I was inspired by the tremendous essay “My so-called ‘Post-Feminist’ Life in Arts and Letters” by writer Deborah Copaken Kogan. One of the many issues she touches on is not talking about sexual assault because we will get smeared. We’ve seen that in the Steubenville case and also in the recent suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons, harassed because her rapists circulated a video of the rape until she was “slut-shamed” into depression and suicide.
My very mild experience of unwanted sexual attention during childhood is so far removed and so clearly not my fault that I want to lift it up simply as a way of reminding people that harassment happens all the time to women. The shame we carry because of a culture that judges us is deep enough to misshape the most ardent of feminists. My silence contributes to rape culture, so I want to break my silence.
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I loved the film “Monsoon Wedding”. When it came out on video, I rented it for my parents to watch. When the movie was over, they both said they enjoyed it, but my father was troubled by one plot line: “I don’t understand why they had to throw the uncle out of the family. They didn’t have to do that.”
“He molested their elder daughter when she was little, and she was afraid the same thing was going to happen to her little sister,” I said in some disbelief.
“I think there had to be another way,” he said doggedly. “It didn’t have to end that way. They could have found a way to reconcile.”
Which is what I get for being passive aggressive with my selections for family movie night.
See, that’s what happened to me.
Some of my fondest memories of my childhood are wrapped up in the tight-knit Bengali community I was a part of in Akron, Ohio. When my parents and I became U.S. citizens in the fall of 1983, the couple behind us were Bengali and invited us to the celebration they were throwing that night. From then until we moved away in 1990, and then again when my parents moved back in 1994 until they retired to Annapolis in 2005, I had an extended family who connected me to a culture I was of and yet not of, especially in the fairly Black-and-white world of the Akron suburbs. As an incredibly extroverted child, I remember how great it was to go to those parties and have a magical network of cousins, immediately welcomed even by kids I had never met before as a given part of the community. Men would talk politics in the dining room, women would discuss jewelry in the kitchen, and the kids would play games and watch American football in the family room. And we all helped each other navigate a community we were fully a part of and also not at all a part of, exchanging hints on where to find hard-to-buy spices and clever tricks about making Indian sweets in the pressure cooker and reaching consensus that Ben Kingsley did an entirely adequate job as Gandhi, but the movie glossed over the tensions between Jinnah and Nehru.
A few years into this community, we were at one family’s house. I was about 10. The kids were downstairs in the rec room, and as the father in the house came down the stairs while I came up, I gave him a hug on the landing. I remember noticing my hands couldn’t reach around his rotund waist. He looked at me, paused, and said, “Would you like to see how our new VCR works?” All the kids had already seen the new AV room off to one side of the basement earlier that night, and even watched part of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” before our attention had wandered to the more appealing option of playing games and talking in the rec room. I followed him though, and he closed the door and said, “This is a French kiss.” And proceeded to practice it. On a 10-year-old.
I grew up in America. I had watched the “Webster” episode where his friend experiences “bad touch” and the whole class learns the new lesson “No-Go-Tell” and the boy learns it’s not his fault. I knew this was bad touch. I knew to say “No.” I knew to “Go”, to walk out of the room. But I also wasn’t a white American kid who was going to shame myself, shame my parents, and shame him. No one had ever told me about any of that, but it was intuitive. I went back to the rec room and sat quietly in the corner, pretending nothing was weird.
I did eventually tell a few friends at school who were incredibly uncomfortable with it and, giggling awkwardly, reiterated the phrases we had been trained in, and told me to tell the school counselor. She met with my mother, and since my grades weren’t suffering, that was the end of it as far as I knew. We still socialized; I just avoided him from then on until we moved.
When I was in high school, I heard from friends of mine that they were being pressured into sex by men who accused them of being frigid if they didn’t put out, and that they couldn’t tell anyone if the guy did end up making them do more than they wanted because of how ugly people would be to and about them. And I got that sexism was embedded in teenage intimacy. And I shared my story in the school paper about how unwinnable was the position of women in high school sex and the secrets attached to it. And I hid that issue of the school paper from my parents.
When I was in college, I wrote about the experience for an autobiographical assignment for a writing class. When I came home from college (my parents had moved back to Akron), my father mentioned to me in private one night, “Your mother won’t invite the ___s over whenever we have Bengali gatherings and won’t tell me why.” I handed him my writing assignment, and he read it and said with the genuine compassionate naivete he has toward the world, “I don’t understand why people do things like that.”
“Neither do I,” I said, thinking we had resolved the issue of my mother’s silent act of solidarity with me all those years later.
Except that once this man got sick with cancer, my father became more insistent about inviting the family to gatherings in our home.
Enter my passive aggressive movie screening.
In my head, my father would see the movie, would understand how awful that experience had been for me, would perhaps even recognize my deep guilt that I barely admitted to myself that by keeping silent, I may have exposed other girls to the same fate and worse if they didn’t know at least the no and go parts of “no-go-tell”. Instead, he was the best of who he is — deep compassion and deep desire for reconciliation. And all I could think was, “Why does his comfort matter to you more than my dignity?”
I don’t want to equate my experience with the far worse experiences so many women and men have gone through. It’s not even as bad as the things that many of my female friends cannot admit to themselves was nonconsensual sex or rape or the misuse of power for someone’s sexual satisfaction.
And I don’t want to suggest that this has left me completely stunted. I have certainly had men treat me very badly while dating, but I’ve also had men comfort and support me. Many of my closest friends are men. I continue to have an active dating life. And as a single woman who dates regularly, I have also been pressured into doing things that I didn’t want to do because of rape culture that says not to resist, or that I had led him on, or that at this point it couldn’t be stopped, or that he would treat me with contempt if I didn’t give him what he thought was a given of this evening. This became even more complicated for me when an ex-boyfriend commented that his 21-year-old girlfriend’s virginity made her love for him more pure. Because that’s actually part of the complication of our rape culture: associations of purity attached to women that hurt whole communities, not just individuals.
I love my father deeply, and I recognize that his constant desire to see all people reconciled is one of the two most important life influences I have. The other is my mother’s steadfast and tenacious commitment to justice and right.
I’m not sure I have it in me to reconcile with that man who French kissed a 10-year-old while “Raiders of the Lost Ark” played in the background, but after many years of not publicly standing with my countless sisters and brothers who have been manipulated into physical intimacy that they did not choose because of someone else’s power, and after years of remaining silent instead of saying “This happens a LOT, and it’s NOT OK”, it was finally time for me to do what is just and right, in the hopes that a few people who didn’t realize they were blaming the victim, who didn’t realize they were influenced by the lie of “innocent victims versus the ones who were asking for it” might, at least today, give pause.
Because that 10-year-old placed community before self. And ultimately, I believe it came at cost to both community and self. Would that more communities would look a little more like the family in “Monsoon Wedding” and a little less like my internalized notion of silence protecting my extended and socially-created family.