I, like many other women, have had a history of troubling interactions with men.
Sometimes, it’s a flirtatious remark. Other times, it’s awkward conversations. Maybe it’s a stare that lasts a few seconds too long. Maybe it’s a slight touch that was a little too personal.
Perhaps I should learn to take a compliment. But it’s not a compliment. It’s not a friendly conversation. It’s a hunting strategy. And I feel uncomfortable.
I was in sixth or seventh grade when a boy walked up to me at recess and asked me to be his girlfriend. I peered at his group of friends sitting in a circle about 15 feet away, watching intently. It was a joke. I said no, and they all laughed as if to say, “Wow, even the loser girl won’t date you.”
I was 12 when I decided to wear a skirt to school. I leaned over the sink to wash my hands and a group of boys began laughing. I turned around to see them pointing and laughing. Did they see up my skirt? Did they try to take a picture? That was a typical, stupid boy thing to do. But you get away with those kinds of jokes when you’re a boy.
I was known as the quiet, smart girl in school. I mostly kept to myself, but I think we all know that doesn’t spare you from bullying or harassment.
I was a kid when these events transpired. I was told these boys were just messing around. I was told they were joking. I was told if it really bothered me, just ignore them.
But it’s different when it’s a grown man.
These little interactions culminated to my senior year, when an administrator came out of his office to linger a creepy stare at me and another girl while being dress coded for wearing shorts. (Because heaven forbid teenagers wear shorts in this Central Valley heat.)
I left the office and immediately had an anxiety attack. I began crying and felt like I couldn’t breathe all because of the way a man was looking at me.
My dad picked me up from school that afternoon and again I broke down crying as I told him what happened. He went into the office and yelled for the administrator in front of other staff members. How dare he stare at me like that, a minor and a student. My dad yelled at him for making me feel dirty because of a pair of shorts.
After that, no one else was dress-coded for the rest of the year.
But nothing ever happened to that administrator, either.
Now, when men yell at me on the street and make crude gestures, when they follow me around my workplace and when they follow me home, I can’t help but feel a bit paranoid.
And maybe I am just paranoid. Maybe I’m overreacting. But some people can’t take a hint. Some people don’t stop even when you say something. I am absolutely terrified of saying the wrong thing to set someone off, so I stay quiet and ignore them. Sometimes, I worry that won’t be the right answer.
The worst part is, I feel lucky that words and gestures and eyeballing is the worst that’s ever happened to me. Because every day someone else is enduring worse. It’s a common fear for women that one day, it’s going to be you.
And we’re told it’s our responsibility to make sure it doesn’t happen.
I remember my dad asking to see my shorts when I got home, since I had changed at lunch. He held them up, sighed and handed them back to me.
“Don’t wear them again,” he said, and he walked away.
I was dumbfounded. My dad knew that it wasn’t my fault that a grown man decided to ogle a teenager for wearing shorts. But he also knew there was nothing he could do to prevent it from happening again unless I took charge and made a change to protect myself.
In the fifth grade, two boys threatened to mug me and break my glasses. They were just words, and they never followed through with it. But I believed them.
That same fear is instilled in me every single day.
Those boys had to write me apology letters. But numerous men get away with their inappropriate actions all the time.
“Boys will be boys?” Those boys should be held accountable for their actions, and the authority figures should deal with these situations appropriately. Otherwise, these boys will become men who will think this behavior has no repercussions. They will become men in places of power where they are able to use and abuse with no backlash. And it’s not just men. Women do it, too.
We can’t be silent. Someone has to show them right from wrong from the start. Otherwise, where does it end?