As the past year of #metoo and sexual assault violations have steadily streamed across the media, I constantly take note of the ways in which I have been lucky in this life. I was never raped or sexually assaulted as a teen or adult.
Like most women, I have endured my fair share of catcalling, uncomfortable stares, and encounters with men that left me grossed out and horrified. In middle school, I had my breasts groped, my butt slapped a few times, and once a boy chased me around the gym trying to get me to look at the piece of public hair he had plucked from his crop. Gag.
But the biggest and most terrifying violation I experienced was when I was nine or ten years old. I was at an event with my mother, one of the many volunteer or self-help groups she joined in the ‘80s. It was at someone’s house, a stranger to me. I don’t remember every detail of the day, but I do know that at one point, I found myself pinned against a couch by a teenage boy who was tickling me.
He was very tall, with long skinny fingers. I remember those fingers around my neckline, my chest – and then, before I knew it, those fingers had made their way between my legs. And lingered. I remember his face then, his eyes bulging, his features twisted up, laughing.
I don’t remember who else was present, but I know that adults were in an adjoining room (looking back, I am so grateful for this). I think there were other kids in the same space where we were, but I’m not entirely sure.
I know that I felt absolutely alone then – alone with him. Pressed up again the couch. His long snake-like fingers. His fingers are what I remember most.
It took a few seconds to register what was happening. It was one of those moments where you are on the outside, looking in at your life.
“Is this really happening?” I thought.
And then: “No. No. This is wrong.”
This is where my memory goes blank. I don’t know how I got out from under his fingers, only that I did. I am confident that nothing else happened.
But here’s what amazes me about the scenario as I look back at it. Pretty much as soon as the incident happened – before we even left the house – I told my mother. In those moments that I was pinned there at the couch, realizing that what was happening pushed a very serious boundary, I thought of what my mother had told me my whole life.
A free-spirited, hippie-ish single mama of the ‘60s, she taught my sister and me from an early age that no one – no one whatsoever – was to touch us inappropriately. It didn’t matter who they were, how old they were, etc. No means no. She also taught us that we could tell her whatever happened to us. There was nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of.
Most importantly, she would believe us. I never doubted that she would believe me.
And she did.
The timeline is a little blurry, but I know that I told my mother before we left the house. I know that she believed me without one ounce of doubt. I know she yelled at the boy, and at his parents. I know she loudly declared to me and everyone there that we would be leaving and not returning.
And I know that the boy slapped my butt as we walked out the door. Which only affirmed to her (and me, looking back) that there was something very, very wrong with him.
I definitely experienced some trauma as a result of that incident. I still have very mixed feelings about being tickled, and when someone mentions tickling, my mind immediately goes back to that incident in that murky room where I was pinned up against a couch under a lanky boy who towered above me. My heart quickens when I think of it, and my gut tightens. It was the first #metoo incident that came to mind for back when the movement started.
But there is also something else I feel whenever I think of the incident. I feel an overflowing well of gratitude for my mother. There was not one second I felt shame or blame for what happened. I never once thought that I’d misinterpreted his signals or was blowing anything out of proportion.
My mother validated my feelings in that very moment, before things could spiral out of control in my mind and gut, which I do believe helped lessen the trauma. Maybe most importantly, she got us the hell out of there promptly and assured me I would never have to see that creep again.
And how fucking awesome was it that she yelled at the boy? She did it without a moment’s thought. She did it for me – a freaked out child who would have never had the courage to do so myself.
Even now, 22 years after the incident, my gratitude toward my mom makes me cry.
I am not sure what happened to that boy. My mom did not try to press charges. I don’t know if he learned anything from her yelling at him and telling him off. Sometimes I fear that he might have done other things either before or after that. It’s not something I like to think about.
You hear all the time about the importance of teaching your kids about consent and body autonomy. You hear stories from women and men who did not feel that they had a safe grown-up to go to when they were violated as children. It seems more important than ever that we parents make it a priority to offer that to our kids.
Will it solve everything? No. Sexual predators are out there, and we can do everything in our power to protect our kids, but bad things will still happen. It’s an awful truth that is impossible to live with as a parent.
But having seen firsthand how very important it is to have a parent in your life who you can report a violation to as soon as it happens – and who will believe you and stand with you – I can say without a doubt that forming that line of trust and openness with your child is not just an option.
It’s a goddamn necessity.