Our Daughters Are Being Sexually Harassed
And no, they are not reporting it.
You cannot turn on the news or scroll through social media right now without encountering another story of a woman being sexually harassed or assaulted. With each “explosive” new allegation, the dialogue ensues about the reality of the world women live in and more are questioning why so many stay silent.
Shocking as some of these stories are, they are not at all unfamiliar to most women. Some stories are far more extreme and offensive in nature, yet none are particularly uncommon. What may be surprising is just how young we are when this becomes a routine occurrence in our lives.
Breaking News: Grown women are not the only ones being sexually harassed — our daughters are, too. And they are keeping quiet about it.
As I have listened to story after story come out, it has caused me to reflect on my own experiences. I had considered myself fortunate that none of my encounters have risen to the level that many in the news portray. Clearly, this is a systemic problem in our society, and not a new one — as evidenced by the many accounts now coming out and spanning decades.
The culture of catcalls and offensive comments is so commonplace that it is a daily occurrence for most women and something we have learned to quickly overlook. I found myself thinking back and wondering when the first time was that I experienced some form of sexual harassment. To my surprise, it began at a very young age.
DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR FIRST TIME?
In middle and high school, I remember often being harassed by male classmates for being small-breasted, called a slut for reasons unknown to me since I had not yet had sex, and a variety of other insults that were customary for nearly every girl at school. My experience was not unique, as all of my friends had similar undeserving and unsolicited comments and insults hurled at them, as well.
My most notable memory, however, was of a young, male teacher that taught English and was a coach for one of the school’s sports teams. He was 26, and I was 16. His young age made him easy to relate and popular among the students.
My Senior year, I became a teacher’s assistant for his class. This role left me frequently alone with him grading papers or preparing class materials. At first, he seemed friendly and to just be taking an interest in me as a student. As time went on, however, he began sharing about marital troubles and inquiring about my own relationship (I was dating a boy from another school).
Eventually, he became more assertive and flirty. At one point, he actually asked me, “when are you going to fuck a real man?” I was shocked and taken aback and in no way sophisticated enough to know how to properly respond.
Yes, I told a few friends, but never uttered a word to anyone in administration (though I later learned that others in his department had been concerned about his level of interest in me and suspected an inappropriate relationship, yet also said nothing).
I knew he had crossed a line, but I was afraid I had somehow done something to invite such a comment. Was I too friendly? Did I say something to lead him to believe I was actually interested in him? What would happen if I did speak up? Would my grade suffer? Would I be even further slut-shamed by my peers who might assume something salacious had actually happened even though it had not?
Further complicating my thoughts about it at that time was that nothing had actually happened. I was not harmed physically. He did not force himself on me. I dismissed his advances and am fortunate that he was not more persistent. In fact, when I rebuffed him, he then tried to convince me that I should feel flattered that a grown man would find me so attractive. But he was still wrong and I should have reported it and I never did.
A couple years later, I learned that another teacher’s assistant that same year had also been propositioned by him. The rumor (which I cannot confirm) was that, as a result, he had been quietly asked to leave the district, likely to offend elsewhere.
Thinking back to this encounter and how young I was, I thought of my daughter, who is the age now that I was then. Sadly, she has also endured harassing behavior and is already dismissive of it as “just something boys do” — a mantra that society shamefully seems to be firmly standing behind instead of standing with our girls and demanding more of young men.
A couple years ago, while she was trying on dresses for an event, I learned of her own experience with harassment by classmates. She is blessed with a figure that is beyond her age and, apparently, it has invited commentary regularly from boys at school.
As we bickered in the fitting room about an appropriate dress (an ordeal any mother of a teen girl is all too familiar), she made a statement about one of the dresses she tried being cute if she “didn’t have boobs.” I inquired whether that was something about which she is sensitive. I was outraged to hear that she and one of her friends endure comments about their breasts almost daily from boys at school.
I explained to my daughter that the behavior she was describing is sexual harassment and is in no way acceptable. I encouraged her to report the boy(s) to a teacher, counselor, or administrator, but, of course, she was mortified by the thought of speaking out about it or getting anyone in trouble.
And so the cycle begins.
I am ashamed to admit that I also told no one about what she shared. I had no names or specifics and I have also become conditioned to not want to make trouble. Looking back, I wish I had said something in spite of her protest that I not do so. At the same time, I pride myself on being a parent that encourages my children to address and resolve problems themselves when possible.
I gave her some suggestions for how to handle it and explained to her the very same thing I have heard countless times over many years in new-hire orientations: you are entitled to an environment where you are not made to feel uncomfortable by unwanted sexual advances or comments.
What I did not tell her is that, as a woman, I have learned that such an environment does not seem to exist for us.
I also spared her the harsh reality that, more often than not, reporting it does little to help, and frequently results in causing more complications and difficulties for the accuser rather than the offender since people in positions of power are often the culprit. Case in point, the Kavanaugh effect.
I wish I could say that the comments she shared with me were the only occurrence of harassment she has endured. They are not. In fact, leaving one of the varsity football games she cheered at for her high school, as the visiting team’s bus pulled away, I watched as the young football players leaned out the window shouting out inappropriate comments and come-ons to our girls as they walked through the parking lot.
The girls simply laughed it off and dismissed it as the common occurrence it already is in their young existence as women. Perhaps we stay quiet because the problem is so pervasive that we do not know any different because we learn to tolerate it at such an early age.
BOYS WILL BE BOYS?
It is important to note that this is not just a daughter problem. It is a son problem, too. Perhaps even more so.
To effectively eliminate the offensive behavior, we must first teach what that behavior is and end it where it starts — with the offenders. As the mother of an 18-year-old boy who currently has his first serious girlfriend, I am acutely aware of this.
In a culture that has been complacent in how it regards talking to and about girls/women, I have been particularly vigilant with my son and am explicit in what is and is not acceptable to do and say to a woman, despite what he sees and hears modeled in society.
Complicating matters, my son has Autism, which introduces an additional degree of difficulty with interpreting social cues and appropriate social behavior. Already, there have been challenges with conveying to him what he should and should not say or do, but it is equally, if not more important for us to teach our sons appropriate behavior than it is for our daughters to have to learn to speak up.
The #metoo campaign was so effective in highlighting the prevalence of harassment among women and exposed the magnitude of just how many of us have a story.
The recent allegations of multiple women who reported having had encounters with Brett Kavanaugh when he and they were in high school and college unleashed a trend of stories on social media of others who had similar incidents in their own lives at young ages and have highlighted how common these types of incidents go unreported. #whyididntreportit
With so many allegations being shared by girls, boys, men, and women, it is abundantly clear that sexual harassment has become so prevalent and tolerated that almost no one is immune to its reach, making it all the more imperative that we encourage our sons and daughters to speak out early and, more importantly, that we believe them when they do.
A special thank you to Robin Litrenta for her amazing vision and photography and to my daughter and her beautiful friends for modeling for the images for this story. May their voices be heard and believed always.
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