I admit I’m late to the party. I haven’t read The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti or seen any relevant documentaries. But sometimes you see something out there in the world and you realize that there isn’t time to know everything–you just have to speak out. So, yeah. Here I go.
Someone recently pointed me to this article at Focus on the Family’s super-crappy website claiming to explain to anyone who is wondering why chastity is so important in the eyes of the Lord. It doesn’t actually quote any scripture to back it up–just makes a number of statements about Christian* life meant to be accepted as fact. Most of this I can politely disagree with and move on. But one item…well, it seriously pissed me off.
It’s Not My Body
Chastity is important because it involves how we comport our bodies — and through faith, our bodies are no longer our own. In faith, you have become part of Christ’s body, and it is Christ through the Church, who must give you permission to join His body to another body.
In the Christian worldview, we have no right to sex. The place where the Church confers that privilege on you is the wedding; weddings are specific acts that grant us permission to have sex with one person.
As you can imagine, I have some issues with that worldview and the way it sets girls and young women up to believe that from square one their bodies are out of their control. When I was a child, the idea of God was terrifying anyway. A gigantic white man who, in my mind, wore all black (even a black turtle-neck–I was born in the sixties!) and lived in the sky looking down on us seeing everything we did even when we hid? How terrifying. But if my parents had told me that my body was not my own, but belonged to that man in the sky? Honestly, I can’t even imagine how that might have felt as a little girl. Would it have made more sense to me, or less, when adult males in my life sexually abused me? Hard to say, but how on earth can a worldview like that raise young women with any real sense of themselves as human beings?
(Note: I realize that the page referenced above is ostensibly aimed at both sexes. But let’s be honest, shall we? In this worldview–and unfortunately, in our culture–the responsibility for remaining pure lies with the girl and then the woman she becomes. Boys play offense; girls play defense.)
The worldview illustrated by the Focus on the Family article is responsible for the fact that little girls all over the country attend “Purity Balls” and pledge their virginity to their fathers in some kind of sick mockery of a mass wedding. Seriously? I pledge my VIRGINITY to my FATHER? “Dear Daddy, my virginity is yours to have and hold in Jesus’ name until such time you and he decide I can have sex.” Holy shit, people, there’s something really wrong about that, isn’t there? It can’t just be me.
It terrifies me that a generation of girls is growing up in this subculture that–in the 21st century!–teaches them they have no say in their lives. It baffles me that anyone thinks these Purity Balls are anything but a way to manipulate little girls by letting them dress up like princesses and marry their daddies. Calling Doctor Sigmund Fucking Freud. It makes me sick that these girls will grow into women who believe that God and the men in their lives know what’s best for them while they do not, and that their bodies do not belong to them–that they have no real choice when it comes to sex, marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood…except to do what their churches tell them Jesus wants them to do.
Will Smith, in a recent Parade interview, had this to say on the subject:
We let Willow cut her hair. When you have a little girl, it’s like how can you teach her that you’re in control of her body? If I teach her that I’m in charge of whether or not she can touch her hair, she’s going to replace me with some other man when she goes out in the world. She can’t cut my hair but that’s her hair. She has got to have command of her body. So when she goes out into the world, she’s going out with a command that it is hers. She is used to making those decisions herself. We try to keep giving them those decisions until they can hold the full weight of their lives.
*I’m not a Christian, but my boyfriend is. He’s read the bible. Studied it. And when he read the Focus on the Family page I linked above his first words were, “Yeah, this is just evil.” I asked him to tell us more in his own words:
Jesus never said a single word about sex. Not one word. Jesus’ core teachings were about legalism, injustice, and hypocrisy.
In the Bible, there are four accounts of Jesus’ teachings that are directly *related* to sexuality, and one of those (unfortunately) is a later addition, but does demonstrate how his early followers understood his thinking. Those four passages are:
(Matt 5:31-32, Matt 19:9, Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18) If a man divorce a woman and marry another, it is adultery. — This is admittedly a challenging claim, one that almost no Christians in any era have taken as the last word on remarriage. It should be noted that this passage is pointedly in the context of old testament law and is being directed at the hypocrisy of legalist teachings about that law.
(Matt 5:27-28) If a man look on a woman with lust, he has committed adultery with her in his heart. — Another challenging claim, but one that is generally taken as a koan, not an instruction. The koan is intended to point to the intent of the heart as the essence of the morality, not adherence to the letter of the law.
(John 4:16-18) Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman: Jesus saith unto her, Go, call thy husband, and come hither. The woman answered and said, I have no husband. Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly. Some things to note about this: in the first place, Jesus is passing absolutely no judgement on this woman. He is not denouncing her as an adulteress or rebuking her in any other way. It is additionally important to note that Samaritans were not Jews, and many Jews would not even speak to Samaritans. They were like an untouchable class of Israel. Secondly, in the conversation that follows, Jesus and this woman discuss the nature of prayer. This is widely thought to be a true account of Jesus, and it shows that despite what sound like very hard lessons about adultery, he really doesn’t give a shit. Sexual ethics are not interesting to him.
