Note: This post discusses sexual assault and consent.
As I’m sure at least some regular readers are aware, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the United States. Specifically, April 2 is the SAAM Day of Action. The 2013 campaign “focuses on healthy sexuality and its connection to child sexual abuse prevention.”
The dogs are barking at something. Something that can only be heard with acute dog ears, I suppose, since I hear nothing of note.
“Hush,” I tell them. “You’re too little to have an opinion.”
The barking stops, but the dogs continue to grumble.
When I was in preschool, my mom signed me up for gymnastics lessons. I’m not sure if the idea came from me to my mom or from my mom to me, but I was enthusiastic about the lessons in general. Tumbling was awesome, and I learned how to do the awkward beginnings of cartwheels. Hanging from the rings wasn’t my thing, but I did like learning how to walk and turn on the balance beam.
I did not like forward flipping over bars. I learned this one day because I had to flip forward over a bar. We used a stool to get up high enough to put our hands and hips on the bar. There was at least one and maybe two spotters the whole way around.
I didn’t necessarily know I had a fear of heights then. I did realize, as I was leaning over the bar, looking at the ground way too far below me, that this did not feel right. So I did what I always do when things don’t feel right; I froze.
“What’s wrong?” one of the teachers asked me.
“I don’t like this. I want to come down.”
“You’re safe,” they assured me. “Don’t you want to do the trick?”
I’m not sure how it happened, exactly. But instead of heading backward, feet first, onto the stool, I found myself going forward, headfirst, down — around the bar and into the forward flip I did not want to do.
Swimming lessons were no better.
Actually, on second thought, the swimming itself was okay. Jumping from the diving board, however — that was another story. It wasn’t that it was too high this time. But the board was too bouncy, too springy, too unstable — and it jutted out awfully far over the water. I got partway and looked back.
“Do I have to?”
“It’s not that scary,” the instructor tried to assure me. “Just like jumping off the side of the pool.”
It was not. The poolside was solid under my feet. This moved.
“I don’t want to.”
“We’re all waiting.”
It was true. The next student in line was already on the board, standing at its base. She’d have to move, the whole line would have to move, if I wanted off the back way.
I held my nose and jumped.
I was fifteen, or maybe closer to sixteen, when I first went to a doctor to discuss how to deal with horrific period pain. The doctor brought up the option of hormonal birth control.
“We’ll just get her a pelvic exam, and she’ll be all set.”
Medical accuracy aside, because I didn’t know that then, she said it to my mom.
I was fifteen, or maybe closer to sixteen, and they were having this conversation without me.
These times, while unpleasant, were not traumatic for me. They did, however, set up a pattern: When it came to my body and someone in a position of authority (parent, teacher, doctor), what I wanted did not matter. And it was only a matter of time before trauma would come from that teaching.
I’ve told this story before.
Almost twenty. In the exam room of a doctor’s office, already in one of those little paper gowns. I’m in a relationship that may well turn intercourse-sexual in the near future, and I want to talk about going on birth control.
I’ve also dealt with a lot in the past several months. Rape. Judgmental hospital staff. Friends siding with my rapist. Police politely but halfheartedly investigating, then deciding there’s not enough evidence for an arrest. Gossip. Losing my friends. Gaining a PTSD diagnosis. Keeping my shit together academically, keeping my scholarship. Finding a counselor who understands that academics, books, school is what is safe for me right now; people are not. Negotiating people anyway.
“When was your last exam?”
I knew what kind of exam he meant. I told him. “In the hospital after I was raped.”
But that one hadn’t included a Pap smear, had it? When was that?
It had been a while.
“And when was the last time you were tested for STDs?”
I clung to the wrinkles of paper gown in my lap, almost tearing it in the process. “I just came here for birth control.”
An exam, he informed me, was “imperative,” now that I was sexually active.
A nurse came in. I froze. Could see and hear and think and feel. But couldn’t react, couldn’t say no.
I don’t know how to end this.
I was never sexually abused as a child. However, I also think that as I child, I was never really taught about bodily autonomy. As in, whatever I was taught on the front end, it was not consistently reinforced in practice. There was often the supposition that I was too little, too unimportant, for my opinion to matter.
So I’m not suggesting that any of these equate to childhood (or adult) sexual abuse or assault. But they’re all varying degrees of not good.
And I am suggesting — no, I am saying — that we have problems with how we teach and reinforce and respect bodily autonomy and consent.