I Learned It Was My Fault
Trigger Warning: This essay discusses sexual assault.
As a child, I remember being taught to never be alone with guys.
I was taught to expect violence from men, specifically sexual violence. I wasn’t allowed to play with some kids. If I did and something happened, I understood that it was my fault because I should have known better. I am always expected to know better than the men in my life…than anybody else in my life.
And when I don’t know better, my options are to live privately with the shame or live publicly with it. Like many people, I’ve chosen to live with my shame privately, which is why I’ve never spoken about how I was sexually assaulted by an older kid when I was six years old.
Even three decades later I’m embarrassed about it. I was supposed to know better. I wasn’t supposed to wander off. I wasn’t supposed to go into the neighbor’s house. I was supposed to recognize a predator, even at six-years-old. I was supposed to know. And the kid who did it, who was years older, was known to be dangerous. I didn’t know but other people in the neighborhood did. He was violent, a bully, known to be untrustworthy. He’d assaulted other children. People knew and did nothing because…I don’t know. I guess because we protect our men at the expense of our women and children. Sometimes we do it because we financially cannot afford to live without them. Other times we do because it feels safer to go with the abuser you know.
I had classmates who were sexually abused by their fathers and punished for daring to fight back. I have friends who were raped by cousins, molested by uncles, assaulted by classmates, other neighborhood children and we were the ones labeled fast, easy, asking for it. I was six. How did I ask for sexual attention when I didn’t even understand what it was?
But somehow, I did.
I learned the lessons I was meant to learn – that abuse was my fault. That sexual assault was my fault for having the audacity to be female. Regardless of how I shucked the trappings of femininity, I was still the problem. This was the message from my father, my mother, and every other authority in my life. I was the problem. I blamed the breasts my body had the gall to develop. I blamed my uterus for daring to make me vulnerable to pregnancy.
And I blamed the boys club that all men seem to be a part of. The club that perpetuates physical and emotional violations against those perceived as less – women, children, LGBTQIA, people of color. The club that protects its enactors and protects them from the consequences of their actions.
In many ways, I blame my dad. His hypocrisy in how he treated me compared to my older brother was obvious and when confronted about it, he didn’t lie. He told me I had different rules just because I was a girl and he was okay with that. I loved him, but I hated this about him – not the honesty, but the sexism. I hated that he sometimes tried to groom me into the type of woman he thought was attractive. I hated that he encouraged me to suppress myself to attract men. He believed that I needed to be married with children. He believed I should not show my strength and intelligence to men. He believed that I was less than, while simultaneously demanding more of me.
He protected my brother from the consequences of his actions, to the point that sometimes I was punished for my older brother’s mistakes. And when it was clear I had nothing to do with his infractions, my dad was always there to fix it for him. If my brother got a ticket, Dad paid it. When my brother got in trouble with any authority, my father stepped in to sort it out. To be fair, my brother is a Black man living in America with an intellectual disability and mental health issues. We have no relationship because he we don’t trust each other and I don’t like the person he’s become. My father treated us differently because we were different, but his rationale was rooted in sexism. My brother was granted more freedom for being male and I was watched and guarded more closely for being female. Freedom vs control. My brother was free to find himself, fuck up, and my dad would fix it. I was groomed, protected, and expected to be perfect. When I fucked up, Dad would protect me, but he made sure I knew he wouldn’t have needed to if I’d just stayed under his control.
Now that he’s gone, I find myself wanting to protect my dad. He was wrong. How he tried to groom me was wrong. The way he promoted the “boys will be boys so protect yourself” rhetoric was wrong. I don’t know if he did any work to help women. I don’t know if he understood his complicity in this fucked up society but I do know that I find myself wanting to defend him when I shouldn’t. He didn’t always treat women well. And he struggled with accepting my independence and wanting me to be self-sufficient because it somewhat conflicted with how he thought women should be. He was the problem. He was my first patriarchal problem.
He spent my childhood molding me into the woman he thought I should be, while trying to accept the person I was. I was not silly or ignorant. I was not fragile or afraid. I was smart, opinionated, assertive, unafraid, determined, inquisitive, and strong-willed. I was everything he thought was unfeminine but everything he respected in another person.
I don’t think he resolved that conflict in himself, that conflict about me. Or maybe he did. As I got older, I felt less pressure from him to be a feminine ideal and more acceptance for who I was. It didn’t undo any of the psychological damage he did. That other fathers did. That their sons, brothers, uncles, cousins, friends did and continue to do as they continue the cycles of abuse and absolution on and for one another.
I have seen so many shitty as boys grow up into shitty ass men: former friends, family, classmates… Men who cannot admit to their vulnerability or ignorance. Men who have been conditioned to deny their emotions, to suppress everything until they are incapable of empathy. Until they are unrecognizable to themselves.
I’ve seen women grow up afraid of the men they were supposed to seek as partners. I’ve watched them twist themselves into who they thought they should be and demand the same behavior from other women. I’ve watched them punish them for not conforming as I have been punished and excluded for not conforming.
It’s a travesty that this is the norm. That we promote this perversion of the human condition and call it correct and proper. This a frightening and horrific practice that we enforce on babies and violently reinforce throughout their whole lives. We protect it and defend it. We hire it. Promote it. Elect it.
When, really, the humane thing would be to destroy it.
We need to learn and believe and enforce that these acts are not normal. Assault is not normal – not even when president-elect cheeto does it. We need to stop protecting men from their violence and make a stand for its victims. All its victims, like the six-year-old child who just wanted to play a game.
We need to stop making the violence we experience our fault and lay the blame squarely on its perpetrators.
Let’s stop protecting the monsters and create a society of which we can be proud.