(John 8:1-11) The woman caught in adultery. A famous passage that turns out to have been added fifty years or so after Jesus died. It demonstrates what some of his closest followers thought of him: a woman is about to be stoned to death for the sin of adultery. Jesus intervenes, asking “you without sin to cast the first stone.” There are a number of reasons why this is known to be a later addition, but again, it demonstrates that the people of Jesus time understood his primary teaching to be one of compassion and honoring the heart and the connection to God over any form of legalistic prescription for behavior.
In all of this we see one consistent theme: Jesus doesn’t like a casual divorce, and Jesus is not bothered by what people of his day considered sexual sin.
More important than what he did say is what he didn’t. These are four short passages across four pretty long texts. Jesus had an *enormous* amount to say about the failings of his society. In order to find a mature, Christian understanding of sexuality we need to look to other teachings of Jesus that we can apply to our sexual lives. Every generation of Christians has come to understand that Jesus was bringing a new understanding of God to the world: the understanding that God is love. Jesus had exactly and only two commandments to his followers:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-40
“All the Law and the Prophets” — this means everything in what we call the Old Testament. All of the old testament and all of the new testament can be seen as elaborations on these two commandments. For someone who follows Jesus, this is the only law. Everything else is interpretation, explanation, elaboration. A point of conflict between Christians and Jews is that Christians believe this *supplants* all other law. That all other efforts of law, particularly in the Old Testament, are flawed attempts to codify these simple commandments.
Paul made this abundantly clear to the Corinthians: All things are lawful; but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful; but not all things edify. (1 Cor 10:23)
In short: there is nothing prohibited to a Christian. Legalistic efforts to limit action always fail to capture Jesus’ simple commandments. There is no law that restricts Christian action. Whether an action is the right thing to do in the moment is between you and God. It comes down to the intention of your heart. It comes down to the embodiment of Jesus’ commandment to love.
Must Christians be “chaste”? All things are lawful. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Do we have a “right” to sex? All things are lawful. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Is any sex before, outside of, or after marriage an “embodied apostasy”? All things are lawful. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Perhaps the most egregious and anti-Christian thought expressed in the Focus on the Family piece is this sentence: “The place where the Church confers that privilege on you is the wedding.” This is so anti-Christian in any and every sense as to be mind boggling. In every view of Jesus from the very conservative to the very liberal, Jesus came to break down the barriers between humans and God. Jesus taught, over and over, that every human is in direct relationship to God. There is no intermediary. There is no role for anything that calls itself a Church to confer anything on anyone. Each of us may pray directly to God — not through a priest, not through a temple, not through a church. Each of us is baptized directly by God with the baptism of the Spirit which connects our heart to God. I don’t care whether it’s about sex or anything else: each individual is guided in his or her responsibilities to God only by that first commandment: to love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.
Any person who teaches anything else must beware of another, darker point that Jesus made:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23)
by Amy Sisson
Author’s Note: “Patriot Girls” is my response to news stories showing that statistically, our wars have a disproportionate impact on poor and uneducated young men, the ones for whom the military may be the only viable option. But what if our wars outpace enlistment? What if twenty or thirty years from now, even a draft doesn’t provide enough soldiers for whatever wars we may find ourselves in whether we want them or not?
Tuesday, May 16
IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE, but by this time tomorrow I’ll be a Patriot Girl. Ma tried to talk me out of it, and begged me to finish the school year at least, but I’ll be sixteen so there’s nothing she can do. I told her I have the right to do what’s right for my country. And besides, everyone who’s anyone is a Patriot Girl.
Me and Alicia are taking the bus to Austin to register tomorrow. You get free bus fare when you join up. Alicia turned sixteen a month and a half ago but waited for me so we could go together. It was really nice of her, especially since her sister Mary has already been a Patriot Girl for a year and a half. So I printed my birth certificate off the net and packed one small bag, which is all they let you bring. You don’t have to take much, because they give you clothes and everything else you need.
Friday, May 19
I’m a Patriot Girl! We took our vows the day before yesterday, but they’ve kept us so busy I didn’t have time to post until now. First they had an orientation assembly for the new recruits. They explained that our main duty is to support the Patriot Boys who are about to go off to War. These boys are already heroes because they give up everything to defend our freedom, and we need to let them know how much we appreciate it.
One girl, Callie, I think her name was, asked how many of the Boys will come back. She said she heard that most of them don’t last more than six weeks. But Sarge Grayson said that was just a rumor, and it didn’t matter anyway because a Patriot Boy is a hero no matter how long he survives. I thought Callie was dumb to ask that. Everyone knows that our Boys are smarter than the enemy, and they’re gonna come back when the War is over and we can all settle down.
Alicia’s sister Mary, her Boy’s been gone a year already, but he sent her a letter last week saying he’s safe and will be back in a few months. Right now she and little Ben live in one of the dorms for Wives on the other side of the campus, and she keeps busy helping out with the new Girls and taking care of the little ones.
They told us there’s a dance every Friday where we can meet the Boys. Me and Alicia are about to go get our dresses and then get our hair done. I hope I can find a green dress, but I heard that the newbies get the leftovers.
