"Locker Room Talk" Is Never Innocent — Not Even When You're 12 Years Old

When I was in the seventh grade, two male classmates pinned me down and groped me backstage during drama class. It wasn’t the first time I’d been sexually assaulted, and it wouldn’t be the last. But of the stories I could share, I’m choosing to tell this one because it’s here, in the standardizing spaces of youth, where rape culture is assiduously taught and inescapably learned.

It was my first semester of middle school, and I took drama hoping to make new friends. I met a few nice people, but I also met Eric* and Jason*. I was an awkward kid and had always been an easy target for bullies, and these two sniffed me out right away. For the first few weeks of school, the steady stream of harassment took a different form with each guy. From Eric, it was caustic insults about my appearance; I heard I was ugly often enough that I began conducting nightly mirror-gazing rituals in which I obsessively deconstructed my face, seeking out the pieces I might change in order to believe he was wrong.

For Jason, my body was also an object of unwanted scrutiny, albeit of another kind. His approach was to ask questions: What was my bra size? Why were my boobs so small? Didn’t I want to have boobs like [insert names of female classmates here]? Did I have pubic hair? Was I shaving it off? Didn’t I know girls shouldn’t keep their body hair? And so on. 

The sexual overtones of Jason’s interrogations were a lot more confusing than Eric’s straightforward hostility. I’d never had a guy talk to me this way before and had no idea how to respond. Should I be angry? Should I be flattered? Was this flirting? Did other girls enjoy this attention? Was I supposed to enjoy it? And what was I supposed to say? I would sit through his cross-examinations with my legs tightly crossed and stomach in knots, saying very little and forcing nervous laughter and hoping that was the way I ought to behave.

It was so shocking that my initial reaction was, in a way, to perform. I mimicked the behavior I’d seen in the other girls, laughing and feebly protesting and pretending it felt OK. But as the groping continued, I realized that what was happening could not have felt further from OK.

While driving home from school one afternoon, my mom asked how things were going with the kids at school. I didn’t want to worry her, and I also didn’t have the words to explain — to her, or to myself. So I gave a vague response, casually mentioning that I was being teased by a couple boys. She said to me, sympathetically, “You know, they’re probably just being mean because they like you.” You know. Boys will be boys.

At some point during the semester, our class began rehearsing in the auditorium. While some students worked through their parts with our teacher, the rest of us would goof off backstage. There, in the jungle of heavy curtains and wooden beams behind the set, I often saw Eric and Jason touching my female classmates. A few in particular were routine victims, although whether they actually felt victimized never seemed clear to me. Throughout each interaction — which usually began with verbal teasing and ended with Eric or Jason groping various body parts — the girls would giggle and squirm and laugh out protests that didn’t sound like protests, their tones a kind of scolding that didn’t really scold, their faces masks of something like delight. I came to believe the attention was gratifying for the girls who were “lucky” enough to receive it. That to be singled out in this way meant you were cool, were pretty, had the right kind of face and body. That you were liked. That you were desired.

One day late in the fall, I found myself alone backstage during rehearsal, waiting to go on and practice my part. Out of nowhere, Eric and Jason appeared, moving into action with a sudden smoothness that itself felt horribly rehearsed. Jason pinned my arms behind my back too quickly for me to resist; he was a tall, beefy eighth-grader, strong enough that I couldn’t wriggle out of his grasp. Eric — my age, smaller, wearing a grin I’ll never forget — started grabbing different parts of my body, his hands mostly focusing on my tiny, 12-year-old breasts. It was so shocking that my initial reaction was, in a way, to perform. I mimicked the behavior I’d seen in the other girls, laughing and feebly protesting and pretending it felt OK. But as the groping continued, I realized that what was happening could not have felt further from OK. 

I started to struggle in earnest, telling them to stop, but neither Eric nor Jason let me go. I called for help, but nobody heard me, or at least nobody came. Finally, realizing I was on my own, I wrenched my right arm free and dug it as hard as I could into Jason's ribs. Simultaneously, I kicked out with my right leg and caught Eric in the stomach. It wasn’t as solid of a kick as I’d hoped, but it was enough to knock the wind out of him, his eyes flying wide open as he staggered away, gasping and clutching his gut. Jason had loosened his grip on my other arm, so I ran. I don’t remember where my feet took me. I just wanted to disappear.

Rape culture starts here, in the classrooms of our childhood; in the permissiveness with which we accept and dismiss misogyny and abuse from boys who will grow up to be misogynistic, abusive men. 

