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When boys are allowed to feel that harassment of girls at school is ‘no big deal’, is it surprising that we have a flourishing rape culture in this world?
In the sixth or seventh grade, a boy in my class was given a dare to come and put his arm around my shoulders, though at the time, I did not know it was a dare. I was (and at times still am) very protective of my personal space and this particular boy had been bothering me all week. He had been saying things which would normally have been considered polite: “Hello, how are you?”, “Would you mind if I sat here?”, “Excuse me”, and the like.
Why did his comments bother me? Simply because his tone was teasing, cocky, mocking and patronising, and very similar to that of ‘eve-teasing’. At the time, I couldn’t really put my finger on the cause of my discomfort, and couldn’t for a very long time after the incident.
I was standing in the Chemistry lab wearing a very thick lab coat and pouring out some acid. Our Chemistry teacher was a very patronising, rude and sexist man who often cracked jokes in class at the expense of a small set of students. I neither laughed at these jokes nor was the subject of them, but often felt uncomfortable when they were cracked. My irritating male classmate came up behind me while said teacher was on the other side of the lab and put his arm around my shoulders. I put the acid down, turned around and kicked him.
I didn’t think it through; he made me uncomfortable, he was in my personal space, and so he had to go. When I look back at that impulsive decision, I see myself as having done nothing wrong.
I could not report these events to my teacher, knowing that he either would not care at all or would say, “Boys will be boys” or “It’s just your shoulder” and leave it at that. I just swallowed my explosive anger, completed the experiment and left the lab at the end of class.
The next class we had was a language class in which we were told to present a small play which we had a few minutes to come up with. Of course, I had to be in the same group as that boy. I refused to work with him and when my teacher, a fluffy, hesitant female, asked me what was wrong, I eventually told her, after a bit of coaxing. She excused me from the exercise and I proceeded to cry a bit in the corner.
She later reported her findings to a more senior teacher, an imposing woman who also happened to teach us math, a subject I was good at, leading her to hate me. (For those who do not understand how this came to be: I often had my own ideas about which method to use to solve a problem and as it wasn’t always the one she had taught us, she had labelled me “over smart”.)
The previously mentioned language teacher had only been trying to help, but she had caused a bit of a problem for me. The senior teacher called me to an empty classroom nearby, to speak to me. I felt a very intimidated and uneasy. She asked me what the problem was and I told her that said boy had put his arm around my shoulders and I hadn’t liked it. I also told her that he had been saying “weird things” to me all week, and when questioned further, gave her examples.
She had responded by saying that it was just my shoulders and that all his comments had been quite polite! She simply refused to understand me when I said that I hadn’t liked “the way he said them”. The naïve little child that I then was, I told her that he had been “flirting” with me (because he had once behaved the same way with another girl and then said to his friend, in my hearing, that he “really liked flirting with that girl” because her reactions were “funny”). I had had no idea what “flirting” really meant, but right then, I couldn’t come up with a better word to describe what he had been doing.
This teacher then called the boy in and asked him if he had been flirting with me. He denied it. The teacher told me that both the boy and I couldn’t be right and so one of us wasn’t telling the truth and then she glared at me as though to make very clear who she thought that person was.
She then told the boy that he had made me uncomfortable and not to do it again. He apologised and then we were told to go. In a few hours’ time, I had people staring at me in disgust and disbelief, wondering what the matter was with me. Within a few days, at least ten different people had come to me and commented on what had happened, usually telling me that I had overreacted. Even some of my friends couldn’t understand my behaviour. (No prizes for guessing how the story had come out.)
Fast forward four years. People still bring it up to embarrass me. Jokes are still cracked about it and I can do nothing to change that. Nobody has ever said anything against that boy or reprimanded him for this. Nobody has ever laughed at him about this. Nobody has ever seen him as having done anything wrong. But me? I had “overreacted” and am “so weird” and “antisocial” and “fussy”. Why is the girl always to blame?
To date, I feel hesitant about reporting such incidents, whether they happen to me or someone else. Why? Because the one time I did take it to authorities, I got bullied some more for it. What’s the point?
And that’s the sad part: sometimes there is no point in reporting these incidents because it only leads to more problems. And because no one speaks about it, nobody knows or cares. And because nobody cares, nobody speaks about it. It seems silly to tell a teacher that a boy put his arm on my shoulders, because my classmates (and most people) wouldn’t mind it. But I mind! For me, that is an invasion of my personal space! And just because this isn’t the way everybody feels, my sense of personal space is disrespected and that is unacceptable.
This is what leads to rape culture: boys making girls uncomfortable by coming too close and then getting away with it, even if it is raised to authorities. And today, I see boys doing the same things, often to girls much younger than them, girls who cannot defend themselves. Boys who stare and tease and mock, boys who say, “It’s just fun”, and know that the girl does not like it. Boys who go on doing it anyway. Boys who may cause more problems than it was ever thought they would.
Please, somebody stop them. Somebody please tell them that they shouldn’t.
Pic credits Charlotte Cooper, used under the terms of a Creative Commons license
Zefeni. A teenager curious about the world around her, a book lover, poet, and dreamer.
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