When I was a little girl, I used to think that when I got older I wouldn't have to be afraid of men wanting to hurt me anymore. I used to think that my chances of being assaulted or raped somehow decreased with time, and age provided a warp shield that would make me immune to sexual violation.
Oh, sweet, young Maria, oh how you were wrong.
For the past several days, most of you have probably seen your Facebook feeds flooded with women posting the status of, "me too."
And yes, because of who I am, and the work that I do, a Facebook post was no where near enough for me to comment on this subject, which has managed to infiltrate my daily life.
I grew up with parents who did not shelter me from the evils of the world. By the time I was in elementary school I had a primary grasp on sexual abuse. I knew to "not let bad men touch my privates," to yell and scream if anyone did anything inappropriate to me, and to never, ever go anywhere with anyone I didn't know or trust - especially a man.
I wasn't allowed to stay the night at friends' houses until I was in high school, and even then the parents, particularly the fathers, had to undergo strategic approval of my mother.
As an adolescent girl, I was rather annoyed by these antics, even if I knew they were always for my protection. I knew there were people in the world who could harm me, but I didn't really know.
Fast forward about fifteen years, and I'm who I am today. A 29 year old woman, living and working in Haiti, helping women recover from sexual trauma and start their lives over. This movement of "me too," resonates so deeply within me, I'm not sure one blog post can contain all of the words and emotions I wish to convey.
As I journeyed from girlhood to womanhood, the outcry of sexual assault and gender based violence began to grow louder and louder. My best friends, coworkers, classmates, etc, would confide in me, sharing various stories of how they were taken advantage of, how they “never thought he would do something like that,” how much pain it caused them, and most of all, how they felt no one could ever know.
A silent battle.
Every day women carry an enormous weight left behind by their perpetrators. The have to fight nightmares and flashbacks, and try to keep it together when placed in triggering environments.
Our society has conditioned us to believe that men will always be more sexually aggressive than women, and women must do what they can to either indulge their desires, or keep themselves safe from harm.
All of which play into the extremely harmful, misogynistic, and sexist dogma our culture has perpetrated for centuries.
Over the past four years, I’ve felt my exterior harden. I’ve felt myself create a shell around myself as a vortex of protection. I’ve had people tell me I should be more soft and gentle, but when you walk outside every day and have sexual obscenities yelled at you, and have kiss sounds smacked at you as though someone was beckoning a dog, you begin to let the gentleness fade away.
In a world where men feel entitled to your body just because your genetic makeup suggests allure in their eyes, being soft and gentle makes you vulnerable. It makes you a target, it places you in danger.
You have to always be aware of who and what is around you, what’s going on and what is their motive.
In a world of rape culture, you have to always be two steps ahead, otherwise you become prey, you become a victim.
Even in the midst of this vigilance, you can still fall into traps and find yourself manipulated and coerced into situations you never wanted to be in.
I don’t believe that men and women are the same. You can tell just by looking at us how different we are. I believe that we both have different, yet complementary gifts, and when selfishness and self ambition is set aside, we can work together, and complement one another in harmoniously beautiful ways.
However, our culture, and largely church culture, have also distorted these views.
When women are constantly referred to as nothing more than subservient helpmates, created to submit to men, a phenomenon begins to occur. Men see themselves as superior and begin to truly believe, consciously or not, that women are to submit to them in every situation - even if by force.
This directly translates into physical and sexual interactions. Men see themselves as entitled to women’s bodies, and utilize their strength to dominate a woman into submission.
Tie this mindset into our overexposure to sexuality i.e. media, pornography, etc, and you have men and boys with an insatiable desire for sex, with no way to fully satisfy.
When you’re exposed to women being used as objects daily, and are also being taught that you are superior, you can’t help but develop a mindset that women exist for your pleasure and don't merit the same dignity and respect as fellow men - again, whether you acknowledge it consciously or not.
It’s okay to keep going… even if she tells you to stop.
For the past few days I’ve watched as so many of my incredibly brave friends have acknowledged their own sexual assault in such public ways.
While I am so proud of them for speaking out, I am outraged by the amount of women who are having to do this… and I know they are only a small portion.
The problem doesn’t start or stop in Haiti.
It doesn’t start or stop in Syria or India.
It doesn’t start or stop in the United States or Australia.
The problem is far beyond being just a problem.
It’s a global pandemic of epic proportions.
As long as I live this earth, I will always have to be aware of my surroundings.
I will always have to say a silent prayer as I enter an uber with a male driver, and follow my own GPS to make sure he’s actually taking me to my destination.
I will always have to think twice about who I’m alone with and make sure I always have an exit plan.
It’s exhausting to always be on guard and feel as though you have to protect yourself, look over your shoulder, and question who you can trust - but such is the world in which we live.
I am fully aware of the fact that women are capable of sexually abusing and assaulting others, and I know that young boys and men are often victim as well. However, the mass majority of sexual crimes are indeed committed by men to women.
So how do we address such a widespread issue?
How do we reconcile the fact that 1 out of every 6 women in the United States alone have been victim of attempted or completed rape?
I definitely do not have all the answers, however, I do think there are real things that can be done to at least start some ripples that eventually turn into waves of change.
As long as masculinity is equated to sexuality, nothing will ever change. If women continue to be painted as objects, and men continue to be taught that sex is what makes them a man, this cycle will not only perpetuate, but worsen.
We have to create more safe spaces for people to talk about sexuality. How it relates to them as individuals and how it influences their actions with others. As long as we try to sweep these problems under the rug and pretend like they don’t exist, nothing is ever going to improve.
We have to stop teaching young boys that femininity is something to be rejected and looked upon with disgust. Teaching them to tap into their emotions, and the importance of empathy allows them to develop a strong sense of self and the ability to stand firm on what they know to be true. When you teach a boy to shut off his emotions, how in the world will he be able to determine right from wrong, and know when he should stand up and say no?
We have to give women and girls the opportunity to feel safe to share their stories, and not merely provide them sympathy, but support and empowerment.
We have to let women and girls know that sexual assault is NEVER their fault. Under no circumstances whatsoever.
We have to take a stand against this type of behavior - speak out and stand up.
Men, dear men, please, if you're reading this and find yourself enraged or disgusted by these truths, please, please do something about it.
The fight against sexual violence cannot be won by women alone. All people must stand together and say no more.
At the heart of it, I don’t believe this is strictly a gender issue, it’s a cultural issue - one that must shift on a global scale.
And to do that, we all have to stand together.
We can all band together to make sure that one less woman and girl say - “me too.”