The Stories We Owe Our Children

*TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual Assault* If the recent media attention surrounding sexual assault has left you feeling raw and fragile, please give yourself the gift of not reading this. Take care of yourself! Also remember there's no "right" way to move forward after an assault, and if my point of view doesn't sound like it's for you, follow your gut. You're mothering just the right way for your circumstance!

I was just-barely-sixteen and he was my not-quite-boyfriend. In truth, that night he was my soon-to-be-ex-not-quite-boyfriend. He had scared me, left me uneasy, been too aggressive since our first date, and I was finally going to do something about it.

It was summer: too hot for the hot tub, but somewhere in the recesses of my mind I thought perhaps it would have a calming effect on his notoriously short temper. The roar of the bubbles drowned out my words as they tumbled out. Then, it was instead his hand over my mouth that stifled my voice as my world came to a screeching halt.

Five years later I sat in a therapist’s office after the anxiety and shame had percolated too long and began to spill over, poisoning everything else. Detached, matter-of-factly, I told her the story on my first visit, something she said usually takes months to work up to. Desperate to lighten the mood, keep her from saying those words I hated to hear, the ones that let you know you were pitied, I joked, “I guess it wasn’t the best idea to try and break up with him while wearing a string bikini”. Without batting an eye, she smiled dryly and agreed, “Yes, perhaps that wasn’t a good idea.”

I never went back to therapy.

This is the story I will tell my children.

All of it. And if it has happened to you, I think you should tell your kids, too.

I know I’m putting a lot on you. The onus is always on us. Learn to defend yourself! Dress conservatively (but not too conservatively because nobody likes a prude. For goodness' sake, don't wear a string bikini, or you'll probably deserve it). Download the safety apps. Don’t get drunk. Always make sure someone knows where you are. Have an escape plan. Meet in a public place. Have a blackjack, or mace, or a taser (but nothing lethal because you could be overreacting! Women get hysterical!). Make sure you fight back hard enough. Scream and kick. Say "no" over and over and as loud as you can (did you know there's a "right" way to get raped?). Go directly to the hospital. Make sure you press charges (unless he’s important, or talented, or well-connected; you wouldn’t want to ruin his life). And on and on and on. And now I’m telling you that one more responsibility, possibly the most horrifying one yet, is on your shoulders? Can’t I just let you lick your wounds in peace?

My heart breaks for that little girl who, still shaking beneath her beach towel, plastered a smile across her face and waved as she watched his mom pick him up in her minivan. The girl who told no one for years because she felt she should protect the people she loved from this unimaginable hurt she hadn’t been able to shield herself from, people who would have loved and supported her through it. How can that girl now ask you to unmask this hideous scar to your children? Isn’t this burden too much for me to ask you to shoulder, on top of everything else (it is, and I’m sorry)? Isn't it too much for them?

I have, up until now, been absolute about my desire not to participate in the #metoo campaign dominating my Facebook and Instagram feeds. It feels hollow at best and exploitative at worst. It once again puts the weight on our shoulders as survivors, asking us to do the dirty work, asking nothing of anyone else.

We apparently have to trumpet our victimhood to internet strangers in order to earn a seat at the table, we have to “out” ourselves as survivors, expose our deepest hurts and make ourselves vulnerable in the public eye to earn the right to have an opinion on sexual assault. And we do. Women, so many of them mothers, have been shouting their rapes by the tens of thousands; one more hoop to jump through before someone will listen to them. While some find it empowering or cathartic, for others it is yet another humiliation to suffer, and they do it, willingly, to expose the seedy underbelly of who we are, as Americans, as human beings. And yet, the question I ask is, we're willing to say it on the internet, but will you tell your children? And, not that your answer doesn’t matter; I’ma let you finish, but…you should.

The whole point of the #metoo campaign is to raise awareness, to rise up as one staggering, mighty tidal wave of humanity that cannot be ignored, cannot be swept under the rug any longer. To show up in numbers so massive the eyes of the world can no longer remain closed to how insidious, how pervasive the problem is. The problem is that we have kept quiet in numbers too large, for too long, and that is what #metoo seeks to change. Where else to start but by raising our children knowing already, removing the need for this dramatic unveiling, this seemingly-insurmountable task of opening their eyes? Let’s remove the need for our daughters to raise awareness, for our sons to learn to truly listen, by raising them to know, to be aware already.

It starts with us. It starts with having ugly, uncomfortable conversations, from telling them about a world too hateful to be real- and yet, there is no one more qualified to know what they can handle and when, no one who will be more honest, no one better suited to tell them the truth in a safe space, no one who they will feel secure enough to ask questions of and get to the root of their feelings and fears with.

Don’t let someone else own the responsibility of educating your children. Don’t let someone else control the narrative of sexual assault for your children. Don’t let someone else’s story be the one that starts the conversation.

You owe them your #metoo.

Leave a comment