IT TOOK ME A LONG TIME TO REALIZE I WAS NOT THE ONLY GIRL whose high school teacher asked her on a date. Not the only one who sat on the train across from a man who had “forgotten” to zip his fly on the day he “forgot” to wear underwear so that his penis, still tucked in his jeans, was fully visible. I remember joking about it with my father—the weirdo with his dick showing! He had to explain to me that it wasn’t an accident.
I am not the only one who had a boyfriend who called me stupid. Not the only one who grew up being told to be careful around groups of boys, even if they were my friends. When I was twelve—the same year I saw my first penis on a New York City subway platform, two years before I would lose my virginity to a guy from Park Slope who filled in his sideburn gaps with his mom’s eyeliner, and six years before I would fail out of college, tired of frat boys taping used condoms to my dorm room door—I started to have trouble sleeping. I felt sick all the time.
I KNOW IT’S CALLED THE CYCLE OF VIOLENCE, BUT IN MY FAMILY, female suffering is linear: rape and abuse are passed down like the world’s worst birthright, largely skipping the men and marking the women with scars, night terrors, and fantastic senses of humor.
My mother told me about getting molested by a family friend as part of our “bad touch” talk. She called him her uncle. We were sitting on my twin bed in a room covered with glow-in-the-dark star stickers. She was eight when he came to the house with ice cream, and while her mother cooked dinner in the kitchen he told her to come sit on his lap if she wanted some. She doesn’t remember what he touched or how, just that it happened, and that she said nothing afterward. Some time later the neighborhood barber told my grandmother that if my mom would fold some towels for him, her haircut would be free. So my grandmother left while she worked, and he took my mother into the back room, where he rubbed his penis on her eight-year-old body.
When my grandmother was ten, her father died of alcoholism and she went to live with an aunt and uncle. When she was eleven, her uncle raped her. She told her aunt, and was sent to St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Brooklyn the next day.
It’s losing steam with each generation, so that’s something. My grandmother’s rape is my mother’s molestation is me getting off relatively easy with abusive boyfriends and strangers fondling me on subways—one time without my realizing until I went to put my hands in my jeans’ back pockets and there was semen all over them.
My aunts and mom joked about how often it happened to them when they were younger—the one man who flashed a jacket open and had a big red bow on his cock, the neighborhood pervert who masturbated visibly in his window as they walked to school as girls. (The cops told them the man could do whatever he wanted in his own house.) “Just point and laugh,” my aunt said. “That usually sends them running.”
But worse than the violations themselves was the creeping understanding of what it meant to be female—that it’s not a matter of if something bad happens, but when and how bad.
Of course what feels like a matrilineal curse is not really ours. We don’t own it; the shame and disgust belong to the perpetrators. At least, that’s what the books say. But the frequency with which women in my family have been hurt or sexually assaulted starts to feel like a flashing message encoded in our DNA: Hurt. Me.
My daughter is five and I want to inoculate her against whatever it is that keeps happening to the women in my family. I want Layla to have her father’s lucky genes—genes that walk into a room and feel entitled to be there. Genes that feel safe. Not my out-of-place chromosomes that are fight-or-flight ready.
This is the one way in which I wish she was not mine.
When I was pregnant, I often joked about wanting a boy. A baby girl would turn into a teenage girl, and I remember the young asshole I was to my mother. But this is closer to the truth: having a girl means passing this thing on to her, this violence and violations without end.
Because while my daughter lives in a world that knows what happens to women is wrong, it has also accepted this wrongness as inevitable. When a rich man in Delaware was given probation for raping his three-year-old daughter, there was outrage. But it was the lack of punishment that seemed to offend, not the seemingly immovable fact that some men rape three-year-olds. Prison time we can measure and control; that some men do horrible things to little girls, however, is presented as a given.
Living in a place that has given up on the expectation of your safety means walking around in a permanently dissociative state. You watch these things happen to you, you walk through them on the subway and on the street, you see them on the television, you hear them in music, and it’s just the air you breathe, so you narrate the horror to yourself because to engage with it would be self-destruction.
I spoke on a panel once with a famous new age author/guru in leather pants and she said that the problem with women is that we don’t “speak from our power,” but from a place of victimization. As if the traumas forced upon us could be shaken off with a steady voice—as if we had actual power to speak from.
Victimhood doesn’t need to be an identity, but it is a product of facts. Some women heal by rejecting victimhood, but in a world that regularly tells women they’re asking for it, I don’t know that laying claim to “victim” is such a terrible idea. Recognizing suffering is not giving up and it’s not weak.
“Something bad happened to me.” More accurately: “Someone did something bad to me.” This happened. This happens.
When this reality started to become more and more clear to me, as I grew breasts and took subways, watched movies and fucked boys, I didn’t make a conscious decision not to lie down and die. But do I know that my survival instinct took over and I became the loudest girl, the quickest with a sex joke, the one who laughed at old men coming on to her.
If I was going to be a sex object, I was going to be the best sex object I could be. Over twenty years later, I still feel sick. I still can’t sleep. But at least now I understand why.
Jessica Valenti, Sex Object: A Memoir, 2016.