I was 12 years old when I was sexually assaulted for the first time.
Are you sure you’re a girl? You don’t look like one. You look like a boy. I bet you have a penis.
I was greeted every day by these words for a month. A boy at my middle school constantly questioned my gender. You’re a boy, he would say. You gotta be. You act like one, look like one, smell like one.
I ignored these words even though they stung and replayed in my head every night like a broken record. When I saw him at school, I would give him the cold shoulder, even though his words penetrated the force field I was trying to build around me.
One day after school, he saw me in the hallway. It was empty and mostly everyone had gone home. I wanted to turn around and run. Instead, I kept walking forward, trying to hold my head high.
“Hey,” he called after me, “where do you think you’re going?”
“Home,” I said, and kept walking.
As I passed him, a hand reached out and grabbed my elbow. “Not so fast,” he snapped at me, “you still have to prove to me that you’re not a boy.”
With those words, he pushed me against the wall of the hall and forced his hands in places that nobody had ever touched before.
That was the last time he ever called me a boy. The incident went unnoticed and unreported. I felt embarrassed, weak, and ashamed of myself. My fear of that boy skyrocketed and I dreaded seeing his face every day. I never told anybody. It became my dirty secret. But why was I so quiet? Why was I so embarrassed and ashamed? And why did it take me six years to realize that I was sexually assaulted?
Everyone is familiar with middle school sex education, and almost everyone got “the talk” from their parents. But one thing that is typically not discussed from a young age - whether it’s through the birds and the bees talk or middle school sex ed - is consent and what can arise without it.
In fact, many of our youth find out about sexual assault and sexual harassment through movies, TV, and the news. Think Grease, when a boy hides under the bleachers to look up a girl’s skirt. Or Legally Blonde, when the teacher hits on Reese Witherspoon. A domino effect ensues, and monkey see, monkey do. If our kids are seeing sexual assault and harassment only in a humorous light, then kids are going to learn that it’s just not that big of a deal. In fact, we laugh at it. Because of this, we see sexual assault and harassment more frequently and at younger ages.
So what can we do to change this? The obvious fix: teach them young. What if sexual assault and harassment - what they are, their consequences, their dangers - were part of sex ed curriculum? If we ingrained consent, respect, and an understanding of sexual assault into school lessons, we would not only reach our youth before the media could, but they would also be equipped with the knowledge of how pervasive and damaging rape culture is in our society.
Our youth would be raised on the ideas of respect, boundaries, and consent. They wouldn’t be raised to be a part of it; they would be raised to fight against it.