The other day on Facebook, I noticed a friend had referenced the MeToo stories circulating on social media, in which women acknowledged the sexual harassment and assault they’d faced. Her post mentioned how she’d experienced MeToo moments in elementary school, middle school, high school, and on into adulthood. I paused at that, wondering about sexual harassment that occurs when we’re that young.
Then I remembered a couple incidents in my own childhood. Oh, yeah.
The first MeToo story I can recall took place in 6th grade. A boy who sat across from me in English class had apparently been annoyed with me that day; maybe we’d had an argument. I don’t recall what prefaced his outburst, but what I DO remember were his narrowed eyes and his exclamation of “Flat-chested!” hurled at me as an insult.
I was not even 12.
That particular comment hurt me very little, actually (I didn’t think much of this boy, anyway). But my second MeToo experience caused far more damage.
The summer I was 13, I’d bought a new one-piece bathing suit. A rainbow of pastels, with a little ruffle around the hips, the suit initially came without straps. After trying unsuccessfully to wear this suit (and maneuver in the waves) at the beach strapless, I went home and sewed on some elastic strips from my mama’s sewing basket (after I tried dying them in a bath of purple dye made from food coloring; the tint held for one wearing, but the straps themselves lasted.) The straps I’d made looped over my shoulders and held up what was–to me–the perfect swim suit.
Later that summer, our church youth group packed the church van and drove to a big, busy, crowded water park for their “faith and family” day, or something like that: Christian bands were slated to play, for instance. Several of my friends and I started that day at the wave pool, which is what it sounds like–a pool with mechanically generated waves. If you pushed through the waves, you could reach the opposite side of the pool, which was a regular swimming pool. That’s where we were headed.
My friends moved faster than I did through the waves, but I was making progress by myself. About that time, a curly-haired boy about my age made eye contact and smiled at me. I don’t remember smiling back; I was preoccupied with getting to the side of the pool with my youth group friends. A minute or so later, I noticed that he had walked closer.
The next moment, I saw him swim by–behind me–and felt a noticeable pinch on my rear end. He surfaced a few feet away, smiling and half waving at me. I was incensed. Livid. Absolutely indignant. And I did something in response that I probably shouldn’t have done on “faith and family” day at the water park, with youth group friends and chaperones around. I flipped this boy off. Without even giving it much consideration, I stuck up my middle finger and glared at him, then I kept making my way, alone and feeling more so by the minute, to the spot where my friends were swimming.
I practically shook with rage. How dare he do something like that to me? What makes him think he can do that to MY body–pinch me on the butt–just because he wants to? And I’m supposed to accept it, just like that, because he felt like doing it?
I didn’t have enough language at such a tender age to put words to all that this incident surfaced in my heart and mind. And I don’t think I told anybody. Not a soul. Because even then–in the summer of 1987, at 13 years old–I think I assumed that this was just “something boys do.” I also remember thinking something along the lines of this being the “first time” I’d gotten pinched on the rear by a boy–as if I expected it to happen other times, too, and there’d be nothing I could do to stop it.
I’m raising boys, so maybe there’s something I can do to stop it–simply keep teaching my boys that there are parts of our bodies (including their own) nobody else can touch without that person’s permission, for starters.
I’ve never actually regretted flipping that boy off that day at the pool, although he looked properly stunned when he saw my gesture. If I had to choose, I’d still prefer that 13-year-old Allison to have reacted the way she had–instead of shrugging it off as just “something boys do.”
*For the record, I know not ALL boys do this. Nor do all men perpetuate harassment or assault. And I am thankful for those men. Women need good men in our lives, and we need to raise our sons to BE good men.