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(Editors’ Note: The introduction to the series on #everydaysexualviolence is here. It contains a detailed trigger warning.)
Alabama summers brought intense heat (and they still do) and, as a child, I loved going to the country club pool where my family had a membership. My ten-year-old sister and I, five years her junior, could walk or bike to the pool together, and often did so with our friends. And I really loved swimming, running around the pool (even though we weren’t supposed to run), and playing with my friends. I was the gregarious kind of kid who would talk to complete strangers, and that often meant that I was the kind of kid who would get told what to do by other people’s parents. But we lived in a safe, middle-class neighborhood and my parents, both of who worked, knew that I was safe around so many adults.
(What can I say? It was the seventies and things were a bit (a lot) relaxed.)
When I was five, I had long, wavy, brown hair and short, fat legs. I had the kind of belly that people found to be ideally suited for “blowing raspberries” or “zerbert”-ing – pudgy and taut. I vividly remember this lime green terrycloth bikini I wore every single day … I loved that swimsuit. But as each year passed, I grew taller and leaner. My mother cut my hair into a Dorothy Hamill-inspired bob, which in all honesty was much more manageable than the tangled, wavy mass that my hair had become. And I certainly outgrew the lime green bikini. By the time I was seven and taking swim lessons, I wore a blue maillot – perhaps a little less, um, stylish but a lot more practical. After swim lessons, my best friend and neighbor Cindy and I would walk across the street to the convenience store, where we would spend our pennies, nickels, and dimes on sweet treats and salty potato chips. With our brown paper bag stuffed with goodies, we’d go back to the pool and swim, splash, jump off the diving board, and otherwise hang out like school girls. Because that’s what we were.
One afternoon, we took our usual jaunt over to the convenience store. The clerk, who I recall only as a white guy with some kind of facial hair, saw us come in and head directly for the candy aisle. He also saw us as the only customers in the store. He came around from behind the counter, where he was smoking a cigarette, and started to talk to us. I chattered back about swimming or some such, but really I was just wanting to get our treats so we could get back to the pool. Cindy and I picked out our goodies and went up to the counter to pay, and the attendant walked with us. Instead of going behind the counter, he asked me if he could touch my bathing suit. I was paralyzed because I didn’t really know what to do. Cindy stood there and watched as he felt the outside of my suit. He then asked to feel the crotch lining of my bathing suit. He told me he was thinking of getting a suit like mine for his daughter and wanted to be sure it would be okay for her, so he put his fingers inside my bathing suit, rubbing them across my hairless vulva. This went on for a couple of minutes, until another customer came into the store. He returned to the register, Cindy and I bought our stuff, and we went on about our business as seven-year-old girls.
I knew then that it felt strange, and that perhaps that wasn’t supposed to happen. I know now, as a feminist scholar and activist who works to end sexual violence, that it was sexual molestation. Although I am someone who shares openly about my own sexual assaults, I have never shared that story. Why? Because it didn’t dawn on me until recently that this was my introduction to the ways that sexual violence is normalized in our society.
Fast forward three years: I’m ten. We live in the same neighborhood, but my parents just divorced. It’s summertime all over again, but for some reason, I didn’t go to the pool that day. Instead, my friend Raeann and I were roaming around the neighborhood. Sometimes we biked, but on this particular day we were walking when a white guy in a truck pulled alongside us. He chatted to us, wondering if we could give him directions. When we told him how to get where he wanted to go, he asked us to get in the truck with him and show him the way. Raeann and I actually discussed it there in front of him, and just as we were thinking aloud, “well, maybe,” he opened his truck door to show us that he was not wearing any pants. I didn’t know what a hard-on looked like until then, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to see it. I started crying and he drove away. I have no idea how conscious it was at the time, but Raeann had the wherewithal to note what kind of truck it was, that it was a burnt reddish-orange color, and that the guy driving it was white, so when we walked to her house to tell her mother what had happened, she could give her some details. Her mother called my mother and the police, and a couple of weeks later, we were in a courtroom and I had to tell someone (a prosecutor, maybe?) what happened. It was no surprise to me then or now that everyone said he just had a mental disorder, a problem. No one recognized that the problem is male supremacy, which operates in part through the normalizing of violence against girls and women.
There were plenty of other examples – being assaulted and raped has been a mainstay in my life. People told me to get used to it because I was “pretty” or told me to stop being so compliant, generous, and open to others out of kindness, that I was going to be taken advantage of. Others gave me the classic “blame the victim” lines about watching what I wore, how much I drank, and where I was at a particular time of day or night. Although I knew that my friends heard the same information, I always thought it was directed only to me. And when I was assaulted and raped, I knew it must have been my fault. This internalization of blame may be the ultimate form of sexual violence because it reinforces silence and shame.
But it wasn’t my fault. Violation of one form or another happens to all of us. Now that I have frameworks and language – all of which I owe to the multifaceted, multiracial movement for women’s liberation and equality in the 1970s – I can consider how the man in the truck was criminalized and medicalized as if he not only had a problem but WAS the problem. Maybe he did, and in that moment, he was a problem – but of what? The convenience store clerk preyed on, and likely banked on, my paralysis, knowing that I would remain silent. How did he know that? The answer to both questions is male domination. Making a criminal out of the guy in the truck did nothing to stop male supremacy. Indeed, it likely only served to make him a victim in the then-growing prison industrial complex. It likely never offered him opportunities to contemplate male supremacy as a social ill, and his behavior as a reflection of it. Likewise, the store clerk surely knew that my physical and vocal paralysis in the moment would only allow him to molest other girls, including his daughter (if he, indeed, had one). Feminists in the 1970s from all political, economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds theorized male supremacy – The Personal IS Political as Carol Hanisch told us, and the networks of domination operate to keep all women oppressed, as we learned from the radical sisters of the Combahee River Collective. For their collective insights, feminists were vilified – after all, no one surrenders power without a fight and those who benefited from male supremacy certainly fought back. This leaves us to speak again and again, our individual voices telling individual stories about individual people. But here, we are not alone. We must draw on the strength of our sisters, past and present, to pivot the center so we can move beyond individual blame and understand that what happened to me, what may well have happened to you, is systematic.
I’m back in Alabama for the foreseeable future. The summers are still hot. The daily harassment of women and girls is still normalized. But, like all social norms, we can change the social structure and put the blame where it belongs: on perpetrators. We can recognize and articulate the social structures that buttress male supremacy and its greatest weapon: violence against women. In order to do so, we need to understand the larger context and an awareness of how this violence plays out in our own experiences, our own lives. We can raise our own consciousness and that of others. We can marginalize violence against women and girls. Because it happens to all of us.
Stephanie Gilmore is an award-winning educator, writer, editor, and activist. She holds a Ph.D. in comparative women’s history from The Ohio State University, where she divided her time as a research assistant in Key West, FL and a managing editor for the Journal of Women’s History. In 2011-12, she enjoyed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Women’s Studies Program at Duke University. After spending eight years in the academic world, she left and decided to dedicate her passion and talent to ending sexual violence on college and university campuses. She is a member of the editorial collective of The Feminist Wire, a founding member of Faculty Against Rape, and the editor-in-chief of the Oral History Review. She is also associate editor at The Feminist Wire.