I work on a college campus, where there is a lot of talk – and debate – over the “rape culture.” Many people deny that it exists, and that we (namely, feminists) are overreacting about something trivial.
But it’s not trivial. It’s very real, and it starts very early.
Let me tell you a story.
My fourth grade daughter came home from school a while ago upset. I tried to find out what was wrong, but she didn’t want to tell me what had happened. I pressed her gently, and finally managed to get her to share.
She said that in computer class, two of the boys were playing some sort of game (between the two of them). One of them “won.” He then turned to my daughter and said, “I won the game, so you have to give me your pencil.”
Now, if you know fourth grade girls, you know that it’s All. About. The. School. Supplies. My daughter loves pencils, pens, erasers – I gave her an entire box of school supplies for Christmas, and it was her favorite gift. To lose one or break one is a small trauma.
So, logically, to have to give one away – for reasons she didn’t understand – upset her. She didn’t get why she “owed” this boy her pencil, and she told him so.
But he pressed her, and finally took it from her. She shrugged, confused and angry but wanting to avoid confrontation, and went back to her work.
As the day wore on, it ate at her more and more — that this boy took her pencil, because she owed it to him for winning something that didn’t even involve her. By the time she got home she was angry and upset and even felt physically ill.
When she told me this story, my vision literally clouded with rage. For a moment, I couldn’t see straight. I had to take a few seconds to calm down with some deep breaths.
Finally, I said to her very calmly, “You never, ever owe a boy – or anyone, for that matter – anything. Ever.”
She thought about it for a minute, then said, “I didn’t want to give it to him. But he took it.”
A few more deep breaths on my part.
“Tomorrow, you get that pencil back. You tell him that it’s yours, not his, and he didn’t have the right to have it. Will you do that?”
I was worried she’d be stressed about the prospect of confronting him; nobody likes confrontation, and in grade school, it’s so important to be liked. But instead of hesitating or debating the merits of confronting him, she actually straightened up and, for the first time since the conversation started, looked happy.
She looked confident.
She looked heard, and she looked justified.
In her heart, she knew that he didn’t have the right to take what wasn’t his. But he’d been so persuasive, she thought was she was feeling was wrong. When I told her that her feelings were correct, and she had the right to take back what was hers, it gave her the power and validation to stand up for herself.
The next day when she came home from school, I asked her if she got her pencil back. She smiled hugely and nodded; she said she told him it was hers, and to give it back. And he did.
I was so proud.
No, my daughter was not raped. Not even close, thank God. But this is an example of how the “rape culture” starts – this idea that girls (or someone with less power) “owes” someone else. Pencils turn into kissing, to groping, to more – and so many girls will feel, in their heart, that it’s wrong. But nobody will tell them to stand up and say so.
We need to empower our daughters to stand up for themselves, to hold close what is theirs, that nobody has the right to take it.
And we need to educate our sons that they are not “owed” anything, and that taking something from someone physically, emotionally, or otherwise weaker than them is wrong.
I know there will be people who roll their eyes at this story, who say I’m overreacting. There will be people who say my vision-clouding rage was unjustified, that it was a pencil, that I should get over it or not get so worked up.
To them I say: If I don’t teach my daughter to stand up for herself to protect something as trivial as school supplies, how can I teach her to stand up for herself to protect her body?