I watched a lot of the Senate hearing today with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. I heard most of Judge Kavanaugh’s opening statement, but couldn’t listen to his questioning because it was after school and I didn’t want Bel to hear it. Her story rings very true for me. The fact that it was 36 years ago does not diminish her credibility one bit.
In 8th and 9th grades, I hung out with a group of guys who prided themselves on their bad behavior. We lived in a small, isolated town that seemed to pride itself on its boys’ bad behavior and its history of boys with bad behavior.
Some years ago, schools and society started talking more about bullying and seemed to broaden the definition of bullying beyond what I understood it to be when I was growing up. As I learned the new definition, I came to realize that with this new understanding, I had been bullied in 8th and 9th grade by this group of guys. Listening to today’s testimony, I realized that I had been sexually assaulted by some of them and others in their presence in 8th grade. It’s not that I had forgotten what happened, I just never thought about it that way. In that town, “Boys will be boys” was the rule. I had accepted it.
Looking back on those guys as an adult, I see the leader, the oldest, who didn’t like to get his hands dirty, but liked to encourage others to do just that. He would push things right to the brink and then he would step back to watch, always innocent. I see his brother, the youngest of the group, who certainly took part in the bullying, but never sexual assault. He had a line he wouldn’t cross. And he was the only one who ever apologized to me for any of it. There were a couple who I think were bullied in their families who probably liked being the one with the power. And there was at least one lost soul, whose life had been such a mess that he couldn’t even find a compass, much less read it.
I had an experience once very similar to the one described by Dr. Ford. It wasn’t a party. It was a church youth retreat. My friends had figured out a way to smuggle in a cooler full of beer. And so after the evening activities were done, the boys all went outside and got drunk. I was inside with the rest of the girls. I had a crush on a boy who was not a part of that main group and everybody knew it. So my “friend,” the leader of the group, coaxed me outside after making sure that this other boy was plenty drunk. Thankfully, he had done too good of a job in getting him drunk. He could hardly stand and as he tried to pull me off into the woods, we fell. He groped and slobbered all over me, but he wasn’t able to drag me away from the building. Like Dr. Ford, I have a very vivid memory of the incident. I can remember leaning against the building with the kitchen window over my head, wishing someone was in there washing dishes. But they weren’t. I could hear the rest of the guys all running through the woods, laughing and screaming. But I was alone with this boy who was on the football team and much bigger than me and I didn’t think he was cute anymore. In those few minutes, he was just gross, smelling of beer and slobbering kisses all over me. He kept trying to stand up and pull me with him, but he couldn’t get his balance. But he managed to hold on to me pretty tightly with no problem. Finally, someone opened the door and the light flooded out. It distracted him and I wiggled free. I ran for the door. I went back inside and sat down with the girls. I didn’t tell anyone what had happened. But I stayed with the group from then on.
I have always thought back on this with relief that I wasn’t raped. I honestly never thought of it as sexual assault until today. I somehow thought this kind of thing was normal. That it happens to most people. Maybe it does. But it shouldn’t.
The bullying was different. There wasn’t usually alcohol involved. A lot of it happened at school. If you’ve never had a handful of pennies “chunked” at you as you walk to your homeroom class, let me tell you it isn’t fun. I would be plucked in the back of the head repeatedly. I was called a slut and a whore. They would come beat on my bedroom windows at night. You know that scene in “The Outsiders” when they are heading out to the rumble and they are all screaming and jumping and banging on things like they’re wild? That’s the kind of noise I would hear outside my window. After a while, I stopped turning on the light in my room. I’d stay with my family as long as possible and then go change into my pajamas in the dark and go to bed. I had a job after school that was two blocks away and that walk was always terrifying. I never knew if I would run into them on the way. These are the things that happened to me my freshman year of high school. But in 8th grade, when they were still my friends, I remember being held by my wrists and ankles so that someone could beat me with a ping pong paddle as we all played ping pong in my garage after school. I remember being held down (along with another girl) as one of them shook his penis in our faces. This is the behavior I came to expect from my “friends.”
Even though I didn’t call this “bullying” for a long time, I knew that it had done it’s damage to me. I knew that this wasn’t normal, that this didn’t happen all the time. But when the adults finally got clued in, nothing really happened. I just didn’t have my “friends” anymore.
So today I’m wondering as I heard Dr. Ford talk about how that experience changed her life. I’ve always accepted that the bullying did. I’ve never really thought twice about the attempted rape. Maybe I need to give that some more thought too. Maybe I need to go back to therapy and bring all this up again. I know it shaped me and I don’t want it to have shaped me. I want to push back against it. Lots of things have happened since then that shaped me too. I don’t want to think about high school anymore.
If one of those guys were nominated to the Supreme Court or running for office, I’m not sure what I would do. I can understand Dr. Ford’s initial attempt to report her experience without having to really report it. She just wanted someone to know without her having to really get involved. But that didn’t work. Her courage today was inspiring. As I write this down I keep considering just deleting it all and not posting it. I can’t imagine talking about these things on Capitol Hill in front of TV cameras. I don’t know where all of those guys ended up, but I don’t think I need to worry about this.
I do worry about my daughter though. I don’t want her to be treated like I was. And yet somehow I expect it to happen. Do I still believe that all boys are like this? Do I still believe that it is normal for a boy to try to rape a girl? Or do I worry that if these things aren’t normal, then I did something to cause them to happen to me? Is it my pride that won’t let me think that she won’t have this kind of experience? I want her to want to be a girl. And I want her to have really good friends who are boys. Real friends. Friends who will stand up to those who try to bully or assault her. Friends that she will talk to if something does happen. Friends that will support her and love her. I know her life won’t be perfect. It hasn’t been so far. But I hope that by the time she is a teenager, things will have changed at least a little and we won’t make excuses for boys or men who behave badly.
I love the way girls have taken over the “like a girl” phrase and turned it on its head. Let’s do that for boys too. I’m OK with boys being boys. I’m not OK with boys being monsters. I’m not OK with boys being rapists or attempted rapists. I’m not OK with boys being abusers. I’m not OK with boys being bullies. Let’s let them be boys.