We talk about how vulnerable women are. None of us has been raped but we have between the three of us experienced a fair amount of sexual interference, violence and harassment.
I begin to make a chronological list of all the times when 'bad' things happened, when situations went awry, when things could have escalated and become so much worse.
I am 9 years old and one of the youngest in my school van. The driver is a grizzly man well into his 60s. We are told to call him 'uncle'. A girl who is in my class at school travels in the same van. One day we are both instructed to henceforth sit in the front - a coveted spot (since most of the back of the van is windowless) and we readily agree. As it turns out the front seat is even more of a crush. We are placed next to 'uncle'. The van is a manual drive (what wasn't in those days?) and our driver has his modus operandi down pat – while changing gear, he sticks out his little and ring fingers and drags them up the thigh of the child who was sitting closest to him. Very often he succeeds in pushing our skirts up, exposing thigh and getting a chance to touch bare flesh.
I am 11. At a 'spend the day' at a relations' house, one of our aged uncles comes up behind me, snakes his hand into my shirt, squeezes what he finds and hurries away. My parents are chatting to his wife in the next room. I am horrified and frightened but I think – that can't have been what I thought that was, he is a relative, we come here all the time, I must have been mistaken.
I am 14. My best friend and I are surrounded by boys at our school fair. Held in the centre of an inescapable circle outside the temporary discotheque, we are groped and pinched and squeezed. I start to cry. She screams. The circle breaks and we were free.
15 years old. I am in a strangers' house because a friend of mine is in love with an unsuitable boy and has brought all of us to a party hosted by one of his friends. 'The slows' are playing. I am dancing with a member of the unsuitable suitors' posse. He pulls me too close. His hands travel. I push him and say I don't want to dance anymore. "Don't be a spoilsport' he says 'You know you like it. You look like you like it'.
16 years old and another party. I am wearing pants, a shirt and a vest. All of them loose fitting - my idea of fading into the background. A good friends' brother asks me to dance. I know this boy. He is older and is usually instructed to watch over us. He always teases and mocks me and I don't for a moment think he is interested in me so dancing with him seems like a safe option. Suddenly he slips his hands under my vest and tries to kiss me. I run out of the room. When I complain to my friend she confronts him. There are tears and tantrums. She tells me 'He is sorry. He is drunk and didn't know what he was doing'. When I get home I tell my mother what happened. She says "Bouche, you must always remember this, drinking does not turn you into someone else, it just exposes who you really are. Alcohol is never an excuse for behavior like that."
When my memory begins to cough up incidents from my late teens and twenties I realize I can't go on. The list is simply going to get too long and my escapes too narrow.
I learned many lessons from all the 'bad' things that happened or nearly happened. Take that van driver episode, at that time I didn't see his actions as sexual, I simply found it 'yucky' and knew I didn't like it. I also recognized it as something he shouldn't be doing. So did this loud mouth complaint artist go home and tell her parents? Did she talk to the mother she trusted and the father who adored her? No she did not, instead, my classmate and I talked about it. We weren't able to identify the problem, we just knew that we dreaded sitting next to him. So we agreed on what we thought was a fair solution - we would take it in turns. One day she would sit next to him. The next day I would. We would thereby share the yuckiness. And we did, for well over a year.
This taught me something very important – kids very rarely tell. No matter how much you build trust, encourage conversation and present an open front, kids are easily cowed and will find ways to rationalize abuse, ,many times for fear of upsetting the adults in their lives - 'No, they pay him to take me to school so they must trust him' or 'No he is our uncle. We come here every week, they must love him'. Under all that is uncertainty 'I am a child and I don't understand this so I must be wrong'.
Getting older doesn't always make this better. Yes we understand that what is being done is wrong but other uncertainties come into it. As women we tend to blame ourselves – 'I shouldn't have had so much to drink, I shouldn't have worn that dress, I shouldn't have got into his car, I shouldn't have flirted'...and of course thanks to the general trend of victim blaming and patriarchal cultural and social norms, we are taught that pointing an accusing finger at ourselves is exactly what we should be doing.
The fight to change this is one that is being fought publicly and loudly. But it is far from being won.
Coq Au Vin and I sit down with our three children. We ask if they have seen the Stanford story, we talk about her letter, his fathers' letter, the sentencing. We talk about consent, alcohol, partying and entitlement.
We also talk about heroism – those two students, on their bikes, who saw something that didn't look right and had the guts to stop and check it out. Think of it, if they hadn't gone over, Brock Turner would have finished his '20 minutes of action' and wandered away into the night leaving that girl unconscious, nude and violated behind that dumpster. She may never have been able to identify her attacker. He would be back in the pool and ready to do the same thing to another girl, and then another.
My sister and I tell our children that one of the most important lessons to be learned is right there. How often do we turn away from things that don't look ok? Our gut tells us something is wrong but we move on anyway, out of embarrassment, a desire not to intrude, a fear of being wrong, the fatal logic of 'it's none of my business'... We tell them that we all need to look out for each other, so if they see something that looks or sounds off, then please check it out.
Ultimately what haunts me most about this case is the reaction of Turner's father. I can imagine how completely devastating it must be to contemplate that your child, who you raised with love and care, is a vile creature, capable of rape, but to care more for his swimming career and his reputation? To not have the humanity and decency to see that the life that has been truly shattered is that of the girl in question? I totally understand the instinct to fight and save your child, but to reduce the value of someone else's life to do it?
As parents, all of us invest a lot in trying to protect our children. Thanks to Brock Turner and his father I have been asking myself - have I done enough to ensure that nobody needs to be protected from my son?
When Trou and I get home, I give him a hug. When I look into his eyes I see, as I have always done, my whole world in them. If someone accused him of rape I would say – that's impossible. He would never. Not my son. Not my baby.
God help me, next I will be talking about how many hours he spends playing the guitar and how he loves eating waffles and collecting superhero action figures. Like any of that means he would never rape someone.
I think of who he is, of all the important influences in his life and how he has been raised.
I ask myself – have I done enough?
I urge you to please ask yourself the same. Our children go out into the world, and try as we might, we cannot control what happens to them out there. The world will have its effect on them. But as long as they are our children, how we raise them, shapes the effect they have on the world. And for that, we are responsible. Totally responsible.
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