After school that day, I told my mom what had happened, and she immediately called the school; the next day, I learned that Eric had received detention and Jason had been suspended. (As for the unexplained discrepancy in their punishments, I’ve always suspected it had something to do with the fact that Eric was white and Jason was black.) Meanwhile, I became something of a hero at the studio where I was studying tae kwon do. My mom told the story to my instructor, who asked me to share it with the class. I remember standing awkwardly in front of the seated semi-circle of my fellow students, who looked at me in gaping admiration while I recounted the ordeal in limited detail, trying to frame it as though it had been a brief encounter (it hadn’t) and that my reaction had been quick and confident (it wasn't) and that this was, on the whole, a positive and empowering experience (it was not). Reliving that moment was only tearing further into an already open wound.

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In the weeks that followed, I learned that beating up the guys who sexually assault you is not a socially-sanctioned activity. While the few friends I’d made were quietly supportive, everyone else reacted with varying degrees of outrage and contempt. One girl told me I was “so mean” for hurting Eric; this was one of the girls who had most often been on the receiving end of both boys’ ritual assaults. On another occasion, a well-liked boy who was also in drama called me out in the middle of a different class, publicly upbraiding me for getting Jason suspended. The prevailing attitude was that I’d overreacted, that it wasn’t a big deal, that this happened all the time. That boys will be boys. In this sense, the reasoning of the peers who rejected me wasn’t all that different from the adults who seemed to support me: it was the rhetoric of “locker room talk,” rooted in the belief that what had happened to me, and what was happening with appalling regularity to the girls around me, was representative of the inherent reality of masculine behavior and identity.

Rape culture starts here, in the classrooms of our childhood; in the permissiveness with which we accept and dismiss misogyny and abuse from boys who will grow up to be misogynistic, abusive men. In the pervasiveness with which we disseminate the narrative of “boys will be boys,” as though to be male is automatically to be misogynistic and abusive. In our willingness to teach girls not only to accept this lie about masculinity as truth, but also to view misogyny and abuse as symptoms of attraction — to believe that boys and men who “like” us could, and perhaps should, talk to us in ways that cut and bruise, or touch us in ways we don’t want to be touched.

Rape culture taught me that my body was not my own. I learned that to try to claim ownership of my own body was to incur social opprobrium and shame; that my personal value was contingent on whether I was an object of male desire. The girl who was brave enough to defend herself at age 12 grew into a young woman who, in high school and in college, found herself in other situations with other boys and men who treated her body like it wasn’t her own. And when those boys and men touched her body in ways she didn’t want to be touched, she didn't remember how to feel brave, and wasn't so quick to throw a punch.

My story isn’t just my story. The fact that my earliest experiences of sexual contact were all coerced or forced doesn’t set me apart from other women. Indeed, many other women have had it, and will always have it, unimaginably worse than I. But that I even have to write that concession— to apologetically locate my trauma on some kind of horrifying scale — is itself a testament to how widespread and deeply entrenched rape culture has become. The dark work of our most basic institutions has always been to alienate women from their own bodies, to normalize and ritualize this alienation, and to force to women bear the burden of their resulting trauma.

The theorist Hélène Cixous writes that men’s great crime against women has been, “insidiously,” to lead women “to hate women, to be their own enemies”—that we, women, have been led away from our bodies and therefore from each other, from ourselves. She urges women, “Write yourself. Your body must be heard.” Only then, she says, can you “become at will the taker and initiator, for [your] own right, in every symbolic system, in every political process.”

If we allow the people who represent us to perpetuate the narratives that both derive from and legitimize rape culture, then we will always exist in a broken state: divided in body, but also in mind — from each other, from ourselves. If we accept the discourse that justifies sexual assault as anything other than what it is, then we continually reproduce a system in which politicians get away with sexual assault, women are socially and politically disenfranchised, and young boys learn to abuse young girls who learn to accept their abuse. 

But if we refuse those narratives, and if we deny power to the people who perpetuate and benefit from them, then we can begin to undo the damage that afflicts us not just at the levels of the social and political, but at the level of our individual lives. By writing new narratives, we can delegitimize the lies that prevent all of us, across the gender spectrum, from growing into whole, authentic versions of ourselves. And by writing our bodies, we can return to them. We can make our bodies our own. And we can make them heard.

*Names have been changed

Images: Diana Rose Newby

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