Saturday, May 20
So last night was our first dance! I was a little nervous, because I haven’t been around boys for ages, and I wasn’t sure what a real Patriot Boy would be like. But the dressers fixed us all up to look nice and even gave us perfume. I don’t think I’ve ever smelled anything so pretty before. The dresser who helped me was a little bit older than us. She said I had beautiful red hair, and she even put a flower over my ear, and then she said I should just be myself and I would be fine. When we were all ready, the Sarge called us together and told us to have a good time, and then we got on the bus to the dance hall across campus.
Alicia was nervous too. I’m glad I had her for company! Some of the new Girls didn’t know anybody else when they got here so they’ve had to make friends fast, but I’m lucky because my best friend is here with me. I even got a green dress! At first when I tried it on it was a little too big, but they fixed it for me by the time we got dressed. Alicia got yellow. She looks good in yellow, but thank God I didn’t get that dress, because no Boy would ever look at me twice in that color.
When the Boys got there, I just about had a heart attack! They’re so good-looking! They all stand so straight and tall in their dark green uniforms, and they looked proud but a little nervous too. They stared at us like they’d never seen girls before, and I guess maybe they hadn’t for a while. Alicia grabbed my hand, and I could tell she was as excited as I was.
One of the officers introduced the band. Can you believe it? Our first Patriot Girl dance and we got Faith Rock!
Alicia and me were standing together by the punch bowl. These two Boys came over and told us their names were Nick and Jason. Nick asked Alicia to dance, and Jason said he’d like to dance but wanted to talk to me first. He said to call him Jase. He asked me where I was from and I told him I grew up in Galveston before we all had to evacuate, and now my Ma lives in Spring, on the north side of Houston.
Jase told me he’s from San Antonio. His father was a Hero who died when Jase was only five years old. Jase has an older brother who’s already overseas, and a little sister who’s nine who can’t wait to be a Patriot Girl. It sounds like he has a real patriotic family, which is more than I can say. After the War is over, he wants to be an aircraft mechanic. It was kind of hard to hear him over the music, but it was fun talking to him just the same.
I was glad when he was finally ready to dance, though. There were some Chaperones on the dance floor, older ladies in gray uniforms. They had minibooks, and I wondered if they were taking our pictures or something. One of them said something to Alicia and Nick, but it must not have been anything bad because Alicia still looked happy. She and Nick went back over to the sidelines and got some punch. I tried to keep my feet out from under Jase’s. He’s cute but maybe not the best dancer!
Then a Chaperone tapped Jase’s shoulder. “Having fun, kids?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” we said together.
“If you want to take a break after this dance, there are rest areas where you can get something to drink and sit down for a bit. Just through that door,” she said, pointing.
Jase looked at me and I nodded, so he took my hand and led me through a doorway at the end of the dance hall. My heart started beating faster. One of the male officers was standing just inside the door.
“Hi kids,” he said. “Names?”
“Jason Stewart and Margie Campbell,” Jase said.
“Right,” said the officer. “311 is free—fourth door on the right. There are refreshments in there, and it’s a little quieter so you can hear each other talk.”
We went in, and boy, they weren’t kidding! They had all kinds of drinks and snacks—lots better stuff than I get at home. There was a flatscreen in the wall showing music vids with the sound turned down low. Jase asked me if I wanted a drink and I said yes, so he got me a Coke out of the wall fridge. Then we sat on the couch, which was long and all comfy, like you could sink into it and disappear. Jase put his arm around my shoulder and played with a piece of my hair.
“You’re awfully pretty, Margie,” he said. I was happy but kind of embarrassed. We talked for a while and had more drinks, and then Jase was kissing me. I was worried at first that someone might come in, but Jase said he could lock the door from the inside. I don’t think I was ever so happy in my whole life. And no, I’m not going to tell you all the details!
Thursday June 1
I meant to write this weekend but I ended up going to a special picnic on Saturday to welcome another batch of new Girls. On Sunday afternoon I tried calling Ma but I couldn’t get a good connection, so I t-mailed her instead. I haven’t heard back from her yet.
Jase and I went to the dance again last Friday. That was the first time I’d seen him since the last dance, because he’s been tied up with training and the Girls have been busy with all kinds of med and psych tests. Nothing that hurt, just lots of hypos drawing blood and stuff. And all kinds of silly test questions, like what do these pictures remind you of, and what weighs more, a pound of lead or a pound of feathers. Anyone could get that one!
This time I had a kind of silvery dress for the dance, and one of the dressers helped me put my hair up. Jase said I looked beautiful. We even got the same room as last time to take a break from the dance, so Jase joked it was our room and I should think of 311 as our secret code number. I can’t wait to see him tomorrow night!
Sunday June 4
I was really happy yesterday, because Jase and I had a great time at the dance again, but then this morning I found out he’s shipping out. He sent me a t-mail and said he would miss me, but he’ll be back on furlough in a few months and he can’t wait to meet me in 311 again. He signed it Jason instead of Jase, and I laughed because I’d almost forgotten that’s his real name. But then I stopped laughing because I’m scared I’ll never see him again.
I ran to tell Alicia, and she just heard that Nick is going too. He and Jase are in the same unit, so it makes sense, but it’s such bad luck. I told Alicia that we could keep each other company at the next dance. I mean, I would maybe dance with another Boy since they need us to help them take their minds off the War, but I’m not doing anything else until Jase comes back.
