In sixth grade, my math teacher made all of the prettiest girls sit in the front row because “it makes teaching more interesting.”
In college, I wrote a research paper on ancient universities and, as a one-line aside, noted that many educators also had sexual relationships with their students. My professor scrawled on the side, “If this is something you think should still be in practice, come see me.”
In my early 20s, I complained about my credit card bills at dinner. A family acquaintance followed me into the bathroom, put his hands on my chest and said he would pay off my debt if I…
Do you know what I did in all of those circumstances?
Not. A. Damn. Thing.
Because I wasn’t super pretty or smart or athletic. And my mindset then was that if I didn’t have any of that going for me, then I better darn well be nice. And “nice girls” don’t stir the pot. They don’t snitch that Mr. B told us 11-year-old girls that if he puts his hands on our backs and feels us breathe, he can tell if we have allergies. They don’t go into their professor’s office to throw a paper that took months to write into their face. And they don’t cause drama in the family by outing the creepy come-ons of a “friend.”
None of these, plus dozens of similar instances, happened when I was walking alone wearing a mini-skirt in a dark alley (you know, if I was “asking for it.”) These all happened in regular daily life—in school, at work and with people I knew. Places that should have been “safe.”
We cannot pretend that anywhere our children go is isolated from predatory energy. The big question is, how do we prepare our kids to stand up to people abusing positions of power and trust without making them terrified to leave the house? What it simmers down to is that we, as well-meaning guardians of our innocent babes, foster a victim culture without even recognizing it.
We make harassment feel expected instead of exceedingly wrong.
“Don’t walk at night alone. Park under lights. Go out in groups. Don’t show too much skin. Lock your doors. Don’t talk to strangers.”
Instead of instilling power, we are establishing a bad-things-are-out-there-waiting-for-you tone from a young age. And growing up with that mindset left me and, judging from all of the stories pouring out following the online #metoo campaign lately, many of you in a position to do…nothing.
It is our duty to keep our children safe, and that means teaching them what is and is not acceptable and that they have the power to speak up—and when they do, they will be heard, believed and supported.
“I remember being 18 and my manager always made comments on ‘how nice my ass was,’ says my friend Margot, who lives in Cape Elizabeth. “I was very upset and told my mom and dad what happened and that I wanted to quit. My parents forced me to go back, told me to look him in the eye and tell him he was sexually harassing me and I didn’t have to take it. As a young girl I was mortified, but I did it. Today, I am so proud that they made me do that. Not only did I not quit, I continued to work there after I faced him because I felt confident and empowered. And he left me alone.”
We need to raise more pot-stirrers. More “Get your hand off my back, give me an A for my brilliant paper, I will pay off my own damn debt” spirits who will never be able to say #metoo.
Maggie Knowles writes about all things kid. She and her family live in Yarmouth, where she gardens, keeps bees and refuses to get rid of her stilettos.