Updated: Apr 4, 2021
By: Christina Gentile
Am I the only one who was relentlessly sexually harassed in high school? Yeah, I didn’t think that I was alone in this being my experience.
I’m 44 years old. I attended a small private high school just outside of Boston. And I still can’t get over that during what were arguably my most vulnerable years, I spent most of my time in a toxic and - for lack of a better word - yucky environment. I am still trying to figure out how this impacts me as a wife, as a friend, as a mom, and as a person who really hates hugs. And also how it impacts the way that I raise my two sons.
I’ll spare you the majority of the details. Actually - should I? Why? Because I am profoundly embarrassed (which I am)? Embarrassed that I allowed myself to spend time with people- boys - who were not good people at that time of their lives? Embarrassed that I wasn’t strong enough to fully admit to myself how bad things were? Embarrassed that I wasn’t brave enough to take some action? Yes, all of those. Please don’t tell me that it wasn’t my fault. Of course it wasn’t. And of course it was. To say that I had no choice means that I was completely a victim and was entirely powerless, which is problematic for a bunch of different reasons. I choose to be Facebook friends with some of these boys, who are now men, many of them men with wives and daughters. I don’t really have a good explanation for this.
My experience - and dare I say the experience of some other women at this school - was one of consistent, underlying, explicit and implicit, pervasive sexual objectification and harassment. It was like the movie “Moxie,” but with no zine, and no Amy Poehler - which is just a movie that no one would want to watch. Freshman year, a girl said that her then-8th-grade boyfriend had raped her. My recollection is that we gossiped about her, then mildly shunned her, then some of us dated the alleged perpetrator. At some point, one of the worst male offenders spread a rumor that I had AIDS. The worst part, though, is that I can’t figure out where the adults were in this story. Didn’t they see the lists posted in the halls rating girls (an impossible situation as a high school girl - you hated the lists, but a part of you also cared about your rating. A lot) ?
It’s odd how the pieces of your history, of yourself, that you try to push away only get stronger. I see this with any emotion that I have, but especially anxiety and anger, and the same is true for my kids. I want to model for them what it looks like to sit with hard feelings, with discomfort, with regret. I want them to know that it’s okay to make mistakes, but some of them really stick with you for a long time, and some of them can be life-changing.
I know that there are other women who have this weight, this anvil of rage and blame and shame and sadness that they drag around. If you’re one of them and you’re looking for advice about how to let it go, I don’t have any. But I suppose that starting to talk about it is a good first step.
Recently my 14 year old asked me what to do when he’s an adult, and one of his female co-workers looks nice and he wants to share that with her. Sometimes you’re so proud when your kid asks the right question, so much so that the answer doesn’t matter - and this was one of those times for me. I told him that honestly I didn’t know. I’ve sufficiently brainwashed my own sons about how to treat girls and women, probably past the point of appropriateness. But I want them to be able to ask the difficult questions for which there are no straightforward answers. For me, I didn’t wait until high school or even middle school to have conversations with them about what consent means - and not just consent, but choice and respect. I let them know that some situations they will need to struggle through without knowing the "right" answer- because there may not be one- but that there are also lines that can't be crossed. And maybe most importantly - every day I try to reinforce that they have a little niggling, nagging voice inside that they need to pay attention to. That voice is everything.
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