When analyzing a text that centered on sexual harassment last year, I asked my ninth-grade students, “Hypothetically, if I went into Boston this weekend and got groped by a man at a bar, whose fault would it be?”
The room fell silent.
I gave them an edge: “I’d be wearing something revealing, so I’d be asking for it, wouldn’t I?”
Most students look relieved. I seemed to have said what they’d been thinking.
As the discussion continued, I urged the girls in the room to remain silent — to listen. Not one boy in the room stood up for my hypothetically-fondled body. At the very least, most of them agreed the abuse would be partially self-inflicted.
Finally, one male student asked me what I thought — imploring me to reveal the right answer.
With a bold look and an even bolder voice, I said, “Under no circumstance is it ever a woman’s fault for being groped without wanting.”
The bell rang and students bolted out the door.
The freshmen in my English classes are usually innocent, wide-eyed — some of whom believe a celebrity like R. Kelly or a Supreme Court Justice like Brett M. Kavanaugh or other Capitol Hill politicians will hardly impact their life in any way, for example. But the juniors and seniors in my theater arts classes look beyond their years. That same day I probed my freshmen, I asked these students to dig into their pasts in search of emotion they could bring forth in their upcoming monologues. Students were quick to reveal traumatic pasts — middle school bullying, drug addiction, dead parents. But I was surprised at the number of girls who spoke out in an open circle about their sexual assaults. One young woman choked through her words. She cried forcefully, determined to finish her story until the end. Many students got up and hugged her. I did, too.
Always in search of a teachable moment, I set my students’ monologues aside for the day. I asked my students what they thought of the #MeToo movement — whether it was a cause worth fighting for. While the girls rallied, many of the boys retaliated. Several of the young men in the room found it unfair that a man’s reputation could be so easily tarnished by one woman’s accusations. It was as if their female classmates’ stories weren’t just laid bare.
“It’s scary that women feel they have the power to put a man in jail,” one male student said.
I stood with my mouth open, unsure of how to say the right thing. To be judicial. To remain unbiased. To not inflict my own personal views.
Why didn’t I tell my class that I feel fortunate because I have only been catcalled, groped and verbally harassed compared to female friends who have been cornered by their bosses at work, digitally penetrated at parties, raped in alleyways? Why didn’t I tell them that I feel like a target because I have not yet been deemed worthy to be made a gross statistic?
Instead, I asked a simple question, “Why do men catcall?”
“Because we know you won’t do anything,” one student said coolly, a shrug of his shoulders.
The “you” he referred to was me, was all women. He sat with one arm crossed over his knee, but he didn’t hunch. Even in sitting, he stood tall.
I looked at the bodies of the girls in the room. Many of their hands were interlaced around each other. Their legs packed close. Heads down.
As a teacher, I have to restrain my anger, my anguish. And so I pressed further, and asked how many of the students in the room had have been catcalled.
When every female student raised her hand, one male student laughed.
“Why is that funny?” I retorted, a small edge in my voice.
“It’s all of them,” he said, shaking his head.
I wanted to shout but I didn’t. The more I shout, the whinier I sound. The more likely my voice will be dismissed. I have to prod, ask questions. I have to let these young men and women before me figure the world out on their own, figure out how they play a vital role they’re not even aware of yet.
As a teacher, parent, coach, neighbor — it is vital to allow space for young people to have these types of conversations often and early, no matter how uncomfortable they are. It is important to let them hear each other’s perspectives —especially if they’re grossly conflicting. As much as I would like to teach the effects of rape culture and our participation in it once, and only once, like most lessons I teach, it is only through consistent exposure and practice that the lesson ever sinks in.
But these lessons are painstakingly slow. Even after a majority of my female students talked about being scared to walk anywhere alone; purposefully wearing clothes that would cover up certain parts of their bodies; avoiding large groups of men; carrying pepper spray in their purses; being groped in the congested stairwells of the school, yet never saying a word so as not to be called a “liar,” an “attention-seeker,” so as not to falsely accuse; being raped and having no one believe it, the class was not fully convinced.
With an impending bell and a fast-beating heart, I urged students to look around the room and count how many girls there were. Then, I asked them to count one in every three to see how many of them would be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
“It’s not a matter of ‘if,’” I said, “but ‘when’ for women. For some of your classmates, the ‘when’ has already happened.” I repeated the phrase over and over again, putting incredible stress on the word “when.” This time, I couldn’t help my voice from cracking, from tears rolling down my face as I stared at my female students’ fractured bodies. I saw a hopelessness I could not correct.
In reworking my curriculum over the summer, I have come back to this moment time and time again. I may have taught my female students the idiosyncrasies of rape culture, but that, unfortunately, was something they were already too familiar with. In turn, what did I teach my male students who often accused me of being overly obsessed with gender roles?
I know that no matter how much I alter my curriculum, I cannot undo years of patriarchal pressures, but I can try to loosen the grip.
After all, it was that day that one male student lingered in the classroom after the bell rang. He said, “Ms., I know that was a difficult conversation, but it was a good one to have. It’s making me think, you know?”
I looked up at him, sincerity strewn across his face.
Like many hard lessons, this was only the beginning.