Today is International Women’s Day. I didn’t even know there was such a thing.
As I was lying in bed pondering this—that there is a day in which everyone in the world is supposed to think about how women are raped and abused, that there are still countries where women are treated like chattel and where girls are mutilated to be made more sexually desirable—and I realized that I live in a rarified community of friends and family because I know that the men and women in my life are not ignorant of these things. Not at all.
Then my mind wandered, as it occasionally (almost always) does to when I was in grammar school. There was a boy there who would torment the girls. Typically, in grade school, the boys dominate one side of the schoolyard while the girls hover around another. At my school, the girls had the smaller area while the boys had the larger. I suppose it was because they ran around more while we girls played in small groups, rarely spreading far or wide.
But this boy who tormented us was not protecting his territory. No. His intention, when any girl moved apart or away, was to knock her down, to fall on top of her, and to pretend to have sex with her.
As an adult, there are certain realizations I have about this child’s sexualization, recognizing that it is not normal for a six-year-old boy to understand, even in a mocking manner, what sex is. That he was acting out in a pseudo-rape of his playmates is obviously the consequence of some truly horrifying events in his own childhood.
All I know is that he terrorized us girls and there was nothing so horrifying as the thought that he might single you our unless it was the actual event occurring.
That boy didn’t follow me from grade to grade and eventually I was in a different school and altogether. By middle school, things hadn’t changed very much, however. I remember walking through the corridors of school with my books clutched against my chest because boys would try to grab your breasts as you passed, especially when going up and down stairs. Even though I had nothing of which to speak, those hands didn’t seem to mind, had a life of their own, and holding my books close became so natural that I still find myself doing it as a habit, shielding myself against some invisible hands.
Not that holding books protected me or any of the other girls. Our butts were still fair game and you couldn’t hold one get of books against your chest while protecting your ass as well. And the first time a hand found its way to brush against your crotch as you descended and some anonymous boy’s hand ascended, the shock was like a slap in the face as you realize that there are not enough hands, not enough books, to hide yourself behind.
I suspect I was not alone in learning to avoid the stairs as best I could, to travel when traffic was its lightest, to find ways of simply not being noticed by anyone at any time. Just in case.
And here’s the thing—I don’t think any of us ever complained. I don’t think any of us ever spoke out about that little boy or about the endless stream of hands in the corridors and stairways. We just took it, assumed it was par for the course, a price we paid for having breasts and bodies that invited violation. Were we too young to know better? Were we already socialized to believe that “boys will be boys”? Were we already learning to keep quiet, to assume culpability because of what we were?
I don’t know. And I honestly don’t know if International Women’s Day makes a significant difference. But I commented on a post someone else made that perhaps on this day someone who is ignorant of these issues will be made aware, that they will be shocked and appalled that little girls are sold into sexual slavery and that even as I sit here I can’t think of a single place where a woman is safe from being sexually assaulted so long as she has an orifice to be filled. And maybe today, on this day, one girl or woman will be reminded to say something, to speak up, and to risk everything so that the truth about what is happening will no longer be a secret.
And if it takes a whole day for even one person to become aware then it is absolutely worth it.