We Were Girls: A Rape Culture Story
Once upon a time, we were girls.
We clomped in our mother’s high-heeled shoes around the house and tried on her makeup, wondering what it was like to get older. We watched television shows with adventurous, curious and confident female characters, whether we wanted to slay with Buffy, fight evil with Sailor Moon or even be smart like Penny from Inspector Gadget.
We drew hearts around boy’s initials with ours on our middle school binders and dreamed about our various superstar crushes. We dreamed of falling in love, not knowing of the consequences.
We developed our own styles. Some of us put on red lipstick and vintage prints, wanting to be Gwen Stefani. There were the girls who dreamed of being Courtney Love, wearing baby doll dresses and grunge flannel shirts. Others wore cute little plaid skirts and danced, hoping to transform into Britney Spears. But we loved being girls.
We then got older, and our bodies started growing. And that’s when the talking began.
“Girls don’t say that! Girls shouldn’t do that! Girls can’t wear that!” they growled.
“Why not?” we asked.
“Boys will get distracted!”
We wanted to argue it wasn’t true, and our education was just as valuable as boys. Yet there we were, being groped in the hallways and pressured into things we didn’t want to do. When we tried to tell, the administration told us it was our imaginations. That doesn’t happen here. Yet tell that to the boy at my high school who was assaulted with the end of a broom. It made girls scared; if boys could do that to each other, what could they do to us?
There were also the lecherous teachers who purposefully sat the girls in miniskirts in the first row or paid particular attention to certain girls in their classes. We knew who they were. They were adults and we were “children.” They would fight for their own, not for us. We were sexualized long before we were ready to have sex, and the code was silence. If you were smart, loud and stood up for what you believed in, like I did, you were punished.
We were girls. We deserved better.
And these were the girls who were sent off to colleges across the United States. A lot of them rebelled from the mentality of “sit still, look pretty,” or at least I hope they did. They probably learned more about themselves during these days than they did during puberty’s grip. But unfortunately, as these girls turned into women, some of them turned into victims of rape, which according to most statistics are one in five women (there are very few statistics on men, but there are estimates of one in 71).
A lot of these victims have no name. In the Stanford rape case against Brock Turner, she is only identified as “Emily Doe.” On my college campus, she was known as a Jane Doe assaulted in the hallway of the business building my senior year. In fact, in journalism one of the first lessons I was taught in reporting was that you name everyone in relation to any crime — except for rape and sexual assault victims.
To this day many of them still have no names. It’s sometimes because they are one of the over 80 percent of rapes that are never reported to police, or they are victims who refuse to tell anyone, even their own families. Perhaps it’s because of the idea that they might be told it was all in their heads and targeted as false accusers. Maybe it’s worse than that.
I wish I could say rape stopped in college and as soon as we left we were safe. But we weren’t. We still aren’t. I hear the story about my cousin finding out she had been drugged at a party, and telling her friends so they could get her out before it’s too late. The sobs from my friend when she woke up the at a friend’s house blacked out with her pants off still ring in my ears. Another woman is on her couch passionately talking about her own rape on a fourth date as I talk about the boy that told me he loved me, and about an hour later I threw off of me when he tried to force me to have sex with him. When I told my mother a year ago, she told me a similar story from when she was dating.
We became a part of a never-ending rape culture, so we began to follow a survival creed, whether we were single or with someone. Instead of adventurous and curious, we had to be cautious. Watch your drink. Be careful how you dress when you go out, don’t wear too much makeup. Don’t go out by yourself, particularly at night. Feel free to drink, but don’t drink too much. And for heaven’s sake, don’t be easy, because who would believe you if something happened?
We had to stop being girls, because being girls meant being naïve and possibly becoming prey. We had to become women to take responsibility for our own safety. But then we’d hear the calls throughout out lives: “Well, boys will be boys!” Boys never had to stop being boys. They can be boys for as long as they feel like, even into adulthood because it was “cute” or “fixable.”
On the playground, boys could hurt girls until they cried and then have the girls be told, “Well, that just means he likes you.” It meant boys trying to act more aggressive, screaming obscenities at those whom they thought to be less manly. And yes, that sometimes included showing their junk off, whether flashing or sending that sexually harassing text with an inappropriate picture in it.
There were fewer limitations. They were expected to be rowdy and act like wild ruffians. They were allowed to be dominant. There was no one judging what they wore to class or whether they spoke up too much. They were boys.
Even though they didn’t have to stop being boys, most of them wanted to be men, too. The pressure for obtaining masculinity was high. They had to be physically strong and fit a mold. Don’t cry, be tough, don’t show that you feel anything other than anger. The goal was to be so powerful that they dominated others, including other boys who were “different” — gay, brown, black, Asian or even differently abled. This was called patriarchy.
They were also told about being men was that, in order to be good enough, you needed to get two things: money and girls. In that mentality, we were not people. We were things to be possessed, purchased, conquered. And if you had enough money and privilege, you could.
A lot of boys hated it. They were the boys who never made the football team, never got the girls, couldn’t get the fancy jobs that were supposed to bring them everything they could ever want. Quite a few got smart, seeing that there was another way to be men, and they found that there was often a great power in respect for others.
But others began blaming, finding anyone to target, often hurting women because they felt slighted by them or there was no other way to obtain them. On both sides of the spectrum, whether rebelling against traditional masculinity or embracing it, it was all about dominating women and girls, being stronger than us. We were surrounded, harassed with open threats of rape online and subtle hints of it in real life. Women couldn’t stop looking over our shoulders, sometimes wondering if we could trust our male friends, as often the perpetrators of rape are people we know.
We were girls. So is every woman who is a victim of rape or has to thwart an attempt. We rally together to take back the night and help protect each other in bars. Yet there is something lacking in those conversations: The men aren’t there. They don’t hear the stories we tell one another about rapes and sexual assault. But if we talked as openly with the men in our lives about it as we do the women, they would.
It’s time to change the conversation. We are better than this, both men and women, and the power of sisterhood and brotherhood means we should act as one human family. We are partners in making this world not only better but also safer. And it’s time that we act like it.
We need to talk about what rape means, what male to female relationships boil down to. There have to be discussions about the over-sexualization of our society. We need for them to understand that our friendships with one another don’t mean the other owes us anything. We need to teach boys that it is not having girls, money or privilege that makes them powerful, but their own individual contributions to this world that do. That it’s okay to feel. That women count just as much as men, and in order to dismantle the roles that society has given us and let go of rape culture we have to do it together. It’s because rape culture began when we were children and grew into a weed wrapping us up with it, and we need to kill it now.
There is a new generation of boys and girls, watching new shows that tell them all the amazing things they can be, with fashion icons and crushes to draw hearts around. But what are we telling them about each other when we can’t figure out as adults how we relate to one another? They deserve to have a safe world, to know that the way of adulthood is not where men and women become enemies on a battlefield. It’s where we become partners in figuring it out, because somewhere inside of us we are still the children on the playground before the world told us what we should and shouldn’t be.
We are women and men. But we are also boys. We are also girls. And at the end of it all, we are people, so it’s time to start acting like it.