Last week my friend’s 14-year-old was harassed and assaulted for 40 minutes by a classmate while sitting in class.
She attends a highly rated high school in a suburb of a major city. Not that it matters. He started with some “light” verbal harassment of the “you know you want it” variety. She told him to shut up, and of course, he continued, because anyone who would behave this way in the first place is not going to stop upon being told he’s out of line. She told him “no means no,” and he responded, “in my language, no means yes.” He then reached over and touched her buttocks on at least five occasions as the verbal harassment continued. He also reached around and touched her breast. After his second successful attempt, she asked the teacher if she could switch seats and be excused from class to go to the administration. The teacher told her she couldn’t switch seats and couldn’t leave class, but did eventually move the boy. The teacher, a substitute, had no idea what happened and didn’t investigate, and my friend’s daughter was too shaken up to explain.
The parents were called into school, filed a police report, and the boy was suspended. They have no further details “out of respect for the boy’s privacy.” He’s still on suspension as I write this story, but unless some deep and meaningful intervention occurred during his time off, I’m guessing he’s not coming back a changed a man. And if he is not thoroughly educated and changed at 14, I shudder to think how his behavior escalates the next time.
And there will be a next time because we’re not having the right conversation.
My friend has spoken with her daughter about the incident, and as a therapist she had all the appropriate tools for that conversation. It wasn’t the first time they had spoken about harassment or abuse, as is common with mothers of daughters:
Don’t go to the bathroom in the movie theater alone, walk in pairs in the mall parking lot, don’t look at your phone, be aware, don’t linger, make sure your hands are free, and on and on.
My friend’s daughter was ashamed and caught off guard, and tried to make the boy stop. She was assaulted, and yet she was equipped with some knowledge, even at 14 on how to handle it as best she could under the circumstances, and that’s because we so frequently have that conversation with our girls. We teach our girls to stand up for themselves, to avoid situations, to remove themselves. Why is the onus on us women and girls? Why isn’t the onus and emphasis on boys and men? Instead of teaching women how to avoid assault, let’s teach men that rape is wrong. That abuse of any kind is wrong. Harassment, catcalls, verbal insults, shaming, all of it — it’s wrong. And criminal.
I was especially stunned that this unthinkable incident took place during the same week that Harvey Weinstein’s despicable behavior was brought to light and got more disgustingly widespread by the hour. These are the teachable moments. If you didn’t know that you should, or didn’t know how to have that conversation with your son, now is the time.
The #Metoo campaign on social media shocked some of us by showing the magnitude of the problem. The only thing I find shocking is that this is shocking to anyone. I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t endured some level of harassment, abuse or worse. #Metoo gave us the opportunity and voice to be brave enough to own it, share and shed some of the shame. But is that enough?
We need to wake the right people up and have the conversation with them.
Let’s not distract each other from the issue. We need to teach our boys better from a young age. It’s not about how women dress; if that were true, only red-carpet-ready women would be raped. There would be no abuse in religious communities where women dress modestly, and all college girls in sweatpants and sorority sweatshirts would be safe. Hell, I bet pepper-spray would become obsolete and sales would decline precipitously. It’s precisely this type of nonsense and distraction that takes the focus off the conversations that must take place.
Until we live in a world where rape, abuse, and harassment are not a daily reality, I’ll continue to admonish and educate my daughter on what — if anything — she can do to minimize risk. And I will continue to talk to my son, as I always have. But let’s be clear on one thing: It’s never the victim’s fault, and it’s never under the victim’s control. Pervasive cultural norms must be changed, and the focus needs to be placed not only squarely on perpetrators, but also on educating young boys and men who grow up in a culture where conversations do not take place often or strongly enough. Talk to your young boys as often as we talk to our girls, educate and help change the culture.