The first time I can remember being sexually harassed, I was 11 going on 12. Sound shocking? It isn’t. In a new viral Twitter campaign started by the Everyday Sexism project, using the hashtag #WhenIWas, women have been sharing similar experiences. For many women, childhood ends abruptly due to normalized harassment from the boys and grown men in their lives.
— EverydaySexism (@EverydaySexism) April 19, 2016
— Van Badham (@vanbadham) April 19, 2016
Eleven had been a big year for me — I knew I’d be entering the strange, new world of my teen years soon. It was the year I saw the movie Clueless for the first time and had learned what the word “virgin” meant. And thanks to Judy Blume’s wonderfully informative book, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, I knew that I should expect my period soon, but I didn’t want it just yet — I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to childhood.
It was also the year I’d became enamored with the ’90s concept of “Girl Power” — I knew the words to the Spice Girl’s hit Wannabe by heart, and I had snagged my first pair of platform flip flops (which I’d long coveted from the Delia’s catalogue). I was feeling very proud as I wore them out to a Mexican restaurant with my family. But what happened as I walked to the restroom made me suddenly feel ashamed of my body and self-conscious in my new shoes. I noticed some old drunks with long, yellowish white beards in a booth by the restroom were staring at me. This felt confusing because I’d never been looked at like this by a grown-up — all the adults in my life had treated me like what I was — a child. “Come here, you pretty little thing,” slurred one of the old men. “Come talk to us, sweetie.”
I felt a wave of panic hit my body — this wasn’t what I’d wanted when I’d worn those shoes. I was just playing dress-up. While my ’90s idols may have been super sexualized, I was still very much a child. Just minutes ago, I’d gotten into an argument with my parents about not eating vegetables because I’d insisted on ordering a bowl of croutons and a side of ranch dressing as my main course (What can I say? I was difficult).
Months later, I got my period and my world changed completely. The tree-lined suburban streets where I’d once biked around happily with my friends suddenly started to feel dangerous. I knew if I walked my dog across the bridge by the highway, cars would honk at me and grown men would yell sexual slurs at me — sometimes they’d even throw their garbage at me while calling me demeaning names. I now knew to avoid streets where construction was being done, because I’d have to encounter an entire group of grown-up men, and everyone knew they were worse in packs. And I knew not to play with that one weird guy’s dog anymore by the ice cream store, because he’d started making sexual innuendos to my school friends and me.
Once I got to junior high, the game changed completely — now older boys would regularly grope us as they walked past us in the hallways and cafeterias. Football players started pinning me to lockers so they could grope my thighs. All under the watchful but entirely useless eye of the “adults” at our school.
Developing at a young age and having people decide they’re sexually interested in you — not just boys your own age but adult men, too — was terrifying. And I’m not alone. Check out some of the stories women shared on Twitter.
#WhenIWas 13, the catcalls started. Catcalls from grown men. I was a child.
— Karla (@anxiouslatina) April 19, 2016
#WhenIWas 16 on a school trip I was drugged by a man at a hostel. He attempted to rape me. Police said I was old enough to know better.
— Lydia Hulme (@EllesieBean) April 19, 2016
One thing these tweets make painfully clear is how adults were often responsible for or complicit in the harassment women dealt with as children. Many teachers, coaches and, for some women, even parents failed to do their jobs — to protect the girls they were charged with raising.
For me, like many women, getting cat-called and street-harassed is still a part of my daily life. Just the other day, an old dude wandered over to me when I was trying to make a phone call on the street and dramatically asked me to marry him. When I didn’t bother dignifying his crazy-talk with a response, he started viciously calling me a “whore” and a “slut” in Spanish.
We all have different tactics when it comes to dealing with street harassment. Some women like to take the opportunity to educate the men who harass them on the spot — and power to them. But that’s not me. I feel like men have already wasted enough of my time with their comments about my body, so these days I do my best to tune them out like background noise. When I’m out with friends, I often hear them say, “Oh my god, did you hear what the creep in the car just said to us?” and I can usually honestly tell them I haven’t. I try not to allow people who harass me on the street to occupy any part of my mental space — they don’t deserve my time or energy.
I just hope the next generation doesn’t have to develop these kind of coping tactics.