I was twelve years old, in the sixth grade in elementary school. I was old enough to walk home by myself. My mother was a single parent by then and worked until about four o’clock in the afternoon. As I walked up the busy New York City street to our apartment building I noticed a white van driving slowly, keeping pace with me. The driver was a man of about thirty. He began making noises at me. I had no idea what he wanted, but I was smart enough to know it wasn’t good. The street I lived on was a one-way street. I stopped at my apartment building and shifted my school bag to my other shoulder. The van stopped too. What should I do? I continued walking up to the next avenue which also ran one-way. Turning the corner, the van followed at the same slow speed. As soon as he turned the corner, I spun around and ran down the hill to my apartment building. Once inside I sat in terror until my mother came home. I never told anyone what happened because I was embarrassed, and I didn’t even know why.
When I went to the seventh grade, I had to take either a bus or the subway to my all-girls school. Although the subway was crowded in the morning with people going to work, it was quicker than the bus, allowing me a few more minutes of precious teen sleep. One day a man stood behind me in the crowded subway car and the next thing I knew he was pressing against my backside and had slipped his hand around to the front of my skirt. I froze. No one could see because we were all packed into that car. When my stop came I pushed my way off the train praying he wouldn’t follow me. He didn’t. After that I decided to take the bus. A few months later something similar happened on a crowded bus. These men were easily in their thirties.
I developed early, but I in no way looked like an adult. These were not isolated incidents. I was not a stunning beauty, I dressed like other girls my age; I didn’t even wear the popular mini-skirts because I was a little chubby and very self-conscious.
When I was twelve through fourteen I had a crush on Beatle Paul McCartney. If I had met him I would probably have been speechless. The gap between a teenage crush and the reality of any type of sexual contact was wider than the Mississippi River and the Grand Canyon combined. It never occurred to me that an adult male would look at me as a sexual object. Gradually I became wary of strange men. It was frightening. Any girl, (and I fear there are many), who has experienced any type of sexual contact with an older man knows what I mean. There is a feeling of helplessness. Adult authority looms large in those situations. Don’t talk to strangers doesn’t even begin to cover it. The loss of trust and innocence is overwhelming. The fear of responsibility for the assaults which is often used as a weapon by the attacker compounds an already vicious cycle. Did I do or say something to give this man the impression I wanted his attention? Will he tell my parents, my family, my friends?
Any man (or woman) who would knowingly attempt any type of sexual contact with a child (and yes, twelve through sixteen IS a child) is a pedophile, plain and simple. Often kids that age are easily intimidated, socially awkward around adults, and have no idea how to handle adult situations.
The age of consent isn’t just a legal standard; it is and should be a moral standard. We need to raise our daughters and granddaughters to speak up. They need to know it’s not only okay to say “NO!”, it’s their right to say it. Girls shouldn’t have to carry the guilt and fear for the immoral actions of a sick individual who chooses to prey on the innocent. It’s sad that we must instruct our youth about the bad people in the world. But, we need to give them their voices. Whether they are assaulted by a stranger, a family friend, or a family member, they have the right to fight back and speak out. No child, boy or girl, should feel shame because a predator tries to take advantage of their innocence.
We need to raise our children to respect others; respect their bodies, respect their wishes. Teach our sons that no, means no. Teach our daughters it is their right to say no. Teach all our children they can come to us with anything that happens. We are there for them; to love them, to care for them, to stand with them.
TIPS FOR PARENTS ON BODY TALK
- When your child asks you a sex or body question, clarify exactly what the child wants to know. “Where did I come from?” might be about geography rather than pregnancy!
- Keep your answers simple; your child will ask if they want more detail. For example, if a four-year-old finds a condom and ask what it is, the answer “It’s a condom” will satisfy many children. If they follow it up with, “What’s it for?” you can elaborate slightly: “We don’t want any more babies right now; condoms help us do that.” You don’t have to give explicit detail unless you want to have a longer discussion.
- Decide what the rules for touch are in your family. Does your child have to hug Uncle Bob or Grandma, even if she doesn’t want to? Does she get to decide who helps her in the bath or with toileting? How do people in your family say, “I don’t want to be touched right now” to one another in a caring way?
- If you think your child has been abused, you can reference this page from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network which will help you learn more about signs and symptoms of sexual abuse and where to get help.
- Let your child know that you are approachable; answer their questions honestly. They deserve to get reliable, accurate information. And you will feel good to know that they are getting that information from you.
It won’t be long before you look across the table and realize that your child is looking less and less like a child — and that you’d better start pulling out puberty resources. Fortunately, by laying a solid foundation with resources like these, you’ll have given your daughter a great head start at understanding her body.
ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED RESOURCES
- For a diverse assortment of guides on all aspects of growing up, including ones addressing issues related to both physical and social development, visit our Guides for Girls section.
- For more resources to help girls of all ages understand their bodies, visit our Human Development & Puberty section.
- To help encourage a positive body image in girls, visit our blog Celebrating Every Body: 20 Body Image Positive Books for Mighty Girls.
- For science toys and kits designed to teach children about how the human body works, visit our Human Body toys section.