By Corie Adjmi
Not long ago at a party, a man, a friend, grabbed my butt. And before you gasp in horror, even though it’s hard to imagine, the story gets worse. After violating my body, he faced me drink in hand, and using a scale of 1-10 gave me a grade.
What does one do in such a situation?
Smack his face?
The choices are not pleasant.
I got to wondering how this happens—how a grown man could do such a thing and how a grown woman could allow it.
When I was in second grade a boy in my class asked me to meet him in the back of our classroom behind the Reading Is Fun partition. He was my friend and so I met him there. Without consent, he kissed me. I was upset, but I knew not to embarrass him or make him feel bad. Instead, I felt bad.
In fourth grade, I competed with some girls in my class for a spot on a boy’s list of favorites. I remember sitting at my desk, unfolding loose-leaf paper, eager to read the week’s winner. Like a Miss America pageant contestant, I participated, allowing myself to be compared and judged.
In fifth grade, my teacher wrote the following in my year-end evaluation: “The boys respect you when you don’t get angry with them. You have expressed concern over difficult assignments but never in a complaining or negative way.” At ten, I already knew a lot about how to navigate the world as a girl. That same year, in our school play, I was “The heart,” which was a no-speaking part.
In ninth grade, I wore tight, shiny pants and red patent-leather Candies to school, wanting to be like Olivia Newton John in Grease, the version of her that gets the boy. I was raised to be objectified by men. My beauty—or lack of it— equal to my worth.
Two years later, when I was 16, a blind-date asked me to open up my coat so he could see what I looked like under it. I didn’t want to. But aiming to please, or simply not knowing how to respond, I complied.
When I read a draft of this essay to a friend, she had two questions for me:
1. Who was the guy who grabbed me at the party?
2. What rating did I get on the scale of 1-10?
“Are you kidding?” I asked her.
“See, that’s the problem,” I said. “We’ve been trained to think stuff like that is funny or acceptable somehow. It’s not.”
Growing up, the messages I received were both subtle and not so subtle. What did I come to understand as a teenager reading Vogue and watching Charlies Angles? Part of what I gathered from pop culture, stories my family told, and jokes I overheard was that I needed to be a “good girl” and that even if it meant hurting myself, I was supposed to please others. I did not learn how to protect my own body or know my own mind. At the same time, boys my age were taking cues from James Bond and Playboy.
Peggy Orenstein, author of Girls and Sex and, the more recently released, Boys and Sex, wrote that young men today still feel the need to suppress their feelings and be combative. When they were asked to name attributes of “the ideal” guy, they listed qualities such as dominance, aggression, and sexual prowess. These toxic behaviors restrict individual expression and thwart harmony. Boys often feel as trapped by gender roles as girls do.
The #MeToo movement has brought much of this bias to light, creating more opportunities for change. Nevertheless, we have far to go. Still too often, women are treated as trophies—objects with thigh gaps—left to contend with the boundary-crossing men of the world.
Over years, I have felt subjugated and voiceless and in order to cope, I wrote. Women characters who’d been dismissed and devalued appeared across my pages. Writing these female protagonists into a position of strength felt good and, while it was salvation, I know now it was also activism. Writing was a way to bring women into power, a means to fight the patriarchy.
To be honest, I don’t know how I’d react now if a man, a friend, touched me inappropriately. In my mind, I know the right thing to do.
I should face him. Stand firmly before him, my feet grounded, and say without hesitation or apology, how dare you. But I’ve been told more times than I can count not to make a big deal out of things, that the guy was only kidding, that I look so pretty when I smile. I try to unearth the lies but buried deep inside are my fifth-grade teacher’s words—don’t get angry.
Corie Adjmi is an award-winning fiction author of Life and Other Shortcomings, women’s empowerment advocate, and labor doula.
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