That girl Callie bugs me. She said one of the Girls who’s being sent home for breaking curfew told her the Boys always say they’re coming back for furlough and then they never do.
“Well, duh, it’s a War and their schedules get changed sometimes,” Alicia said. “Anyway, Janice said her sister Linda’s Boy came back home to Oklahoma just a few weeks ago.” Callie said maybe but she didn’t look convinced. I don’t know what her problem is.
Saturday, June 17
No dance for me last night after all, and I didn’t get to go last week either. Alicia got to go both times, but last week Sarge told me they needed me to help organize some events for the Wives, and last night they wanted me to be here for another Orientation, to welcome some new Girls coming in from the west side of the state. I was kind of bummed. I’ve been down about Jase being gone and I was looking forward to the dance just to get out for a while. I’ve written to Jase every day, but I know I can’t expect many letters when he’s in the field.
Alicia said she had a good time last night, even though she still wishes Nick were here. She met someone named Brent who she said was nice. She says she didn’t do anything with him, but I’m not sure I believe her.
Monday, June 26
Today I found out why I’ve been getting called for more med tests than the other Girls. The Nurse told me this morning that I’m going to have a baby. I was so scared I started to cry. I thought they would send me home for sure, and my Ma would be so ashamed of me.
The nurse was sweet. “Don’t worry, Margie. Everything will be fine,” she told me.
“But I don’t know what I’ll do,” I cried. “I don’t know if my Ma will even take me back. I didn’t mean to do anything wrong!”
The nurse looked at me like she wanted to say something else, but she didn’t. I came back to the dorm, and before I even got a chance to tell Alicia, Sarge came with a letter from Jase. And can you believe it? He wants to marry me, and he doesn’t even know about the baby! He said he misses me so much, and he’ll be able to handle being out there in the field better if he knows he has a Wife waiting for him back home. I showed the letter to Sarge right away and she said she had to check some paperwork, but she was pretty sure we’d be allowed to get married. She said that the Head of the Patriot Girls is something called in loco parentis, like a legal guardian for the Girls under eighteen, so I won’t even need Ma’s permission to get married.
I wish Jase could get back for the wedding, but the timing just isn’t right. His letter said he got emergency orders to deploy to a new location, and he doesn’t want to wait to get married. But he said not to worry, because intelligence found out if they strike at this one spot right away, there’s a good chance the War could be over in a few months. That means Jase should be back before the baby comes. I can’t wait to write him about it.
Sarge says I’m special, because not many Girls get a proposal after only a couple of dances. I remember back when the recruiters talked to us in school, they told us the best thing a girl can do is get married and have children so we have real families in this country instead of mobs of people who only think about themselves. Even after I told her about the baby, she said she was real proud of me. She said that Jase’s proposal proves that God wants us to be together.
Alicia and Mary and all the girls from the dorm are coming to the wedding next week. I t-mailed my ma a little bit ago to see if she’ll come up for it. After the wedding I get to move into the Wives’ dorm. Mary said she’ll help me settle in. Poor Mary is being a really good sport, considering she just heard a few days ago that little Ben’s father isn’t coming back. She’s proud he’s a Hero, but I can tell she’s sad. She said her Sarge told her she’s still young and she can move back into the Girls’ dorm and go back to the dances if she wants. They can take care of little Ben in a special kids’ dorm to make it easier for her, and Mary can see him whenever she wants.
Tuesday, September 12
I haven’t written in ages because things have been kind of dull, but today I found out I’m having a boy for sure! I was hoping for a boy because I think that will make Jase happy.
The only other thing that’s happened recently is that Callie went AWOL. I heard a rumor that she’s pregnant, but I don’t know if it’s true or not.
Friday, February 2
The other Wives are throwing me a baby shower this Sunday. They’ve been teasing me, asking me if I’m sure it’s going to be a boy, and saying they’re going to bring pink baby clothes just in case. They said they don’t get enough chances to buy pink clothes because not that many of the Wives have had girls lately.
The bad news is that Jase probably isn’t going to be back before the baby comes in March. I wish he could be here. I get a letter every couple of weeks, but it’s hard not being able to see him.
I’m also kind of worried about Alicia. I don’t see her that often since she’s still in the Girls’ dorm, but I talked to her a few days ago and I can tell she’s kind of depressed. I think it’s because she keeps meeting these Boys and then they leave. Thank God I have Jase! I don’t want to be mean, but I wonder if there’s something about Alicia that keeps the Boys she meets from wanting to marry her.
Alicia’s going home to visit her mom for a few weeks. We were both going to go home for Christmas but there was a fuel shortage and they had to cancel all non-essential travel for a while. So she’s going for her Ma’s birthday instead. She told me that Sarge said the dorms are a little overcrowded right now so Alicia doesn’t have to come back right away, and they may need to postpone her re-enlistment a little while until they get the housing shortage figured out. I don’t know what Alicia’s going to do with herself back at home.
