The news this week has been filled with headlines about Brock Turner and rape culture. As a woman and a mother of two girls, it has been a stark reminder of what it is like to live in this world dominated by violence, sexism, and “good ‘ol boy” attitudes. Growing up in the South, I’ve been groomed to accept that I should always take a man with me when negotiating car sales, arranging house repairs, or hiring lawn maintenance crews. I automatically park in well-lit parking spaces as close to the store as possible if grocery shopping at night and I lock my doors as soon as I get in my vehicle to leave. I’m not surprised when my husband calls to check on us when the girls and I walk home from the park at dusk. As a teenager and young adult, I was never surprised to hear the catcalls of men driving by while I was jogging near the road – it was just expected that if you were female, men would holler at you. Eventually I quit jogging out in public because it was so stressful for me to ignore the rude comments and yelling. At clubs, I became accustomed to the hands that traveled over my chest and backside as I made my way through the crowd to the restroom or bar. I told myself it was unreasonable to expect anything else. In the workplace, I forced myself to laugh at the jokes my male co-workers and bosses made about my body or another woman’s shape after I was called “uptight” for objecting and told to “loosen up.” And then there was that time I said “no” repeatedly to someone I’d just met, but because I had invited him over to my house I felt like I wasn’t allowed to fight back. I’m sure he still thinks it was consensual.
When I gave birth to my first daughter, I swore I would raise her to be a strong, proud, and empowered woman. I read her stories of goddesses, taught her not to be ashamed of her body, talked openly about genitalia, using all the proper anatomical names. I bought her shirts that proclaimed “Girls rock!” We studied famous female role models and discussed how gender doesn’t define who we are. One day we were walking around downtown and as we were about to enter an enclosed sidewalk tunnel under the highway overpass, I saw a group of young men headed towards us. Suddenly I found myself tugging her small arm and frantically whispering “Cross the street with me now!” She looked up at me with wide innocent eyes and asked “but why, Mommy?” It was then that I realized I had no words to explain rape culture to her 8 year old mind – but that I had demonstrated it by forcing her to cross the street with me because I was afraid for our safety. Actions speak louder than words and in that one moment I conveyed to my little girl that all the empowering stories and knowledge of her body I’d given her meant nothing when faced with the fear that results from living in rape culture. The lesson she learned from me that day was that a group of young men may decide to overpower her and her mommy, and that her mommy was scared enough of this possibility to move out of their way. She saw that in real life fear reigns supreme over knowledge. Women must fear men – that is what I’d taught my little girl. I had failed as a woman and a mother raising a daughter.
I still do not know how protect her or her little sister from the effects of rape culture. This continues to break my heart, but with regular headlines about famous men like Josh Duggar, Bill Cosby, and Jameis Winston escaping punishment for their crimes, I do not know what else to teach them anymore. So I give my girls the best survival skills I can: lock your doors, travel in pairs, always have your cell phone charged, keep an alarm on your keychain, and if you see a man coming towards you when you are alone always always cross the road.