I wish I could say that my girls will come of age in a time and place where they don’t have to navigate the same dangers that I did. But I don’t think their bodies are any safer today than mine was twenty-five years ago.
I just read Ta-nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. As I read his description of what he calls the loss of his body growing up as a black boy, I saw myself parallel him: two twelve year olds, in two very different places, both scared shitless with fear of having our bodies destroyed, confused by what we were seeing and blindly grasping for those laws that would keep our bodies safe.
Coates tells his son:
You are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful – the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. And this is not reducible to just you – the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in ways that you will never know.
I can never understand what is was like to grow up as a black boy, but the language Coates uses to describe his experience is so similar to what I felt growing up as a girl, that it has helped me to put words to my own experience.
Coates tells about walking through a 7-Eleven parking lot and having a boy pull a gun on him, and the fear that rockets through him is familiar to me. I’ve never had a gun pulled on me, but I’ve had a penis pulled out in an empty hallway, another time at a packed poetry reading. I’ve had my breast grabbed on an empty street, had a groin rubbed against me on a crowded bus. Each time, I’ve said nothing because fear like copper in the back of my throat kept me silent.
The confusion we grew up with as girls: how do you tell normal behavior from the dangerous? At six years old a friend and I were upstairs at his house. He wanted to play Parents and make me kiss him. He shoved me on the bed, hard. I felt sweaty. I felt sick to my stomach. I went downstairs and sat with his mother and little sister by the stove where they were roasting pumpkin seeds. I didn’t open my mouth to say a word.
As I got older, I lost that ability to trust my intuition. I looked to my friends for clues that my perceptions were right or wrong. In seventh grade I sat in front of a boy in math class. I thought he liked me because he used to feel up under my bra. I wanted to know what the rules were, how these games were played, but I had no one to guide me. I thought his groping meant I should go out with him, then I thought it meant we were already going out…until I saw him pressing himself into an eighth grade girl in a tight cotton stretch skirt at lunch.
As girls, our bodies were public, always. When a boy made a comment about me sewing myself into my jeans, I thought that was a compliment. When another girl wore tight jeans we’d call her camel toe. It was impossible to win, impossible to hide our bodies from the public eye. In order to survive, we girls sided with the boys in our group, pitting ourselves against all other girls in vying for admiration – and protection – of “our” boys. But it was mostly “our” boys we had to worry about.
In the school hallway my sister’s boyfriend grabbed my ass every day. I thought it was a joke. I thought that’s what a sister’s boyfriend was supposed to do. I thought it meant we were buddies. Then my sweet friend with sad eyes was raped by her sister’s boyfriend. She used to pass me notes between classes, draw me cartoons that talked about herself in the third person, how she showered many, many times a day, trying to wash the rape off of her. And I knew then that older sister’s boyfriends were not safe.
What was safe? There was nowhere safe. There was the older guy in the broken down car with rolls of fat hanging over his jeans. After school we’d walk to the dairy and he would give us free cartons of chocolate milk. But we always understood that if he caught any of us alone, he’d expect us to pay for that milk in another way. When we’d see his car at the beach after work we’d walk the other way, and never alone.
All adolescents are trying to navigate new territory, push boundaries, figure out right from wrong. But girls never have the luxury of doing that in safety.
When we were over at my friend’s house and she was in the bedroom having sex with her boyfriend, I was just worried we’d get caught. As if the rest of us in the house were accomplices, somehow. They’d drink her mom’s alcohol and fill the bottle back up with water. That’s how my friend with the quick laugh got raped. She couldn’t even move when one of “our” boys came in the room where she’d gone to pass out. She couldn’t even move to stop him taking her body, her laugh. Eventually the laugh came back, but it never lost its bitter edge.
Even at twelve years old, there was a constant looking over my shoulder. A constant pit of worry. A constant feeling that I was next.
Rape seemed to stalk me around the edges. It hit those around me and terrified me into goodness. In Junior High my friends called me Strawberry Shortcake because I wouldn’t drink and avoided house parties entirely. I didn’t drink until my senior year of high school because I was terrified I’d get drunk and someone would rape me.
Each time someone I knew was raped I would feel outrage at the rapists – boys I knew, some I’d considered friends. I wanted to tell the world what they’d done. When I saw a girl dating a boy I knew to be a rapist, I wanted to warn her. But I was silenced. To say anything would be to hurt my friend, the survivor, all over again. Hers wasn’t my story to make public. So the rapists won, and they knew it. They saw my sweet, strong, beautiful friends and were threatened by that strength and they sought to take it away with rape.
It was never my story to tell, and so for my friends’ sake I kept quiet. After prom I wound up at a party where it seemed all the rapists I knew had gone with their oblivious dates. I went outside and got stoned in hopes the weed would dampen my rage and help me keep my mouth shut. For my friends’ sake.
These things haunt me. The haunting comes in waves of sadness and rage. I want to tear these men apart. I want to weep from sadness. I want women to be able to walk without fear for their bodies. I want that for my daughters.
Ta-Nehisi Coates found a way to talk to his son about his loss of body, found a way to put words to his story, to give warning while recognizing that his son has grown up without the same need to learn the streets.
I wish I could say that my girls will come of age in a time and place where they don’t have to navigate the same dangers that I did. But I don’t think their bodies are any safer today than mine was twenty-five years ago. How can I help them find a safe path without scaring them the way I’ve been scared my whole life? So far, I can’t find the words. – Becca