Thank God I don’t have to leave. I mean, it’s a little dull right now and I miss the dances, but once I have the baby I can at least go and help the Girls get ready and watch the dances from the sidelines. But I’m a Wife and I’m about to be a Mother, and that’s more important than anything else. And when the War is over Jase can get a job as an airplane mechanic and we can get a house and we can watch little Jase grow up. It shouldn’t be too much longer now.
“Patriot Girls” originally appeared in the End of an Aeon anthology now available from Fairwood Press.
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Trigger warning for discussion of child sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, and domestic violence.
NOTE: This piece goes to some dark places where humor just doesn’t live. I’ll forgive you if you don’t read it, but I think it’s important because it’s about some of the really awful stuff that happens to girls and women in the U.S. and around the world. It’s my personal story of serial abuse and…social conditioning, for lack of a better phrase. This blog is my way of countering misogynistic attitudes and messages, and this story is nearly everything that led me to the place I stand as I begin it.
By the barrage of bullshit coming from every form of media every day. By all the anger and violence toward women. By all the ways the world has told me my entire life that my gender was the lesser of two. Subtle messages, and constant, between the lines, that said I was lucky to be born so late in the century—the 20th century, for heaven’s sake!—that these battles had long ago been fought and soundly won. Suffragettes had suffered, bras had burned by the thousands, armpits and legs had gone unshaven for my freedoms. We are woman, hear us roar.
Subtle messages like some stuff is “for” girls and other stuff is “for” boys. Like boys get into trouble and girls are good and polite. Like girls are supposed bait the proverbial hook to “catch” a boy, and boys are supposed to avoid being “caught.” Like a boy’s job is to “score,” and a girl’s job is to play defense.
And there were less subtle messages, too. These messages, these moments, do not define my life. But they do serve as an outline when I consider what a hostile world this is for girls and women.
- By age 9 I had been molested multiple times by multiple pedophiles. Relatives, family friends, neighbors… It turns out you don’t have to look very far to find a pedophile in this world. I learned too much too soon and I had no idea what to do with the information. I was troubled after the first incident (series of incidents) at age 4, and pretty confused by the second at 5, downright scared by the third at 6. By 9 I wasn’t even surprised anymore, and they somehow knew that I was the perfect victim. A family “friend” was visiting regularly at this point and playing his little games and I hated it but I felt powerless to stop him. I was so terrified of the trouble I’d be in if my mom found out that I worked myself into a state of utter emotional turmoil until one day when she came to yell at me about something completely unrelated I lost it—screamed and shook and sobbed until she finally dragged the truth out of me.
- When I was 10 and on my way to the local shopping center (back in the days when parents let 10-year-olds walk anywhere unattended) on a stretch of empty highway between my housing development and the mall walking against traffic like I’d been taught, an old Ford truck passed me and pulled over a little way up the road. I told myself I was imagining things when I saw the driver watching me in his rearview mirror. And when I came up alongside his truck across the two barren lanes of traffic he opened the truck door. He was completely naked, and flopped one leg lazily out as he masturbated, staring at me. I had been down this road before and I was fucking terrified. I turned and ran as fast as I could past empty houses to my street and stopped at my friend’s house, hysterical. Her mother laughed. I was really starting to get the feeling it was just me.
- As a pre-teen, it wouldn’t be long before the neighborhood boys would introduce me to “pantsing,” or forcible removal of my pants and underwear by multiple boys, each one stronger than me, in front my friends. This is wrong on so many levels, but let’s just cover a few: 1) I knew damned well that I didn’t like it when the boys ganged up and took my pants off. 2) As humiliating as it was, I never cried. I learned very early on that to complain about it was to invite ridicule not just from the boys, but from the girls. There I’d be, the solitary person in the room who thought it was a Big Deal when clearly it wasn’t and what was wrong with me, anyway. 3) As an adult, when I talk to other women about it, we all agree that it was terrifying and humiliating and tantamount to bullying at least and sexual assault at worst, and none of us knows why we didn’t (couldn’t) tell someone and make it stop. (Does this still go on? Google shows me laughing people in their underwear.)
- At 12 I was raped by a 14-year-old neighborhood kid who was known for being a bad boy. I lived in a poor suburb of Sacramento and us kids built forts in our backyards to entertain ourselves in the summertime. Me and two girl friends were in the fort behind my next-door neighbor’s house with the bad boy smoking pot. My girl friends left. I never saw it coming. One moment we were sitting there smoking a joint, the next I was on the ground and he was lying on top of my saying, “Shut up or I’ll hit you in the head with this hammer.” I clenched every muscle in my body until he finished. I don’t think he enjoyed it. He walked with me to my backdoor, and I think it was locked. He said something to me. I don’t remember what. I walked in the front door and through the living room, which was dark. My mom and brothers were watching tv. I put my hand up to my face as I walked through and hoped my mom wouldn’t see me–that I was crying, or had been, or what a mess my makeup was, or something. I don’t remember thinking anything but how can I get through this room. Then she asked if I was ok and just like when I was 9 I lost it and she had to drag the truth out of me one more time. I cringe when I remember the ensuing horror show that was my neighborhood’s reaction, the investigation and lawyer prep, and the trial that I dreaded for months and which ended in a verdict that validated the public defender’s stuttered accusations: “Isn’t it true that you cried rape because you were afraid you were pregnant?”
