I recently listened to a wonderful interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. It was with a woman who had just written a memoir about being raised in the Evangelical Christian Purity movement. She spoke very eloquently about growing up being ashamed of her sexuality and of her body. In this movement, you are expected to keep the boys under control because they are incapable of monitoring themselves. Abstinence to the Purity Movement means not even kissing. After marriage, these same girls, now women, are expected to be on fire, incredibly sexy and wild. Wow! Talk about mixed messages, right?
I was not raised in that movement. I was raised Roman Catholic. Shame and guilt are a huge part of that tradition too. The good news was that I could always go to confession, confess my sins, do penance and be forgiven. Whew! That was a big relief, not that I was given any opportunity to transgress sexually when I was younger. But I was still taught that sex was bad. I was taught that my body was an unfair temptation to boys, who had no control over their baser instincts. Unfortunately, when I was in school, we were taught the biology of procreation and the societal expectations, but nothing about our emotions. We were not told that there would be serious temptation and were also not taught about birth control, and many girls got pregnant in high school. Some of them had illegal abortions, and others disappeared for a while, only to reappear later, quietly and with no explanations. One of my friends had a child when she was a senior in high school. A fraction of the boys involved took responsibility. The rest insisted that the girls had multiple partners and couldn't be trusted to tell the truth. As usual, the boys got away with it while the girls suffered the consequences.
I remember my grandmother, who was born in the late 1800s and schooled by nuns, telling me that she was not allowed to look at her body. She told me that she always bathed in the dark, so that she wouldn’t accidentally see herself. I can’t even imagine how difficult it must have been for her to have sex with her husband. I assume that he never saw her naked. I’m sure they must have had sex in the dark, maybe even with their night clothes on. No wonder women were told that it was a distasteful duty that had to be endured. It’s hard to believe that some people are still being taught these messages, but they are.
Currently, Supreme Court Justice nominee Kavanaugh is going through his confirmation hearings, and a prominent woman has come forward accusing him of attempted rape. I’m sickened by the number of men who are saying things like, “Boys will be boys.” Or, “That was a long time ago, he was just a kid.” Who cares how old he was? I know we all make mistakes. So, admit it and apologize. Yes, it was a different time. It was still not right and there should be consequences. Where are the apologies and acknowledgments of the wrong done? I wonder how many other of my women acquaintances can say that they endured something similar at some time in their lives. Here is one of my stories.
When I was 19, I was seeing a young man who invited me to a New Years Eve party. When we arrived, I noticed that there were no other women around and questioned that. I was told that the other guys’ girlfriends were coming later. I relaxed and accepted the drink offered to me. Unbeknownst to me. the drink was laced with a date rape drug and it turned out, I was the party favor set up in a back room. I won’t get into the details, but it was a nightmare of being aware but unable to move or talk. Finally one of the guys in line took his turn to help me get dressed, carried me out to his car through the back door and drove me home. He kept apologizing during the ride but also made excuses for his friends. I never spoke a word. What was there to say?
It’s only relatively recently that I’ve told anyone what happened. Like so many others, I was taught to feel shame for what happened to me, even if it wasn’t my fault. It never even occurred to me to report it. I couldn’t tell my friends because I was absolutely sure it was my fault. I should have known better than to go to that party. When there were no other girls in attendance, I should have followed my instincts and insisted on leaving. I shouldn’t have accepted the drink. If I hadn't worn the clothes I wore that night, if I hadn’t been wearing make-up, and on and on. That is only one of my stories. Unfortunately, I have a few more.
My parents were very affectionate with each other and with us, until I hit puberty. Suddenly, I didn't sit on my dad's lap anymore. There were no more of the hugs and kisses I had come to expect from him. Instead of physical affection, I was ridiculed about my growing breasts and changing skin. I was pinched and tickled. He smeared my eye glasses with oil from his can of peanuts and encouraged my brother to laugh along with him at my discomfort. When asked if he thought I was pretty, my dad replied, after much hesitation, that I wasn't unattractive. What kind of an answer is that to give a young girl just starting to grow into a woman. I was taught that all girls needed to attract a man. That was the goal for girls of my generation ... snag a husband and have babies. Apparently, they all thought there was no hope for me. They also tried to kill my spirit by constantly putting me down. I think they must have reasoned that if I felt badly enough about myself, maybe I would accept their restrictions more easily.
All through high school, I was harrassed for being too skinny, but no one noticed my eating disorder. I was bullied in school and out and was convinced that I was ugly and a throw away. I knew I would never have a boyfriend, so when someone showed any interest in me, not only was I naive due to a complete lack of experience, I was desperate to be liked. That led to a whole series of poor decisions that put me in danger more than once. Luckily, I've survived the trauma and have become strong and confident, but I could just as easily have been defeated. It makes me laugh to think that the girl who had no prospects at all has had two 20-year relationships and is now on a third. I can't manage to stay single for very long, and I am still shocked by that revelation.
My first reaction to someone making a claim of harrassment is to believe them. I know how hard it is to speak up. I've experienced the shame and guilt firsthand. If I thought I would have been believed, I would have told my stories long before now. It's not necessary to tell them publicly, but it is important to tell them so they don't fester and become poisonous to us and others.