I was just 10 years old when an older man decided he had the right to violate my body. The experience, which was the first of many unwanted sexual touches and advances by men, changed my perception of self and effectively ended my childhood. For anyone who believes boasting about sexually assaulting a woman is nothing more than “locker room talk,” here’s what it looks like in practice and why no one should ever be OK with bragging about it.
I was visiting my mother for the weekend when it happened. It was a hot a summer day and my little sister, older brother and I all wanted to swim in the apartment complex pool where my mom lived. That day, my mom’s husband’s parents were in town visiting. I’d met my stepdad’s mother—an open alcoholic who, by 11 a.m., was already sloppy-drunk on my mom’s faded brown couch—but I’d never met her husband. To this day, I don’t know his name, but I will never forget him.
He followed us kids and my mom to the pool with a can of Budweiser in his hand. He didn’t talk much, just sat on a chair under an umbrella while the rest of us jumped and swam in the pool. That summer, my brother and I had mastered flipping into the water, and were excited to show any adult who would look.
I ran up to my mother’s father-in-law and asked him to watch me. He nodded but didn’t say a word. Back at the edge of the pool, I waved to him before thrusting my head down and throwing my legs behind me, somersaulting into the deep end of the water.
I surfaced and swam to the edge where I climbed out and ran back to him to see if he'd watched what I’d done.
For years, I blamed myself for what happened next.
He nodded and reached his hand up to my chest while smiling. The edges of his thick mustache curled with his lips. Using his thumb and index finger, he pinched and pulled at my developing breast tissue, which immediately made me feel uncomfortable.
I froze. I didn’t like what was happening, but I was too scared to move, either.
He set his beer down on the table beside him and used his free hand to rub my inner thigh before cupping his dirty, stubby fingers around my vagina and grabbing tight, attempting to penetrate me through my swimsuit. I remember the flash of his wet teeth as he smiled and stared at me like a wild dog.
Terrified, I broke free and screamed like a banshee. I was certain that this man was going to hurt me, and maybe even kill me. It was a feeling I have never forgotten.
Later, my mother told me that all girls go through that kind of thing, and she made me promise not to tell my legal guardian, her brother who had been raising me and my brother since we were little.
From that day forward, I never saw myself the same way again.
Before I was molested, I didn’t see my body. It was there, and I knew of it, but I never really looked at it.
After I was molested, my body felt different. In one afternoon, I awoke to the belief that my flesh and form was somehow dirty and wrong. It was a burden, a thing which drew unwelcome attention, something to be ashamed of, something to hide.
Later in my life, when other men violated me with words, gestures, unwanted touches and once, by acquaintance rape after a party, the idea that I was to blame—more specifically, that my body was at fault—felt even more true.
Before I was molested, I didn’t see my body. It was there, and I knew of it, but I never really looked at it. From that day forward, I never saw myself the same way again.
I spent seven years after that poolside molestation binding my breasts with bandages so they wouldn’t show through my shirt, wearing baggy clothes to hide my shape and refusing to wear shorts or swimsuits, even during the hottest days, because I didn’t want men to look at me.
By the time I was 13, I developed bulimia, and by 15, I was throwing up more than 20 times a day, punishing my body for looking the way it did. I wanted to disappear. I wanted to be invisible.
Hearing Donald Trump speaking in a recording made in 2005 (when the Republican presidential nominee was 59 and more than old enough to know better) in which he boasted about kissing women and grabbing their genitalia without their consent, I flashed back to being 10, vulnerable and trusting, and feeling the terror of a man forcing his fingers against my body.
In a non-apology, Trump claimed it was merely “locker room talk,” suggesting this kind of speech is somehow normal—or, worse, common. To me, it sounded disgusting and indicative of his entitlement and disrespect toward half the world's population. It sounded like the thoughts that might have been in that man’s head when he violated my body, my trust and my childhood by sexualizing me when I was just a little girl.
Today, I read Amber Tamblyn’s brave story of surviving a violent encounter with her ex-boyfriend that highlights how traumatizing it is when a girl of any age is sexually assaulted by someone. It’s terrifying. It strips us of our dignity. Worse, it forces us to build a wall around ourselves to protect us from future harm.
So, the minute anyone brags about grabbing a woman by her “pussy” and having the right to do so without consent, I am all ears. They may try to brush their syntax aside as "nothing more than words," but words come from thoughts and thoughts inspire actions.
Actions like the ones that leave young women with the emotional baggage of trauma they’ll be forced to carry for the rest of their lives.