Even he seemed to understand on some level that the whole thing was a setup. I was only 12 and had never had consensual sex , so they’d have a hard time making me look like a slut, but they could cast doubt on me, question what possible motive I might have to falsely accuse the poor defendant (who admitted to having sex and later served time for statutory rape, meaning his only crime was sex with a minor), the fact that no one heard me scream (because I really wanted that ball-peen hammer to the temple), whether I did or did not seem, to the people they interviewed, to be distraught enough in the days following the incident. What’s amazing to me about writing this is that I don’t remember anyone fighting for me other than my mom and my cousin D who left my house in the dark of that night with a baseball bat as I sat in the kitchen sobbing (he came back frustrated with a clean bat). I know there must have been someone, but I have this sense when I look back that I was the one on trial; that I was the poor sap with the crappy public defender.
- When I was 14 I went to my first kegger. My mom thought I was going to “a little get-together.” I got drunk and passed out. The next day someone told me that two guys had screwed me while I was unconscious. No one thought this was particularly wrong. Everyone was drunk. They were just being guys. I just tried not to think about it. It probably wasn’t the last time. I try not to think about that, either.
- Given all this, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I became a promiscuous teen. You know that girl in high school everyone calls “slut”? That was me. I started out looking for what sex was supposed to be (True Love!), but what it amounted to was giving in to every guy I had a crush on because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. It was what they wanted, so if I did, they’d like me, right? Instead every guy at my school had the idea that I should sleep with him because I’d slept with one or more of his friends.
- By 16 I was “in love” with a guy who barely tolerated me, but now and then he’d be nice to me and I’d fall all over myself to do anything he wanted—including servicing him in front of his friends. I followed him around like a dog, and he treated me like one. Miserable, on the street (a habitual runaway) going from one bad situation to another, one night I sat soaking wet in a convenience store parking lot and a family of Mormons rescued me and took me in for a couple of weeks. It was a bit like hitting a reset button as I saw what life was like in a completely new environment. Soon I was ready to “turn over a new leaf,” as my dad put it when he made arrangements for me to go to Dallas, Texas and live with his stepfather, an elderly judge who had no idea what to do with a teenage girl and whose strategy for dealing with disagreements consisted of sitting there laughing at me as I grew increasingly frustrated with him. Angry and bored out of my mind in the middle of summer I went out looking for interesting people to meet. On one of my first outings, outside a drug store, a man pulled up next to me in his car and stopped, one hand on the wheel and the other massaging his penis. About a week later, when two young black men pulled over and chatted me up, I was flattered, and after a bit of coaxing (with one of them showing me his ID and both promising I’d come to no harm, we were going to have a grand time) I got in their car. And we partied. For a few hours, it was a fascinating experience. They took me home and someone’s sister fawned over me. I met a bunch of little kids. Then we went out to a bar where every single head turned toward me like that scene from Blues Brothers and a man on the way in muttered something about “y’all bringin’ Snow White around here” under his breath as he glanced nervously up and down the road. There was music and alcohol. There were drugs. Then it was back to the apartment where everyone was fast asleep and it was time for me to put up. I begged and pleaded, but I didn’t fight. I cried as quietly as I could (so as not to wake up Sis and the kids) and later when he dropped me off at yet another convenience store, I called home and my drunk uncle was over and answered the phone and called me a fucking cunt. The next thing I remember is several people pulling me off the pay phone as I did my best to beat it to death with the receiver, screaming my rage. And the cops asking me why I didn’t use my knife. Against a man twice my size. Lucky for me, I forgot I even had one. I never got it—or anything—from the cops or the system. Somewhere, probably still in Dallas, a man who once went by the name of Charles Ray “Chuckie Ray” Smith might still be walking around free to rape at will, but is very likely dead and buried at the hands of someone’s loved one avenging something very like the crime he committed against me, for which he never even stood trial.All I can say about this list up to this point is Thank. Fucking. God. AIDS wasn’t a thing yet.
- Soon after that, I got pregnant, and not on accident. My life up to then had been a series of after-school specials from hell, and I wanted a change, but the change the adults in my life were serving up was not working for me. When an acceptable candidate made himself available, I counted the days from my period to maximum fertility and I made damned sure he put a baby in my belly. Then he bought me a ticket home to California and I didn’t see him again until my daughter was 9 (which was ok with me). I moved in with my mom, stepdad, and three younger brothers. One night just after dark I rode my brother’s bike over to my cousin’s house a few blocks away. When I saw a man up ahead that I knew for a FACT I had passed just moments ago, I knew he had come around the block for me. I had almost no time to think about it, and as I neared he reached out for my handlebars. Out of breath and utterly terrified, a sound erupted from my throat that I have never made before or since. The words I tried to say were, “GET AWAY FROM ME!” but I sounded wild, primal, like a crazy person. He jerked his hands back and said, “Okay, gah!” Like he was the victim.
