- Comment Policy
- Contact Us
By Megan Bryde
The future must no longer be determined by the past. I do not deny that the effects of the past are still with us. But, I refuse to strengthen them by repeating them, to confer upon them an irremovability the equivalent of destiny, to confuse the biological and the cultural. Anticipation is imperative.
– – Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa (1976, 875)
Convincing myself that puberty didn’t ruin me is a very difficult thing to do. This title is stolen from my strong, and beautiful childhood friend who was a bossy, persistent, and rather bratty five-year-old, who also wished that she had kept that brattiness. Puberty ruined us, because we experienced sexual harassment for three years in grade school where an entire community refused to take responsibility, and instead, placed the majority of the blame on the victim instead of disciplining or educating the assaulter. This essay poses the reason why it is so psychologically hard for girls to get out of the girl-identified spectrum and understand the power of victim blaming. So I begin:
Sexual education was severely lacking at my grade school, because the students were only allowed to know sex is on a biological level, and how bodies grew when they went through puberty. We weren’t informed of the bigger, cultural picture of how pleasure, non-hetero relationships, and sexual health are integrated into everyday life, or the effects of what gendering and sexual molestation are, which assumed that we all fit only two gender binaries and that we will be ok if they perfunctorily tell us to not let anyone touch us and not to have sex.
The lack of these early education topics consistently results in homophobia and transphobia, STDs, sexual abuse, violence, and abusive relationships. (For example: There are many grown men who will not drink a fruity drink, because it is a “girly” one. But, fruity drinks are delightful, and do not dictate if you are a man or not, nor if you are gay or straight. It’s a type of suppression from pleasure, and people use it in a form of power. This is not uncommon.) Because my class was exposed to a limited sex education, the boys didn’t take it seriously, and projected many of their insecurities on the girls who they molested. Being more educated would propose that people of all types would not be pushed into gender binaries and that no person is set aside as “Other,” resulting in respect and a feeling of normalcy within all groups, for not only the victims, but especially their attackers. The amount of trauma I have received over the years from being sexually harassed, and put into discreet gender binaries obliterated my sense of self and confidence, because the people around me tore myself away from who I truly was, and who they were as well. The boys got away with sexual harassment and perhaps still do. But, for the girls in my class, sexual harassment and its effects will always sit on our shoulders somehow. Being educated differently makes the effects of the harassment to have the possibility to be undone.
It took me years to go easier on myself to believe that the amount of sexual harassment I had experienced was because of the social environment I grew up in and its lack of sexual education. It has something to do with boys being teased for their favorite colors being pink and purple and not understanding why someone would tease them for something like that. We didn’t know what “flirting” meant, and then were taught that talking to boys is actually made out to be something else by other people. There is a difference between what these young minds are thinking and then how they are taught to interpret it.
Eventually, the girls in my class were obliterated being put into an environment where boys could do anything. Many of the girls in my class couldn’t sit down without having a hand slip under their butt, or walk down the hall without a ruler being stuck up their skirt. This was not every once in a while (which shouldn’t matter, it should never be tolerated), but it was every day. From bra snapping, bra undoings in class, hugging when you don’t want to be hugged, groping in the hallway, boys slapping our butts; boys pretending to want an actual hug, but then grope your breasts instead. One time, a boy came up behind me when I was reading, stuck his arms under mine, and fully groped me. My environment broke me.
It’s embarrassing enough when you are only twelve years old, your body is changing, and you have no idea what to do with your hormones. You have these impulses and emotions that you can’t interpret very well on your own, and the boys are slipping their hands up your skirts to try to show you how to interpret all of these changes. You’re taught from the start that your sexuality is only for someone else, and not for yourself. You’re taught to say, “Please stop,” with a smile on your face because the boys get really offended if you get too upset. I never learned how to say, “No” seriously enough to really make them stop, because there were really negative consequences later. Is it my fault that I asked and they didn’t stop? They should have stopped.
This is the point where you may ask, “Why didn’t you tell anyone?” We did. The first boy who got into trouble was sent to the principal’s office, talked to, and then the girl who told, was immediately deemed as uncool, was called a “bitch” and wasn’t talked to by many of the boys and some girls for that matter. The boy who got in trouble didn’t take it seriously. He made fun of it saying, “I only poked it!” with a series of snickering from the other boys. Instead of our parents, teachers, and principal really doing something, they sent him back to class and from then on asked us if we really tried to tell them to stop. I bet other girls today are still going through this who will never be able to read this article, or articles like this, as validation or some sort of signal to say that it’s perfectly fine to go a step further to make it really stop.
The scariest part about my situation was that I thought it was normal. That I would be forever be subjected to sexual harassment and treated as if my body was only for their male prepubescent pleasure. Coming out of eighth grade I didn’t want to smile at anyone because you could only smile at boys if you wanted to “get” with them. I wasn’t healthy because you could only be skinny if you wanted to be more sexual. I always wore loose jeans and t-shirts because you were a slut if you wore anything tighter. The people around me made sure that anything I did was tied into my sexuality. I wish that what I had learned after college about my sexuality was old news by the time I was thirteen.
