At five years old, I fell in love with a cherry-scented lip gloss. I begged my grandmother to purchase it for me while shopping for school uniforms in a local store I’d grow to become incredibly familiar with. I was told, “You can’t wear that lip gloss because boys will kiss you.” All too often, young girls are told that they’re “fast,” that they mature too quickly and are responsible themselves for minimizing male attention. This couldn’t be more wrong.
At 13 years old, I saved up allowances — skipping many lunches and Starbucks trips with friends — in order to purchase my first Brandy Melville crop top. Again, I was told, “You shouldn’t wear that top because boys will look at you.”
Today, at 19 years old, I want to go to a party. I want to go running. I want to meet a friend. But I am told I can’t wear that lip gloss, or that top, or that skirt. I can’t go out past sundown or go running before sunrise. I can’t give boys the wrong impression or entice them to have the wrong ideas. And if I do, then it must be my fault. To all of this I say: no, girls aren’t “fast.” We age at just the right pace.
I remember the first time I felt distinctly uncomfortable around a boy. I was in the ninth grade and I still possessed that lack of shame and complete innocence that only accompanies youth. I was delivering attendance to a class of seniors, and one student commented, “You look so mature for a 14-year-old.” At the time, I couldn’t quite place my finger on what it was about his comment that unnerved me, but I knew there was something living just beneath the surface — I just had to read in between the lines.
One of the most common ways that predators compel their underage prey is through priming. Priming, or grooming, can easily be defined as the act of cultivating a bond or rapport with a child in efforts to manipulate and abuse them. There can be no consensual sexual acts between a minor and an adult. In spite of this fact, contemporary child-raising practices allow for an environment that fosters if not enables these relationships. Rather than systematically condemning lack of restraint on the part of men, parents and authority figures characterize girls as “fast” and “mature” — allowing men to capitalize on this perceived fault on the girls’ side.
This is not only ethically problematic, but also manifests itself in the lives of the same boys and girls years later. This is easily shown in the massive epidemic of sexual abuse and assault on college campuses, such as our own. Sexual offenses run rampant within these spaces. However, how can anything different be expected? If we begin by telling girls from a young age they are to blame for whatever acts are perpetrated against them — inherently relaying the message that boys have no responsibility over those same acts — we are building a foundation for an imbalanced and hierarchical system. In turn, this allows for the diffusion of responsibility when men act in ways they shouldn’t.
I recognize that it is easy to call for change on a grand scale. By blaming large-scale social practices for the alarming prevalence of sexual assault and abuse, I am able to act as if the responsibility for change is beyond you and me — it isn’t. Change begins as soon as you strive for it. When you hear that ominous “locker-room talk” or your younger sister’s boy problems, say something then.
It’s no surprise that the grave and recurring phenomenon of sexual abuse and assault has become so symptomatic of educational institutions — the principles behind this kind of violence are fostered in our minds from an early age. In order to address the issue at hand, we have to start teaching children when they’re still beginning to understand sex, intimacy and what they entail. Instead of asking the victim to alter their actions, we need to address what it is that creates so many victims in the first place.
Leila Jackson is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .