*Editor’s Note: Elephant Journal articles represent the personal views of the authors, and can not possibly reflect Elephant Journal as a whole. Disagree with an Op-Ed or opinion? We’re happy to share your experience here.
Oh, and warning: salty language follows.
The first time I posted this tweet, I received more than 200 comments within the first 30 minutes—all from women with similar experiences to my own.
There’s a twisted comfort in knowing you’re not alone, especially when it’s something you’ve carried in the darkest corner of your soul for decades.
To solve any problem, we have to name it—to say what happened. Then figure out why. Then comes the how—the how to stop it from happening again. It would be lovely to just skip to the end, but that’s not how healing works. We have to sit with this and feel it. Listen to these women, to ourselves, and think about ways of working toward the solution…and then do it.
But also, now is not the time to respond with “not all men” or “but boys…too.” Let us have this moment to shine some light into this box of fear and shame that we’ve hidden deep in the back corner. Let’s drag all that shit out right now, not blaming and shaming, but in an effort to heal our own wounds and scars…and make damn well sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.
So, here are just a few of the comments from our readers and others around the internet. Of the more than 500 comments, most were just listing an age. A hasty scan shows that most of those were in the four to eight years old age range. That is when we’re meant to be playing innocently, learning about life, exploring, and creating—not living in fear and shame. Fear and shame that we’ll take into our adult lives, our relationships, our careers, and the fear and shame that will also determine our relationship with our own bodies. Please leave your comments at the bottom of this article. It’s scary to speak up and share, but we have to get this out. This is not our shame or burden to carry anymore.
“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” ~ Brené Brown
These are just a few of the unedited reader comments…in their own words:
“I know I was younger than 6 because of the house I was in. I was playing with a balloon that, to me, looked like a bottle. I thought I was being funny by sucking on the end and telling my mom, “look! I’m a baby!” My parents’ friend who was visiting that day said, “She’ll make some guy very happy.” He and my dad laughed and my mom had a look on her face that stuck with me…I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t understand what any of that meant.”
“4 or 5, my grandpa French kissed me…my grandma saw it and did nothing.”
“I was around 4 or 5. Main reason why I have trust issues. And honestly, it’s one of the memories I want to delete from my mind permanently.”
“Still losing baby teeth, a ‘family friend’ said something along the lines of a tongue kiss being able to slip thru the gaps???”
“Typed my answer 3 times now, can’t hit send, but yea.”
“Yes, I was 9 and had developed early. Walking past construction sites was a nightmare and even crossing the street didn’t stop the obscene gestures, whistles, and mock kissing noises.”
“I was 7 when an older cousin touched me inappropriately. I was 8 when [a] stranger flashed me in the parking lot while waiting for my dad. I was 10 when my babysitter’s uncle fondled me. I was 11 when my father started to sexually abuse me. And honestly, I got to a point where I just started to believe there was something I was doing, saying, or projecting out into the world that was drawing all this pain to me. Some days, it’s hard not to believe that.”
“I was abused sexually from around 4/5 and was raped by my grandad when I was 11/12. I was sexually abused all through my teenage years. Took me a long time to heal from that.”
“I was 3 or 4. Several uncles who were brothers…my mom’s cousins. Then when I was in 2nd grade, one of my aunt’s gentlemen callers, then in 6th grade, some high school? college kid?…then more…I read this post and these answers and realized that I am 52, and I still remember vividly and I still feel the shame.”
“Sadly, I’m sure many are/were in the resultant situation as I found myself in. When I told my mother what had happened, she refused to believe it!! You can imagine, I’ve lived with not just the act/acts but, I’ve also had to live with this on my own! I’m now 57 yrs old and suffering depression for some 30+ years. To others that had to endure this, please take a little comfort in knowing, you’re not alone.”
“I’m not sure how old I was but it’s my earliest memory and like all of us, as much as I’ve tried to deal with it in a healthy manner, my entire life I continue to be haunted by it.”
“I think it was around six or seven. Even at 70 years old. that experience and every detail is etched in my mind forever. I vividly remember it down to every last detail.”
“4? and thought it was the norm or what all girls had to deal with, i just accepted it. I didnt know it wasnt normal until i had to go to court at 15 or 16 and tell a room full of people the ‘normal’ things done to me by my friend’s dad.”
“Abused at 6-7 by an older family member, had grown men making lewd comments to me at 10-11, a 40 year old molested me at 15 at work. Our boss sexualized me until I was 21 and no longer interesting to him.”
“Growing up in the 80s and walking most places, I’ve seen more male genitalia before the age of 12 than I’ve seen my whole adult life.”
“6 yrs old babysitter
7 yrs old 2nd grade teacher
14 yrs old Police officer
Yeah I have a problem with authority figures to this day…”
“I was in kindergarten. I remember it making me feel dirty or like there was something wrong with me, or like I had done something wrong for someone to be saying these things to me.”
“How are you guys remembering this? I literally could not if I tried. I don’t remember a time that this was not just part of life and being a female.”
Why didn’t they tell?
“I was maybe 7 or 8. It was my older step-brother. He and his friend tried a lot of stuff with my sisters and I. When we told my dad, he thought we were exaggerating and pretty much blew us off. He’s a good man, I just don’t think he could wrap his mind around it.”
“Gosh so young! Maybe 4? Still remember like yesterday tho. I did not know anything was wrong when the neighborhood boys (older than me) wanted me to strip and lay down so they could all look and poke and prod around. We did not hide so well and my father found out. I will never forget how ashamed I felt when my father told me to never allow that to happen again. He did not mean to make me feel bad…He just did not have the tools to deal… Anyway…he left by the time I was 10 and things only got much worse.”
“I was in first grade. Boy crept up and put his hand in my panties. I yelled out and the teacher put me outside as a lesson. I ran home.”
“I think i was about 6. And there was an older boy that asked me to pull down my pants i did not understand WHY. so i told me grandmother who yelled at me and said didn’t i tell you not to be alone with boys.”
“When I was 5 and in kindergarten one of the boys twisted my arm and kissed me. I know it sounds trivial, but I went home and told dad. He taught me a few moves on how to break fingers…I still know those moves. He told me how precious I was and to never allow anything close to this to happen again. Then he drew an anchor on my arm (like Popeye’s). I’m going back 55 years, but this situation was a building stone for my self-esteem that stuck with me. As I got older, he’d teach me more.”
When reading those comments, I feel such anger, sadness, shock, and hopelessness at how many of us were made to feel shame and fear at such a young age—for what? Yeah, I know that “society was different then” and other bullshit excuses like that, but you know I still don’t buy it. I know that certain people in my own environment were whispered about and some moms made damn sure their kids were never left alone with so and so. I also know that speaking up back then just wasn’t an option, and the times I did, I was basically told, “oh, boys will be boys” (they were men) or “just wear longer shorts when x is here.” Essentially placing the blame on the child. I was six years old the first time I remember knowing this fear and shame about being a girl and having a female body.
The past few years with the #metoo movement, the Kavanaugh shitshow, and…how many women have now accused the sitting President of the United States (a once-honored title) of assault or rape?…with this surge of women coming forward, there has to be a healing point. We could sit all day and tell each other the horror stories…and yes, those do need to come out. They need to be dragged out into the light, accountability placed where and whenever possible, and women need to feel safe to speak up.
Only then can we create a safe place for the next generation. Maybe our moms, aunties, and grandmothers wanted to make that safe place for us too, maybe they did the best they could, maybe not. Those are questions we cannot always find the answers to…but we have other answers now. We now know that we must change things.
“You are personally responsible for becoming more ethical than the society you grew up in.” ~ Eliezer Yudkowsky
The universe works in mysterious ways, bringing the teachers to us when we are ready. These recent years of seeing what the world looks like when we stop hiding in shame, and what shame does to us as adult women—this should be our rallying call to stand on the shoulders of the women who came before us, and take the hands of those little girls who were touched, leered at, catcalled, and abused. It’s safe now, come on out.
So, we need to move to the healing phase.
Note to the men and the women who (for whatever reason) cannot connect with this and still think it’s okay to ask what the girl was wearing or what she was doing to “make the man” act like this. (I will interject here and say some of the most soul-crushing replies I got were from women shoveling blame on other women…so I’m including you in this, too.) If you’re reading this and just cannot understand or believe it, please, we beg you to stop and listen to what we’re saying. No one is attacking anyone. No defensive posturing is needed. We don’t need you to rush in and fix anything. We need a safe place to talk and to let this out. If you have sisters, wives, daughters, aunties, grandmothers—ask them. Ask them in a loving, non-shaming way what their first memory was of being shamed or afraid or creeped out because they were female.
So, how can we do this? For starters, we can start to create a more equitable society. Listen to the way we talk to boys, teach them that it’s safe to express feelings like happiness, sadness, and fear. Stop making excuses for boys. Show them healthy ways to express anger, frustration, sexual tension—so that we are not the recipients of that bottled-up rage or their hormones. Teach them what consent is, and isn’t. Teach them to respect girls and women as humans. Teach them that our bodies are our own, and we always have the final say over our bodies, and our lives.
