You’d rather write about the charming side of your town, and for the most part you do. But this week your town has shown its not-so-charming side. Two brothers aged eighteen and twenty were arrested for sexual assault. A number of other young people are afraid that they might be next because they were at the party where the alleged assault took place—with cameras in hand. A young person was victimized; his life altered. And so you want to write about your town and what it’s going through because people are shaken up about it. But where do you start? Your children are the same age as these children. They’ve known some of them since preschool.
You want to write about the mother you spoke to today whose fourteen-year-old daughter was groped at her first high school dance, a place you’d expect her to be safe. You want to write about how strange it is, adolescence. How that window of time between trading Pokemon cards and being hormonally charged is so small, so small that you barely have time to catch your breath. You want to talk about this terrible thing that happened in your town like it’s an isolated incident but this is nothing new and your town is not unique. You write about your town and you write about every town and a culture that has allowed it to go on and on and on. You write about how it was going on when you were in middle school and the boys chased you at recess and knocked you onto the grass and stuck their hands up your shirt and you write about it now because back then you didn’t tell anyone because you had it in your mind that it was just playful playground fun—even though it didn’t feel like fun to you.
You want to write about all of this and more, but putting it in words is difficult. The thoughts are coming from so many different places and what you need to do is set the thoughts aside for a while and write from that place in your gut that’s holding it all in. You want to write and you don’t want to write because it’s going to take you places you’ve been avoiding. It’s going to take you places that you’ve held in secret for about thirty years and it’s going to make you feel vulnerable because somehow you still have it in your head that it was your fault, that you put yourself in a bad situation and so ultimately you are responsible. You hate feeling vulnerable.
You’re going to say things about boys that have most likely grown in to decent human beings, stellar community members, charitable donors to their local nonprofits. But you decide to write it now because it’s the only way you can express what’s going on inside of you when you hear about these two young men who have been arrested for sexual assault.
You knew boys like those boys in your school days. They were the kids the teachers liked. They were the kids you liked. They played basketball and football. They were witty and popular and you wanted their attention so badly. And so when they gave it to you it felt like a privilege. You with the crooked teeth, that lived on the wrong side of town, that had a step-father who wouldn’t talk to you and a father who never called wanted the attention of those boys and when they gave it you certainly didn’t want to tell them no. And so they asked you to hang out with them after school one day and you said yes and it never occurred to you that you’d be the only girl. And you went with them anyhow because you didn’t know not to trust them. You went to one of the boys’ houses a few blocks from school. His dad was home and so you went instead into their camp trailer that was parked in their front yard. You don’t remember much about the camp trailer, just being shoved down on a little folding bed, and someone undoing your pants and another someone pulling them off your legs and there was laughing and you didn’t know you were crying until you felt the tears running down the side of your face and one of them put his head to your privates and said things and did things that in your naivety you never knew were things to do and the humiliation was more than you could bear and so when it was over you laughed along with them and pretended it was no big deal and then you walked home, alone and ashamed. At home you ate dinner and watched Three’s Company with your mom and your little sister and your silent step-dad. You talked on the phone with your friend for a while and you never said a word about what happened because you thought somehow you should have seen it coming. You should have known not to go with them. You should have been smarter. You should have been prettier because the boys probably didn’t do that to the prettiest girls. You should have, you should have, you should have and it never even occurred to you until several years later that the should-haves weren’t yours to own.
And so you want to write about your town and what it’s going through, because what your town is going through is a terrible thing. But it’s been going on for ages. The humiliating, the bullying, the assaulting, the tricking, the teasing, the hurting. All of is has been going on in varying degrees in every town. Your town is not unique. The actions the two boys in your town have been accused of are not so uncommon. What’s uncommon is their being called on it. Victims blame themselves. They try to protect their dignity and even their assailants with silence because the assailants are the good guys; they’re popular, the teachers like them, they make your town look good on the playing field. But silence is more terrible than truth. It perpetuates the belief that it’s okay. It’s okay to rape a girl if she’s wearing a short skirt. It’s okay to mess with the drunk kid. It’s okay to tease the kid with a learning disability. It’s okay to shame a girl for having sex. It’s okay to shame a boy for not having sex. It’s okay to beat up the gay kid. It’s okay to pull the pants off the girl who was stupid enough to follow you into the camp trailer.
It has to end somewhere. At some point you have to say enough. It’s not okay. And sure, what your town is going through is a difficult thing, but it’s necessary. It’s breaking the pattern of silence.
You write about it now, not because you want attention or sympathy. You write about it now because there is this hope that by not brushing a society’s dark secrets aside, by saying something, by doing something, you’ll make a difference. You write about it now because when you were thirteen you couldn’t articulate the truth of the matter: it’s not okay to hurt someone, grope someone, touch someone without consent even if they’re passed out drunk, even if they’ve flirted with you, even if they’ve wandered off with you. You write because you hope for a future where open communication reigns and where victims don’t feel responsible for the actions perpetrated against them. You write because there should be no excuses and no free passes when it comes to harming another human being. You write, not because you have any answers, but because you have something to say. You believe that when it comes to teaching respect and dignity we all have something to say.