There are many ways in which to interpret how I grew up: the environment, social class, education, and religious institution—had everything to do with it. Everyone is, and was, affected by sexual harassment. Through the self-fulfilling prophecies that these particular environments perpetuated, we acted according to what we were perceived to be, and therefore felt the need to fill that role. In other words, my experience as a girl was the following. If I am treated like a girl, or a little girl, I’m going to act like one. If people call me “sweet” or “nice,” then I am more apt to become what my idea of “sweet” and “nice” is. If I see girls who are getting attention for being more feminine, then I’m going to act more feminine. If I have people telling me that leg hair isn’t pretty on a girl, I’m going to shave it. If it’s not nice, or cool, to tell boys off for touching my butt, I’m going to eventually give up saying, “No” to them. Finally, if girls see no way out of their situation, it is called learned self-helplessness. If I step outside the bounds of what a girl or women is and into the realm of what a boy or man is, I am going to receive a negative response from many people around me. It is classical conditioning of a heterosexist patriarchy. Like Simone De Beauvoir ( 2011) argued: We are made into girls and women. We aren’t born this way.
It wasn’t until I reached college and talked with other females my age who were able to walk the halls without something surprisingly touching them in very inappropriate places. They had never experienced anything like what I had experienced. The boys in their school left them alone, and I found that the men I had met in college were very respectful toward women. After I found out that there were boys at their high school and grade school that didn’t view sexual harassment as a sign of male dominance, or something popular or cool, then I realized that sexual harassment didn’t have to be so for the rest of the people out there. Just the fact that I knew I didn’t have to go through that experience made me realize that I wasn’t in the wrong. The behavior of the boys I grew up with was wrong and every member of my community should have done more about it. Institutions controlling education, religion, health, and public safety are more capable of being more conscious of how they enforce policies than they know.
Being jealous of the other girls who didn’t experience sexual harassment, made me realize how traumatic my experience was and that I could finally relax. I didn’t have to freak out or be “on guard” walking to class. The women I met in college seem to have the peace of mind that I, sometimes, think will never be attainable for me. That only by microscopic increments will I be able to simply walk up the stairs without getting nervous that someone is looking up my skirt. Or that I can smile at a boy without him thinking that it means that I want to date him. Or I will be able to sit down and feel the comfortableness of opening my legs without someone thinking that it might be a sign that I am sexually attracted to them.
The only way I have been able to find peace of mind is through my education. Reading essays such as, “The Laugh of the Medusa” by Helene Cixious, mitigated for me the relationships of myth-making, human biology, and the “project of culture” and reaffirmed that there is a large deviation between what culture projects gender to be and what gender really is. Many of my thoughts of how I would like to behave are validated though this piece of work. Men and women are more the same than different, and that, for too many years, men have had more say on how a women’s body should work than women ever have. Mostly Cixous’ essay is about bravery in finally owning your own body, and it is what I needed the most.
Another important essay to me is Lauren Berlant’s chapter “Two Girls, Fat and Thin” in Cruel Optimism (2011), which analyzes the lives of two girls who are not able to overcome their childhood traumas of sexual molestation; they have a hard time finding their own pleasure through their own bodies and therefore try to reclaim some sort of satisfaction through food. Many women struggle with eating disorders, because there comes a point where your body really isn’t yours anymore. You can’t enjoy things for your own enjoyment. Enjoyment is ruined, and sexual desire is ruined, because you’re only allowed to see your life through the lives of others. Systems of inequality don’t allow you to see life through your own eyes, and so much of the time all you feel is shame about things that you really enjoy.
Relearning what it means to be a woman, or a man, is one of the hardest things to do. It takes a lot of searching for what you want to be personally and publicly. Ending sexual harassment requires more education for all members of our communities. Since most of our sexual education is coming from magazines, television, commercials, mom and dad, dad and dad, mom and mom, or only mom, or only dad, or maybe grandma, and sometimes it’s school or the people we go to school with, we need to have communities that really do work together to end sexual harassment. However, whatever your education is you are never ruined because of the sexual endeavors you experienced in the past. My best friend and I are still learning about who we are, and who other people have made us into. I love my best friend, and the last time we talked she mentioned how she missed being a brat, and that she wanted that feeling back. I should probably tell her that it isn’t being a brat—that “brat” is a way to denounce girls and women’s power and that feeling is what it means to be in charge of yourself, be the more dominant person, or the more authoritative figure. And sometimes people have a problem with that.
Megan Bryde is relentlessly criticizing the world in which she lives, because she was continuously told not to. She believes that education is the key for a society to change, thrive, and be sustainable. She graduated from Truman State University with an English degree and two minors in Music and Psychology in 2014, and hopes to pursue a career in community development someday.