I cried the day I found out I was having a daughter. My tears were not for want of a son, nor a lack of love for the girl I was carrying. No, my tears were for a single realization which ripped through me, compounded by the evidence of a lifetime of memories. I was immediately aware that I would be raising a daughter in a society so entrenched in its own rape culture that victim blaming has become a national pastime. I cried knowing I would be raising a person who, beyond a shadow of a doubt, will face sexual harassment or assault because in three decades I have yet to meet a single woman who has not. I shed tears knowing that this world would not be a safe place for my daughter, just as it has not been a safe place for me. I thought of the catcalls, the degrading names, the guilt, humiliation, and sexual violence I have had to bear over the years, and I feared for the future of my unborn child.
Many months later when the nurse handed me an eight-pound, pink-faced, bundle of perfection I again felt that visceral fear. I was overcome with the urge to secret her away from a society destined to devalue her. At mere minutes old, though, she swatted at the pediatrician evaluating her and my worry shifted to hope and pride as the nurse chuckled, “She’s a feisty one.”
Good, I thought, feisty is exactly what girls need to be in this world.
Nearly three years later, that feisty temperament drives me bonkers, but I nurture it in any way I can, knowing just how much she’ll need whole hearted grit in this world. Encouraging her tenacity through strong examples and pointed phrasing is one of my most important jobs as her mother. Raising children is hard; raising girls is even harder.
Raising girls in a society where rape culture is present in our speech, behaviors, thoughts, cultural icons, and legal system feels impossible. Rape culture is so much more than the act of rape; not being a rapist or condoning a rapist does not mean you aren’t guilty of propagating a culture that normalizes sexual violence.
When I am told by a parent at the playground that their son hit my daughter “because he likes her,” I am witnessing the way rape culture shapes children from a young age. When my daughter quarrels with a cousin who pushed her down and her tears are met with questions as to what she did to incite him, she is experiencing that first stage of victim blaming.
When I refuse to accept these perpetuating cycles and request apologies, I am painted the fanatical, overly sensitive feminist, who is certainly incompetent at understanding how society works. I do understand how society works, though, and therein lies the problem because failure to recognize the danger in this normalization of violence is a large part of the problem we face as a society. This refusal by many, to acknowledge that nothing happens in a vacuum or that violence and objectification are not born of nothing is what makes this society such a scary place to raise girls.
I see this cycle of “boys will be boys” and latent victim blaming, and I can’t help but picture myself, at 15 sporting a mini skirt and sipping alcohol that made me dizzy far too quickly. When my speech was slurred and my body wouldn’t obey my brain, I whisked away, silenced, and violated. After coming to and telling my friends, I was told I simply drank too much, misunderstood, it couldn’t have happened that way. I quickly decided to stop speaking into the void and turned to drugs for years afterward. I get flashes of a future where my daughter faces the same fate, and tremble with rage and concern.
I am raising a daughter in a world where the exploits of sexual predators are diminished as misunderstandings and we’re asked to consider the “ruined life” of the assailant while barely acknowledging his victim. We are living in a world where names like Brock Turner, Brett Kavanaugh, and Harvey Weinstein somehow stir a debate as if there is more than one side to consider when dealing with cases of sexual assault. This is a society where even judges are telling rape victims that should have drank less or closed their knees. Seeing strong, courageous, and educated women come forward to relive their trauma only to face blame and scrutiny has turned my heart against the world. Seeing these women brought to their knees by the open mockery of their private decisions and personal choices has all but broken me.
How will I explain this rhetoric to my child? How will I convince her that she will always be believed, supported, and helped in a world that is telling her otherwise? How am I supposed to explain this rape culture and the fight against it to my daughter? Worse still, how am I going to prepare her for the inevitable onslaught she will face in this war she was born into? How do we, as a society, break free of a standard in which violence against women is normalized and victims are blamed for the crimes committed against them? How do we change something that half of society refuses to acknowledge?
My questions are endless. I pose them to myself, my friends, strangers, people in power, and the whole of this society but the answers I hear back just never feel adequate. They do not solve my dilemma of raising a daughter in a world that will diminish her value at every turn. Neither do they reconcile, for me, the fact that I brought an innocent person into a war that has raged for hundreds of years. A war that calls into question the extent of her personhood and what rights she will be entitled to. I will have to spend the rest of my life fighting against the patriarchal norms that enable rape culture to thrive, not only for myself and women like me, but for the legacy I leave behind in my child. Still, I can’t help but lament the life she might have had, if only things were different.
Things are not different, though, and this is the reality we must face. I face it not just as a woman but as the mother of a little girl. I worry that I will have to shatter the illusions of innocence to prepare her for the world around her. That the lessons I need to share with her are too important to wait. It fills me with powerful, primal female rage knowing I will have to offer the education of the “second sex” to my daughter. Women all over the country know these rules, because they are embedded throughout our lives under the guise of safety.
Carry your keys in your hand when walking alone toward your car or house. Never walk alone on a dark street. Make sure you always let someone know where you are, where you’re going, when you’re leaving and how you’re traveling. Never, under any circumstances, should you ever leave your drink unattended. Don’t wear anything that makes you look promiscuous. Don’t live alone in an apartment if it’s on the first floor. Be aware of your surroundings and don’t have your headphones too loud.
My own life was formed around these lessons which I learned at my mother’s side. If I put it all together, I spent hours of my life being taught how not to be raped. What a strange philosophy that is, though. We teach our girls not to be raped. That, in its simplest terms is how we are shaped by our own rape culture. I cannot remember a single moment when either of my brothers were sat down and taught not to become rapists. That isn’t to say my parents didn’t instill a respect of women into them, because they certainly did. But the lessons they bestowed were limited by their own knowledge, their own understanding of society, and worst of all, their own acceptance of gender norms as they had learned them. I don’t blame them for perpetuating many of the hallmarks we now recognize as part of rape culture because I genuinely believe they didn’t know better. They looked at the world as it was and realized I needed to be protected from the evils they perceived. They never thought of the small implicit ways that their reactions to the world reinforced the culture they were trying to protect me from.
We know better now, though, and I refuse to instill this fear in my daughter. I will not idly teach her how not become a victim. I will raise her to be observant and aware, but to also be tenacious and strong. I want her to be loud, to scream unapologetically if she is wronged. She will always know that I am in her corner, supporting her, no matter the situation. She will never hear her parents say, “What did you do to allow this,” because she will be raised to understand that no outfit choice, no amount of alcohol will replace her express consent.
Raising girls in a rape culture means raising people who will fight against it and refuse to accept the normalization of violence against women.