- Life settled down a lot after my daughter was born. I focused on being a mother, and for a little while, that was enough. But I wanted my True Love. And when I was 18, I believed I’d found him. He was amazing. Handsome, successful, smart, funny, and 35 years old. My friends and I saw nothing wrong with that. We all wanted him. But he wanted me. I was the lucky winner. Within a year I’d moved back to Texas with him and was keeping his house and caring for his 12-year-old son along with my daughter, now about 2. I don’t even know anymore how long it took for things to get bad—maybe 6 months—but one night after a party I’d left early because he pissed me off, he came home and started in on me, first with his hands, and then with a paint scraper. All things being relative, he didn’t hurt me badly. Just badly enough that I knew damned well if I could get out of that room I’d never come back. He let me get my daughter from down the hall, and when someone knocked on the front door and he went to answer it, I took her and ran out the back. I ended up in a shelter and within a couple of days I went back to my abuser because I had no local support and no money to go anywhere else, and some well-meaning-but-misguided types advised me that it was his job (my abuser’s) to finance my return home to California. This bought me another month or so before his next blow-up, but this time we escaped without incident and didn’t go back. I showed up in the middle of the night on the front porch of my grandfather’s house in Waco and introduced myself. “Mr. Abney, I’m your granddaughter.” We stayed a few days, and he cashed his Social Security check and put us on a plane. I never saw him again.
- In many ways I feel like I experienced a lot of bad things so my daughter wouldn’t have to. I taught her right away that predators were out there and that she should never hesitate to scream, kick, run, and tell someone if anyone ever did something she didn’t like. And when, inevitably it now seems, she found herself in a situation where someone crossed the line, she knew that the boundary was hers to set and protect and she knew to tell someone.
- Jump ahead to my 30s, when I found myself single after a long period and in a new town. One night out drinking, I overindulged and passed out in someone’s apartment only to wake up with him on top of me doing his thing. All these years later, it was still that easy to wind up with someone’s penis inside me uninvited. Because I got too drunk and passed out. (For those of you still unclear on the concept: No means no. Unconscious and/or unable to form words means no. No matter who you are, you are not entitled to take your sexual pleasure/rage power-trip out on someone else’s body no matter what mistake they make.)
As I write this list—and I have long needed to—more and more incidents occur to me. Some I insert into the timeline. Others I don’t. Some seem trivial, hardly worth mentioning. Some I can’t write about. Some involve people I care about who might be hurt by the content. Even I am amazed seeing all this written down in one place. These events scarred me in a number of ways, I’m sure, and fed into each other, perpetuating a cycle. But they also taught me that my worth was tied up in the fact that I was a sexual object, and that worth wasn’t much. And that the world is a very hostile place, especially for girls and women.
I’m far from alone in these experiences. Get a group of five women together, and if they’re being honest, 3 or 4 of them will tell you they’ve lived through one or more of the above scenarios. Not to mention the one thing nearly every woman has experienced in one way or another (and many encounter all day, every day): unwanted sexual attention. Why do some men think it’s ok to approach women and bother them simply because they find them attractive? What’s with the entitlement? Because make no mistake, women who don’t respond well to this sort of attention often go from “beautiful” or “my future ex-wife” to “bitch” or even “cunt” in about two seconds flat. The fact that men are, by and large, bigger and stronger than women turns this scenario from annoying to terrifying in the same span, which brings me to the third lesson the bullet points above taught me: most men are stronger than I am and if they want something from me, they have the power to take it.
If you’re a woman, chances are you understand on some level what that feels like. If you’re a man, just give it some thought. Imagine that your counterparts on this planet are on average several inches taller and 50-150 pounds heavier than you and comparatively very strong. Now imagine that some of them are predators. And some of them seem harmless enough, but they just won’t leave you alone—and what if they’re not harmless? (I know small guys get bullied by big guys, but this is different. Imagine that fully half the population potentially wants something from you, be it your attention or something more, that they have no right to expect, and yet you’re the asshole if you don’t play along.)
Now. Sometimes I love attention from men. But when it’s respectful and when I clearly indicate that I want it. Guys, here is how you tell if a girl is interested: if she makes direct eye contact with you, smiles, and asks you questions, then she probably wouldn’t mind getting to know you. (If you’re British and you’re in America, you’re pretty much given an automatic green light. This is a half-joke.) If she’s mumbling, looking down, closing off her space to you, and gives short answers, she wants you to leave. She’s just been conditioned to think that she can’t say, “Get the fuck away from me.” There are LOTS OF WOMEN, I KNOW, WHO CAN SAY THAT. And who have every right. But I’m just not one of them. I can’t. I have to to think of myself first. I can’t worry that you, strange man in a bar, is going to flip out when I reject you harshly.
Jokes aside (see, feminists can be funny!), it ought to be a pretty simple concept: No means no.
Anyway, me. Throughout the grim timeline above many other things happened, most of them happier, some even wonderful. I lived my life and raised my daughter into a brilliant young woman and had flawed relationships and finally found my really, really for true love at 41*. But all that time I encountered even more of those subtle messages that seem a lot less subtle when people point them out. Like the very real fact that on average, women in the U.S. still earn a lot less money than men doing the same job; that until recently women in the U.S. paid higher insurance premiums than men; that among many men the word “woman” is an insult, and that boys and girls grow up hearing things like “stop crying like a little girl” so we can keep that cycle chugging along; that men who sleep around brag about it and get high-fives from their friends, but women who do the same are sluts or whores (and women who don’t put out are clearly frigid or just prudish or lesbians, and oh yeah, nothing wrong with a lesbian that a good stiff cock can’t fix); that the same behavior called “assertive” in men is termed “bitchy” in women. I could go on and on. And I will—just you wait.