This article lists 45 things we can do right now to stop rape culture (yeah, this is what we’re talking about…”the culture” of allowing a female’s body to be used, abused, shamed, or anything else that a man wants). The gist of the list is to be aware. When you hear someone disrespecting any female, shut that shit down. Don’t laugh along and let them think you agree. It’s honestly better to stand up against this, even if it makes you unpopular with your friends. Just imagine what life would be like now if someone would have stood up for you, or any of the women commenting above.
Now, to the women and girls…here we are. Let’s stop tearing each other down. If you made it through your entire childhood and teen years, and into adulthood without ever being made to feel shame about your body in a sexual way, congratulations. That should be the goal for all women, for all humans. End of.
I’m going to say something unpopular now (but true to my own personal experience, yours may vary and that’s okay…go here to write your own mindful experience—this is mine):
Men, specifically white men, have had thousands of years to create a more equitable and safe society. Not once have they even tried. Not once. Let’s stop waiting around for men to fix something that they benefit from.
Only when women stand up and speak out, do we move forward and gain some rights over our own bodies. In the States now, there are meeting rooms full of men making medical decisions about a woman’s body. These aren’t trained medical professionals, they are politicians pandering to their lobbyists and following the money. And they know that keeping a woman at home, pregnant, and caring for kids is the way they keep their power (so is making women feel shameful or guilty about sex). These “pro-life” laws are not about the “heartbeat” or anything else. You can legally choose to “pull the plug” on a brain-dead patient—who has a heartbeat. Those kids in cages sitting on the floor in #Trumpcamps are alive—they have heartbeats. I digress. That’s for another article. The point is we don’t have rights over our bodies and until we do, we cannot expect these stories to change.
Now, for the first time in thousands of years, the door is ajar. We have an in. We are opening up about our experiences publicly and realizing that we are not alone. Thousands and thousands of women have been hiding this shame and allowing it to affect their lives and relationships for decades. How many men are still thinking about that incident—the one that you carry in your soul, that blackens your heart, and makes you not trust others, or yourself?
I grew up with so many of these types of encounters…some were “harmless” and some full-on abuse. I remember them all with the same fear, shame, and guilt equally today. Those situations set the stage for how I feel about my body as an adult. Resulting in emotional and physical walls I’ve built up around myself, and relationships with possibly decent partners that never stood a chance because they “wouldn’t want someone who is damaged.” The times in my early career when I had no choice (other than losing my job) but to force a smile with clenched teeth when a joke was made about my tits…in my place of work…or when the manager always made sure he had to go into the tiny store room at the same time I did so he could grind up against me, or slip his hand down to the small of my back. He never did that to the men in the office. I’m only realizing now that these are not my burdens or my shame to be carrying around.
“If you never heal from what hurt you, you’ll bleed on people who didn’t cut you.” ~ unknown
It’s not in my interest to go back and find all those men who shamed or abused me decades ago. It’s not in my interest to dwell back there, or wallow in it now, either. It is in my interest, it’s my right, and it’s my responsibility to stand up now and speak out. I need to remember so I can tell my story. Then, I need to listen to the others and what happened to them. This is so we don’t forget. And we don’t allow it. This is so we learn to fine-tune our Spidey Sense when men or boys are around our girls. So we know to teach our girls about their bodies. Empower them to speak out. Teach them ways to express their feelings (just the like the boys). Tell them they have a safe space to talk, that we will listen, and we will believe them.
And we need to teach them how to take care of themselves. Age appropriately, they do need to know about the dangers in the world. It’s never, ever their fault (abuse is 100% the fault of the abuser) but we have to raise strong, aware girls. To see the world as a beautiful place…but to be aware that there are some people out there who aren’t their friends. To look around in public and notice things. Not in a paranoid manner, but just notice when someone gets off the train at the same time and follows you. To keep your phone out, but keep your eyes looking around and show that you’re paying attention. For an attacker, surprise is their best friend.
Moms of young girls, pay attention to who is paying attention to your kids. Trust your intuition. Teach your daughters how to say no. Don’t make them hug strangers or anyone they don’t want to. If they don’t like a neighbor or family friend, look into that. Kids know when things don’t feel right. I remember having a good friend in first or second grade and her father was creepy AF. He was always manipulating the situation so I would end up alone in the room with him. I knew at that age something wasn’t right. I don’t even remember my friend’s name now, but I remember how he looked at me, how he stared and took breath after shallow breath without taking his eyes off me.
It’s going to take some time to end this, but it won’t end on its own…it hasn’t so far. I’m sure if our great, great, great grandmothers could answer this question they would have similar experiences. Let’s start now to make this a world where this type of tweet becomes unnecessary and unrelatable.
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” ~ Brené Brown