I’m 11 years old when I stumble upon the word rape. I’m 11 years old when I come across the word feminism. I’m 11 years old, sitting in my family’s computer room, thinking This isn’t real. This doesn’t happen to real people.
I’m 12 when I’m sitting across from a 16 year-old girl at school. She has cherry red hair and a nose piercing that makes her really cool in my middle school eyes, and I’m 12 years old when I learn she’s a rape victim. Someone she knew, someone she trusted. I’m 12 years old, and I’m learning this is real, this does happen, this has been happening all my life and I didn’t even know it.
I’m 13 in a Target parking lot, putting bags into the trunk of my mom’s car, the first time I’m catcalled. 2 teenage boys, in a huge truck, yelling Hot damn! as they drive by. They said damn like it had 2 syllables. When I get in the car I ask my mom What am I supposed to say to that? ‘Thank you?
Shortly after that I start calling myself a feminist.
I’m 14 when I start high school and quickly learn that calling myself a feminist is the cause of much discussion amongst my conservative peers. What does that even mean? and I thought that was a bad word? and So do you, like, hate men?
In the 2nd week of school, after the final bell rings, I’m walking towards my locker, on my phone, when a group of camo clad boys jump in front of me. Every time I try to walk past them, they step in front of me. Like one of those awkward scenes in a sitcom, except this isn’t a sitcom. This is a public high school, and I’m a girl who just wants to grab her Biology binder, repeatedly telling them back off, go away and no. A few minutes later, they let me go, laughing and joking and high fiving. Waving goodbye to me as I go on. And yes, it’s small and it’s trivial and it still matters. It still matters when high school boys don’t respect how powerful the word stop is when a girl says it.
It’s October when we start a Poe unit in English class. Our major assignment for the study is to write a letter about something we’re passionate about, in the style of Poe. I title mine Dear People Who Question Why I’m a Feminist. My best friend worries about me writing it, not wanting me to open myself up to hate, but I write it anyway. When our teacher allows us time to read our letters out loud in class, I do so nervously. Before I get the first sentence out, one of the boys in the front row starts laughing. I ask Is this funny to you? and he responds Since feminism is a giant joke, yeah. He starts laughing again when I say the phrase 1 in 6.
1 in 6.
Second semester I take Health. In March we get to Chapter 9, the chapter on violence, conflict and assault. Section 4 is about sexual assault and rape. This section doesn’t have the word consent in it. This section doesn’t talk about how consent has to be enthusiastic, doesn’t talk about rape statistics, doesn’t talk about 95% of rapists being men, doesn’t talk about how it is not a woman’s fault to prevent her rape. Instead it tells me not to walk home alone, not to leave my drink unattended, to only go to the homes of people I trust. (They forget to mention that most victims know and trust their rapists.)
So, I take my frustrations to Twitter. The basis of my tweet: girls, you are not responsible for preventing your rape; boys, no means no.
Later at lunch the notification pops up: Not all men are rapists, stop generalizing men. This, of course, leads to a huge fight in which I’m told 2 important things: that rapists are animals not in control of their actions and that if you dress provocatively it’s like a robber and an unguarded bank, can you blame them for stealing?
1. Wrong. Rapists are people who must be held accountable.
2. I am not a bank. I’m a person.
A few weeks later I tweet from health class again. By lunch, I get another notification. What I remember from the debate that ensues is a boy telling me that I have a Mount Everest forehead and to connect the acne dots. Because if you can’t use facts to further your cause, insults work just as fine.
Eventually, I write a letter to my school board, talking about how problematic the health curriculum is, challenging them to fix it. The next day my counselor calls me in and asks me a lot of questions, and most of them I don’t remember well, except for this: May I ask why you’re so distressed about this? I want to say How can you not be?
How can you not be disgusted by the statistics? How can you not be heartbroken and angry reading victims’ stories? How can you not recognize that this high school, and high schools across the nation, are fostering young men into thinking girls are in charge of keeping themselves from being raped? How can you not be aware that some of these boys will become rapists? How can you not see that you are doing nothing to stop that?
We talk about ending rape culture, but that cannot happen until we address where rape culture truly blossoms: in our high schools. We have to start a discussion on what consent is, we have to teach teenagers what healthy sexuality and relationships are, we have to tell boys that they are not and never will be entitled to sex. We have to fight to show girls their worth, and we have to remind them daily that their voices are heard, that their voices are valid. We have to start talking about rape culture in our schools because it is more than 3 pages in a textbook.
There are roughly 200 girls in my graduating class. That’s 33 girls who will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetimes.
I demand better for them.