was all my fault, then said he expected his shirt back. I determined he would never get that shirt back. It became my striped white and red badge of courage, and my personal rebellion.

Later, I told an older friend what had happened — my almost rape. She listened with a sympathetic ear. It was a long, serious heart to heart. All I remember her saying is I should have expected this and I need to decide if I want to be promiscuous or not.

This was our world, but we could have changed it. We just needed to know something was wrong. That it wasn’t our fault, that we weren’t lucky it wasn’t worse. That assault, no matter the scale, is never luck.

But we didn’t know, so we went into the workforce and didn’t get our teaching credential because we were too young and pretty and would distract the boys. Later, we didn’t let anyone know when our boss made a pass at us, because maybe we had had a glass of wine and were somehow partly to blame. And even later, we remained silent when our boss began to change his clothes in front of us.

And it didn’t stop there. I never asked my boss to stop making graphic references to my sex life, because he was my boss, and he was on my husband’s thesis committee. When I urged my friend to report our boss to HR, because being assaulted in your office by the person who demanded you come into work over the weekend was over the line, I guess I finally figured out enough was enough. After she spoke up, she had to transfer out of her job and then I had to transfer out of mine, and then he was promoted.

That’s when I realized I could never win, women would never win, we could only minimize how much we lost. So, I turned toward my daughter and taught her it’s not okay, it’s not normal, it’s not your fault. But, for God’s sake, protect yourself. Don’t walk alone at night, and don’t be alone with your teacher, and always watch your drink being poured. Please, feel free to wear the crop top, but be prepared for the whistles and comments. I let her know, even though it shouldn’t be this way, maybe pepper spray and a big German shepherd were good accessories. I watched so many of her peers go off to college and come back assaulted and broken.

Then, once, when I was about to cross the street to have it out with a high school boy who cat-called her, she touched my arm and whispered, “Mom, please. Don’t make a scene, that’s not how you deal with it.” And too late, I realized I taught her all the wrong things. I should have also taught her — I should have only taught her — always make a scene.