The phone rings in our big farmhouse kitchen. Dad answers, puckers his eyebrows, “Trisha?” and then hands me the phone. I am 7 years old; I have never received a phone call before.
I walk around the corner, into the dark laundry room, stretching the beige cord of the wall phone as far as it will go because Dad is standing in the kitchen watching me, listening. Mom is cooking. I do not remember the conversation or even who it was that called, but I do know that it was a boy from school. I go back around the corner to hang up, and Dad walks over to me, asks who it was. I tell him. Then I feel the zipper of my red hoodie against my chin, look up at the bright lights of the kitchen, realize I’m in trouble for something as my feet dangle in mid-air. Dad has grabbed my shirt and lifted me off the floor, tells me I shouldn’t be talking to boys.
I wasn’t hurt. Dad put me down gently and said he just wanted to keep me safe. And even then I knew Dad was trying to protect me, trying to warn me.
In high school, Dad said, “I know what those boys are thinking.”
In college, Dad said, “I wish you would have told us,” after I finally did tell about the date rape at age 14.
Yesterday, Mom said, “You should have told us,” inferring that the daily groping in middle and high school would have stopped if I had done the right thing.
My parents are good people. Most of my teachers were good people. My parents were strict, but I knew they were trying to protect me from the dangers a young girl faces out in the world. They wanted the best for me. I was loved. So why didn’t I tell them about the daily, habitual sexual assaults? Why didn’t I tell them about the date rape? Why didn’t I tell them about the supervisor who assaulted me at work? Or the next boss, a woman, who fired me because I wouldn’t play dumb and flirt with a customer who was demeaning me?
Why didn’t I tell them? Because I didn’t know I could.
I was trained to avoid stranger danger. I was never taught that most assaults are perpetrated by acquaintances or loved ones. I didn’t know what date rape was. It took me three years to figure out what happened to me was, indeed, rape. I was also taught that if I “let” a boy touch me, it was my fault.
Right now, Kelly Oxford’s #NotOkay is burning up social media in response to a public figure bragging about assaulting women. Women are using #NotOkay to share their first assault memories, and many men who are shocked that sexual assault is so commonplace are joining the discussion. I was late to the tweeting party because I couldn’t pinpoint the first. Who can remember the first time? I do remember it stopped for a while when I had a visible boyfriend—we respect private property.#notokay
When boys started smacking and grabbing my 12-year-old ass in public, not one teacher or administrator or coach did anything about it. Not one. The only time I fought back in school—I was in 4th grade—and kicked a boy because he grabbed my best friend, I got reprimanded by a teacher. Girls couldn’t touch boys. But boys could grope with impunity. No one said it out loud then, but the message was clear: this is the way of the world, girls; your body is not your own. The only time this aggressive behavior stopped was when I had a boyfriend in high school. Apparently the boys did have a rule—don’t touch another man’s property.
Let’s be clear: it wasn’t all boys. But it was enough of them that I can’t remember all the names and faces of the boys, guys, and men who have grabbed, groped, smacked, or said wildly inappropriate things to me in my life. Actually, I remember the ones who didn’t. The list is shorter.
There is another reason I didn’t tell anyone, though. We call it victim-blaming. When the boy telephoned 7-year-old me, it was my fault—don’t talk to boys. When the boy showed up at the house to ask if he could date 14-year-old me, it was my fault—you’re not allowed to date yet. When the other boy raped 14-year-old me, it was my fault—don’t go to parties or dances with friends. When I quit my job because the kitchen supervisor grabbed my 19-year-old hips and slammed me against his genitals, it was my fault—why didn’t you tell someone?
At 14, I knew that if I told someone what happened the consequences would entail everyone who was at that house that night getting kicked off the track team (we weren’t supposed to be at that house). I assumed I would be grounded, not allowed to go anywhere or do anything. And I didn’t even know it was rape. I didn’t have the words. I didn’t have the awareness. The responsibility for keeping boys at bay landed squarely on the shoulders of adolescent girls, and I had failed, somehow, to do my part.
At 16, inarticulate anger took over. My rapist turned into a pimp, tried to force me to have sex with someone else. He leaned down and blew cigarette smoke in my face when I refused. My vision exploded into kaleidoscope colors, all clarity left me, and I kicked him hard in the groin (though I magnanimously and purposely missed his genitals). Several male friends had to stop him from physically attacking me in retaliation. Yet they never stopped him from groping people in public. They never stopped him from slut-shaming his victims.
At 19, I figured out I shouldn’t have to endure routine harassment and assault. My (misguided) answer was to quit my job. I went to work for a family friend, a woman, and when she asked why I wouldn’t put up with demeaning, sexist remarks from a customer, I finally told someone. I told her. And she fired me.
Yesterday, at 41, while discussing the damaging consequences of run-of-the-mill, predictable sexual assault on adolescents and women all over this country, I was asked, why didn’t you tell someone?
I am telling someone now. I am telling my daughters, and my sons, and anyone who will listen. I am telling everyone. Awareness is the answer, folks. Why are we so afraid of it? We ban sex ed in schools, fire teachers who talk about date rape, and unfollow our social media friends who actually post meaningful discussions. We get mad—not all men are rapists! Of course not. Of course not! But denying the oppression and abuse of half the population isn’t helping anyone. (It is not lost on me that these things do happen to boys too, especially boys who are disabled or identify as LGBTQ. I am simply writing about girls here because these experiences happen to almost every girl or woman.) To all you good men out there: we know you’re good, we really do, so why not step up and say yes, this is a problem? We need to teach consent, and we need to be careful about accidentally teaching our boys and girls that boys will be boys, and girls bear the brunt of the responsibility for what happens to them.
Sometimes I think about what happened when I was 14. I’m certain he didn’t know what date rape was either. Maybe if he had, it wouldn’t have happened. I know he thought of me as a notch on his belt, a way to prove his superior manhood. He learned his behavior. He learned to be a rapist every time he smacked an ass in the hallway and a teacher looked the other way. He learned to be a rapist every time he called a past conquest a slut, and other boys laughed. He learned to be a rapist every time an adult told a girl to cover her shoulders or her cleavage, because boys will be boys. His social training, perhaps accidentally, encouraged him to do the things he did.
We can not tolerate this “accidental” rape culture any longer. We need to be conscious of our own social training, conscious of the way we treat victims of sexual assault and harassment, conscious of teaching our boys responsibility for their own actions, conscious of how we shame boys for being compassionate human beings. We need to stop asking girls why didn’t you tell someone, and start encouraging boys and girls to please, tell someone. There is a world of difference in those three words. There is safety, and no blame.
Please, tell someone.