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Girlhood and a Lifetime of Unwanted Touch

Girlhood and a Lifetime of Unwanted Touch

CW: sexual violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment

It was 20 years ago, but I still remember everything. Going out dancing to a favorite nightclub in Cambridge. Lights flashing. Faces blinking bright out of the darkness. A young guy’s hands resting lightly on my hips as we stepped and spun with the music.

And suddenly, a hand thrust down my pants. As casually as if he were shoving his hand into a bowlful of chips.

I leapt away from him, a look of shock on my face. He shrugged, palms up, a “Who, me?” look on his.

“What did I do?” he actually said, and it was a miracle my head did not combust.

This is one of many memories that flashed through my head as I read “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself,” an essay about unwanted touch in Melissa Febos’s Girlhood. I remembered that guy. I remembered the boy who sat behind me in middle school, forever snapping my bra strap against my spine. I remembered the internship supervisor who gave unsolicited shoulder massages. I remembered the guy at the networking event who took my (wedding ring-bedecked) hand and told me that hearing about my work turned him on.

I remembered all the men who had passed behind me in crowded spaces, gliding their hands along my waist as they went by as if that extra bit of touch was necessary for their evasive maneuvering.

At that point, the memories started to blur together. Because this is normal, right?

How We’re Taught to Say Yes to (Almost) Everything

“Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself” opens with a cuddle party, one at which attendees practice asking for and denying consent so that they feel more comfortable saying “no” to unwanted touch. The idea is that touch shouldn’t occur unless a “yes” has been clearly communicated (an early example of what would eventually become known as affirmative consent).

Girlhood by Melissa Febos

Despite the practice session, Febos finds herself struggling to turn down cuddle requests. She says “yes” over and over again, accepts multiple instances of unwanted touch, simply because it feels more comfortable than saying “no.”

“The more I think about it,” writes Febos, “the more amazed I am that anyone realistically expects young women to easily say no to anything, least of all the sexual desires of men. If I struggle to say no to a lunch invitation, a work request, any number of less fraught entreaties … how can a teenager be expected to stop a man’s hand as it reaches under her clothes?”

She’s not wrong.

From an early age, we’re taught that to say “no” to a proffered hug or kiss is rude. That to scowl instead of smiling is unfeminine and unpleasant. We’re socialized to be nice and polite. Gracious and amenable. We’re taught to cater to the needs of others. We do this at the expense of our own.

As we grow older, we’re told that those who tug on our ponytails or pull on our bra straps do so because they like us. We’re supposed to find this flattering.

In fact, the only thing we’re supposed to say “no” to is sex. Because polite girls don’t say “yes.” Polite girls — nice girls — don’t ever vocalize their desire.

Why It’s So Hard to Say No

I recently attended a webinar hosted by the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center on how to be an active bystander in order to prevent sexual violence. When we were asked why we might be hesitant to intercede on someone else’s behalf, I marveled at how our responses echoed those emotional reactions people often have when they’re directly faced with sexual harassment or assault.

We don’t want to make things awkward, we said. We don’t want to embarrass the other person, we said. We don’t want to make them angry, we said. We don’t want to be labeled as difficult.

Do these sound familiar? Have you had similar thoughts when dodging a sexually suggestive comment? A catcall? An unwanted touch? I know I have.

Pushing back against the social and cultural conditioning we’ve received is hard as hell. Sometimes — most times — it’s easier to just say “yes.” Sometimes, it feels safer.

And, well, god forbid we make things awkward.

In writing about affirmative consent — consent in which that “yes” is enthusiastic and unquestionable and not in any way coerced — Febos mentions a common complaint detractors have: that repeatedly ensuring consent would make things “awkward.”

“As if having sex you don’t want is not awkward,” writes Febos. “As if interrupting a man whose spontaneous desire is prompting him to remove your clothes or penetrate you is not awkward for women who have spent their entire lives being socialized not to upset or disappoint people.”

But these detractors aren’t concerned with that kind of awkward. After all, they’ve spent their entire lives — our entire lives — feeling entitled to place their hands upon us. What would be truly awkward would be to question that entitlement.

The Importance of Learning Body Autonomy

As a sex educator, one of the issues that’s most important to me is that of body ownership/body autonomy: the concept that a person has the right to govern what happens to their body without external influence or coercion. In teaching these concepts from a young age — empowering our kids to say “no” and teaching them how to set boundaries and explaining the difference between good and bad touch — they can grow up to be the types of adults who only say “yes” when they mean it.

But most kids aren’t receiving these lessons and, well, it can often feel too late for the rest of us. After all, we’ve been receiving mixed messages our entire lives.

Who do our bodies really belong to? Is it any wonder we’re just a little bit confused?

“What is the effect of ignoring your body’s wishes for decades?” Febos asks herself at the end of her essay as she contemplates the many forms of unwanted touch she’s accepted over the years.

I think we know the answer to that. We live with it every day.

So, how can we take back what’s ours?

This post contained content surrounding sexual violence, which may be triggering for some. If you or someone you know is in need of support, you can get help through organizations like RAINN. You can also look for your state’s Coalition Against Sexual Assault. They’ll be able to point you toward local resources like hotlines, support groups, long-term counseling, and more.

Also, before I disappear, I should mention that “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself” is just one of eight brilliant essays in Girlhood (assuming you count the prologue, which I do). All of them are well worth reading and, after you do so, you may also want to check out Febos’s first memoir, Whip Smart. I’m a fan.

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, Southwest Review, and other publications. Her reported memoir, A DIRTY WORD, came out in 2018. She is the founder of Favorite Genres: horror, comics, horror comics, and narrative journalism.