And in all these years I have never called myself a feminist. Not because I wasn’t in favor of equality, but because I didn’t particularly want to be lumped in with those strident women (often referred to as Angry Feminists) who could never seem to shut up about what was sexist. That’s not to say I didn’t speak out when I saw inequity. I quit one of my first jobs (leaving behind a very angry resignation letter) after watching my manager pass up women who had worked there for years for promotion over and over again in favor of young men hired weeks before. I was outraged, you see. I seriously thought this kind of thing didn’t happen anymore.
Then I watched as the industry I’ve worked in for over two decades spawned a culture of misogyny and abuse that has largely gone unchallenged by the professional community. Online gaming servers are rife with everything from codified rape culture (i.e. game messages that actually say things like “You got raped by BigDog1999” and players being banned from their servers for complaining about it) to sexual harassment of women by male gamers written off by the community as “just the way it is” or “free speech” of all things. Only recently is some of this coming to light, with major influencers like Penny Arcade choosing to take the low road at pretty much every opportunity.
And I watched the Internet birth a subculture of misogynist trolls who seem to feed off a sense that they’re causing their female targets pain, anger, or even fear. Let a woman even announce that she plans, at sometime in the future, to release a video examining the roles of women in video games, and they pour out of the woodwork like cockroaches. Simply having an online presence as a woman can mean enduring a regular routine of insults and threats via Twitter, email, etc. Appear on television like my daughter and her roommates did once a few years ago, and the trolls flock to their keyboards to comment on your weight (fat bitches) your attractiveness (I wouldn’t fuck that with a rented dick) and whatever else their rotted little brains can conceive.
Now, at 47, I’m finally realizing—really realizing—that to be a girl or a woman in this country (and much of the world) is to be a member of a class still fighting for its civil rights, and also to be subject to a lot of really fucking difficult crap that someone who’s not a woman probably can’t understand. And not only do I identify as a feminist, I am becoming an Angry Feminist. I’m completely fed up with the double-standards, the condescension, the dirty politics, the constant barrage of media messages, the way we’ve been taught to be quiet and polite and how that keeps us from speaking up when we have something to say and the way some men take advantage of that fact to bulldoze us. And when we do speak up—when something really matters and we sit in a room full of men to make our cases—heaven forbid we should show any emotion.
Lucky for me, the quiet and polite training didn’t take. I’ve always had a habit of speaking my mind—but that hasn’t stopped some overbearing men from shouting me down (and some of these are men who probably consider themselves progressive if not feminist and certainly not sexist or misogynist). And I’m ready to talk about all this stuff. I don’t intend to take every single person I meet to task for every act or word that might be interpreted as sexist or damaging to girls and women, but if I think it’s important, I’ll write about it. You bet I will.
So, yeah. This is my story, the Bad Parts version, by way of explaining how I got here, to this place, to this website, and also because I think we have to talk about it—the good, the bad, the horrifying—if we want things to change. It took me nearly half a century to wake up, but here I am in my bathrobe, drinking my coffee, working out a plan for the next 50 years. I don’t care what names people call me or what assumptions they make. I don’t hate men. I love men. (Yes, some men have done terrible things to me, but far more have been my friends and family and colleagues and mentors and heroes.) But I have no tolerance for misogynists and misogynistic policies and attitudes which are so commonplace and accepted in these oh-so-superior and socially advanced United States that some men (and women!) engage in them without even realizing it. I want to help change that.
I recently saw a TEDTalk by Courtney Martin of Feministing.com (if you want to see misogyny in action, have a look at the comments) in which she talked about this overwhelm I’m feeling. That sense that there’s just too much wrong for one person to make a difference. Her advice is to “act in the face of overwhelm.” That’s what I’m doing. I will fight this war on as many fronts as I have to so that maybe my granddaughters won’t grow up thinking that the world views them as somehow less. So that media stops treating us as objects and our culture starts treating us like equal members of society. So we can walk down the street without feeling like prey.
NOTE: For those of you tempted to bring up the fact that men have it rough too and there are policies that are unfair to men, rest assured that I am aware. That’s not what this article, this conversation, this blog, is about. There are all kinds of inequities in the world. I know that. But in my country, the United States of America, a lot of rich white men and their corporate sponsors are making decisions about women’s health without involving women in the conversation. Teenage boys think it’s cool to talk about slappin’ bitches and hos. Rape is still a punchline and a sports analogy. That’s the conversation I’m having here, and this is my house. If you want to talk about misandry or the evils of feminism, go start your own blog.
PSA: Abusive commenters will be deleted and banned, so kindly piss off in advance. (Comment Policy)
Why I Won’t Publish Your Comments About False Rape Accusations (Rethink the Rant)
I Am Jane Doe (MMAS)
10 Things Rape Is Not (MMAS)